Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Not quite seventeen years later, on a fine June morning, Ruth Warham issued hastily from the house and started down the long tanbark walk from the front veranda to the street gate. She was now nineteen--nearer twenty--and a very pretty young woman, indeed. She had grown up one of those small slender blondes, exquisite and doll-like, who cannot help seeming fresh and sweet, whatever the truth about them, without or within. This morning she had on a new summer dress of a blue that matched her eyes and harmonized with her coloring. She was looking her best, and she had the satisfying, confidence-giving sense that it was so. Like most of the unattached girls of small towns, she was always dreaming of the handsome stranger who would fall in love--the thrilling, love-story kind of love at first sight. The weather plays a conspicuous part in the romancings of youth; she felt that this was precisely the kind of day fate would be most likely to select for the meeting. Just before dressing she had been reading about the wonderful him--in Robert Chambers' latest story--and she had spent full fifteen minutes of blissful reverie over the accompanying Fisher illustration. Now she was issuing hopefully forth, as hopefully as if adventure were the rule and order of life in Sutherland, instead of a desperate monotony made the harder to bear by the glory of its scenery.
She had got only far enough from the house to be visible to the second-story windows when a young voice called:
"Ruthie! Aren't you going to wait for me?"
Ruth halted; an expression anything but harmonious with the pretty blue costume stormed across her face. "I won't have her along!" she muttered. "I simply won't!" She turned slowly and, as she turned, effaced every trace of temper with a dexterity which might have given an onlooker a poorer opinion of her character than perhaps the facts as to human nature justify. The countenance she presently revealed to those upper windows was sunny and sweet. No one was visible; but the horizontal slats in one of the only closed pair of shutters and a vague suggestion of movement rather than form behind them gave the impression that a woman, not far enough dressed to risk being seen from the street, was hidden there. Evidently Ruth knew, for it was toward this window that she directed her gaze and the remark: "Can't wait, dear. I'm in a great hurry. Mamma wants the silk right away and I've got to match it."
"But I'll be only a minute," pleaded the voice--a much more interesting, more musical voice than Ruth's rather shrill and thin high soprano.
"No--I'll meet you up at papa's store."
Ruth resumed her journey. She smiled to herself. "That means," said she, half aloud, "I'll steer clear of the store this morning."
But as she was leaving the gate into the wide, shady, sleepy street, who should come driving past in a village cart but Lottie Wright! And Lottie reined her pony in to the sidewalk and in the shade of a symmetrical walnut tree proceeded to invite Ruth to a dance--a long story, as Lottie had to tell all about it, the decorations, the favors, the food, who would be there, what she was going to wear, and so on and on. Ruth was intensely interested but kept remembering something that caused her to glance uneasily from time to time up the tanbark walk under the arching boughs toward the house. Even if she had not been interested, she would hardly have ventured to break off; Lottie Wright was the only daughter of the richest man in Sutherland and, therefore, social arbiter to the younger set.
Lottie stopped abruptly, said: "Well, I really must get on. And there's your cousin coming down the walk. I know you've been waiting for her."
Ruth tried to keep in countenance, but a blush of shame and a frown of irritation came in spite of her.
"I'm sorry I can't ask Susie, too," pursued Lottie, in a voice of hypocritical regret. "But there are to be exactly eighteen couples--and I couldn't."
"Of course not," said Ruth heartily. "Susan'll understand."
"I wouldn't for the world do anything to hurt her feelings," continued Lottie with the self-complacent righteousness of a deacon telling the congregation how good "grace" has made him. Her prominent commonplace brown eyes were gazing up the walk, an expression distressingly like envious anger in them. She had a thick, pudgy face, an oily skin, an outcropping of dull red pimples on the chin. Many women can indulge their passion for sweets at meals and sweets between meals without serious injury--to complexion; Lottie Wright, unluckily, couldn't.
"I feel sorry for Susie," she went on, in the ludicrous patronizing tone that needs no describing to anyone acquainted with any fashionable set anywhere from China to Peru. "And I think the way you all treat her is simply beautiful. But, then, everybody feels sorry for her and tries to be kind. She knows--about herself, I mean--doesn't she, Ruthie?"
"I guess so," replied Ruth, almost hanging her head in her mortification. "She's very good and sweet."
"Indeed, she is," said Lottie. "And father says she's far and away the prettiest girl in town."
With this parting shot, which struck precisely where she had aimed, Lottie gathered up the reins and drove on, calling out a friendly "Hello, Susie dearie," to Susan Lenox, who, on her purposely lagging way from the house, had nearly reached the gate.
"What a nasty thing Lottie Wright is!" exclaimed Ruth to her cousin.
"She has a mean tongue," admitted Susan, tall and slim and straight, with glorious dark hair and a skin healthily pallid and as smooth as clear. "But she's got a good heart. She gives a lot away to poor people."
"Because she likes to patronize and be kowtowed to," retorted Ruth. "She's mean, I tell you." Then, with a vicious gleam in the blue eyes that hinted a deeper and less presentable motive for the telling, she added: "Why, she's not going to ask you to her party."
Susan was obviously unmoved. "She has the right to ask whom she pleases. And"--she laughed--"if I were giving a party I'd not want to ask her--though I might do it for fear she'd feel left out."
"Don't you feel--left out?"
Susan shook her head. "I seem not to care much about going to parties lately. The boys don't like to dance with me, and I get tired of sitting the dances out."
This touched Ruth's impulsively generous heart and woman's easy tears filled her eyes; her cousin's remark was so pathetic, the more pathetic because its pathos was absolutely unconscious. Ruth shot a pitying glance at Susan, but the instant she saw the loveliness of the features upon which that expression of unconsciousness lay like innocence upon a bed of roses, the pity vanished from her eyes to be replaced by a disfiguring envy as hateful as an evil emotion can be at nineteen. Susan still lacked nearly a month of seventeen, but she seemed older than Ruth because her mind and her body had developed beyond her years--or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say beyond the average of growth at seventeen. Also, her personality was stronger, far more definite. Ruth tried to believe herself the cleverer and the more beautiful, at times with a certain success. But as she happened to be a shrewd young person--an inheritance from the Warhams--she was haunted by misgivings--and worse. Those whose vanity never suffers from these torments will, of course, condemn her; but whoever has known the pain of having to concede superiority to someone with whom she or he--is constantly contrasted will not be altogether without sympathy for Ruth in her struggles, often vain struggles, against the mortal sin of jealousy.
The truth is, Susan was beyond question the beauty of Sutherland. Her eyes, very dark at birth, had changed to a soft, dreamy violet-gray. Hair and coloring, lashes and eyebrows remained dark; thus her eyes and the intense red of her lips had that vicinage of contrast which is necessary to distinction. To look at her was to be at once fascinated by those violet-gray eyes--by their color, by their clearness, by their regard of calm, grave inquiry, by their mystery not untouched by a certain sadness. She had a thick abundance of wavy hair, not so long as Ruth's golden braids, but growing beautifully instead of thinly about her low brow, about her delicately modeled ears, and at the back of her exquisite neck. Her slim nose departed enough from the classic line to prevent the suggestion of monotony that is in all purely classic faces. Her nostrils had the sensitiveness that more than any other outward sign indicates the imaginative temperament. Her chin and throat--to look at them was to know where her lover would choose to kiss her first. When she smiled her large even teeth were dazzling. And the smile itself was exceedingly sweet and winning, with the violet-gray eyes casting over it that seriousness verging on sadness which is the natural outlook of a highly intelligent nature. For while stupid vain people are suspicious and easily offended, only the intelligent are truly sensitive--keenly susceptible to all sensations. The dull ear is suspicious; the acute ear is sensitive.
The intense red of her lips, at times so vivid that it seemed artificial, and their sinuous, sensitive curve indicated a temperament that was frankly proclaimed in her figure--sensuous, graceful, slender--the figure of girlhood in its perfection and of perfect womanhood, too--like those tropical flowers that look innocent and young and fresh, yet stir in the beholder passionate longings and visions. Her walk was worthy of face and figure--free and firm and graceful, the small head carried proudly without haughtiness.
This physical beauty had as an aureole to illuminate it and to set it off a manner that was wholly devoid of mannerisms--of those that men and women think out and exhibit to give added charm to themselves--tricks of cuteness, as lisp and baby stare; tricks of dignity, as grave brow and body always carried rigidly erect; tricks of sweetness and kindliness, as the ever ready smile and the warm handclasp. Susan, the interested in the world about her, Susan, the self-unconscious, had none of these tricks. She was at all times her own self. Beauty is anything but rare, likewise intelligence. But this quality of naturalness is the greatest of all qualities. It made Susan Lenox unique.
It was not strange--nor inexcusable that the girls and their parents had begun to pity Susan as soon as this beauty developed and this personality had begun to exhale its delicious perfume. It was but natural that they should start the whole town to "being kind to the poor thing." And it was equally the matter of course that they should have achieved their object--should have impressed the conventional masculine mind of the town with such a sense of the "poor thing's" social isolation and "impossibility" that the boys ceased to be her eagerly admiring friends, were afraid to be alone with her, to ask her to dance. Women are conventional as a business; but with men conventionality is a groveling superstition. The youths of Sutherland longed for, sighed for the alluring, sweet, bright Susan; but they dared not, with all the women saying "Poor thing! What a pity a nice man can't afford to have anything to do with her!" It was an interesting typical example of the profound snobbishness of the male character. Rarely, after Susan was sixteen, did any of the boys venture to ask her to dance and so give himself the joy of encircling that lovely form of hers; yet from babyhood her fascination for the male sex, regardless of age or temperament, had been uncanny--"naturally, she being a love-child," said the old women. And from fourteen on, it grew steadily.
It would be difficult for one who has not lived in a small town to understand exactly the kind of isolation to which Sutherland consigned the girl without her realizing it, without their fully realizing it themselves. Everyone was friendly with her. A stranger would not have noticed any difference in the treatment of her and of her cousin Ruth. Yet not one of the young men would have thought of marrying her, would have regarded her as his equal or the equal of his sisters. She went to all the general entertainments. She was invited to all the houses when failure to invite her would have seemed pointed--but only then. She did not think much about herself; she was fond of study--fonder of reading--fondest, perhaps, of making dresses and hats, especially for Ruth, whom she thought much prettier than herself. Thus, she was only vaguely, subconsciously conscious of there being something peculiar and mysterious in her lot.
This isolation, rather than her dominant quality of self-effacing consideration for others, was the chief cause of the extraordinary innocence of her mind. No servant, no girl, no audacious boy ever ventured to raise with her any question remotely touching on sex. All those questions seemed to Puritan Sutherland in any circumstances highly indelicate; in relation to Susan they seemed worse than indelicate, dreadful though the thought was that there could be anything worse than indelicacy. At fifteen she remained as unaware of even the existence of the mysteries of sex as she had been at birth. Nothing definite enough to arouse her curiosity had ever been said in her hearing; and such references to those matters as she found in her reading passed her by, as any matter of which he has not the beginnings of knowledge will fail to arrest the attention of any reader. It was generally assumed that she knew all about her origin, that someone had, some time or other, told her. Even her Aunt Fanny thought so, thought she was hiding the knowledge deep in her heart, explained in that way her content with the solitude of books and sewing.
Susan was the worst possible influence in Ruth's life. Our character is ourself, is born with us, clings to us as the flesh to our bones, persists unchanged until we die. But upon the circumstances that surround us depends what part of our character shall show itself. Ruth was born with perhaps something more than the normal tendency to be envious and petty. But these qualities might never have shown themselves conspicuously had there been no Susan for her to envy. The very qualities that made Susan lovable reacted upon the pretty, pert blond cousin to make her the more unlovable. Again and again, when she and Susan were about to start out together, and Susan would appear in beauty and grace of person and dress, Ruth would excuse herself, would fly to her room to lock herself in and weep and rage and hate. And at the high school, when Susan scored in a recitation or in some dramatic entertainment, Ruth would sit with bitten lip and surging bosom, pale with jealousy. Susan's isolation, the way the boys avoided having with her the friendly relations that spring up naturally among young people these gave Ruth a partial revenge. But Susan, seemingly unconscious, rising sweetly and serenely above all pettiness--
Ruth's hatred deepened, though she hid it from everyone, almost from herself. And she depended more and more utterly upon Susan to select her clothes for her, to dress her, to make her look well; for Susan had taste and Ruth had not.
On that bright June morning as the cousins went up Main Street together, Susan gave herself over to the delight of sun and air and of the flowering gardens before the attractive houses they were passing; Ruth, with the day quite dark for her, all its joys gone, was fighting against a hatred of her cousin so vicious that it made her afraid. "I'll have no chance at all," her angry heart was saying, "so long as Susie's around, keeping everybody reminded of the family shame." And that was a truth she could not downface, mean and ungenerous though thinking it might be. The worst of all was that Susan, in a simple white dress and an almost untrimmed white straw hat with a graceful curve to its brim and set at the right angle upon that wavy dark hair, was making the beauty of her short blond cousin dim and somehow common.
At the corner of Maple Street Ruth's self-control reached its limit. She halted, took the sample of silk from her glove. There was not a hint of her feelings in her countenance, for shame and the desire to seem to be better than she was were fast making her an adept in hypocrisy. "You go ahead and match it for mamma," said she. "I've got to run in and see Bessie Andrews."
"But I promised Uncle George I'd come and help him with the monthly bills," objected Susan.
"You can do both. It'll take you only a minute. If mother had known you were going uptown, she'd never have trusted me." And Ruth had tucked the sample in Susan's belt and was hurrying out Maple Street. There was nothing for Susan to do but go on alone.
Two squares, and she was passing the show place of Sutherland, the home of the Wrights. She paused to regale herself with a glance into the grove of magnificent elms with lawns and bright gardens beyond--for the Wright place filled the entire square between Broad and Myrtle Streets and from Main to Monroe. She was starting on when she saw among the trees a young man in striped flannels. At the same instant he saw her.
"Hel-lo, Susie!" he cried. "I was thinking about you."
Susan halted. "When did you get back, Sam?" she asked. "I heard you were going to stay on in the East all summer."
After they had shaken hands across the hedge that came almost to their shoulders, Susan began to move on. Sam kept pace with her on his side of the carefully trimmed boxwood barrier. "I'm going back East in about two weeks," said he. "It's awfully dull here after Yale. I just blew in--haven't seen Lottie or father yet. Coming to Lottie's party?"
"No," said Susan.
Susan laughed merrily. "The best reason in the world. Lottie has only invited just so many couples."
"I'll see about that," cried Sam. "You'll be asked all right, all right."
"No," said Susan. She was one of those whose way of saying no gives its full meaning and intent. "I'll not be asked, thank you--and I'll not go if I am."
By this time they were at the gate. He opened it, came out into the street. He was a tallish, athletic youth, dark, and pleasing enough of feature to be called handsome. He was dressed with a great deal of style of the efflorescent kind called sophomoric. He was a Sophomore at Yale. But that was not so largely responsible for his self-complacent expression as the deference he had got from babyhood through being heir apparent to the Wright fortune. He had a sophisticated way of inspecting Susan's charms of figure no less than charms of face that might have made a disagreeable impression upon an experienced onlooker. There is a time for feeling without knowing why one feels; and that period ought not to have been passed for young Wright for many a year.
"My, but you're looking fine, Susie!" exclaimed he. "I haven't seen anyone that could hold a candle to you even in the East."
Susan laughed and blushed with pleasure. "Go on," said she with raillery. "I love it."
"Come in and sit under the trees and I'll fill all the time you'll give me."
This reminded her. "I must hurry uptown," she said. "Good-by."
"Hold on!" cried he. "What have you got to do?" He happened to glance down the street. "Isn't that Ruth coming?"
"So it is," said Susan. "I guess Bessie Andrews wasn't at home."
Sam waved at Ruth and called, "Hello! Glad to see you."
Ruth was all sweetness and smiles. She and her mother--quite privately and with nothing openly said on either side--had canvassed Sam as a "possibility." There had been keen disappointment at the news that he was not coming home for the long vacation. "How are you, Sam?" said she, as they shook hands. "My, Susie, doesn't he look New York?"
Sam tried to conceal that he was swelling with pride. "Oh, this is nothing," said he deprecatingly.
Ruth's heart was a-flutter. The Fisher picture of the Chambers love-maker, thought she, might almost be a photograph of Sam. She was glad she had obeyed the mysterious impulse to make a toilette of unusual elegance that morning. How get rid of Susan? "I'll take the sample, Susie," said she. "Then you won't have to keep father waiting."
Susie gave up the sample. Her face was no longer so bright and interested.
"Oh, drop it," cried Sam. "Come in--both of you. I'll telephone for Joe Andrews and we'll take a drive--or anything you like." He was looking at Susan.
"Can't do it," replied Susan. "I promised Uncle George."
"Oh, bother!" urged Sam. "Telephone him. It'll be all right--won't it, Ruth?"
"You don't know Susie," said Ruth, with a queer, strained laugh. "She'd rather die than break a promise."
"I must go," Susan now said. "Good-by."
"Come on, Ruth," cried Sam. "Let's walk uptown with her."
"And you can help match the silk," said Ruth.
"Not for me," replied young Wright. Then to Susan, "What've you got to do? Maybe it's something I could help at."
"No. It's for Uncle George and me."
"Well, I'll go as far as the store. Then--we'll see."
They were now in the business part of Main Street, were at Wilson's dry goods store. "You might find it here," suggested the innocent Susan to her cousin.
Ruth colored, veiled her eyes to hide their flash. "I've got to go to the store first--to get some money," she hastily improvised.
Sam had been walking between the two girls. He now changed to the outside and, so, put himself next Susan alone, put Susan between him and Ruth. The maneuver seemed to be a mere politeness, but Ruth knew better. What fate had intended as her lucky day was being changed into unlucky by this cousin of hers. Ruth walked sullenly along, hot tears in her eyes and a choke in her throat, as she listened to Sam's flatterings of her cousin, and to Susan's laughing, delighted replies. She tried to gather herself together, to think up something funny or at least interesting with which to break into the tete-a-tete and draw Sam to herself. She could think nothing but envious, hateful thoughts. At the doors of Warham and Company, wholesale and retail grocers, the three halted.
"I guess I'll go to Vandermark's," said Ruth. "I really don't need money. Come on, Sam."
"No--I'm going back home. I ought to see Lottie and father. My, but it's dull in this town!"
"Well, so long," said Susan. She nodded, sparkling of hair and skin and eyes, and went into the store.
Sam and Ruth watched her as she walked down the broad aisle between the counters. From the store came a mingling of odors of fruit, of spices, of freshly ground coffee. "Susan's an awful pretty girl, isn't she?" declared Sam with rude enthusiasm.
"Indeed she is," replied Ruth as heartily--and with an honest if discouraged effort to feel enthusiastic.
"What a figure! And she has such a good walk. Most women walk horribly."
"Come on to Vandermark's with me and I'll stroll back with you," offered Ruth. Sam was still gazing into the store where, far to the rear, Susan could be seen; the graceful head, the gently swelling bust, the soft lines of the white dress, the pretty ankles revealed by the short skirt--there was, indeed, a profile worth a man's looking at on a fine June day. Ruth's eyes were upon Sam, handsome, dressed in the Eastern fashion, an ideal lover. "Come on, Sam," urged Ruth.
"No, thanks," he replied absently. "I'll go back. Good luck!" And not glancing at her, he lifted his straw hat with its band of Yale blue and set out.
Ruth moved slowly and disconsolately in the opposite direction. She was ashamed of her thoughts; but shame never yet withheld anybody from being human in thought. As she turned to enter Vandermark's she glanced down the street. There was Sam, returned and going into her father's store. She hesitated, could devise no plan of action, hurried into the dry goods store. Sinclair, the head salesman and the beau of Sutherland, was an especial friend of hers. The tall, slender, hungry-looking young man, devoured with ambition for speedy wealth, had no mind to neglect so easy an aid to that ambition as nature gave him in making him a lady-charmer. He had resolved to marry either Lottie Wright or Ruth Warham--Ruth preferred, because, while Lottie would have many times more money, her skin made her a stiff dose for a young man brought up to the American tradition that the face is the woman. But that morning Sinclair exerted his charms in vain. Ruth was in a hurry, was distinctly rude, cut short what in other circumstances would have been a prolonged and delightful flirtation by tossing the sample on the counter and asking him to do the matching for her and to send the silk right away. Which said, she fairly bolted from the store.
She arrived barely in time. Young Wright was issuing from Warham and Company. He smiled friendly enough, but Ruth knew where his thoughts were. "Get what you wanted?" inquired he, and went on to explain: "I came back to find out if you and Susie were to be at home this evening. Thought I'd call."
Ruth paled with angry dismay. She was going to a party at the Sinclairs'--one to which Susan was not invited. "Aren't you going to Sinclairs'?" said she.
"I was. But I thought I'd rather call. Perhaps I'll go there later."
He was coming to call on Susan! All the way down Main Street to the Wright place Ruth fought against her mood of angry and depressed silence, tried to make the best of her chance to impress Sam. But Sam was absent and humiliatingly near to curt. He halted at his father's gate. She halted also, searched the grounds with anxious eyes for sign of Lottie that would give her the excuse for entering.
"So long," said Sam.
"Do come to Sinclairs' early. You always did dance so well."
"Oh, dancing bores me," said the blase Sophomore. "But I'll be round before the shindy's over. I've got to take Lot home."
He lifted the hat again with what both he and Ruth regarded as a gesture of most elegant carelessness. Ruth strolled reluctantly on, feeling as if her toilet had been splashed or crushed. As she entered the front door her mother, in a wrapper and curl papers, appeared at the head of the stairs. "Why!" cried she. "Where's the silk? It's for your dress tonight, you know."
"It'll be along," was Ruth's answer, her tone dreary, her lip quivering. "I met Sam Wright."
"Oh!" exclaimed her mother. "He's back, is he?"
Ruth did not reply. She came on up the stairs, went into the sitting-room--the room where Doctor Stevens seventeen years before had torn the baby Susan from the very claws of death. She flung herself down, buried her head in her arms upon that same table. She burst into a storm of tears.
"Why, dearie dear," cried her mother, "whatever is the matter?"
"It's wicked and hateful," sobbed the girl, "but----Oh, mamma, I hate Susan! She was along, and Sam hardly noticed me, and he's coming here this evening to call."
"But you'll be at Sinclairs'!" exclaimed Mrs. Warham.
"Not Susan," sobbed Ruth. "He wants to see only her."
The members of the Second Presbyterian Church, of which Fanny Warham was about the most exemplary and assiduous female member, would hardly have recognized the face encircled by that triple row of curl-papered locks, shinily plastered with quince-seed liquor. She was at woman's second critical age, and the strange emotions working in her mind--of whose disorder no one had an inkling--were upon the surface now. She ventured this freedom of facial expression because her daughter's face was hid. She did not speak. She laid a tender defending hand for an instant upon her daughter's shoulder--like the caress of love and encouragement the lioness gives her cub as she is about to give battle for it. Then she left the room. She did not know what to do, but she knew she must and would do something.