Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
The dash of cold rain drops upon her face and the chill of moisture soaking through her clothing revived her. Throughout the whole range of life, whenever we resist we suffer. As Susan dragged her aching, cold wet body up from that stoop, it seemed to her that each time she resisted the penalty grew heavier. Could she have been more wretched had she remained in that dive? From her first rebellion that drove her out of her uncle's house had she ever bettered herself by resisting? She had gone from bad to worse, from worse to worst.
Worst? "This must be the worst!" she thought. "Surely there can be no lower depth than where I am now." And then she shuddered and her soul reeled. Had she not thought this at each shelf of the precipice down which she had been falling? "Has it a bottom? Is there no bottom?"
Wet through, tired through, she put up her umbrella and forced herself feebly along. "Where am I going? Why do I not kill myself? What is it that drives me on and on?"
There came no direct answer to that last question. But up from those deep vast reservoirs of vitality that seemed sufficient whatever the drain upon them--up from those reservoirs welled strength and that unfaltering will to live which breathes upon the corpse of hope and quickens it. And she had a sense of an invisible being, a power that had her in charge, a destiny, walking beside her, holding up her drooping strength, compelling her toward some goal hidden in the fog and the storm.
At Eighth Street she turned west; at Third Avenue she paused, waiting for chance to direct her. Was it not like the maliciousness of fate that in the city whose rarely interrupted reign of joyous sunshine made her call it the city of the Sun her critical turn of chance should have fallen in foul weather? Evidently fate was resolved on a thorough test of her endurance. In the open square, near the Peter Cooper statue, stood a huge all-night lunch wagon. She moved toward it, for she suddenly felt hungry. It was drawn to the curb; a short flight of ladder steps led to an interior attractive to sight and smell. She halted at the foot of the steps and looked in. The only occupant was the man in charge. In a white coat he was leaning upon the counter, reading a newspaper which lay flat upon it. His bent head was extensively and roughly thatched with black hair so thick that to draw a comb through it would have been all but impossible. As Susan let down her umbrella and began to ascend, he lifted his head and gave her a full view of a humorous young face, bushy of eyebrows and mustache and darkly stained by his beard, close shaven though it was. He looked like a Spaniard or an Italian, but he was a black Irishman, one of the West coasters who recall in their eyes and coloring the wrecking of the Armada.
"Good morning, lady," said he. "Breakfast or supper?"
"Both," replied Susan. "I'm starved."
The air was gratefully warm in the little restaurant on wheels. The dominant odor was of hot coffee; but that aroma was carried to a still higher delight by a suggestion of pastry. "The best thing I've got," said the restaurant man, "is hot corn beef hash. It's so good I hate to let any of it go. You can have griddle cakes, too--and coffee, of course."
"Very well," said Susan.
She was ascending upon a wave of reaction from the events of the night. Her headache had gone. The rain beating upon the roof seemed musical to her now, in this warm shelter with its certainty of the food she craved.
The young man was busy at the shiny, compact stove; the odors of the good things she was presently to have grew stronger and stronger, stimulating her hunger, bringing joy to her heart and a smile to her eyes. She wondered at herself. After what she had passed through, how could she feel thus happy--yes, positively happy? It seemed to her this was an indication of a lack in her somewhere--of seriousness, of sensibility, of she knew not what. She ought to be ashamed of that lack. But she was not ashamed. She was shedding her troubles like a child--or like a philosopher.
"Do you like hash?" inquired the restaurant man over his shoulder.
"Just as you're making it," said she. "Dry but not too dry. Brown but not too brown."
"You don't think you'd like a poached egg on top of it?"
"Exactly what I want!"
"It isn't everybody that can poach an egg," said the restaurant man. "And it isn't every egg that can be poached. Now, my eggs are the real thing. And I can poach 'em so you'd think they was done with one of them poaching machines. I don't have 'em with the yellow on a slab of white. I do it so that the white's all round the yellow, like in the shell. And I keep 'em tender, too. Did you say one egg or a pair?"
"Two," said Susan.
The dishes were thick, but clean and whole. The hash--"dry but not too dry, brown but not too brown"--was artistically arranged on its platter, and the two eggs that adorned its top were precisely as he had promised. The coffee, boiled with the milk, was real coffee, too. When the restaurant man had set these things before her, as she sat expectant on a stool, he viewed his handiwork with admiring eyes.
"Delmonico couldn't beat it," said he. "No, nor Oscar, neither. That'll take the tired look out of your face, lady, and bring the beauty back."
Susan ate slowly, listening to the music of the beating rain. It was like an oasis, a restful halt between two stretches of desert journey; she wished to make it as long as possible. Only those who live exposed to life's buffetings ever learn to enjoy to the full the great little pleasures of life--the halcyon pauses in the storms--the few bright rays through the break in the clouds, the joy of food after hunger, of a bath after days of privation, of a jest or a smiling face or a kind word or deed after darkness and bitterness and contempt. She saw the restaurant man's eyes on her, a curious expression in them.
"What's the matter?" she inquired.
"I was thinking," said he, "how miserable you must have been to be so happy now."
"Oh, I guess none of us has any too easy a time," said she.
"But it's mighty hard on women. I used to think different, before I had bad luck and got down to tending this lunch wagon. But now I understand about a lot of things. It's all very well for comfortable people to talk about what a man or a woman ought to do and oughtn't to do. But let 'em be slammed up against it. They'd sing a different song--wouldn't they?"
"Quite different," said Susan.
The man waved a griddle spoon. "I tell you, we do what we've got to do. Yes--the thieves and--and--all of us. Some's used for foundations and some for roofing and some for inside fancy work and some for outside wall. And some's used for the rubbish heap. But all's used. They do what they've got to do. I was a great hand at worrying what I was going to be used for. But I don't bother about it any more." He began to pour the griddle cake dough. "I think I'll get there, though," said he doggedly, as if he expected to be derided for vanity.
"You will," said Susan.
"I'm twenty-nine. But I've been being got ready for something. They don't chip away at a stone as they have at me without intending to make some use of it."
"No, indeed," said the girl, hope and faith welling up in her own heart.
"And what's more, I've stood the chipping. I ain't become rubbish; I'm still a good stone. That's promising, ain't it?"
"It's a sure sign," declared Susan. Sure for herself, no less than for him.
The restaurant man took from under the counter several well-worn schoolbooks. He held them up, looked at Susan and winked. "Good business--eh?"
She laughed and nodded. He put the books back under the counter, finished the cakes and served them. As he gave her more butter he said:
"It ain't the best butter--not by a long shot. But it's good--as good as you get on the average farm--or better. Did you ever eat the best butter?"
"I don't know. I've had some that was very good."
"Eighty cents a pound?"
"Mercy, no," exclaimed Susan.
"Awful price, isn't it? But worth the money--yes, sir! Some time when you've got a little change to spare, go get half a pound at one of the swell groceries or dairies. And the best milk, too. Twelve cents a quart. Wait till I get money. I'll show 'em how to live. I was born in a tenement. Never had nothing. Rags to wear, and food one notch above a garbage barrel."
"I know," said Susan.
"But even as a boy I wanted the high-class things. It's wanting the best that makes a man push his way up."
Another customer came--a keeper of a butcher shop, on his way to market. Susan finished the cakes, paid the forty cents and prepared to depart. "I'm looking for a hotel," said she to the restaurant man, "one where they'll take me in at this time, but one that's safe not a dive."
"Right across the square there's a Salvation Army shelter--very good--clean. I Don't know of any other place for a lady."
"There's a hotel on the next corner," put in the butcher, suspending the violent smacking and sipping which attended his taking rolls and coffee. "It ain't neither the one thing nor the other. It's clean and cheap, and they'll let you behave if you want to."
"That's all I ask," said the girl. "Thank you." And she departed, after an exchange of friendly glances with the restaurant man. "I feel lots better," said she.
"It was a good breakfast," replied he.
"That was only part. Good luck!"
"Same to you, lady. Call again. Try my chops."
At the corner the butcher had indicated Susan found the usual Raines Law hotel, adjunct to a saloon and open to all comers, however "transient." But she took the butcher's word for it, engaged a dollar-and-a-half room from the half-asleep clerk, was shown to it by a colored bellboy who did not bother to wake up. It was a nice little room with barely space enough for a bed, a bureau, a stationary washstand, a chair and a small radiator. As she undressed by the light of a sad gray dawn, she examined her dress to see how far it needed repair and how far it might be repaired. She had worn away from Forty-third Street her cheapest dress because it happened to be of an inconspicuous blue. It was one of those suits that look fairly well at a glance on the wax figure in the department store window, that lose their bloom as quickly as a country bride, and at the fourth or fifth wearing begin to make frank and sweeping confession of the cheapness of every bit of the material and labor that went into them. These suits are typical of all that poverty compels upon the poor, all that they in their ignorance and inexperience of values accept without complaint, fancying they are getting money's worth and never dreaming they are more extravagant than the most prodigal of the rich. However, as their poverty gives them no choice, their ignorance saves them from futilities of angry discontent. Susan had bought this dress because she had to have another dress and could not afford to spend more than twelve dollars, and it had been marked down from twenty-five. She had worn it in fair weather and had contrived to keep it looking pretty well. But this rain had finished it quite. Thereafter, until she could get another dress, she must expect to be classed as poor and seedy--therefore, on the way toward deeper poverty--therefore, an object of pity and of prey. If she went into a shop, she would be treated insultingly by the shopgirls, despising her as a poor creature like themselves. If a man approached her, he would calculate upon getting her very cheap because a girl in such a costume could not have been in the habit of receiving any great sum. And if she went with him, he would treat her with far less consideration than if she had been about the same business in smarter attire. She spread the dress on bureau and chair, smoothing it, wiping the mud stains from it. She washed out her stockings at the stationary stand, got them as dry as her remarkably strong hands could wring them, hung them on a rung of the chair near the hot little radiator. She cleaned her boots and overshoes with an old newspaper she found in a drawer, and wet at the washstand. She took her hat to pieces and made it over into something that looked almost fresh enough to be new. Then, ready for bed, she got the office of the hotel on the telephone and left a call for half-past nine o'clock--three hours and a half away. When she was throwing up the window, she glanced into the street.
The rain had once more ceased. Through the gray dimness the men and women, boys and girls, on the way to the factories and shops for the day's work, were streaming past in funereal procession. Some of the young ones were lively. But the mass was sullen and dreary. Bodies wrecked or rapidly wrecking by ignorance of hygiene, by the foul air and foul food of the tenements, by the monotonous toil of factory and shop--mindless toil--toil that took away mind and put in its place a distaste for all improvement--toil of the factories that distorted the body and enveloped the soul in sodden stupidity--toil of the shops that meant breathing bad air all day long, meant stooped shoulders and varicose veins in the legs and the arches of the insteps broken down, meant dull eyes, bad skin, female complaints, meant the breeding of desires for the luxury the shops display, the breeding of envy and servility toward those able to buy these luxuries.
Susan lingered, fascinated by this exhibit of the price to the many of civilization for the few. Work? Never! Not any more than she would. "Work" in a dive! Work--either branch of it, factory and shop or dive meant the sale of all the body and all the soul; her profession--at least as she practiced it--meant that perhaps she could buy with part of body and part of soul the privilege of keeping the rest of both for her own self. If she had stayed on at work from the beginning in Cincinnati, where would she be now? Living in some stinking tenement hole, with hope dead. And how would she be looking? As dull of eye as the rest, as pasty and mottled of skin, as ready for any chance disease. Work? Never! Never! "Not at anything that'd degrade me more than this life. Yes--more." And she lifted her head defiantly. To her hunger Life was thus far offering only a plate of rotten apples; it was difficult to choose among them--but there was choice.
She was awakened by the telephone bell; and it kept on ringing until she got up and spoke to the office through the sender. Never had she so craved sleep; and her mental and physical contentment of three hours and a half before had been succeeded by headache, a general soreness, a horrible attack of the blues. She grew somewhat better, however, as she washed first in hot water, then in cold at the stationary stand which was quite as efficient if not so luxurious as a bathtub. She dressed in a rush, but not so hurriedly that she failed to make the best toilet the circumstances permitted. Her hair went up unusually well; the dress did not look so badly as she had feared it would. "As it's a nasty day," she reflected, "it won't do me so much damage. My hat and my boots will make them give me the benefit of the doubt and think I'm saving my good clothes."
She passed through the office at five minutes to ten. When she reached Lange's winter garden, its clock said ten minutes past ten, but she knew it must be fast. Only one of the four musicians had arrived--the man who played the drums, cymbals, triangle and xylophone--a fat, discouraged old man who knew how easily he could be replaced. Neither Lange nor his wife had come; her original friend, the Austrian waiter, was wiping off tables and cleaning match stands. He welcomed her with a smile of delight that showed how few teeth remained in the front of his mouth and how deeply yellow they were. But Susan saw only his eyes--and the kind heart that looked through them.
"Maybe you haven't had breakfast already?" he suggested.
"I'm not hungry, thank you."
"Perhaps some coffee--yes?"
Susan thought the coffee would make her feel better. So he brought it--Vienna fashion--an open china pot full of strong, deliciously aromatic black coffee, a jug of milk with whipped white of egg on top, a basket of small sweet rolls powdered with sugar and caraway seed. She ate one of the rolls, drank the coffee. Before she had finished, the waiter stood beaming before her and said:
"Oh, no," replied Susan, a little sadly.
"But yes," urged he. "It isn't against the rules. The boss's wife smokes. Many ladies who come here do--real ladies. It is the custom in Europe. Why not?" And he produced a box of cigarettes and put it on the table. Susan lit one of them and once more with supreme physical content came a cheerfulness that put color and sprightliness into the flowers of hope. And the sun had won its battle with the storm; the storm was in retreat. Sunshine was streaming in at the windows, into her heart. The waiter paused in his work now and then to enjoy himself in contemplating the charming picture she made. She was thinking of what the wagon restaurant man had said. Yes, Life had been chipping away at her; but she had remained good stone, had not become rubbish.
About half-past ten Lange came down from his flat which was overhead. He inspected her by daylight and finding that his electric light impressions were not delusion was highly pleased with her. He refused to allow her to pay for the coffee. "Johann!" he called, and the leader of the orchestra approached and made a respectful bow to his employer. He had a solemn pompous air and the usual pompadour. He and Susan plunged into the music question, found that the only song they both knew was Tosti's "Good Bye."
"That'll do to try," said Lange. "Begin!"
And after a little tuning and voice testing, Susan sang the "Good Bye" with full orchestra accompaniment. It was not good; it was not even pretty good; but it was not bad. "You'll do all right," said Lange. "You can stay. Now, you and Johann fix up some songs and get ready for tonight." And he turned away to buy supplies for restaurant and bar.
Johann, deeply sentimental by nature, was much pleased with Susan's contralto. "You do not know how to sing," said he. "You sing in your throat and you've got all the faults of parlor singers. But the voice is there--and much expressiveness--much temperament. Also, you have intelligence--and that will make a very little voice go a great way."
Before proceeding any further with the rehearsal, he took Susan up to a shop where sheet music was sold and they selected three simple songs: "Gipsy Queen," "Star of My Life" and "Love in Dreams." They were to try "Gipsy Queen" that night, with "Good Bye" and, if the applause should compel, "Suwanee River."
When they were back at the restaurant Susan seated herself in a quiet corner and proceeded to learn the words of the song and to get some notion of the tune.
She had lunch with Mr. and Mrs. Lange and Katy, whose hair was very golden indeed and whose voice and manner proclaimed the Bowery and its vaudeville stage. She began by being grand with Susan, but had far too good a heart and far too sensible a nature to keep up long. It takes more vanity, more solemn stupidity and more leisure than plain people have time for, to maintain the force of fake dignity. Before lunch was over it was Katy and Lorna; and Katy was distressed that her duties at the theater made it impossible for her to stay and help Lorna with the song.
At the afternoon rehearsal Susan distinguished herself. To permit business in the restaurant and the rehearsal at the same time, there was a curtain to divide the big room into two unequal parts. When Susan sang her song through for the first time complete, the men smoking and drinking on the other side of the curtain burst into applause. Johann shook hands with Susan, shook hands again, kissed her hand, patted her shoulder. But in the evening things did not go so well.
Susan, badly frightened, got away from the orchestra, lagged when it speeded to catch up with her. She made a pretty and engaging figure in the costume, low in the neck and ending at the knees. Her face and shoulders, her arms and legs, the lines of her slender, rounded body made a success. But they barely saved her from being laughed at. When she finished, there was no applause so no necessity for an encore. She ran upstairs, and, with nerves all a-quiver, hid herself in the little room she and Katy were to share. Until she failed she did not realize how much she had staked upon this venture. But now she knew; and it seemed to her that her only future was the streets. Again her chance had come; again she had thrown it away. If there were anything in her--anything but mere vain hopes--that could not have occurred. In her plight anyone with a spark of the divinity that achieves success would have scored. "I belong in the streets," said she. Before dinner she had gone out and had bought a ninety-five cent night-dress and some toilet articles. These she now bundled together again. She changed to her street dress; she stole down the stairs.
She was out at the side door, she was flying through the side street toward the Bowery. "Hi!" shouted someone behind her. "Where you going?" And overtaking her came her staunch friend Albert, the waiter. Feeling that she must need sympathy and encouragement, he had slipped away from his duties to go up to her. He had reached the hall in time to see what she was about and had darted bareheaded after her.
"Where you going?" he repeated, excitedly.
A crowd began to gather. "Oh, good-by," she cried. "I'm getting out before I'm told to go--that's all. I made a failure. Thank you, Albert." She put out her hand; she was still moving and looking in the direction of the Bowery.
"Now you mustn't be foolish,", said he, holding on tightly to her hand. "The boss says it's all right. Tomorrow you do better."
"I'd never dare try again."
"Tomorrow makes everything all right. You mustn't act like a baby. The first time Katy tried, they yelled her off the stage. Now she gets eleven a week. Come back right away with me. The boss'd be mad if you won't. You ain't acting right, Miss Lorna. I didn't think you was such a fool."
He had her attention now. Unmindful of the little crowd they had gathered, they stood there discussing until to save Albert from pneumonia she returned with him. He saw her started up the stairs, then ventured to take his eye off her long enough to put his head into the winter garden and send a waiter for Lange. He stood guard until Lange came and was on his way to her.
The next evening, a Saturday, before a crowded house she sang well, as well as she had ever sung in her life--sang well enough to give her beauty of face and figure, her sweetness, her charm the opportunity to win a success. She had to come back and sing "Suwanee River." She had to come for a second encore; and, flushed with her victory over her timidity, she sang Tosti's sad cry of everlasting farewell with all the tenderness there was in her. That song exactly fitted her passionate, melancholy voice; its words harmonized with the deep sadness that was her real self, that is the real self of every sensitive soul this world has ever tried with its exquisite torments for flesh and spirit. The tears that cannot be shed were in her voice, in her face, as she stood there, with her violet-gray eyes straining into vacancy. But the men and the women shed tears; and when she moved, breaking the spell of silence, they not only applauded, they cheered.
The news quickly spread that at Lange's there was a girl singer worth hearing and still more worth looking at. And Lange had his opportunity to arrive.
But several things stood in his way, things a man of far more intelligence would have found it hard to overcome.
Like nearly all saloon-keepers, he was serf to a brewery; and the particular brewery whose beer his mortgage compelled him to push did not make a beer that could be pushed. People complained that it had a disagreeably bitter aftertaste. In the second place, Mrs. Lange was a born sitter. She had married to rest--and she was resting. She was always piled upon a chair. Thus, she was not an aid but a hindrance, an encourager of the help in laziness and slovenliness. Again, the cooking was distinctly bad; the only really good thing the house served was coffee, and that was good only in the mornings. Finally, Lange was a saver by nature and not a spreader. He could hold tightly to any money he closed his stubby fingers upon; he did not know how to plant money and make it grow, but only how to hoard.
Thus it came to pass that, after the first spurt, the business fell back to about where it had been before Susan came. Albert, the Austrian waiter, explained to Susan why it was that her popularity did the house apparently so little good--explained with truth where she suspected kind-hearted plotting, that she had arrested its latterly swift-downward slide. She was glad to hear what he had to say, as it was most pleasant to her vanity; but she could not get over the depression of the central fact--she was not making the sort of business to justify asking Lange for more than board and lodging; she was not in the way of making the money that was each day more necessary, as her little store dwindled.
The question of getting money to live on is usually dismissed in a princely way by writers about human life. It is in reality, except with the few rich, the ever-present question--as ever-present as the necessity of breathing--and it is not, like breathing, a matter settled automatically. It dominates thought; it determines action. To leave it out of account ever, in writing a human history, is to misrepresent and distort as utterly as would a portrait painter who neglected to give his subject eyes, or a head, even. With the overwhelming mass of us, money is at all times all our lives long the paramount question--for to be without it is destruction worse than death, and we are almost all perilously near to being without it. Thus, airily to pass judgment upon men and women as to their doings in getting money for necessaries, for what the compulsion of custom and habit has made necessaries to them--airily to judge them for their doings in such dire straits is like sitting calmly on shore and criticizing the conduct of passengers and sailors in a stormbeset sinking ship. It is one of the favorite pastimes of the comfortable classes; it makes an excellent impression as to one's virtue upon one's audience; it gives us a pleasing sense of superior delicacy and humor. But it is none the less mean and ridiculous. Instead of condemnation, the world needs to bestir itself to remove the stupid and cruel creatures that make evil conduct necessary; for can anyone, not a prig, say that the small part of the human race that does well does so because it is naturally better than the large part that does ill?
Spring was slow in opening. Susan's one dress was in a deplorable state. The lining hung in rags. The never good material was stretched out of shape, was frayed and worn gray in spots, was beyond being made up as presentable by the most careful pressing and cleaning. She had been forced to buy a hat, shoes, underclothes. She had only three dollars and a few cents left, and she simply did not dare lay it all out in dress materials. Yet, less than all would not be enough; all would not be enough.
Lange had from time to time more than hinted at the opportunities she was having as a public singer in his hall. But Susan, for all her experience, had remained one of those upon whom such opportunities must be thrust if they are to be accepted.
So long as she had food and shelter, she could not make advances; she could not even go so far as passive acquiescence. She knew she was again violating the fundamental canon of success; whatever one's business, do it thoroughly if at all. But she could not overcome her temperament which had at this feeble and false opportunity at once resented itself. She knew perfectly that therein was the whole cause of her failure to make the success she ought to have made when she came up from the tenements, and again when she fell into the clutches of Freddie Palmer. But it is one thing to know; it is another thing to do. Susan ignored the attempts of the men; she pretended not to understand Lange when they set him on to intercede with her for them. She saw that she was once more drifting to disaster--and that she had not long to drift. She was exasperated against herself; she was disgusted with herself. But she drifted on.
Growing seedier looking every day, she waited, defying the plain teachings of experience. She even thought seriously of going to work. But the situation in that direction remained unchanged. She was seeing things, the reasons for things, more clearly now, as experience developed her mind. She felt that to get on in respectability she ought to have been either more or less educated. If she had been used from birth to conditions but a step removed from savagery, she might have been content with what offered, might even have felt that she was rising. Or if she had been bred to a good trade, and educated only to the point where her small earnings could have satisfied her desires, then she might have got along in respectability. But she had been bred a "lady"; a Chinese woman whose feet have been bound from babyhood until her fifteenth or sixteenth year--how long it would be, after her feet were freed, before she could learn to walk at all!--and would she ever be able to learn to walk well?
What is luxury for one is squalor for another; what is elevation for one degrades another. In respectability she could not earn what was barest necessity for her--what she was now getting at Lange's--decent shelter, passable food. Ejected from her own class that shelters its women and brings them up in unfitness for the unsheltered life, she was dropping as all such women must and do drop--was going down, down, down--striking on this ledge and that, and rebounding to resume her ever downward course.
She saw her own plight only too vividly. Those whose outward and inward lives are wide apart get a strong sense of dual personality. It was thus with Susan. There were times when she could not believe in the reality of her external life.
She often glanced through the columns on columns, pages on pages of "want ads" in the papers--not with the idea of answering them, for she had served her apprenticeship at that, but simply to force herself to realize vividly just how matters stood with her. Those columns and pages of closely printed offerings of work! Dreary tasks, all of them--tasks devoid of interest, of personal sense of usefulness, tasks simply to keep degrading soul in degenerating body, tasks performed in filthy factories, in foul-smelling workrooms and shops, in unhealthful surroundings. And this, throughout civilization, was the "honest work" so praised--by all who don't do it, but live pleasantly by making others do it. Wasn't there something in the ideas of Etta's father, old Tom Brashear? Couldn't sensible, really loving people devise some way of making most tasks less repulsive, of lessening the burdens of those tasks that couldn't be anything but repulsive? Was this stupid system, so cruel, so crushing, and producing at the top such absurd results as flashy, insolent autos and silly palaces and overfed, overdressed women, and dogs in jeweled collars, and babies of wealth brought up by low menials--was this system really the best?
"If they'd stop canting about `honest work' they might begin to get somewhere."
In the effort to prevent her downward drop from beginning again she searched all the occupations open to her. She could not find one that would not have meant only the most visionary prospect of some slight remote advancement, and the certain and speedy destruction of what she now realized was her chief asset and hope--her personal appearance. And she resolved that she would not even endanger it ever again. The largest part of the little capital she took away from Forty-third Street had gone to a dentist who put in several fillings of her back teeth. She had learned to value every charm--hair, teeth, eyes, skin, figure, hands. She watched over them all, because she felt that when her day finally came--and come it would, she never allowed long to doubt--she must be ready to enter fully into her own. Her day! The day when fate should change the life her outward self would be compelled to live, would bring it into harmony with the life of inward self--the self she could control.
Katy had struck up a friendship at once profitable and sentimental with her stage manager. She often stayed out all night. On one of these nights Susan, alone in the tiny room and asleep, was roused by feeling hands upon her. She started up half awake and screamed.
"Sh!" came in Lange's voice. "It's me."
Susan had latterly observed sly attempts on his part to make advances without his wife and daughter's suspecting; but she had thought her way of quietly ignoring was effective. "You must go," she whispered. "Mrs. Lange must have heard."
"I had to come," said he hoarsely, a mere voice in the darkness. "I can't hold out no longer without you, Lorna."
"Go--go," urged Susan.
But it was too late. In the doorway, candle in hand, appeared Mrs. Lange. Despite her efforts at "dressiness" she was in her best hour homely and nearly shapeless. In night dress and released from corsets she was hideous and monstrous. "I thought so!" she shrieked. "I thought so!"
"I heard a burglar, mother," whined Lange, an abject and guilty figure.
"Shut your mouth, you loafer!" shrieked Mrs. Lange. And she turned to Susan. "You gutter hussy, get on your clothes and clear out!"
"But--Mrs. Lange----" began Susan.
"Clear out!" she shouted, opening the outer hall. "Dress mighty damn quick and clear out!"
"Mother, you'll wake the people upstairs," pleaded Lange--and Susan had never before realized how afraid of his wife the little man was. "For God's sake, listen to sense."
"After I've thrown you--into the streets," cried his wife, beside herself with jealous fury. "Get dressed, I tell you!" she shouted at Susan.
And the girl hurried into her clothes, making no further attempt to speak. She knew that to plead and to explain would be useless; even if Mrs. Lange believed, still she would drive from the house the temptation to her husband. Lange, in a quaking, cowardly whine, begged his wife to be sensible and believe his burglar story. But with each half-dozen words he uttered, she interrupted to hurl obscene epithets at him or at Susan. The tenants of the upstairs flats came down. She told her wrongs to a dozen half-clad men, women and children; they took her side at once, and with the women leading showered vile insults upon Susan. The uproar was rising, rising. Lange cowered in a corner, crying bitterly like a whipped child. Susan, only partly dressed, caught up her hat and rushed into the hall. Several women struck at her as she passed. She stumbled on the stairs, almost fell headlong. With the most frightful words in tenement house vocabulary pursuing her she fled into the street, and did not pause until she was within a few yards of the Bowery. There she sat down on a doorstep and, half-crazed by the horror of her sudden downfall, laced her shoes and buttoned her blouse and put on her hat with fumbling, shaking fingers. It had all happened so quickly that she would have thought she was dreaming but for the cold night air and the dingy waste of the Bowery with the streetwalkers and drunken bums strolling along under the elevated tracks. She had trifled with the opportunity too long. It had flown in disgust, dislodging her as it took flight. If she would be over nice and critical, would hesitate to take the only upward path fate saw fit to offer, then--let her seek the bottom! Susan peered down, and shuddered.
She went into the saloon at the corner, into the little back room. She poured down drink after drink of the frightful poison sold as whiskey with the permission of a government owned by every interest that can make big money out of a race of free men and so can afford to pay big bribes. It is characteristic of this poison of the saloon of the tenement quarter that it produces in anyone who drinks it a species of quick insanity, of immediate degeneration--a desire to commit crime, to do degraded acts. Within an hour of Susan's being thrown into the streets, no one would have recognized her. She had been drinking, had been treating the two faded but young and decently dressed streetwalkers who sat at another table. The three, fired and maddened by the poison, were amusing themselves and two young men as recklessly intoxicated as they. Susan, in an attitude she had seen often enough but had never dreamed of taking, was laughing wildly at a coarse song, was standing up, skirts caught high and body swaying in drunken rhythm as she led the chorus.
When the barkeeper announced closing time, one of the young men said to her:
"To hell," laughed she. "I've been thrown out everywhere else. Want to go along?"
"I'll never desert a perfect lady," replied he.