Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
In the ten days on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, as the passenger list declared them, planned the early stages of their campaign. They must keep to themselves, must make no acquaintances, no social entanglements of any kind, until they had effected the exterior transformation which was to be the first stride--and a very long one, they felt--toward the conquest of the world that commands all the other worlds. Several men aboard knew Palmer slightly--knew him vaguely as a big politician and contractor. They had a hazy notion that he was reputed to have been a thug and a grafter. But New Yorkers have few prejudices except against guilelessness and failure. They are well aware that the wisest of the wise Hebrew race was never more sagacious than when he observed that "he who hasteth to be rich shall not be innocent." They are too well used to unsavory pasts to bother much about that kind of odor; and where in the civilized world--or in that which is not civilized--is there an odor from reputation--or character--whose edge is not taken off by the strong, sweet, hypnotic perfume of money? Also, Palmer's appearance gave the lie direct to any scandal about him. It could not be--it simply could not be--that a man of such splendid physical build, a man with a countenance so handsome, had ever been a low, wicked fellow! Does not the devil always at once exhibit his hoofs, horns, tail and malevolent smile, that all men may know who and what he is? A frank, manly young leader of men--that was the writing on his countenance. And his Italian blood put into his good looks an ancient and aristocratic delicacy that made it incredible that he was of low origin. He spoke good English, he dressed quietly; he did not eat with his knife; he did not retire behind a napkin to pick his teeth, but attended to them openly, if necessity compelled--and splendid teeth they were, set in a wide, clean mouth, notably attractive for a man's. No, Freddie Palmer's past would not give him any trouble whatever; in a few years it would be forgotten, would be romanced about as the heroic struggles of a typical American rising from poverty.
"Thank God," said Freddie, "I had sense enough not to get a jail smell on me!"
Susan colored painfully--and Palmer, the sensitive, colored also. But he had the tact that does not try to repair a blunder by making a worse one; he pretended not to see Susan's crimson flush.
Her past would not be an easy matter--if it should ever rise to face her publicly. Therefore it must not rise till Freddie and she were within the walls of the world they purposed to enter by stealth, and had got themselves well intrenched. Then she would be Susan Lenox of Sutherland, Indiana, who had come to New York to study for the stage and, after many trials from all of which she had emerged with unspotted virtue, whatever vicious calumny might in envy say, had captured the heart and the name of the handsome, rich young contractor. There would be nasty rumors, dreadful stories, perhaps. But in these loose and cynical days, with the women more and more audacious and independent, with the universal craving for luxury beyond the reach of laboriously earned incomes, with marriage decaying in city life among the better classes--in these easy-going days, who was not suspected, hinted about, attacked? And the very atrociousness of the stories would prevent their being believed. One glance at Susan would be enough to make doubters laugh at their doubts.
The familiar types of fast women of all degrees come from the poorest kinds of farms and from the tenements. In America, practically not until the panics and collapses of recent years which have tumbled another and better section of the middle class into the abyss of the underworld--not until then did there appear in the city streets and houses of ill repute any considerable number of girls from good early surroundings. Before that time, the clamor for luxury--the luxury that civilization makes as much a necessity as food--had been satisfied more or less by the incomes of the middle class; and any girl of that class, with physical charm and shrewdness enough to gain a living as outcast woman, was either supported at home or got a husband able to give her at least enough of what her tastes craved to keep her in the ranks of the reputable. Thus Susan's beauty of refinement, her speech and manner of the lady, made absurd any suggestion that she could ever have been a fallen woman. The crimson splash of her rouged lips did not suggest the cocotte, but the lady with a dash of gayety in her temperament. This, because of the sweet, sensitive seriousness of her small, pallid face with its earnest violet-gray eyes and its frame of abundant dark hair, simply and gracefully arranged. She was of the advance guard of a type which the swift downfall of the middle class, the increasing intelligence and restlessness and love of luxury among women, and the decay of formal religion with its exactions of chastity as woman's one diamond-fine jewel, are now making familiar in every city. The demand for the luxurious comfort which the educated regard as merely decent existence is far outstripping the demand for, and the education of, women in lucrative occupations other than prostitution.
Luckily Susan had not been arrested under her own name; there existed no court record which could be brought forward as proof by some nosing newspaper.
Susan herself marveled that there was not more trace of her underworld experience in her face and in her mind. She could not account for it. Yet the matter was simple enough to one viewing it from the outside. It is what we think, what we feel about ourselves, that makes up our expression of body and soul. And never in her lowest hour had her soul struck its flag and surrendered to the idea that she was a fallen creature. She had a temperament that estimated her acts not as right and wrong but as necessity. Men, all the rest of the world, might regard her as nothing but sex symbol; she regarded herself as an intelligence. And the filth slipped from her and could not soak in to change the texture of her being. She had no more the feeling or air of the cocotte than has the married woman who lives with her husband for a living. Her expression, her way of looking at her fellow beings and of meeting their looks, was that of the woman of the world who is for whatever reason above that slavery to opinion, that fear of being thought bold or forward which causes women of the usual run to be sensitive about staring or being stared at. Sometimes--in cocottes, in stage women, in fashionable women--this expression is self-conscious, or supercilious. It was not so with Susan, for she had little self-consciousness and no snobbishness at all. It merely gave the charm of worldly experience and expertness to a beauty which, without it, might have been too melancholy.
Susan, become by sheer compulsion philosopher about the vagaries of fat, did not fret over possible future dangers. She dismissed them and put all her intelligence and energy to the business in hand--to learning and to helping Palmer learn the ways of that world which includes all worlds.
Toward the end of the voyage she said to him:
"About my salary--or allowance--or whatever it is---- I've been thinking things over. I've made up my mind to save some money. My only chance is that salary. Have you any objection to my saving it--as much of it as I can?"
He laughed. "Tuck away anything and everything you can lay your hands on," said he. "I'm not one of those fools who try to hold women by being close and small with them. I'd not want you about if you were of the sort that could be held that way."
"No--I'll put by only from my salary," said she. "I admit I've no right to do that. But I've become sensible enough to realize that I mustn't ever risk being out again with no money. It has got on my mind so that I'd not be able to think of much else for worrying--unless I had at least a little."
"Do you want me to make you independent?"
"No," replied she. "Whatever you gave me I'd have to give back if we separated."
"That isn't the way to get on, my dear," said he.
"It's the best I can do--as yet," replied she. "And it's quite an advance on what I was. Yes, I am learning--slowly."
"Save all your salary, then," said Freddie. "When you buy anything charge it, and I'll attend to the bill."
Her expression told him that he had never made a shrewder move in his life. He knew he had made himself secure against losing her; for he knew what a force gratitude was in her character.
Her mind was now free--free for the educational business in hand. She appreciated that he had less to learn than she. Civilization, the science and art of living, of extracting all possible good from the few swift years of life, has been--since the downfall of woman from hardship, ten or fifteen thousand years ago--the creation of the man almost entirely. Until recently among the higher races such small development of the intelligence of woman as her seclusion and servitude permitted was sporadic and exotic. Nothing intelligent was expected of her--and it is only under the compulsion of peremptory demand that any human being ever is roused from the natural sluggishness. But civilization, created by man, was created for woman. Woman has to learn how to be the civilized being which man has ordained that she shall be--how to use for man's comfort and pleasure the ingenuities and the graces he has invented.
It is easy for a man to pick up the habits, tastes, manners and dress of male citizens of the world, if he has as keen eyes and as discriminating taste as had Palmer, clever descendant of the supple Italian. But to become a female citizen of the world is not so easy. For Susan to learn to be an example of the highest civilization, from her inmost thoughts to the outermost penumbra of her surroundings--that would be for her a labor of love, but still a labor. As her vanity was of the kind that centers on the advantages she actually had, instead of being the more familiar kind that centers upon non-existent charms of mind and person, her task was possible of accomplishment--for those who are sincerely willing to learn, who sincerely know wherein they lack, can learn, can be taught. As she had given these matters of civilization intelligent thought she knew where to begin--at the humble, material foundation, despised and neglected by those who talk most loudly about civilization, art, culture, and so on. They aspire to the clouds and the stars at once--and arrive nowhere except in talk and pretense and flaunting of ill-fitting borrowed plumage. They flap their gaudy artificial wings; there is motion, but no ascent. Susan wished to build--and build solidly. She began with the so-called trifles.
When they had been at Naples a week Palmer said:
"Don't you think we'd better push on to Paris?"
"I can't go before Saturday," replied she. "I've got several fittings yet."
"It's pretty dull here for me--with you spending so much time in the shops. I suppose the women's shops are good"--hesitatingly--"but I've heard those in Paris are better."
"The shops here are rotten. Italian women have no taste in dress. And the Paris shops are the best in the world."
"Then let's clear out," cried he. "I'm bored to death. But I didn't like to say anything, you seemed so busy."
"I am busy. And--can you stand it three days more?"
"But you'll only have to throw away the stuff you buy here. Why buy so much?"
"I'm not buying much. Two ready-to-wear Paris dresses--models they call them--and two hats."
Palmer looked alarmed. "Why, at that rate," protested he, "it'll take you all winter to get together your winter clothes, and no time left to wear 'em."
"You don't understand," said she. "If you want to be treated right in a shop--be shown the best things--have your orders attended to, you've got to come looking as if you knew what the best is. I'm getting ready to make a good first impression on the dressmakers and milliners in Paris."
"Oh, you'll have the money, and that'll make 'em step round."
"Don't you believe it," replied she. "All the money in the world won't get you fashionable clothes. at the most fashionable place. It'll only get you costly clothes."
"Maybe that's so for women's things. It isn't for men's."
"I'm not sure of that. When we get to Paris, we'll see. But certainly it's true for women. If I went to the places in the rue de la Paix dressed as I am now, it'd take several years to convince them that I knew what I wanted and wouldn't be satisfied with anything but the latest and best. So I'm having these miserable dressmakers fit those dresses on me until they're absolutely perfect. It's wearing me out, but I'll be glad I did it."
Palmer had profound respect for her as a woman who knew what she was about. So he settled himself patiently and passed the time investigating the famous Neapolitan political machine with the aid of an interpreter guide whom he hired by the day. He was enthusiastic over the dresses and the hats when Susan at last had them at the hotel and showed herself to him in them. They certainly did work an amazing change in her. They were the first real Paris models she had ever worn.
"Maybe it's because I never thought much about women's clothes before," said Freddie, "but those things seem to be the best ever. How they do show up your complexion and your figure! And I hadn't any idea your hair was as grand as all that. I'm a little afraid of you. We've got to get acquainted all over again. These clothes of mine look pretty poor, don't they? Yet I paid all kinds of money for 'em at the best place in Fifth Avenue."
He examined her from all points of view, going round and round her, getting her to walk up and down to give him the full effect of her slender yet voluptuous figure in that beautifully fitted coat and skirt. He felt that his dreams were beginning to come true.
"We'll do the trick!" cried he. "Don't you think about money when you're buying clothes. It's a joy to give up for clothes for you. You make 'em look like something."
"Wait till I've shopped a few weeks in Paris," said Susan.
"Let's start tonight," cried he. "I'll telegraph to the Ritz for rooms."
When she began to dress in her old clothes for the journey, he protested. "Throw all these things away," he urged. "Wear one of the new dresses and hats."
"But they're not exactly suitable for traveling."
"People'll think you lost your baggage. I don't want ever to see you again looking any way except as you ought to look."
"No, I must take care of those clothes," said she firmly. "It'll be weeks before I can get anything in Paris, and I must keep up a good front."
He continued to argue with her until it occurred to him that as his own clothes were not what they should be, he and she would look much better matched if she dressed as she wished. He had not been so much in jest as he thought when he said to her that they would have to get acquainted all over again. Those new clothes of hers brought out startlingly--so clearly that even his vanity was made uneasy--the subtle yet profound difference of class between them. He had always felt this difference, and in the old days it had given him many a savage impulse to degrade her, to put her beneath him as a punishment for his feeling that she was above him. Now he had his ambition too close at heart to wish to rob her of her chief distinction; he was disturbed about it, though, and looked forward to Paris with uneasiness.
"You must help me get my things," said he.
"I'd be glad to," said she. "And you must be frank with me, and tell me where I fall short of the best of the women we see."
He laughed. The idea that he could help her seemed fantastic. He could not understand it--how this girl who had been brought up in a jay town away out West, who had never had what might be called a real chance to get in the know in New York, could so quickly pass him who had been born and bred in New York, had spent the last ten years in cultivating style and all the other luxurious tastes. He did not like to linger on this puzzle; the more he worked at it, the farther away from him Susan seemed to get. Yet the puzzle would not let him drop it.
They came in at the Gare de Lyon in the middle of a beautiful October afternoon. Usually, from late September or earlier until May or later, Paris has about the vilest climate that curses a civilized city. It is one of the bitterest ironies of fate that a people so passionately fond of the sun, of the outdoors, should be doomed for two-thirds of the year to live under leaden, icily leaking skies with rarely a ray of real sunshine. And nothing so well illustrates the exuberant vitality, the dauntless spirit of the French people, as the way they have built in preparation for the enjoyment of every bit of the light and warmth of any chance ray of sunshine. That year it so fell that the winter rains did not close in until late, and Paris reveled in a long autumn of almost New York perfection. Susan and Palmer drove to the Ritz through Paris, the lovely, the gay.
"This is the real thing--isn't it?" said he, thrilled into speech by that spectacle so inspiring to all who have the joy of life in their veins--the Place de l'Opera late on a bright afternoon.
"It's the first thing I've ever seen that was equal to what I had dreamed about it," replied she.
They had chosen the Ritz as their campaign headquarters because they had learned that it was the most fashionable hotel in Paris--which meant in the world. There were hotels more grand, the interpreter-guide at Naples had said; there were hotels more exclusive. There were even hotels more comfortable. "But for fashion," said he, "it is the summit. There you see the most beautiful ladies, most beautifully dressed. There you see the elegant world at tea and at dinner."
At first glance they were somewhat disappointed in the quiet, unostentatious general rooms. The suite assigned them--at a hundred and twenty francs a day--was comfortable, was the most comfortable assemblage of rooms either had ever seen. But there was nothing imposing. This impression did not last long, however. They had been misled by their American passion for looks. They soon discovered that the guide at Naples had told the literal truth. They went down for tea in the garden, which was filled as the day was summer warm. Neither spoke as they sat under a striped awning umbrella, she with tea untasted before her, he with a glass of whiskey and soda he did not lift from the little table. Their eyes and their thoughts were too busy for speech; one cannot talk when one is thinking. About them were people of the world of which neither had before had any but a distant glimpse. They heard English, American, French, Italian. They saw men and women with that air which no one can define yet everyone knows on sight--the assurance without impertinence, the politeness without formality, the simplicity that is more complex than the most elaborate ornamentation of dress or speech or manner. Susan and Freddie lingered until the departure of the last couple--a plainly dressed man whose clothes on inspection revealed marvels of fineness and harmonious color; a quietly dressed woman whose costume from tip of plume to tip of suede slipper was a revelation of how fine a fine art the toilet can be made.
"Well--we're right in it, for sure," said Freddie, dropping to a sofa in their suite and lighting a cigarette.
"Yes," said Susan, with a sigh. "In it--but not of it."
"I almost lost my nerve as I sat there. And for the life of me I can't tell why."
"Those people know how," replied Susan. "Well--what they've learned we can learn."
"Sure," said he energetically. "It's going to take a lot of practice--a lot of time. But I'm game." His expression, its suggestion of helplessness and appeal, was a clear confession of a feeling that she was his superior.
"We're both of us ignorant," she hastened to say. "But when we get our bearings--in a day or two--we'll be all right."
"Let's have dinner up here in the sitting-room. I haven't got the nerve to face that gang again today"
"Nonsense!" laughed she. "We mustn't give way to our feelings--not for a minute. There'll be a lot of people as badly off as we are. I saw some this afternoon--and from the way the waiters treated them, I know they had money or something. Put on your evening suit, and you'll be all right. I'm the one that hasn't anything to wear. But I've got to go and study the styles. I must begin to learn what to wear and now to wear it. We've come to the right place, Freddie. Cheer up!"
He felt better when he was in evening clothes which made him handsome indeed, bringing out all his refinement of feature and coloring. He was almost cheerful when Susan came into the sitting-room in the pale gray of her two new toilettes. It might be, as she insisted, that she was not dressed properly for fashionable dining; but there would be no more delicate, no more lady-like loveliness. He quite recovered his nerve when they faced the company that had terrified him in prospect. He saw many commonplace looking people, not a few who were downright dowdy. And presently he had the satisfaction of realizing that not only Susan but he also was getting admiring attention. He no longer floundered panic-stricken; his feet touched bottom and he felt foolish about his sensations of a few minutes before.
After all, the world over, dining in a restaurant is nothing but dining in a restaurant. The waiter and the head waiter spoke English, were gracefully, tactfully, polite; and as he ordered he found his self-confidence returning with the surging rush of a turned tide on a low shore. The food was wonderful, and the champagne, "English taste," was the best he had ever drunk. Halfway through dinner both he and Susan were in the happiest frame of mind. The other people were drinking too, were emerging from caste into humanness. Women gazed languorously and longingly at the handsome young American; men sent stealthy or open smiles of adoration at Susan whenever Freddie's eyes were safely averted. But Susan was more careful than a woman of the world to which she aspired would have been; she ignored the glances and without difficulty assumed the air of wife.
"I don't believe we'll have any trouble getting acquainted with these people," said Freddie.
"We don't want to, yet," replied she.
"Oh, I feel we'll soon be ready for them," said he.
"Yes--that," said she. "But that amounts to nothing. This isn't to be merely a matter of clothes and acquaintances--at least, not with me."
"What then?" inquired he.
"Oh--we'll see as we get our bearings." She could not have put into words the plans she was forming--plans for educating and in every way developing him and herself. She was not sure at what she was aiming, but only of the direction. She had no idea how far she could go herself--or how far he would consent to go. The wise course was just to work along from day to day--keeping the direction.
"All right. I'll do as you say. You've got this game sized up better than I."
Is there any other people that works as hard as do the Parisians? Other peoples work with their bodies; but the Parisians, all classes and masses too, press both mind and body into service. Other peoples, if they think at all, think how to avoid work; the Parisians think incessantly, always, how to provide themselves with more to do. Other peoples drink to stupefy themselves lest peradventure in a leisure moment they might be seized of a thought; Parisians drink to stimulate themselves, to try to think more rapidly, to attract ideas that might not enter and engage a sober and therefore somewhat sluggish brain. Other peoples meet a new idea as if it were a mortal foe; the Parisians as if it were a long-lost friend. Other peoples are agitated chiefly, each man or woman, about themselves; the Parisians are full of their work, their surroundings, bother little about themselves except as means to what they regard as the end and aim of life--to make the world each moment as different as possible from what it was the moment before, to transform the crass and sordid universe of things with the magic of ideas. Being intelligent, they prefer good to evil; but they have God's own horror of that which is neither good nor evil, and spew it out of their mouths.
At the moment of the arrival of Susan and Palmer the world that labors at amusing itself was pausing in Paris on its way from the pleasures of sea and mountains to the pleasures of the Riviera and Egypt. And as the weather held fine, day after day the streets, the cafes, the restaurants, offered the young adventurers an incessant dazzling panorama of all they had come abroad to seek. A week passed before Susan permitted herself to enter any of the shops where she intended to buy dresses, hats and the other and lesser paraphernalia of the woman of fashion.
"I mustn't go until I've seen," said she. "I'd yield to the temptation to buy and would regret it."
And Freddie, seeing her point, restrained his impatience for making radical changes in himself and in her. The fourth day of their stay at Paris he realized that he would buy, and would wish to buy, none of the things that had tempted him the first and second days. Secure in the obscurity of the crowd of strangers, he was losing his extreme nervousness about himself. That sort of emotion is most characteristic of Americans and gets them the reputation for profound snobbishness. In fact, it is not snobbishness at all. In no country on earth is ignorance in such universal disrepute as in America. The American, eager to learn, eager to be abreast of the foremost, is terrified into embarrassment and awe when he finds himself in surroundings where are things that he feels he ought to know about--while a stupid fellow, in such circumstances, is calmly content with himself, wholly unaware of his own deficiencies.
Susan let full two weeks pass before she, with much hesitation, gave her first order toward the outfit on which Palmer insisted upon her spending not less than five thousand dollars. Palmer had been going to the shops with her. She warned him it would make prices higher if she appeared with a prosperous looking man; but he wanted occupation and everything concerning her fascinated him now. His ignorance of the details of feminine dress was giving place rapidly to a knowledge which he thought profound--and it was profound, for a man. She would not permit him to go with her to order, however, or to fittings. All she would tell him in advance about this first dress was that it was for evening wear and that its color was green. "But not a greeny green," said she.
"I understand. A green something like the tint in your skin at the nape of your neck."
"Perhaps," admitted she. "Yes."
"We'll go to the opera the evening it comes home. I'll have my new evening outfit from Charvet's by that time."
It was about ten days after this conversation that she told him she had had a final fitting, had ordered the dress sent home. He was instantly all excitement and rushed away to engage a good box for the opera. With her assistance he had got evening clothes that sent through his whole being a glow of self-confidence--for he knew that in those clothes, he looked what he was striving to be. They were to dine at seven. He dressed early and went into their sitting-room. He was afraid he would spoil his pleasure of complete surprise by catching a glimpse of the grande toilette before it was finished. At a quarter past seven Susan put her head into the sitting-room--only her head. At sight of his anxious face, his tense manner, she burst out laughing. It seemed, and was, grotesque that one so imperturbable of surface should be so upset.
"Can you stand the strain another quarter of an hour?" said she.
"Don't hurry," he urged. "Take all the time you want. Do the thing up right." He rose and came toward her with one hand behind him. "You said the dress was green, didn't you?"
"Well--here's something you may be able to fit in somewhere." And he brought the concealed hand into view and held a jewel box toward her.
She reached a bare arm through the crack in the door and took it. The box, the arm, the head disappeared. Presently there was a low cry of delight that thrilled him. The face reappeared. "Oh--Freddie!" she exclaimed, radiant. "You must have spent a fortune on them."
"No. Twelve thousand--that's all. It was a bargain. Go on dressing. We'll talk about it afterward." And he gently pushed her head back--getting a kiss in the palm of his hand--and drew the door to.
Ten minutes later the door opened part way again. "Brace yourself," she called laughingly. "I'm coming."
A breathless pause and the door swung wide. He stared with eyes amazed and bewitched. There is no more describing the effects of a harmonious combination of exquisite dress and exquisite woman than there is reproducing in words the magic and the thrill of sunrise or sunset, of moonlight's fanciful amorous play, or of starry sky. As the girl stood there, her eyes starlike with excitement, her lips crimson and sensuous against the clear old-ivory pallor of her small face in its frame of glorious dark hair, it seemed to him that her soul, more beautiful counterpart of herself, had come from its dwelling place within and was hovering about her body like an aureole. Round her lovely throat was the string of emeralds. Her shoulders were bare and also her bosom, over nearly half its soft, girlish swell. And draped in light and clinging grace about her slender, sensuous form was the most wonderful garment he had ever seen. The great French designers of dresses and hats and materials have a genius for taking an idea--a pure poetical abstraction--and materializing it, making it visible and tangible without destroying its spirituality. This dress of Susan's did not suggest matter any more than the bar of music suggests the rosined string that has given birth to it. She was carrying the train and a pair of long gloves in one hand. The skirt, thus drawn back, revealed her slim, narrow foot, a slender slipper of pale green satin, a charming instep with a rosiness shimmering through the gossamer web of pale green silk, the outline of a long, slender leg whose perfection was guaranteed by the beauty of her bare arm.
His expression changed slowly from bedazzlement to the nearest approach to the old slumbrous, smiling wickedness she had seen since they started. And her sensitive instinct understood; it was the menace of an insane jealousy, sprung from fear--fear of losing her. The look vanished, and once again he was Freddie Palmer the delighted, the generous and almost romantically considerate, because everything was going as he wished.
"No wonder I went crazy about you," he said.
"Then you're not disappointed?"
He came to her, unclasped the emeralds, stood off and viewed her again. "No--you mustn't wear them," said he.
"Oh!" she cried, protesting. "They're the best of all."
"Not tonight," said he. "They look cheap. They spoil the effect of your neck and shoulders. Another time, when you're not quite so wonderful, but not tonight."
As she could not see herself as he saw her, she pleaded for the jewels. She loved jewels and these were the first she had ever had, except two modest little birthday rings she had left in Sutherland. But he led her to the long mirror and convinced her that he was right. When they descended to the dining-room, they caused a stir. It does not take much to make fashionable people stare; but it does take something to make a whole room full of them quiet so far toward silence that the discreet and refined handling of dishes in a restaurant like the Ritz sounds like a vulgar clatter. Susan and Palmer congratulated themselves that they had been at the hotel long enough to become acclimated and so could act as if they were unconscious of the sensation they were creating. When they finished dinner, they found all the little tables in the long corridor between the restaurant and the entrance taken by people lingering over coffee to get another and closer view. And the men who looked at her sweet dreaming violet-gray eyes said she was innocent; those who looked at her crimson lips said she was gay; those who saw both eyes and lips said she was innocent--as yet. A few very dim-sighted, and very wise, retained their reason sufficiently to say that nothing could be told about a woman from her looks--especially an American woman. She put on the magnificent cloak, white silk, ermine lined, which he had seen at Paquin's and had insisted on buying. And they were off for the opera in the aristocratic looking auto he was taking by the week.
She had a second triumph at the opera--was the center that drew all glasses the instant the lights went up for the intermission. There were a few minutes when her head was quite turned, when it seemed to her that she had arrived very near to the highest goal of human ambition--said goal being the one achieved and so self-complacently occupied by these luxurious, fashionable people who were paying her the tribute of interest and admiration. Were not these people at the top of the heap? Was she not among them, of them, by right of excellence in the things that made them, distinguished them?
Ambition, drunk and heavy with luxury, flies sluggishly and low. And her ambition was--for the moment--in danger of that fate.
During the last intermission the door of their box opened. At once Palmer sprang up and advanced with beaming face and extended hand to welcome the caller.
"Hello, Brent, I am glad to see you! I want to introduce you to Mrs. Palmer"--that name pronounced with the unconscious pride of the possessor of the jewel.
Brent bowed. Susan forced a smile.
"We," Palmer hastened on, "are on a sort of postponed honeymoon. I didn't announce the marriage--didn't want to have my friends out of pocket for presents. Besides, they'd have sent us stuff fit only to furnish out a saloon or a hotel--and we'd have had to use it or hurt their feelings. My wife's a Western girl--from Indiana. She came on to study for the stage. But"--he laughed delightedly--"I persuaded her to change her mind."
"You are from the West?" said Brent in the formal tone one uses in addressing a new acquaintance. "So am I. But that's more years ago than you could count. I live in New York--when I don't live here or in the Riviera."
The moment had passed when Susan could, without creating an impossible scene, admit and compel Brent to admit that they knew each other. What did it matter? Was it not best to ignore the past? Probably Brent had done this deliberately, assuming that she was beginning a new life with a clean slate.
"Been here long?" said Brent to Palmer.
As he and Palmer talked, she contrasted the two men. Palmer was much the younger, much the handsomer. Yet in the comparison Brent had the advantage. He looked as if he amounted to a great deal, as if he had lived and had understood life as the other man could not. The physical difference between them was somewhat the difference between look of lion and look of tiger. Brent looked strong; Palmer, dangerous. She could not imagine either man failing of a purpose he had set his heart upon. She could not imagine Brent reaching for it in any but an open, direct, daring way. She knew that the descendant of the supple Italians, the graduate of the street schools of stealth and fraud, would not care to have anything unless he got it by skill at subtlety. She noted their dress. Brent was wearing his clothes in that elegantly careless way which it was one of Freddie's dreams--one of the vain ones--to attain. Brent's voice was much more virile, was almost harsh, and in pronouncing some words made the nerves tingle with a sensation of mingled irritation and pleasure. Freddie's voice was manly enough, but soft and dangerous, suggestive of hidden danger. She compared the two men, as she knew them. She wondered how they would seem to a complete stranger. Palmer, she thought, would be able to attract almost any woman he might want; it seemed to her that a woman Brent wanted would feel rather helpless before the onset he would make.
It irritated her, this untimely intrusion of Brent who had the curious quality of making all other men seem less in the comparison. Not that he assumed anything, or forced comparisons; on the contrary, no man could have insisted less upon himself. Not that he compelled or caused the transfer of all interest to himself. Simply that, with him there, she felt less hopeful of Palmer, less confident of his ability to become what he seemed--and go beyond it. There are occasional men who have this same quality that Susan was just then feeling in Brent--men whom women never love yet who make it impossible for them to begin to love or to continue to love the other men within their range.
She was not glad to see him. She did not conceal it. Yet she knew that he would linger--and that she would not oppose. She would have liked to say to him: "You lost belief in me and dropped me. I have begun to make a life for myself. Let me alone. Do not upset me--do not force me to see what I must not see if I am to be happy. Go away, and give me a chance." But we do not say these frank, childlike things except in moments of closest intimacy--and certainly there was no suggestion of intimacy, no invitation to it, but the reverse, in the man facing her at the front of the box.
"Then you are to be in Paris some time?" said Brent, addressing her.
"I think so," said Susan.
"Sure," cried Palmer. "This is the town the world revolves round. I felt like singing `Home, Sweet Home' as we drove from the station."
"I like it better than any place on earth," said Brent. "Better even than New York. I've never been quite able to forgive New York for some of the things it made me suffer before it gave me what I wanted."
"I, too," said Freddie. "My wife can't understand that. She doesn't know the side of life we know. I'm going to smoke a cigarette. I'll leave you here, old man, to entertain her."
When he disappeared, Susan looked out over the house with an expression of apparent abstraction. Brent--she was conscious--studied her with those seeing eyes--hazel eyes with not a bit of the sentimentality and weakness of brown in them. "You and Palmer know no one here?"
"Not a soul."
"I'll be glad to introduce some of my acquaintances to you--French people of the artistic set. They speak English. And you'll soon be learning French."
"I intend to learn as soon as I've finished my fall shopping."
"You are not coming back to America?"
"Not for a long time."
"Then you will find my friends useful."
She turned her eyes upon his. "You are very kind," said she. "But I'd rather--we'd rather--not meet anyone just yet."
His eyes met hers calmly. It was impossible to tell whether he understood or not. After a few seconds he glanced out over the house. "That is a beautiful dress," said he. "You have real taste, if you'll permit me to say so. I was one of those who were struck dumb with admiration at the Ritz tonight."
"It's the first grand dress I ever possessed," said she.
"You love dresses--and jewels--and luxury?"
"As a starving man loves food."
"Then you are happy?"
"Perfectly so--for the first time in my life."
"It is a kind of ecstasy--isn't it? I remember how it was with me. I had always been poor--I worked my way through prep school and college. And I wanted all the luxuries. The more I had to endure--the worse food and clothing and lodgings--the madder I became about them, until I couldn't think of anything but getting the money to buy them. When I got it, I gorged myself. . . . It's a pity the starving man can't keep on loving food--keep on being always starving and always having his hunger satisfied."
"Ah, but he can."
He smiled mysteriously. "You think so, now. Wait till you are gorged."
She laughed. "You don't know! I could never get enough--never!"
His smile became even more mysterious. As he looked away, his profile presented itself to her view--an outline of sheer strength, of tragic sadness--the profile of those who have dreamed and dared and suffered. But the smile, saying no to her confident assertion, still lingered.
"Never!" she repeated. She must compel that smile to take away its disquieting negation, its relentless prophecy of the end of her happiness. She must convince him that he had come back in vain, that he could not disturb her.
"You don't suggest to me the woman who can be content with just people and just things. You will always insist on luxury. But you will demand more." He looked at her again. "And you will get it," he added, in a tone that sent a wave through her nerves.
Her glance fell. Palmer came in, bringing an odor of cologne and of fresh cigarette fumes. Brent rose. Palmer laid a detaining hand on his shoulder. "Do stay on, Brent, and go to supper with us."
"I was about to ask you to supper with me. Have you been to the Abbaye?"
"No. We haven't got round to that yet. Is it lively?"
"And the food's the best in Paris. You'll come?"
Brent was looking at Susan. Palmer, not yet educated in the smaller--and important--refinements of politeness, did not wait for her reply or think that she should be consulted. "Certainly," said he. "On condition that you dine with us tomorrow night."
"Very well," agreed Brent. And he excused himself to take leave of his friends. "Just tell your chauffeur to go to the Abbaye--he'll know," he said as he bowed over Susan's hand. "I'll be waiting. I wish to be there ahead and make sure of a table."
As the door of the box closed upon him Freddie burst out with that enthusiasm we feel for one who is in a position to render us good service and is showing a disposition to do so. "I've known him for years," said he, "and he's the real thing. He used to spend a lot of time in a saloon I used to keep in Allen Street."
"Allen Street?" ejaculated Susan, shivering.
"I was twenty-two then. He used to want to study types, as he called it. And I gathered in types for him--though really my place was for the swell crooks and their ladies. How long ago that seems--and how far away!"
"Another life," said Susan.
"That's a fact. This is my second time on earth. Our second time. I tell you it's fighting for a foothold that makes men and women the wretches they are. Nowadays, I couldn't hurt a fly--could you? But then you never were cruel. That's why you stayed down so long."
Susan smiled into the darkness of the auditorium--the curtain was up, and they were talking in undertones. She said, as she smiled:
"I'll never go down and stay down for that reason again."
Her tone arrested his attention; but he could make nothing of it or of her expression, though her face was clear enough in the reflection from the footlights.
"Anyhow, Brent and I are old pals," continued he, "though we haven't seen so much of each other since he made a hit with the plays. He always used to predict I'd get to the top and be respectable. Now that it's come true, he'll help me. He'll introduce us, if we work it right."
"But we don't want that yet," protested Susan.
"You're ready and so am I," declared Palmer in the tone she knew had the full strength of his will back of it.
Faint angry hissing from the stalls silenced them, but as soon as they were in the auto Susan resumed. "I have told Mr. Brent we don't want to meet his friends yet."
"Now what the hell did you do that for?" demanded Freddie. It was the first time she had crossed him; it was the first time he had been reminiscent of the Freddie she used to know.
"Because," said she evenly, "I will not meet people under false pretenses."
"I will not do it," replied she in the same quiet way.
He assumed that she meant only one of the false pretenses--the one that seemed the least to her. He said:
"Then we'll draw up and sign a marriage contract and date it a couple of years ago, before the new marriage law was passed to save rich men's drunken sons from common law wives."
"I am already married," said Susan. "To a farmer out in Indiana."
Freddie laughed. "Well, I'll be damned! You! You!" He looked at her ermine-lined cloak and laughed again. "An Indiana farmer!" Then he suddenly sobered. "Come to think of it," said he, "that's the first thing you ever told me about your past."
"Or anybody else," said Susan. Her body was quivering, for we remember the past events with the sensations they made upon us at the time. She could smell that little room in the farmhouse. Allen Street and all the rest of her life in the underworld had for her something of the vagueness of dreams--not only now but also while she was living that life. But not Ferguson, not the night when her innocent soul was ravished as a wolf rips up and munches a bleating lamb. No vagueness of dreams about that, but a reality to make her shudder and reel whenever she thought of it--a reality vivider now that she was a woman grown in experiences and understanding.
"He's probably dead--or divorced you long ago."
"I do not know."
"I can find out--without stirring things up. What was his name?"
"What was his first name?"
She tried to recall. "I think--it was Jim. Yes, it was Jim." She fancied she could hear the voice of that ferocious sister snapping out that name in the miserable little coop of a general room in that hot, foul, farm cottage.
"Where did he live?"
"His farm was at the edge of Zeke Warham's place--not far from Beecamp, in Jefferson County."
She lapsed into silence, seemed to be watching the gay night streets of the Montmartre district--the cafes, the music halls, the sidewalk shows, the throngs of people every man and woman of them with his or her own individual variation upon the fascinating, covertly terrible face of the Paris mob. "What are you thinking about?" he asked, when a remark brought no answer.
"The past," said she. "And the future."
"Well--we'll find out in a few days that your farmer's got no claim on you--and we'll attend to that marriage contract and everything'll be all right."
"Do you want to marry me?" she asked, turning on him suddenly.
"We're as good as married already," replied he. "Your tone sounds as if you didn't want to marry me." And he laughed at the absurdity of such an idea.
"I don't know whether I do or not," said she slowly.
He laid a gentle strong hand on her knee. Gentle though it was, she felt its strength through the thickness of her cloak. "When the time comes," said he in the soft voice with the menace hidden in it, "you'll know whether you do or don't. You'll know you do--Queenie."
The auto was at the curb before the Abbaye. And on the steps, in furs and a top hat, stood the tall, experienced looking, cynical looking playwright. Susan's eyes met his, he lifted his hat, formal, polite.
"I'll bet he's got the best table in the place," said Palmer, before opening the door, "and I'll bet it cost him a bunch."