Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
A few minutes before the dinner hour she came into the drawing room. Palmer and Madame Deliere were already there, near the fire which the unseasonable but by no means unusual coolness of the London summer evening made extremely comfortable--and, for Americans, necessary. Palmer stood with his back to the blaze, moodily smoking a cigarette. That evening his now almost huge form looked more degenerated than usual by the fat of high living and much automobiling. His fleshy face, handsome still and of a refined type, bore the traces of anxious sorrow. Clelie, sitting at the corner of the fireplace and absently turning the leaves of an illustrated French magazine, had in her own way an air as funereal as Freddie's. As Susan entered, they glanced at her.
Palmer uttered and half suppressed an ejaculation of amazement. Susan was dressed as for opera or ball--one of her best evening dresses, the greatest care in arranging her hair and the details of her toilette. Never had she been more beautiful. Her mode of life since she came abroad with Palmer, the thoughts that had been filling her brain and giving direction to her life since she accepted Brent as her guide and Brent's plans as her career, had combined to give her air of distinction the touch of the extraordinary--the touch that characterizes the comparatively few human beings who live the life above and apart from that of the common run--the life illuminated by imagination. At a glance one sees that they are not of the eaters, drinkers, sleepers, and seekers after the shallow easy pleasures money provides ready-made. They shine by their own light; the rest of mankind shines either by light reflected from them or not at all.
Looking at her that evening as she came into the comfortable, old-fashioned English room, with its somewhat heavy but undeniably dignified furniture and draperies, the least observant could not have said that she was in gala attire because she was in gala mood. Beneath the calm of her surface expression lay something widely different. Her face, slim and therefore almost beyond the reach of the attacks of time and worry, was of the type to which a haggard expression is becoming. Her eyes, large and dreamy, seemed to be seeing visions of unutterable sadness, and the scarlet streak of her mouth seemed to emphasize their pathos. She looked young, very young; yet there was also upon her features the stamp of experience, the experience of suffering. She did not notice the two by the fire, but went to the piano at the far end of the room and stood gazing out into the lovely twilight of the garden.
Freddie, who saw only the costume, said in an undertone to Clelie, "What sort of freak is this?"
Said Madame Deliere: "An uncle of mine lost his wife. They were young and he loved her to distraction. Between her death and the funeral he scandalized everybody by talking incessantly of the most trivial details--the cards, the mourning, the flowers, his own clothes. But the night of the funeral he killed himself."
Palmer winced as if Clelie had struck him. Then an expression of terror, of fear, came into his eyes. "You don't think she'd do that?" he muttered hoarsely.
"Certainly not," replied the young Frenchwoman. "I was simply trying to explain her. She dressed because she was unconscious of what she was doing. Real sorrow doesn't think about appearances." Then with quick tact she added: "Why should she kill herself? Monsieur Brent is getting well. Also, while she's a devoted friend of his, she doesn't love him, but you."
"I'm all upset," said Palmer, in confused apology.
He gazed fixedly at Susan--a straight, slim figure with the carriage and the poise of head that indicate self-confidence and pride. As he gazed Madame Clelie watched him with fascinated eyes. It was both thrilling and terrifying to see such love as he was revealing--a love more dangerous than hate. Palmer noted that he was observed, abruptly turned to face the fire.
A servant opened the doors into the dining-room, Madame Deliere rose. "Come, Susan," said she.
Susan looked at her with unseeing eyes.
"Dinner is served."
"I do not care for dinner," said Susan, seating herself at the piano.
"Oh, but you----"
"Let her alone," said Freddie, curtly. "You and I will go in."
Susan, alone, dropped listless hands into her lap. How long she sat there motionless and with mind a blank she did not know. She was aroused by a sound in the hall--in the direction of the outer door of their apartment. She started up, instantly all alive and alert, and glided swiftly in the direction of the sound. A servant met her at the threshold. He had a cablegram on a tray.
"For Mr. Palmer," said he.
But she, not hearing, took the envelope and tore it open. At a sweep her eyes took in the unevenly typewritten words:
Brent died at half past two this afternoon.
She gazed wonderingly at the servant, reread the cablegram. The servant said: "Shall I take it to Mr. Palmer, ma'am?"
"No. That is all, thanks," replied she.
And she walked slowly across the room to the fire. She shivered, adjusted one of the shoulder straps of her low-cut pale green dress. She read the cablegram a third time, laid it gently, thoughtfully, upon the mantel. "Brent died at half past two this afternoon." Died. Yes, there was no mistaking the meaning of those words. She knew that the message was true. But she did not feel it. She was seeing Brent as he had been when they said good-by. And it would take something more than a mere message to make her feel that the Brent so vividly alive, so redolent of life, of activity, of energy, of plans and projects, the Brent of health and strength, had ceased to be. "Brent died at half past two this afternoon." Except in the great crises we all act with a certain theatricalism, do the thing books and plays and the example of others have taught us to do. But in the great crises we do as we feel. Susan knew that Brent was dead. If he had meant less to her, she would have shrieked or fainted or burst into wild sobs. But not when he was her whole future. She knew he was dead, but she did not believe it. So she stood staring at the flames, and wondering why, when she knew such a frightful thing, she should remain calm. When she had heard that he was injured, she had felt, now she did not feel at all. Her body, her brain, went serenely on in their routine. The part of her that was her very self--had it died, and not Brent?
She turned her back to the fire, gazed toward the opposite wall. In a mirror there she saw the reflection of Palmer, at table in the adjoining room. A servant was holding a dish at his left and he was helping himself. She observed his every motion, observed his fattened body, his round and large face, the forming roll of fat at the back of his neck. All at once she grew cold--cold as she had not been since the night she and Etta Brashear walked the streets of Cincinnati. The ache of this cold, like the cold of death, was an agony. She shook from head to foot. She turned toward the mantel again, looked at the cablegram. But she did not take it in her hands. She could see--in the air, before her eyes--in clear, sharp lettering--"Brent died at half past two this afternoon. Garvey."
The sensation of cold faded into a sensation of approaching numbness. She went into the hall--to her own rooms. In the dressing-room her maid, Clemence, was putting away the afternoon things she had taken off. She stood at the dressing table, unclasping the string of pearls. She said to Clemence tranquilly:
"Please pack in the small trunk with the broad stripes three of my plainest street dresses--some underclothes--the things for a journey--only necessaries. Some very warm things, please, Clemence, I've suffered from cold, and I can't bear the idea of it. And please telephone to the--to the Cecil for a room and bath. When you have finished I shall pay you what I owe and a month's wages extra. I cannot afford to keep you any longer."
"But, madame"--Clemence fluttered in agitation--"Madame promised to take me to America."
"Telephone for the rooms for Miss Susan Lenox," said Susan. She was rapidly taking off her dress. "If I took you to America I should have to let you go as soon as we landed."
"But, madame--" Clemence advanced to assist her.
"Please pack the trunk," said Susan. "I am leaving here at once."
"I prefer to go to America, even if madame----"
"Very well. I'll take you. But you understand?"
A sound of hurrying footsteps and Palmer was at the threshold. His eyes were wild, his face distorted. His hair, usually carefully arranged over the rapidly growing bald spot above his brow, was disarranged in a manner that would have been ludicrous but for the terrible expression of his face. "Go!" he said harshly to the maid; and he stood fretting the knob until she hastened out and gave him the chance to close the door. Susan, calm and apparently unconscious of his presence, went on with her rapid change of costume. He lit a cigarette with fingers trembling, dropped heavily into a chair near the door. She, seated on the floor, was putting on boots.
When she had finished one and was beginning on the other he said stolidly:
"You think I did it"--not a question but an assertion.
"I know it," replied she. She was so seated that he was seeing her in profile.
"Yes--I did," he went on. He settled himself more deeply in the chair, crossed his leg. "And I am glad that I did."
She kept on at lacing the boot. There was nothing in her expression to indicate emotion, or even that she heard.
"I did it," continued he, "because I had the right. He invited it. He knew me--knew what to expect. I suppose he decided that you were worth taking the risk. It's strange what fools men--all men--we men--are about women. . . . Yes, he knew it. He didn't blame me."
She stopped lacing the boot, turned so that she could look at him.
"Do you remember his talking about me one day?" he went on, meeting her gaze naturally. "He said I was a survival of the Middle Ages--had a medieval Italian mind--said I would do anything to gain my end--and would have a clear conscience about it. Do you remember?"
"But you don't see why I had the right to kill him?"
A shiver passed over her. She turned away again, began again to lace the boot--but now her fingers were uncertain.
"I'll explain," pursued he. "You and I were getting along fine. He had had his chance with you and had lost it. Well, he comes over here--looks us up--puts himself between you and me--proceeds to take you away from me. Not in a square manly way but under the pretense of giving you a career. He made you restless--dissatisfied. He got you away from me. Isn't that so?"
She was sitting motionless now.
Palmer went on in the same harsh, jerky way:
"Now, nobody in the world--not even you--knew me better than Brent did. He knew what to expect--if I caught on to what was doing. And I guess he knew I would be pretty sure to catch on."
"He never said a word to me that you couldn't have heard," said Susan.
"Of course not," retorted Palmer. "That isn't the question. It don't matter whether he wanted you for himself or for his plays. The point is that he took you away from me--he, my friend--and did it by stealth. You can't deny that."
"He offered me a chance for a career--that was all," said she. "He never asked for my love--or showed any interest in it. I gave him that."
He laughed--his old-time, gentle, sweet, wicked laugh. He said:
"Well--it'd have been better for him if you hadn't. All it did for him was to cost him his life."
Up she sprang. "Don't say that!" she cried passionately--so passionately that her whole body shook. "Do you suppose I don't know it? I know that I killed him. But I don't feel that he's dead. If I did, I'd not be able to live. But I can't! I can't! For me he is as much alive as ever."
"Try to think that--if it pleases you," sneered Palmer. "The fact remains that it was you who killed him."
Again she shivered. "Yes," she said, "I killed him."
"And that's why I hate you," Palmer went on, calm and deliberate--except his eyes; they were terrible. "A few minutes ago--when I was exulting that he would probably die--just then I found that opened cable on the mantel. Do you know what it did to me? It made me hate you. When I read it----" Freddie puffed at his cigarette in silence. She dropped weakly to the chair at the dressing table.
"Curse it!" he burst out. "I loved him. Yes, I was crazy about him--and am still. I'm glad I killed him. I'd do it again. I had to do it. He owed me his life. But that doesn't make me forgive you."
A long silence. Her fingers wandered among the articles spread upon the dressing table. He said:
"You're getting ready to leave?"
"I'm going to a hotel at once."
"Well, you needn't. I'm leaving. You're done with me. But I'm done with you." He rose, bent upon her his wicked glance, sneering and cruel. "You never want to see me again. No more do I ever want to see you again. I wish to God I never had seen you. You cost me the only friend I ever had that I cared about. And what's a woman beside a friend--a man friend? You've made a fool of me, as a woman always does of a man--always, by God! If she loves him, she destroys him. If she doesn't love him, he destroys himself."
Susan covered her face with her bare arms and sank down at the dressing table. "For pity's sake," she cried brokenly, "spare me--spare me!"
He seized her roughly by the shoulder. "Just flesh!" he said. "Beautiful flesh--but just female. And look what a fool you've made of me--and the best man in the world dead--over yonder! Spare you? Oh, you'll pull through all right. You'll pull through everything and anything--and come out stronger and better looking and better off. Spare you! Hell! I'd have killed you instead of him if I'd known I was going to hate you after I'd done the other thing. I'd do it yet--you dirty skirt!"
He jerked her unresisting form to its feet, gazed at her like an insane fiend. With a sob he seized her in his arms, crushed her against his breast, sunk his fingers deep into her hair, kissed it, grinding his teeth as he kissed. "I hate you, damn you--and I love you!" He flung her back into the chair--out of his life. "You'll never see me again!" And he fled from the room--from the house.