Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
When Fanny Warham was young her mother--compelled by her father--roused--"routed out"--the children at half-past six on week days and at seven on Sundays for prayers and breakfast, no matter what time they had gone to bed the night before. The horror of this made such an impression upon her that she never permitted Ruth and Susan to be awakened; always they slept until they had "had their sleep out." Regularity was no doubt an excellent thing for health and for moral discipline; but the best rule could be carried to foolish extremes. Until the last year Mrs. Warham had made her two girls live a life of the strictest simplicity and regularity, with the result that they were the most amazingly, soundly, healthy girls in Sutherland. And the regimen still held, except when they had company in the evening or went out--and Mrs. Warham saw to it that there was not too much of that sort of thing. In all her life thus far Susan had never slept less than ten hours, rarely less than twelve.
It lacked less than a minute of ten o'clock the morning after Sam's call when Susan's eyes opened upon her simple, pale-gray bedroom, neat and fresh. She looked sleepily at the little clock on the night stand.
"Mercy me!" she cried. And her bare feet were on the floor and she was stretching her lithe young body, weak from the relaxation of her profound sleep.
She heard someone stirring in Ruth's room; instantly Ruth's remark, "He'd never think for a minute of marrying you," popped into her head. It still meant nothing to her. She could not have explained why it came back or why she fell to puzzling over it as if it held some mysterious meaning. Perhaps the reason was that from early childhood there had been accumulating in some dusky chamber of her mind stray happenings and remarks, all baring upon the unsuspected secret of her birth and the unsuspected strangeness of her position in the world where everyone else was definitely placed and ticketed. She was wondering about Ruth's queer hysterical outburst, evidently the result of a quarrel with Arthur Sinclair. "I guess Ruth cares more for him than she lets on," thought she. This love that had come to her so suddenly and miraculously made her alert for signs of love elsewhere.
She went to the bolted connecting door; she could not remember when it had ever been bolted before, and she felt forlorn and shut out. "Ruth!" she called.
"Is that you?"
A brief silence, then a faint "Yes."
"May I come in?"
"You'd better take your bath and get downstairs."
This reminded her that she was hungry. She gathered her underclothes together, and with the bundle in her arms darted across the hall into the bathroom. The cold water acted as champagne promises to act but doesn't. She felt giddy with health and happiness. And the bright sun was flooding the bathroom, and the odors from the big bed of hyacinths in the side lawn scented the warm breeze from the open window. When she dashed back to her room she was singing, and her singing voice was as charming as her speaking voice promised. A few minutes and her hair had gone up in careless grace and she was clad in a fresh dress of tan linen, full in the blouse. This, with her tan stockings and tan slippers and the radiant youth of her face, gave her a look of utter cleanness and freshness that was exceedingly good to see.
"I'm ready," she called.
There was no answer; doubtless Ruth had already descended. She rushed downstairs and into the dining-room. No one was at the little table set in one of the windows in readiness for the late breakfasters.
Molly came, bringing cocoa, a cereal, hot biscuit and crab-apple preserves, all attractively arranged on a large tray.
"I didn't bring much, Miss Susie," she apologized. "It's so late, and I don't want you to spoil your dinner. We're going to have the grandest chicken that ever came out of an egg."
Susan surveyed the tray with delighted eyes. "That's plenty," she said, "if you don't talk too much about the chicken. Where's Ruth?"
"She ain't coming down. She's got a headache. It was that salad for supper over to Sinclairs' last night. Salad ain't fit for a dog to eat, nohow--that's my opinion. And at night--it's sure to bust your face out or give you the headache or both."
Susan ate with her usual enthusiasm, thinking the while of Sam and wondering how she could contrive to see him. She remembered her promise to her uncle. She had not eaten nearly so much as she wanted. But up she sprang and in fifteen minutes was on her way to the store. She had seen neither Ruth nor her aunt. "He'll be waiting for me to pass," she thought. And she was not disappointed. There he stood, at the footpath gate into his father's place. He had arrayed himself in a blue and white flannel suit, white hat and shoes; a big expensive-looking cigarette adorned his lips. The Martins, the Delevans, the Castles and the Bowens, neighbors across the way, were watching him admiringly through the meshes of lace window curtains. She expected that he would come forward eagerly. Instead, he continued to lean indolently on the gate, as if unaware of her approach. And when she was close at hand, his bow and smile were, so it seemed to her, almost coldly polite. Into her eyes came a confused, hurt expression.
"Susie--sweetheart," he said, the voice in as astonishing contrast as the words to his air of friendly indifference. "They're watching us from the windows all around here."
"Oh--yes," assented she, as if she understood. But she didn't. In Sutherland the young people were not so mindful of gossip, which it was impossible to escape, anyhow. Still--off there in the East, no doubt, they had more refined ways; without a doubt, whatever Sam did was the correct thing.
"Do you still care as you did last night?" he asked. The effect of his words upon her was so obvious that he glanced nervously round. It was delightful to be able to evoke a love like this; but he did wish others weren't looking.
"I'm going to Uncle's store," she said. "I'm late."
"I'll walk part of the way with you," he volunteered, and they started on. "That--that kiss," he stammered. "I can feel it yet."
She blushed deeply, happily. Her beauty made him tingle. "So can I," she said.
They walked in silence several squares. "When will I see you again?" he asked. "Tonight?"
"Yes--do come down. But--Ruth'll be there. I believe Artie Sinclair's coming."
"Oh, that counter-jumper?"
She looked at him in surprise. "He's an awfully nice fellow," said she. "About the nicest in town."
"Of course," replied Sam elaborately. "I beg your pardon. They think differently about those things in the East."
Sam, whose secret dream was to marry some fashionable Eastern woman and cut a dash in Fifth Avenue life, had no intention of explaining what was what to one who would not understand, would not approve, and would be made auspicious of him. "I suppose Ruth and Sinclair'll pair off and give us a chance."
"Right after din--supper, I mean. In the East we have dinner in the evening."
"Isn't that queer!" exclaimed Susan. But she was thinking of the joys in store for her at the close of the day.
"I must go back now," said Sam. Far up the street he saw his sister's pony cart coming.
"You might as well walk to the store." It seemed to her that they both had ever so much to say to each other, and had said nothing.
"No. I can't go any further. Good-by--that is, till tonight."
He was red and stammering. As they shook hands emotion made them speechless. He stumbled awkwardly as he turned to leave, became still more hotly self-conscious when he saw the grin on the faces of the group of loungers at a packing case near the curb. Susan did not see the loafers, did not see anything distinctly. Her feet sought the uneven brick sidewalk uncertainly, and the blood was pouring into her cheeks, was steaming in her brain, making a red mist before her eyes. She was glad he had left her. The joy of being with him was so keen that it was pain. Now she could breathe freely and could dream--dream--dream. She made blunder after blunder in working over the accounts with her uncle, and he began to tease her.
"You sure are in love, Brownie," declared he. Her painful but happy blush delighted him.
"Tell me all about it?"
She shook her head, bending it low to hide her color.
"No?. . . Sometime?"
She nodded. She was glancing shyly and merrily at him now.
"Well, some hold that first love's best. Maybe so. But it seems to me any time's good enough. Still--the first time's mighty fine eh?" He sighed. "My, but it's good to be young!" And he patted her thick wavy hair.
It did not leak out until supper that Sam was coming. Warham said to Susan, "While Ruth's looking out for Artie, you and I'll have a game or so of chess, Brownie." Susan colored violently. "What?" laughed Warham. "Are you going to have a beau too?"
Susan felt two pairs of feminine eyes pounce--hostile eyes, savagely curious. She paled with fright as queer, as unprecedented, as those hostile glances. It seemed to her that she had done or was about to do something criminal. She could not speak.
An awful silence, then her aunt--she no longer seemed her loving aunt--asked in an ominous voice: "Is someone coming to see you, Susan?"
"Sam Wright"--stammered Susan--"I saw him this morning--he was at their gate--and he said--I think he's coming."
A dead silence--Warham silent because he was eating, but the two others not for that reason.
Susan felt horribly guilty, and for no reason. "I'd have spoken of it before," she said, "but there didn't seem to be any chance." She had the instinct of fine shy nature to veil the soul; she found it hard to speak of anything as sacred as this love of hers and whatever related to it.
"I can't allow this, Susie," said her aunt, with lips tightly drawn against the teeth. "You are too young."
"Oh, come now, mother," cried Warham, good-humoredly. "That's foolishness. Let the young folks have a good time. You didn't think you were too young at Susie's age."
"You don't understand, George," said Fanny after she had given him a private frown. Susie's gaze was on the tablecloth. "I can't permit Sam to come here to see Susie."
Ruth's eyes were down also. About her lips was a twitching that meant a struggle to hide a pleased smile.
"I've no objection to Susie's having boys of her own age come to see her," continued Mrs. Warham in the same precise, restrained manner. "But Sam is too old."
Mrs. Warham met his eyes steadily. "I must protect my sister's child, George," she said. At last she had found what she felt was a just reason for keeping Sam away from Susan, so her tone was honest and strong.
Warham lowered his gaze. He understood. "Oh--as you think best, Fan; I didn't mean to interfere," said he awkwardly. He turned on Susan with his affection in his eyes. "Well, Brownie, it looks like chess with your old uncle, doesn't it?"
Susan's bosom was swelling, her lip trembling. "I--I----" she began. She choked back the sobs, faltered out: "I don't think I could, Uncle," and rushed from the room.
There was an uncomfortable pause. Then Warham said, "I must say, Fan, I think--if you had to do it--you might have spared the girl's feelings."
Mrs. Warham felt miserable about it also. "Susie took me by surprise," she apologized. Then, defiantly, "And what else can I do? You know he doesn't come for any good."
Warham stared in amazement. "Now, what does that mean?" he demanded.
"You know very well what it means," retorted his wife.
Her tone made him understand. He reddened, and with too blustering anger brought his fist down on the table.
"Susan's our daughter. She's Ruth's sister."
Ruth pushed back her chair and stood up. Her expression made her look much older than she was. "I wish you could induce the rest of the town to think that, papa," said she. "It'd make my position less painful." And she, too, left the room.
"What's she talking about?" asked Warham.
"It's true, George," replied Fanny with trembling lip. "It's all my fault--insisting on keeping her. I might have known!"
"I think you and Ruth must be crazy. I've seen no sign."
"Have you seen any of the boys calling on Susan since she shot up from a child to a girl? Haven't you noticed she isn't invited any more except when it can't be avoided?"
Warham's face was fiery with rage. He looked helplessly, furiously about. But he said nothing. To fight public sentiment would be like trying to thrust back with one's fists an oncreeping fog. Finally he cried, "It's too outrageous to talk about."
"If I only knew what to do!" moaned Fanny.
A long silence, while Warham was grasping the fullness of the meaning, the frightful meaning, in these revelations so astounding to him. At last he said:
"Does she realize?"
"I guess so . . . I don't know . . . I don't believe she does. She's the most innocent child that ever grew up."
"If I had a chance, I'd sell out and move away."
"Where?" said his wife. "Where would people accept--her?"
Warham became suddenly angry again. "I don't believe it!" he cried, his look and tone contradicting his words. "You've been making a mountain out of a molehill."
And he strode from the room, flung on his hat and went for a walk. As Mrs. Warham came from the dining-room a few minutes later, Ruth appeared in the side veranda doorway. "I think I'll telephone Arthur to come tomorrow evening instead," said she. "He'd not like it, with Sam here too."
"That would be better," assented her mother. "Yes, I'd telephone him if I were you."
Thus it came about that Susan, descending the stairs to the library to get a book, heard Ruth say into the telephone in her sweetest voice, "Yes--tomorrow evening, Arthur. Some others are coming--the Wrights. You'd have to talk to Lottie . . . I don't blame you. . . . Tomorrow evening, then. So sorry. Good-by."
The girl on the stairway stopped short, shrank against the wall. A moment, and she hastily reascended, entered her room, closed the door. Love had awakened the woman; and the woman was not so unsuspecting, so easily deceived as the child had been. She understood what her cousin and her aunt were about; they were trying to take her lover from her! She understood her aunt's looks and tones, her cousin's temper and hysteria. She sat down upon the floor and cried with a breaking heart. The injustice of it! The meanness of it! The wickedness of a world where even her sweet cousin, even her loving aunt were wicked! She sat there on the floor a long time, abandoned to the misery of a first shattered illusion, a misery the more cruel because never before had either cousin or aunt said or done anything to cause her real pain. The sound of voices coming through the open window from below made her start up and go out on the balcony. She leaned over the rail. She could not see the veranda for the masses of creeper, but the voices were now quite plain in the stillness. Ruth's voice gay and incessant. Presently a man's voice his--and laughing! Then his voice speaking--then the two voices mingled--both talking at once, so eager were they! Her lover--and Ruth was stealing him from her! Oh, the baseness, the treachery! And her aunt was helping!. . . Sore of heart, utterly forlorn, she sat in the balcony hammock, aching with love and jealousy. Every now and then she ran in and looked at the clock. He was staying on and on, though he must have learned she was not coming down. She heard her uncle and aunt come up to bed. Now the piano in the parlor was going. First it was Ruth singing one of her pretty love songs in that clear small voice of hers. Then Sam played and sang--how his voice thrilled her! Again it was Ruthie singing--"Sweet Dream Faces"--Susan began to sob afresh. She could see Ruth at the piano, how beautiful she looked--and that song--it would be impossible for him not to be impressed. She felt the jealousy of despair. . . . Ten o'clock--half-past--eleven o'clock! She heard them at the edge of the veranda--so, at last he was going. She was able to hear their words now:
"You'll be up for the tennis in the morning?" he was saying.
"At ten," replied Ruth.
"Of course Susie's asked, too," he said--and his voice sounded careless, not at all earnest.
"Certainly," was her cousin's reply. "But I'm not sure she can come."
It was all the girl at the balcony rail could do to refrain from crying out a protest. But Sam was saying to Ruth:
"Well--good night. Haven't had so much fun in a long time. May I come again?"
"If you don't, I'll think you were bored."
"Bored!" He laughed. "That's too ridiculous. See you in the morning. Good night. . . . Give my love to Susie, and tell her I was sorry not to see her."
Susan was all in a glow as her cousin answered, "I'll tell her." doubtless Sam didn't note it, but Susan heard the constraint, the hypocrisy in that sweet voice.
She watched him stroll down to the gate under the arch of boughs dimly lit by the moon. She stretched her arms passionately toward him. Then she went in to go to bed. But at the sound of Ruth humming gayly in the next room, she realized that she could not sleep with her heart full of evil thoughts. She must have it out with her cousin. She knocked on the still bolted door.
"What is it?" asked Ruth coldly.
"Let me in," answered Susan. "I've got to see you."
"Go to bed, Susie. It's late."
"You must let me in."
The bolt shot back. "All right. And please unhook my dress--there's a dear."
Susan opened the door, stood on the threshold, all her dark passion in her face. "Ruth!" she cried.
Ruth had turned her back, in readiness for the service the need of which had alone caused her to unbolt the door. At that swift, fierce ejaculation she started, wheeled round. At sight of that wild anger she paled. "Why, Susie!" she gasped.
"I've found you out!" raged Susan. "You're trying to steal him from me--you and Aunt Fanny. It isn't fair! I'll not stand it!"
"What are you talking about?" cried Ruth. "You must have lost your senses."
"I'll not stand it," Susan repeated, advancing threateningly "He loves me and I love him."
Ruth laughed. "You foolish girl! Why, he cares nothing about you. The idea of your having your head turned by a little politeness!"
"He loves me he told me so. And I love him. I told him so. He's mine! You shan't take him from me!"
"He told you he loved you?"
Ruth's eyes were gleaming and her voice was shrill with hate. "He told you that?"
"I don't believe you."
"We love each other," cried the dark girl. "He came to see me. You've got Arthur Sinclair. You shan't take him away!"
The two girls, shaking with fury, were facing each other, were looking into each other's eyes. "If Sam Wright told you he loved you," said Ruth, with the icy deliberateness of a cold-hearted anger, "he was trying to--to make a fool of you. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. We're trying to save you."
"He and I are engaged!" declared Susan. "You shan't take him--and you can't! He loves me!"
"Engaged!" jeered Ruth. "Engaged!" she laughed, pretending not to believe, yet believing. She was beside herself with jealous anger. "Yes--we'll save you from yourself. You're like your mother. You'd disgrace us--as she did."
"Don't you dare talk that way, Ruth Warham. It's false--false! My mother is dead--and you're a wicked girl."
"It's time you knew the truth," said Ruth softly. Her eyes were half shut now and sparkling devilishly. "You haven't got any name. You haven't got any father. And no man of any position would marry you. As for Sam----" She laughed contemptuously. "Do you suppose Sam Wright would marry a girl without a name?"
Susan had shrunk against the door jamb. She understood only dimly, but things understood dimly are worse than things that are clear. "Me?" she muttered. "Me? Oh, Ruth, you don't mean that."
"It's true," said Ruth, calmly. "And the sooner you realize it the less likely you are to go the way your mother did."
Susan stood as if petrified.
"If Sam Wright comes hanging round you any more, you'll know how to treat him," Ruth went on. "You'll appreciate that he hasn't any respect for you--that he thinks you're someone to be trifled with. And if he talked engagement, it was only a pretense. Do you understand?"
The girl leaning in the doorway gazed into vacancy. After a while she answered dully, "I guess so."
Ruth began to fuss with the things on her bureau. Susan went into her room, sat on the edge of the bed. A few minutes, and Ruth, somewhat cooled down and not a little frightened, entered. She looked uneasily at the motionless figure. Finally she said,
More sharply, "Susie!"
"Yes," said Susan, without moving.
"You understand that I told you for your own good? And you'll not say anything to mother or father? They feel terribly about it, and don't want it ever mentioned. You won't let on that you know?"
"I'll not tell," said Susan.
"You know we're fond of you--and want to do everything for you?"
"It wasn't true--what you said about Sam's making love to you?"
"That's all over. I don't want to talk about it."
"You're not angry with me, Susie? I admit I was angry, but it was best for you to know--wasn't it?"
"Yes," said Susan.
"You're not angry with me?"
Ruth, still more uneasy, turned back into her own room because there was nothing else to do. She did not shut the door between. When she was in her nightgown she glanced in at her cousin. The girl was sitting on the edge of the bed in the same position. "It's after midnight," said Ruth. "You'd better get undressed."
Susan moved a little. "I will," she said.
Ruth went to bed and soon fell asleep. After an hour or so she awakened. Light was streaming through the open connecting door. She ran to it, looked in. Susan's clothes were in a heap beside the bed. Susan herself, with the pillows propping her, was staring wide-eyed at the ceiling. It was impossible for Ruth to realize any part of the effect upon her cousin of a thing she herself had known for years and had taken always as a matter of course; she simply felt mildly sorry for unfortunate Susan.
"Susie, dear," she said gently, "do you want me to turn out the light?"
"Yes," said Susan.
Ruth switched off the light and went back to bed, better content. She felt that now Susan would stop her staring and would go to sleep. Sam's call had been very satisfactory. Ruth felt she had shown off to the best advantage, felt that he admired her, would come to see her next time. And now that she had so arranged it that Susan would avoid him, everything would turn out as she wished. "I'll use Arthur to make him jealous after a while--and then--I'll have things my own way." As she fell asleep she was selecting the rooms Sam and she would occupy in the big Wright mansion--"when we're not in the East or in Europe."