Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Toward half-past ten the next day, a few minutes after Rod left for the theater, she was in the bathroom cleaning the coffee machine. There came a knock at the door of the sitting-room bedroom. Into such disorder had her mood of depression worried her nerves that she dropped the coffee machine into the washbowl and jumped as if she were seeing a ghost. Several dire calamities took vague shape in her mind, then the image of Freddie Palmer, smiling sweetly, cruelly. She wavered only a moment, went to the door, and after a brief hesitation that still further depressed her about herself she opened it. The maid--a good-natured sloven who had become devoted to Susan because she gave her liberal fees and made her no extra work--was standing there, in an attitude of suppressed excitement. Susan laughed, for this maid was a born agitator, a person who is always trying to find a thrill or to put a thrill into the most trivial event.
"What is it now, Annie?" Susan asked.
"Mr. Spenser--he's gone, hasn't he?"
"Yes--a quarter of an hour ago."
Annie drew a breath of deep relief. "I was sure he had went," said she, producing from under her apron a note. "I saw it was in a gentleman's writing, so I didn't come up with it till he was out of the way, though the boy brought it a little after nine."
"Oh, bother!" exclaimed Susan, taking the note.
"Well, Mrs. Spenser, I've had my lesson," replied Annie, apologetic but firm. "When I first came to New York, green as the grass that grows along the edge of the spring, what does I do but go to work and take up a note to a lady when her husband was there! Next thing I knew he went to work and hauled her round the floor by the hair and skinned out--yes, beat it for good. And my madam says to me, `Annie, you're fired. Never give a note to a lady when her gent is by or to a gent when his lady's by. That's the first rule of life in gay New York.' And you can bet I never have since--nor never will."
Susan had glanced at the address on the note, had recognized the handwriting of Brent's secretary. Her heart had straightway sunk as if the foreboding of calamity had been realized. As she stood there uncertainly, Annie seized the opportunity to run on and on. Susan now said absently, "Thank you. Very well," and closed the door. It was a minute or so before she tore open the envelope with an impatient gesture and read:
DEAR MRS. SPENSER:
Mr. Brent requests me to ask you not to come until further notice. It may be sometime before he will be free to resume.
It was a fair specimen of Garvey's official style, with which she had become acquainted--the style of the secretary who has learned by experience not to use frills or flourishes but to convey his message in the fewest and clearest words. Had it been a skillfully worded insult Susan, in this mood of depression and distorted mental vision, could not have received it differently. She dropped to a chair at the table and stared at the five lines of neat handwriting until her eyes became circled and her face almost haggard. Precisely as Rod had described! After a long, long time she crumpled the paper and let it fall into the waste-basket. Then she walked up and down the room--presently drifted into the bathroom and resumed cleaning the coffee machine. Every few moments she would pause in the task--and in her dressing afterwards--would be seized by the fear, the horror of again being thrust into that hideous underworld. What was between her and it, to save her from being flung back into its degradation? Two men on neither of whom she could rely. Brent might drop her at any time--perhaps had already dropped her. As for Rod--vain, capricious, faithless, certain to become an unendurable tyrant if he got her in his power--Rod was even less of a necessity than Brent. What a dangerous situation was hers! How slender her chances of escape from another catastrophe. She leaned against wall or table and was shaken by violent fits of shuddering. She felt herself slipping--slipping. It was all she could do to refrain from crying out. In those moments, no trace of the self-possessed Susan the world always saw. Her fancy went mad and ran wild. She quivered under the actuality of coarse contacts--Mrs. Tucker in bed with her--the men who had bought her body for an hour--the vermin of the tenements--the brutal hands of policemen.
Then with an exclamation of impatience or of anger she would shake herself together and go resolutely on--only again to relapse. "Because I so suddenly cut off the liquor and the opium," she said. It was the obvious and the complete explanation. But her heart was like lead, and her sky like ink. This note, the day after having tried her out as a possibility for the stage and as a woman. She stared down at the crumpled note in the wast-basket. That note--it was herself. He had crumpled her up and thrown her into the waste-basket, where she no doubt belonged.
It was nearly noon before she, dressed with unconscious care, stood in the street doorway looking about uncertainly as if she did not know which way to turn. She finally moved in the direction of the theater where Rod's play was rehearsing. She had gone to none of the rehearsals because Rod had requested it. "I want you to see it as a total surprise the first night," explained he. "That'll give you more pleasure, and also it will make your criticism more valuable to us." And she had acquiesced, not displeased to have all her time for her own affairs. But now she, dazed, stunned almost, convinced that it was all over for her with Brent, instinctively turned to Rod to get human help--not to ask for it, but in the hope that somehow he would divine and would say or do something that would make the way ahead a little less forbidding--something that would hearten her for the few first steps, anyhow. She turned back several times--now, because she feared Rod wouldn't like her coming; again because her experience--enlightened good sense----told her that Rod would--could--not help her, that her sole reliance was herself. But in the end, driven by one of those spasms of terror lest the underworld should be about to engulf her again, she stood at the stage door.
As she was about to negotiate the surly looking man on guard within, Sperry came rushing down the long dark passageway. He was brushing past her when he saw who it was. "Too late!" he cried. "Rehearsal's over."
"I didn't come to the rehearsal," explained Susan. "I thought perhaps Rod would be going to lunch."
"So he is. Go straight back. You'll find him on the stage. I'll join you if you'll wait a minute or so." And Sperry hurried on into the street.
Susan advanced along the passageway cautiously as it was but one remove from pitch dark. Perhaps fifty feet, and she came to a cross passage. As she hesitated, a door at the far end of it opened and she caught a glimpse of a dressing-room and, in the space made by the partly opened door, a woman half-dressed--an attractive glimpse. The woman--who seemed young--was not looking down the passage, but into the room. She was laughing in the way a woman laughs only when it is for a man, for the man--and was saying, "Now, Rod, you must go, and give me a chance to finish dressing." A man's arm--Rod's arm--reached across the opening in the doorway. A hand--Susan recognized Rod's well-shaped hand--was laid strongly yet tenderly upon the pretty bare arm of the struggling, laughing young woman--and the door closed--and the passage was soot-dark again. All this a matter of less than five seconds. Susan, ashamed at having caught him, frightened lest she should be found where she had no business to be, fled back along the main passage and jerked open the street door. She ran squarely into Sperry.
"I--I beg your pardon," stammered he. "I was in such a rush--I ought to have been thinking where I was going. Did I hurt you?" This last most anxiously. "I'm so sorry----"
"It's nothing--nothing," laughed Susan. "You are the one that's hurt."
And in fact she had knocked Sperry breathless. "You don't look anything like so strong," gasped he.
"Oh, my appearance is deceptive--in a lot of ways."
For instance, he could have got from her face just then no hint of the agony of fear torturing her--fear of the drop into the underworld.
"Find Rod?" asked he.
"He wasn't on the stage. So--I came out again."
"Wait here," said Sperry. "I'll hunt him up."
"Oh, no--please don't. I stopped on impulse. I'll not bother him." She smiled mischievously. "I might be interrupting."
Sperry promptly reddened. She had no difficulty in reading what was in his mind--that her remark had reminded him of Rod's "affair," and he was cursing himself for having been so stupid as to forget it for the moment and put his partner in danger of detection.
"I--I guess he's gone," stammered Sperry. "Lord, but that was a knock you gave me! Better come to lunch with me."
Susan hesitated, a wistful, forlorn look in her eyes. "Do you really want me?" asked she.
"Come right along," said Sperry in a tone that left no doubt of his sincerity. "We'll go to the Knickerbocker and have something good to eat."
"Oh, no--a quieter place," urged Susan.
Sperry laughed. "You mean less expensive. There's one of the great big differences between you and the make-believe ladies one bumps into in this part of town. You don't like to be troublesome or expensive. But we'll go to the Knickerbocker. I feel 'way down today, and I intended to treat myself. You don't look any too gay-hearted yourself."
"I'll admit I don't like the way the cards are running," said Susan. "But--they'll run better--sooner or later."
"Sure!" cried Sperry. "You needn't worry about the play. That's all right. How I envy women!"
"Oh--you have Rod between you and the fight. While I--I've got to look out for myself."
"So have I," said Susan. "So has everyone, for that matter."
"Believe me, Mrs. Spenser," cried Sperry, earnestly, "you can count on Rod. No matter what----"
"Please!" protested Susan. "I count on nobody. I learned long ago not to lean."
"Well, leaning isn't exactly a safe position," Sperry admitted. "There never was a perfectly reliable crutch. Tell me your troubles."
Susan smilingly shook her head. "That'd be leaning. . . . No, thank you. I've got to think it out for myself. I believed I had arranged for a career for myself. It seems to have gone to pieces That's all. Something else will turn up--after lunch."
"Not a doubt in the world," replied he confidently. "Meanwhile--there's Rod."
Susan's laugh of raillery made him blush guiltily. "Yes," said she, "there's Rod." She laughed again, merrily. "There's Rod--but where is there?"
"You're the only woman in the world he has any real liking for," said Sperry, earnest and sincere. "Don't you ever doubt that, Mrs. Spenser."
When they were seated in the cafe and he had ordered, he excused himself and Susan saw him make his way to a table where sat Fitzalan and another man who looked as if he too had to do with the stage. It was apparent that Fitzalan was excited about something; his lips, his arms, his head were in incessant motion. Susan noted that he had picked up many of Brent's mannerisms; she had got the habit of noting this imitativeness in men--and in women, too--from having seen in the old days how Rod took on the tricks of speech, manner, expression, thought even, of whatever man he happened at the time to be admiring. May it not have been this trait of Rod's that gave her the clue to his character, when she was thinking him over, after the separation?
Sperry was gone nearly ten minutes. He came, full of apologies. "Fitz held on to me while he roasted Brent. You've heard of Brent, of course?"
"Yes," said Susan.
"Fitz has been seeing him off. And he says it's----"
Susan glanced quickly at him. "Off?" she said.
Susan had paused in removing her left glove. Rod's description of Brent's way of sidestepping--Rod's description to the last detail. Her hands fluttered uncertainly--fluttering fingers like a flock of birds flushed and confused by the bang of the gun.
"And Fitz says----"
"For Europe," said Susan. She was drawing her fingers slowly one by one from the fingers of her glove.
"Yes. He sailed, it seems, on impulse barely time to climb aboard. Fitz always lays everything to a woman. He says Brent has been mixed up for a year or so with---- Oh, it doesn't matter. I oughtn't to repeat those things. I don't believe 'em--on principle. Every man--or woman--who amounts to anything has scandal talked about him or her all the time. Good Lord! If Robert Brent bothered with half the affairs that are credited to him, he'd have no time or strength--not to speak of brains--to do plays."
"I guess even the busiest man manages to fit a woman in somehow," observed Susan. "A woman or so."
Sperry laughed. "I guess yes," said he. "But as to Brent, most of the scandal about him is due to a fad of his--hunting for an undeveloped female genius who----"
"I've heard of that," interrupted Susan. "The service is dreadfully slow here. How long is it since you ordered?"
"Twenty minutes--and here comes our waiter." And then, being one of those who must finish whatever they have begun, he went on. "Well, it's true Brent does pick up and drop a good many ladies of one kind and another. And naturally, every one of them is good-looking and clever or he'd not start in. But--you may laugh at me if you like--I think he's strictly business with all of them. He'd have got into trouble if he hadn't been. And Fitz admits this one woman--she's a society woman--is the only one there's any real basis for talk about in connection with Brent."
Susan had several times lifted a spoonful of soup to her lips and had every time lowered it untasted.
"And Brent's mighty decent to those he tries and has to give up. I know of one woman he carried on his pay roll for nearly two years----"
"Let's drop Mr. Brent," cried Susan. "Tell me about--about the play."
"Rod must be giving you an overdose of that."
"I've not seen much of him lately. How was the rehearsal?"
"Fair--fair." And Sperry forgot Brent and talked on and on about the play, not checking himself until the coffee was served. He had not observed that Susan was eating nothing. Neither had he observed that she was not listening; but there was excuse for this oversight, as she had set her expression at absorbed attention before withdrawing within herself to think--and to suffer. She came to the surface again when Sperry, complaining of the way the leading lady was doing her part, said: "No wonder Brent drops one after another. Women aren't worth much as workers. Their real mind's always occupied with the search for a man to support 'em."
"Not always," cried Susan, quivering with sudden pain. "Oh, no, Mr. Sperry--not always."
"Yes--there are exceptions," said Sperry, not noting how he had wounded her. "But--well, I never happened to run across one."
"Can you blame them?" mocked Susan. She was ashamed that she had been stung into crying out.
"To be honest--no," said Sperry. "I suspect I'd throw up the sponge and sell out if I had anything a lady with cash wanted to buy. I only suspect myself. But I know most men would. No, I don't blame the ladies. Why not have a nice easy time? Only one short life--and then--the worms."
She was struggling with the re-aroused insane terror of a fall back to the depths whence she had once more just come--and she felt that, if she fell again, it would mean the very end of hope. It must have been instinct or accident, for it certainly was not any prompting from her calm expression, that moved him to say:
"Now, tell me your troubles. I've told you mine. . . . You surely must have some?"
Susan forced a successful smile of raillery. "None to speak of," evaded she.
When she reached home there was a telegram--from Brent:
Compelled to sail suddenly. Shall be back in a few weeks. Don't mind this annoying interruption. R. B.
A very few minutes after she read these words, she was at work on the play. But--a very few minutes thereafter she was sitting with the play in her lap, eyes gazing into the black and menacing future. The misgivings of the night before had been fed and fattened into despairing certainties by the events of the day. The sun was shining, never more brightly; but it was not the light of her City of the Sun. She stayed in all afternoon and all evening. During those hours before she put out the light and shut herself away in the dark a score of Susans, every one different from every other, had been seen upon the little theater of that lodging house parlor-bedroom. There had been a hopeful Susan, a sad but resolved Susan, a strong Susan, a weak Susan; there had been Susans who could not have shed a tear; there had been Susans who shed many tears--some of them Susans all bitterness, others Susans all humility and self-reproach. Any spectator would have been puzzled by this shifting of personality. Susan herself was completely confused. She sought for her real self among this multitude so contradictory. Each successive one seemed the reality; yet none persisted. When we look in at our own souls, it is like looking into a many-sided room lined with mirrors. We see reflections--re-reflections--views at all angles--but we cannot distinguish the soul itself among all these counterfeits, all real yet all false because partial.
"What shall I do? What can I do? What will I do?"--that was her last cry as the day ended. And it was her first cry as her weary brain awakened for the new day.
At the end of the week came the regular check with a note from Garvey--less machine-like, more human. He apologized for not having called, said one thing and another had prevented, and now illness of a near relative compelled him to leave town for a few days, but as soon as he came back he would immediately call. It seemed to Susan that there could be but one reason why he should call--the reason that would make a timid, soft-hearted man such as he put off a personal interview as long as he could find excuses. She flushed hot with rage and shame as she reflected on her position. Garvey pitying her! She straightway sat down and wrote:
DEAR MR. GARVEY: Do not send me any more checks until Mr. Brent comes back and I have seen him. I am in doubt whether I shall be able to go on with the work he and I had arranged.
She signed this "Susan Lenox" and dispatched it. At once she felt better in spite of the fact that she had, with characteristic and fatal folly, her good sense warned her, cut herself off from all the income in sight or in prospect. She had debated sending back the check, but had decided that if she did she might give the impression of pique or anger. No, she would give him every chance to withdraw from a bargain with which he was not content; and he would get the idea that it was she who was ending the arrangement, would therefore feel no sense of responsibility for her. She would save her pride; she would spare his feelings. She was taking counsel of Burlingham these days--was recalling the lesson he had taught her, was getting his aid in deciding her course. Burlingham protested vehemently against this sending back of the check; but she let her pride, her aversion to being an object of pity, overrule him.
A few days more, and she was so desperate, so harassed that she altogether lost confidence in her own judgment. While outwardly she seemed to be the same as always with Rod, she had a feeling of utter alienation. Still, there was no one else to whom she could turn. Should she put the facts before him and ask his opinion? Her intelligence said no; her heart said perhaps. While she was hesitating, he decided for her. One morning at breakfast he stopped talking about himself long enough to ask carelessly:
"About you and Brent--he's gone away. What are you doing?"
"Nothing," said she.
"Going to take that business up again, when he comes back?"
"I don't know."
"I wouldn't count on it, if I were you. . . . You're so sensitive that I've hesitated to say anything. But I think that chap was looking for trouble, and when he found you were already engaged, why, he made up his mind to drop it."
"Do you think so?" said Susan indifferently. "More coffee?"
"Yes--a little. If my play's as good as your coffee---- That's enough, thanks. . . . Do you still draw your--your----"
His tone as he cast about for a fit word made her flush scarlet. "No--I stopped it until we begin work again."
He did not conceal his thorough satisfaction. "That's right!" he cried. "The only cloud on our happiness is gone. You know, a man doesn't like that sort of thing."
"I know," said Susan drily.
And she understood why that very night he for the first time asked her to supper after the rehearsal with Sperry and Constance Francklyn, the leading lady, with whom he was having one of those affairs which as he declared to Sperry were "absolutely necessary to a man of genius to keep him freshened up--to keep the fire burning brightly." He had carefully coached Miss Francklyn to play the part of unsuspected "understudy"--Susan saw that before they had been seated in Jack's ten minutes. And she also saw that he was himself resolved to conduct himself "like a gentleman." But after he had taken two or three highballs, Susan was forced to engage deeply in conversation with the exasperated and alarmed Sperry to avoid seeing how madly Rod and Constance were flirting. She, however, did contrive to see nothing--at least, the other three were convinced that she had not seen. When they were back in their rooms, Rod--whether through pretense or through sidetracked amorousness or from simple intoxication--became more demonstrative than he had been for a long time.
"No, there's nobody like you," he declared. "Even if I wandered I'd always come back to you."
"Really?" said Susan with careless irony. "That's good. No, I can unhook my blouse."
"I do believe you're growing cold."
"I don't feel like being messed with tonight."
"Oh, very well," said he sulkily. Then, forgetting his ill humor after a few minutes of watching her graceful movements and gestures as she took off her dress and made her beautiful hair ready for the night, he burst out in a very different tone: "You don't know how glad I am that you're dependent on me again. You'll not be difficult any more."
A moment's silence, then Susan, with a queer little laugh, "Men don't in the least mind--do they?"
"Being loved for money." There was a world of sarcasm in her accent on that word loved.
"Oh, nonsense. You don't understand yourself," declared he with large confidence. "Women never grow up. They're like babies--and babies, you know, love the person that feeds them."
"And dogs--and cats--and birds--and all the lower orders." She took a book and sat in a wrapper under the light.
"Come to bed--please, dear," pleaded he.
"No, I'll read a while."
And she held the book before her until he was asleep. Then she sat a long time, her elbows on her knees, her chin supported by her hands, her gaze fixed upon his face--the face of the man who was her master now. She must please him, must accept what treatment he saw fit to give, must rein in her ambitions to suit the uncertain gait and staying power of his ability to achieve. She could not leave him; he could leave her when he might feel so inclined. Her master--capricious, tyrannical, a drunkard. Her sole reliance--and the first condition of his protection was that she should not try to do for herself. A dependent, condemned to become even more dependent.