Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
At three that afternoon she stood in the vestibule of Brent's small house in Park Avenue overlooking the oblong of green between East Thirty-seventh Street and East Thirty-eighth. A most reputable looking Englishman in evening dress opened the door; from her reading and her theater-going she knew that this was a butler. He bowed her in. The entire lower floor was given to an entrance hall, done in plain black walnut, almost lofty of ceiling, and with a grand stairway leading to the upper part of the house. There was a huge fireplace to the right; a mirror filled the entire back wall; a broad low seat ran all round the room. In one corner, an enormous urn of dark pottery; in another corner, a suit of armor, the helmet, the breastplate and the gauntlets set with gold of ancient lackluster.
The butler left her there and ascended the polished but dead-finished stairway noiselessly. Susan had never before been in so grand a room. The best private house she had ever seen was Wright's in Sutherland; and while everybody else in Sutherland thought it magnificent, she had felt that there was something wrong, what she had not known. The grandiose New York hotels and restaurants were more showy and more pretentious far than this interior of Brent's. But her unerring instinct of those born with good taste knew at first view of them that they were simply costly; there were beautiful things in them, fine carvings and paintings and tapestries, but personality was lacking. And without personality there can be no unity; without unity there can be no harmony--and without harmony, no beauty.
Looking round her now, she had her first deep draught of esthetic delight in interior decoration. She loved this quiet dignity, this large simplicity--nothing that obtruded, nothing that jarred, everything on the same scale of dark coloring and large size. She admired the way the mirror, without pretense of being anything but a mirror, enhanced the spaciousness of the room and doubled the pleasure it gave by offering another and different view of it.
Last of all Susan caught sight of herself--a slim, slightly stooped figure, its white dress and its big black hat with white trimmings making it stand out strongly against the rather somber background. In a curiously impersonal way her own sad, wistful face interested her. A human being's face is a summary of his career. No man can realize at a thought what he is, can epitomize in just proportion what has been made of him by experience of the multitude of moments of which life is composed. But in some moods and in some lights we do get such an all-comprehending view of ourselves in looking at our own faces. As she had instinctively felt, there was a world of meaning in the contrast between her pensive brow above melancholy eyes and the blood-red line of her rouged lips.
The butler descended. "Mr. Brent is in his library, on the fourth floor," said he. "Will you kindly step this way, ma'am?"
Instead of indicating the stairway, he went to the panel next the chimney piece. She saw that it was a hidden door admitting to an elevator. She entered; the door closed; the elevator ascended rapidly. When it came to a stop the door opened and she was facing Brent.
"Thank you for coming," said he, with almost formal courtesy.
For all her sudden shyness, she cast a quick but seeing look round. It was an overcast day; the soft floods of liquid light--the beautiful light of her beloved City of the Sun--poured into the big room through an enormous window of clear glass which formed the entire north wall. Round the other walls from floor almost to lofty ceiling were books in solid rows; not books with ornamental bindings, but books for use, books that had been and were being used. By way of furniture there were an immense lounge, wide and long and deep, facing the left chimney piece, an immense table desk facing the north light, three great chairs with tall backs, one behind the table, one near the end of the table, the third in the corner farthest from the window; a grand piano, open, with music upon its rack, and a long carved seat at its keyboard. The huge window had a broad sill upon which was built a generous window garden fresh and lively with bright flowers. The woodwork, the ceiling, the furniture were of mahogany. The master of this splendid simplicity was dressed in a blue house suit of some summer material like linen. He was smoking a cigarette, and offered her one from the great carved wood box filled with them on the table desk.
"Thanks," said she. And when she had lighted it and was seated facing him as he sat at his desk, she felt almost at her ease. After all, while his gaze was penetrating, it was also understanding; we do not mind being unmasked if the unmasker at once hails us as brother. Brent's eyes seemed to say to her, "Human!--like me." She smoked and let her gaze wander from her books to window garden, from window garden to piano.
"You play?" said he.
"A very little. Enough for accompaniments to simple songs."
"Simple songs. I've had but a few lessons from a small-town teacher."
"Let me hear."
She went to the piano, laid her cigarette in a tray ready beside the music rack. She gave him the "Gipsy Queen," which she liked because it expressed her own passion of revolt against restraints of every conventional kind and her love for the open air and open sky. He somehow took away all feeling of embarrassment; she felt so strongly that he understood and was big enough not to have it anywhere in him to laugh at anything sincere. When she finished she resumed her cigarette and returned to the chair near his.
"It's as I thought," said he. "Your voice can be trained--to speak, I mean. I don't know as to its singing value. . . . Have you good health?"
"I never have even colds. Yes, I'm strong."
"You'll need it."
"I have needed it," said she. Into her face came the sad, bitter expression with its curious relief of a faint cynical smile.
He leaned back in his chair and looked at her through a cloud of smoke. She saw that his eyes were not gray, as she had thought, but brown, a hazel brown with points of light sparkling in the irises and taking away all the suggestion of weakness and sentimentality that makes pure brown eyes unsatisfactory in a man. He said slowly:
"When I saw you--in the Martin--you were on the way down. You went, I see."
She nodded. "I'm still there."
"You like it? You wish to stay?"
She shook her head smilingly. "No, but I can stay if it's necessary. I've discovered that I've got the health and the nerves for anything."
"That's a great discovery. . . . Well, you'll soon be on your way up. . . . Do you wish to know why I spoke to you this morning?--Why I remembered you?"
"Because of the expression of your eyes--when your face is in repose."
She felt no shyness--and no sense of necessity of responding to a compliment, for his tone forbade any thought of flattery. She lowered her gaze to conceal the thoughts his words brought--the memories of the things that had caused her eyes to look as Rod and now Brent said.
"Such an expression," the playwright went on, "must mean character. I am sick and tired of the vanity of these actresses who can act just enough never to be able to learn to act well. I'm going to try an experiment with you. I've tried it several times but--No matter. I'm not discouraged. I never give up. . . . Can you stand being alone?"
"I spend most of my time alone. I prefer it."
"I thought so. Yes--you'll do. Only the few who can stand being alone ever get anywhere. Everything worth while is done alone. The big battle--it isn't fought in the field, but by the man sitting alone in his tent, working it all out. The bridge--the tunnel through the great mountains--the railway--the huge business enterprise--all done by the man alone, thinking, plotting to the last detail. It's the same way with the novel, the picture, the statue, the play--writing it, acting it--all done by someone alone, shut in with his imagination and his tools. I saw that you were one of the lonely ones. All you need is a chance. You'd surely get it, sooner or later. Perhaps I can bring it a little sooner. . . . How much do you need to live on?"
"I must have fifty dollars a week--if I go on at--as I am now. If you wish to take all my time--then, forty."
He smiled in a puzzled way.
"The police," she explained. "I need ten----"
"Certainly--certainly," cried he. "I understand--perfectly. How stupid of me! I'll want all your time. So it's to be forty dollars a week. When can you begin?"
Susan reflected. "I can't go into anything that'll mean a long time," she said. "I'm waiting for a man--a friend of mine to get well. Then we're going to do something together."
Brent made an impatient gesture. "An actor? Well, I suppose I can get him something to do. But I don't want you to be under the influence of any of these absurd creatures who think they know what acting is--when they merely know how to dress themselves in different suits of clothes, and strut themselves about the stage. They'd rather die than give up their own feeble, foolish little identities. I'll see that your actor friend is taken care of, but you must keep away from him--for the time at least."
"He's all I've got. He's an old friend."
"You--care for him?"
"I used to. And lately I found him again--after we had been separated a long time. We're going to help each other up."
"Oh--he's down and out oh? Why?"
"Drink--and hard luck."
"Not hard luck. That helps a man. It has helped you. It has made you what you are."
"What am I?" asked Susan.
Brent smiled mysteriously. "That's what we're going to find out," said he. "There's no human being who has ever had a future unless he or she had a past--and the severer the past the more splendid the future."
Susan was attending with all her senses. This man was putting into words her own inarticulate instincts.
"A past," he went on in his sharp, dogmatic way, "either breaks or makes. You go into the crucible a mere ore, a possibility. You come out slag or steel." He was standing now, looking down at her with quizzical eyes. "You're about due to leave the pot," said he.
"And I've hopes that you're steel. If not----" He shrugged his shoulders--"You'll have had forty a week for your time, and I'll have gained useful experience."
Susan gazed at him as if she doubted her eyes and ears.
"What do you want me to do?" she presently inquired.
"Learn the art of acting--which consists of two parts. First, you must learn to act--thousands of the profession do that. Second, you must learn not to act--and so far I know there aren't a dozen in the whole world who've got that far along. I've written a play I think well of. I want to have it done properly--it, and several other plays I intend to write. I'm going to give you a chance to become famous--better still, great."
Susan looked at him incredulously. "Do you know who I am?" she asked at last.
Her eyes lowered, the faintest tinge of red changed the amber-white pallor of her cheeks, her bosom rose and fell quickly.
"I don't mean," he went on, "that I know any of the details of your experience. I only know the results as they are written in your face. The details are unimportant. When I say I know who you are, I mean I know that you are a woman who has suffered, whose heart has been broken by suffering, but not her spirit. Of where you came from or how you've lived, I know nothing. And it's none of my business--no more than it's the public's business where I came from and how I've learned to write plays."
Well, whether he was guessing any part of the truth or all of it, certainly what she had said about the police and now this sweeping statement of his attitude toward her freed her of the necessity of disclosing herself. She eagerly tried to dismiss the thoughts that had been making her most uneasy. She said:
"You think I can learn to act?"
"That, of course," replied he. "Any intelligent person can learn to act--and also most persons who have no more intelligence in their heads than they have in their feet. I'll guarantee you some sort of career. What I'm interested to find out is whether you can learn not to act. I believe you can. But----" He laughed in self-mockery. "I've made several absurd mistakes in that direction. . . . You have led a life in which most women become the cheapest sort of liars--worse liars even than is the usual respectable person, because they haven't the restraint of fearing loss of reputation. Why is it you have not become a liar?"
Susan laughed. "I'm sure I don't know. Perhaps because lying is such a tax on the memory. May I have another cigarette?"
He held the match for her. "You don't paint--except your lips," he went on, "though you have no color. And you don't wear cheap finery. And while you use a strong scent, it's not one of the cheap and nasty kind--it's sensual without being slimy. And you don't use the kind of words one always hears in your circle."
Susan looked immensely relieved. "Then you do know who I am!" she cried.
"You didn't suppose I thought you fresh from a fashionable boarding school, did you? I'd hardly look there for an actress who could act. You've got experience--experience--experience--written all over your face--sadly, satirically, scornfully, gayly, bitterly. And what I want is experience--not merely having been through things, but having been through them understandingly. You'll help me in my experiment?"
He looked astonished, then irritated, when the girl, instead of accepting eagerly, drew back in her chair and seemed to be debating. His irritation showed still more plainly when she finally said:
"That depends on him. And he--he thinks you don't like him."
"What's his name?" said Brent in his abrupt, intense fashion. "What's his name?"
Brent looked vague.
"He used to be on the Herald. He writes plays."
"Oh--yes. I remember. He's a weak fool."
Susan abruptly straightened, an ominous look in eyes and brow.
Brent made an impatient gesture. "Beg pardon. Why be sensitive about him? Obviously because you know I'm right. I said fool, not ass. He's clever, but ridiculously vain. I don't dislike him. I don't care anything about him--or about anybody else in the world. No man does who amounts to anything. With a career it's as Jesus said--leave father and mother, husband and wife--land, ox everything--and follow it."
"What for?" said Susan.
"To save your soul! To be a somebody; to be strong. To be able to give to anybody and everybody--whatever they need. To be happy."
"Are you happy?"
"No," he admitted. "But I'm growing in that direction. . . . Don't waste yourself on Stevens--I beg pardon, Spenser. You're bigger than that. He's a small man with large dreams--a hopeless misfit. Small dreams for small men; large dreams for--" he laughed--"you and me--our sort."
Susan echoed his laugh, but faint-heartedly. "I've watched your name in the papers," she said, sincerely unconscious of flattery. "I've seen you grow more and more famous. But--if there had been anything in me, would I have gone down and down?"
"How old are you?"
"Only twenty-one and that look in your face! Magnificent! I don't believe I'm to be disappointed this time. You ask why you've gone down! You haven't. You've gone through."
"Down," she insisted, sadly.
"Nonsense! The soot'll rub off the steel."
She lifted her head eagerly. Her own secret thought put into words.
"You can't make steel without soot and dirt. You can't make anything without dirt. That's why the nice, prim, silly world's full of cabinets exhibiting little chips of raw material polished up neatly in one or two spots. That's why there are so few men and women--and those few have had to make themselves, or are made by accident. You're an accident, I suppose. The women who amount to anything usually are. The last actress I tried to do anything with might have become a somebody if it hadn't been for one thing: She had a hankering for respectability--a yearning to be a society person--to be thought well of by society people. It did for her."
"I'll not sink on that rock," said Susan cheerfully.
"No secret longing for social position?"
"None. Even if I would, I couldn't."
"That's one heavy handicap out of the way. But I'll not let myself begin to hope until I find out whether you've got incurable and unteachable vanity. If you have--then, no hope. If you haven't--there's a fighting chance."
"You forget my compact," Susan reminded him.
Brent reflected, strolled to the big window, his hands deep in his pockets. Susan took advantage of his back to give way to her own feelings of utter amazement and incredulity. She certainly was not dreaming. And the man gazing out at the window was certainly flesh and blood--a great man, if voluble and eccentric. Perhaps to act and speak as one pleased was one of the signs of greatness, one of its perquisites. Was he amusing himself with her? Was he perchance taken with her physically and employing these extraordinary methods as ways of approach? She had seen many peculiarities of sex-approach in men--some grotesque, many terrible, all beyond comprehension. Was this another such?
He wheeled suddenly, surprised her eyes upon him. He burst out laughing, and she felt that he had read her thoughts. However, he merely said:
"Have you anything to suggest--about Spenser?"
"I can't even tell him of your offer now. He's very ill--and sensitive about you."
"About me? How ridiculous! I'm always coming across men I don't know who are full of venom toward me. I suppose he thinks I crowded him. No matter. You're sure you're not fancying yourself in love with him?"
"No, I am not in love with him. He has changed--and so have I."
He smiled at her. "Especially in the last hour?" he suggested.
"I had changed before that. I had been changing right along. But I didn't realize it fully until you talked with me--no, until after you gave me your card this morning."
"You saw a chance--a hope--eh?"
"And at once became all nerves and courage. . . . As to Spenser--I'll have some play carpenter sent to collaborate with him and set him up in the play business. You know it's a business as well as an art. And the chromos sell better than the oil paintings--except the finest ones. It's my chromos that have earned me the means and the leisure to try oils."
"He'd never consent. He's very proud."
"Vain, you mean. Pride will consent to anything as a means to an end. It's vanity that's squeamish and haughty. He needn't know."
"But I couldn't discuss any change with him until he's much better."
"I'll send the play carpenter to him--get Fitzalan to send one of his carpenters." Brent smiled. "You don't think he'll hang back because of the compact, do you?"
Susan flushed painfully. "No," she admitted in a low voice.
Brent was still smiling at her, and the smile was cynical. But his tone soothed where his words would have wounded, as he went on: "A man of his sort--an average, `there-are-two-kinds-of-women, good-and-bad' sort of man--has but one use for a woman of your sort."
"I know that," said Susan.
"Do you mind it?"
"Not much. I'd not mind it at all if I felt that I was somebody."
Brent put his hand on her shoulder. "You'll do, Miss Lenox," he said with quiet heartiness. "You may not be so big a somebody as you and I would like. But you'll count as one, all right."
She looked at him with intense appeal in her eyes. "Why?" she said earnestly." Why do you do this?"
He smiled gravely down at her--as gravely as Brent could smile--with the quizzical suggestion never absent from his handsome face, so full of life and intelligence. "I've been observing your uneasiness," said he. "Now listen. It would be impossible for you to judge me, to understand me. You are young and as yet small. I am forty, and have lived twenty-five of my forty years intensely. So, don't fall into the error of shallow people and size me up by your own foolish little standards. Do you see what I mean?"
Susan's candid face revealed her guilt. "Yes," said she, rather humbly.
"I see you do understand," said he. "And that's a good sign. Most people, hearing what I said, would have disregarded it as merely my vanity, would have gone on with their silly judging, would have set me down as a conceited ass who by some accident had got a reputation. But to proceed--I have not chosen you on impulse. Long and patient study has made me able to judge character by the face, as a horse dealer can judge horses by looking at them. I don't need to read every line of a book to know whether it's wise or foolish, worth while or not. I don't need to know a human being for years or for hours or for minutes even, before I can measure certain things. I measured you. It's like astronomy. An astronomer wants to get the orbit of a star. He takes its position twice--and from the two observations he can calculate the orbit to the inch. I've got three observations of your orbit. Enough--and to spare."
"I shan't misunderstand again," said Susan.
"One thing more," insisted Brent. "In our relations, we are to be not man and woman, but master and pupil. I shan't waste your time with any--other matters."
It was Susan's turn to laugh. "That's your polite way of warning me not to waste any of your time with--other matters."
"Precisely," conceded he. "A man in my position--a man in any sort of position, for that matter--is much annoyed by women trying to use their sex with him. I wished to make it clear at the outset that----"
"That I could gain nothing by neglecting the trade of actress for the trade of woman," interrupted Susan. "I understand perfectly."
He put out his hand. "I see that at least we'll get on together. I'll have Fitzalan send the carpenter to your friend at once."
"Today!" exclaimed Susan, in surprise and delight.
"Why not?" He arranged paper and pen. "Sit here and write Spenser's address, and your own. Your salary begins with today. I'll have my secretary mail you a check. And as soon as I can see you again, I'll send you a telegram. Meanwhile--" He rummaged among a lot of paper bound plays on the table "Here's `Cavalleria Rusticana.' Read it with a view to yourself as either Santuzzao or Lola. Study her first entrance--what you would do with it. Don't be frightened. I expect nothing from you--nothing whatever. I'm glad you know nothing about acting. You'll have the less to unlearn."
They had been moving towards the elevator. He shook hands again and, after adjusting the mechanism for the descent, closed the door. As it was closing she saw in his expression that his mind had already dismissed her for some one of the many other matters that crowded his life.