Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
The big ship issued from the Mersey into ugly waters--into the weather that at all seasons haunts and curses the coasts of Northern Europe. From Saturday until Wednesday Susan and Madame Deliere had true Atlantic seas and skies; and the ship leaped and shivered and crashed along like a brave cavalryman in the rear of a rout--fighting and flying, flying and fighting. Four days of hours whose every waking second lagged to record itself in a distinct pang of physical wretchedness; four days in which all emotions not physical were suspended, in which even the will to live, most tenacious of primal instincts in a sane human being, yielded somewhat to the general lassitude and disgust. Yet for Susan Lenox four most fortunate days; for in them she underwent a mental change that enabled her to emerge delivered of the strain that threatened at every moment to cause a snap.
On the fifth day her mind, crutched by her resuming body, took up again its normal routine. She began to dress herself, to eat, to exercise--the mechanical things first, as always--then to think. The grief that had numbed her seemed to have been left behind in England where it had suddenly struck her down--England far away and vague across those immense and infuriated waters, like the gulf of death between two incarnations. No doubt that grief was awaiting her at the other shores; no doubt there she would feel that Brent was gone. But she would be better able to bear the discovery. The body can be accustomed to the deadliest poisons, so that they become harmless--even useful--even a necessary aid to life. In the same way the mind can grow accustomed to the cruelest calamities, tolerate them, use them to attain a strength and power the hot-housed soul never gets.
When a human being is abruptly plunged into an unnatural unconsciousness by mental or physical catastrophes, the greatest care is taken that the awakening to normal life again be slow, gradual, without shock. Otherwise the return would mean death or insanity or lifelong affliction with radical weakness. It may be that this sea voyage with its four days of agitations that lowered Susan's physical life to a harmony of wretchedness with her mental plight, and the succeeding days of gradual calming and restoration, acted upon her to save her from disaster. There will be those readers of her story who, judging her, perhaps, by themselves--as revealed in their judgments, rather than in their professions--will think it was quite unnecessary to awaken her gradually; they will declare her a hard-hearted person, caring deeply about no one but herself, or one of those curiosities of human nature that are interested only in things, not at all in persons, even in themselves. There may also be those who will see in her a soft and gentle heart for which her intelligence finally taught her to construct a shield--more or less effective--against buffetings which would have destroyed or, worse still, maimed her. These will feel that the sea voyage, the sea change, suspending the normal human life, the life on land, tided her over a crisis that otherwise must have been disastrous.
However this may be--and who dares claim the definite knowledge of the mazes of human character and motive to be positive about the matter?--however it may be, on Thursday afternoon they steamed along a tranquil and glistening sea into the splendor and majesty of New York Harbor. And Susan was again her calm, sweet self, as the violet-gray eyes gazing pensively from the small, strongly-featured face plainly showed. Herself again, with the wound--deepest if not cruelest of her many wounds--covered and with its poison under control. She was ready again to begin to live--ready to fulfill our only certain mission on this earth, for we are not here to succumb and to die, but to adapt ourselves and live. And those who laud the succumbers and the diers--yea, even the blessed martyrs of sundry and divers fleeting issues usually delusions--may be paying ill-deserved tribute to vanity, obstinacy, lack of useful common sense, passion for futile and untimely agitation--or sheer cowardice. Truth--and what is truth but right living?--truth needs no martyrs; and the world needs not martyrs, not corpses rotting in unmarked or monumented graves, but intelligent men and women, healthy in body and mind, capable of leading the human race as fast as it is able to go in the direction of the best truth to which it is able at that time to aspire.
As the ship cleared Quarantine Susan stood on the main deck well forward, with Madame Clelie beside her. And up within her, defying all rebuke, surged the hope that cannot die in strong souls living in healthy bodies.
She had a momentary sense of shame, born of the feeling that it is basest, most heartless selfishness to live, to respond to the caress of keen air upon healthy skin, of glorious light upon healthy eyes, when there are others shut out and shut away from these joys forever. Then she said to herself, "But no one need apologize for being alive and for hoping. I must try to justify him for all he did for me."
A few miles of beautiful water highway between circling shores of green, and afar off through the mist Madame Clelie's fascinated eyes beheld a city of enchantment. It appeared and disappeared, reappeared only to disappear again, as its veil of azure mist was blown into thick or thin folds by the light breeze. One moment the Frenchwoman would think there was nothing ahead but more and ever more of the bay glittering in the summer sunlight. The next moment she would see again that city--or was it a mirage of a city?--towers, mighty walls, domes rising mass above mass, summit above summit, into the very heavens from the water's edge where there was a fringe of green. Surely the vision must be real; yet how could tiny man out of earth and upon earth rear in such enchantment of line and color those enormous masses, those peak-like piercings of the sky?
"Is that--it?" she asked in an awed undertone.
Susan nodded. She, too, was gazing spellbound. Her beloved City of the Sun.
"But it is beautiful--beautiful beyond belief. And I have always heard that New York was ugly."
"It is beautiful--and ugly--both beyond belief!" replied Susan.
"No wonder you love it!"
"Yes--I love it. I have loved it from the first moment I saw it. I've never stopped loving it--not even----" She did not finish her sentence but gazed dreamily at the city appearing and disappearing in its veils of thin, luminous mist. Her thoughts traveled again the journey of her life in New York. When she spoke again, it was to say:
"Yes--when I first saw it--that spring evening--I called it my City of the Stars, then, for I didn't know that it belonged to the sun--Yes, that spring evening I was happier than I ever had been--or ever shall be again."
"But you will be happy again "dear" said Clelie, tenderly pressing her arm.
A faint sad smile--sad but still a smile--made Susan's beautiful face lovely. "Yes, I shall be happy--not in those ways--but happy, for I shall be busy. . . . No, I don't take the tragic view of life--not at all. And as I've known misery, I don't try to hold to it."
"Leave that," said Clelie, "to those who have known only the comfortable make-believe miseries that rustle in crepe and shed tears--whenever there's anyone by to see."
"Like the beggars who begin to whine and exhibit their aggravated sores as soon as a possible giver comes into view," said Susan. "I've learned to accept what comes, and to try to make the best of it, whatever it is. . . . I say I've learned. But have I? Does one ever change? I guess I was born that sort of philosopher."
She recalled how she put the Warhams out of her life as soon as she discovered what they really meant to her and she to them--how she had put Jeb Ferguson out of her life--how she had conquered the grief and desolation of the loss of Burlingham--how she had survived Etta's going away without her--the inner meaning of her episodes with Rod--with Freddie Palmer----
And now this last supreme test--with her soul rising up and gathering itself together and lifting its head in strength----
"Yes, I was born to make the best of things," she repeated.
"Then you were born lucky," sighed Clelie, who was of those who must lean if they would not fall and lie where they fell.
Susan gave a curious little laugh--with no mirth, with a great deal of mockery. "Do you know, I never thought so before, but I believe you're right," said she. Again she laughed in that queer way. "If you knew my life you'd think I was joking. But I'm not. The fact that I've survived and am what I am proves I was born lucky." Her tone changed, her expression became unreadable. "If it's lucky to be born able to live. And if that isn't luck, what is?"
She thought how Brent said she was born lucky because she had the talent that enables one to rise above the sordidness of that capitalism he so often denounced--the sordidness of the lot of its slaves, the sordidness of the lot of its masters. Brent! If it were he leaning beside her--if he and she were coming up the bay toward the City of the Sun!
A billow of heartsick desolation surged over her. Alone--always alone. And still alone. And always to be alone.
Garvey came aboard when the gangway was run out. He was in black wherever black could be displayed. But the grief shadowing his large, simple countenance had the stamp of the genuine. And it was genuine, of the most approved enervating kind. He had done nothing but grieve since his master's death--had left unattended all the matters the man he loved and grieved for would have wished put in order. Is it out of charity for the weakness of human nature and that we may think as well as possible of it--is that why we admire and praise most enthusiastically the kind of love and the kind of friendship and the kind of grief that manifest themselves in obstreperous feeling and wordiness, with no strength left for any attempt to do? As Garvey greeted them the tears filled Clelie's eyes and she turned away. But Susan gazed at him steadily; in her eyes there were no tears, but a look that made Garvey choke back sobs and bend his head to hide his expression. What he saw--or felt--behind her calmness filled him with awe, with a kind of terror. But he did not recognize what he saw as grief; it did not resemble any grief he had felt or had heard about.
"He made a will just before he died," he said to Susan. "He left everything to you."
Then she had not been mistaken. He had loved her, even as she loved him. She turned and walked quickly from them. She hastened into her cabin, closed the door and flung herself across the bed. And for the first time she gave way. In that storm her soul was like a little land bird in the clutch of a sea hurricane. She did not understand herself. She still had no sense that he was dead; yet had his dead body been lying there in her arms she could not have been more shaken by paroxysms of grief, without tears or sobs--grief that vents itself in shrieks and peals of horrible laughter-like screams--she smothered them in the pillows in which she buried her face. Clelie came, opened the door, glanced in, closed it. An hour passed--an hour and a half. Then Susan appeared on deck--amber-white pallor, calm, beautiful, the fashionable woman in traveling dress.
"I never before saw you with your lips not rouged!" exclaimed Clelie.
"You will never see them rouged again," said Susan.
"But it makes you look older."
"Not so old as I am," replied she.
And she busied herself about the details of the landing and the customs, waving aside Garvey and his eager urgings that she sit quietly and leave everything to him. In the carriage, on the way to the hotel, she roused herself from her apparently tranquil reverie and broke the strained silence by saying:
"How much shall I have?"
The question was merely the protruding end of a train of thought years long and pursued all that time with scarcely an interruption. It seemed abrupt; to Garvey it sounded brutal. Off his guard, he showed in flooding color and staring eye how profoundly it shocked him. Susan saw, but she did not explain; she was not keeping accounts in emotion with the world. She waited patiently. After a long pause he said in a tone that contained as much of rebuke as so mild a dependent dared express:
"He left about thirty thousand a year, Miss Lenox."
The exultant light that leaped to Susan's eye horrified him. It even disturbed Clelie, though she better understood Susan's nature and was not nearly so reverent as Garvey of the hypocrisies of conventionality. But Susan had long since lost the last trace of awe of the opinion of others. She was not seeking to convey an impression of grief. Grief was too real to her. She would as soon have burst out with voluble confession of the secret of her love for Brent. She saw what Garvey was thinking; but she was not concerned. She continued to be herself--natural and simple. And there was no reason why she should conceal as a thing to be ashamed of the fact that Brent had accomplished the purpose he intended, had filled her with honest exultation--not with delight merely, not with triumph, but with that stronger and deeper joy which the unhoped for pardon brings to the condemned man.
She must live on. The thought of suicide, of any form of giving up--the thought that instantly possesses the weak and the diseased--could not find lodgment in that young, healthy body and mind of hers. She must live on; and suddenly she discovered that she could live free! Not after years of doubtful struggles, of reverses, of success so hardly won that she was left exhausted. But now--at once--free! The heavy shackles had been stricken off at a blow. She was free--forever free! Free, forever free, from the wolves of poverty and shame, of want and rags and filth, the wolves that had been pursuing her with swift, hideous padded stride, the wolves that more than once had dragged her down and torn and trampled her, and lapped her blood. Free to enter of her own right the world worth living in, the world from which all but a few are shut out, the world which only a few of those privileged to enter know how to enjoy. Free to live the life worth while the life of leisure to work, instead of slaving to make leisure and luxury and comfort for others. Free to achieve something beside food, clothing, and shelter. Free to live as she pleased, instead of for the pleasure of a master or masters. Free--free--free! The ecstasy of it surged up in her, for the moment possessing her and submerging even thought of how she had been freed.
She who had never acquired the habit of hypocrisy frankly exulted in countenance exultant beyond laughter. She could conceal her feelings, could refrain from expressing. But if she expressed at all, it must be her true self--what she honestly felt. Garvey hung his head in shame. He would not have believed Susan could be so unfeeling. He would not let his eyes see the painful sight. He would try to forget, would deny to himself that he had seen. For to his shallow, conventional nature Susan's expression could only mean delight in wealth, in the opportunity that now offered to idle and to luxuriate in the dead man's money, to realize the crude dreamings of those lesser minds whose initial impulses toward growth have been stifled by the routine our social system imposes upon all but the few with the strength to persist individual.
Free! She tried to summon the haunting vision of the old women with the tin cups of whisky reeling and staggering in time to the hunchback's playing. She could remember every detail, but these memories would not assemble even into a vivid picture and the picture would have been far enough from the horror of actuality in the vision she formerly could not banish. As a menace, as a prophecy, the old women and the hunchback and the strumming piano had gone forever. Free--secure, independent--free!
After a long silence Garvey ventured stammeringly:
"He said to me--he asked me to request--he didn't make it a condition--just a wish--a hope, Miss Lenox--that if you could, and felt it strongly enough----"
"Wished what?" said Susan, with a sharp impatience that showed how her nerves were unstrung.
"That you'd go on--go on with the plays--with the acting."
The violet eyes expressed wonder. "Go on?" she inquired, "Go on?" Then in a tone that made Clelie sob and Garvey's eyes fill she said:
"What else is there to live for, now?"
"I'm--I'm glad for his sake," stammered Garvey.
He was disconcerted by her smile. She made no other answer--aloud. For his sake! For her own sake, rather. What other life had she but the life he had given her? "And he knew I would," she said to herself. "He said that merely to let me know he left me entirely free. How like him, to do that!"
At the hotel she shut herself in; she saw no one, not even Clelie, for nearly a week. Then--she went to work--and worked like a reincarnation of Brent.
She inquired for Sperry, found that he and Rod had separated as they no longer needed each other; she went into a sort of partnership with Sperry for the production of Brent's plays--he, an excellent coach as well as stage director, helping her to finish her formal education for the stage. She played with success half a dozen of the already produced Brent plays. At the beginning of her second season she appeared in what has become her most famous part--Roxy in Brent's last play, "The Scandal." With the opening night her career of triumph began. Even the critics--therefore, not unnaturally, suspicious of an actress who was so beautiful, so beautifully dressed, so well supported, and so well outfitted with actor-proof plays even the critics conceded her ability. She was worthy of the great character Brent had created--the wayward, many-sided, ever gay Roxy Grandon.
When, at the first night of "The Scandal," the audience lingered, cheering Brent's picture thrown upon a drop, cheering Susan, calling her out again and again, refusing to leave the theater until it was announced that she could answer no more calls, as she had gone home--when she was thus finally and firmly established in her own right--she said to Sperry:
"Will you see to it that every sketch of me that appears tomorrow says that I am the natural daughter of Lorella Lenox?"
Sperry's Punch-like face reddened.
"I've been ashamed of that fact," she went on. "It has made me ashamed to be alive in the bottom of my heart."
"Absurd," said Sperry.
"Exactly," replied Susan. "Absurd. Even stronger than my shame about it has been my shame that I could be so small as to feel ashamed of it. Now--tonight" she was still in her dressing-room. As she paused they heard the faint faraway thunders of the applause of the lingering audience--"Listen!" she cried. "I am ashamed no longer. Sperry, Ich bin ein Ich!"
"I should say," laughed he. "All you have to say is `Susan Lenox' and you answer all questions."
"At last I'm proud of it," she went on. "I've justified myself. I've justified my mother. I am proud of her, and she would be proud of me. So see that it's done, Sperry."
"Sure," said he. "You're right."
He took her hand and kissed it. She laughed, patted him on the shoulder, kissed him on both cheeks in friendly, sisterly fashion.
He had just gone when a card was brought to her--"Dr. Robert Stevens"--with "Sutherland, Indiana," penciled underneath. Instantly she remembered, and had him brought to her--the man who had rescued her from death at her birth. He proved to be a quiet, elderly gentleman, subdued and aged beyond his fifty-five years by the monotonous life of the drowsy old town. He approached with a manner of embarrassed respect and deference, stammering old-fashioned compliments. But Susan was the simple, unaffected girl again, so natural that he soon felt as much at ease as with one of his patients in Sutherland.
She took him away in her car to her apartment for supper with her and Clelie, who was in the company, and Sperry. She kept him hour after hour, questioning him about everyone and everything in the old town, drawing him out, insisting upon more and more details. The morning papers were brought and they read the accounts of play and author and players. For once there was not a dissent; all the critics agreed that it was a great performance of a great play. And Susan made Sperry read aloud the finest and the longest of the accounts of Brent himself--his life, his death, his work, his lasting fame now peculiarly assured because in Susan Lenox there had been found a competent interpreter of his genius.
After the reading there fell silence. Susan, her pallid face and her luminous, inquiring violet eyes inscrutable, sat gazing into vacancy. At last Doctor Stevens moved uneasily and rose to go. Susan roused herself, accompanied him to the adjoining room. Said the old doctor.
"I've told you about everybody. But you've told me nothing about the most interesting Sutherlander of all--yourself."
Susan looked at him. And he saw the wound hidden from all the world--the wound she hid from herself as much of the time as she could. He, the doctor, the professional confessor, had seen such wounds often; in all the world there is hardly a heart without one. He said:
"Since sorrow is the common lot, I wonder that men can be so selfish or so unthinking as not to help each other in every way to its consolations. Poor creatures that we are--wandering in the dark, fighting desperately, not knowing friend from foe!"
"But I am glad that you saved me," said she.
"You have the consolations--success--fame--honor."
"There is no consolation," replied she in her grave sweet way. "I had the best. I--lost him. I shall spend my life in flying from myself."
After a pause she went on: "I shall never speak to anyone as I have spoken to you. You will understand all. I had the best--the man who could have given me all a woman seeks from a man--love, companionship, sympathy, the shelter of strong arms. I had that. I have lost it. So----"
A long pause. Then she added:
"Usually life is almost tasteless to me. Again--for an hour or two it is a little less so--until I remember what I have lost. Then--the taste is very bitter--very bitter."
And she turned away.
She is a famous actress, reputed great. Some day she will be indeed great--when she has the stage experience and the years. Except for Clelie, she is alone. Not that there have been no friendships in her life. There have even been passions. With men and women of her vigor and vitality, passion is inevitable. But those she admits find that she has little to give, and they go away, she making no effort to detain them; or she finds that she has nothing to give, and sends them away as gently as may be. She has the reputation of caring for nothing but her art--and for the great establishment for orphans up the Hudson, into which about all her earnings go. The establishment is named for Brent and is dedicated to her mother. Is she happy? I do not know. I do not think she knows. Probably she is--as long as she can avoid pausing to think whether she is or not. What better happiness can intelligent mortal have, or hope for? Certainly she is triumphant, is lifted high above the storms that tortured her girlhood and early youth, the sordid woes that make life an unrelieved tragedy of calamity threatened and calamity realized for the masses of mankind. The last time I saw her----
It was a few evenings ago, and she was crossing the sidewalk before her house toward the big limousine that was to take her to the theater. She is still young; she looked even younger than she is. Her dress had the same exquisite quality that made her the talk of Paris in the days of her sojourn there. But it is not her dress that most interests me, nor the luxury and perfection of all her surroundings. It is not even her beauty--that is, the whole of her beauty.
Everything and every being that is individual in appearance has some one quality, trait, characteristic, which stands out above all the rest to make a climax of interest and charm. With the rose it is its perfume; with the bird, perhaps the scarlet or snowy feathers upon its breast. Among human beings who have the rare divine dower of clear individuality the crown and cap of distinction differs. In her--for me, at least--the consummate fascination is not in her eyes, though I am moved by the soft glory of their light, nor in the lovely oval contour of her sweet, healthily pallid face. No, it is in her mouth--sensitive, strong yet gentle, suggestive of all the passion and suffering and striving that have built up her life. Her mouth--the curve of it--I think it is, that sends from time to time the mysterious thrill through her audiences. And I imagine those who know her best look always first at those strangely pale lips, curved in a way that suggests bitterness melting into sympathy, sadness changing into mirth--a way that seems to say: "I have suffered--but, see! I have stood fast!"
Can a life teach any deeper lesson, give any higher inspiration?
As I was saying, the last time I saw her she was about to enter her automobile. I halted and watched the graceful movements with which she took her seat and gathered the robes about her. And then I noted her profile, by the light of the big lamps guarding her door. You know that profile? You have seen its same expression in every profile of successful man or woman who ever lived. Yes, she may be happy--doubtless is more happy than unhappy. But--I do not envy her--or any other of the sons and daughters of men who is blessed--and cursed--with imagination.
And Freddie--and Rod--and Etta--and the people of Sutherland--and all the rest who passed through her life and out? What does it matter? Some went up, some down--not without reason, but, alas! not for reason of desert. For the judgments of fate are, for the most part, not unlike blows from a lunatic striking out in the dark; if they land where they should, it is rarely and by sheer chance. Ruth's parents are dead; she is married to Sam Wright. He lost his father's money in wheat speculation in Chicago--in one of the most successful of the plutocracy's constantly recurring raids upon the hoardings of the middle class. They live in a little house in one of the back streets of Sutherland and he is head clerk in Arthur Sinclair's store--a position he owes to the fact that Sinclair is his rich brother-in-law. Ruth has children and she is happier in them than she realizes or than her discontented face and voice suggest. Etta is fat and contented, the mother of many, and fond of her fat, fussy August, the rich brewer. John Redmond--a congressman, a possession of the Beef Trust, I believe--but not so highly prized a possession as was his abler father.
Freddie? I saw him a year ago at the races at Auteuil. He is huge and loose and coarse, is in the way soon to die of Bright's disease, I suspect. There was a woman with him--very pretty, very chic. I saw no other woman similarly placed whose eyes held so assiduously, and without ever a wandering flutter, to the face of the man who was paying. But Freddie never noticed her. He chewed savagely at his cigar, looking about the while for things to grumble at or to curse. Rod? He is still writing indifferent plays with varying success. He long since wearied of Constance Francklyn, but she clings to him and, as she is a steady moneymaker, he tolerates her.
Brent? He is statelily ensconced up at Woodlawn. Susan has never been to his grave--there. His grave in her heart--she avoids that too, when she can. But there are times--there always will be times----
If you doubt it, look at her profile.
Yes, she has learned to live. But--she has paid the price.