Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
She fell asleep, her head resting upon her hand, her elbow on the arm of the chair. She awoke with a shiver; she opened her eyes to find him gazing at her. The eyes of both shifted instantly. "Wouldn't you like some whiskey?" she asked.
"Thanks," replied he, and his unchanged voice reminded her vividly of his old self, obscured by the beard and by the dissipated look.
She took the bottle from its concealment in the locked washstand drawer, poured him out a large drink. When she came back where he could see the whiskey in the glass, his eyes glistened and he raised himself first on his elbow, then to a sitting position. His shaking hand reached out eagerly and his expectant lips quivered. He gulped the whiskey down.
"Thank you," he said, gazing longingly at the bottle as he held the empty glass toward her.
"I would like a little more," said he gratefully.
Again she poured him a large drink, and again he gulped it down. "That's strong stuff," said he. "But then they sell strong stuff in this part of town. The other kind tastes weak to me now."
He dropped back against the pillows. She poured herself a drink. Halfway to her lips the glass halted. "I've got to stop that," thought she, "if I'm going to do anything for him or for myself." And she poured the whiskey back and put the bottle away. The whole incident took less than five seconds. It did not occur that she was essaying and achieving the heroic, that she had in that instant revealed her right to her dream of a career high above the common lot.
"Don't you drink?" said he.
"I've decided to cut it out," replied she carelessly. "There's nothing in it."
"I couldn't live without it--and wouldn't."
"It is a comfort when one's on the way down," said she. "But I'm going to try the other direction--for a change."
She held a box of cigarettes toward him. He took one, then she; she held the lighted match for him, lit her own cigarette, let the flame of the match burn on, she absently watching it.
"Look out! You'll burn yourself!" cried he.
She started, threw the match into the slop jar. "How do you feel?" inquired she.
"Like the devil," he answered. "But then I haven't known what it was to feel any other way for several months except when I couldn't feel at all." A long silence, both smoking, he thinking, she furtively watching him. "You haven't changed so much," he finally said. "At least, not on the outside."
"More on the outside than on the inside," said she. "The inside doesn't change much. There I'm almost as I was that day on the big rock. And I guess you are, too--aren't you?"
"The devil I am! I've grown hard and bitter."
"That's all outside," declared she. "That's the shell--like the scab that stays over the sore spot till it heals."
"Sore spot? I'm nothing but sore spots. I've been treated like a dog."
And he proceeded to talk about the only subject that interested him--himself. He spoke in a defensive way, as if replying to something she had said or thought. "I've not got down in the world without damn good excuse. I wrote several plays, and they were tried out of town. But we never could get into New York. I think Brent was jealous of me, and his influence kept me from a hearing. I know it sounds conceited, but I'm sure I'm right."
"Brent?" said she, in a queer voice. "Oh, I think you must be mistaken. He doesn't look like a man who could do petty mean things. No, I'm sure he's not petty."
"Do you know him?" cried Spenser, in an irritated tone.
"No. But--someone pointed him out to me once--a long time ago--one night in the Martin. And then--you'll remember--there used to be a great deal of talk about him when we lived in Forty-third Street. You admired him tremendously."
"Well, he's responsible," said Spenser, sullenly. "The men on top are always trampling down those who are trying to climb up. He had it in for me. One of my friends who thought he was a decent chap gave him my best play to read. He returned it with some phrases about its showing talent--one of those phrases that don't mean a damn thing. And a few weeks ago--" Spenser raised himself excitedly--"the thieving hound produced a play that was a clean steal from mine. I'd be laughed at if I protested or sued. But I know, curse him!"
He fell back shaking so violently that his cigarette dropped to the sheet. Susan picked it up, handed it to him. He eyed her with angry suspicion. "You don't believe me, do you?" he demanded.
"I don't know anything about it," replied she. "Anyhow, what does it matter? The man I met on that show boat--the Mr. Burlingham I've often talked about--he used to say that the dog that stopped to lick his scratches never caught up with the prey."
He flung himself angrily in the bed. "You never did have any heart--any sympathy. But who has? Even Drumley went back on me--let 'em put a roast of my last play in the Herald--a telegraphed roast from New Haven--said it was a dead failure. And who wrote it? Why, some newspaper correspondent in the pay of the Syndicate--and that means Brent. And of course it was a dead failure. So--I gave up--and here I am. . . . This your room?"
"Where's this nightshirt come from?"
"It belongs to the friend of the girl across the hall." He laughed sneeringly. "The hell it does!" mocked he. "I understand perfectly. I want my clothes."
"No one is coming," said Susan. "There's no one to come."
He was looking round the comfortable little room that was the talk of the whole tenement and was stirring wives and fast women alike to "do a little fixing up." Said he:
"A nice little nest you've made for him. You always were good at that."
"I've made it for myself," said she. "I never bring men here."
"I want my clothes," cried he. "I haven't sunk that low, you----!"
The word he used did not greatly disturb Susan. The shell she had formed over herself could ward off brutal contacts of languages no less than of the other kinds. It did, however, shock her a little to hear Rod Spenser use a word so crude.
"Give me my clothes," he ordered, waving his fists in a fierce, feeble gesture.
"They were torn all to pieces. I threw them away. I'll get you some more in the morning."
He dropped back again, a scowl upon his face. "I've got no money--not a damn cent. I did half a day's work on the docks and made enough to quiet me last night." He raised himself. "I can work again. Give me my clothes!"
"They're gone," said Susan. "They were completely used up."
This brought back apparently anything but dim memory of what his plight had been. "How'd I happen to get so clean?"
"Clara and I washed you off a little. You had fallen down."
He lay silent a few minutes, then said in a hesitating, ashamed tone, "My troubles have made me a boor. I beg your pardon. You've been tremendously kind to me."
"Oh, it wasn't much. Don't you feel sleepy?"
"Not a bit." He dragged himself from the bed. "But you do. I must go."
She laughed in the friendliest way. "You can't. You haven't any clothes."
He passed his hand over his face and coughed violently, she holding his head and supporting his emaciated shoulders. After several minutes of coughing and gagging, gasping and groaning and spitting, he was relieved by the spasm and lay down again. When he got his breath, he said--with rest between words--"I'd ask you to send for the ambulance, but if the doctors catch me, they'll lock me away. I've got consumption. Oh, I'll soon be out of it."
Susan sat silent. She did not dare look at him lest he should see the pity and horror in her eyes.
"They'll find a cure for it," pursued he. "But not till the day after I'm gone. That is the way my luck runs. Still, I don't see why I should care to stay--and I don't! Have you any more of that whiskey?"
Susan brought out the bottle again, gave him the last of the whiskey--a large drink. He sat up, sipping it to make it last. He noted the long row of books on the shelf fastened along the wall beside the bed, the books and magazines on the table. Said he:
"As fond of reading as ever, I see?"
"Fonder," said she. "It takes me out of myself."
"I suppose you read the sort of stuff you really like, now--not the things you used to read to make old Drumley think you were cultured and intellectual."
"No--the same sort," replied she, unruffled by his contemptuous, unjust fling. "Trash bores me."
"Come to think of it, I guess you did have pretty good taste in books."
But he was interested in himself, like all invalids; and, like them, he fancied his own intense interest could not but be shared by everyone. He talked on and on of himself, after the manner of failures--told of his wrongs, of how friends had betrayed him, of the jealousies and enmities his talents had provoked. Susan was used to these hard-luck stories, was used to analyzing them. With the aid of what she had worked out as to his character after she left him, she had no difficulty in seeing that he was deceiving himself, was excusing himself. But after all she had lived through, after all she had discovered about human frailty, especially in herself, she was not able to criticize, much less condemn, anybody. Her doubts merely set her to wondering whether he might not also be self-deceived as to his disease.
"Why do you think you've got consumption?" asked she.
"I was examined at the free dispensary up in Second Avenue the other day. I've suspected what was the matter for several months. They told me I was right."
"But the doctors are always making mistakes. I'd not give up if I were you."
"Do you suppose I would if I had anything to live for?"
"I was thinking about that a while ago--while you were asleep."
"Oh, I'm all in. That's a cinch."
"So am I," said she. "And as we've nothing to lose and no hope, why, trying to do something won't make us any worse off. . . . We've both struck the bottom. We can't go any lower." She leaned forward and, with her earnest eyes fixed upon him, said, "Rod--why not try--together?"
He closed his eyes.
"I'm afraid I can't be of much use to you," she went on. "But you can help me. And helping me will make you help yourself. I can't get up alone. I've tried. No doubt it's my fault. I guess I'm one of those women that aren't hard enough or self-confident enough to do what's necessary unless I've got some man to make me do it. Perhaps I'd get the--the strength or whatever it is, when I was much older. But by that time in my case--I guess it'd be too late. Won't you help me, Rod?"
He turned his head away, without opening his eyes.
"You've helped me many times--beginning with the first day we met."
"Don't," he said. "I went back on you. I did sprain my ankle, but I could have come."
"That wasn't anything," replied she. "You had already done a thousand times more than you needed to do."
His hand wandered along the cover in her direction. She touched it. Their hands clasped.
"I lied about where I got the money yesterday. I didn't work. I begged. Three of us--from the saloon they call the Owl's Chute--two Yale men--one of them had been a judge--and I. We've been begging for a week. We were going out on the road in a few days--to rob. Then--I saw you--in that old women's dance hall--the Venusberg, they call it."
"You've come down here for me, Rod. You'll take me back? You'll save me from the Venusberg?"
"I couldn't save anybody. Susie, at bottom I'm N. G. I always was--and I knew it. Weak--vain. But you! If you hadn't been a woman--and such a sweet, considerate one you'd have never got down here."
"Such a fool," corrected Susan. "But, once I get up, I'll not be so again. I'll fight under the rules, instead of acting in the silly way they teach us as children."
"Don't say those hard things, Susie!"
"Aren't they true?"
"Yes, but I can't bear to hear them from a woman. . . . I told you that you hadn't changed. But after I'd looked at you a while I saw that you have. You've got a terrible look in your eyes--wonderful and terrible. You had something of that look as a child--the first time I saw you."
"The day after my marriage," said the girl, tearing her face away.
"It was there then," he went on. "But now--it's--it's heartbreaking, Susie when your face is in repose."
"I've gone through a fire that has burned up every bit of me that can burn," said she. "I've been wondering if what's left isn't strong enough to do something with. I believe so--if you'll help me."
"Help you? I--help anybody? Don't mock me, Susie."
"I don't know about anybody else," said she sweetly and gently, "but I do know about me."
"No use--too late. I've lost my nerve." He began to sob. "It's because I'm unstrung," explained he.
"Don't think I'm a poor contemptible fool of a whiner. . . . Yes, I am a whiner! Susie, I ought to have been the woman and you the man. Weak--weak--weak!"
She turned the gas low, bent over him, kissed his brow, caressed him. "Let's do the best we can," she murmured.
He put his arm round her. "I wonder if there is any hope," he said. "No--there couldn't be."
"Let's not hope," pleaded she. "Let's just do the best we can."
"You know the theater people. You might write a little play--a sketch--and you and I could act it in one of the ten-cent houses."
"That's not a bad idea!" exclaimed he. "A little comedy--about fifteen or twenty minutes." And he cast about for a plot, found the beginnings of one the ancient but ever acceptable commonplace of a jealous quarrel between two lovers--"I'll lay the scene in Fifth Avenue--there's nothing low life likes so much as high life." He sketched, she suggested. They planned until broad day, then fell asleep, she half sitting up, his head pillowed upon her lap.
She was awakened by a sense of a parching and suffocating heat. She started up with the idea of fire in her drowsy mind. But a glance at him revealed the real cause. His face was fiery red, and from his lips came rambling sentences, muttered, whispered, that indicated the delirium of a high fever. She had first seen it when she and the night porter broke into Burlingham's room in the Walnut Street House, in Cincinnati. She had seen it many a time since; for, while she herself had never been ill, she had been surrounded by illness all the time, and the commonest form of it was one of these fevers, outraged nature's frenzied rise against the ever denser swarms of enemies from without which the slums sent to attack her. Susan ran across the hall and roused Clara, who would watch while she went for a doctor. "You'd better get Einstein in Grand Street," Clara advised.
"Why not Sacci?" asked Susan.
"Our doctor doesn't know anything but the one thing--and he doesn't like to take other kinds of cases. No, get Einstein. . . . You know, he's like all of them--he won't come unless you pay in advance."
"How much?" asked Susan.
"Three dollars. I'll lend you if----"
"No--I've got it." She had eleven dollars and sixty cents in the world.
Einstein pronounced it a case of typhoid. "You must get him to the hospital at once."
Susan and Clara looked at each other in terror. To them, as to the masses everywhere, the hospital meant almost certain death; for they assumed--and they had heard again and again accusations which warranted it--that the public hospital doctors and nurses treated their patients with neglect always, with downright inhumanity often. Not a day passed without their hearing some story of hospital outrage upon poverty, without their seeing someone--usually some child--who was paying a heavy penalty for having been in the charity wards.
Einstein understood their expression. "Nonsense!" said he gruffly. "You girls look too sensible to believe those silly lies."
Susan looked at him steadily. His eyes shifted. "Of course, the pay service is better," said he in a strikingly different tone.
"How much would it be at a pay hospital?" asked Susan.
"Twenty-five a week including my services," said Doctor Einstein. "But you can't afford that."
"Will he get the best treatment for that?"
"The very best. As good as if he were Rockefeller or the big chap uptown."
"In advance, I suppose?"
"Would we ever get our money out of people if we didn't get it in advance? We've got to live just the same as any other class."
"I understand," said the girl. "I don't blame you. I don't blame anybody for anything." She said to Clara, "Can you lend me twenty?"
"Sure. Come in and get it." When she and Susan were in the hall beyond Einstein's hearing, she went on: "I've got the twenty and you're welcome to it. But--Lorna hadn't you better----"
"In the same sort of a case, what'd you do?" interrupted Susan.
Clara laughed. "Oh--of course." And she gave Susan a roll of much soiled bills--a five, the rest ones and twos.
"I can get the ambulance to take him free," said Einstein. "That'll save you five for a carriage."
She accepted this offer. And when the ambulance went, with Spenser burning and raving in the tightly wrapped blankets, Susan followed in a street car to see with her own eyes that he was properly installed. It was arranged that she could visit him at any hour and stay as long as she liked.
She returned to the tenement, to find the sentiment of the entire neighborhood changed toward her. Not loss of money, not loss of work, not dispossession nor fire nor death is the supreme calamity among the poor, but sickness. It is their most frequent visitor--sickness in all its many frightful forms--rheumatism and consumption, cancer and typhoid and the rest of the monsters. Yet never do the poor grow accustomed or hardened. And at the sight of the ambulance the neighborhood had been instantly stirred. When the reason for its coming got about, Susan became the object of universal sympathy and respect. She was not sending her friend to be neglected and killed at a charity hospital; she was paying twenty-five a week that he might have a chance for life--twenty-five dollars a week! The neighbors felt that her high purpose justified any means she might be compelled to employ in getting the money. Women who had scowled and spat as she walked by, spoke friendlily to her and wiped their eyes with their filthy skirts, and prayed in church and synagogue that she might prosper until her man was well and the old debt paid. Clara went from group to group, relating the whole story, and the tears flowed at each recital. Money they had none to give; but what they had they gave with that generosity which suddenly transfigures rags and filth and makes foul and distorted bodies lift in the full dignity of membership in the human family. Everywhere in those streets were seen the ravages of disease--rheumatism and rickets and goiter, wen and tumors and cancer, children with only one arm or one leg, twisted spines, sunken chests, distorted hips, scrofulous eyes and necks, all the sad markings of poverty's supreme misery, the ferocious penalties of ignorance, stupidity and want. But Susan's burden of sorrow was not on this account overlooked.
Rafferty, who kept the saloon at the corner and was chief lieutenant to O'Frayne, the District Leader, sent for her and handed her a twenty. "That may help some," said he.
Susan hesitated--gave it back. "Thank you," said she, "and perhaps later I'll have to get it from you. But I don't want to get into debt. I already owe twenty."
"This ain't debt," explained Rafferty. "Take it and forget it."
"I couldn't do that," said the girl. "But maybe you'll lend it to me, if I need it in a week or so?"
"Sure," said the puzzled saloon man--liquor store man, he preferred to be called, or politician. "Any amount you want."
As she went away he looked after her, saying to his barkeeper: "What do you think of that, Terry? I offered her a twenty and she sidestepped."
Terry's brother had got drunk a few days before, had killed a woman and was on his way to the chair. Terry scowled at the boss and said:
"She's got a right to, ain't she? Don't she earn her money honest, without harmin' anybody but herself? There ain't many that can say that--not any that runs factories and stores and holds their noses up as if they smelt their own sins, damn 'em!"
"She's a nice girl," said Rafferty, sauntering away. He was a broad, tolerant and good-humored man; he made allowances for an employee whose brother was in for murder.
Susan had little time to spend at the hospital. She must now earn fifty dollars a week--nearly double the amount she had been averaging. She must pay the twenty-five dollars for Spenser, the ten dollars for her lodgings. Then there was the seven dollars which must be handed to the police captain's "wardman" in the darkness of some entry every Thursday night. She had been paying the patrolman three dollars a week to keep him in a good humor, and two dollars to the janitor's wife; she might risk cutting out these items for the time, as both janitor's wife and policeman were sympathetic. But on the closest figuring, fifty a week would barely meet her absolute necessities--would give her but seven a week for food and other expenses and nothing toward repaying Clara.
Fifty dollars a week! She might have a better chance to make it could she go back to the Broadway-Fifth Avenue district. But however vague other impressions from the life about her might have been, there had been branded into her a deep and terrible fear of the police an omnipotence as cruel as destiny itself--indeed, the visible form of that sinister god at present. Once in the pariah class, once with a "police record," and a man or woman would have to scale the steeps of respectability up to a far loftier height than Susan ever dreamed of again reaching, before that malign and relentless power would abandon its tyranny. She did not dare risk adventuring a part of town where she had no "pull" and where, even should she by chance escape arrest, Freddie Palmer would hear of her; would certainly revenge himself by having her arrested and made an example of. In the Grand Street district she must stay, and she must "stop the nonsense" and "play the game"--must be businesslike.
She went to see the "wardman," O'Ryan, who under the guise of being a plain clothes man or detective, collected and turned in to the captain, who took his "bit" and passed up the rest, all the money levied upon saloons, dives, procuresses, dealers in unlawful goods of any kind from opium and cocaine to girls for "hock shops."
O'Ryan was a huge brute of a man, his great hard face bearing the scars of battles against pistol, knife, bludgeon and fist. He was a sour and savage brute, hated and feared by everyone for his tyrannies over the helpless poor and the helpless outcast class. He had primitive masculine notions as to feminine virtue, intact despite the latter day general disposition to concede toleration and even a certain respectability to prostitutes. But by some chance which she and the other girls did not understand he treated Susan with the utmost consideration, made the gangs appreciate that if they annoyed her or tried to drag her into the net of tribute in which they had enmeshed most of the girls worth while, he would regard it as a personal defiance to himself.
Susan waited in the back room of the saloon nearest O'Ryan's lodgings and sent a boy to ask him to come. The boy came back with the astonishing message that she was to come to O'Ryan's flat. Susan was so doubtful that she paused to ask the janitress about it.
"It's all right," said the janitress. "Since his wife died three years ago him and his baby lives alone. There's his old mother but she's gone out. He's always at home when he ain't on duty. He takes care of the baby himself, though it howls all the time something awful."
Susan ascended, found the big policeman in his shirt sleeves, trying to soothe the most hideous monstrosity she had ever seen--a misshapen, hairy animal looking like a monkey, like a rat, like half a dozen repulsive animals, and not at all like a human being. The thing was clawing and growling and grinding its teeth. At sight of Susan it fixed malevolent eyes on her and began to snap its teeth at her.
"Don't mind him," said O'Ryan. "He's only acting up queer."
Susan sat not daring to look at the thing lest she should show her aversion, and not knowing how to state her business when the thing was so clamorous, so fiendishly uproarious. After a time O'Ryan succeeded in quieting it. He seemed to think some explanation was necessary. He began abruptly, his gaze tenderly on the awful creature, his child, lying quiet now in his arms:
"My wife--she died some time ago--died when the baby here was born."
"You spend a good deal of time with it," said Susan.
"All I can spare from my job. I'm afraid to trust him to anybody, he being kind of different. Then, too, I like to take care of him. You see, it's all I've got to remember her by. I'm kind o' tryin' to do what she'd want did." His lips quivered. He looked at his monstrous child. "Yes, I like settin' here, thinkin'--and takin' care of him."
This brute of a slave driver, this cruel tyrant over the poor and the helpless--yet, thus tender and gentle--thus capable of the enormous sacrifice of a great, pure love!
"You've got a way of lookin' out of the eyes that's like her," he went on--and Susan had the secret of his strange forbearance toward her. "I suppose you've come about being let off on the assessment?"
Already he knew the whole story of Rod and the hospital. "Yes--that's why I'm bothering you," said she.
"You needn't pay but five-fifty. I can only let you off a dollar and a half--my bit and the captain's. We pass the rest on up--and we don't dare let you off."
"Oh, I can make the money," Susan said hastily. "Thank you, Mr. O'Ryan, but I don't want to get anyone into trouble."
"We've got the right to knock off one dollar and a half," said O'Ryan. "But if we let you off the other, the word would get up to--to wherever the graft goes--and they'd send down along the line, to have merry hell raised with us. The whole thing's done systematic, and they won't take no excuses, won't allow no breaks in the system nowhere. You can see for yourself--it'd go to smash if they did."
"Somebody must get a lot of money," said Susan.
"Oh, it's dribbled out--and as you go higher up, I don't suppose them that gets it knows where it comes from. The whole world's nothing but graft, anyhow. Sorry I can't let you off."
The thing in his lap had recovered strength for a fresh fit of malevolence. It was tearing at its hairy, hideous face with its claws and was howling and shrieking, the big father gently trying to soothe it--for her sake. Susan got away quickly. She halted in the deserted hall and gave way to a spasm of dry sobbing--an overflow of all the emotions that had been accumulating within her. In this world of noxious and repulsive weeds, what sudden startling upshooting of what beautiful flowers! Flowers where you would expect to find the most noisome weeds of all, and vilest weeds where you would expect to find flowers. What a world!
However--the fifty a week must be got--and she must be businesslike.
Most of the girls who took to the streets came direct from the tenements of New York, of the foreign cities or of the factory towns of New England. And the world over, tenement house life is an excellent school for the life of the streets. It prevents modesty from developing; it familiarizes the eye, the ear, the nerves, to all that is brutal; it takes away from a girl every feeling that might act as a restraining influence except fear--fear of maternity, of disease, of prison. Thus, practically all the other girls had the advantage over Susan. Soon after they definitely abandoned respectability and appeared in the streets frankly members of the profession, they became bold and rapacious. They had an instinctive feeling that their business was as reputable as any other, more reputable than many held in high repute, that it would be most reputable if it paid better and were less uncertain. They respected themselves for all things, talk to the contrary in the search for the sympathy and pity most human beings crave. They despised the men as utterly as the men despised them. They bargained as shamelessly as the men. Even those who did not steal still felt that stealing was justifiable; for, in the streets the sex impulse shows stripped of all disguise, shows as a brutal male appetite, and the female feels that her yielding to it entitles her to all she can compel and cozen and crib. Susan had been unfitted for her profession--as for all active, unsheltered life--by her early training. The point of view given us in our childhood remains our point of view as to all the essentials of life to the end. Reason, experience, the influence of contact with many phases of the world, may change us seemingly, but the under-instinct remains unchanged. Thus, Susan had never lost, and never would lose her original repugnance; not even drink had ever given her the courage to approach men or to bargain with them. Her shame was a false shame, like most of the shame in the world--a lack of courage, not a lack of desire--and, however we may pretend, there can be no virtue in abstinence merely through cowardice. Still, if there be merit in shrinking, even when the cruelest necessities were goading, that merit was hers in full measure. As a matter of reason and sense, she admitted that the girls who respected themselves and practiced their profession like merchants of other kinds were right, were doing what she ought to do. Anyhow, it was absurd to practice a profession half-heartedly. To play your game, whatever it might be, for all there was in it--that was the obvious first principle of success. Yet--she remained laggard and squeamish.
What she had been unable to do for herself, to save herself from squalor, from hunger, from cold, she was now able to do for the sake of another--to help the man who had enabled her to escape from that marriage, more hideous than anything she had endured since, or ever could be called upon to endure--to save him from certain neglect and probable death in the "charity" hospital. Not by merely tolerating the not too impossible men who joined her without sign from her, and not by merely accepting what they gave, could fifty dollars a week be made. She must dress herself in franker avowal of her profession, must look as expensive as her limited stock of clothing, supplemented by her own taste, would permit. She must flirt, must bargain, must ask for presents, must make herself agreeable, must resort to the crude female arts--which, however, are subtle enough to convince the self-enchanted male even in face of the discouraging fact of the mercenary arrangement. She must crush down her repugnance, must be active, not simply passive--must get the extra dollars by stimulating male appetites, instead of simply permitting them to satisfy themselves. She must seem rather the eager mistress than the reluctant and impatient wife.
And she did abruptly change her manner. There was in her, as her life had shown, a power of endurance, an ability to sacrifice herself in order to do the thing that seemed necessary, and to do it without shuffling or whining. Whatever else her career had done for her, it undoubtedly had strengthened this part of her nature. And now the result of her training showed. With her superior intelligence for the first time free to make the best of her opportunities, she abruptly became equal to the most consummate of her sisters in that long line of her sister-panders to male appetites which extends from the bought wife or mistress or fiancee of the rich grandee down all the social ranks to the wife or street girl cozening for a tipsy day-laborer's earnings on a Saturday night and the work girl teasing her "steady company" toward matrimony on the park bench or in the dark entry of the tenement.
She was able to pay Clara back in less than ten days. In Spenser's second week at the hospital she had him moved to better quarters and better attendance at thirty dollars a week.
Although she had never got rid of her most unprofessional habit of choosing and rejecting, there had been times when need forced her into straits where her lot seemed to her almost as low as that of the slave-like wives of the tenements, made her almost think she would be nearly as well off were she the wife, companion, butt, servant and general vent to some one dull and distasteful provider of a poor living. But now she no longer felt either degraded or heart sick and heart weary. And when he passed the worst crisis her spirits began to return.
And when Roderick should be well, and the sketch written--and an engagement got--Ah, then! Life indeed--life, at last! Was it this hope that gave her the strength to fight down and conquer the craving for opium? Or was it the necessity of keeping her wits and of saving every cent? Or was it because the opium habit, like the drink habit, like every other habit, is a matter of a temperament far more than it is a matter of an appetite--and that she had the appetite but not the temperament? No doubt this had its part in the quick and complete victory. At any rate, fight and conquer she did. The strongest interest always wins. She had an interest stronger than love of opium--an interest that substituted itself for opium and for drink and supplanted them. Life indeed--life, at last!
In his third week Rod began to round toward health. Einstein observed from the nurse's charts that Susan's visits were having an unfavorably exciting effect. He showed her the readings of temperature and pulse, and forbade her to stay longer than five minutes at each of her two daily visits. Also, she must not bring up any topic beyond the sickroom itself. One day Spenser greeted her with, "I'll feel better, now that I've got this off my mind." He held out to her a letter. "Take that to George Fitzalan. He's an old friend of mine--one I've done a lot for and never asked any favors of. He may be able to give you something fairly good, right away."
Susan glanced penetratingly at him, saw he had been brooding over the source of the money that was being spent upon him. "Very well," said she, "I'll go as soon as I can."
"Go this afternoon," said he with an invalid's fretfulness. "And when you come this evening you can tell me how you got on."
"Very well. This afternoon. But you know, Rod, there's not a ghost of a chance."
"I tell you Fitzalan's my friend. He's got some gratitude. He'll do something."
"I don't want you to get into a mood where you'll be awfully depressed if I should fail."
"But you'll not fail."
It was evident that Spenser, untaught by experience and flattered into exaggerating his importance by the solicitude and deference of doctors and nurses to a paying invalid, had restored to favor his ancient enemy--optimism, the certain destroyer of any man who does not shake it off. She went away, depressed and worried. When she should come back with the only possible news, what would be the effect upon him--and he still in a critical stage? As the afternoon must be given to business, she decided to go straight uptown, hoping to catch Fitzalan before he went out to lunch. And twenty minutes after making this decision she was sitting in the anteroom of a suite of theatrical offices in the Empire Theater building. The girl in attendance had, as usual, all the airs little people assume when they are in close, if menial, relations with a person who, being important to them, therefore fills their whole small horizon. She deigned to take in Susan's name and the letter. Susan seated herself at the long table and with the seeming of calmness that always veiled her in her hours of greatest agitation, turned over the pages of the theatrical journals and magazines spread about in quantity.
After perhaps ten silent and uninterrupted minutes a man hurried in from the outside hall, strode toward the frosted glass door marked "Private." With his hand reaching for the knob he halted, made an impatient gesture, plumped himself down at the long table--at its distant opposite end. With a sweep of the arm he cleared a space wherein he proceeded to spread papers from his pocket and to scribble upon them furiously. When Susan happened to glance at him, his head was bent so low and his straw hat was tilted so far forward that she could not see his face. She observed that he was dressed attractively in an extremely light summer suit of homespun; his hands were large and strong and ruddy--the hands of an artist, in good health. Her glance returned to the magazine. After a few minutes she looked up. She was startled to find that the man was giving her a curious, searching inspection--and that he was Brent, the playwright--the same fascinating face, keen, cynical, amused--the same seeing eyes, that, in the Cafe Martin long ago, had made her feel as if she were being read to her most secret thought. She dropped her glance.
His voice made her start. "It's been a long time since I've seen you," he was saying.
She looked up, not believing it possible he was addressing her. But his gaze was upon her. Thus, she had not been mistaken in thinking she had seen recognition in his eyes. "Yes," she said, with a faint smile.
"A longer time for you than for me," said he.
"A good deal has happened to me," she admitted.
"Are you on the stage?"
"No. Not yet."
The girl entered by way of the private door. "Miss Lenox--this way, please." She saw Brent, became instantly all smiles and bows. "Oh--Mr. Fitzalan doesn't know you're here, Mr. Brent," she cried. Then, to Susan, "Wait a minute."
She was about to reenter the private office when Brent stopped her with, "Let Miss Lenox go in first. I don't wish to see Mr. Fitzalan yet." And he stood up, took off his hat, bowed gravely to Susan, said, "I'm glad to have seen you again."
Susan, with some color forced into her old-ivory skin by nervousness and amazement, went into the presence of Fitzalan. As the now obsequious girl closed the door behind her, she found herself facing a youngish man with a remnant of hair that was little more than fuzz on the top of his head. His features were sharp, aggressive, rather hard. He might have sat for the typical successful American young man of forty--so much younger in New York than is forty elsewhere in the United States--and so much older. He looked at Susan with a pleasant sympathetic smile.
"So," said he, "you're taking care of poor Spenser, are you? Tell him I'll try to run down to see him. I wish I could do something for him--something worth while, I mean. But--his request----
"Really, I've nothing of the kind. I couldn't possibly place you--at least, not at present--perhaps, later on----"
"I understand," interrupted Susan. "He's very ill. It would help him greatly if you would write him a few lines, saying you'll give me a place at the first vacancy, but that it may not be soon. I'll not trouble you again. I want the letter simply to carry him over the crisis."
Fitzalan hesitated, rubbed his fuzzy crown with his jeweled hand. "Tell him that," he said, finally. "I'm rather careful about writing letters. . . . Yes, say to him what you suggested, as if it was from me."
"The letter will make all the difference between his believing and not believing," urged Susan. "He has great admiration and liking for you--thinks you would do anything for him."
Fitzalan frowned; she saw that her insistence had roused--or, rather, had strengthened--suspicion. "Really--you must excuse me. What I've heard about him the past year has not----
"But, no matter, I can't do it. You'll let me know how he's getting on? Good day." And he gave her that polite yet positive nod of dismissal which is a necessary part of the equipment of men of affairs, constantly beset as they are and ever engaged in the battle to save their chief asset, time, from being wasted.
Susan looked at him--a straight glance from gray eyes, a slight smile hovering about her scarlet lips. He reddened, fussed with the papers before him on the desk from which he had not risen. She opened the door, closed it behind her. Brent was seated with his back full to her and was busy with his scribbling. She passed him, went on to the outer door. She was waiting for his voice; she knew it would come.
As she turned he was advancing. His figure, tall and slim and straight, had the ease of movement which proclaims the man who has been everywhere and so is at home anywhere. He held out a card. "I wish to see you on business. You can come at three this afternoon?"
"Yes," said Susan.
"Thanks," said he, bowing and returning to the table. She went on into the hall, the card between her fingers. At the elevator, she stood staring at the name--Robert Brent--as if it were an inscription in a forgotten language. She was so absorbed, so dazed that she did not ring the bell. The car happened to stop at that floor; she entered as if it were dark. And, in the street, she wandered many blocks down Broadway before she realized where she was.
She left the elevated and walked eastward through Grand Street. She was filled with a new and profound dissatisfaction. She felt like one awakening from a hypnotic trance. The surroundings, inanimate and animate, that had become endurable through custom abruptly resumed their original aspect of squalor and ugliness of repulsion and tragedy. A stranger--the ordinary, unobservant, feebly imaginative person, going along those streets would have seen nothing but tawdriness and poverty. Susan, experienced, imaginative, saw all--saw what another would have seen only after it was pointed out, and even then but dimly. And that day her vision was no longer staled and deadened by familiarity, but with vision fresh and with nerves acute. The men--the women--and, saddest, most tragic of all, the children! When she entered her room her reawakened sensitiveness, the keener for its long repose, for the enormous unconscious absorption of impressions of the life about her--this morbid sensitiveness of the soul a-clash with its environment reached its climax. As she threw open the door, she shrank back before the odor--the powerful, sensual, sweet odor of chypre so effective in covering the bad smells that came up from other flats and from the noisome back yards. The room itself was neat and clean and plain, with not a few evidences of her personal taste--in the blending of colors, in the selection of framed photographs on the walls. The one she especially liked was the largest--a nude woman lying at full length, her head supported by her arm, her face gazing straight out of the picture, upon it a baffling expression--of sadness, of cynicism, of amusement perhaps, of experience, yet of innocence. It hung upon the wall opposite the door. When she saw this picture in the department store, she felt at once a sympathy between that woman and herself, felt she was for the first time seeing another soul like her own, one that would have understood her strange sense of innocence in the midst of her own defiled and depraved self--a core of unsullied nature. Everyone else in the world would have mocked at this notion of a something within--a true self to which all that seemed to be her own self was as external as her clothing; this woman of the photograph would understand. So, there she hung--Susan's one prized possession.
The question of dressing for this interview with Brent was most important. Susan gave it much thought before she began to dress, changed her mind again and again in the course of dressing. Through all her vicissitudes she had never lost her interest in the art of dress or her skill at it--and despite the unfavorable surroundings she had steadily improved; any woman anywhere would instantly have recognized her as one of those few favored and envied women who know how to get together a toilet. She finally chose the simplest of the half dozen summer dresses she had made for herself--a plain white lawn, with a short skirt. It gave her an appearance of extreme youth, despite her height and the slight stoop in her shoulders--a mere drooping that harmonized touchingly with the young yet weary expression of her face. To go with the dress she had a large hat of black rough straw with a very little white trimming on it. With this large black hat bewitchingly set upon her gracefully-done dark wavy hair, her sad, dreamy eyes, her pallid skin, her sweet-bitter mouth with its rouged lips seemed to her to show at their best. She felt that nothing was quite so effective for her skin as a white dress. In other colors--though she did not realize--the woman of bought kisses showed more distinctly--never brazenly as in most of the girls, but still unmistakably. In white she took on a glamour of melancholy--and the human countenance is capable of no expression so universally appealing as the look of melancholy that suggests the sadness underlying all life, the pain that pays for pleasure, the pain that pays and gets no pleasure, the sorrow of the passing of all things, the faint foreshadow of the doom awaiting us all. She washed the rouge from her lips, studied the effect in the glass. "No," she said aloud, "without it I feel like a hypocrite--and I don't look half so well." And she put the rouge on again--the scarlet dash drawn startlingly across her strange, pallid face.