Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Susan's impulse was toward the stage. It had become a definite ambition with her, the stronger because Spenser's jealousy and suspicion had forced her to keep it a secret, to pretend to herself that she had no thought but going on indefinitely as his obedient and devoted mistress. The hardiest and best growths are the growths inward--where they have sun and air from without. She had been at the theater several times every week, and had studied the performances at a point of view very different from that of the audience. It was there to be amused; she was there to learn. Spenser and such of his friends as he would let meet her talked plays and acting most of the time. He had forbidden her to have women friends. "Men don't demoralize women; women demoralize each other," was one of his axioms. But such women as she had a bowing acquaintance with were all on the stage--in comic operas or musical farces. She was much alone; that meant many hours every day which could not but be spent by a mind like hers in reading and in thinking. Only those who have observed the difference aloneness makes in mental development, where there is a good mind, can appreciate how rapidly, how broadly, Susan expanded. She read plays more than any other kind of literature. She did not read them casually but was always thinking how they would act. She was soon making in imagination stage scenes out of dramatic chapters in novels as she read. More and more clearly the characters of play and novel took shape and substance before the eyes of her fancy. But the stage was clearly out of the question.
While the idea of a stage career had been dominant, she had thought in other directions, also. Every Sunday, indeed almost every day, she found in the newspapers articles on the subject of work for women.
"Why do you waste time on that stuff?" said Drumley, when he discovered her taste for it.
"Oh, a woman never can tell what may happen," replied she.
"She'll never learn anything from those fool articles," answered he. "You ought to hear the people who get them up laughing about them. I see now why they are printed. It's good for circulation, catches the women--even women like you." However, she persisted in reading. But never did she find an article that contained a really practical suggestion--that is, one applying to the case of a woman who had to live on what she made at the start, who was without experience and without a family to help her. All around her had been women who were making their way; but few indeed of them--even of those regarded as successful--were getting along without outside aid of some kind. So when she read or thought or inquired about work for women, she was sometimes amused and oftener made unhappy by the truth as to the conditions, that when a common worker rises it is almost always by the helping hand of a man, and rarely indeed a generous hand--a painful and shameful truth which a society resolved at any cost to think well of itself fiercely conceals from itself and hypocritically lies about.
She felt now that there was hope in only one direction--hope of occupation that would enable her to live in physical, moral and mental decency. She must find some employment where she could as decently as might be realize upon her physical assets. The stage would be best--but the stage was impossible, at least for the time. Later on she would try for it; there was in her mind not a doubt of that, for unsuspected of any who knew her there lay, beneath her sweet and gentle exterior, beneath her appearance of having been created especially for love and laughter and sympathy, tenacity of purpose and daring of ambition that were--rarely--hinted at the surface in her moments of abstraction. However, just now the stage was impossible. Spenser would find her immediately. She must go into another part of town, must work at something that touched his life at no point.
She had often been told that her figure would be one of her chief assets as a player. And ready-made clothes fitted her with very slight alterations--showing that she had a model figure. The advertisements she had cut out were for cloak models. Within an hour after she left Forty-fourth Street, she found at Jeffries and Jonas, in Broadway a few doors below Houston, a vacancy that had not yet been filled--though as a rule all the help needed was got from the throng of applicants waiting when the store opened.
"Come up to my office," said Jeffries, who happened to be near the door as she entered. "We'll see how you shape up. We want something extra--something dainty and catchy."
He was a short thick man, with flat feet, a flat face and an almost bald head. In his flat nostrils, in the hollows of his great forward bent ears and on the lobes were bunches of coarse, stiff gray hairs. His eyebrows bristled; his small, sly brown eyes twinkled with good nature and with sensuality. His skin had the pallor that suggests kidney trouble. His words issued from his thick mouth as if he were tasting each beforehand--and liked the flavor. He led Susan into his private office, closed the door, took a tape measure from his desk. "Now, my dear," said he, eyeing her form gluttonously, "we'll size you up--eh? You're exactly the build I like."
And under the pretense of taking her measurements, he fumbled and felt, pinched and stroked every part of her person, laughing and chuckling the while. "My, but you are sweet! And so firm! What flesh! Solid--solid! Mighty healthy! You are a good girl--eh?"
"I am a married woman."
"But you've got no ring."
"I've never worn a ring."
"Well--well! I believe that is one of the new wrinkles, but I don't approve. I'm an old-fashioned family man. Let me see again. Now, don't mind a poor old man like me, my dear. I've got a wife--the best woman in the world, and I've never been untrue to her. A look over the fence occasionally--but not an inch out of the pasture. Don't stiffen yourself like that. I can't judge, when you do. Not too much hips--neither sides nor back. Fine! Fine! And the thigh slender--yes--quite lovely, my dear. Thick thighs spoil the hang of garments. Yes--yes--a splendid figure. I'll bet the bosom is a corker--fine skin and nice ladylike size. You can have the place."
"What does it pay?" she asked.
"Ten dollars, to start with. Splendid wages. I started on two fifty. But I forgot--you don't know the business?"
"No--nothing about it," was her innocent, honest answer.
"Ah--well, then--nine dollars--eh?"
"You can make quite a neat little bunch on the outside--you can. We cater only to the best trade, and the buyers who come to us are big easy spenders. But I'm supposed to know nothing about that. You'll find out from the other girls." He chuckled. "Oh, it's a nice soft life except for a few weeks along at this part of the year--and again in winter. Well--ten dollars, then."
Susan accepted. It was more than she had expected to get; it was less than she could hope to live on in New York in anything approaching the manner a person of any refinement or tastes or customs of comfort regards as merely decent. She must descend again to the tenements, must resume the fight against that physical degradation which sooner or later imposes--upon those descending to it--a degradation of mind and heart deeper, more saturating, more putrefying than any that ever originated from within. Not so long as her figure lasted was she the worse off for not knowing a trade. Jeffries was telling the truth; she would be getting splendid wages, not merely for a beginner but for any woman of the working class. Except in rare occasional instances wages and salaries for women were kept down below the standard of decency by woman's peculiar position--by such conditions as that most women took up work as a temporary makeshift or to piece out a family's earnings, and that almost any woman could supplement--and so many did supplement--their earnings at labor with as large or larger earnings in the stealthy shameful way. Where was there a trade that would bring a girl ten dollars a week at the start? Even if she were a semi-professional, a stenographer and typewriter, it would take expertness and long service to lift her up to such wages. Thanks to her figure--to its chancing to please old Jeffries' taste--she was better off than all but a few working women, than all but a few workingmen. She was of the labor aristocracy; and if she had been one of a family of workers she would have been counted an enviable favorite of fortune. Unfortunately, she was alone unfortunately for herself, not at all from the standpoint of the tenement class she was now joining. Among them she would be a person who could afford the luxuries of life as life reveals itself to the tenements.
"Tomorrow morning at seven o'clock," said Jeffries. "You have lost your husband?"
"I saw you'd had great grief. No insurance, I judge? Well--you will find another--maybe a rich one. No--you'll not have to sleep alone long, my dear." And he patted her on the shoulder, gave her a parting fumble of shoulders and arms.
She was able to muster a grateful smile; for she felt a rare kindness of heart under the familiar animalism to which good-looking, well-formed women who go about much unescorted soon grow accustomed. Also, experience had taught her that, as things go with girls of the working class, his treatment was courteous, considerate, chivalrous almost. With men in absolute control of all kinds of work, with women stimulating the sex appetite by openly or covertly using their charms as female to assist them in the cruel struggle for existence--what was to be expected?
Her way to the elevator took her along aisles lined with tables, hidden under masses of cloaks, jackets, dresses and materials for making them. They exuded the odors of the factory--faint yet pungent odors that brought up before her visions of huge, badly ventilated rooms, where women aged or ageing swiftly were toiling hour after hour monotonously--spending half of each day in buying the right to eat and sleep unhealthily. The odors--or, rather, the visions they evoked--made her sick at heart. For the moment she came from under the spell of her peculiar trait--her power to do without whimper or vain gesture of revolt the inevitable thing, whatever it was. She paused to steady herself, half leaning against a lofty uppiling of winter cloaks. A girl, young at first glance, not nearly so young thereafter, suddenly appeared before her--a girl whose hair had the sheen of burnished brass and whose soft smooth skin was of that frog-belly whiteness which suggests an inheritance of some bleaching and blistering disease. She had small regular features, eyes that at once suggested looseness, good-natured yet mercenary too. She was dressed in the sleek tight-fitting trying-on robe of the professional model, and her figure was superb in its firm luxuriousness.
"Sick?" asked the girl with real kindliness.
"No--only dizzy for the moment."
"I suppose you've had a hard day."
"It might have been easier," Susan replied, attempting a smile.
"It's no fun, looking for a job. But you've caught on?"
"Yes. He took me."
"I made a bet with myself that he would when I saw you go in." The girl laughed agreeably. "He picked you for Gideon."
"What department is that?"
The girl laughed again, with a cynical squinting of the eyes. "Oh, Gideon's our biggest customer. He buys for the largest house in Chicago."
"I'm looking for a place to live," said Susan. "Some place in this part of town."
"How much do you want to spend?"
"I'm to have ten a week. So I can't afford more than twelve or fourteen a month for rent, can I?"
"If you happen to have to live on the ten," was the reply with a sly, merry smile.
"It's all I've got."
Again the girl laughed, the good-humored mercenary eyes twinkling rakishly. "Well--you can't get much for fourteen a month."
"I don't care, so long as it's clean."
"Gee, you're reasonable, ain't you?" cried the girl. "Clean! I pay fourteen a week, and all kinds of things come through the cracks from the other apartments. You must be a stranger to little old New York--bugtown, a lady friend of mine calls it. Alone?"
"Um--" The girl shook her head dubiously. "Rents are mighty steep in New York, and going up all the time. You see, the rich people that own the lands and houses here need a lot of money in their business. You've got either to take a room or part of one in with some tenement family, respectable but noisy and dirty and not at all refined, or else you've got to live in a house where everything goes. You want to live respectable, I judge?"
"That's the way with me. Do what you please, I say, but for God's sake, don't make yourself common! You'll want to be free to have your gentlemen friends come--and at the same time a room you'll not be ashamed for 'em to see on account of dirt and smells and common people around."
"I shan't want to see anyone in my room."
The young woman winced, then went on with hasty enthusiasm.
"I knew you were refined the minute I looked at you. I think you might get a room in the house of a lady friend of mine-- Mrs. Tucker, up in Clinton Place near University Place--an elegant neighborhood--that is, the north side of the street. The south side's kind o' low, on account of dagoes having moved in there. They live like vermin--but then all tenement people do."
"They've got to," said Susan.
"Yes, that's a fact. Ain't it awful? I'll write down the name and address of my lady friend. I'm Miss Mary Hinkle."
"My name is Lorna Sackville," said Susan, in response to the expectant look of Miss Hinkle.
"My, what a swell name! You've been sick, haven't you?"
"No, I'm never sick."
"Me too. My mother taught me to stop eating as soon as I felt bad, and not to eat again till I was all right."
"I do that, too," said Susan. "Is it good for the health?"
"It starves the doctors. You've never worked before?"
"Oh, yes--I've worked in a factory."
Miss Hinkle looked disappointed. Then she gave Susan a side glance of incredulity. "I'd never, a' thought it. But I can see you weren't brought up to that. I'll write the address." And she went back through the showroom, presently to reappear with a card which she gave Susan. "You'll find Mrs. Tucker a perfect lady--too much a lady to get on. I tell her she'll go to ruin--and she will."
Susan thanked Miss Hinkle and departed. A few minutes' walk brought her to the old, high-stooped, brown-stone where Mrs. Tucker lived. The dents, scratches and old paint scales on the door, the dust-streaked windows, the slovenly hang of the imitation lace window curtains proclaimed the cheap middle-class lodging or boarding house of the humblest grade. Respectable undoubtedly; for the fitfully prosperous offenders against laws and morals insist upon better accommodations. Susan's heart sank. She saw that once more she was clinging at the edge of the precipice. And what hope was there that she would get back to firm ground? Certainly not by "honest labor." Back to the tenement! "Yes, I'm on the way back," she said to herself. However, she pulled the loose bell-knob and was admitted to a dingy, dusty hallway by a maid so redolent of stale perspiration that it was noticeable even in the hall's strong saturation of smells of cheap cookery. The parlor furniture was rapidly going to pieces; the chromos and prints hung crazily awry; dust lay thick upon the center table, upon the chimney-piece, upon the picture frames, upon the carving in the rickety old chairs. Only by standing did Susan avoid service as a dust rag. It was typical of the profound discouragement that blights or blasts all but a small area of our modern civilization--a discouragement due in part to ignorance--but not at all to the cause usually assigned--to "natural shiftlessness." It is chiefly due to an unconscious instinctive feeling of the hopelessness of the average lot.
While Susan explained to Mrs. Tucker how she had come and what she could afford, she examined her with results far from disagreeable. One glance into that homely wrinkled face was enough to convince anyone of her goodness of heart--and to Susan in those days of aloneness, of uncertainty, of the feeling of hopelessness, goodness of heart seemed the supreme charm. Such a woman as a landlady, and a landlady in New York, was pathetically absurd. Even to still rather simple-minded Susan she seemed an invitation to the swindler, to the sponger with the hard-luck story, to the sinking who clutch about desperately and drag down with them everyone who permits them to get a hold.
"I've only got one room," said Mrs. Tucker. "That's not any too nice. I did rather calculate to get five a week for it, but you are the kind I like to have in the house. So if you want it I'll let it to you for fourteen a month. And I do hope you'll pay as steady as you can. There's so many in such hard lines that I have a tough time with my rent. I've got to pay my rent, you know."
"I'll go as soon as I can't pay," replied Susan. The landlady's apologetic tone made her sick at heart, as a sensitive human being must ever feel in the presence of a fellow-being doomed to disaster.
"Thank you," said Mrs. Tucker gratefully. "I do wish----" She checked herself. "No, I don't mean that. They do the best they can--and I'll botch along somehow. I look at the bright side of things."
The incurable optimism of the smile accompanying these words moved Susan, abnormally bruised and tender of heart that morning, almost to tears. A woman with her own way to make, and always looking at the bright side!
"How long have you had this house?"
"Only five months. My husband died a year ago. I had to give up our little business six months after his death. Such a nice little stationery store, but I couldn't seem to refuse credit or to collect bills. Then I came here. This looks like losing, too. But I'm sure I'll come out all right. The Lord will provide, as the Good Book says. I don't have no trouble keeping the house full. Only they don't seem to pay. You want to see your room?"
She and Susan ascended three flights to the top story--to a closet of a room at the back. The walls were newly and brightly papered. The sloping roof of the house made one wall a ceiling also, and in this two small windows were set. The furniture was a tiny bed, white and clean as to its linen, a table, two chairs, a small washstand with a little bowl and a less pitcher, a soap dish and a mug. Along one wall ran a row of hooks. On the floor was an old and incredibly dirty carpet, mitigated by a strip of clean matting which ran from the door, between washstand and bed, to one of the windows.
Susan glanced round--a glance was enough to enable her to see all--all that was there, all that the things there implied. Back to the tenement life! She shuddered.
"It ain't much," said Mrs. Tucker. "But usually rooms like these rents for five a week."
The sun had heated the roof scorching hot; the air of this room, immediately underneath, was like that of a cellar where a furnace is in full blast. But Susan knew she was indeed in luck. "It's clean and nice here," said she to Mrs. Tucker, "and I'm much obliged to you for being so reasonable with me." And to clinch the bargain she then and there paid half a month's rent. "I'll give you the rest when my week at the store's up."
"No hurry," said Mrs. Tucker who was handling the money and looking at it with glistening grateful eyes. "Us poor folks oughtn't to be hard on each other--though, Lord knows, if we was, I reckon we'd not be quite so poor. It's them that has the streak of hard in 'em what gets on. But the Bible teaches us that's what to expect in a world of sin. I suppose you want to go now and have your trunk sent?"
"This is all I've got," said Susan, indicating her bag on the table.
Into Mrs. Tucker's face came a look of terror that made Susan realize in an instant how hard-pressed she must be. It was the kind of look that comes into the eyes of the deer brought down by the dogs when it sees the hunter coming up.
"But I've a good place," Susan hastened to say. "I get ten a week. And as I told you before, when I can't pay I'll go right away."
"I've lost so much in bad debts," explained the landlady humbly. "I don't seem to see which way to turn." Then she brightened. "It'll all come out for the best. I work hard and I try to do right by everybody."
"I'm sure it will," said Susan believingly.
Often her confidence in the moral ideals trained into her from childhood had been sorely tried. But never had she permitted herself more than a hasty, ashamed doubt that the only way to get on was to work and to practice the Golden Rule. Everyone who was prosperous attributed his prosperity to the steadfast following of that way; as for those who were not prosperous, they were either lazy or bad-hearted, or would have been even worse off had they been less faithful to the creed that was best policy as well as best for peace of mind and heart.
In trying to be as inexpensive to Spenser as she could contrive, and also because of her passion for improving herself, Susan had explored far into the almost unknown art of living, on its shamefully neglected material side. She had cultivated the habit of spending much time about her purchases of every kind--had spent time intelligently in saving money intelligently. She had gone from shop to shop, comparing values and prices. She had studied quality in food and in clothing, and thus she had discovered what enormous sums are wasted through ignorance--wasted by poor even more lavishly than by rich or well-to-do, because the shops where the poor dealt had absolutely no check on their rapacity through the occasional canny customer. She had learned the fundamental truth of the material art of living; only when a good thing happens to be cheap is a cheap thing good. Spenser, cross-examining her as to how she passed the days, found out about this education she was acquiring. It amused him. "A waste of time!" he used to say. "Pay what they ask, and don't bother your head with such petty matters." He might have suspected and accused her of being stingy had not her generosity been about the most obvious and incessant trait of her character.
She was now reduced to an income below what life can be decently maintained upon--the life of a city-dweller with normal tastes for cleanliness and healthfulness. She proceeded without delay to put her invaluable education into use. She must fill her mind with the present and with the future. She must not glance back. She must ignore her wounds--their aches, their clamorous throbs. She took off her clothes, as soon as Mrs. Tucker left her alone, brushed them and hung them up, put on the thin wrapper she had brought in her bag. The fierce heat of the little packing-case of a room became less unendurable; also, she was saving the clothes from useless wear. She sat down at the table and with pencil and paper planned her budget.
Of the ten dollars a week, three dollars and thirty cents must be subtracted for rent--for shelter. This left six dollars and seventy cents for the other two necessaries, food and clothing--there must be no incidental expenses since there was no money to meet them. She could not afford to provide for carfare on stormy days; a rain coat, overshoes and umbrella, more expensive at the outset, were incomparably cheaper in the long run. Her washing and ironing she would of course do for herself in the evenings and on Sundays. Of the two items which the six dollars and seventy cents must cover, food came first in importance. How little could she live on?
That stifling hot room! She was as wet as if she had come undried from a bath. She had thought she could never feel anything but love for the sun of her City of the Sun. But this undreamed-of heat--like the cruel caresses of a too impetuous lover--
How little could she live on?"
Dividing her total of six dollars and seventy cents by seven, she found that she had ninety-five cents a day. She would soon have to buy clothes, however scrupulous care she might take of those she possessed. It was modest indeed to estimate fifteen dollars for clothes before October. That meant she must save fifteen dollars in the remaining three weeks of June, in July, August and September--in one hundred and ten days. She must save about fifteen cents a day. And out of that she must buy soap and tooth powder, outer and under clothes, perhaps a hat and a pair of shoes. Thus she could spend for food not more than eighty cents a day, as much less as was consistent with buying the best quality--for she had learned by bitter experience the ravages poor quality food makes in health and looks, had learned why girls of the working class go to pieces swiftly after eighteen. She must fight to keep health--sick she did not dare be. She must fight to keep looks--her figure was her income.
Eighty cents a day. The outlook was not so gloomy. A cup of cocoa in the morning--made at home of the best cocoa, the kind that did not overheat the blood and disorder the skin--it would cost her less than ten cents. She would carry lunch with her to the store. In the evening she would cook a chop or something of that kind on the gas stove she would buy. Some days she would be able to save twenty or even twenty-five cents toward clothing and the like. Whatever else happened, she was resolved never again to sink to dirt and rags. Never again!--never! She had passed through that experience once without loss of self-respect only because it was by way of education. To go through it again would be yielding ground in the fight--the fight for a destiny worth while which some latent but mighty instinct within her never permitted her to forget.
She sat at the table, with the shutters closed against the fiery light of the summer afternoon sun. That hideous unacceptable heat! With eyelids drooped--deep and dark were the circles round them--she listened to the roar of the city, a savage sound like the clamor of a multitude of famished wild beasts. A city like the City of Destruction in "Pilgrim's Progress"--a city where of all the millions, but a few thousands were moving toward or keeping in the sunlight of civilization. The rest, the swarms of the cheap boarding houses, cheap lodging houses, tenements--these myriads were squirming in darkness and squalor, ignorant and never to be less ignorant, ill fed and never to be better fed, clothed in pitiful absurd rags or shoddy vulgar attempts at finery, and never to be better clothed. She would not be of those! She would struggle on, would sink only to mount. She would work; she would try to do as nearly right as she could. And in the end she must triumph. She would get at least a good part of what her soul craved, of what her mind craved, of what her heart craved.
The heat of this tenement room! The heat to which poverty was exposed naked and bound! Would not anyone be justified in doing anything--yes, anything--to escape from this fiend?