Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Brent had an apartment in the rue de Rivoli, near the Hotel Meurice and high enough to command the whole Tuileries garden. From his balcony he could see to the east the ancient courts of the Louvre, to the south the varied, harmonious facades of the Quay d'Orsay with the domes and spires of the Left Bank behind, to the west the Obelisque, the long broad reaches of the Champs Elysees with the Arc de Triomphe at the boundary of the horizon. On that balcony, with the tides of traffic far below, one had a sense of being at the heart of the world, past, present, and to come. Brent liked to feel at home wherever he was; it enabled him to go tranquilly to work within a few minutes after his arrival, no matter how far he had journeyed or how long he had been away. So he regarded it as an economy, an essential to good work, to keep up the house in New York, a villa in Petite Afrique, with the Mediterranean washing its garden wall, this apartment at Paris; and a telegram a week in advance would reserve him the same quarters in the quietest part of hotels at Luzerne, at St. Moritz and at Biarritz.
Susan admired, as he explained his scheme of life to her and Palmer when they visited his apartment. Always profound tranquillity in the midst of intense activity. He could shut his door and he as in a desert; he could open it, and the most interesting of the sensations created by the actions and reactions of the whole human race were straightway beating upon his senses. As she listened, she looked about, her eyes taking in impressions to be studied at leisure. These quarters of his in Paris were fundamentally different from those in New York, were the expression of a different side of his personality. It was plain that he loved them, that they came nearer to expressing his real--that is, his inmost--self.
"Though I work harder in Paris than in New York," he explained, "I have more leisure because it is all one kind of work--writing--at which I'm never interrupted. So I have time to make surroundings for myself. No one has time for surroundings in New York."
She observed that of the scores of pictures on the walls, tables, shelves of the three rooms they were shown, every one was a face--faces of all nationalities, all ages, all conditions--faces happy and faces tragic, faces homely, faces beautiful, faces irradiating the fascination of those abnormal developments of character, good and bad, which give the composite countenance of the human race its distinction, as the characteristics themselves give it intensities of light and shade. She saw angels, beautiful and ugly, devils beautiful and ugly.
When she began to notice this peculiarity of those rooms, she was simply interested. What an amazing collection! How much time and thought it must have taken! How he must have searched--and what an instinct he had for finding the unusual, the significant! As she sat there and then strolled about and then sat again, her interest rose into a feverish excitement. It was as if the ghosts of all these personalities, not one of them commonplace, were moving through the rooms, were pressing upon her. She understood why Brent had them there--that they were as necessary to him as cadavers and skeletons and physiological charts to an anatomist. But they oppressed, suffocated her; she went out on the balcony and watched the effects of the light from the setting sun upon and around the enormously magnified Arc.
"You don't like my rooms," said Brent.
"They fascinate me," replied she. "But I'd have to get used to these friends of yours. You made their acquaintance one or a few at a time. It's very upsetting, being introduced to all at once."
She felt Brent's gaze upon her--that unfathomable look which made her uneasy, yet was somehow satisfying, too. He said, after a while, "Palmer is to give me his photograph. Will you give me yours?" He was smiling. "Both of you belong in my gallery."
"Of course she will," said Palmer, coming out on the balcony and standing beside her. "I want her to have some taken right away--in the evening dress she wore to the Opera last week. And she must have her portrait painted."
"When we are settled," said Susan. "I've no time for anything now but shopping."
They had come to inspect the apartment above Brent's, and had decided to take it; Susan saw possibilities of making it over into the sort of environment of which she had dreamed. In novels the descriptions of interiors, which weary most readers, interested her more than story or characters. In her days of abject poverty she used these word paintings to construct for herself a room, suites of rooms, a whole house, to replace, when her physical eyes closed and her eyes of fancy opened wide, the squalid and nauseous cell to which poverty condemned her. In the streets she would sometimes pause before a shop window display of interior furnishings; a beautiful table or chair, a design in wall or floor covering had caught her eyes, had set her to dreaming--dreaming on and on--she in dingy skirt and leaky shoes. Now--the chance to realize her dreams had come. Palmer had got acquainted with some high-class sports, American, French and English, at an American bar in the rue Volney. He was spending his afternoons and some of his evenings with them--in the evenings winning large sums from them at cards at which he was now as lucky as at everything else. Palmer, pleased by Brent's manner toward Susan--formal politeness, indifference to sex--was glad to have him go about with her. Also Palmer was one of those men who not merely imagine they read human nature but actually can read it. He knew he could trust Susan. And it had been his habit--as it is the habit of all successful men--to trust human beings, each one up to his capacity for resisting temptation to treachery.
"Brent doesn't care for women--as women," said he. "He never did. Don't you think he's queer?"
"He's different," replied Susan. "He doesn't care much for people--to have them as intimates. I understand why. Love and friendship bore one--or fail one--and are unsatisfactory--and disturbing. But if one centers one's life about things--books, pictures, art, a career--why, one is never bored or betrayed. He has solved the secret of happiness, I think."
"Do you think a woman could fall in love with him?" he asked, with an air of the accidental and casual.
"If you mean, could I fall in love with him," said she, "I should say no. I think it would either amuse or annoy him to find that a woman cared about him."
"Amuse him most of all," said Palmer. "He knows the ladies--that they love us men for what we can give them."
"Did you ever hear of anyone, man or woman, who cared about a person who couldn't give them anything?"
Freddie's laugh was admission that he thought her right. "The way to get on in politics," observed he, "is to show men that it's to their best interest to support you. And that's the way to get on in everything else--including love."
Susan knew that this was the truth about life, as it appeared to her also. But she could not divest herself of the human aversion to hearing the cold, practical truth. She wanted sugar coating on the pill, even though she knew the sugar made the medicine much less effective, often neutralized it altogether. Thus Palmer's brutally frank cynicism got upon her nerves, whereas Brent's equally frank cynicism attracted her because it was not brutal. Both men saw that life was a coarse practical joke. Palmer put the stress on the coarseness, Brent upon the humor.
Brent recommended and introduced to her a friend of his, a young French Jew named Gourdain, an architect on the way up to celebrity. "You will like his ideas and he will like yours," said Brent.
She had acquiesced in his insistent friendship for Palmer and her, but she had not lowered by an inch the barrier of her reserve toward him. His speech and actions at all times, whether Palmer was there or not; suggested that he respected the barrier, regarded it as even higher and thicker than it was. Nevertheless she felt that he really regarded the barrier as non-existent. She said:
"But I've never told you my ideas."
"I can guess what they are. Your surroundings will simply be an extension of your dress."
She would not have let him see--she would not have admitted to herself--how profoundly the subtle compliment pleased her.
Because a man's or a woman's intimate personal taste is good it by no means follows that he or she will build or decorate or furnish a house well. In matters of taste, the greater does not necessarily include the less, nor does the less imply the greater. Perhaps Susan would have shown she did not deserve Brent's compliment, would have failed ignominiously in that first essay of hers, had she not found a Gourdain, sympathetic, able to put into the concrete the rather vague ideas she had evolved in her dreaming. An architect is like a milliner or a dressmaker. He supplies the model, product of his own individual taste. The person who employs him must remold that form into an expression of his own personality--for people who deliberately live in surroundings that are not part of themselves are on the same low level with those who utter only borrowed ideas. That is the object and the aim of civilization--to encourage and to compel each individual to be frankly himself--herself. That is the profound meaning of freedom. The world owes more to bad morals and to bad taste that are spontaneous than to all the docile conformity to the standards of morals and of taste, however good. Truth--which simply means an increase of harmony, a decrease of discord, between the internal man and his environment--truth is a product, usually a byproduct, of a ferment of action.
Gourdain--chiefly, no doubt, because Susan's beauty of face and figure and dress fascinated him--was more eager to bring out her individuality than to show off his own talents. He took endless pains with her, taught her the technical knowledge and vocabulary that would enable her to express herself, then carried out her ideas religiously. "You are right, mon ami," said he to Brent. "She is an orchid, and of a rare species. She has a glorious imagination, like a bird of paradise balancing itself into an azure sky, with every plume raining color and brilliancy."
"Somewhat exaggerated," was Susan's pleased, laughing comment when Brent told her.
"Somewhat," said Brent. "But my friend Gourdain is stark mad about women's dressing well. That lilac dress you had on yesterday did for him. He was your servant; he is your slave."
Abruptly--for no apparent cause, as was often the case--Susan had that sickening sense of the unreality of her luxurious present, of being about to awaken in Vine Street with Etta--or in the filthy bed with old Mrs. Tucker. Absently she glanced down at her foot, holding it out as if for inspection. She saw Brent's look of amusement at her seeming vanity.
"I was looking to see if my shoes were leaky," she explained.
A subtle change came over his face. He understood instantly.
"Have you ever been--cold?" she asked, looking at him strangely.
"One cold February--cold and damp--I had no underclothes--and no overcoat."
"And dirty beds--filthy rooms--filthy people?"
"A ten-cent lodging house with a tramp for bedfellow."
They were looking at each other, with the perfect understanding and sympathy that can come only to two people of the same fiber who have braved the same storms. Each glanced hastily away.
Her enthusiasm for doing the apartment was due full as much to the fact that it gave her definitely directed occupation as to its congeniality. That early training of hers from Aunt Fanny Warham had made it forever impossible for her in any circumstances to become the typical luxuriously sheltered woman, whether legally or illegally kept--the lie-abed woman, the woman who dresses only to go out and show off, the woman who wastes her life in petty, piffling trifles--without purpose, without order or system, without morals or personal self-respect. She had never lost the systematic instinct--the instinct to use time instead of wasting it--that Fanny Warham had implanted in her during the years that determine character. Not for a moment, even without distinctly definite aim, was she in danger of the creeping paralysis that is epidemic among the rich, enfeebling and slowing down mental and physical activity. She had a regular life; she read, she walked in the Bois; she made the best of each day. And when this definite thing to accomplish offered, she did not have to learn how to work before she could begin the work itself.
All this was nothing new to Gourdain. He was born and bred in a country where intelligent discipline is the rule and the lack of it the rare exception--among all classes--even among the women of the well-to-do classes.
The finished apartment was a disappointment to Palmer. Its effects were too quiet, too restrained. Within certain small limits, those of the man of unusual intelligence but no marked originality, he had excellent taste--or, perhaps, excellent ability to recognize good taste. But in the large he yearned for the grandiose. He loved the gaudy with which the rich surround themselves because good taste forbids them to talk of their wealth and such surroundings do the talking for them and do it more effectively. He would have preferred even a vulgar glitter to the unobtrusiveness of those rooms. But he knew that Susan was right, and he was a very human arrant coward about admitting that he had bad taste.
"This is beautiful--exquisite," said he, with feigned enthusiasm. "I'm afraid, though, it'll be above their heads."
"What do you mean?" inquired Susan.
Palmer felt her restrained irritation, hastened to explain. "I mean the people who'll come here. They can't appreciate it. You have to look twice to appreciate this--and people, the best of 'em, look only once and a mighty blind look it is."
But Susan was not deceived. "You must tell me what changes you want," said she. Her momentary irritation had vanished. Since Freddie was paying, Freddie must have what suited him.
"Oh, I've got nothing to suggest. Now that I've been studying it out, I couldn't allow you to make any changes. It does grow on one, doesn't it, Brent?"
"It will be the talk of Paris," replied Brent.
The playwright's tone settled the matter for Palmer. He was content. Said he:
"Thank God she hasn't put in any of those dirty old tapestry rags--and the banged up, broken furniture and the patched crockery."
At the same time she had produced an effect of long tenancy. There was nothing that glittered, nothing with the offensive sheen of the brand new. There was in that delicately toned atmosphere one suggestion which gave the same impression as the artificial crimson of her lips in contrast with the pallor of her skin and the sweet thoughtful melancholy of her eyes. This suggestion came from an all-pervading odor of a heavy, languorously sweet, sensuous perfume--the same that Susan herself used. She had it made at a perfumer's in the faubourg St. Honore by mixing in a certain proportion several of the heaviest and most clinging of the familiar perfumes. "You don't like my perfume?" she said to Brent one day.
He was in the library, was inspecting her selections of books. Instead of answering her question, he said:
"How did you find out so much about books? How did you find time to read so many?"
"One always finds time for what one likes."
"Not always," said he. "I had a hard stretch once--just after I struck New York. I was a waiter for two months. Working people don't find time for reading--and such things."
"That was one reason why I gave up work," said she.
"That--and the dirt--and the poor wages--and the hopelessness--and a few other reasons," said he.
"Why don't you like the perfume I use?"
"Why do you say that?"
"You made a queer face as you came into the drawing-room."
"Do you like it?"
"What a queer question!" she said. "No other man would have asked it."
"The obvious," said he, shrugging his shoulders.
"I couldn't help knowing you didn't like it."
"Then why should I use it?"
His glance drifted slowly away from hers. He lit a cigarette with much attention to detail.
"Why should I use perfume I don't like?" persisted she.
"What's the use of going into that?" said he.
"But I do like it--in a way," she went on after a pause. "It is--it seems to me the odor of myself."
"Yes--it is," he admitted.
She laughed. "Yet you made a wry face."
"At the odor?"
"At the odor."
"Do you think I ought to change to another perfume?"
"You know I do not. It's the odor of your soul. It is different at different times--sometimes inspiringly sweet as the incense of heaven, as my metaphoric friend Gourdain would say--sometimes as deadly sweet as the odors of the drugs men take to drag them to hell--sometimes repulsively sweet, making one heart sick for pure, clean smell-less air yet without the courage to seek it. Your perfume is many things, but always--always strong and tenacious and individual."
A flush had overspread the pallor of her skin; her long dark lashes hid her eyes.
"You have never been in love," he went on.
"So you told me once before." It was the first time either had referred to their New York acquaintance.
"You did not believe me then. But you do now?"
"For me there is no such thing as love," replied she. "I understand affection--I have felt it. I understand passion. It is a strong force in my life--perhaps the strongest."
"No," said he, quiet but positive.
"Perhaps not," replied she carelessly, and went on, with her more than manlike candor, and in her manner of saying the most startling things in the calmest way:
"I understand what is called love--feebleness looking up to strength or strength pitying feebleness. I understand because I've felt both those things. But love--two equal people united perfectly, merged into a third person who is neither yet is both--that I have not felt. I've dreamed it. I've imagined it--in some moments of passion. But"--she laughed and shrugged her shoulders and waved the hand with the cigarette between its fingers--"I have not felt it and I shall not feel it. I remain I." She paused, considered, added, "And I prefer that."
"You are strong," said he, absent and reflective. "Yes, you are strong."
"I don't know," replied she. "Sometimes I think so. Again----" She shook her head doubtfully.
"You would be dead if you were not. As strong in soul as in body."
"Probably," admitted she. "Anyhow, I am sure I shall always be--alone. I shall visit--I shall linger on my threshold and talk. Perhaps I shall wander in perfumed gardens and dream of comradeship. But I shall return chez moi."
He rose--sighed--laughed--at her and at himself. "Don't delay too long," said he.
"My career? Why, I am in the full swing of it. I'm at work in the only profession I'm fit for."
"The profession of woman?"
"Yes--the profession of female."
He winced--and at this sign, if she did not ask herself what pleased her, she did not ask herself why. He said sharply, "I don't like that."
"But you have only to hear it. Think of poor me who have to live it."
"Have to? No," said he.
"Surely you're not suggesting that I drop back into the laboring classes! No, thank you. If you knew, you'd not say anything so stupid."
"I do know, and I was not suggesting that. Under this capitalistic system the whole working class is degraded. They call what they do `work,' but that word ought to be reserved for what a man does when he exercises mind and body usefully. What the working class is condemned to by capitalism is not work but toil."
"The toil of a slave," said Susan.
"It's shallow twaddle or sheer want to talk about the dignity and beauty of labor under this system," he went on. "It is ugly and degrading. The fools or hypocrites who talk that way ought to be forced to join the gangs of slaves at their tasks in factory and mine and shop, in the fields and the streets. And even the easier and better paid tasks, even what the capitalists themselves do--those things aren't dignified and beautiful. Capitalism divides all men except those of one class--the class to which I luckily belong--divides all other men into three unlovely classes--slave owners, slave drivers and slaves. But you're not interested in those questions."
"In wage slavery? No. I wish to forget about it. Any alternative to being a wage slave or a slave driver--or a slave owner. Any alternative."
"You don't appreciate your own good fortune," said he. "Most human beings--all but a very few--have to be in the slave classes, in one way or another. They have to submit to the repulsive drudgery, with no advancement except to slave driver. As for women--if they have to work, what can they do but sell themselves into slavery to the machines, to the capitalists? But you--you needn't do that. Nature endowed you with talent--unusual talent, I believe. How lucky you are! How superior to the great mass of your fellow beings who must slave or starve, because they have no talent!"
"Talent?--I?" said Susan. "For what, pray?"
"For the stage."
She looked amused. "You evidently don't think me vain--or you'd not venture that jest."
"For the stage," he repeated.
"Thanks," said she drily, "but I'll not appeal from your verdict."
"My verdict? What do you mean?"
"I prefer to talk of something else," said she coldly, offended by his unaccountable disregard of her feelings.
"This is bewildering," said he. And his manner certainly fitted the words.
"That I should have understood? Perhaps I shouldn't--at least, not so quickly--if I hadn't heard how often you have been disappointed, and how hard it has been for you to get rid of some of those you tried and found wanting."
"Believe me--I was not disappointed in you." He spoke earnestly, apparently with sincerity. "The contrary. Your throwing it all up was one of the shocks of my life."
She laughed mockingly--to hide her sensitiveness.
"One of the shocks of my life," he repeated.
She was looking at him curiously--wondering why he was thus uncandid.
"It puzzled me," he went on. "I've been lingering on here, trying to solve the puzzle. And the more I've seen of you the less I understand. Why did you do it? How could you do it?"
He was walking up and down the room in a characteristic pose-- hands clasped behind his back as if to keep them quiet, body erect, head powerfully thrust forward. He halted abruptly and wheeled to face her. "Do you mean to tell me you didn't get tired of work and drop it for--" he waved his arm to indicate her luxurious surroundings--"for this?"
No sign of her agitation showed at the surface. But she felt she was not concealing herself from him.
He resumed his march, presently to halt and wheel again upon her. But before he could speak, she stopped him.
"I don't wish to hear any more," said she, the strange look in her eyes. It was all she could do to hide the wild burst of emotion that had followed her discovery. Then she had not been without a chance for a real career! She might have been free, might have belonged to herself----
"It is not too late," cried he. "That's why I'm here."
"It is too late," she said.
"It is not too late," repeated he, harshly, in his way that swept aside opposition. "I shall get you back." Triumphantly, "The puzzle is solved!"
She faced him with a look of defiant negation. "That ocean I crossed--it's as narrow as the East River into which I thought of throwing myself many a time--it's as narrow as the East River beside the ocean between what I am and what I was. And I'll never go back. Never!"
She repeated the "never" quietly, under her breath. His eyes looked as if they, without missing an essential detail, had swept the whole of that to which she would never go back. He said:
"Go back? No, indeed. Who's asking you to go back? Not I. I'm not asking you to go anywhere. I'm simply saying that you will--must--go forward. If you were in love, perhaps not. But you aren't in love. I know from experience how men and women care for each other--how they form these relationships. They find each other convenient and comfortable. But they care only for themselves. Especially young people. One must live quite a while to discover that thinking about oneself is living in a stuffy little cage with only a little light, through slats in the top that give no view. . . . It's an unnatural life for you. It can't last. You--centering upon yourself--upon comfort and convenience. Absurd!"
"I have chosen," said she.
"No--you can't do it," he went on, as if she had not spoken. "You can't spend your life at dresses and millinery, at chattering about art, at thinking about eating and drinking--at being passively amused--at attending to your hair and skin and figure. You may think so, but in reality you are getting ready for me . . . for your career. You are simply educating yourself. I shall have you back."
She held the cigarette to her lips, inhaled the smoke deeply, exhaled it slowly.
"I will tell you why," he went on, as if he were answering a protest. "Every one of us has an individuality of some sort. And in spite of everything and anything, except death or hopeless disease, that individuality will insist upon expressing itself."
"Mine is expressing itself," said she with a light smile--the smile of a light woman.
"You can't rest in this present life of yours. Your individuality is too strong. It will have its way--and for all your mocking smiling, you know I am right. I understand how you were tempted into it----"
She opened her lips--changed her mind and stopped her lips with her cigarette.
"I don't blame you--and it was just as well. This life has taught you--will teach you--will advance you in your career. . . . Tell me, what gave you the idea that I was disappointed?"
She tossed her cigarette into the big ash tray. "As I told you, it is too late." She rose and looked at him with a strange, sweet smile. "I've got any quantity of faults," said she. "But there's one I haven't got. I don't whine."
"You don't whine," assented he, "and you don't lie--and you don't shirk. Men and women have been canonized for less. I understand that for some reason you can't talk about----"
"Then why do you continue to press me?" said she, a little coldly.
He accepted the rebuke with a bow. "Nevertheless," said he, with raillery to carry off his persistence, "I shall get you. If not sooner, then when the specter of an obscure--perhaps poor--old age begins to agitate the rich hangings of youth's banquet hall."
"That'll be a good many years yet," mocked she. And from her lovely young face flashed the radiant defiance of her perfect youth and health.
"Years that pass quickly," retorted he, unmoved.
She was still radiant, still smiling, but once more she was seeing the hideous old women of the tenements. Into her nostrils stole the stench of the foul den in which she had slept with Mrs. Tucker and Mrs. Reardon--and she was hearing the hunchback of the dive playing for the drunken dancing old cronies, with their tin cups of whiskey.
No danger of that now? How little she was saving of her salary from Palmer! She could not "work" men--she simply could not. She would never put by enough to be independent and every day her tastes for luxury had firmer hold upon her. No danger? As much danger as ever--a danger postponed but certain to threaten some day--and then, a fall from a greater height--a certain fall. She was hearing the battered, shattered piano of the dive.
"For pity's sake Mrs. Palmer!" cried Brent, in a low voice.
She started. The beautiful room, the environment of luxury and taste and comfort came back.
Gourdain interrupted and then Palmer.
The four went to the Cafe Anglais for dinner. Brent announced that he was going to the Riviera soon to join a party of friends. "I wish you would visit me later," said he, with a glance that included them all and rested, as courtesy required, upon Susan. "There's room in my villa--barely room."
"We've not really settled here," said Susan. "And we've taken up French seriously."
"The weather's frightful," said Palmer, with a meaning glance at her. "I think we ought to go."
But her expression showed that she had no intention of going, no sympathy with Palmer's desire to use this excellent, easy ladder of Brent's offering to make the ascent into secure respectability.
"Next winter, then," said Brent, who was observing her. "Or--in the early spring, perhaps."
"Oh, we may change our minds and come," Palmer suggested eagerly. "I'm going to try to persuade my wife."
"Come if you can," said Brent cordially. "I'll have no one stopping with me."
When they were alone, Palmer sent his valet away and fussed about impatiently until Susan's maid had unhooked her dress and had got her ready for bed. As the maid began the long process of giving her hair a thorough brushing, he said, "Please let her go, Susan. I want to tell you something."
"She does not know a word of English."
"But these French are so clever that they understand perfectly with their eyes."
Susan sent the maid to bed and sat in a dressing gown brushing her hair. It was long enough to reach to the middle of her back and to cover her bosom. It was very thick and wavy. Now that the scarlet was washed from her lips for the night, her eyes shone soft and clear with no relief for their almost tragic melancholy. He was looking at her in profile. Her expression was stern as well as sad--the soul of a woman who has suffered and has been made strong, if not hard.
"I got a letter from my lawyers today," he began. "It was about that marriage. I'll read."
At the word "marriage," she halted the regular stroke of the brush. Her eyes gazed into the mirror of the dressing table through her reflection deep into her life, deep into the vistas of memory. As he unfolded the letter, she leaned back in the low chair, let her hands drop to her lap.
"`As the inclosed documents show,'" he read, "`we have learned and have legally verified that Jeb--not James--Ferguson divorced his wife Susan Lenox about a year after their marriage, on the ground of desertion; and two years later he fell through the floor of an old bridge near Brooksburg and was killed.'"
The old bridge--she was feeling its loose flooring sag and shift under the cautious hoofs of the horse. She was seeing Rod Spenser on the horse, behind him a girl, hardly more than a child--under the starry sky exchanging confidences--talking of their futures.
"So, you see, you are free," said Palmer. "I went round to an American lawyer's office this afternoon, and borrowed an old legal form book. And I've copied out this form----"
She was hardly conscious of his laying papers on the table before her.
"It's valid, as I've fixed things. The lawyer gave me some paper. It has a watermark five years old. I've dated back two years--quite enough. So when we've signed, the marriage never could be contested--not even by ourselves."
He took the papers from the table, laid them in her lap. She started. "What were you saying?" she asked. "What's this?"
"What were you thinking about?" said he.
"I wasn't thinking," she answered, with her slow sweet smile of self-concealment. "I was feeling--living--the past. I was watching the procession."
He nodded understandingly. "That's a kind of time-wasting that can easily be overdone."
"Easily," she agreed. "Still, there's the lesson. I have to remind myself of it often--always, when there's anything that has to be decided."
"I've written out two of the forms," said he. "We sign both. You keep one, I the other. Why not sign now?"
She read the form--the agreement to take each other as lawful husband and wife and to regard the contract as in all respects binding and legal.
"Do you understand it?" laughed he nervously, for her manner was disquieting.
"You stared at the paper as if it were a puzzle."
"It is," said she.
"Come into the library and we'll sign and have it over with."
She laid the papers on the dressing table, took up her brush, drew it slowly over her hair several times.
"Wake up," cried he, good humoredly. "Come on into the library." And he went to the threshold.
She continued brushing her hair. "I can't sign," said she. There was the complete absence of emotion that caused her to be misunderstood always by those who did not know her peculiarities. No one could have suspected the vision of the old women of the dive before her eyes, the sound of the hunchback's piano in her ears, the smell of foul liquors and foul bodies and foul breaths in her nostrils. Yet she repeated:
"No--I can't sign."
He returned to his chair, seated himself, a slight cloud on his brow, a wicked smile on his lips. "Now what the devil!" said he gently, a jeer in his quiet voice. "What's all this about?"
"I can't marry you," said she. "I wish to live on as we are."
"But if we do that we can't get up where we want to go."
"I don't wish to know anyone but interesting men of the sort that does things--and women of my own sort. Those people have no interest in conventionalities."
"That's not the crowd we set out to conquer," said he. "You seem to have forgotten."
"It's you who have forgotten," replied she.
"Yes--yes--I know," he hastened to say. "I wasn't accusing you of breaking your agreement. You've lived up to it--and more. But, Susan, the people you care about don't especially interest me. Brent--yes. He's a man of the world as well as one of the artistic chaps. But the others--they're beyond me. I admit it's all fine, and I'm glad you go in for it. But the only crowd that's congenial to me is the crowd that we've got to be married to get in with."
She saw his point--saw it more clearly than did he. To him the world of fashion and luxurious amusement seemed the only world worth while. He accepted the scheme of things as he found it, had the conventional ambitions--to make in succession the familiar goals of the conventional human success--power, wealth, social position. It was impossible for him to get any other idea of a successful life, of ambitions worthy a man's labor. It was evidence of the excellence of his mind that he was able to tolerate the idea of the possibility of there being another mode of success worth while.
"I'm helping you in your ambitions--in doing what you think is worth while," said he. "Don't you think you owe it to me to help me in mine?"
He saw the slight change of expression that told him how deeply he had touched her.
"If I don't go in for the high society game," he went on, "I'll have nothing to do. I'll be adrift--gambling, drinking, yawning about and going to pieces. A man's got to have something to work for--and he can't work unless it seems to him worth doing."
She was staring into the mirror, her elbows on the table, her chin upon her interlaced fingers. It would be difficult to say how much of his gentleness to her was due to her physical charm for him, and how much to his respect for her mind and her character. He himself would have said that his weakness was altogether the result of the spell her physical charm cast over him. But it is probable that the other element was the stronger.
"You'll not be selfish, Susan?" urged he. "You'll give me a square deal."
"Yes--I see that it does look selfish," said she. "A little while ago I'd not have been able to see any deeper than the looks of it. Freddie, there are some things no one has a right to ask of another, and no one has a right to grant."
The ugliness of his character was becoming less easy to control. This girl whom he had picked up, practically out of the gutter, and had heaped generosities upon, was trying his patience too far. But he said, rather amiably:
"Certainly I'm not asking any such thing of you in asking you to become a respectable married woman, the wife of a rich man."
"Yes--you are, Freddie," replied she gently. "If I married you, I'd be signing an agreement to lead your life, to give up my own--an agreement to become a sort of woman I've no desire to be and no interest in being; to give up trying to become the only sort of woman I think is worth while. When we were discussing my coming with you, you made this same proposal in another form. I refused it then. And I refuse it now. It's harder to refuse now, but I'm stronger."
"Stronger, thanks to the money you've got from me--the money and the rest of it," sneered he.
"Haven't I earned all I've got?" said she, so calmly that he did not realize how the charge of ingratitude, unjust though it was, had struck into her.
"You have changed!" said he. "You're getting as hard as the rest of us. So it's all a matter of money, of give and take--is it? None of the generosity and sentiment you used to be full of? You've simply been using me."
"It can be put that way," replied she. "And no doubt you honestly see it that way. But I've got to see my own interest and my own right, Freddie. I've learned at last that I mustn't trust to anyone else to look after them for me."
"Are you riding for a fall--Queenie?"
At "Queenie" she smiled faintly. "I'm riding the way I always have," answered she. "It has carried me down. But--it has brought me up again." She looked at him with eyes that appealed, without yielding. "And I'll ride that way to the end--up or down," said she. "I can't help it."
"Then you want to break with me?" he asked--and he began to look dangerous.
"No," replied she. "I want to go on as we are. . . . I'll not be interfering in your social ambitions, in any way. Over here it'll help you to have a mistress who--" she saw her image in the glass, threw him an arch glance--"who isn't altogether unattractive won't it? And if you found you could go higher by marrying some woman of the grand world--why, you'd be free to do it."
He had a way of looking at her that gave her--and himself--the sense of a delirious embrace. He looked at her so, now. He said:
"You take advantage of my being crazy about you--damn you!"
"Heaven knows," laughed she, "I need every advantage I can find."
He touched her--the lightest kind of touch. It carried the sense of embrace in his look still more giddily upward. "Queenie!" he said softly.
She smiled at him through half closed eyes that with a gentle and shy frankness confessed the secret of his attraction for her. There was, however, more of strength than of passion in her face as a whole. Said she:
"We're getting on well--as we are aren't we? I can meet the most amusing and interesting people--my sort of people. You can go with the people and to the places you like and you'll not be bound. If you should take a notion to marry some woman with a big position--you'd not have to regret being tied to--Queenie."
"But--I want you--I want you," said he. "I've got to have you."
"As long as you like," said she. "But on terms I can accept--always on terms I can accept. Never on any others--never! I can't help it. I can yield everything but that."
Where she was concerned he was the primitive man only. The higher his passion rose, the stronger became his desire for absolute possession. When she spoke of terms--of the limitations upon his possession of her--she transformed his passion into fury. He eyed her wickedly, abruptly demanded:
"When did you decide to make this kick-up?"
"I don't know. Simply--when you asked me to sign, I found I couldn't."
"You don't expect me to believe that."
"It's the truth." She resumed brushing her hair.
"Look at me!"
She turned her face toward him, met his gaze.
"Have you fallen in love with that young Jew?"
"Have you a crazy notion that your looks'll get you a better husband? A big fortune or a title?"
"I haven't thought about a husband. Haven't I told you I wish to be free?"
"But that doesn't mean anything."
"It might," said she absently.
"I don't know. If one is always free--one is ready for--whatever comes. Anyhow, I must be free--no matter what it costs."
"I see you're bent on dropping back into the dirt I picked you out of."
"Even that," she said. "I must be free."
"Haven't you any desire to be respectable--decent?"
"I guess not," confessed she. "What is there in that direction for me?"
"A woman doesn't stay young and good-looking long."
"No." She smiled faintly. "But does she get old and ugly any slower for being married?"
He rose and stood over her, looked smiling danger down at her. She leaned back in her chair to meet his eyes without constraint. "You're trying to play me a trick," said he. "But you're not going to get away with the goods. I'm astonished that you are so rotten ungrateful."
"Because I'm not for sale?"
"Queenie balking at selling herself," he jeered. "And what's the least you ever did sell for?"
"A half-dollar, I think. No--two drinks of whiskey one cold night. But what I sold was no more myself than--than the coat I'd pawned and drunk up before I did it."
The plain calm way in which she said this made it so terrible that he winced and turned away. "We have seen hell--haven't we?" he muttered. He turned toward her with genuine passion of feeling. "Susan," he cried, "don't be a fool. Let's push our luck, now that things are coming our way. We need each other--we want to stay together--don't we?"
"I want to stay. I'm happy."
"Then--let's put the record straight."
"Let's keep it straight," replied she earnestly. "Don't ask me to go where I don't belong. For I can't, Freddie--honestly, I can't."
A pause. Then, "You will!" said he, not in blustering fury, but in that cool and smiling malevolence which had made him the terror of his associates from his boyhood days among the petty thieves and pickpockets of Grand Street. He laid his hand gently on her shoulder. "You hear me. I say you will."
She looked straight at him. "Not if you kill me," she said. She rose to face him at his own height. "I've bought my freedom with my body and with my heart and with my soul. It's all I've got. I shall keep it."
He measured her strength with an expert eye. He knew that he was beaten. He laughed lightly and went into his dressing-room.