Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Sperry had chosen for "Mr. and Mrs. Spenser" the second floor rear of a house on the south side of West Forty-fifth Street a few doors off Sixth Avenue. It was furnished as a sitting-room--elegant in red plush, with oil paintings on the walls, a fringed red silk-plush dado fastened to the mantelpiece with bright brass-headed tacks, elaborate imitation lace throws on the sofa and chairs, and an imposing piece that might have been a cabinet organ or a pianola or a roll-top desk but was in fact a comfortable folding bed. There was a marble stationary washstand behind the hand-embroidered screen in the corner, near one of the two windows. Through a deep clothes closet was a small but satisfactory bathroom.
"And it's warm in winter," said Mrs. Norris, the landlady, to Susan. "Don't you hate a cold bathroom?"
Susan declared that she did.
"There's only one thing I hate worse," said Mrs. Norris, "and that's cold coffee."
She had one of those large faces which look bald because the frame of hair does not begin until unusually far back. At fifty, when her hair would be thin, Mrs. Norris would be homely; but at thirty she was handsome in a bold, strong way. Her hair was always carefully done, her good figure beautifully corseted. It was said she was not married to Mr. Norris--because New York likes to believe that people are living together without being married, because Mr. Norris came and went irregularly, and because Mrs. Norris was so particular about her toilet--and everyone knows that when a woman has the man with whom she's satisfied securely fastened, she shows her content or her virtuous indifference to other men--or her laziness--by neglecting her hair and her hips and dressing in any old thing any which way. Whatever the truth as to Mrs. Norris's domestic life, she carried herself strictly and insisted upon keeping her house as respectable as can reasonably be expected in a large city. That is, everyone in it was quiet, was of steady and sedate habit, was backed by references. Not until Sperry had thoroughly qualified as a responsible person did Mrs. Norris accept his assurances as to the Spensers and consent to receive them. Downtown the apartment houses that admit persons of loose character are usually more expensive because that class of tenants have more and expect more than ordinary working people. Uptown the custom is the reverse; to get into a respectable house you must pay more. The Spensers had to pay fourteen a week for their quarters--and they were getting a real bargain, Mrs. Norris having a weakness for literature and art where they were respectable and paid regularly.
"What's left of the two hundred and fifty will not last long," said Spenser to Susan, when they were established and alone. "But we'll have another five hundred as soon as the play's done, and that'll be in less than a month. We're to begin tomorrow. In less than two months the play'll be on and the royalties will be coming in. I wonder how much I owe the doctor and the hospital."
"That's settled," said Susan.
He glanced at her with a frown. "How much was it? You had no right to pay!"
"You couldn't have got either doctor or room without payment in advance." She spoke tranquilly, with a quiet assurance of manner that was new in her, the nervous and sensitive about causing displeasure in others. She added, "Don't be cross, Rod. You know it's only pretense."
"Don't you believe anybody has any decency?" demanded he.
"It depends on what you mean by decency," replied she. "But why talk of the past? Let's forget it."
"I would that I could!" exclaimed he.
She laughed at his heroics. "Put that in your play," said she. "But this isn't the melodrama of the stage. It's the farce comedy of life."
"How you have changed! Has all the sweetness, all the womanliness, gone out of your character?"
She showed how little she was impressed. "I've learned to take terrible things--really terrible things--without making a fuss--or feeling like making a fuss. You can't expect me to get excited over mere staginess. They're fond of fake emotions up in this part of town. But down where I've been so long the real horrors come too thick and fast for there to be any time to fake."
He continued to frown, presently came out of a deep study to say, "Susie, I see I've got to have a serious talk with you."
"Wait till you're well, my dear," said she. "I'm afraid I'll not be very sympathetic with your seriousness."
"No--today. I'm not an invalid. And our relations worry me, whenever I think of them."
He observed her as she sat with hands loosely clasped in her lap; there was an inscrutable look upon her delicate face, upon the clear-cut features so attractively framed by her thick dark hair, brown in some lights, black in others.
"Well?" said she.
"To begin, I want you to stop rouging your lips. It's the only sign of--of what you were. I'd a little rather you didn't smoke. But as respectable women smoke nowadays, why I don't seriously object. And when you get more clothes, get quieter ones. Not that you dress loudly or in bad taste----"
"Thank you," murmured Susan.
"What did you say?"
"I didn't mean to interrupt. Go on."
"I admire the way you dress, but it makes me jealous. I want you to have nice clothes for the house. I like things that show your neck and suggest your form. But I don't want you attracting men's eyes and their loose thoughts, in the street. . . . And I don't want you to look so damnably alluring about the feet. That's your best trick--and your worst. Why are you smiling--in that fashion?"
"You talk to me as if I were your wife."
He gazed at her with an expression that was as affectionate as it was generous--and it was most generous. "Well, you may be some day--if you keep straight. And I think you will."
The artificial red of her lips greatly helped to make her sweetly smiling face the perfection of gentle irony. "And you?" said she.
"You know perfectly well it's different about a man."
"I know nothing of the sort," replied she. "Among certain kinds of people that is the rule. But I'm not of those kinds. I'm trying to make my way in the world, exactly like a man. So I've got to be free from the rules that may be all very well for ladies. A woman can't fight with her hands tied, any more than a man can--and you know what happens to the men who allow themselves to be tied; they're poor downtrodden creatures working hard at small pay for the men who fight with their hands free."
"I've taken you out of the unprotected woman class, my dear," he reminded her. "You're mine, now, and you're going back where you belong."
"Back to the cage it's taken me so long to learn to do without?" She shook her head. "No, Rod--I couldn't possibly do it--not if I wanted to. . . . You've got several false ideas about me. You'll have to get rid of them, if we're to get along."
"In the first place, don't delude yourself with the notion that I'd marry you. I don't know whether the man I was forced to marry is dead or whether he's got a divorce. I don't care. No matter how free I was I shouldn't marry you."
He smiled complacently. She noted it without irritation. Truly, small indeed is the heat of any kind that can be got from the warmed-up ashes of a burnt-out passion. She went easily on:
"You have nothing to offer me--neither love nor money. And a woman--unless she's a poor excuse--insists on one or the other. You and I fancied we loved each other for a while. We don't fool ourselves in that way now. At least I don't, though I believe you do imagine I'm in love with you."
"You wouldn't be here if you weren't."
"Put that out of your head, Rod. It'll only breed trouble. I don't like to say these things to you, but you compel me to. I learned long ago how foolish it is to put off unpleasant things that will have to be faced in the end. The longer they're put off the worse the final reckoning is. Most of my troubles have come through my being too weak or good-natured--or whatever it was--to act as my good sense told me. I'm not going to make that mistake any more. And I'm going to start the new deal with absolute frankness with you. I am not in love with you."
"I know you better than you know yourself," said he.
"For a little while after I found you again I did have a return of the old feeling--or something like it. But it soon passed. I couldn't love you. I know you too well."
He struggled hard with his temper, as his vanity lashed at it. She saw, struggled with her old sensitiveness about inflicting even necessary pain upon others, went on:
"I simply like you, Rod--and that's all. We're well acquainted. You're physically attractive to me--not wildly so, but enough--more than any other man--probably more than most husbands are to their wives--or most wives to their husbands. So as long as you treat me well and don't wander off to other women, I'm more than willing to stay on here."
"Really!" said he, in an intensely sarcastic tone. "Really!"
"Now--keep your temper," she warned. "Didn't I keep mine when you were handing me that impertinent talk about how I should dress and the rest of it? No--let me finish. In the second place and in conclusion, my dear Rod, I'm not going to live off you. I'll pay my half of the room. I'll pay for my own clothes--and rouge for my lips. I'll buy and cook what we eat in the room; you'll pay when we go to a restaurant. I believe that's all."
"Are you quite sure?" inquired he with much satire.
"Yes, I think so. Except--if you don't like my terms, I'm ready to leave at once."
"And go back to the streets, I suppose?" jeered he.
"If it were necessary--yes. So long as I've got my youth and my health, I'll do precisely as I please. I've no craving for respectability--not the slightest. I--I----" She tried to speak of her birth, that secret shame of which she was ashamed. She had been thinking that Brent's big fine way of looking at things had cured her of this bitterness. She found that it had not--as yet. So she went on, "I'd prefer your friendship to your ill will--much prefer it, as you're the only person I can look to for what a man can do for a woman, and as I like you. But if I have to take tyranny along with the friendship--" she looked at him quietly and her tones were almost tender, almost appealing--"then, it's good-by, Rod."
She had silenced him, for he saw in her eyes, much more gray than violet though the suggestion of violet was there, that she meant precisely what she said. He was astonished, almost dazed by the change in her. This woman grown was not the Susie who had left him. No--and yet----
She had left him, hadn't she? That showed a character completely hidden from him, perhaps the character he was now seeing. He asked--and there was no sarcasm and a great deal of uneasiness in his tone:
"How do you expect to make a living?"
"I've got a place at forty dollars a week."
"Forty dollars a week! You!" He scowled savagely at her. "There's only one thing anyone would pay you forty a week for."
"That's what I'd have said," rejoined she. "But it seems not to be true. My luck may not last, but while it lasts, I'll have forty a week."
"I don't believe you," said he, with the angry bluntness of jealousy.
"Then you want me to go?" inquired she, with a certain melancholy but without any weakness.
He ignored her question. He demanded:
"Who's giving it to you?"
Spenser leaned from the bed toward her in his excitement. "Robert Brent?" he cried.
"Yes. I'm to have a part in one of his plays."
Spenser laughed harshly. "What rot! You're his mistress."
"It wouldn't be strange for you to think I'd accept that position for so little, but you must know a man of his sort wouldn't have so cheap a mistress."
"It's simply absurd."
"He is to train me himself."
"You never told me you knew him."
"Who got you the job?"
"He saw me in Fitzalan's office the day you sent me there. He asked me to call, and when I went he made me the offer."
"Absolute rot. What reason did he give?"
"He said I looked as if I had the temperament he was in search of."
"You must take me for a fool."
"Why should I lie to you?"
"God knows. Why do women lie to men all the time? For the pleasure of fooling them."
"Oh, no. To get money, Rod--the best reason in the world, it being rather hard for a woman to make money by working for it."
"The man's in love with you!"
"I wish he were," said Susan, laughing. "I'd not be here, my dear--you may be sure of that. And I'd not content myself with forty a week. Oh, you don't know what tastes I've got! Wait till I turn myself loose."
"Well--you can--in a few months," said Spenser.
Even as he had been protesting his disbelief in her story, his manner toward her had been growing more respectful--a change that at once hurt and amused her with its cynical suggestions, and also pleased her, giving her a confidence-breeding sense of a new value in herself. Rod went on, with a kind of shamefaced mingling of jest and earnest:
"You stick by me, Susie, old girl, and the time'll come when I'll be able to give you more than Brent."
"I hope so," said Susan.
He eyed her sharply. "I feel like a fool believing such a fairy story as you've been telling me. Yet I do."
"That's good," laughed she. "Now I can stay. If you hadn't believed me, I'd have had to go. And I don't want to do that--not yet."
His eyes flinched. "Not yet? What does that mean?"
"It means I'm content to stay, at present. Who can answer for tomorrow?" Her eyes lit up mockingly. "For instance--you. Today you think you're going to be true to me don't you? Yet tomorrow--or as soon as you get strength and street clothes, I may catch you in some restaurant telling some girl she's the one you've been getting ready for."
He laughed, but not heartily. Sperry came, and Susan went to buy at a department store a complete outfit for Rod, who still had only nightshirts. As she had often bought for him in the old days, she felt she would have no difficulty in fitting him nearly enough, with her accurate eye supplementing the measurements she had taken. When she got back home two hours and a half later, bringing her purchases in a cab, Sperry had gone and Rod was asleep. She sat in the bathroom, with the gas lighted, and worked at "Cavalleria" until she heard him calling. He had awakened in high good-humor.
"That was an awful raking you gave me before Sperry came," began he. "But it did me good. A man gets so in the habit of ordering women about that it becomes second nature to him. You've made it clear to me that I've even less control over you than you have over me. So, dear, I'm going to be humble and try to give satisfaction, as servants say."
"You'd better," laughed Susan. "At least, until you get on your feet again."
"You say we don't love each other," Rod went on, a becoming brightness in his strong face. "Well--maybe so. But--we suit each other--don't we?"
"That's why I want to stay," said Susan, sitting on the bed and laying her hand caressingly upon his. "I could stand it to go, for I've been trained to stand anything--everything. But I'd hate it."
He put his arm round her, drew her against his breast. "Aren't you happy here?" he murmured.
"Happier than any place else in the world," replied she softly.
After a while she got a small dinner for their two selves on the gas stove she had brought with her and had set up in the bathroom. As they ate, she cross-legged on the bed opposite him, they beamed contentedly at each other. "Do you remember the dinner we had at the St. Nicholas in Cincinnati?" asked she.
"It wasn't as good as this," declared he. "Not nearly so well cooked. You could make a fortune as a cook. But then you do everything well."
"Even to rouging my lips?"
"Oh, forget it!" laughed he. "I'm an ass. There's a wonderful fascination in the contrast between the dash of scarlet and the pallor of that clear, lovely skin of yours."
Her eyes danced. "You are getting well!" she exclaimed. "I'm sorry I bought you clothes. I'll be uneasy every time you're out."
"You can trust me. I see I've got to hustle to keep my job with you. Well, thank God, your friend Brent's old enough to be your father."
"Is he?" cried Susan. "Do you know, I never thought of his age."
"Yes, he's forty at least--more. Are you sure he isn't after you, Susie?"
"He warned me that if I annoyed him in that way he'd discharge me."
"Do you like him?"
"I--don't--know" was Susan's slow, reflective answer. "I'm--afraid of him--a little."
Both became silent. Finally Rod said, with an impatient shake of the head, "Let's not think of him."
"Let's try on your new clothes," cried Susan.
And when the dishes were cleared away they had a grand time trying on the things she had bought. It was amazing how near she had come to fitting him. "You ought to feel flattered," said she. "Only a labor of love could have turned out so well."
He turned abruptly from admiring his new suit in the glass and caught her in his arms. "You do love me--you do!" he cried. "No woman would have done all you've done for me, if she didn't."
For answer, Susan kissed him passionately; and as her body trembled with the sudden upheaval of emotions long dormant or indulged only in debased, hateful ways, she burst into tears. She knew, even in that moment of passion, that she did not love him; but not love itself can move the heart more deeply than gratitude and her bruised heart was so grateful for his words and tones and gestures of affection!
Wednesday afternoon, on the way to Brent's house, she glanced up at the clock in the corner tower of the Grand Central Station. It lacked five minutes of three. She walked slowly, timed herself so accurately that, as the butler opened the door, a cathedral chime hidden somewhere in the upper interior boomed the hour musically. The man took her direct to the elevator, and when it stopped at the top floor, Brent himself opened the door, as before. He was dismissing a short fat man whom Susan placed as a manager, and a tall, slim, and most fashionably dressed woman with a beautiful insincere face--anyone would have at once declared her an actress, probably a star. The woman gave Susan a searching, feminine look which changed swiftly to superciliousness. Both the man and the woman were loath to go, evidently had not finished what they had come to say. But Brent, in his abrupt but courteous way, said:
"Tomorrow at four, then. As you see, my next appointment has begun." And he had them in the elevator with the door closed. He turned upon Susan the gaze that seemed to take in everything. "You are in better spirits, I see," said he.
"I'm sorry to have interrupted," said she. "I could have waited."
"But I couldn't," replied he. "Some day you'll discover that your time is valuable, and that to waste it is far sillier than if you were to walk along throwing your money into the gutter. Time ought to be used like money--spent generously but intelligently." He talked rapidly on, with his manner as full of unexpressed and inexpressible intensity as the voice of the violin, with his frank egotism that had no suggestion of vanity or conceit. "Because I systematize my time, I'm never in a hurry, never at a loss for time to give to whatever I wish. I didn't refuse to keep you waiting for your sake but for my own. Now the next hour belongs to you and me--and we'll forget about time--as, if we were dining in a restaurant, we'd not think of the bill till it was presented. What did you do with the play?"
Susan could only look at him helplessly.
He laughed, handed her a cigarette, rose to light a match for her. "Settle yourself comfortably," said he, "and say what's in your head."
With hands deep in the trousers of his house suit, he paced up and down the long room, the cigarette loose between his lips. Whenever she saw his front face she was reassured; but whenever she saw his profile, her nerves trembled--for in the profile there was an expression of almost ferocious resolution, of tragic sadness, of the sternness that spares not. The full face was kind, if keen; was sympathetic--was the man as nature had made him. The profile was the great man--the man his career had made. And Susan knew that the profile was master.
"Which part did you like Santuzza or Lola?"
"Lola," replied she.
He paused, looked at her quickly. Why?"
"Oh, I don't sympathize with the woman--or the man--who's deserted. I pity, but I can't help seeing it's her or his own fault. Lola explains why. Wouldn't you rather laugh than cry? Santuzza may have been attractive in the moments of passion, but how she must have bored Turiddu the rest of the time! She was so intense, so serious--so vain and selfish."
"Vain and selfish? That's interesting." He walked up and down several times, then turned on her abruptly. "Well--go on," he said. "I'm waiting to hear why she was vain and selfish."
"Isn't it vain for a woman to think a man ought to be crazy about her all the time because he once has been? Isn't it selfish for her to want him to be true to her because it gives her pleasure, even though she knows it doesn't give him pleasure?"
"Men and women are all vain and selfish in love," said he.
"But the women are meaner than the men," replied she, "because they're more ignorant and narrow-minded."
He was regarding her with an expression that made her uneasy. "But that isn't in the play--none of it," said he.
"Well, it ought to be," replied she. "Santuzza is the old-fashioned conventional heroine. I used to like them--until I had lived a little, myself. She isn't true to life. But in Lola----"
"Yes--what about Lola?" he demanded.
"Oh, she wasn't a heroine, either. She was just human--taking happiness when it offered. And her gayety--and her capriciousness. A man will always break away from a solemn, intense woman to get that sort of sunshine."
"Yes--yes--go on," said Brent.
"And her sour, serious, solemn husband explains why wives are untrue to their husbands. At least, it seems so to me."
He was walking up and down again. Every trace of indolence, of relaxation, was gone from his gait and from his features. His mind was evidently working like an engine at full speed. Suddenly he halted. "You've given me a big idea," said he. "I'll throw away the play I was working on. I'll do your play."
Susan laughed--pleased, yet a little afraid he was kinder than she deserved. "What I said was only common sense--what my experience has taught me."
"That's all that genius is, my dear," replied he. "As soon as we're born, our eyes are operated on so that we shall never see anything as it is. The geniuses are those who either escape the operation or are reendowed with true sight by experience." He nodded approvingly at her. "You're going to be a person--or, rather, you're going to show you're a person. But that comes later. You thought of Lola as your part?"
"I tried to. But I don't know anything about acting except what I've seen and the talk I've heard."
"As I said the other day, that means you've little to learn. Now--as to Lola's entrance."
"Oh, I thought of a lot of things to do--to show that she, too, loved Turiddu and that she had as much right to love--and to be loved--as Santuzza had. Santuzza had had her chance, and had failed."
Brent was highly amused. "You seem to forget that Lola was a married woman--and that if Santuzza didn't get a husband she'd be the mother of a fatherless child."
Never had he seen in her face such a charm of sweet melancholy as at that moment. "I suppose the way I was born and the life I've led make me think less of those things than most people do," replied she. "I was talking about natural hearts--what people think inside--the way they act when they have courage."
"When they have courage," Brent repeated reflectively. "But who has courage?"
"A great many people are compelled to have it," said she.
"I never had it until I got enough money to be independent."
"I never had it," said Susan, "until I had no money."
He leaned against the big table, folded his arms on his chest, looked at her with eyes that made her feel absolutely at ease with him. Said he:
"You have known what it was to have no money--none?"
Susan nodded. "And no friends--no place to sleep--worse off than Robinson Crusoe when the waves threw him on the island. I had to--to suck my own blood to keep alive."
"You smile as you say that," said he.
"If I hadn't learned to smile over such things," she answered, "I'd have been dead long ago."
He seated himself opposite her. He asked:
"Why didn't you kill yourself?"
"I was afraid."
"Of the hereafter?"
"Oh no. Of missing the coming true of my dreams about life."
"That--and more. Just love wouldn't satisfy me. I want to see the world--to know the world--and to be somebody. I want to try everything."
She laughed gayly--a sudden fascinating vanishing of the melancholy of eyes and mouth, a sudden flashing out of young beauty. "I've been down about as deep as one can go. I want to explore in the other direction."
"Yes--yes," said Brent, absently. "You must see it all."
He remained for some time in a profound reverie, she as unconscious of the passing of time as he for if he had his thoughts, she had his face to study. Try as she would, she could not associate the idea of age with him--any age. He seemed simply a grown man. And the more closely she studied him the greater her awe became. He knew so much; he understood so well. She could not imagine him swept away by any of the petty emotions--the vanities, the jealousies, the small rages, the small passions and loves that made up the petty days of the small creatures who inhabit the world and call it theirs. Could he fall in love? Had he been in love? Yes--he must have been in love many times--for many women must have taken trouble to please a man so well worth while, and he must have passed from one woman to another as his whims or his tastes changed. Could he ever care about her--as a woman? Did he think her worn out as a physical woman? Or would he realize that body is nothing by itself; that unless the soul enters it, it is cold and meaningless and worthless--like the electric bulb when the filament is dark and the beautiful, hot, brilliant and intensely living current is not in it? Could she love him? Could she ever feel equal and at ease, through and through, with a man so superior?
"You'd better study the part of Lola--learn the lines," said he, when he had finished his reflecting. "Then--this day week at the same hour--we will begin. We will work all afternoon--we will dine together--go to some theater where I can illustrate what I mean. Beginning with next Wednesday that will be the program every day until further notice."
"Until you see whether you can do anything with me or not?"
"Just so. You are living with Spenser?"
"Yes." Susan could have wished his tone less matter-of-fact.
"How is he getting on?"
"He and Sperry are doing a play for Fitzalan."
"Really? That's good. He has talent. If he'll learn of Sperry and talk less and work more, and steadily, he'll make a lot of money. You are not tied to him in any way?"
"No--not now that he's prospering. Except, of course, that I'm fond of him."
He shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, everybody must have somebody. You've not seen this house. I'll show it to you, as we've still fifteen minutes."
A luxurious house it was--filled with things curious and, some of them, beautiful--things gathered in excursions through Europe, Susan assumed. The only absolutely simple room was his bedroom, big and bare and so arranged that he could sleep practically out of doors. She saw servants--two men besides the butler, several women. But the house was a bachelor's house, with not a trace of feminine influence. And evidently he cared nothing about it but lived entirely in that wonderful world which so awed Susan--the world he had created within himself, the world of which she had alluring glimpses through his eyes, through his tones and gestures even. Small people strive to make, and do make, impression of themselves by laboring to show what they know and think. But the person of the larger kind makes no such effort. In everything Brent said and did and wore, in all his movements, gestures, expressions, there was the unmistakable hallmark of the man worth while. The social life has banished simplicity from even the most savage tribe. Indeed, savages, filled with superstitions, their every movement the result of some notion of proper ceremonial, are the most complex of all the human kind. The effort toward simplicity is not a movement back to nature, for there savage and lower animal are completely enslaved by custom and instinct; it is a movement upward toward the freedom of thought and action of which our best intelligence has given us a conception and for which it has given us a longing. Never had Susan met so simple a man; and never had she seen one so far from all the silly ostentations of rudeness, of unattractive dress, of eccentric or coarse speech wherewith the cheap sort of man strives to proclaim himself individual and free.
With her instinct for recognizing the best at first sight, Susan at once understood. And she was like one who has been stumbling about searching for the right road, and has it suddenly shown to him. She fairly darted along this right road. She was immediately busy, noting the mistakes in her own ideas of manners and dress, of good and bad taste. She realized how much she had to learn. But this did not discourage her. For she realized at the same time that she could learn--and his obvious belief in her as a possibility was most encouraging.
When he bade her good-by at the front door and it closed behind her, she was all at once so tired that it seemed to her she would then and there sink down through sheer fatigue and fall asleep. For no physical exercise so quickly and utterly exhausts as real brain exercise--thinking, studying, learning with all the concentrated intensity of a thoroughbred in the last quarter of the mile race.