Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
She wrote Garvey asking an appointment. The reply should have come the next day or the next day but one at the farthest; for Garvey had been trained by Brent to the supreme courtesy of promptness. It did not come until the fourth day; before she opened it Susan knew about what she would read--the stupidly obvious attempt to put off facing her--the cowardice of a kind-hearted, weak fellow. She really had her answer--was left without a doubt for hope to perch upon. But she wrote again, insisting so sharply that he came the following day. His large, tell-tale face was a restatement of what she had read in his delay and between the lines of his note. He was effusively friendly with a sort of mortuary suggestion, like one bearing condolences, that tickled her sense of humor, far though her heart was from mirth.
"Something has happened," began she, "that makes it necessary for me to know when Mr. Brent is coming back."
"Really, Mrs. Spencer----"
"Miss Lenox," she corrected.
"Yes--Miss Lenox, I beg your pardon. But really--in my position--I know nothing of Mr. Brent's plans--and if I did, I'd not be at liberty to speak of them. I have written him what you wrote me about the check--and--and--that is all."
"Mr. Garvey, is he ever--has he----" Susan, desperate, burst out with more than she intended to say: "I care nothing about it, one way or the other. If Mr. Brent is politely hinting that I won't do, I've a right to know it. I have a chance at something else. Can't you tell me?"
"I don't know anything about it--honestly I don't, Miss Lenox," cried he, swearing profusely.
"You put an accent on the `know,'" said Susan. "You suspect that I'm right, don't you?"
"I've no ground for suspecting--that is--no, I haven't. He said nothing to me--nothing. But he never does. He's very peculiar and uncertain . . . and I don't understand him at all."
"Isn't this his usual way with the failures--his way of letting them down easily?"
Susan's manner was certainly light and cheerful, an assurance that he need have no fear of hysterics or despair or any sort of scene trying to a soft heart. But Garvey could take but the one view of the favor or disfavor of the god of his universe. He looked at her like a dog that is getting a whipping from a friend. "Now, Miss Lenox, you've no right to put me in this painful----"
"That's true," said Susan, done since she had got what she sought. "I shan't say another word. When Mr. Brent comes back, will you tell him I sent for you to ask you to thank him for me--and say to him that I found something else for which I hope I'm better suited?"
"I'm so glad," said Garvey, hysterically. "I'm delighted. And I'm sure he will be, too. For I'm sure he liked you, personally--and I must say I was surprised when he went. But I must not say that sort of thing. Indeed, I know nothing, Miss Lenox--I assure you----"
"And please tell him," interrupted Susan, "that I'd have written him myself, only I don't want to bother him."
"Oh, no--no, indeed. Not that, Miss Lenox. I'm so sorry. But I'm only the secretary. I can't say anything."
It was some time before Susan could get rid of him, though he was eager to be gone. He hung in the doorway, ejaculating disconnectedly, dropping and picking up his hat, perspiring profusely, shaking hands again and again, and so exciting her pity for his misery of the good-hearted weak that she was for the moment forgetful of her own plight. Long before he went, he had greatly increased her already strong belief in Brent's generosity of character--for, thought she, he'd have got another secretary if he hadn't been too kind to turn adrift so helpless and foolish a creature. Well--he should have no trouble in getting rid of her.
She was seeing little of Spenser and they were saying almost nothing to each other. When he came at night, always very late, she was in bed and pretended sleep. When he awoke, she got breakfast in silence; they read the newspapers as they ate. And he could not spare the time to come to dinner. As the decisive moment drew near, his fears dried up his confident volubility. He changed his mind and insisted on her coming to the theater for the final rehearsals. But "Shattered Lives" was not the sort of play she cared for, and she was wearied by the profane and tedious wranglings of the stage director and the authors, by the stupidity of the actors who had to be told every little intonation and gesture again and again. The agitation, the labor seemed grotesquely out of proportion to the triviality of the matter at issue. At the first night she sat in a box from which Spenser, in a high fever and twitching with nervousness, watched the play, gliding out just before the lights were turned up for the intermission. The play went better than she had expected, and the enthusiasm of the audience convinced her that it was a success before the fall of the curtain on the second act. With the applause that greeted the chief climax--the end of the third act--Spenser, Sperry and Fitzalan were convinced. All three responded to curtain calls. Susan had never seen Spenser so handsome, and she admired the calmness and the cleverness of his brief speech of thanks. That line of footlights between them gave her a new point of view on him, made her realize how being so close to his weaknesses had obscured for her his strong qualities--for, unfortunately, while a man's public life is determined wholly by his strong qualities, his intimate life depends wholly on his weaknesses. She was as fond of him as she had ever been; but it was impossible for her to feel any thrill approaching love. Why? She looked at his fine face and manly figure; she recalled how many good qualities he had. Why had she ceased to love him? She thought perhaps some mystery of physical lack of sympathy was in part responsible; then there was the fact that she could not trust him. With many women, trust is not necessary to love; on the contrary, distrust inflames love. It happened not to be so with Susan Lenox. "I do not love him. I can never love him again. And when he uses his power over me, I shall begin to dislike him." The lost illusion! The dead love! If she could call it back to life! But no--there it lay, coffined, the gray of death upon its features. Her heart ached.
After the play Fitzalan took the authors and the leading lady, Constance Francklyn, and Miss Lenox to supper in a private room at Rector's. This was Miss Francklyn's first trial in a leading part. She had small ability as an actress, having never risen beyond the primer stage of mere posing and declamation in which so many players are halted by their vanity--the universal human vanity that is content with small triumphs, or with purely imaginary triumphs. But she had a notable figure of the lank, serpentine kind and a bad, sensual face that harmonized with it. Especially in artificial light she had an uncanny allure of the elemental, the wild animal in the jungle. With every disposition and effort to use her physical charms to further herself she would not have been still struggling at twenty-eight, had she had so much as a thimbleful of intelligence.
"Several times," said Sperry to Susan as they crossed Long Acre together on the way to Rector's, "yes, at least half a dozen times to my knowledge, Constance had had success right in her hands. And every time she has gone crazy about some cheap actor or sport and has thrown it away."
"But she'll get on now," said Susan.
"Perhaps," was Sperry's doubting reply. "Of course, she's got no brains. But it doesn't take brains to act--that is, to act well enough for cheap machine-made plays like this. And nowadays playwrights have learned that it's useless to try to get actors who can act. They try to write parts that are actor-proof."
"You don't like your play?" said Susan.
"Like it? I love it. Isn't it going to bring me in a pot of money? But as a play"--Sperry laughed. "I know Spenser thinks it's great, but--there's only one of us who can write plays, and that's Brent. It takes a clever man to write a clever play. But it takes a genius to write a clever play that'll draw the damn fools who buy theater seats. And Robert Brent now and then does the trick. How are you getting on with your ambition for a career?"
Susan glanced nervously at him. The question, coming upon the heels of talk about Brent, filled her with alarm lest Rod had broken his promise and had betrayed her confidence. But Sperry's expression showed that she was probably mistaken.
"My ambition?" said she. "Oh--I've given it up."
"The thought of work was too much for you--eh?"
Susan shrugged her shoulders.
A sardonic grin flitted over Sperry's Punch-like face. "The more I see of women, the less I think of 'em," said he. "But I suppose the men'd be lazy and worthless too, if nature had given 'em anything that'd sell or rent. . . . Somehow I'm disappointed in you, though."
That ended the conversation until they were sitting down at the table. Then Sperry said:
"Are you offended by my frankness a while ago?"
"No," replied Susan. "The contrary. Some day your saying that may help me."
"It's quite true, there's something about you--a look--a manner--it makes one feel you could do things if you tried."
"I'm afraid that `something' is a fraud," said she. No doubt it was that something that had misled Brent--that had always deceived her about herself. No, she must not think herself a self-deceived dreamer. Even if it was so, still she must not think it. She must say to herself over and over again "Brent or no Brent, I shall get on--I shall get on" until she had silenced the last disheartening doubt.
Miss Francklyn, with Fitzalan on her left and Spenser on her right, was seated opposite Susan. About the time the third bottle was being emptied the attempts of Spenser and Constance to conceal from her their doings became absurd. Long before the supper was over there had been thrust at her all manner of proofs that Spenser was again untrue, that he was whirling madly in one of those cyclonic infatuations which soon wore him out and left him to return contritely to her. Sperry admired Susan's manners as displayed in her unruffled serenity--an admiration which she did not in the least deserve. She was in fact as deeply interested as she seemed in his discussion of plays and acting, illustrated by Brent's latest production. By the time the party broke up, Susan had in spite of herself collected a formidable array of incriminating evidence, including the stealing of one of Constance's jeweled show garters by Spenser under cover of the tablecloth and a swift kiss in the hall when Constance went out for a moment and Spenser presently suspended his drunken praises of himself as a dramatist, and appointed himself a committee to see what had become of her.
At the door of the restaurant, Spenser said:
"Susan, you and Miss Francklyn take a taxicab. She'll drop you at our place on her way home. Fitz and Sperry and I want one more drink."
"Not for me," said Sperry savagely, with a scowl at Constance. But Fitzalan, whose arm Susan had seen Rod press, remained silent.
"Come on, my dear," cried Miss Francklyn, smiling sweet insolent treachery into Susan's face.
Susan smiled sweetly back at her. As she was leaving the taxicab in Forty-fifth Street, she said:
"Send Rod home by noon, won't you? And don't tell him I know."
Miss Francklyn, who had been drinking greedily, began to cry. Susan laughed. "Don't be a silly," she urged. "If I'm not upset, why should you be? And how could I blame you two for getting crazy about each other? I wouldn't spoil it for worlds. I want to help it on."
"Don't you love him--really?" cried Constance, face and voice full of the most thrilling theatricalism.
"I'm very fond of him," replied Susan. "We're old, old friends. But as to love--I'm where you'll be a few months from now."
Miss Francklyn dried her eyes. "Isn't it the devil!" she exclaimed. "Why can't it last?"
"Why, indeed," said Susan. "Good night--and don't forget to send him by twelve o'clock." And she hurried up the steps without waiting for a reply.
She felt that the time for action had again come--that critical moment which she had so often in the past seen come and had let pass unheeded. He was in love with another woman; he was prosperous, assured of a good income for a long time, though he wrote no more successes. No need to consider him. For herself, then--what? Clearly, there could be no future for her with Rod. Clearly, she must go.
Must go--must take the only road that offered. Up before her--as in every mood of deep depression--rose the vision of the old women of the slums--the solitary, bent, broken forms, clad in rags, feet wrapped in rags--shuffling along in the gutters, peering and poking among filth, among garbage, to get together stuff to sell for the price of a drink. The old women of the tenements, the old women of the gutters, the old women drunk and dancing as the lecherous-eyed hunchback played the piano.
She must not this time wait and hesitate and hope; this time she must take the road that offered--and since it must be taken she must advance along it as if of all possible roads it was the only one she would have freely chosen.
Yet after she had written and sent off the note to Palmer, a deep sadness enveloped her--a grief, not for Rod, but for the association, the intimacy, their life together, its sorrows and storms perhaps more than the pleasures and the joys. When she left him before, she had gone sustained by the feeling that she was doing it for him, was doing a duty. Now, she was going merely to save herself, to further herself. Life, life in that great and hard school of practical living, New York, had given her the necessary hardiness to go, aided by Rod's unfaithfulness and growing uncongeniality. But not while she lived could she ever learn to be hard. She would do what she must--she was no longer a fool. But she could not help sighing and crying a little as she did it.
It was not many minutes after noon when Spenser came. He looked so sheepish and uncomfortable that Susan thought Constance had told him. But his opening sentence of apology was:
"I took too many nightcaps and Fitz had to lug me home with him."
"Really?" said Susan. "How disappointed Constance must have been!"
Spenser was not a good liar. His face twisted and twitched so that Susan laughed outright. "Why, you look like a caught married man," cried she. "You forget we're both free."
"Whatever put that crazy notion in your head--about Miss Francklyn?" demanded he.
"When you take me or anyone for that big a fool, Rod, you only show how foolish you yourself are," said she with the utmost good humor. "The best way to find out how much sense a person has is to see what kind of lies he thinks'll deceive another person."
"Now--don't get jealous, Susie," soothed he. "You know how a man is."
The tone was correctly contrite, but Susan felt underneath the confidence that he would be forgiven--the confidence of the egotist giddied by a triumph. Said she:
"Don't you think mine's a strange way of acting jealous?"
"But you're a strange woman."
Susan looked at him thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose I am," said she. "And you'll think me stranger when I tell you what I'm going to do."
He started up in a panic. And the fear in his eyes pleased her, at the same time that it made her wince.
She nodded slowly. "Yes, Rod--I'm leaving."
"I'll drop Constance," cried he. "I'll have her put out of the company."
"No--go on with her till you've got enough--or she has."
"I've got enough, this minute," declared he with convincing energy and passion. "You must know, dearest, that to me Constance--all the women I've ever seen--aren't worth your little finger. You're all that they are, and a whole lot more besides." He seized her in his arms. "You wouldn't leave me--you couldn't! You understand how men are--how they get these fits of craziness about a pair of eyes or a figure or some trick of voice or manner. But that doesn't affect the man's heart. I love you, Susan. I adore you."
She did not let him see how sincerely he had touched her. Her eyes were of their deepest violet, but he had never learned that sign. She smiled mockingly; the fingers that caressed his hair were trembling. "We've tided each other over, Rod. The play's a success. You're all right again--and so am I. Now's the time to part."
"Is it Brent, Susie?"
"I quit him last week."
"There's no one else. You're going because of Constance!"
She did not deny. "You're free and so am I," said she practically. "I'm going. So--let's part sensibly. Don't make a silly scene."
She knew how to deal with him--how to control him through his vanity. He drew away from her, chilled and sullen. "If you can live through it, I guess I can," said he. "You're making a damn fool of yourself--leaving a man that's fond of you--and leaving when he's successful."
"I always was a fool, you know," said she. She had decided against explaining to him and so opening up endless and vain argument. It was enough that she saw it was impossible to build upon or with him, saw the necessity of trying elsewhere--unless she would risk--no, invite--finding herself after a few months, or years, back among the drift, back in the underworld.
He gazed at her as she stood smiling gently at him--smiling to help her hide the ache at her heart, the terror before the vision of the old women of the tenement gutters, earning the wages, not of sin, not of vice, not of stupidity, but of indecision, of over-hopefulness--of weakness. Here was the kind of smile that hurts worse than tears, that takes the place of tears and sobs and moans. But he who had never understood her did not understand her now. Her smile infuriated his vanity. "You can laugh!" he sneered. "Well--go to the filth where you belong! You were born for it." And he flung out of the room, went noisily down the stairs. She heard the front door's distant slam; it seemed to drop her into a chair. She sat there all crouched together until the clock on the mantel struck two. This roused her hastily to gather into her trunk such of her belongings as she had not already packed. She sent for a cab. The man of all work carried down the trunk and put it on the box. Dressed in a simple blue costume as if for traveling, she entered the cab and gave the order to drive to the Grand Central Station.
At the corner she changed the order and was presently entering the Beaux Arts restaurant where she had asked Freddie to meet her. He was there, smoking calmly and waiting. At sight of her he rose. "You'll have lunch?" said he.
"A small bottle of champagne?"
"Yes--I'm rather tired."
He ordered the champagne. "And," said he, "it'll be the real thing--which mighty few New Yorkers get even at the best places." When it came he sent the waiter away and filled the glasses himself. He touched the brim of his glass to the bottom of hers. "To the new deal," said he.
She smiled and nodded, and emptied the glass. Suddenly it came to her why she felt so differently toward him. She saw the subtle, yet radical change that always transforms a man of force of character when his position in the world notably changes. This man before her, so slightly different in physical characteristics from the man she had fled, was wholly different in expression.
"When shall we sail?" asked he. "Tomorrow?"
"First--there's the question of money," said she.
He was much amused. "Still worrying about your independence."
"No," replied she. "I've been thinking it out, and I don't feel any anxiety about that. I've changed my scheme of life. I'm going to be sensible and practice what life has taught me. It seems there's only one way for a woman to get up. Through some man."
Freddie nodded. "By marriage or otherwise, but always through a man."
"So I've discovered," continued she. "So, I'm going to play the game. And I think I can win now. With the aid of what I'll learn and with the chances I'll have, I can keep my feeling of independence. You see, if you and I don't get on well together, I'll be able to look out for myself. Something'll turn up."
"Don't you want me to be candid? But even if you don't, I've got to be."
"Yes--truth--especially disagreeable truth--is your long suit," said he. "Not that I'm kicking. I'm glad you went straight at the money question. We can settle it and never think of it again. And neither of us will be plotting to take advantage of the other, or fretting for fear the other is plotting. Sometimes I think nearly all the trouble in this world comes through failure to have a clear understanding about money matters."
Susan nodded. Said she thoughtfully, "I guess that's why I came--one of the main reasons. You are wonderfully sensible and decent about money."
"And the other chap isn't?"
"Oh, yes--and no. He likes to make a woman feel dependent. He thinks--but that doesn't matter. He's all right."
"Now--for our understanding with each other," said Palmer. "You can have whatever you want. The other day you said you wanted some sort of a salary. But if you've changed----"
"No--that's what I want."
"So much a year?"
"So much a week," replied she. "I want to feel, and I want you to feel, that we can call it off at any time on seven days' notice."
"But that isn't what I want," said he--and she, watching him closely if furtively, saw the strong lines deepen round his mouth.
She hesitated. She was seeing the old woman's dance hall, was hearing the piano as the hunchback played and the old horrors reeled about, making their palsy rhythmic. She was seeing this, yet she dared. "Then you don't want me," said she, so quietly that he could not have suspected her agitation. Never had her habit of concealing her emotion been so useful to her.
He sat frowning at his glass--debating. Finally he said:
"I explained the other day what I was aiming for. Such an arrangement as you suggest wouldn't help. You see that?"
"It's all I can do--at present," replied she firmly. And she was now ready to stand or fall by that decision. She had always accepted the other previous terms--or whatever terms fate offered. Result--each time, disaster. She must make no more fatal blunders. This time, her own terms or not at all.
He was silent a long time. She knew she had convinced him that her terms were final. So, his delay could only mean that he was debating whether to accept or to go his way and leave her to go hers. At last he laughed and said:
"You've become a true New Yorker. You know how to drive a hard bargain." He looked at her admiringly. "You certainly have got courage. I happen to know a lot about your affairs. I've ways of finding out things. And I know you'd not be here if you hadn't broken with the other fellow first. So, if I turned your proposition down you'd be up against it--wouldn't you?"
"Yes," said she. "But--I won't in any circumstances tie myself. I must be free."
"You're right," said he. "And I'll risk your sticking. I'm a good gambler."
"If I were bound, but didn't want to stay, would I be of much use?"
"Of no use. You can quit on seven minutes' notice, instead of seven days."
"And you, also," said she.
Laughingly they shook hands. She began to like him in a new and more promising way. Here was a man, who at least was cast in a big mold. Nothing small and cheap about him--and Brent had made small cheap men forever intolerable to her. Yes, here was a man of the big sort; and a big man couldn't possibly be a bad man. No matter how many bad things he might do, he would still be himself, at least, a scorner of the pettiness and sneakiness and cowardice inseparable from villainy.
"And now," said he, "let's settle the last detail. How much a week? How would five hundred strike you?"
"That's more than twelve times the largest salary I ever got. It's many times as much as I made in the----"
"No matter," he hastily interposed. "It's the least you can hold down the job on. You've got to spend money--for clothes and so on."
"Two hundred is the most I can take," said she. "It's the outside limit."
He insisted, but she remained firm. "I will not accustom myself to much more than I see any prospect of getting elsewhere," explained she. "Perhaps later on I'll ask for an increase--later on, when I see how things are going and what my prospects elsewhere would be. But I must begin modestly."
"Well, let it go at two hundred for the present. I'll deposit a year's salary in a bank, and you can draw against it. Is that satisfactory? You don't want me to hand you two hundred dollars every Saturday, do you?"
"No. That would get on my nerves," said she.
"Now--it's all settled. When shall we sail?"
"There's a girl I've got to look up before I go."
"Maud? You needn't bother about her. She's married to a piker from up the state--a shoe manufacturer. She's got a baby, and is fat enough to make two or three like what she used to be."
"No, not Maud. One you don't know."
"I hoped we could sail tomorrow. Why not take a taxi and go after her now?"
"It may be a long search."
"She's a----?" He did not need to finish his sentence in order to make himself understood.
"Oh, let her----"
"I promised," interrupted she.
"Then--of course." Freddie drew from his trousers pocket a huge roll of bills. Susan smiled at this proof that he still retained the universal habit of gamblers, politicians and similar loose characters of large income, precariously derived. He counted off three hundreds and four fifties and held them out to her. "Let me in on it," said he.
Susan took the money without hesitation. She was used to these careless generosities of the men of that class--generosities passing with them and with the unthinking for evidences of goodness of heart, when in fact no generosity has any significance whatever beyond selfish vanity unless it is a sacrifice of necessities--real necessities.
"I don't think I'll need money," said she. "But I may."
"You've got a trunk and a bag on the cab outside," he went on. "I've told them at Sherry's that I'm to be married."
Susan flushed. She hastily lowered her eyes. But she need not have feared lest he should suspect the cause of the blush . . . a strange, absurd resentment of the idea that she could be married to Freddie Palmer. Live with him--yes. But marry--now that it was thus squarely presented to her, she found it unthinkable. She did not pause to analyze this feeling, indeed could not have analyzed it, had she tried. It was, however, a most interesting illustration of how she had been educated at last to look upon questions of sex as a man looks on them. She was like the man who openly takes a mistress whom he in no circumstances would elevate to the position of wife.
"So," he proceeded, "you might as well move in at Sherry's."
"No," objected she. "Let's not begin the new deal until we sail."
The wisdom of this was obvious. "Then we'll take your things over to the Manhattan Hotel," said he. "And we'll start the search from there."
But after registering at the Manhattan as Susan Lenox, she started out alone. She would not let him look in upon any part of her life which she could keep veiled.