Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
The child's dead," said Nora, the nurse. It was the upstairs sitting-room in one of the pretentious houses of Sutherland, oldest and most charming of the towns on the Indiana bank of the Ohio. The two big windows were open; their limp and listless draperies showed that there was not the least motion in the stifling humid air of the July afternoon. At the center of the room stood an oblong table; over it were neatly spread several thicknesses of white cotton cloth; naked upon them lay the body of a newborn girl baby. At one side of the table nearer the window stood Nora. Hers were the hard features and corrugated skin popularly regarded as the result of a life of toil, but in fact the result of a life of defiance to the laws of health. As additional penalties for that same self-indulgence she had an enormous bust and hips, thin face and arms, hollow, sinew-striped neck. The young man, blond and smooth faced, at the other side of the table and facing the light, was Doctor Stevens, a recently graduated pupil of the famous Schulze of Saint Christopher who as much as any other one man is responsible for the rejection of hocus-pocus and the injection of common sense into American medicine. For upwards of an hour young Stevens, coat off and shirt sleeves rolled to his shoulders, had been toiling with the lifeless form on the table. He had tried everything his training, his reading and his experience suggested--all the more or less familiar devices similar to those indicated for cases of drowning. Nora had watched him, at first with interest and hope, then with interest alone, finally with swiftly deepening disapproval, as her compressed lips and angry eyes plainly revealed. It seemed to her his effort was degenerating into sacrilege, into defiance of an obvious decree of the Almighty. However, she had not ventured to speak until the young man, with a muttered ejaculation suspiciously like an imprecation, straightened his stocky figure and began to mop the sweat from his face, hands and bared arms.
When she saw that her verdict had not been heard, she repeated it more emphatically. "The child's dead," said she, "as I told you from the set-out." She made the sign of the cross on her forehead and bosom, while her fat, dry lips moved in a "Hail, Mary."
The young man did not rouse from his reverie. He continued to gaze with a baffled expression at the tiny form, so like a whimsical caricature of humanity. He showed that he had heard the woman's remark by saying, to himself rather than to her, "Dead? What's that? Merely another name for ignorance." But the current of his thought did not swerve. It held to the one course: What would his master, the dauntless, the infinitely resourceful Schulze, do if he were confronted by this intolerable obstacle of a perfect machine refusing to do its duty and pump vital force through an eagerly waiting body? "He'd make it go, I'd bet my life," the young man muttered. "I'm ashamed of myself."
As if the reproach were just the spur his courage and his intelligence had needed, his face suddenly glowed with the upshooting fire of an inspiration. He thrust the big white handkerchief into his hip pocket, laid one large strong hand upon the small, beautifully arched chest of the baby. Nora, roused by his expression even more than by his gesture, gave an exclamation of horror. "Don't touch it again," she cried, between entreaty and command. "You've done all you can--and more."
Stevens was not listening. "Such a fine baby, too," he said, hesitating--the old woman mistakenly fancied it was her words that made him pause. "I feel no good at all," he went on, as if reasoning with himself, "no good at all, losing both the mother and the child."
"She didn't want to live," replied Nora. Her glances stole somewhat fearfully toward the door of the adjoining room--the bedroom where the mother lay dead.
"There wasn't nothing but disgrace ahead for both of them. Everybody'll be glad."
"Such a fine baby," muttered the abstracted young doctor.
"Love-children always is," said Nora. She was looking sadly and tenderly down at the tiny, symmetrical form--symmetrical to her and the doctor's expert eyes. "Such a deep chest," she sighed. "Such pretty hands and feet. A real love-child." There she glanced nervously at the doctor; it was meet and proper and pious to speak well of the dead, but she felt she might be going rather far for a "good woman."
"I'll try it," cried the young man in a resolute tone. "It can't do any harm, and----"
Without finishing his sentence he laid hold of the body by the ankles, swung it clear of the table. As Nora saw it dangling head downwards like a dressed suckling pig on a butcher's hook she vented a scream and darted round the table to stop by main force this revolting desecration of the dead. Stevens called out sternly: "Mind your business, Nora! Push the table against the wall and get out of the way. I want all the room there is."
"Oh, Doctor--for the blessed Jesus' sake----"
"Push back that table!"
Nora shrank before his fierce eyes. She thought his exertions, his disappointment and the heat had combined to topple him over into insanity. She retreated toward the farther of the open windows. With a curse at her stupidity Stevens kicked over the table, used his foot vigorously in thrusting it to the wall. "Now!" exclaimed he, taking his stand in the center of the room and gauging the distance of ceiling, floor and walls.
Nora, her back against the window frame, her fingers sunk in her big loose bosom, stared petrified. Stevens, like an athlete swinging an indian club, whirled the body round and round his head, at the full length of his powerful arms. More and more rapidly he swung it, until his breath came and went in gasps and the sweat was trickling in streams down his face and neck. Round and round between ceiling and floor whirled the naked body of the baby--round and round for minutes that seemed hours to the horrified nurse--round and round with all the strength and speed the young man could put forth--round and round until the room was a blur before his throbbing eyes, until his expression became fully as demoniac as Nora had been fancying it. Just as she was recovering from her paralysis of horror and was about to fly shrieking from the room she was halted by a sound that made her draw in air until her bosom swelled as if it would burst its gingham prison. She craned eagerly toward Stevens. He was whirling the body more furiously than ever.
"Was that you?" asked Nora hoarsely. "Or was it----" She paused, listened.
The sound came again--the sound of a drowning person fighting for breath.
"It's--it's----" muttered Nora. "What is it, Doctor?"
"Life!" panted Stevens, triumph in his glistening, streaming face. "Life!"
He continued to whirl the little form, but not so rapidly or so vigorously. And now the sound was louder, or, rather, less faint, less uncertain--was a cry--was the cry of a living thing. "She's alive--alive!" shrieked the woman, and in time with his movements she swayed to and fro from side to side, laughing, weeping, wringing her hands, patting her bosom, her cheeks. She stretched out her arms. "My prayers are answered!" she cried. "Don't kill her, you brute! Give her to me. You shan't treat a baby that way."
The unheeding doctor kept on whirling until the cry was continuous, a low but lusty wail of angry protest. Then he stopped, caught the baby up in both arms, burst out laughing. "You little minx!" he said--or, rather, gasped--a tenderness quite maternal in his eyes. "But I got you! Nora, the table."
Nora righted the table, spread and smoothed the cloths, extended her scrawny eager arms for the baby. Stevens with a jerk of the head motioned her aside, laid the baby on the table. He felt for the pulse at its wrist, bent to listen at the heart. Quite useless. That strong, rising howl of helpless fury was proof enough. Her majesty the baby was mad through and through--therefore alive through and through.
"Grand heart action!" said the young man. He stood aloof, hands on his hips, head at a proud angle. "You never saw a healthier specimen. It'll be many a year, bar accidents, before she's that near death again."
But it was Nora's turn not to hear. She was soothing and swaddling the outraged baby. "There--there!" she crooned. "Nora'll take care of you. The bad man shan't come near my little precious--no, the wicked man shan't touch her again."
The bedroom door opened. At the slight noise superstitious Nora paled, shriveled within her green and white checked gingham. She slowly turned her head as if on this day of miracles she expected yet another--the resurrection of the resurrected baby's mother, "poor Miss Lorella." But Lorella Lenox was forever tranquil in the sleep that engulfed her and the sorrows in which she had been entangled by an impetuous, trusting heart. The apparition in the doorway was commonplace--the mistress of the house, Lorella's elder and married sister Fanny--neither fair nor dark, neither tall nor short, neither thin nor fat, neither pretty nor homely, neither stupid nor bright, neither neat nor dowdy--one of that multitude of excellent, unobtrusive human beings who make the restful stretches in a world of agitations--and who respond to the impetus of circumstance as unresistingly as cloud to wind.
As the wail of the child smote upon Fanny's ears she lifted her head, startled, and cried out sharply, "What's that?"
"We've saved the baby, Mrs. Warham," replied the young doctor, beaming on her through his glasses.
"Oh!" said Mrs. Warham. And she abruptly seated herself on the big chintz-covered sofa beside the door.
"And it's a lovely child," pleaded Nora. Her woman's instinct guided her straight to the secret of the conflict raging behind Mrs. Warham's unhappy face.
"The finest girl in the world," cried Stevens, well-meaning but tactless.
"Girl!" exclaimed Fanny, starting up from the sofa. "Is it a girl?"
Nora nodded. The young man looked downcast; he was realizing the practical side of his victory for science--the consequences to the girl child, to all the relatives.
"A girl!" moaned Fanny, sinking to the sofa again. "God have mercy on us!"
Louder and angrier rose the wail. Fanny, after a brief struggle with herself, hurried to the table, looked down at the tiny helplessness. Her face softened. She had been a mother four times. Only one had lived--her fair little two-year-old Ruth--and she would never have any more children. The tears glistened in her eyes. "What ails you, Nora Mulvey?" she demanded. "Why aren't you 'tending to this poor little creature?"
Nora sprang into action, but she wrapped the baby herself. The doctor in deep embarrassment withdrew to the farther window. She fussed over the baby lingeringly, but finally resigned it to the nurse. "Take it into the bathroom," she said, "where everything's ready to feed it--though I never dreamed----" As Nora was about to depart, she detained her. "Let me look at it again."
The nurse understood that Fanny Warham was searching for evidence of the mysterious but suspected paternity whose secret Lorella, with true Lenox obstinacy, had guarded to the end. The two women scanned the features. A man would at a glance have abandoned hope of discovering anything from a chart so vague and confused as that wrinkled, twisted, swollen face of the newborn. Not so a woman. Said Nora: "She seems to me to favor the Lenoxes. But I think--I kind o' think--I see a trace of--of----" There she halted, waiting for encouragement.
"Of Galt?" suggested Fanny, in an undertone.
"Of Galt," assented Nora, her tone equally discreet. "That nose is Galt-like and the set of the ears--and a kind of something to the neck and shoulders."
"Maybe so," said Fanny doubtfully. She shook her head drearily, sighed. "What's the use? Lorella's gone. And this morning General Galt came down to see my husband with a letter he'd got from Jimmie. Jimmie denies it. Perhaps so. Again, perhaps the General wrote him to write that, and threatened him if he didn't. But what's the use? We'll never know."
And they never did.
When young Stevens was leaving, George Warham waylaid him at the front gate, separated from the spacious old creeper-clad house by long lawns and an avenue of elms. "I hear the child's going to live," said he anxiously.
"I've never seen anything more alive," replied Stevens.
Warham stared gloomily at the ground. He was evidently ashamed of his feelings, yet convinced that they were human and natural. A moment's silence between the men, then Stevens put his hand on the gate latch. "Did--did--my wife----" began Warham. "Did she say what she calculated to do?"
"Not a word, George." After a silence. "You know how fond she is of babies."
"Yes, I know," replied Warham. "Fanny is a true woman if ever there was one." With a certain defiance, "And Lorella--she was a sweet, womanly girl!"
"As sweet and good as she was pretty," replied Stevens heartily.
"The way she kept her mouth shut about that hound, whoever he is!" Warham's Roman face grew savage, revealed in startling apparition a stubborn cruelty of which there was not a trace upon the surface. "If I ever catch the---- ----I'll fill him full of holes."
"He'd be lynched--whoever he is," said Stevens.
"That's right!" cried Warham. "This is the North, but it's near enough to Kentucky to know what to do with a wretch of that sort." His face became calmer. "That poor little baby! He'll have a hard row to hoe."
Stevens flushed a guilty red. "It's--it's--a girl," he stammered.
Warham stared. "A girl!" he cried. Then his face reddened and in a furious tone he burst out: "Now don't that beat the devil for luck!. . . A girl! Good Lord--a girl!"
"Nobody in this town'll blame her," consoled Stevens.
"You know better than that, Bob! A girl! Why, it's downright wicked. . . I wonder what Fanny allows to do?" He showed what fear was in his mind by wheeling savagely on Stevens with a stormy, "We can't keep her--we simply can't!"
"What's to become of her?" protested Stevens gently.
Warham made a wild vague gesture with both arms. "Damn if I know! I've got to look out for my own daughter. I won't have it. Damn it, I won't have it!" Stevens lifted the gate latch. "Well----
"Good-by, George. I'll look in again this evening." And knowing the moral ideas of the town, all he could muster by way of encouragement was a half-hearted "Don't borrow trouble."
But Warham did not hear. He was moving up the tanbark walk toward the house, muttering to himself. When Fanny, unable longer to conceal Lorella's plight, had told him, pity and affection for his sweet sister-in-law who had made her home with them for five years had triumphed over his principles. He had himself arranged for Fanny to hide Lorella in New York until she could safely return. But just as the sisters were about to set out, Lorella, low in body and in mind, fell ill. Then George--and Fanny, too--had striven with her to give them the name of her betrayer, that he might be compelled to do her justice. Lorella refused. "I told him," she said, "and he--I never want to see him again." They pleaded the disgrace to them, but she replied that he would not marry her even if she would marry him; and she held to her refusal with the firmness for which the Lenoxes were famous. They suspected Jimmie Galt, because he had been about the most attentive of the young men until two or three months before, and because he had abruptly departed for Europe to study architecture. Lorella denied that it was he. "If you kill him," she said to Warham, "you kill an innocent man." Warham was so exasperated by her obstinacy that he was at first for taking her at her offer and letting her go away. But Fanny would not hear of it, and he acquiesced. Now--"This child must be sent away off somewhere, and never be heard of again," he said to himself. "If it'd been a boy, perhaps it might have got along. But a girl----
"There's nothing can be done to make things right for a girl that's got no father and no name."
The subject did not come up between him and his wife until about a week after Lorella's funeral. But he was thinking of nothing else. At his big grocery store--wholesale and retail--he sat morosely in his office, brooding over the disgrace and the danger of deeper disgrace--for he saw what a hold the baby already had upon his wife. He was ashamed to appear in the streets; he knew what was going on behind the sympathetic faces, heard the whisperings as if they had been trumpetings. And he was as much afraid of his own soft heart as of his wife's. But for the sake of his daughter he must be firm and just.
One morning, as he was leaving the house after breakfast, he turned back and said abruptly: "Fan, don't you think you'd better send the baby away and get it over with?"
"No," said his wife unhesitatingly--and he knew his worst suspicion was correct. "I've made up my mind to keep her."
"It isn't fair to Ruth."
"Send it away--where?"
"Anywhere. Get it adopted in Chicago--Cincinnati--Louisville."
"When she and Ruth grow up--what then?"
"People ain't so low as some think."
"`The sins of the parents are visited on the children unto----'"
"I don't care," interrupted Fanny. "I love her. I'm going to keep her. Wait here a minute."
When she came back she had the baby in her arms. "Just look," she said softly.
George frowned, tried not to look, but was soon drawn and held by the sweet, fresh, blooming face, so smooth, so winning, so innocent.
"And think how she was sent back to life--from beyond the grave. It must have been for some purpose."
Warham groaned, "Oh, Lord, I don't know what to do! But--it ain't fair to our Ruth."
"I don't see it that way. . . . Kiss her, George."
Warham kissed one of the soft cheeks, swelling like a ripening apple. The baby opened wide a pair of wonderful dark eyes, threw up its chubby arms and laughed--such a laugh!. . . There was no more talk of sending her away.