Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
At the corner of Twenty-sixth Street a man put himself squarely across her path. She was attracted by the twinkle in his good-natured eyes. He was a youngish man, had the stoutness of indulgence in a fondness for eating and drinking--but the stoutness was still well within the bounds of decency. His clothing bore out the suggestion of his self-assured way of stopping her--the suggestion of a confidence-giving prosperity.
"You look as if you needed a drink, too," said he. "How about it, lady with the lovely feet?"
For the first time in her life she was feeling on an equality with man. She gave him the same candidly measuring glance that man gives man. She saw good-nature, audacity without impudence--at least not the common sort of impudence. She smiled merrily, glad of the chance to show her delight that she was once more back in civilization after the long sojourn in the prison workshops where it is manufactured. She said:
"A drink? Thank you--yes."
"That's a superior quality of smile you've got there," said he. "That, and those nice slim feet of yours ought to win for you anywhere. Let's go to the Martin."
"Down University Place?"
The stout young man pointed his slender cane across the street. "You must have been away."
"Yes," said the girl. "I've been--dead."
"I'd like to try that myself--if I could be sure of coming to life in little old New York." And he looked round with laughing eyes as if the lights, the crowds, the champagne-like air intoxicated him.
At the first break in the thunderous torrent of traffic they crossed Broadway and went in at the Twenty-sixth Street entrance. The restaurant, to the left, was empty. Its little tables were ready, however, for the throng of diners soon to come. Susan had difficulty in restraining herself. She was almost delirious with delight. She was agitated almost to tears by the freshness, the sparkle in the glow of the red-shaded candles, in the colors and odors of the flowers decorating every table. While she had been down there all this had been up here--waiting for her! Why had she stayed down there? But then, why had she gone? What folly, what madness! To suffer such horrors for no reason--beyond some vague, clinging remnant of a superstition--or had it been just plain insanity? "Yes, I've been crazy--out of my head. The break with--Rod--upset my mind."
Her companion took her into the cafe to the right. He seated her on one of the leather benches not far from the door, seated himself in a chair opposite; there was a narrow marble-topped table between them. On Susan's right sat a too conspicuously dressed but somehow important looking actress; on her left, a shopkeeper's fat wife. Opposite each woman sat the sort of man one would expect to find with her. The face of the actress's man interested her. It was a long pale face, the mouth weary, in the eyes a strange hot fire of intense enthusiasm. He was young--and old--and neither. Evidently he had lived every minute of every year of his perhaps forty years. He was wearing a quiet suit of blue and his necktie was of a darker shade of the same color. His clothes were draped upon his good figure with a certain fascinating distinction. He was smoking an unusually long and thick cigarette. The slender strong white hand he raised and lowered was the hand of an artist. He might be a bad man, a very bad man--his face had an expression of freedom, of experience, that made such an idea as conventionality in connection with him ridiculous. But however bad he might be, Susan felt sure it would be an artistic kind of badness, without vulgarity. He might have reached the stage at which morality ceases to be a conviction, a matter of conscience, and becomes a matter of preference, of tastes--and he surely had good taste in conduct no less than in dress and manner. The woman with him evidently wished to convince him that she loved him, to convince those about her that they were lovers; the man evidently knew exactly what she had in mind--for he was polite, attentive, indifferent, and--Susan suspected--secretly amused.
Susan's escort leaned toward her and said in a low tone, "The two at the next table--the woman's Mary Rigsdall, the actress, and the man's Brent, the fellow who writes plays." Then in a less cautious tone, "What are you drinking?"
"What are you drinking?" asked Susan, still covertly watching Brent.
"You are going to dine with me?"
"I've no engagement."
"Then let's have Martinis--and I'll go get a table and order dinner while the waiter's bringing them."
When Susan was alone, she gazed round the crowded cafe, at the scores of interesting faces--thrillingly interesting to her after her long sojourn among countenances merely expressing crude elemental appetites if anything at all beyond toil, anxiety, privation, and bad health. These were the faces of the triumphant class--of those who had wealth or were getting it, fame or were striving for it, of those born to or acquiring position of some sort among the few thousands who lord it over the millions. These were the people among whom she belonged. Why was she having such a savage struggle to attain it? Then, all in an instant the truth she had been so long groping for in vain flung itself at her. None of these women, none of the women of the prosperous classes would be there but for the assistance and protection of the men. She marveled at her stupidity in not having seen the obvious thing clearly long ago. The successful women won their success by disposing of their persons to advantage--by getting the favor of some man of ability. Therefore, she, a woman, must adopt that same policy if she was to have a chance at the things worth while in life. She must make the best bargain--or series of bargains--she could. And as her necessities were pressing she must lose no time. She understood now the instinct that had forced her to fly from South Fifth Avenue, that had overruled her hesitation and had compelled her to accept the good-natured, prosperous man's invitation. . . . There was no other way open to her. She must not evade that fact; she must accept it. Other ways there might be--for other women. But not for her, the outcast without friends or family, the woman alone, with no one to lean upon or to give her anything except in exchange for what she had to offer that was marketable. She must make the bargain she could, not waste time in the folly of awaiting a bargain to her liking. Since she was living in the world and wished to continue to live there, she must accept the world's terms. To be sad or angry either one because the world did not offer her as attractive terms as it apparently offered many other women--the happy and respected wives and mothers of the prosperous classes, for instance--to rail against that was silly and stupid, was unworthy of her intelligence. She would do as best she could, and move along, keeping her eyes open; and perhaps some day a chance for much better terms might offer--for the best--for such terms as that famous actress there had got. She looked at Mary Rigsdall. An expression in her interesting face--the latent rather than the surface expression--set Susan to wondering whether, if she knew Rigsdall's whole story--or any woman's whole story--she might not see that the world was not bargaining so hardly with her, after all. Or any man's whole story. There her eyes shifted to Rigsdall's companion, the famous playwright of whom she had so often heard Rod and his friends talk.
She was startled to find that his gaze was upon her--an all-seeing look that penetrated to the very core of her being. He either did not note or cared nothing about her color of embarrassment. He regarded her steadily until, so she felt, he had seen precisely what she was, had become intimately acquainted with her. Then he looked away. It chagrined her that his eyes did not again turn in her direction; she felt that he had catalogued her as not worth while. She listened to the conversation of the two. The woman did the talking, and her subject was herself--her ability as an actress, her conception of some part she either was about to play or was hoping to play. Susan, too young to have acquired more than the rudiments of the difficult art of character study, even had she had especial talent for it--which she had not--Susan decided that the famous Rigsdall was as shallow and vain as Rod had said all stage people were.
The waiter brought the cocktails and her stout young companion came back, beaming at the thought of the dinner he had painstakingly ordered. As he reached the table he jerked his head in self-approval. "It'll be a good one," said he. "Saturday night dinner--and after--means a lot to me. I work hard all week. Saturday nights I cut loose. Sundays I sleep and get ready to scramble again on Monday for the dollars." He seated himself, leaned toward her with elevated glass. "What name?" inquired he.
"That's a good old-fashioned name. Makes me see the hollyhocks, and the hens scratching for worms. Mine's Howland. Billy Howland. I came from Maryland . . . and I'm mighty glad I did. I wouldn't be from anywhere else for worlds, and I wouldn't be there for worlds. Where do you hail from?"
"The West," said Susan.
"Well, the men in your particular corner out yonder must be a pretty poor lot to have let you leave. I spotted you for mine the minute I saw you--Susan. I hope you're not as quiet as your name. Another cocktail?"
"Like to drink?"
"I'm going to do more of it hereafter."
"Been laying low for a while--eh?"
"Very low," said Susan. Her eyes were sparkling now; the cocktail had begun to stir her long languid blood.
"Live with your family?"
"I haven't any. I'm free."
"On the stage?"
"I'm thinking of going on."
Billy Howland's face was radiant. "I had a date tonight and the lady threw me down. One of those drummer's wives that take in washing to add to the family income while hubby's flirting round the country. This hubby came home unexpectedly. I'm glad he did."
He beamed with such whole-souled good-nature that Susan laughed. "Thanks. Same to you," said she.
"Hope you're going to do a lot of that laughing," said he. "It's the best I've heard--such a quiet, gay sound. I sure do have the best luck. Until five years ago there was nothing doing for Billy--hall bedroom--Wheeling stogies--one shirt and two pairs of cuffs a week--not enough to buy a lady an ice-cream soda. All at once--bang! The hoodoo busted, and everything that arrived was for William C. Howland. Better get aboard."
"Here I am."
"Hold on tight. I pay no attention to the speed laws, and round the corners on two wheels. Do you like good things to eat?"
"I haven't eaten for six months."
"You must have been out home. Ah!--There's the man to tell us dinner's ready."
They finished the second cocktail. Susan was pleased to note that Brent was again looking at her; and she thought--though she suspected it might be the cocktail--that there was a question in his look--a question about her which he had been unable to answer to his satisfaction. When she and Howland were at one of the small tables against the wall in the restaurant, she said to him:
"You know Mr. Brent?"
"The play man? Lord, no. I'm a plain business dub. He wouldn't bother with me. You like that sort of man?"
"I want to get on the stage, if I can," was Susan's diplomatic reply.
"Well--let's have dinner first. I've ordered champagne, but if you prefer something else----"
"Champagne is what I want. I hope it's very dry."
Howland's eyes gazed tenderly at her. "I do like a woman who knows the difference between champagne and carbonated sirup. I think you and I've got a lot of tastes in common. I like eating--so do you. I like drinking--so do you. I like a good time--so do you. You're a little bit thin for my taste, but you'll fatten up. I wonder what makes your lips so pale."
"I'd hate to remind myself by telling you," said Susan.
The restaurant was filling. Most of the men and women were in evening dress. Each arriving woman brought with her a new exhibition of extravagance in costume, diffused a new variety of powerful perfume. The orchestra in the balcony was playing waltzes and the liveliest Hungarian music and the most sensuous strains from Italy and France and Spain. And before her was food!--food again!--not horrible stuff unfit for beasts, worse than was fed to beasts, but human food--good things, well cooked and well served. To have seen her, to have seen the expression of her eyes, without knowing her history and without having lived as she had lived, would have been to think her a glutton. Her spirits giddied toward the ecstatic. She began to talk--commenting on the people about her--the one subject she could venture with her companion. As she talked and drank, he ate and drank, stuffing and gorging himself, but with a frankness of gluttony that delighted her. She found she could not eat much, but she liked to see eating; she who had so long been seeing only poverty, bolting wretched food and drinking the vilest kinds of whiskey and beer, of alleged coffee and tea--she reveled in Howland's exhibition. She must learn to live altogether in her senses, never to think except about an appetite. Where could she find a better teacher? . . . They drank two quarts of champagne, and with the coffee she took creme de menthe and he brandy. And as the sensuous temperament that springs from intense vitality reasserted itself, the opportunity before her lost all its repellent features, became the bright, vivid countenance of lusty youth, irradiating the joy of living.
"I hear there's a lively ball up at Terrace Garden," said he. "Want to go?"
"That'll be fine!" cried she.
She saw it would have taken nearly all the money she possessed to have paid that bill. About four weeks' wages for one dinner! Thousands of families living for two weeks on what she and he had consumed in two hours! She reached for her half empty champagne glass, emptied it. She must forget all those things! "I've played the fool once. I've learned my lesson. Surely I'll never do it again." As she drank, her eyes chanced upon the clock. Half-past ten. Mrs. Tucker had probably just fallen asleep. And Mrs. Reardon was going out to scrub--going out limping and groaning with rheumatism. No, Mrs. Reardon was lying up at the morgue dead, her one chance to live lost forever. Dead! Yet better off than Mrs. Tucker lying alive. Susan could see her--the seamed and broken and dirty old remnant of a face--could see the vermin--and the mice could hear the snoring--the angry grunt and turning over as the insects----
"I want another drink--right away," she cried.
"Sure!" said Howland. "I need one more, too."
They drove in a taxi to Terrace Garden, he holding her in his arms and kissing her with an intoxicated man's enthusiasm. "You certainly are sweet," said he. "The wine on your breath is like flowers. Gosh, but I'm glad that husband came home! Like me a little?"
"I'm so happy, I feel like standing up and screaming," declared she.
"Good idea," cried he. Whereupon he released a war whoop and they both went off into a fit of hysterical laughter. When it subsided he said, "I sized you up as a live wire the minute I saw you. But you're even better than I thought. What are you in such a good humor about?"
"You couldn't understand if I told you," replied she. "You'd have to go and live where I've been living--live there as long as I have."
"Worse. Worse than a jail."
The ball proved as lively as they hoped. A select company from the Tenderloin was attending, and the regulars were all of the gayest crowd among the sons and daughters of artisans and small merchants up and down the East Side. Not a few of the women were extremely pretty. All, or almost all, were young, and those who on inspection proved to be older than eighteen or twenty were acting younger than the youngest. Everyone had been drinking freely, and continued to drink. The orchestra played continuously. The air was giddy with laughter and song. Couples hugged and kissed in corners, and finally openly on the dancing floor. For a while Susan and Howland danced together. But soon they made friends with the crowd and danced with whoever was nearest. Toward three in the morning it flashed upon her that she had not even seen him for many a dance. She looked round--searched for him--got a blond-bearded man in evening dress to assist her.
"The last seen of your stout friend," this man finally reported, "he was driving away in a cab with a large lady from Broadway. He was asleep, but I guess she wasn't."
A sober thought winked into her whirling brain--he had warned her to hold on tight, and she had lost her head--and her opportunity. A bad start--a foolishly bad start. But out winked the glimpse of sobriety and Susan laughed. "That's the last I'll ever see of him," said she.
This seemed to give Blond-Beard no regrets. Said he: "Let's you and I have a little supper. I'd call it breakfast, only then we couldn't have champagne."
And they had supper--six at the table, all uproarious, Susan with difficulty restrained from a skirt dance on the table up and down among the dishes and bottles. It was nearly five o'clock when she and Blond-Beard helped each other toward a cab.
"What's your address?" said he.
"The same as yours," replied she drowsily.
Late that afternoon she established herself in a room with a bath in West Twenty-ninth Street not far from Broadway. The exterior of the house was dingy and down-at-the-heel. But the interior was new and scrupulously clean. Several other young women lived there alone also, none quite so well installed as Susan, who had the only private bath and was paying twelve dollars a week. The landlady, frizzled and peroxide, explained--without adding anything to what she already knew--that she could have "privileges," but cautioned her against noise. "I can't stand for it," said she. "First offense--out you go. This house is for ladies, and only gentlemen that know how to conduct themselves as a gentleman should with a lady are allowed to come here."
Susan paid a week in advance, reducing to thirty-one dollars her capital which Blond-Beard had increased to forty-three. The young lady who lived at the other end of the hall smiled at her, when both happened to glance from their open doors at the same time. Susan invited her to call and she immediately advanced along the hall in the blue silk kimono she was wearing over her nightgown.
"My name's Ida Driscoll," said she, showing a double row of charming white teeth--her chief positive claim to beauty.
She was short, was plump about the shoulders but slender in the hips. Her reddish brown hair was neatly done over a big rat, and was so spread that its thinness was hidden well enough to deceive masculine eyes. Nor would a man have observed that one of her white round shoulders was full two inches higher than the other. Her skin was good, her features small and irregular, her eyes shrewd but kindly.
"My name's"--Susan hesitated--"Lorna Sackville."
"I guess Lorna and Ida'll be enough for us to bother to remember," laughed Miss Driscoll. "The rest's liable to change. You've just come, haven't you?"
"About an hour ago. I've got only a toothbrush, a comb, a washrag and a cake of soap. I bought them on my way here."
"Baggage lost--eh?" said Ida, amused.
"No," admitted Susan. "I'm beginning an entire new deal."
"I'll lend you a nightgown. I'm too short for my other things to fit you."
"Oh, I can get along. What's good for a headache? I'm nearly crazy with it."
"Wait a minute." Ida, with bedroom slippers clattering, hurried back to her room, returned with a bottle of bromo seltzer and in the bathroom fixed Susan a dose. "You'll feel all right in half an hour or so. Gee, but you're swell--with your own bathroom."
Susan shrugged her shoulders and laughed.
Ida shook her head gravely. "You ought to save your money. I do."
"Later--perhaps. Just now--I must have a fling."
Ida seemed to understand. She went on to say: "I was in millinery. But in this town there's nothing in anything unless you have capital or a backer. I got tired of working for five per, with ten or fifteen as the top notch. So I quit, kissed my folks up in Harlem good-by and came down to look about. As soon as I've saved enough I'm going to start a business. That'll be about a couple of years--maybe sooner, if I find an angel."
"I'm thinking of the stage."
"Cut it out!" cried Ida. "It's on the bum. There's more money and less worry in straight sporting--if you keep respectable. Of course, there's nothing in out and out sporting."
"Oh, I haven't decided on anything. My head is better."
"Sure! If the dose I gave you don't knock it you can get one at the drug store two blocks up Sixth Avenue that'll do the trick. Got a dinner date?"
"No. I haven't anything on hand."
"I think you and I might work together," said Ida. "You're thin and tallish. I'm short and fattish. We'd catch 'em coming and going."
"That sounds good," said Susan.
"You're new to--to the business?"
"In a way--yes."
"I thought so. We all soon get a kind of a professional look. You haven't got it. Still, so many dead respectable women imitate nowadays, and paint and use loud perfumes, that sporting women aren't nearly so noticeable. Seems to me the men's tastes even for what they want at home are getting louder and louder all the time. They hate anything that looks slow. And in our business it's harder and harder to please them--except the yaps from the little towns and the college boys. A woman has to be up to snuff if she gets on. If she looks what she is, men won't have her--nor if she is what she looks."
Susan had not lived where every form of viciousness is openly discussed and practiced, without having learned the things necessary to a full understanding of Ida's technical phrases and references. The liveliness that had come with the departure of the headache vanished. To change the subject she invited Ida to dine with her.
"What's the use of your spending money in a restaurant?" objected Ida. "You eat with me in my room. I always cook myself something when I ain't asked out by some one of my gentleman friends. I can cook you a chop and warm up a can of French peas and some dandy tea biscuits I bought yesterday."
Susan accepted the invitation, promising that when she was established she would reciprocate. As it was about six, they arranged to have the dinner at seven, Susan to dress in the meantime. The headache had now gone, even to that last heaviness which seems to be an ominous threat of a return. When she was alone, she threw off her clothes, filled the big bathtub with water as hot as she could stand it. Into this she gently lowered herself until she was able to relax and recline without discomfort. Then she stood up and with the soap and washrag gave herself the most thorough scrubbing of her life. Time after time she soaped and rubbed and scrubbed, and dipped herself in the hot water. When she felt that she had restored her body to some where near her ideal of cleanness, she let the water run out and refilled the tub with even hotter water. In this she lay luxuriously, reveling in the magnificent sensations of warmth and utter cleanliness. Her eyes closed; a delicious languor stole over her and through her, soothing every nerve. She slept.
She was awakened by Ida, who had entered after knocking and calling at the outer door in vain. Susan slowly opened her eyes, gazed at Ida with a soft dreamy smile. "You don't know what this means. It seems to me I was never quite so comfortable or so happy in my life."
"It's a shame to disturb you," said Ida. "But dinner's ready. Don't stop to dress first. I'll bring you a kimono."
Susan turned on the cold water, and the bath rapidly changed from warm to icy. When she had indulged in the sense of cold as delightful in its way as the sense of warmth, she rubbed her glowing skin with a rough towel until she was rose-red from head to foot. Then she put on stockings, shoes and the pink kimono Ida had brought, and ran along the hall to dinner. As she entered Ida's room, Ida exclaimed, "How sweet and pretty you do look! You sure ought to make a hit!"
"I feel like a human being for the first time in--it seems years--ages--to me."
"You've got a swell color--except your lips. Have they always been pale like that?"
"I thought not. It don't seem to fit in with your style. You ought to touch 'em up. You look too serious and innocent, anyhow. They make a rouge now that'll stick through everything--eating, drinking--anything."
Susan regarded herself critically in the glass. "I'll see," she said.
The odor of the cooking chops thrilled Susan like music. She drew a chair up to the table, sat in happy-go-lucky fashion, and attacked the chop, the hot biscuit, and the peas, with an enthusiasm that inspired Ida to imitation. "You know how to cook a chop," she said to Ida. "And anybody who can cook a chop right can cook. Cooking's like playing the piano. If you can do the simple things perfectly, you're ready to do anything."
"Wait till I have a flat of my own," said Ida. "I'll show you what eating means. And I'll have it, too, before very long. Maybe we'll live together. I was to a fortune teller's yesterday. That's the only way I waste money. I go to fortune tellers nearly every day. But then all the girls do. You get your money's worth in excitement and hope, whether there's anything in it or not. Well, the fortune teller she said I was to meet a dark, slender person who was to change the whole course of my life--that all my troubles would roll away--and that if any more came, they'd roll away, too. My, but she did give me a swell fortune, and only fifty cents! I'll take you to her."
Ida made black coffee and the two girls, profoundly contented, drank it and talked with that buoyant cheerfulness which bubbles up in youth on the slightest pretext. In this case the pretext was anything but slight, for both girls had health as well as youth, had that freedom from harassing responsibility which is the chief charm of every form of unconventional life. And Susan was still in the first flush of the joy of escape from the noisome prison whose poisons had been corroding her, soul and body. No, poison is not a just comparison; what poison in civilization parallels, or even approaches, in squalor, in vileness of food and air, in wretchedness of shelter and clothing, the tenement life that is really the typical life of the city? From time to time Susan, suffused with the happiness that is too deep for laughter, too deep for tears even, gazed round like a dreamer at those cheerful comfortable surroundings and drew a long breath--stealthily, as if she feared she would awaken and be again in South Fifth Avenue, of rags and filth, of hideous toil without hope.
"You'd better save your money to put in the millinery business with me," Ida advised. "I can show you how to make a lot. Sometimes I clear as high as a hundred a week, and I don't often fall below seventy-five. So many girls go about this business in a no account way, instead of being regular and businesslike."
Susan strove to hide the feelings aroused by this practical statement of what lay before her. Those feelings filled her with misgiving. Was the lesson still unlearned? Obviously Ida was right; there must be plan, calculation, a definite line laid out and held to, or there could not but be failure and disaster. And yet--Susan's flesh quivered and shrank away. She struggled against it, but she could not conquer it. Experience had apparently been in vain; her character had remained unchanged. . . . She must compel herself. She must do what she had to do; she must not ruin everything by imitating the people of the tenements with their fatal habit of living from day to day only, and taking no thought for the morrow except fatuously to hope and dream that all would be well.
While she was fighting with herself, Ida had been talking on--the same subject. When Susan heard again, Ida was saying:
"Now, take me, for instance. I don't smoke or drink. There's nothing in either one--especially drink. Of course sometimes a girl's got to drink. A man watches her too close for her to dodge out. But usually you can make him think you're as full as he is, when you really are cold sober."
"Do the men always drink when they--come with--with--us?" asked Susan.
"Most always. They come because they want to turn themselves loose. That's why a girl's got to be careful not to make a man feel nervous or shy. A respectable woman's game is to be modest and innocent. With us, the opposite. They're both games; one's just as good as the other."
"I don't think I could get along at all--at this," confessed Susan with an effort, "unless I drank too much--so that I was reckless and didn't care what happened."
Ida looked directly into her eyes; Susan's glance fell and a flush mounted. After a pause Ida went on:
"A girl does feel that way at first. A girl that marries as most of them do--because the old ones are pushing her out of the nest and she's got no place else to go--she feels the same way till she hardens to it. Of course, you've got to get broke into any business."
"Go on," said Susan eagerly. "You are so sensible. You must teach me."
"Common sense is a thing you don't often hear--especially about getting on in the world. But, as I was saying--one of my gentlemen friends is a lawyer--such a nice fellow--so liberal. Gives me a present of twenty or twenty-five extra, you understand--every time he makes a killing downtown. He asked me once how I felt when I started in; and when I told him, he said, `That's exactly the way I felt the first time I won a case for a client I knew was a dirty rascal and in the wrong. But now--I take that sort of thing as easy as you do.' He says the thing is to get on, no matter how, and that one way's as good as another. And he's mighty right. You soon learn that in little old New York, where you've got to have the mon. or you get the laugh and the foot--the swift, hard kick. Clean up after you've arrived, he says--and don't try to keep clean while you're working--and don't stop for baths and things while you're at the job."
Susan was listening with every faculty she possessed.
"He says he talks the other sort of thing--the dope--the fake stuff--just as the rest of the hustlers do. He says it's necessary in order to keep the people fooled--that if they got wise to the real way to succeed, then there'd be nobody to rob and get rich off of. Oh, he's got it right. He's a smart one."
The sad, bitter expression was strong in Susan's face.
After a pause, Ida went on: "If a girl's an ignorant fool or squeamish, she don't get up in this business any more than in any other. But if she keeps a cool head, and don't take lovers unless they pay their way, and don't drink, why she can keep her self-respect and not have to take to the streets."
Susan lifted her head eagerly. "Don't have to take to the streets?" she echoed.
"Certainly not," declared Ida. "I very seldom let a man pick me up after dark--unless he looks mighty good. I go out in the daytime. I pretend I'm an actress out of a job for the time being, or a forelady in a big shop who's taking a day or so off, or a respectable girl living with her parents. I put a lot of money into clothes--quiet, ladylike clothes. Mighty good investment. If you ain't got clothes in New York you can't do any kind of business. I go where a nice class of men hangs out, and I never act bold, but just flirt timidly, as so many respectable girls or semi-respectables do. But when a girl plays that game, she has to be careful not to make a man think he ain't expected to pay. The town's choked full of men on the lookout for what they call love--which means, for something cheap or, better still, free. Men are just crazy about themselves. Nothing easier than to fool 'em--and nothing's harder than to make 'em think you ain't stuck on 'em. I tell you, a girl in our life has a chance to learn men. They turn themselves inside out to us."
Susan, silent, her thoughts flowing like a mill race, helped Ida with the dishes. Then they dressed and went together for a walk. It being Sunday evening, the streets were quiet. They sauntered up Fifth Avenue as far as Fifty-ninth Street and back. Ida's calm and sensible demeanor gave Susan much needed courage every time a man spoke to them. None of these men happened to be up to Ida's standard, which was high.
"No use wasting time on snide people," explained she. "We don't want drinks and a gush of loose talk, and I saw at a glance that was all those chappies were good for."
They returned home at half-past nine without adventure. Toward midnight one of Ida's regulars called and Susan was free to go to bed. She slept hardly at all. Ever before her mind hovered a nameless, shapeless horror. And when she slept she dreamed of her wedding night, woke herself screaming, "Please, Mr. Ferguson--please!"
Ida had three chief sources of revenue.
The best was five men--her "regular gentleman friends"--who called by appointment from time to time. These paid her ten dollars apiece, and occasionally gave her presents of money or jewelry--nothing that amounted to much. From them she averaged about thirty-five dollars a week. Her second source was a Mrs. Thurston who kept in West Fifty-sixth Street near Ninth Avenue a furnished-room house of the sort that is on the official--and also the "revenue"--lists of the police and the anti-vice societies. This lady had a list of girls and married women upon whom she could call. Gentlemen using her house for rendezvous were sometimes disappointed by the ladies with whom they were intriguing. Again a gentleman grew a little weary of his perhaps too respectable or too sincerely loving ladylove and appealed to Mrs. Thurston. She kept her list of availables most select and passed them off as women of good position willing to supplement a small income, or to punish stingy husbands or fathers and at the same time get the money they needed for dress and bridge, for matinees and lunches. Mrs. Thurston insisted--and Ida was inclined to believe--that there were genuine cases of this kind on the list.
"It's mighty hard for women with expensive tastes and small means to keep straight in New York," said she to Susan. "It costs so much to live, and there are so many ways to spend money. And they always have rich lady friends who set an extravagant pace. They've got to dress--and to kind of keep up their end. So--" Ida laughed, went on: "Besides the city women are getting so they like a little sporty novelty as much as their brothers and husbands and fathers do. Oh, I'm not ashamed of my business any more. We're as good as the others, and we're not hypocrites. As my lawyer friend says, everybody's got to make a good living, and good livings can't be made on the ways that used to be called on the level--they're called damfool ways now."
Ida's third source of income was to her the most attractive because it had such a large gambling element in it. This was her flirtations as a respectable woman in search of lively amusement and having to take care not to be caught. There are women of all kinds who delight in deceiving men because it gives them a sweet stealthy sense of superiority to the condescending sex. In women of the Ida class this pleasure becomes as much a passion as it is in the respectable woman whom her husband tries to enslave. With Susan, another woman and one in need of education, Ida was simple and scrupulously truthful. But it would have been impossible for a man to get truth as to anything from her. She amused herself inventing plausible romantic stories about herself that she might enjoy the gullibility of the boastfully superior and patronizing male. She was devoid of sentiment, even of passion. Yet at times she affected both in the most extreme fashion. And afterward, with peals of laughter, she would describe to Susan how the man had acted, what an ass she had made of him.
"Men despise us," she said. "But it's nothing to the way I despise them. The best of them are rotten beasts when they show themselves as they are. And they haven't any mercy on us. It's too ridiculous. Men despise a man who is virtuous and a woman who isn't. What rot!"
She deceived the "regulars" without taking the trouble to remember her deceptions. They caught her lying so often that she knew they thought her untruthful through and through. But this only gave her an opportunity for additional pleasure--the pleasure of inventing lies that they would believe in spite of their distrust of her. "Anyhow," said she, "haven't you noticed the liars everybody's on to are always believed and truthful people are doubted?"
Upon the men with whom she flirted, she practiced the highly colored romances it would have been useless to try upon the regulars. Her greatest triumph at this game was a hard luck story she had told so effectively that the man had given her two hundred dollars. Most of her romances turned about her own ruin. As a matter of fact, she had told Susan the exact truth when she said she had taken up her mode of life deliberately; she had grown weary and impatient of the increasing poverty of a family which, like so many of the artisan and small merchant and professional classes in this day of concentrating wealth and spreading tastes for comfort and luxury, was on its way down from comfort toward or through the tenements. She was a type of the recruits that are swelling the prostitute class in ever larger numbers and are driving the prostitutes of the tenement class toward starvation--where they once dominated the profession even to its highest ranks, even to the fashionable cocotes who prey upon the second generation of the rich. But Ida never told her lovers her plain and commonplace tale of yielding to the irresistible pressure of economic forces. She had made men weep at her recital of her wrongs. It had even brought her offers of marriage--none, however, worth accepting.
"I'd be a boob to marry a man with less than fifteen or twenty thousand a year, wouldn't I?" said she. "Why, two of the married men who come to see me regularly give me more than they give their wives for pin money. And in a few years I'll be having my own respectable business, with ten thousand income--maybe more--and as well thought of as the next woman."
Ida's dream was a house in the country, a fine flat in town, a husband in some "refined" profession and children at high-class schools. "And I'll get there, don't you doubt it!" exclaimed she. "Others have--of course, you don't know about them--they've looked out for that. Yes, lots of others have--but--well, just you watch your sister Ida."
And Susan felt that she would indeed arrive. Already she had seen that there was no difficulty such as she had once imagined about recrossing the line to respectability. The only real problem in that matter was how to get together enough to make the crossing worth while--for what was there in respectability without money, in a day when respectability had ceased to mean anything but money?
Ida wished to take her to Mrs. Thurston and get her a favored place on the list. Susan thanked her, but said, "Not yet--not quite yet." Ida suggested that they go out together as two young married women whose husbands had gone on the road. Susan put her off from day to day. Ida finally offered to introduce her to one of the regulars: "He's a nice fellow--knows how to treat a lady in a gentlemanly way. Not a bit coarse or familiar." Susan would not permit this generosity. And all this time her funds were sinking. She had paid a second week's rent, had bought cooking apparatus, some food supplies, some necessary clothing. She was down to a five-dollar bill and a little change.
"Look here, Lorna," said Ida, between remonstrance and exasperation, "when are you going to start in?"
Susan looked fixedly at her, said with a slow smile, "When I can't hold out another minute."
Ida tossed her head angrily. "You've got brains--more than I have," she cried. "You've got every advantage for catching rich men--even a rich husband. You're educated. You speak and act and look refined. Why you could pretend to be a howling fashionable swell. You've got all the points. But what have you got 'em for? Not to use that's certain."
"You can't be as disgusted with me as I am."
"If you're going to do a thing, why, do it!"
"That's what I tell myself. But--I can't make a move."
Ida gave a gesture of despair. "I don't see what's to become of you. And you could do so well! . . . Let me phone Mr. Sterling. I told him about you. He's anxious to meet you. He's fond of books--like you. You'd like him. He'd give up a lot to you, because you're classier than I am."
Susan threw her arms round Ida and kissed her. "Don't bother about me," she said. "I've got to act in my own foolish, stupid way. I'm like a child going to school. I've got to learn a certain amount before I'm ready to do whatever it is I'm going to do. And until I learn it, I can't do much of anything. I thought I had learned in the last few months. I see I haven't."
"Do listen to sense, Lorna," pleaded Ida. "If you wait till the last minute, you'll get left. The time to get the money's when you have money. And I've a feeling that you're not particularly flush."
"I'll do the best I can. And I can't move till I'm ready."
Meanwhile she continued to search for work--work that would enable her to live decently, wages less degrading than the wages of shame. In a newspaper she read an advertisement of a theatrical agency. Advertisements of all kinds read well; those of theatrical agencies read--like the fairy tales that they were. However, she found in this particular offering of dazzling careers and salaries a peculiar phrasing that decided her to break the rule she had made after having investigated scores of this sort of offers.
Rod was abroad; anyhow, enough time had elapsed. One of the most impressive features of the effect of New York--meaning by "New York" only that small but significant portion of the four millions that thinks--at least, after a fashion, and acts, instead of being mere passive tools of whatever happens to turn up--the most familiar notable effect of this New York is the speedy distinction in the newcomer of those illusions and delusions about life and about human nature, about good and evil, that are for so many people the most precious and the only endurable and beautiful thing in the world. New York, destroyer of delusions and cherished hypocrisies and pretenses, therefore makes the broadly intelligent of its citizens hardy, makes the others hard--and between the hardy and hard, between sense and cynicism, yawns a gulf like that between Absalom and Dives. Susan, a New Yorker now, had got the habit--in thought, at least--of seeing things with somewhat less distortion from the actual. She no longer exaggerated the importance of the Rod-Susan episode. She saw that in New York, where life is crowded with events, everything in one's life, except death, becomes incident, becomes episode, where in regions offering less to think about each rare happening took on an aspect of vast importance. The Rod-Susan love adventure, she now saw, was not what it would have seemed--therefore, would have been--in Sutherland, but was mere episode of a New York life, giving its light and shade to a certain small part of the long, variedly patterned fabric of her life, and of his, not determining the whole. She saw that it was simply like a bend in the river, giving a new turn to current and course but not changing the river itself, and soon left far behind and succeeded by other bends giving each its equal or greater turn to the stream.
Rod had passed from her life, and she from his life. Thus she was free to begin her real career--the stage--if she could. She went to the suite of offices tenanted by Mr. Josiah Ransome. She was ushered in to Ransome himself, instead of halting with underlings. She owed this favor to advantages which her lack of vanity and of self-consciousness prevented her from surmising. Ransome--smooth, curly, comfortable looking--received her with a delicate blending of the paternal and the gallant. After he had inspected her exterior with flattering attentiveness and had investigated her qualifications with a thoroughness that was convincing of sincerity he said:
"Most satisfactory! I can make you an exceptional assurance. If you register with me, I can guarantee you not less than twenty-five a week."
Susan hesitated long and asked many questions before she finally--with reluctance paid the five dollars. She felt ashamed of her distrust, but might perhaps have persisted in it had not Mr. Ransome said:
"I don't blame you for hesitating, my dear young lady. And if I could I'd put you on my list without payment. But you can see how unbusinesslike that would be. I am a substantial, old-established concern. You--no doubt you are perfectly reliable. But I have been fooled so many times. I must not let myself forget that after all I know nothing about you."
As soon as Susan had paid he gave her a list of vaudeville and musical comedy houses where girls were wanted. "You can't fail to suit one of them," said he. "If not, come back here and get your money."
After two weary days of canvassing she went back to Ransome. He was just leaving. But he smiled genially, opened his desk and seated himself. "At your service," said he. "What luck?"
"None," replied Susan. "I couldn't live on the wages they offered at the musical comedy places, even if I could get placed."
"And the vaudeville people?"
"When I said I could only sing and not dance, they looked discouraged. When I said I had no costumes they turned me down."
"Excellent!" cried Ransome. "You mustn't be so easily beaten. You must take dancing lessons--perhaps a few singing lessons, too. And you must get some costumes."
"But that means several hundred dollars."
"Three or four hundred," said Ransome airily. "A matter of a few weeks."
"But I haven't anything like that," said Susan. "I haven't so much as----"
"I comprehend perfectly," interrupted Ransome. She interested him, this unusual looking girl, with her attractive mingling of youth and experience. Her charm that tempted people to give her at once the frankest confidences, moved him to go out of his way to help her. "You haven't the money," he went on.
"You must have it. So--I promised to place you, and I will. I don't usually go so far in assisting my clients. It's not often necessary--and where it's necessary it's usually imprudent. However--I'll give you the address of a flat where there is a lady--a trustworthy, square sort, despite her--her profession. She will put you in the way of getting on a sound financial basis."
Ransome spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, like a man stating a simple business proposition. Susan understood. She rose. Her expression was neither shock nor indignation; but it was none the less a negative.
"It's the regular thing, my dear," urged Ransome. "To make a start, to get in right, you can't afford to be squeamish. The way I suggest is the simplest and most direct of several that all involve the same thing. And the surest. You look steady-headed--self-reliant. You look sensible----"
Susan smiled rather forlornly. "But I'm not," said she. "Not yet."
Ransome regarded her with a sympathy which she felt was genuine. "I'm sorry, my dear. I've done the best I can for you. You may think it a very poor best--and it is. But"--he shrugged his shoulders--"I didn't make this world and its conditions for living. I may say also that I'm not the responsible party--the party in charge. However----"
To her amazement he held out a five-dollar bill. "Here's your fee back." He laughed at her expression. "Oh, I'm not a robber," said he. "I only wish I could serve you. I didn't think you were so--" his eyes twinkled--"so unreasonable, let us say. Among those who don't know anything about life there's an impression that my sort of people are in the business of dragging women down. Perhaps one of us occasionally does as bad--about a millionth part as bad--as the average employer of labor who skims his profits from the lifeblood of his employees. But as a rule we folks merely take those that are falling and help them to light easy--or even to get up again."
Susan felt ashamed to take her money. But he pressed it on her. "You'll need it," said he. "I know how it is with a girl alone and trying to get a start. Perhaps later on you'll be more in the mood where I can help you."
"Perhaps," said Susan.
"But I hope not. It'll take uncommon luck to pull you through--and I hope you'll have it."
"Thank you," said Susan. He took her hand, pressed it friendlily--and she felt that he was a man with real good in him, more good than many who would have shrunk from him in horror.
She was waiting for a thrust from fate. But fate, disappointing as usual, would not thrust. It seemed bent on the malicious pleasure of compelling her to degrade herself deliberately and with calculation, like a woman marrying for support a man who refuses to permit her to decorate with any artificial floral concealments of faked-up sentiment the sordid truth as to what she is about. She searched within herself in vain for the scruple or sentiment or timidity or whatever it was that held her back from the course that was plainly inevitable. She had got down to the naked fundamentals of decency and indecency that are deep hidden by, and for most of us under, hypocrisies of conventionality. She had found out that a decent woman was one who respected her body and her soul, that an indecent woman was one who did not, and that marriage rites or the absence of them, the absence of financial or equivalent consideration, or its presence, or its extent or its form, were all irrelevant non-essentials. Yet--she hesitated, knowing the while that she was risking a greater degradation, and a stupid and fatal folly to boot, by shrinking from the best course open to her--unless it were better to take a dose of poison and end it all. She probably would have done that had she not been so utterly healthy, therefore overflowing with passionate love of life. Except in fiction suicide and health do not go together, however superhumanly sensitive the sore beset hero or heroine. Susan was sensitive enough; whenever she did things incompatible with our false and hypocritical and unscientific notions of sensitiveness, allowances should be made for her because of her superb and dauntless health. If her physical condition had been morbid, her conduct might have been, would have been, very different.
She was still hesitating when Saturday night came round again--swiftly despite long disheartening days, and wakeful awful nights. In the morning her rent would be due. She had a dollar and forty-five cents.
After dinner alone a pretense at dinner--she wandered the streets of the old Tenderloin until midnight. An icy rain was falling. Rains such as this--any rains except showers--were rare in the City of the Sun. That rain by itself was enough to make her downhearted. She walked with head down and umbrella close to her shoulders. No one spoke to her. She returned dripping; she had all but ruined her one dress. She went to bed, but not to sleep. About nine--early for that house she rose, drank a cup of coffee and ate part of a roll. Her little stove and such other things as could not be taken along she rolled into a bundle, marked it, "For Ida." On a scrap of paper she wrote this note:
Don't think I'm ungrateful, please. I'm going without saying good-by because I'm afraid if I saw you, you'd be generous enough to put up for me, and I'd be weak enough to accept. And if I did that, I'd never be able to get strong or even to hold my head up. So--good-by. I'll learn sooner or later--learn how to live. I hope it won't be too long--and that the teacher won't be too hard on me.
Yes, I'll learn, and I'll buy fine hats at your grand millinery store yet. Don't forget me altogether.
She tucked this note into the bundle and laid it against the door behind which Ida and one of her regulars were sleeping peacefully. The odor of Ida's powerful perfume came through the cracks in the door; Susan drew it eagerly into her nostrils, sobbed softly, turned away, It was one of the perfumes classed as immoral; to Susan it was the aroma of a friendship as noble, as disinterested, as generous, as human sympathy had ever breathed upon human woe. With her few personal possessions in a package she descended the stairs unnoticed, went out into the rain. At the corner of Sixth Avenue she paused, looked up and down the street. It was almost deserted. Now and then a streetwalker, roused early by a lover with perhaps a family waiting for him, hurried by, looking piteous in the daylight which showed up false and dyed hair, the layers of paint, the sad tawdriness of battered finery from the cheapest bargain troughs.
Susan went slowly up Sixth Avenue. Two blocks, and she saw a girl enter the side door of a saloon across the way. She crossed the street, pushed in at the same door, went on to a small sitting-room with blinds drawn, with round tables, on every table a match stand. It was one of those places where streetwalkers rest their weary legs between strolls, and sit for company on rainy or snowy nights, and take shy men for sociability-breeding drinks and for the preliminary bargaining. The air of the room was strong with stale liquor and tobacco, the lingering aroma of the night's vanished revels. In the far corner sat the girl she had followed; a glass of raw whiskey and another of water stood on the table before her. Susan seated herself near the door and when the swollen-faced, surly bartender came, ordered whiskey. She poured herself a drink--filled the glass to the brim. She drank it in two gulps, set the empty glass down. She shivered like an animal as it is hit in the head with a poleax. The mechanism of life staggered, hesitated, went on with a sudden leaping acceleration of pace. Susan tapped her glass against the matchstand. The bartender came.
"Another," said she.
The man stared at her. "The--hell!" he ejaculated. "You must be afraid o' catchin' cold. Or maybe you're looking for the menagerie?"
Susan laughed and so did the girl in the corner. "Won't you have a drink with me?" asked Susan.
"That's very kind of you," replied the girl, in the manner of one eager to show that she, too, is a perfect lady in every respect, used to the ways of the best society. She moved to a chair at Susan's table.
She and Susan inventoried each other. Susan saw a mere child--hardly eighteen--possibly not seventeen--but much worn by drink and irregular living--evidently one of those who rush into the fast woman's life with the idea that it is a career of gayety--and do not find out their error until looks and health are gone. Susan drank her second drink in three gulps, several minutes apart. The girl was explaining in a thin, common voice, childish yet cracked, that she had come there seeking a certain lady friend because she had an extra man and needed a side partner.
"Suppose you come with me," she suggested. "It's good money, I think. Want to get next?"
"When I've had another drink," said Susan. Her eyes were gorgeously brilliant. She had felt almost as reckless several times before; but never had she felt this devil-may-care eagerness to see what the turn of the next card would bring. "You'll take one?"
"Sure. I feel like the devil. Been bumming round all night. My lady friend that I had with me--a regular lady friend--she was suddenly took ill. Appendicitis complicated with d.t.'s the ambulance guy said. The boys are waiting for me to come back, so's we can go on. They've got some swell rooms in a hotel up in Forty-second Street. Let's get a move on."
The bartender served the third drink and Susan paid for them, the other girl insisting on paying for the one she was having when Susan came. Susan's head was whirling. Her spirits were spiraling up and up. Her pale lips were wreathed in a reckless smile. She felt courageous for adventure--any adventure. Her capital had now sunk to three quarters and a five-cent piece. They issued forth, talking without saying anything, laughing without knowing or caring why. Life was a joke--a coarse, broad joke--but amusing if one drank enough to blunt any refinement of sensibility. And what was sensibility but a kind of snobbishness? And what more absurd than snobbishness in an outcast?
"That's good whiskey they had, back there," said Susan.
"Good? Yes--if you don't care what you say."
"If you don't want to care what you say or do," explained Susan.
"Oh, all booze is good for that," said the girl.