Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Ellen, the maid, slept across the hall from Susan, in a closet so dirty that no one could have risked in it any article of clothing with the least pretension to cleanness. It was no better, no worse than the lodgings of more than two hundred thousand New Yorkers. Its one narrow opening, beside the door, gave upon a shaft whose odors were so foul that she kept the window closed, preferring heat like the inside of a steaming pan to the only available "outside air." This in a civilized city where hundreds of dogs with jeweled collars slept in luxurious rooms on downiest beds and had servants to wait upon them! The morning after Susan's coming, Ellen woke her, as they had arranged, at a quarter before five. The night before, Susan had brought up from the basement a large bucket of water; for she had made up her mind, to take a bath every day, at least until the cold weather set in and rendered such a luxury impossible. With this water and what she had in her little pitcher, Susan contrived to freshen herself up. She had bought a gas stove and some indispensable utensils for three dollars and seventeen cents in a Fourteenth Street store, a pound of cocoa for seventy cents and ten cents' worth of rolls--three rolls, well baked, of first quality flour and with about as good butter and other things put into the dough as one can expect in bread not made at home. These purchases had reduced her cash to forty-three cents--and she ought to buy without delay a clock with an alarm attachment. And pay day--Saturday--was two days away.
She made a cup of cocoa, drank it slowly, eating one of the rolls--all in the same methodical way like a machine that continues to revolve after the power has been shut off. It was then, even more than during her first evening alone, even more than when she from time to time startled out of troubled sleep--it was then, as she forced down her lonely breakfast, that she most missed Rod. When she had finished, she completed her toilet. The final glance at herself in the little mirror was depressing. She looked fresh for her new surroundings and for her new class. But in comparison with what she usually looked, already there was a distinct, an ominous falling off. "I'm glad Rod never saw me looking like this," she said aloud drearily. Taking a roll for lunch, she issued forth at half-past six. The hour and three-quarters she had allowed for dressing and breakfasting had been none too much. In the coolness and comparative quiet she went down University Place and across Washington Square under the old trees, all alive with song and breeze and flashes of early morning light. She was soon in Broadway's deep canyon, was drifting absently along in the stream of cross, mussy-looking workers pushing southward. Her heart ached, her brain throbbed. It was horrible, this loneliness; and every one of the wounds where she had severed the ties with Spenser was bleeding. She was astonished to find herself before the building whose upper floors were occupied by Jeffries and Jonas. How had she got there? Where had she crossed Broadway?
"Good morning, Miss Sackville." It was Miss Hinkle, just arriving. Her eyes were heavy, and there were the crisscross lines under them that tell a story to the expert in the different effects of different kinds of dissipation. Miss Hinkle was showing her age--and she was "no spring chicken."
Susan returned her greeting, gazing at her with the dazed eyes and puzzled smile of an awakening sleeper.
"I'll show you the ropes," said Miss Hinkle, as they climbed the two flights of stairs. "You'll find the job dead easy. They're mighty nice people to work for, Mr. Jeffries especially. Not easy fruit, of course, but nice for people that have got on. You didn't sleep well?"
"Yes--I think so."
"I didn't have a chance to drop round last night. I was out with one of the buyers. How do you like Mrs. Tucker?"
"She's very good, isn't she?"
"She'll never get along. She works hard, too--but not for herself. In this world you have to look out for Number One. I had a swell dinner last night. Lobster--I love lobster--and elegant champagne--up to Murray's--such a refined place--all fountains and mirrors--really quite artistic. And my gentleman friend was so nice and respectful. You know, we have to go out with the buyers when they ask us. It helps the house sell goods. And we have to be careful not to offend them."
Miss Hinkle's tone in the last remark was so significant that Susan looked at her--and, looking, understood.
"Sometimes," pursued Miss Hinkle, eyes carefully averted, "sometimes a new girl goes out with an important customer and he gets fresh and she kicks and complains to Mr. Jeffries--or Mr. Jonas--or Mr. Ratney, the head man. They always sympathize with her--but--well, I've noticed that somehow she soon loses her job."
"What do you do when--when a customer annoys you?"
"I!" Miss Hinkle laughed with some embarrassment. "Oh, I do the best I can." A swift glance of the cynical, laughing, "fast" eyes at Susan and away. "The best I can--for the house--and for myself. . . . I talk to you because I know you're a lady and because I don't want to see you thrown down. A woman that's living quietly at home--like a lady--she can be squeamish. But out in the world a woman can't afford to be--no, nor a man, neither. You don't find this set down in the books, and they don't preach it in the churches--leastways they didn't when I used to go to church. But it's true, all the same."
They were a few minutes early; so Miss Hinkle continued the conversation while they waited for the opening of the room where Susan would be outfitted for her work. "I called you Miss Sackville," said she, "but you've been married--haven't you?"
"I can always tell--or at least I can see whether a woman's had experience or not. Well, I've never been regularly married, and I don't expect to, unless something pretty good offers. Think I'd marry one of these rotten little clerks?" Miss Hinkle answered her own question with a scornful sniff. "They can hardly make a living for themselves. And a man who amounts to anything, he wants a refined lady to help him on up, not a working girl. Of course, there're exceptions. But as a rule a girl in our position either has to stay single or marry beneath her--marry some mechanic or such like. Well, I ain't so lazy, or so crazy about being supported, that I'd sink to be cook and slop-carrier--and worse--for a carpenter or a bricklayer. Going out with the buyers--the gentlemanly ones--has spoiled my taste. I can't stand a coarse man--coarse dress and hands and manners. Can you?"
Susan turned hastily away, so that her face was hidden from Miss Hinkle.
"I'll bet you wasn't married to a coarse man."
"I'd rather not talk about myself," said Susan with an effort. "It's not pleasant."
Her manner of checking Miss Hinkle's friendly curiosity did not give offense; it excited the experienced working woman's sympathy. She went on:
"Well, I feel sorry for any woman that has to work. Of course most women do--and at worse than anything in the stores and factories. As between being a drudge to some dirty common laborer like most women are, and working in a factory even, give me the factory. Yes, give me a job as a pot slinger even, low as that is. Oh, I hate working people! I love refinement. Up to Murray's last night I sat there, eating my lobster and drinking my wine, and I pretended I was a lady--and, my, how happy I was!"
The stockroom now opened. Susan, with the help of Miss Hinkle and the stock keeper, dressed in one of the tight-fitting satin slips that revealed every curve and line of her form, made every motion however slight, every breath she drew, a gesture of sensuousness. As she looked at herself in a long glass in one of the show-parlors, her face did not reflect the admiration frankly displayed upon the faces of the two other women. That satin slip seemed to have a moral quality, an immoral character. It made her feel naked--no, as if she were naked and being peeped at through a crack or keyhole.
"You'll soon get used to it," Miss Hinkle assured her. "And you'll learn to show off the dresses and cloaks to the best advantage." She laughed her insinuating little laugh again, amused, cynical, reckless. "You know, the buyers are men. Gee, what awful jay things we work off on them, sometimes! They can't see the dress for the figure. And you've got such a refined figure, Miss Sackville--the kind I'd be crazy about if I was a man. But I must say----" here she eyed herself in the glass complacently--"most men prefer a figure like mine. Don't they, Miss Simmons?"
The stock keeper shook her fat shoulders in a gesture of indifferent disdain. "They take whatever's handiest--that's my experience."
About half-past nine the first customer appeared--Mr. Gideon, it happened to be. He was making the rounds of the big wholesale houses in search of stock for the huge Chicago department store that paid him fifteen thousand a year and expenses. He had been contemptuous of the offerings of Jeffries and Jonas for the winter season, had praised with enthusiasm the models of their principal rival, Icklemeier, Schwartz and Company. They were undecided whether he was really thinking of deserting them or was feeling for lower prices. Mr. Jeffries bustled into the room where Susan stood waiting; his flat face quivered with excitement. "Gid's come!" he said in a hoarse whisper. "Everybody get busy. We'll try Miss Sackville on him."
And he himself assisted while they tricked out Susan in an afternoon costume of pale gray, putting on her head a big pale gray hat with harmonizing feathers. The model was offered in all colors and also in a modified form that permitted its use for either afternoon or evening. Susan had received her instructions, so when she was dressed, she was ready to sweep into Gideon's presence with languid majesty. Jeffries' eyes glistened as he noted her walk. "She looks as if she really was a lady!" exclaimed he. "I wish I could make my daughters move around on their trotters like that."
Gideon was enthroned in an easy chair, smoking a cigar. He was a spare man of perhaps forty-five, with no intention of abandoning the pretensions to youth for many a year. In dress he was as spick and span as a tailor at the trade's annual convention. But he had evidently been "going some" for several days; the sour, worn, haggard face rising above his elegantly fitting collar suggested a moth-eaten jaguar that has been for weeks on short rations or none.
"What's the matter?" he snapped, as the door began to open. "I don't like to he kept waiting."
In swept Susan; and Jeffries, rubbing his thick hands, said fawningly, "But I think, Mr. Gideon, you'll say it was worth waiting for."
Gideon's angry, arrogant eyes softened at first glimpse of Susan. "Um!" he grunted, some such sound as the jaguar aforesaid would make when the first chunk of food hurtled through the bars and landed on his paws. He sat with cigar poised between his long white fingers while Susan walked up and down before him, displaying the dress at all angles, Jeffries expatiating upon it the while.
"Don't talk so damn much, Jeff!" he commanded with the insolence of a customer containing possibilities of large profit. "I judge for myself. I'm not a damn fool."
"I should say not," cried Jeffries, laughing the merchant's laugh for a customer's pleasantry. "But I can't help talking about it, Gid, it's so lovely!"
Jeffries' shrewd eyes leaped for joy when Gideon got up from his chair and, under pretense of examining the garment, investigated Susan's figure. As his gentle, insinuating hands traveled over her, his eyes sought hers. "Excuse me," said Jeffries. "I'll see that they get the other things ready." And out he went, winking at Mary Hinkle to follow him--an unnecessary gesture as she was already on her way to the door.
Gideon understood as well as did they why they left. "I don't think I've seen you before, my dear," said he to Susan.
"I came only this morning," replied she.
"I like to know everybody I deal with. We must get better acquainted. You've got the best figure in the business--the very best."
"Thank you," said Susan with a grave, distant smile.
"Got a date for dinner tonight?" inquired he; and, assuming that everything would yield precedence to him, he did not wait for a reply, but went on, "Tell me your address. I'll send a cab for you at seven o'clock."
"Thank you," said Susan, "but I can't go."
Gideon smiled. "Oh, don't be shy. Of course you'll go. Ask Jeffries. He'll tell you it's all right."
"There are reasons why I'd rather not be seen in the restaurants."
"That's even better. I'll come in the cab myself and we'll go to a quiet place."
His eyes smiled insinuatingly at her. Now that she looked at him more carefully he was unusually attractive for a man of his type--had strength and intelligence in his features, had a suggestion of mastery, of one used to obedience, in his voice. His teeth were even and sound, his lips firm yet not too thin.
"Come," said he persuasively. "I'll not eat you up--" with a gay and gracious smile--"at least I'll try not to."
Susan remembered what Miss Hinkle had told her. She saw that she must either accept the invitation or give up her position. She said:
"Very well," and gave him her address.
Back came Jeffries and Miss Hinkle carrying the first of the wraps. Gideon waved them away. "You've shown 'em to me before," said he. "I don't want to see 'em again. Give me the evening gowns."
Susan withdrew, soon to appear in a dress that left her arms and neck bare. Gideon could not get enough of this. Jeffries kept her walking up and down until she was ready to drop with weariness of the monotony, of the distasteful play of Gideon's fiery glance upon her arms and shoulders and throat. Gideon tried to draw her into conversation, but she would--indeed could--go no further than direct answers to his direct questions. "Never mind," said he to her in an undertone. "I'll cheer you up this evening. I think I know how to order a dinner."
Her instant conquest of the difficult and valuable Gideon so elated Jeffries that he piled the work on her. He used her with every important buyer who came that day. The temperature was up in the high nineties, the hot moist air stood stagnant as a barnyard pool; the winter models were cruelly hot and heavy. All day long, with a pause of half an hour to eat her roll and drink a glass of water, Susan walked up and down the show parlors weighted with dresses and cloaks, furs for arctic weather. The other girls, even those doing almost nothing, were all but prostrated. It was little short of intolerable, this struggle to gain the "honest, self-respecting living by honest work" that there was so much talk about. Toward five o'clock her nerves abruptly and completely gave way, and she fainted--for the first time in her life. At once the whole establishment was in an uproar. Jeffries cursed himself loudly for his shortsightedness, for his overestimating her young strength. "She'll look like hell this evening," he wailed, wringing his hands like a distracted peasant woman. "Maybe she won't be able to go out at all."
She soon came round. They brought her whiskey, and afterward tea and sandwiches. And with the power of quick recuperation that is the most fascinating miracle of healthy youth, she not only showed no sign of her breakdown but looked much better. And she felt better. We shall some day understand why it is that if a severe physical blow follows upon a mental blow, recovery from the physical blow is always accompanied by a relief of the mental strain. Susan came out of her fit of faintness and exhaustion with a different point of view--as if time had been long at work softening her, grief. Spenser seemed part of the present no longer, but of the past--a past far more remote than yesterday.
Mary Hinkle sat with her as she drank the tea. "Did you make a date with Gid?" inquired she. Her tone let Susan know that the question had been prompted by Jeffries.
"He asked me to dine with him, and I said I would."
"Have you got a nice dress--dinner dress, I mean?"
"The linen one I'm wearing is all. My other dress is for cooler weather."
"Then I'll give you one out of stock--I mean I'll borrow one for you. This dinner's a house affair, you know--to get Gid's order. It'll be worth thousands to them."
"There wouldn't be anything to fit me on such short notice," said Susan, casting about for an excuse for not wearing borrowed finery.
"Why, you've got a model figure. I'll pick you out a white dress--and a black and white hat. I know 'em all, and I know one that'll make you look simply lovely."
Susan did not protest. She was profoundly indifferent to what happened to her. Life seemed a show in which she had no part, and at which she sat a listless spectator. A few minutes, and in puffed Jeffries, solicitous as a fussy old bird with a new family.
"You're a lot better, ain't you?" cried he, before he had looked at her. "Oh, yes, you'll be all right. And you'll have a lovely time with Mr. Gideon. He's a perfect gentleman--knows how to treat a lady. . . . The minute I laid eyes on you I said to myself, said I, `Jeffries, she's a mascot.' And you are, my dear. You'll get us the order. But you mustn't talk business with him, you understand?"
"Yes," said Susan, wearily.
"He's a gentleman, you know, and it don't do to mix business and social pleasures. You string him along quiet and ladylike and elegant, as if there wasn't any such things as cloaks or dresses in the world. He'll understand all right. . . . If you land the order, my dear, I'll see that you get a nice present. A nice dress--the one we're going to lend you--if he gives us a slice. The dress and twenty-five in cash, if he gives us all. How's that?"
"Thank you," said Susan. "I'll do my best."
"You'll land it. You'll land it. I feel as if we had it with his O. K. on it."
Susan shivered. "Don't--don't count on me too much," she said hesitatingly. "I'm not in very good spirits, I'm sorry to say."
"A little pressed for money?" Jeffries hesitated, made an effort, blurted out what was for him, the business man, a giddy generosity. "On your way out, stop at the cashier's. He'll give you this week's pay in advance." Jeffries hesitated, decided against dangerous liberality. "Not ten, you understand, but say six. You see, you won't have been with us a full week." And he hurried away, frightened by his prodigality, by these hysterical impulses that were rushing him far from the course of sound business sense. "As Jones says, I'm a generous old fool," he muttered. "My soft heart'll ruin me yet."
Jeffries sent Mary Hinkle home with Susan to carry the dress and hat, to help her make a toilet and to "start her off right." In the hour before they left the store there was offered a typical illustration of why and how "business" is able to suspend the normal moral sense and to substitute for it a highly ingenious counterfeit of supreme moral obligation to it. The hysterical Jeffries had infected the entire personnel with his excitement, with the sense that a great battle was impending and that the cause of the house, which was the cause of everyone who drew pay from it, had been intrusted to the young recruit with the fascinating figure and the sweet, sad face. And Susan's sensitive nature was soon vibrating in response to this feeling. It terrified her that she, the inexperienced, had such grave responsibility. It made her heart heavy to think of probable failure, when the house had been so good to her, had taken her in, had given her unusual wages, had made it possible for her to get a start in life, had intrusted to her its cause, its chance to retrieve a bad season and to protect its employees instead of discharging a lot of them.
"Have you got long white gloves?" asked Mary Hinkle, as they walked up Broadway, she carrying the dress and Susan the hat box.
"Only a few pairs of short ones."
"You must have long white gloves--and a pair of white stockings."
"I can't afford them."
"Oh, Jeffries told me to ask you--and to go to work and buy them if you hadn't."
They stopped at Wanamaker's. Susan was about to pay, when Mary stopped her. "If you pay," said she, "maybe you'll get your money back from the house, and maybe you won't. If I pay, they'll not make a kick on giving it back to me."
The dress Mary had selected was a simple white batiste, cut out at the neck prettily, and with the elbow sleeves that were then the fashion. "Your arms and throat are lovely," said Mary. "And your hands are mighty nice, too--that's why I'm sure you've never been a real working girl--leastways, not for a long time. When you get to the restaurant and draw off your gloves in a slow, careless, ladylike kind of way, and put your elbows on the table--my, how he will take on!" Mary looked at her with an intense but not at all malignant envy. "If you don't land high, it'll be because you're a fool. And you ain't that."
"I'm afraid I am," replied Susan. "Yes, I guess I'm what's called a fool--what probably is a fool."
"You want to look out then," warned Miss Hinkle. "You want to go to work and get over that. Beauty don't count, unless a girl's got shrewdness. The streets are full of beauties sellin' out for a bare living. They thought they couldn't help winning, and they got left, and the plain girls who had to hustle and manage have passed them. Go to Del's or Rector's or the Waldorf or the Madrid or any of those high-toned places, and see the women with the swell clothes and jewelry! The married ones, and the other kind, both. Are they raving tearing beauties? Not often. . . . The trouble with me is I've been too good-hearted and too soft about being flattered. I was too good looking, and a small easy living came too easy. You--I'd say you were--that you had brains but were shy about using them. What's the good of having them? Might as well be a boob. Then, too, you've got to go to work and look out about being too refined. The refined, nice ones goes the lowest--if they get pushed--and this is a pushing world. You'll get pushed just as far as you'll let 'em. Take it from me. I've been down the line."
Susan's low spirits sank lower. These disagreeable truths--for observation and experience made her fear they were truths--filled her with despondency. What was the matter with life? As between the morality she had been taught and the practical morality of this world upon which she had been cast, which was the right? How "take hold"? How avert the impending disaster? What of the "good" should--must--she throw away? What should--must--she cling to?
Mary Hinkle was shocked by the poor little room. "This is no place for a lady!" cried she. "But it won't last long--not after tonight, if you play your cards halfway right."
"I'm very well satisfied," said Susan. "If I can only keep this!"
She felt no interest in the toilet until the dress and hat were unpacked and laid out upon the bed. At sight of them her eyes became a keen and lively gray--never violet for that kind of emotion--and there surged up the love of finery that dwells in every normal woman--and in every normal man--that is put there by a heredity dating back through the ages to the very beginning of conscious life--and does not leave them until life gives up the battle and prepares to vacate before death. Ellen, the maid, passing the door, saw and entered to add her ecstatic exclamations to the excitement. Down she ran to bring Mrs. Tucker, who no sooner beheld the glory displayed upon the humble bed than she too was in a turmoil. Susan dressed with the aid of three maids as interested and eager as ever robed a queen for coronation. Ellen brought hot water and a larger bowl. Mrs. Tucker wished to lend a highly scented toilet soap she used when she put on gala attire; but Susan insisted upon her own plain soap. They all helped her bathe; they helped her select the best underclothes from her small store. Susan would put on her own stockings; but Ellen got one foot into one of the slippers and Mrs. Tucker looked after the other foot. "Ain't they lovely?" said Ellen to Mrs. Tucker, as they knelt together at their task. "I never see such feet. Not a lump on 'em, but like feet in a picture."
"It takes a mighty good leg to look good in a white stocking," observed Mary. "But yours is so nice and long and slim that they'd stand most anything."
Mrs. Tucker and Ellen stood by with no interference save suggestion and comment, while Mary, who at one time worked for a hairdresser, did Susan's thick dark hair. Susan would permit no elaborations, much to Miss Hinkle's regret. But the three agreed that she was right when the simple sweep of the vital blue-black hair was finished in a loose and graceful knot at the back, and Susan's small, healthily pallid face looked its loveliest, with the violet-gray eyes soft and sweet and serious. Mrs. Tucker brought the hat from the bed, and Susan put it on--a large black straw of a most becoming shape with two pure white plumes curling round the crown and a third, not so long, rising gracefully from the big buckle where the three plumes met. And now came the putting on of the dress. With as much care as if they were handling a rare and fragile vase, Mary and Mrs. Tucker held the dress for Susan to step into it. Ellen kept her petticoat in place while the other two escorted the dress up Susan's form.
Then the three worked together at hooking and smoothing. Susan washed her hands again, refused to let Mrs. Tucker run and bring powder, produced from a drawer some prepared chalk and with it safeguarded her nose against shine; she tucked the powder rag into her stocking. Last of all the gloves went on and a small handkerchief was thrust into the palm of the left glove.
"How do I look?" asked Susan. "Lovely"--"Fine"--"Just grand," exclaimed the three maids.
"I feel awfully dressed up," said she. "And it's so hot!"
"You must go right downstairs where it's cool and you won't get wilted," cried Mrs. Tucker. "Hold your skirts close on the way. The steps and walls ain't none too clean."
In the bathroom downstairs there was a long mirror built into the wall, a relic of the old house's long departed youth of grandeur. As the tenant--Mr. Jessop--was out, Mrs. Tucker led the way into it. There Susan had the first satisfactory look at herself. She knew she was a pretty woman; she would have been weak-minded had she not known it. But she was amazed at herself. A touch here and there, a sinuous shifting of the body within the garments, and the suggestion of "dressed up" vanished before the reflected eyes of her agitated assistants, who did not know what had happened but only saw the results. She hardly knew the tall beautiful woman of fashion gazing at her from the mirror. Could it be that this was her hair?--these eyes hers--and the mouth and nose and the skin? Was this long slender figure her very own? What an astounding difference clothes did make! Never before had Susan worn anything nearly so fine. "This is the way I ought to look all the time," thought she. "And this is the way I will look!" Only better--much better. Already her true eye was seeing the defects, the chances for improvement--how the hat could be re-bent and re-trimmed to adapt it to her features, how the dress could be altered to make it more tasteful, more effective in subtly attracting attention to her figure.
"How much do you suppose the dress cost, Miss Hinkle?" asked Ellen--the question Mrs. Tucker had been dying to put but had refrained from putting lest it should sound unrefined.
"It costs ninety wholesale," said Miss Hinkle. "That'd mean a hundred and twenty-five--a hundred and fifty, maybe if you was to try to buy it in a department store. And the hat--well, Lichtenstein'd ask fifty or sixty for it and never turn a hair."
"Gosh--ee?" exclaimed Ellen. "Did you ever hear the like?"
"I'm not surprised," said Mrs. Tucker, who in fact was flabbergasted. "Well--it's worth the money to them that can afford to buy it. The good Lord put everything on earth to be used, I reckon. And Miss Sackville is the build for things like that. Now it'd be foolish on me, with a stomach and sitter that won't let no skirt hang fit to look at."
The bell rang. The excitement died from Susan's face, leaving it pale and cold. A wave of nausea swept through her. Ellen peeped out, Mrs. Tucker and Miss Hinkle listening with anxious faces. "It's him!" whispered Ellen," and there's a taxi, too."
It was decided that Ellen should go to the door, that as she opened it Susan should come carelessly from the back room and advance along the hall. And this program was carried out with the result that as Gideon said, "Is Miss Sackville here?" Miss Sackville appeared before his widening, wondering, admiring eyes. He was dressed in the extreme of fashion and costliness in good taste; while it would have been impossible for him to look distinguished, he did look what he was--a prosperous business man with prospects. He came perfumed and rustling. But he felt completely outclassed--until he reminded himself that for all her brave show of fashionable lady she was only a model while he was a fifteen-thousand-a-year man on the way to a partnership.
"Don't you think we might dine on the veranda at Sherry's?" suggested he. "It'd be cool there."
At sight of him she had nerved herself, had keyed herself up toward recklessness. She was in for it. She would put it through. No futile cowardly shrinking and whimpering! Why not try to get whatever pleasure there was a chance for? But--Sherry's--was it safe? Yes, almost any of the Fifth Avenue places--except the Waldorf, possibly--was safe enough. The circuit of Spenser and his friends lay in the more Bohemian Broadway district. He had taken her to Sherry's only once, to see as part of a New York education the Sunday night crowd of fashionable people. "If you like," said she.
Gideon beamed. He would be able to show off his prize! As they drove away Susan glanced at the front parlor windows, saw the curtains agitated, felt the three friendly, excited faces palpitating. She leaned from the cab window, waved her hand, smiled. The three faces instantly appeared and immediately hid again lest Gideon should see.
But Gideon was too busy planning conversation. He knew Miss Sackville was "as common as the rest of 'em--and an old hand at the business, no doubt." But he simply could not abruptly break through the barrier; he must squirm through gradually. "That's a swell outfit you've got on," he began.
"Yes," replied Susan with her usual candor. "Miss Hinkle borrowed it out of the stock for me to wear."
Gideon was confused. He knew how she had got the hat and dress, but he expected her to make a pretense. He couldn't understand her not doing it. Such candor--any kind of candor--wasn't in the game of men and women as women had played it in his experience. The women--all sorts of women--lied and faked at their business just as men did in the business of buying and selling goods. And her voice--and her way of speaking--they made him feel more than ever out of his class. He must get something to drink as soon as it could be served; that would put him at his ease. Yes--a drink--that would set him up again. And a drink for her--that would bring her down from this queer new kind of high horse. "I guess she must be a top notcher--the real thing, come down in the world--and not out of the near silks. But she'll be all right after a drink. One drink of liquor makes the whole world kin." That last thought reminded him of his own cleverness and he attacked the situation afresh. But the conversation as they drove up the avenue was on the whole constrained and intermittent--chiefly about the weather. Susan was observing--and feeling--and enjoying. Up bubbled her young spirits perpetually renewed by her healthy, vital youth of body. She was seeing her beloved City of the Sun again. As they turned out of the avenue for Sherry's main entrance Susan realized that she was in Forty-fourth Street. The street where she and Spenser had lived!--had lived only yesterday. No--not yesterday--impossible! Her eyes closed and she leaned back in the cab.
Gideon was waiting to help her alight. He saw that something was wrong; it stood out obviously in her ghastly face. He feared the carriage men round the entrance would "catch on" to the fact that he was escorting a girl so unused to swell surroundings that she was ready to faint with fright. "Don't be foolish," he said sharply. Susan revived herself, descended, and with head bent low and trembling body entered the restaurant. In the agitation of getting a table and settling at it Gideon forgot for the moment her sickly pallor.
He began to order at once, not consulting her--for he prided himself on his knowledge of cookery and assumed that she knew nothing about it. "Have a cocktail?" asked he. "Yes, of course you will. You need it bad and you need it quick."
She said she preferred sherry. She had intended to drink nothing, but she must have aid in conquering her faintness and overwhelming depression. Gideon took a dry martini; ordered a second for himself when the first came, and had them both down before she finished her sherry. "I've ordered champagne," said he. "I suppose you like sweet champagne. Most ladies do, but I can't stand seeing it served even."
"No--I like it very dry," said Susan.
Gideon glinted his eyes gayly at her, showed his white jaguar teeth. "So you're acquainted with fizz, are you?" He was feeling his absurd notion of inequality in her favor dissipate as the fumes of the cocktails rose straight and strong from his empty stomach to his brain. "Do you know, I've a sort of feeling that we're going to like each other a lot. I think we make a handsome couple--eh--what's your first name?"
"Lorna, then. My name's Ed, but everybody calls me Gid."
As soon as the melon was served, he ordered the champagne opened. "To our better acquaintance," said he, lifting his glass toward her.
"Thank you," said she, in a suffocated voice, touching her glass to her lips.
He was too polite to speak, even in banter, of what he thought was the real cause of her politeness and silence. But he must end this state of overwhelmedness at grand surroundings. Said he:
"You're kind o' shy, aren't you, Lorna? Or is that your game?"
"I don't know. You've had a very interesting life, haven't you? Won't you tell me about it?"
"Oh--just ordinary," replied he, with a proper show of modesty. And straightway, as Susan had hoped, he launched into a minute account of himself--the familiar story of the energetic, aggressive man twisting and kicking his way up from two or three dollars a week. Susan seemed interested, but her mind refused to occupy itself with a narrative so commonplace. After Rod and his friends this boastful business man was dull and tedious. Whenever he laughed at an account of his superior craft--how he had bluffed this man, how he had euchered that one--she smiled. And so in one more case the common masculine delusion that women listen to them on the subject of themselves, with interest and admiration as profound as their own, was not impaired.
"But," he wound up, "I've stayed plain Ed Gideon. I never have let prosperity swell my head. And anyone that knows me'll tell you I'm a regular fool for generosity with those that come at me right. . . . I've always been a favorite with the ladies."
As he was pausing for comment from her, she said, "I can believe it." The word "generosity" kept echoing in her mind. Generosity--generosity. How much talk there was about it! Everyone was forever praising himself for his generosity, was reciting acts of the most obvious selfishness in proof. Was there any such thing in the whole world as real generosity?
"They like a generous man," pursued Gid. "I'm tight in business--I can see a dollar as far as the next man and chase it as hard and grab it as tight. But when it comes to the ladies, why, I'm open-handed. If they treat me right, I treat them right." Then, fearing that he had tactlessly raised a doubt of his invincibility, he hastily added, "But they always do treat me right."
While he had been talking on and on, Susan had been appealing to the champagne to help her quiet her aching heart. She resolutely set her thoughts to wandering among the couples at the other tables in that subdued softening light--the beautifully dressed women listening to their male companions with close attention--were they too being bored by such trash by way of talk? Were they too simply listening because it is the man who pays, because it is the man who must be conciliated and put in a good humor with himself, if dinners and dresses and jewels are to be bought? That tenement attic--that hot moist workroom--poverty--privation--"honest work's" dread rewards----
"Now, what kind of a man would you say I was?" Gideon was inquiring.
"How do you mean?" replied Susan, with the dexterity at vagueness that habitually self-veiling people acquire as an instinct.
"Why, as a man. How do I compare with the other men you've known?" And he "shot" his cuffs with a gesture of careless elegance that his cuff links might assist in the picture of the "swell dresser" he felt he was posing.
"I am different," swelled Gideon. "You see, it's this way----" And he was off again into another eulogy of himself; it carried them through the dinner and two quarts of champagne. He was much annoyed that she did not take advantage of the pointed opportunity he gave her to note the total of the bill; he was even uncertain whether she had noted that he gave the waiter a dollar. He rustled and snapped it before laying it upon the tray, but her eyes looked vague.
"Well," said he, after a comfortable pull at an expensive-looking cigar, "sixteen seventy-five is quite a lively little peel-off for a dinner for only two. But it was worth it, don't you think?"
"It was a splendid dinner," said Susan truthfully. Gideon beamed in intoxicated good humor. "I knew you'd like it. Nothing pleases me better than to take a nice girl who isn't as well off as I am out and blow her off to a crackerjack dinner. Now, you may have thought a dollar was too much to tip the waiter?"
"A dollar is--a dollar, isn't it?" said Susan.
Gideon laughed. "I used to think so. And most men wouldn't give that much to a waiter. But I feel sorry for poor devils who don't happen to be as lucky or as brainy as I am. What do you say to a turn in the Park? We'll take a hansom, and kind of jog along. And we'll stop at the Casino and at Gabe's for a drink."
"I have to get up so early " began Susan.
"Oh, that's all right." He slowly winked at her. "You'll not have to bump the bumps for being late tomorrow--if you treat me right."
He carried his liquor easily. Only in his eyes and in his ever more slippery smile that would slide about his face did he show that he had been drinking. He helped her into a hansom with a flourish and, overruling her protests, bade the driver go to the Casino. Once under way she was glad; her hot skin and her weary heart were grateful for the air blowing down the avenue from the Park's expanse of green. When Gideon attempted to put his arm around her, she moved close into the corner and went on talking so calmly about calm subjects that he did not insist. But when he had tossed down a drink of whiskey at the Casino and they resumed the drive along the moonlit, shady roads, he tried again.
"Please," said she, "don't spoil a delightful evening."
"Now look here, my dear--haven't I treated you right?"
"Indeed you have, Mr. Gideon."
"Oh, don't be so damned formal. Forget the difference between our positions. Tomorrow I'm going to place a big order with your house, if you treat me right. I'm dead stuck on you--and that's a God's fact. You've taken me clean off my feet. I'm thinking of doing a lot for you."
Susan was silent.
"What do you say to throwing up your job and coming to Chicago with me? How much do you get?"
"Why, you can't live on that."
"I've lived on less--much less."
"Do you like it?"
"You want to get on--don't you?"
"You're down in the heart about something. Love?"
Susan was silent.
"Cut love out. Cut it out, my dear. That ain't the way to get on. Love's a good consolation prize, if you ain't going to get anywhere, and know you ain't. And it's a good first prize after you've arrived and can afford the luxuries of life. But for a man--or a woman--that's pushing up, it's sheer ruination! Cut it out!"
"I am cutting it out," said Susan. "But that takes time."
"Not if you've got sense. The way to cut anything out is--cut it out!--a quick slash--just cut. If you make a dozen little slashes, each of them hurts as much as the one big slash--and the dozen hurt twelve times as much--bleed twelve times as much--put off the cure a lot more than twelve times as long."
He had Susan's attention for the first time.
"Do you know why women don't get on?"
"Tell me," said she. "That's what I want to hear."
"Because they don't play the game under the rules. Now, what does a man do? Why, he stakes everything he's got--does whatever's necessary, don't stop at nothing to help him get there. How is it with women? Some try to be virtuous--when their bodies are their best assets. God! I wish I'd 'a' had your looks and your advantages as a woman to help me. I'd be a millionaire this minute, with a house facing this Park and a yacht and all the rest of it. A woman that's squeamish about her virtue can't hope to win--unless she's in a position to make a good marriage. As for the loose ones, they are as big fools as the virtuous ones. The virtuous ones lock away their best asset; the loose ones throw it away. Neither one use it. Do you follow me?"
"I think so." Susan was listening with a mind made abnormally acute by the champagne she had freely drunk. The coarse bluntness and directness of the man did not offend her. It made what he said the more effective, producing a rude arresting effect upon her nerves. It made the man himself seem more of a person. Susan was beginning to have a kind of respect for him, to change her first opinion that he was merely a vulgar, pushing commonplace.
"Never thought of that before?"
"Yes--I've thought of it. But----" She paused.
"Never mind. Some womanish heart nonsense, I suppose. Do you see the application of what I've said to you and me?"
"Go on." She was leaning forward, her elbows on the closed doors of the hansom, her eyes gazing dreamily into the moonlit dimness of the cool woods through which they were driving.
"You don't want to stick at ten per?"
"It'll be less in a little while. Models don't last. The work's too hard."
"I can see that."
"And anyhow it means tenement house."
"Yes. Tenement house."
"Well--what then? What's your plan?"
"I haven't any."
"Haven't a plan--yet want to get on! Is that good sense? Did ever anybody get anywhere without a plan?"
"I'm willing to work. I'm going to work. I am working."
"Work, of course. Nobody can keep alive without working. You might as well say you're going to breathe and eat--Work don't amount to anything, for getting on. It's the kind of work--working in a certain direction--working with a plan."
"I've got a plan. But I can't begin at it just yet."
"Will it take money?"
"Have you got it?"
"No," replied Susan. "I'll have to get it."
"As an honest working girl?" said he with good-humored irony.
Susan laughed. "It does sound ridiculous, doesn't it?" said she.
"Here's another thing that maybe you haven't counted in. Looking as you do, do you suppose men that run things'll let you get past without paying toll? Not on your life, my dear. If you was ugly, you might after several years get twenty or twenty-five by working hard--unless you lost your figure first. But the men won't let a good looker rise that way. Do you follow me?"
"I'm not talking theory. I'm talking life. Take you and me for example. I can help you--help you a lot. In fact I can put you on your feet. And I'm willing. If you was a man and I liked you and wanted to help you, I'd make you help me, too. I'd make you do a lot of things for me--maybe some of 'em not so very nice--maybe some of 'em downright dirty. And you'd do 'em, as all young fellows, struggling up, have to. But you're a woman. So I'm willing to make easier terms. But I can't help you with you not showing any appreciation. That wouldn't be good business--would it?--to get no return but, `Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Gideon. So sweet of you. I'll remember you in my prayers.' Would that be sensible?"
"No," said Susan.
"Well, then! If I do you a good turn, you've got to do me a good turn--not one that I don't want done, but one I do want done. Ain't I right? Do you follow me?"
"I follow you."
Some vague accent in Susan's voice made him feel dissatisfied with her response. "I hope you do," he said sharply. "What I'm saying is dresses on your back and dollars in your pocket--and getting on in the world--if you work it right."
"Getting on in the world," said Susan, pensively.
"I suppose that's a sneer."
"Oh, no. I was only thinking."
"About love being all a woman needs to make her happy, I suppose?"
"No. Love is--Well, it isn't happiness."
"Because you let it run you, instead of you running it. Eh?"
"Sure! Now, let me tell you, Lorna dear. Comfort and luxury, money in bank, property, a good solid position--that's the foundation. Build on that and you'll build solid. Build on love and sentiment and you're building upside down. You're putting the gingerbread where the rock ought to be. Follow me?"
"I see what you mean."
He tried to find her hand. "What do you say?"
"I'll think of it."
"Well, think quick, my dear. Opportunity doesn't wait round in anybody's outside office . . . Maybe you don't trust me--don't think I'll deliver the goods?"
"No. I think you're honest."
"You're right I am. I do what I say I'll do. That's why I've got on. That's why I'll keep on getting on. Let's drive to a hotel."
She turned her head and looked at him for the first time since he began his discourse on making one's way in the world. Her look was calm, inquiring--would have been chilling to a man of sensibility--that is, of sensibility toward an unconquered woman.
"I want to give your people that order, and I want to help you."
"I want them to get the order. I don't care about the rest," she replied dully.
"Put it any way you like."
Again he tried to embrace her. She resisted firmly. "Wait," said she. "Let me think."
They drove the rest of the way to the upper end of the Park in silence.
He ordered the driver to turn. He said to her; "Well, do you get the sack or does the house get the order?"
She was silent.
"Shall I drive you home or shall we stop at Gabe's for a drink?"
"Could I have champagne?" said she.
"Anything you like if you choose right."
"I haven't any choice," said she.
He laughed, put his arm around her, kissed her unresponsive but unresisting lips. "You're right, you haven't," said he. "It's a fine sign that you have the sense to see it. Oh, you'll get on. You don't let trifles stand in your way."