Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
At the lunch hour the next day Mary Hinkle knocked at the garret in Clinton Place. Getting no answer, she opened the door. At the table close to the window was Susan in a nightgown, her hair in disorder as if she had begun to arrange it and had stopped halfway. Her eyes turned listlessly in Mary's direction--dull eyes, gray, heavily circled.
"You didn't answer, Miss Sackville. So I thought I'd come in and leave a note," explained Mary. Her glance was avoiding Susan's.
"Come for the dress and hat?" said Susan. "There they are." And she indicated the undisturbed bed whereon hat and dress were carelessly flung.
"My, but it's hot in this room!" exclaimed Mary. "You must move up to my place. There's a room and bath vacant--only seven per."
Susan seemed not to hear. She was looking dully at her hands upon the table before her.
"Mr. Jeffries sent me to ask you how you were. He was worried because you didn't come." With a change of voice, "Mr. Gideon telephoned down the order a while ago. Mr. Jeffries says you are to keep the dress and hat."
"No," said Susan. "Take them away with you."
"Aren't you coming down this afternoon?"
"No," replied Susan. "I've quit."
"Quit?" cried Miss Hinkle. Her expression gradually shifted from astonishment to pleased understanding. "Oh, I see! You've got something better."
"No. But I'll find something."
Mary studied the situation, using Susan's expressionless face as a guide. After a time she seemed to get from it a clew. With the air of friendly experience bent on aiding helpless inexperience she pushed aside the dress and made room for herself on the bed. "Don't be a fool, Miss Sackville," said she. "If you don't like that sort of thing--you know what I mean--why, you can live six months--maybe a year--on the reputation of what you've done and their hope that you'll weaken down and do it again. That'll give you time to look round and find something else. For pity's sake, don't turn yourself loose without a job. You got your place so easy that you think you can get one any old time. There's where you're wrong. Believe me, you played in luck--and luck don't come round often. I know what I'm talking about. So I say, don't be a fool!"
"I am a fool," said Susan.
"Well--get over it. And don't waste any time about it, either."
"I can't go back," said Susan stolidly. "I can't face them."
"Face who?" cried Mary. "Business is business. Everybody understands that. All the people down there are crazy about you now. You got the house a hundred-thousand-dollar order. You don't suppose anybody in business bothers about how an order's got--do you?"
"It's the way I feel--not the way they feel."
"As for the women down there--of course, there's some that pretend they won't do that sort of thing. Look at 'em--at their faces and figures--and you'll see why they don't. Of course a girl keeps straight when there's nothing in not being straight--leastways, unless she's a fool. She knows that if the best she can do is marry a fellow of her own class, why she'd only get left if she played any tricks with them cheap skates that have to get married or go without because they're too poor to pay for anything--and by marrying can get that and a cook and a washwoman and mender besides--and maybe, too, somebody who can go out and work if they're laid up sick. But if a girl sees a chance to get on----don't be a fool, Miss Sackville."
Susan listened with a smile that barely disturbed the stolid calm of her features. "I'm not going back," she said.
Mary Hinkle was silenced by the quiet finality of her voice. Studying that delicate face, she felt, behind its pallid impassiveness, behind the refusal to return, a reason she could not comprehend. She dimly realized that she would respect it if she could understand it; for she suspected it had its origin somewhere in Susan's "refined ladylike nature." She knew that once in a while among the women she was acquainted with there did happen one who preferred death in any form of misery to leading a lax life--and indisputable facts had convinced her that not always were these women "just stupid ignorant fools." She herself possessed no such refinement of nerves or of whatever it was. She had been brought up in a loose family and in a loose neighborhood. She was in the habit of making all sorts of pretenses, because that was the custom, while being candid about such matters was regarded as bad form. She was not fooled by these pretenses in other girls, though they often did fool each other. In Susan, she instinctively felt, it was not pretense. It was something or other else--it was a dangerous reality. She liked Susan; in her intelligence and physical charm were the possibilities of getting far up in the world; it seemed a pity that she was thus handicapped. Still, perhaps Susan would stumble upon some worth while man who, attempting to possess her without marriage and failing, would pay the heavy price. There was always that chance--a small chance, smaller even than finding by loose living a worth while man who would marry you because you happened exactly to suit him--to give him enough only to make him feel that he wanted more. Still, Susan was unusually attractive, and luck sometimes did come a poor person's way--sometimes.
"I'm overdue back," said Mary. "You want me to tell 'em that?"
"You'll have hard work finding a job at anything like as much as ten per. I've got two trades, and I couldn't at either one."
"I don't expect to find it."
"Then what are you going to do?"
"Take what I can get--until I've been made hard enough--or strong enough--or whatever it is--to stop being a fool."
This indication of latent good sense relieved Miss Hinkle. "I'll tell 'em you may be down tomorrow. Think it over for another day."
Susan shook her head. "They'll have to get somebody else." And, as Miss Hinkle reached the threshold, "Wait till I do the dress up. You'll take it for me?"
"Why send the things back?" urged Mary. "They belong to you. God knows you earned 'em."
Susan, standing now, looked down at the finery. "So I did. I'll keep them," said she. "They'd pawn for something."
"With your looks they'd wear for a heap more. But keep 'em, anyhow. And I'll not tell Jeffries you've quit. It'll do no harm to hold your job open a day or so."
"As you like," said Susan, to end the discussion. "But I have quit."
"No matter. After you've had something to eat, you'll feel different."
And Miss Hinkle nodded brightly and departed. Susan resumed her seat at the bare wobbly little table, resumed her listless attitude. She did not move until Ellen came in, holding out a note and saying, "A boy from your store brung this--here."
"Thank you," said Susan, taking the note. In it she found a twenty-dollar bill and a five. On the sheet of paper round it was scrawled:
Take the day off. Here's your commission. We'll raise your pay in a few weeks, L. L. J.
So Mary Hinkle had told them either that she was quitting or that she was thinking of quitting, and they wished her to stay, had used the means they believed she could not resist. In a dreary way this amused her. As if she cared whether or not life was kept in this worthless body of hers, in her tired heart, in her disgusted mind! Then she dropped back into listlessness. When she was aroused again it was by Gideon, completely filling the small doorway. "Hello, my dear!" cried he cheerfully. "Mind my smoking?"
Susan slowly turned her head toward him, surveyed him with an expression but one removed from the blank look she would have had if there had been no one before her.
"I'm feeling fine today," pursued Gideon, advancing a step and so bringing himself about halfway to the table. "Had a couple of pick-me-ups and a fat breakfast. How are you?"
"I'm always well."
"Thought you seemed a little seedy. "His shrewd sensual eyes were exploring the openings in her nightdress. "You'll be mighty glad to get out of this hole. Gosh! It's hot. Don't see how you stand it. I'm a law abiding citizen but I must say I'd turn criminal before I'd put up with this."
In the underworld from which Gideon had sprung--the underworld where welters the overwhelming mass of the human race--there are three main types. There are the hopeless and spiritless--the mass--who welter passively on, breeding and dying. There are the spirited who also possess both shrewdness and calculation; they push upward by hook and by crook, always mindful of the futility of the struggle of the petty criminal of the slums against the police and the law; they arrive and found the aristocracies of the future. The third is the criminal class. It is also made up of the spirited--but the spirited who, having little shrewdness and no calculation--that is, no ability to foresee and measure consequences--wage clumsy war upon society and pay the penalty of their fatuity in lives of wretchedness even more wretched than the common lot. Gideon belonged to the second class--the class that pushes upward without getting into jail; he was a fair representative of this type, neither its best nor its worst, but about midway of its range between arrogant, all-dominating plutocrat and shystering merchant or lawyer or politician who barely escapes the criminal class.
"You don't ask me to sit down, dearie," he went on facetiously. "But I'm not so mad that I won't do it."
He took the seat Miss Hinkle had cleared on the bed. His glance wandered disgustedly from object to object in the crowded yet bare attic. He caught a whiff of the odor from across the hall--from the fresh-air shaft--and hastily gave several puffs at his cigar to saturate his surroundings with its perfume. Susan acted as if she were alone in the room. She had not even drawn together her nightgown.
"I phoned your store about you," resumed Gideon. "They said you hadn't showed up--wouldn't till tomorrow. So I came round here and your landlady sent me up. I want to take you for a drive this afternoon. We can dine up to Claremont or farther, if you like."
"No, thanks," said Susan. "I can't go."
"Upty-tupty!" cried Gideon. "What's the lady so sour about?"
"I'm not sour."
"Then why won't you go?"
"But we'll have a chance to talk over what I'm going to do for you."
"You've kept your word," said Susan.
"That was only part. Besides, I'd have given your house the order, anyhow."
Susan's eyes suddenly lighted up. "You would?" she cried.
"Well--a part of it. Not so much, of course. But I never let pleasure interfere with business. Nobody that does ever gets very far."
Her expression made him hasten to explain--without being conscious why. "I said--part of the order, my dear. They owe to you about half of what they'll make off me. . . . What's that money on the table? Your commission?"
"Twenty-five? Um!" Gideon laughed. "Well, I suppose it's as generous as I'd be, in the same circumstances. Encourage your employees, but don't swell-head 'em--that's the good rule. I've seen many a promising young chap ruined by a raise of pay. . . . Now, about you and me." Gideon took a roll of bills from his trousers pocket, counted off five twenties, tossed them on the table. "There!"
One of the bills in falling touched Susan's hand. She jerked the hand away as if the bill had been afire. She took all five of them, folded them, held them out to him. "The house has paid me," said she.
"That's honest," said he, nodding approvingly. "I like it. But in your case it don't apply."
These two, thus facing a practical situation, revealed an important, overlooked truth about human morals. Humanity divides broadly into three classes: the arrived; those who will never arrive and will never try; those in a state of flux, attempting and either failing or succeeding. The arrived and the inert together preach and to a certain extent practice an idealistic system of morality that interferes with them in no way. It does not interfere with the arrived because they have no need to infringe it, except for amusement; it does not interfere with the inert, but rather helps them to bear their lot by giving them a cheering notion that their insignificance is due to their goodness. This idealistic system receives the homage of lip service from the third and struggling section of mankind, but no more, for in practice it would hamper them at every turn in their efforts to fight their way up. Susan was, at that stage of her career, a candidate for membership in the struggling class. Her heart was set firmly against the unwritten, unspoken, even unwhispered code of practical morality which dominates the struggling class. But life had at least taught her the folly of intolerance. So when Gideon talked in terms of that practical morality, she listened without offense; and she talked to him in terms of it because to talk the idealistic morality in which she had been bred and before which she bowed the knee in sincere belief would have been simply to excite his laughter at her innocence and his contempt for her folly.
"I feel that I've been paid," said she. "I did it for the house--because I owed it to them."
"Only for the house?" said he with insinuating tenderness. He took and pressed the fingers extended with the money in them.
"Only for the house," she repeated, a hard note in her voice. And her fingers slipped away, leaving the money in his hand. "At least, I suppose it must have been for the house," she added, reflectively, talking to herself aloud. "Why did I do it? I don't know. I don't know. They say one always has a reason for what one does. But I often can't find any reason for things I do--that, for instance. I simply did it because it seemed to me not to matter much what I did with myself, and they wanted the order so badly." Then she happened to become conscious of his presence and to see a look of uneasiness, self-complacence, as if he were thinking that he quite understood this puzzle. She disconcerted him with what vain men call a cruel snub. "But whatever the reason, it certainly couldn't have been you," said she.
"Now, look here, Lorna," protested Gideon, the beginnings of anger in his tone. "That's not the way to talk if you want to get on."
She eyed him with an expression which would have raised a suspicion that he was repulsive in a man less self-confident, less indifferent to what the human beings he used for pleasure or profit thought of him.
"To say nothing of what I can do for you, there's the matter of future orders. I order twice a year--in big lots always."
"I've quit down there."
"Oh! Somebody else has given you something good--eh? That's why you're cocky."
"Then why've you quit?"
"I wish you could tell me. I don't understand. But--I've done it."
Gideon puzzled with this a moment, decided that it was beyond him and unimportant, anyhow. He blew out a cloud of smoke, stretched his legs and took up the main subject. "I was about to say, I've got a place for you. I'd like to take you to Chicago, but there's a Mrs. G.--as dear, sweet, good a soul as ever lived--just what a man wants at home with the children and to make things respectable. I wouldn't grieve her for worlds. But I can't live without a little fun--and Mrs. G. is a bit slow for me. . . . Still, it's no use talking about having you out there. She ought to be able to understand that an active man needs two women. One for the quiet side of his nature, the other for the lively side. Sometimes I think she--like a lot of wives--wouldn't object if it wasn't that she was afraid the other lady would get me away altogether and she'd be left stranded."
"Naturally," said Susan.
"Not at all!" cried he. "Don't you get any such notion in that lovely little head of yours, my dear. You women don't understand honor--a man's sense of honor."
"Naturally," repeated Susan.
He gave a glance of short disapproval. Her voice was not to his liking. "Let's drop Mrs. G. out of this," said he. "As I was saying, I've arranged for you to take a place here--easy work--something to occupy you--and I'll foot the bills over and above----"
He stopped short or, rather, was stopped by the peculiar smile Susan had turned upon him. Before it he slowly reddened, and his eyes reluctantly shifted. He had roused her from listlessness, from indifference. The poisons in her blood were burned up by the fresh, swiftly flowing currents set in motion by his words, by the helpfulness of his expression, of his presence. She became again the intensely healthy, therefore intensely alive, therefore energetic and undaunted Susan Lenox, who, when still a child, had not hesitated to fly from home, from everyone she knew, into an unknown world.
"What are you smiling at me that way for?" demanded he in a tone of extreme irritation.
"So you look on me as your mistress?" And never in all her life had her eyes been so gray--the gray of cruelest irony.
"Now what's the use discussing those things? You know the world. You're a sensible woman."
Susan made closer and more secure the large loose coil of her hair, rose and leaned against the table. "You don't understand. You couldn't. I'm not one of those respectable women, like your Mrs. G., who belong to men. And I'm not one of the other kind who also throw in their souls with their bodies for good measure. Do you think you had me?" She laughed with maddening gentle mockery, went on: "I don't hate you. I don't despise you even. You mean well. But the sight of you makes me sick. It makes me feel as I do when I think of a dirty tenement I used to have to live in, and of the things that I used to have to let crawl over me. So I want to forget you as soon as I can--and that will be soon after you get out of my sight."
Her blazing eyes startled him. Her voice, not lifted above its usual quiet tones, enraged him. "You--you!" he cried. "You must be crazy, to talk to me like that!"
She nodded. "Yes--crazy," said she with the same quiet intensity. "For I know what kind of a beast you are--a clean, good-natured beast, but still a beast. And how could you understand?"
He had got upon his feet. He looked as if he were going to strike her.
She made a slight gesture toward the door. He felt at a hopeless disadvantage with her--with this woman who did not raise her voice, did not need to raise it to express the uttermost of any passion. His jagged teeth gleamed through his mustache; his shrewd little eyes snapped like an angry rat's. He fumbled about through the steam of his insane rage for adequate insults--in vain. He rushed from the room and bolted downstairs.
Within an hour Susan was out, looking for work. There could be no turning back now. Until she went with Gideon it had been as if her dead were still unburied and in the house. Now----
Never again could she even indulge in dreams of going to Rod. That part of her life was finished with all the finality of the closed grave. Grief--yes. But the same sort of grief as when a loved one, after a long and painful illness, finds relief in death. Her love for Rod had been stricken of a mortal illness the night of their arrival in New York. After lingering for a year between life and death, after a long death agony, it had expired. The end came--these matters of the exact moment of inevitable events are unimportant but have a certain melancholy interest--the end came when she made choice where there was no choice, in the cab with Gideon.
For better or for worse she was free. She was ready to begin her career.