Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Ruth had forgotten to close her shutters, so toward seven o'clock the light which had been beating against her eyelids for three hours succeeded in lifting them. She stretched herself and yawned noisily. Susan appeared in the connecting doorway.
"Are you awake?" she said softly.
"What time is it?" asked Ruth, too lazy to turn over and look at her clock.
"Ten to seven."
"Do close my shutters for me. I'll sleep an hour or two." She hazily made out the figure in the doorway. "You're dressed, aren't you?" she inquired sleepily.
"Yes," replied Susan. "I've been waiting for you to wake."
Something in the tone made Ruth forget about sleep and rub her fingers over her eyes to clear them for a view of her cousin. Susan seemed about as usual--perhaps a little serious, but then she had the habit of strange moods of seriousness. "What did you want?" said Ruth.
Susan came into the room, sat at the foot of the bed--there was room, as the bed was long and Ruth short. "I want you to tell me what my mother did."
"Did?" echoed Ruth feebly.
"Did, to disgrace you and--me."
"Oh, I couldn't explain--not in a few words. I'm so sleepy. Don't bother about it, Susan." And she thrust her head deeper into the pillow. "Close the shutters."
"Then I'll have to ask Aunt Fanny--or Uncle George or everybody--till I find out."
"But you mustn't do that," protested Ruth, flinging herself from left to right impatiently. "What is it you want to know?"
"About my mother--and what she did. And why I have no father--why I'm not like you--and the other girls."
"Oh--it's nothing. I can't explain. Don't bother about it. It's no use. It can't be helped. And it doesn't really matter."
"I've been thinking," said Susan. "I understand a great many things I didn't know I'd noticed--ever since I was a baby. But what I don't understand----" She drew a long breath, a cautious breath, as if there were danger of awakening a pain. "What I don't understand is--why. And--you must tell me all about it. . . . Was my mother bad?"
"Not exactly bad," Ruth answered uncertainly. "But she did one thing that was wicked--at least that a woman never can be forgiven for, if it's found out."
"Did she--did she take something that didn't belong to her?"
"No--nothing like that. No, she was, they say, as nice and sweet as she could be--except----She wasn't married to your father."
Susan sat in a brown study. "I can't understand," she said at last. "Why--she must have been married, or--or--there wouldn't have been me."
Ruth smiled uneasily. "Not at all. Don't you really understand?"
Susan shook her head.
"He--he betrayed her--and left her--and then everybody knew because you came."
Susan's violet-gray eyes rested a grave, inquiring glance upon her cousin's face. "But if he betrayed her----What does `betray' mean? Doesn't it mean he promised to marry her and didn't?"
"Something like that," said Ruth. "Yes--something like that."
"Then he was the disgrace," said the dark cousin, after reflecting. "No--you're not telling me, Ruth. What did my mother do?"
"She had you without being married."
Again Susan sat in silence, trying to puzzle it out. Ruth lifted herself, put the pillows behind her back. "You don't understand--anything--do you? Well, I'll try to explain--though I don't know much about it."
And hesitatingly, choosing words she thought fitted to those innocent ears, hunting about for expressions she thought comprehensible to that innocent mind, Ruth explained the relations of the sexes--an inaccurate, often absurd, explanation, for she herself knew only what she had picked up from other girls--the fantastic hodgepodge of pruriency, physiology and sheer nonsense which under our system of education distorts and either alarms or inflames the imaginations of girls and boys where the clean, simple truth would at least enlighten them. Susan listened with increasing amazement.
"Well, do you understand?" Ruth ended. "How we come into the world--and what marriage means?"
"I don't believe it," declared Susan. "It's--awful!" And she shivered with disgust.
"I tell you it's true," insisted Ruth. "I thought it was awful when I first heard--when Lottie Wright took me out in their orchard, where nobody could listen, and told me what their cook had told her. But I've got kind of used to it."
"But it--it's so, then; my mother did marry my father," said Susan.
"No. She let him betray her. And when a woman lets a man betray her without being married by the preacher or somebody, why, she's ruined forever."
"But doesn't marriage mean where two people promise to love each other and then betray each other?"
"If they're married, it isn't betraying," explained Ruth. "If they're not, it is betraying." Susan reflected, nodded slowly. "I guess I understand. But don't you see it was my father who was the disgrace? He was the one that promised to marry and didn't."
"How foolish you are!" cried Ruth. "I never knew you to be stupid."
"But isn't it so?" persisted Susan.
"Yes--in a way," her cousin admitted. "Only--the woman must keep herself pure until the ceremony has been performed."
"But if he said so to her, wasn't that saying so to God just as much as if the preacher had been there?"
"No, it wasn't," said Ruth with irritation. "And it's wicked to think such things. All I know is, God says a woman must be married before she--before she has any children. And your mother wasn't." Susan shook her head. "I guess you don't understand any better than I do--really."
"No, I don't," confessed Ruth. "But I'd like to see any man more than kiss me or put his arm round me without our having been married."
"But," urged Susan, "if he kissed you, wouldn't that be like marriage?"
"Some say so," admitted Ruth. "But I'm not so strict. A little kissing and that often leads a man to propose." Susan reflected again. "It all sounds low and sneaking to me," was her final verdict. "I don't want to have anything to do with it. But I'm sure my mother was a good woman. It wasn't her fault if she was lied to, when she loved and believed. And anybody who blames her is low and bad. I'm glad I haven't got any father, if fathers have to be made to promise before everybody or else they'll not keep their word."
"Well, I'll not argue about it," said Ruth. "I'm telling you the way things are. The woman has to take all the blame." Susan lifted her head haughtily. "I'd be glad to be blamed by anybody who was wicked enough to be that unjust. I'd not have anything to do with such people."
"Then you'd live alone."
"No, I shouldn't. There are lots of people who are good and----"
"That's wicked, Susan," interrupted Ruth. "All good people think as I tell you they do."
"Do Aunt Fanny and Uncle George blame my mother?"
"Of course. How could they help it, when she----" Ruth was checked by the gathering lightnings in those violet-gray eyes.
"But," pursued Susan, after a pause, "even if they were wicked enough to blame my mother, they couldn't blame me."
"Of course not," declared Ruth warmly. "Hasn't everybody always been sweet and kind to you?"
"But last night you said----"
Ruth hid her face. "I'm ashamed of what I said last night," she murmured. "I've got, Oh, such a nasty disposition, Susie."
"But what you said--wasn't it so?" Ruth turned away her head.
Susan drew a long sigh, so quietly that Ruth could not have heard.
"You understand," Ruth said gently, "everybody feels sorry for you and----"
Susan frowned stormily, "They'd better feel sorry for themselves."
"Oh, Susie, dear," cried Ruth, impulsively catching her hand, "we all love you, and mother and father and I--we'll stand up for you through everything----"
"Don't you dare feel sorry for me!" Susan cried, wrenching her hand away.
Ruth's eyes filled with tears.
"You can't blame us because everybody----You know, God says, `The sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children----'"
"I'm done with everybody," cried Susan, rising and lifting her proud head, "I'm done with God."
Ruth gave a low scream and shuddered. Susan looked round defiantly, as if she expected a bolt from the blue to come hurtling through the open window. But the sky remained serene, and the quiet, scented breeze continued to play with the lace curtains, and the birds on the balcony did not suspend their chattering courtship. This lack of immediate effect from her declaration of war upon man and God was encouraging. The last of the crushed, cowed feeling Ruth had inspired the night before disappeared. With a soul haughtily plumed and looking defiance from the violet-gray eyes, Susan left her cousin and betook herself down to breakfast.
In common with most children, she had always dreamed of a mysterious fate for herself, different from the commonplace routine around her. Ruth's revelations, far from daunting her, far from making her feel like cringing before the world in gratitude for its tolerance of her bar sinister, seemed a fascinatingly tragic confirmation of her romantic longings and beliefs. No doubt it was the difference from the common lot that had attracted Sam to her; and this difference would make their love wholly unlike the commonplace Sutherland wooing and wedding. Yes, hers had been a mysterious fate, and would continue to be. Nora, an old woman now, had often related in her presence how Doctor Stevens had brought her to life when she lay apparently, indeed really, dead upon the upstairs sitting-room table--Doctor Stevens and Nora's own prayers. An extraordinary birth, in defiance of the laws of God and man; an extraordinary resurrection, in defiance of the laws of nature--yes, hers would be a life superbly different from the common. And when she and Sam married, how gracious and forgiving she would be to all those bad-hearted people; how she would shame them for their evil thoughts against her mother and herself!
The Susan Lenox who sat alone at the little table in the dining-room window, eating bread and butter and honey in the comb, was apparently the same Susan Lenox who had taken three meals a day in that room all those years--was, indeed, actually the same, for character is not an overnight creation. Yet it was an amazingly different Susan Lenox, too. The first crisis had come; she had been put to the test; and she had not collapsed in weakness but had stood erect in strength.
After breakfast she went down Main Street and at Crooked Creek Avenue took the turning for the cemetery. She sought the Warham plot, on the western slope near the quiet brook. There was a clump of cedars at each corner of the plot; near the largest of them were three little graves--the three dead children of George and Fanny. In the shadow of the clump and nearest the brook was a fourth grave apart and, to the girl, now thrillingly mysterious:
LORELLA LENOX BORN MAY 9, 1859 DIED JULY 17, 1879
Twenty years old! Susan's tears scalded her eyes. Only a little older than her cousin Ruth was now--Ruth who often seemed to her, and to everybody, younger than herself. "And she was good--I know she was good!" thought Susan. "He was bad, and the people who took his part against her were bad. But she was good!"
She started as Sam's voice, gay and light, sounded directly behind her. "What are you doing in a graveyard?" cried he.
"How did you find me?" she asked, paling and flushing and paling again.
"I've been following you ever since you left home."
He might have added that he did not try to overtake her until they were where people would be least likely to see.
"Whose graves are those?" he went on, cutting across a plot and stepping on several graves to join her.
She was gazing at her mothers simple headstone. His glance followed hers, he read.
"Oh--beg pardon," he said confusedly. "I didn't see."
She turned her serious gaze from the headstone to his face, which her young imagination transfigured. "You know--about her?" she asked.
"I--I--I've heard," he confessed. "But--Susie, it doesn't amount to anything. It happened a long time ago--and everybody's forgotten--and----" His stammering falsehoods died away before her steady look. "How did you find out?"
"Someone just told me," replied she. "And they said you'd never respect or marry a girl who had no father. No--don't deny--please! I didn't believe it--not after what we had said to each other."
Sam, red and shifting uneasily, could not even keep his downcast eyes upon the same spot of ground.
"You see," she went on, sweet and grave, "they don't understand what love means--do they?"
"I guess not," muttered he, completely unnerved.
Why, how seriously the girl had taken him and his words--such a few words and not at all definite! No, he decided, it was the kiss. He had heard of girls so innocent that they thought a kiss meant the same as being married. He got himself together as well as he could and looked at her.
"But, Susie," he said, "you're too young for anything definite--and I'm not halfway through college."
"I understand," said she. "But you need not be afraid I'll change."
She was so sweet, so magnetic, so compelling that in spite of the frowns of prudence he seized her hand. At her touch he flung prudence to the winds. "I love you," he cried; and putting his arm around her, he tried to kiss her. She gently but strongly repulsed him. "Why not, dear?" he pleaded. "You love me--don't you?"
"Yes," she replied, her honest eyes shining upon his. "But we must wait until we're married. I don't care so much for the others, but I'd not want Uncle George to feel I had disgraced him."
"Why, there's no harm in a kiss," pleaded he.
"Kissing you is--different," she replied. "It's--it's--marriage."
He understood her innocence that frankly assumed marriage where a sophisticated girl would, in the guilt of designing thoughts, have shrunk in shame from however vaguely suggesting such a thing. He realized to the full his peril. "I'm a damn fool," he said to himself, "to hang about her. But somehow I can't help it--I can't!" And the truth was, he loved her as much as a boy of his age is capable of loving, and he would have gone on and married her but for the snobbishness smeared on him by the provincialism of the small town and burned in by the toadyism of his fashionable college set. As he looked at her he saw beauty beyond any he had ever seen elsewhere and a sweetness and honesty that made him ashamed before her. "No, I couldn't harm her," he told himself. "I'm not such a dog as that. But there's no harm in loving her and kissing her and making her as happy as it's right to be."
"Don't be mean, Susan," he begged, tears in his eyes. "If you love me, you'll let me kiss you."
And she yielded, and the shock of the kiss set both to trembling. It appealed to his vanity, it heightened his own agitations to see how pale she had grown and how her rounded bosom rose and fell in the wild tumult of her emotions. "Oh, I can't do without seeing you," she cried. "And Aunt Fanny has forbidden me."
"I thought so!" exclaimed he. "I did what I could last night to throw them off the track. If Ruth had only known what I was thinking about all the time. Where were you?"
"Upstairs--on the balcony."
"I felt it," he declared. "And when she sang love songs I could hardly keep from rushing up to you. Susie, we must see each other."
"I can come here, almost any day."
"But people'd soon find out--and they'd say all sorts of things. And your uncle and aunt would hear."
There was no disputing anything so obvious.
"Couldn't you come down tonight, after the others are in bed and the house is quiet?" he suggested.
She hesitated before the deception, though she felt that her family had forfeited the right to control her. But love, being the supreme necessity, conquered. "For a few minutes," she conceded.
She had been absorbed; but his eyes, kept alert by his conventional soul, had seen several people at a distance observing without seeming to do so. "We must separate," he now said. "You see, Susie, we mustn't be gossiped about. You know how determined they are to keep us apart."
"Yes--yes," she eagerly agreed. "Will you go first, or shall I?"
"You go--the way you came. I'll jump the brook down where it's narrow and cut across and into our place by the back way. What time tonight?"
"Arthur's coming," reflected Susie aloud. "Ruth'll not let him stay late. She'll be sleepy and will go straight to bed. About half past ten. If I'm not on the front veranda--no, the side veranda--by eleven, you'll know something has prevented."
"But you'll surely come?"
"I'll come." And it both thrilled and alarmed him to see how much in earnest she was. But he looked love into her loving eyes and went away, too intoxicated to care whither this adventure was leading him.
At dinner she felt she was no longer a part of this family. Were they not all pitying and looking down on her in their hearts? She was like a deformed person who has always imagined the consideration he has had was natural and equal, and suddenly discovers that it is pity for his deformity. She now acutely felt her aunt's, her cousin's, dislike; and her uncle's gentleness was not less galling. In her softly rounded youthful face there was revealed definitely for the first time an underlying expression of strength, of what is often confused with its feeble counterfeit, obstinacy--that power to resist circumstances which makes the unusual and the firm character. The young mobility of her features suggested the easy swaying of the baby sapling in the gentlest breeze. Singularly at variance with it was this expression of tenacity. Such an expression in the face of the young infallibly forecasts an agitated and agitating life. It seemed amazingly out of place in Susan because theretofore she had never been put to the test in any but unnoted trifles and so had given the impression that she was as docile as she was fearful of giving annoyance or pain and indifferent to having her own way. Those who have this temperament of strength encased in gentleness are invariably misunderstood. When they assert themselves, though they are in the particular instance wholly right, they are regarded as wholly and outrageously wrong. Life deals hardly with them, punishes them for the mistaken notion of themselves they have through forbearance and gentleness of heart permitted an unobservant world to form.
Susan spent the afternoon on the balcony before her window, reading and sewing--or, rather, dreaming over first a book, then a dress. When she entered the dining-room at supper time the others were already seated. She saw instantly that something had occurred--something ominous for her. Mrs. Warham gave her a penetrating, severe look and lowered her eyes; Ruth was gazing sullenly at her plate. Warham's glance was stern and reproachful. She took her place opposite Ruth, and the meal was eaten in silence. Ruth left the table first. Next Mrs. Warham rose and saying, "Susan, when you've finished, I wish to see you in the sitting-room upstairs," swept in solemn dignity from the room. Susan rose at once to follow. As she was passing her uncle he put out his hand and detained her.
"I hope it was only a foolish girl's piece of nonsense," said he with an attempt at his wonted kindliness. "And I know it won't occur again. But when your aunt says things you won't like to hear, remember that you brought this on yourself and that she loves you as we all do and is thinking only of your good."
"What is it, Uncle George?" cried Susan, amazed. "What have I done?"
Warham looked sternly grieved. "Brownie," he reproached, "you mustn't deceive. Go to your aunt."
She found her aunt seated stiffly in the living-room, her hands folded upon her stomach. So gradual had been the crucial middle-life change in Fanny that no one had noted it. This evening Susan, become morbidly acute, suddenly realized the contrast between the severe, uncertain-tempered aunt of today and the amiable, altogether and always gentle aunt of two years before.
"What is it, aunt?" she said, feeling as if she were before a stranger and an enemy.
"The whole town is talking about your disgraceful doings this morning," Ruth's mother replied in a hard voice.
The color leaped in Susan's cheeks.
"Yesterday I forbade you to see Sam Wright again. And already you disobey."
"I did not say I would not see him again," replied Susan.
"I thought you were an honest, obedient girl," cried Fanny, the high shrill notes in her voice rasping upon the sensitive, the now morbidly sensitive, Susan. "Instead--you slip away from the house and meet a young man--and permit him to take liberties with you."
Susan braced herself. "I did not go to the cemetery to meet him," she replied; and that new or, rather, newly revived tenacity was strong in her eyes, in the set of her sweet mouth. "He saw me on the way and followed. I did let him kiss me--once. But I had the right to."
"You have disgraced yourself--and us all."
"We are going to be married."
"I don't want to hear such foolish talk!" cried Mrs. Warham violently. "If you had any sense, you'd know better."
"He and I do not feel as you do about my mother," said the girl with quiet dignity.
Mrs. Warham shivered before this fling. "Who told you?" she demanded.
"It doesn't matter; I know."
"Well, miss, since you know, then I can tell you that your uncle and I realize you're going the way your mother went. And the whole town thinks you've gone already. They're all saying, `I told you so! I told you so! Like her mother!'" Mrs. Warham was weeping hysterical tears of fury. "The whole town! And it'll reflect on my Ruth. Oh, you miserable girl! Whatever possessed me to take pity on you!"
Susan's hands clutched until the nails sunk into the palms. She shut her teeth together, turned to fly.
"Wait!" commanded Mrs. Warham. "Wait, I tell you!"
Susan halted in the doorway, but did not turn.
"Your uncle and I have talked it over."
"Oh!" cried Susan.
Mrs. Warham's eyes glistened. "Yes, he has wakened up at last. There's one thing he isn't soft about----"
"You've turned him against me!" cried the girl despairingly.
"You mean you have turned him against you," retorted her aunt. "Anyhow, you can't wheedle him this time. He's as bent as I am. And you must promise us that you won't see Sam again."
A pause. Then Susan said, "I can't."
"Then we'll send you away to your Uncle Zeke's. It's quiet out there and you'll have a chance to think things over. And I reckon he'll watch you. He's never forgiven your mother. Now, will you promise?"
"No," said Susan calmly. "You have wicked thoughts about my mother, and you are being wicked to me--you and Ruth. Oh, I understand!"
"Don't you dare stand there and lie that way!" raved Mrs. Warham. "I'll give you tonight to think about it. If you don't promise, you leave this house. Your uncle has been weak where you were concerned, but this caper of yours has brought him to his senses. We'll not have you a loose character--and your cousin's life spoiled by it. First thing we know, no respectable man'll marry her, either."
From between the girl's shut teeth issued a cry. She darted across the hall, locked herself in her room.