Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
She was like one who has fallen bleeding and broken into a cave; who after a time gathers himself together and crawls toward a faint and far distant gleam of light; who suddenly sees the light no more and at the same instant lurches forward and down into a deeper chasm.
Occasionally sheer exhaustion of nerves made it impossible for her to drink herself again into apathy before the effects of the last doses of the poison had worn off. In these intervals of partial awakening--she never permitted them to lengthen out, as such sensation as she had was of one falling--falling--through empty space--with whirling brain and strange sounds in the ears and strange distorted sights or hallucinations before the eyes--falling down--down--whither?--to how great a depth?--or was there no bottom, but simply presently a plunging on down into the black of death's bottomless oblivion?
Drink--always drink. Yet in every other way she took care of her health--a strange mingling of prudence and subtle hope with recklessness and frank despair. All her refinement, baffled in the moral ways, concentrated upon the physical. She would be neat and well dressed; she would not let herself be seized of the diseases on the pariah in those regions--the diseases through dirt and ignorance and indifference.
In the regions she now frequented recklessness was the keynote. There was the hilarity of the doomed; there was the cynical or stolid indifference to heat or cold, to rain or shine, to rags, to filth, to jail, to ejection for nonpayment of rent, to insult of word or blow. The fire engines--the ambulance--the patrol wagon--the city dead wagon--these were all ever passing and repassing through those swarming streets. It was the vastest, the most populous tenement area of the city. Its inhabitants represented the common lot--for it is the common lot of the overwhelming mass of mankind to live near to nakedness, to shelterlessness, to starvation, without ever being quite naked or quite roofless or quite starved. The masses are eager for the necessities; the classes are eager for the comforts and luxuries. The masses are ignorant; the classes are intelligent--or, at least, shrewd. The unconscious and inevitable exploitation of the masses by the classes automatically and of necessity stops just short of the catastrophe point--for the masses must have enough to give them the strength to work and reproduce. To go down through the social system as had Susan from her original place well up among the classes is like descending from the beautiful dining room of the palace where the meat is served in taste and refinement upon costly dishes by well mannered servants to attractively dressed people--descending along the various stages of the preparation of the meat, at each stage less of refinement and more of coarseness, until one at last arrives at the slaughter pen. The shambles, stinking and reeking blood and filth! The shambles, with hideous groan or shriek, or more hideous silent look of agony! The shambles of society where the beauty and grace and charm of civilization are created out of noisome sweat and savage toil, out of the health and strength of men and women and children, out of their ground up bodies, out of their ground up souls. Susan knew those regions well. She had no theories about them, no resentment against the fortunate classes, no notion that any other or better system might be possible, any other or better life for the masses. She simply accepted life as she found it, lived it as best she could.
Throughout the masses of mankind life is sustained by illusions--illusions of a better lot tomorrow, illusions of a heaven beyond a grave, where the nightmare, life in the body, will end and the reality, life in the spirit, will begin. She could not join the throngs moving toward church and synagogue to indulge in their dream that the present was a dream from which death would be a joyful awakening. She alternately pitied and envied them. She had her own dream that this dream, the present, would end in a joyful awakening to success and freedom and light and beauty. She admitted to herself that the dream was probably an illusion, like that of the pious throngs. But she was as unreasonably tenacious of her dream as they were of theirs. She dreamed it because she was a human being--and to be human means to hope, and to hope means to dream of a brighter future here or hereafter, or both here and hereafter. The earth is peopled with dreamers; she was but one of them. The last thought of despair as the black earth closes is a hope, perhaps the most colossal of hope's delusions, that there will be escape in the grave.
There is the time when we hope and know it and believe in it. There is the time when we hope and know it but have ceased to believe in it. There is the time when we hope, believing that we have altogether ceased to hope. That time had come for Susan. She seemed to think about the present. She moved about like a sleepwalker.
What women did she know--what men? She only dimly remembered from day to day--from hour to hour. Blurred faces passed before her, blurred voices sounded in her ears, blurred personalities touched hers. It was like the jostling of a huge crowd in night streets. A vague sense of buffetings--of rude contacts--of momentary sensations of pain, of shame, of disgust, all blunted and soon forgotten.
In estimating suffering, physical or mental, to fail to take into account a more important factor--the merciful paralysis or partial paralysis of any center of sensibility--that is insistently assaulted.
She no longer had headaches or nausea after drinking deeply. And where formerly it had taken many stiff doses of liquor to get her into the state of recklessness or of indifference, she was now able to put herself into the mood in which life was endurable with two or three drinks, often with only one. The most marked change was that never by any chance did she become gay; the sky over her life was steadily gray--gray or black, to gray again--never lighter.
How far she had fallen! But swift descent or gradual, she had adapted herself--had, in fact, learned by much experience of disaster to mitigate the calamities, to have something to keep a certain deep-lying self of selfs intact--unaffected by what she had been forced to undergo. It seemed to her that if she could get the chance--or could cure herself of the blindness which was always preventing her from seeing and seizing the chance that doubtless offered again and again--she could shed the surface her mode of life had formed over her and would find underneath a new real surface, stronger, sightly, better able to bear--like the skin that forms beneath the healing wound.
In these tenements, as in all tenements of all degrees, she and the others of her class were fiercely resented by the heads of families where there was any hope left to impel a striving upward. She had the best furnished room in the tenement. She was the best dressed woman--a marked and instantly recognizable figure because of her neat and finer clothes. Her profession kept alive and active the instincts for care of the person that either did not exist or were momentary and feeble in the respectable women. The slovenliness, the scurrilousness of even the wives and daughters of the well-to-do and the rich of that region would not have been tolerated in any but the lowest strata of her profession, hardly even in those sought by men of the laboring class. Also, the deep horror of disease, which her intelligence never for an instant permitted to relax its hold, made her particular and careful when in other circumstances drink might have reduced her to squalor. She spent all her leisure time--for she no longer read--in the care of her person.
She was watched with frightened, yet longing and curious, eyes by all the girls who were at work. The mothers hated her; many of them spat upon the ground after she had passed. It was a heart-breaking struggle, that of these mothers to save their daughters, not from prostitution, not from living with men outside marriage, not from moral danger, but from the practical danger, the danger of bringing into the world children with no father to help feed and clothe them. In the opinion of these people--an opinion often frankly expressed, rarely concealed with any but the thinnest hypocrisy--the life of prostitution was not so bad. Did the life of virtue offer any attractive alternative? Whether a woman was "bad" or "good," she must live in travail and die in squalor to be buried in or near the Potter's Field. But if the girl still living at home were not "good," that would mean a baby to be taken care of, would mean the girl herself not a contributor to the family support but a double burden. And if she went into prostitution, would her family get the benefit? No.
The mothers made little effort to save their sons; they concentrated on the daughters. It was pitiful to see how in their ignorance they were unaware of the strongest forces working against them. The talk of all this motley humanity--of "good" no less than "bad" women, of steady workingmen, of political heelers, thieves and bums and runners for dives--was frankly, often hideously, obscene. The jammed together way of living made modesty impossible, or scantest decency--made the pictures of it among the aspiring few, usually for the benefit of religion or charitable visitors, a pitiful, grotesque hypocrisy. Indeed, the prostitute class was the highest in this respect. The streetwalkers, those who prospered, had better masters, learned something about the pleasures and charms of privacy, also had more leisure in which to think, in however crude a way, about the refinements of life, and more money with which to practice those refinements. The boys from the earliest age were on terms of licentious freedom with the girls. The favorite children's games, often played in the open street with the elders looking on and laughing, were sex games. The very babies used foul language--that is, used the language they learned both at home and in the street. It was primitive man; Susan was at the foundation of the world.
To speak of the conditions there as a product of civilization is to show ignorance of the history of our race, is to fancy that we are civilized today, when in fact we are--historically--in a turbulent and painful period of transition from a better yesterday toward a tomorrow in which life will be worth living as it never has been before in all the ages of duration. In this today of movement toward civilization which began with the discovery of iron and will end when we shall have discovered how to use for the benefit of all the main forces of nature--in this today of agitation incident to journeying, we are in some respects better off, in other respects worse off, than the race was ten or fifteen thousand years ago. We have lost much of the freedom that was ours before the rise of governments and ruling classes; we have gained much--not so much as the ignorant and the unthinking and the uneducated imagine, but still much. In the end we which means the masses of us--will gain infinitely. But gain or loss has not been in so-called morality. There is not a virtue that has not existed from time ages before record. Not a vice which is shallowly called "effete" or the "product of overcivilization," but originated before man was man.
To speak of the conditions in which Susan Lenox now lived as savagery is to misuse the word. Every transitional stage is accompanied by a disintegration. Savagery was a settled state in which every man and every woman had his or her fixed position, settled duties and rights. With the downfall of savagery with the beginning of the journey toward that hope of tomorrow, civilization, everything in the relations of men with men and men with women, became unsettled. Such social systems as the world has known since have all been makeshift and temporary--like our social systems of today, like the moral and extinct codes rising and sinking in power over a vast multitude of emigrants moving from a distant abandoned home toward a distant promised land and forced to live as best they can in the interval. In the historic day's journey of perhaps fifteen thousand years our present time is but a brief second. In that second there has come a breaking up of the makeshift organization which long served the working multitudes fairly well. The result is an anarchy in which the strong oppress the weak, in which the masses are being crushed by the burdens imposed upon them by the classes. And in that particular part of the human race en route into which fate had flung Susan Lenox conditions not of savagery but of primitive chaos were prevailing. A large part of the population lived off the unhappy workers by prostitution, by thieving, by petty swindling, by politics, by the various devices in coarse, crude and small imitation of the devices employed by the ruling classes. And these petty parasites imitated the big parasites in their ways of spending their dubiously got gains. To have a "good time" was the ideal here as in idle Fifth Avenue; and the notions of a "good time" in vogue in the two opposite quarters differed in degree rather than in kind.
Nothing to think about but the appetites and their vices. Nothing to hope for but the next carouse. Susan had brought down with her from above one desire unknown to her associates and neighbors--the desire to forget. If she could only forget! If the poison would not wear off at times!
She could not quite forget. And to be unable to forget is to remember--and to remember is to long--and to long is to hope.
Several times she heard of Freddie Palmer. Twice she chanced upon his name in the newspaper--an incidental reference to him in connection with local politics. The other times were when men talking together in the drinking places frequented by both sexes spoke of him as a minor power in the organization. Each time she got a sense of her remoteness, of her security. Once she passed in Grand Street a detective she had often seen with him in Considine's at Broadway and Forty-second. The "bull" looked sharply at her. Her heart stood still. But he went on without recognizing her. The sharp glance had been simply that official expression of see-all and know-all which is mere formality, part of the official livery, otherwise meaningless. However, it is not to that detective's discredit that he failed to recognize her. She had adapted herself to her changed surroundings.
Because she was of a different and higher class, and because she picked and chose her company, even when drink had beclouded her senses and instinct alone remained on drowsy guard, she prospered despite her indifference. For that region had its aristocracy of rich merchants, tenement-owners, politicians whose sons, close imitators of the uptown aristocracies in manners and dress, spent money freely in the amusements that attract nearly all young men everywhere. Susan made almost as much as she could have made in the more renowned quarters of the town. And presently she was able to move into a tenement which, except for two workingmen's families of a better class, was given over entirely to fast women. It was much better kept, much cleaner, much better furnished than the tenements for workers chiefly; they could not afford decencies, much less luxuries. All that sort of thing was, for the neighborhood, concentrated in the saloons, the dance halls, the fast houses and the fast flats.
Her walks in Grand Street and the Bowery, repelling and capricious though she was with her alternating moods of cold moroseness and sardonic and mocking gayety, were bringing her in a good sum of money for that region. Sometimes as much as twenty dollars a week, rarely less than twelve or fifteen. And despite her drinking and her freehandedness with her fellow-professionals less fortunate and with the street beggars and for tenement charities, she had in her stockings a capital of thirty-one dollars.
She avoided the tough places, the hang-outs of the gangs. She rarely went alone into the streets at night--and the afternoons were, luckily, best for business as well as for safety. She made no friends and therefore no enemies. Without meaning to do so and without realizing that she did so, she held herself aloof without haughtiness through sense of loneliness, not at all through sense of superiority. Had it not been for her scarlet lips, a far more marked sign in that region than anywhere uptown, she would have passed in the street for a more or less respectable woman--not thoroughly respectable; she was too well dressed, too intelligently cared for to seem the good working girl.
On one of the few nights when she lingered in the little back room of the saloon a few doors away at the corner, as she entered the dark passageway of the tenement, strong fingers closed upon her throat and she was borne to the floor. She knew at once that she was in the clutch of one of those terrors of tenement fast women, the lobbygows--men who live by lying in wait in the darkness to seize and rob the lonely, friendless fast woman. She struggled--and she was anything but weak. But not a sound could escape from her tight-pressed throat. Soon she became unconscious.
One of the workingmen, returning drunk from the meeting of the union, in the corner saloon, stumbled over her, gave her a kick in his anger. This roused her; she uttered a faint cry. "Thought it was a man," mumbled he, dragging her to a sitting position. He struck a match. "Oh--it's you! Don't make any noise. If my old woman came out, she'd kill us both."
"Never mind me," said Susan. "I was only stunned."
"Oh, I thought it was the booze. They say you hit it something fierce."
"No--a lobbygow." And she felt for her stockings. They were torn away from her garters. Her bosom also was bare, for the lobbygow had searched there, also.
"How much did he get?"
"The hell he did! Want me to call a cop?"
"No," replied Susan, who was on her feet again. "What's the use?"
"Those damn cops!" cursed the workingman. "They'd probably pinch you--or both of us. Ten to one the lobbygows divide with them."
"I didn't mean that," said Susan. The police were most friendly and most kind to her. She was understanding the ways of the world better now, and appreciated that the police themselves were part of the same vast system of tyranny and robbery that was compelling her. The police made her pay because they dared not refuse to be collectors. They bound whom the mysterious invisible power compelled them to bind; they loosed whom that same power bade them loose. She had no quarrel with the police, who protected her from far worse oppressions and oppressors than that to which they subjected her. And if they tolerated lobbygows and divided with them, it was because the overshadowing power ordained it so.
"Needn't be afraid I'll blow to the cop," said the drunken artisan. "You can damn the cops all you please to me. They make New York worse than Russia."
"I guess they do the best they can--like everybody else," said the girl wearily.
"I'll help you upstairs."
"No, thank you," said she. Not that she did not need help; but she wished no disagreeable scene with the workingman's wife who might open the door as they passed his family's flat.
She went upstairs, the man waiting below until she should be safe--and out of the way. She staggered into her room, tottered to the bed, fell upon it. A girl named Clara, who lived across the hall, was sitting in a rocking-chair in a nightgown, reading a Bertha Clay novel and smoking a cigarette. She glanced up, was arrested by the strange look in Susan's eyes.
"Hello--been hitting the pipe, I see," said she. "Down in Gussie's room?"
"No. A lobbygow," said Susan.
"Did he get much?"
"The----!" cried Clara. "I'll bet it was Gussie's fellow. I've suspected him. Him and her stay in, hitting the pipe all the time. That costs money, and she hasn't been out for I don't know how long. Let's go down there and raise hell."
"What's the use?" said Susan.
"You ought to 'a' put it in the savings bank. That's what I do--when I have anything. Then, when I'm robbed, they only get what I've just made. Last time, they didn't get nothing--but me." And she laughed. Her teeth were good in front, but out on one side and beginning to be discolored on the other. "How long had you been saving?"
"Nearly six months."
"Gee! Isn't that hell!" Presently she laughed. "Six months' work and only thirty-five to show for it. Guess you're about as poor at hiving it up as I am. I give it to that loafer I live with. You give it away to anybody that wants a stake. Well--what's the diff? It all goes."
"Give me a cigarette," said Susan, sitting up and inspecting the bruises on her bosom and legs. "And get that bottle of whiskey from under the soiled clothes in the bottom of the washstand."
"It is something to celebrate, isn't it?" said Clara. "My fellow's gone to his club tonight, so I didn't go out. I never do any more, unless he's there to hang round and see that I ain't done up. You'll have to get a fellow. You'll have to come to it, as I'm always telling you. They're expensive, but they're company--anybody you can count on for shining up, even if it is for what they can get out of you, is better than not having nobody nowhere. And they keep off bums and lobbygows and scare the bilkers into coughing up."
"Not for me," replied Susan.
The greater the catastrophe, the longer the time before it is fully realized. Susan's loss of the money that represented so much of savage if momentary horror, and so much of unconscious hope this calamity did not overwhelm her for several days. Then she yielded for the first time to the lure of opium. She had listened longingly to the descriptions of the delights as girls and men told; for practically all of them smoked--or took cocaine. But to Clara's or Gussie's invitations to join the happy band of dreamers, she had always replied, "Not yet. I'm saving that." Now, however, she felt that the time had come. Hope in this world she had none. Before the black adventure, why not try the world of blissful unreality to which it gave entrance? Why leave life until she had exhausted all it put within her reach?
She went to Gussie's room at midnight and flung herself down in a wrapper upon a couch opposite a sallow, delicate young man. His great dark eyes were gazing unseeingly at her, were perhaps using her as an outline sketch from which his imagination could picture a beauty of loveliness beyond human. Gussie taught her how to prepare the little ball of opium, how to put it on the pipe and draw in its fumes. Her system was so well prepared for it by the poisons she had drunk that she had satisfactory results from the outset. And she entered upon the happiest period of her life thus far. All the hideousness of her profession disappeared under the gorgeous draperies of the imagination. Opium's magic transformed the vile, the obscene, into the lofty, the romantic, the exalted. The world she had been accustomed to regard as real ceased to be even the blur the poisonous liquors had made of it, became a vague, distant thing seen in a dream. Her opium world became the vivid reality.
The life she had been leading had made her extremely thin, had hardened and dulled her eyes, had given her that sad, shuddering expression of the face upon which have beaten a thousand mercenary and lustful kisses. The opium soon changed all this. Her skin, always tending toward pallor, became of the dead amber-white of old ivory. Her thinness took on an ethereal transparency that gave charm even to her slight stoop. Her face became dreamy, exalted, rapt; and her violet-gray eyes looked from it like the vents of poetical fires burning without ceasing upon an altar to the god of dreams. Never had she been so beautiful; never had she been so happy--not with the coarser happiness of dancing eye and laughing lip, but with the ecstasy of soul that is like the shimmers of a tranquil sea quivering rhythmically under the caresses of moonlight.
In her descent she had now reached that long narrow shelf along which she would walk so long as health and looks should last--unless some accident should topple her off on the one side into suicide or on the other side into the criminal prostitute class. And such accidents were likely to happen. Still there was a fair chance of her keeping her balance until loss of looks and loss of health--the end of the shelf--should drop her abruptly to the very bottom. She could guess what was there. Every day she saw about the streets, most wretched and most forlorn of its wretched and forlorn things, the solitary old women, bent and twisted, wrapped in rotting rags, picking papers and tobacco from the gutters and burrowing in garbage barrels, seeking somehow to get the drink or the dope that changed hell into heaven for them.
Despite liquor and opium and the degradations of the street-woman's life she walked that narrow ledge with curious steadiness. She was unconscious of the cause. Indeed, self-consciousness had never been one of her traits. The cause is interesting.
In our egotism, in our shame of what we ignorantly regard as the lowliness of our origin we are always seeking alleged lofty spiritual explanations of our doings, and overlook the actual, quite simple real reason. One of the strongest factors in Susan's holding herself together in face of overwhelming odds, was the nearly seventeen years of early training her Aunt Fanny Warham had given her in orderly and systematic ways--a place for everything and everything in its place; a time for everything and everything at its time, neatness, scrupulous cleanliness, no neglecting of any of the small, yet large, matters that conserve the body. Susan had not been so apt a pupil of Fanny Warham's as was Ruth, because Susan had not Ruth's nature of the old-maidish, cut-and-dried conventional. But during the whole fundamentally formative period of her life Susan Lenox had been trained to order and system, and they had become part of her being, beyond the power of drink and opium and prostitution to disintegrate them until the general break-up should come. In all her wanderings every man or woman or girl she had met who was not rapidly breaking up, but was offering more or less resistance to the assaults of bad habits, was one who like herself had acquired in childhood strong good habits to oppose the bad habits and to fight them with. An enemy must be met with his own weapons or stronger. The strongest weapons that can be given a human animal for combating the destructive forces of the struggle for existence are not good sentiments or good principles or even pious or moral practices--for, bad habits can make short work of all these--but are good habits in the practical, material matters of life. They operate automatically, they apply to all the multitude of small, every day; semi-unconscious actions of the daily routine. They preserve the morale. And not morality but morals is the warp of character--the part which, once destroyed or even frayed, cannot be restored.
Susan, unconsciously and tenaciously practicing her early training in order and system whenever she could and wherever she could, had an enormous advantage over the mass of the girls, both respectable and fast. And while their evidence was always toward "going to pieces" her tendency was always to repair and to put off the break-up.
One June evening she was looking through the better class of dance halls and drinking resorts for Clara, to get her to go up to Gussie's for a smoke. She opened a door she had never happened to enter before--a dingy door with the glass frosted. Just inside there was a fetid little bar; view of the rest of the room was cut off by a screen from behind which came the sound of a tuneless old piano. She knew Clara would not be in such a den, but out of curiosity she glanced round the screen. She was seeing a low-ceilinged room, the walls almost dripping with the dirt of many and many a hard year. In a corner was the piano, battered, about to fall to pieces, its ancient and horrid voice cracked by the liquor which had been poured into it by facetious drunkards. At the keyboard sat an old hunchback, broken-jawed, dressed in slimy rags, his one eye instantly fixed upon her with a lecherous expression that made her shiver as it compelled her to imagine the embrace he was evidently imagining. His filthy fingers were pounding out a waltz. About the floor were tottering in the measure of the waltz a score of dreadful old women. They were in calico. They had each a little biscuit knot of white hair firmly upon the crown of the head. From their bleached, seamed old faces gleamed the longings or the torments of all the passions they could no longer either inspire or satisfy. They were one time prostitutes, one time young, perhaps pretty women, now descending to death--still prostitutes in heart and mind but compelled to live as scrub women, cleaners of all manner of loathsome messes in dives after the drunkards had passed on. They were now enjoying the reward of their toil, the pleasures of which they dreamed and to which they looked forward as they dragged their stiff old knees along the floors in the wake of the brush and the cloth. They were drinking biting poisons from tin cups--for those hands quivering with palsy could not be trusted with glass-dancing with drunken, disease-swollen or twisted legs--venting from ghastly toothless mouths strange cries of merriment that sounded like shrieks of damned souls at the licking of quenchless flames.
Susan stood rooted to the threshold of that frightful scene--that vision of the future toward which she was hurrying. A few years--a very few years--and, unless she should have passed through the Morgue, here she would be, abandoning her body to abominations beyond belief at the hands of degenerate oriental sailors to get a few pennies for the privileges of this dance hall. And she would laugh, as did these, would enjoy as did these, would revel in the filth her senses had been trained to find sweet. "No! No!" she protested. "I'd kill myself first!" And then she cowered again, as the thought came that she probably would not, any more than these had killed themselves. The descent would be gradual--no matter how swift, still gradual. Only the insane put an end to life. Yes--she would come here some day.
She leaned against the wall, her throat contracting in a fit of nausea. She grew cold all over; her teeth chattered. She tried in vain to tear her gaze from the spectacle; some invisible power seemed to be holding her head in a vise, thrusting her struggling eyelids violently open.
There were several men, dead drunk, asleep in old wooden chairs against the wall. One of these men was so near her that she could have touched him. His clothing was such an assortment of rags slimy and greasy as one sometimes sees upon the top of a filled garbage barrel to add its horrors of odor of long unwashed humanity to the stenches from vegetable decay. His wreck of a hard hat had fallen from his head as it dropped forward in drunken sleep. Something in the shape of the head made her concentrate upon this man. She gave a sharp cry, stretched out her hand, touched the man's shoulder.
"Rod!" she cried. "Rod!"
The head slowly lifted, and the bleary, blowsy wreck of Roderick Spenser's handsome face was turned stupidly toward her. Into his gray eyes slowly came a gleam of recognition. Then she saw the red of shame burst into his hollow cheeks, and the head quickly drooped.
She shook him. "Rod! It's you!"
"Get the hell out," he mumbled. "I want to sleep."
"You know me," she said. "I see the color in your face. Oh, Rod--you needn't be ashamed before me."
She felt him quiver under her fingers pressing upon his shoulder. But he pretended to snore.
"Rod," she pleaded, "I want you to come along with me. I can't do you any harm now."
The hunchback had stopped playing. The old women were crowding round Spenser and her, were peering at them, with eyes eager and ears a-cock for romance--for nowhere on this earth do the stars shine so sweetly as down between the precipices of shame to the black floor of the slum's abyss. Spenser, stooped and shaking, rose abruptly, thrust Susan aside with a sweep of the arm that made her reel, bolted into the street. She recovered her balance and amid hoarse croakings of "That's right, honey! Don't give him up!" followed the shambling, swaying figure. He was too utterly drunk to go far; soon down he sank, a heap of rags and filth, against a stoop.
She bent over him, saw he was beyond rousing, straightened and looked about her. Two honest looking young Jews stopped. "Won't you help me get him home?" she said to them. "Sure!" replied they in chorus. And, with no outward sign of the disgust they must have felt at the contact, they lifted up the sot, in such fantastic contrast to Susan's clean and even stylish appearance, and bore him along, trying to make him seem less the helpless whiskey-soaked dead weight. They dragged him up the two flights of stairs and, as she pushed back the door, deposited him on the floor. She assured them they could do nothing more, thanked them, and they departed. Clara appeared in her doorway.
"God Almighty, Lorna!" she cried. "What have you got there? How'd it get in?"
"You've been advising me to take a fellow," said Susan. "Well--here he is."
Clara looked at her as if she thought her crazed by drink or dope. "I'll call the janitor and have him thrown out."
"No, he's my lover," said Susan. "Will you help me clean him up?"
Clara, looking at Spenser's face now, saw those signs which not the hardest of the world's hard uses can cut or tear away. "Oh!" she said, in a tone of sympathy. "He is down, isn't he? But he'll pull round all right."
She went into her room to take off her street clothes and to get herself into garments as suitable as she possessed for one of those noisome tasks that are done a dozen times a day by the bath nurses in the receiving department of a charity hospital. When she returned, Susan too was in her chemise and ready to begin the search for the man, if man there was left deep buried in that muck. While Susan took off the stinking and rotten rags, and flung them into the hall, Clara went to the bathroom they and Mollie shared, and filled the tub with water as hot as her hand could bear. With her foot Susan pushed the rags along the hall floor and into the garbage closet. Then she and Clara lifted the emaciated, dirt-streaked, filth-smeared body, carried it to the bathroom, let it down into the water. There were at hand plenty of those strong, specially prepared soaps and other disinfectants constantly used by the women of their kind who still cling to cleanliness and health. With these they attacked him, not as if he were a human being, but as if he were some inanimate object that must be scoured before it could be used.
Again and again they let out the water, black, full of dead and dying vermin; again and again they rinsed him, attacked him afresh. Their task grew less and less repulsive as the man gradually appeared, a young man with a soft skin, a well-formed body, unusually good hands and feet, a distinguished face despite its savage wounds from dissipation, hardly the less handsome for the now fair and crisp beard which gave it a look of more years than Spenser had lived.
If Spenser recovered consciousness--and it seems hardly possible that he did not--he was careful to conceal the fact. He remained limp, inert, apparently in a stupor. They gave him one final scrubbing, one final rinsing, one final thorough inspection. "Now, he's all right," declared Clara. "What shall we do with him?"
"Put him to bed," said Susan.
They had already dried him off in the empty tub. They now rubbed him down with a rough towel, lifted him, Susan taking the shoulders, Clara the legs, and put him in Susan's bed. Clara ran to her room, brought one of the two nightshirts she kept for her fellow. When they had him in this and with a sheet over him, they cleaned and straightened the bathroom, then lit cigarettes and sat down to rest and to admire the work of their hands.
"Who is he?" asked Clara.
"A man I used to know," said Susan. Like all the girls in that life with a real story to tell, she never told about her past self. Never tell? They never even remember if drink and drugs will do their duty.
"I don't blame you for loving him," said Clara. "Somehow, the lower a man sinks the more a woman loves him. It's the other way with men. But then men don't know what love is. And a woman don't really know till she's been through the mill."
"I don't love him," said Susan.
"Same thing," replied the practical Clara, with a wave of the bare arm at the end of which smoked the cigarette. "What're you going to do with him?"
"I don't know," confessed Susan.
She was not a little uneasy at the thought of his awakening. Would he despise her more than ever now--fly from her back to his filth? Would he let her try to help him? And she looked at the face which had been, in that other life so long, long ago, dearer to her than any face her eyes had ever rested upon; a sob started deep down within her, found its slow and painful way upward, shaking her whole body and coming from between her clenched teeth in a groan. She forgot all she had suffered from Rod--forgot the truth about him which she had slowly puzzled out after she left him and as experience enabled her to understand actions she had not understood at the time. She forgot it all. That past--that far, dear, dead past! Again she was a simple, innocent girl upon the high rock, eating that wonderful dinner. Again the evening light faded, stars and moon came out, and she felt the first sweet stirring of love for him. She could hear his voice, the light, clear, entrancing melody of the Duke's song--
La Donna e mobile Qua penna al vento--
She burst into tears--tears that drenched her soul as the rain drenches the blasted desert and makes the things that could live in beauty stir deep in its bosom. And Clara, sobbing in sympathy, kissed her and stole away, softly closing the door. "If a man die, shall he live again?" asked the old Arabian philosopher. If a woman die, shall she live again?. . . Shall not that which dies in weakness live again in strength?. . . Looking at him, as he lay there sleeping so quietly, her being surged with the heaving of high longings and hopes. If they could only live again! Here they were, together, at the lowest depth, at the rock bottom of life. If they could build on that rock, build upon the very foundation of the world, then would they indeed build in strength! Then, nothing could destroy--nothing!. . . If they could live again! If they could build!
She had something to live for--something to fight for. Into her eyes came a new light; into her soul came peace and strength. Something to live for--someone to redeem.