Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
Sam did not wait until Arthur Sinclair left, but, all ardor and impatience, stole in at the Warhams' front gate at ten o'clock. He dropped to the grass behind a clump of lilacs, and to calm his nerves and to make the time pass more quickly, smoked a cigarette, keeping its lighted end carefully hidden in the hollow of his hand. He was not twenty feet away, was seeing and hearing, when Arthur kissed Ruth good night. He laughed to himself. "How disappointed she looked last night when she saw I wasn't going to do that!" What a charmer Susie must be when the thought of her made the idea of kissing as pretty a girl as Ruth uninteresting, almost distasteful!
Sinclair departed; the lights in parlor and hall went out; presently light appeared through the chinks in some of the second-story shutters. Then followed three-quarters of an hour of increasing tension. The tension would have been even greater had he seen the young lady going leisurely about her preparations for bed. For Ruth was of the orderly, precise women who are created to foster the virtue of patience in those about them. It took her nearly as long to dress for bed as for a party. She did her hair up in curl papers with the utmost care; she washed and rinsed and greased her face and neck and gave them a thorough massage. She shook out and carefully hung or folded or put to air each separate garment. She examined her silk stockings for holes, found one, darned it with a neatness rivaling that of a stoppeur. She removed from her dressing table and put away in drawers everything that was out of place. She closed each drawer tightly, closed and locked the closets, looked under the bed, turned off the lights over the dressing table. She completed her toilet with a slow washing of her teeth, a long spraying of her throat, and a deliberate, thoroughgoing dripping of boracic acid into each eye to keep and improve its clearness and brilliancy. She sat on the bed, reflected on what she had done, to assure herself that nothing had been omitted. After a slow look around she drew off her bedroom slippers, set them carefully side by side near the head of the bed. She folded her nightgown neatly about her legs, thrust them down into the bed. Again she looked slowly, searchingly, about the room to make absolutely sure she had forgotten nothing, had put everything in perfect order. Once in bed, she hated to get out; yet if she should recall any omission, however slight, she would be unable to sleep until she had corrected it. Finally, sure as fallible humanity can be, she turned out the last light, lay down--went instantly to sleep.
It was hardly a quarter of an hour after the vanishing of that last ray when Sam, standing now with heart beating fast and a lump of expectancy, perhaps of trepidation, too, in his throat, saw a figure issue from the front door and move round to the side veranda. He made a detour on the lawn, so as to keep out of view both from house and street, came up to the veranda, called to her softly.
"Can you get over the rail?" asked she in the same low tone.
"Let's go back to the summer house," urged he.
"No. Come up here," she insisted. "Be careful. The windows above are open."
He climbed the rail noiselessly and made an impetuous move for her hand. She drew back. "No, Sam dear," she said. "I know it's foolish. But I've an instinct against it--and we mustn't."
She spoke so gently that he persisted and pleaded. It was some time before he realized how much firmness there was under her gentleness. She was so afraid of making him cross; yet he also saw that she would withstand at any cost. He placed himself beside her on the wicker lounge, sitting close, his cheek almost against hers, that they might hear each other without speaking above a whisper. After one of those silences which are the peculiar delight of lovers, she drew a long breath and said: "I've got to go away, Sam. I shan't see you again for a long time."
"They heard about this morning? They're sending you away?"
"No--I'm going. They feel that I'm a disgrace and a drag. So I can't stay."
"But--you've got to stay!" protested Sam. In wild alarm he suspected she was preparing to make him elope with her--and he did not know to what length of folly his infatuation might whirl him. "You've no place to go," he urged.
"I'll find a place," said she.
"You mustn't--you mustn't, Susie! Why, you're only seventeen--and have no experience."
"I'll get experience," said she. "Nothing could be so bad as staying here. Can't you see that?"
He could not. Like so many of the children of the rich, he had no trace of overnice sense of self-respect, having been lying and toadying all his life to a father who used the power of his wealth at home no less, rather more, than abroad. But he vaguely realized what delicacy of feeling lay behind her statement of her position; and he did not dare express his real opinion. He returned to the main point. "You've simply got to put up with it for the present, Susie," he insisted. "But, then, of course, you're not serious."
"Yes. I am going."
"You'll think it over, and see I'm right, dear."
"I'm going tonight."
"Tonight!" he cried.
Sam looked apprehensively around. Both breathed softly and listened with straining ears. His exclamation had not been loud, but the silence was profound. "I guess nobody heard," he finally whispered. "You mustn't go, Susie." He caught her hand and held it. "I love you, and I forbid it."
"I must go, dear," answered she. "I've decided to take the midnight boat for Cincinnati."
In the half darkness he gazed in stupefaction at her--this girl of only seventeen calmly resolving upon and planning an adventure so daring, so impossible. As he had been born and bred in that western country where the very children have more independence than the carefully tamed grown people of the East, he ought to have been prepared for almost anything. But his father had undermined his courage and independence; also his year in the East had given him somewhat different ideas of women. Susan's announcement seemed incredible. He was gathering himself for pouring out a fresh protest when it flashed through his mind--Why not? She would go to Cincinnati. He could follow in a few days or a week--and then--
Well, at least they would be free and could have many happy days together.
"Why, how could you get to Cincinnati?" he said. "You haven't any money."
"I've a twenty-dollar gold piece Uncle gave me as a keepsake. And I've got seventeen dollars in other money, and several dollars in change," explained she. "I've got two hundred and forty-three dollars and fifty cents in the bank, but I can't get that--not now. They'll send it to me when I find a place and am settled and let them know."
"You can't do it, Susie! You can't and you mustn't."
"If you knew what they said to me! Oh, I couldn't stay, Sam. I've got some of my clothes--a little bundle behind the front door. As soon as I'm settled I'll let you know."
A silence, then he, hesitatingly, "Don't you--do you--hadn't I better go with you?"
She thrilled at this generosity, this new proof of love. But she said: "No, I wouldn't let you do that. They'd blame you. And I want them to know it's all my own doing."
"You're right, Susie," said the young man, relieved and emphatic. "If I went with you, it'd only get both of us into deeper trouble." Again silence, with Sam feeling a kind of awe as he studied the resolute, mysterious profile of the girl, which he could now see clearly. At last he said: "And after you get there, Susie--what will you do?"
"Find a boarding house, and then look for a place."
"What kind of a place?"
"In a store--or making dresses--or any kind of sewing. Or I could do housework."
The sex impulse is prolific of generous impulses. He, sitting so close to her and breathing in through his skin the emanations of her young magnetism, was moved to the depths by the picture her words conjured. This beautiful girl, a mere child, born and bred in the lady class, wandering away penniless and alone, to be a prey to the world's buffetings which, severe enough in reality, seem savage beyond endurance to the children of wealth.
As he pictured it his heart impulsively expanded. It was at his lips to offer to marry her. But his real self--and one's real self is vastly different from one's impulses--his real self forbade the words passage. Not even the sex impulse, intoxicating him as it then was, could dethrone snobbish calculation. He was young; so while he did not speak, he felt ashamed of himself for not speaking. He felt that she must be expecting him to speak, that she had the right to expect it. He drew a little away from her, and kept silent.
"The time will soon pass," said she absently.
"The time? Then you intend to come back?"
"I mean the time until you're through college and we can be together."
She spoke as one speaks of a dream as to which one has never a doubt but that it will come true. It was so preposterous, this idea that he would marry her, especially after she had been a servant or God knows what for several years--it was so absurd that he burst into a sweat of nervous terror. And he hastily drew further away.
She felt the change, for she was of those who are born sensitive. But she was far too young and inexperienced to have learned to interpret aright the subtle warning of the nerves. "You are displeased with me?" she asked timidly.
"No--Oh, no, Susie," he stammered. "I--I was thinking. Do put off going for a day or two. There's no need of hurrying."
But she felt that by disobeying her aunt and coming down to see him she had forfeited the right to shelter under that roof. "I can't go back," said she. "There's a reason." She would not tell him the reason; it would make him feel as if he were to blame. "When I get a place in Cincinnati," she went on, "I'll write to you."
"Not here," he objected. "That wouldn't do at all. No, send me a line to the Gibson House in Cincinnati, giving me your address."
"The Gibson House," she repeated. "I'll not forget that name. Gibson House."
"Send it as soon as you get a place. I may be in Cincinnati soon. But this is all nonsense. You're not going. You'd be afraid."
She laughed softly. "You don't know me. Now that I've got to go, I'm glad."
And he realized that she was not talking to give herself courage, that her words were literally true. This made him admire her, and fear her, too. There must be something wild and unwomanly in her nature. "I guess she inherits it from her mother--and perhaps her father, whoever he was." Probably she was simply doing a little early what she'd have been sure to do sooner or later, no matter what had happened. On the whole, it was just as well that she was going. "I can take her on East in the fall. As soon as she has a little knowledge of the world she'll not expect me to marry her. She can get something to do. I'll help her." And now he felt in conceit with himself again-- felt that he was going to be a good, generous friend to her.
"Perhaps you'll be better off--once you get started," said he.
"I don't see how I could be worse off. What is there here for me?"
He wondered at the good sense of this from a mere child. It was most unlikely that any man of the class she had been brought up in would marry her; and how could she endure marriage with a man of the class in which she might possibly find a husband? As for reputation--
She, an illegitimate child, never could have a reputation, at least not so long as she had her looks. After supper, to kill time, he had dropped in at Willett's drug store, where the young fellows loafed and gossiped in the evenings; all the time he was there the conversation had been made up of sly digs and hints about graveyard trysts, each thrust causing the kind of laughter that is the wake of the prurient and the obscene. Yes, she was right. There could be "nothing in it" for her in Sutherland. He was filled with pity for her. "Poor child! What a shame!" There must be something wrong with a world that permitted such iniquities.
The clock struck twelve. "You must go," she said. "Sometimes the boat comes as early as half-past." And she stood up.
As he faced her the generous impulse surged again. He caught her in his arms, she not resisting. He kissed her again and again, murmuring disconnected words of endearment and fighting back the offer to marry her. "I mustn't! I mustn't!" he said to himself. "What'd become of us?" If his passions had been as virgin, as inexperienced, as hers, no power could have held him from going with her and marrying her. But experience had taught him the abysmal difference between before and after; and he found strength to be sensible, even in the height of his passionate longing for her.
She clasped her arms about his neck. "Oh, my dear love!" she murmured. "I'd do anything for you. I feel that you love me as I love you."
"Yes--yes." And he pressed his lips to hers. An instant and she drew away, shaking and panting. He tried to clasp her again, but she would not have it. "I can't stand it!" he murmured. "I must go with you--I must!"
"No!" she replied. "It wouldn't do unless we were really married." Wistfully, "And we can't be that yet--can we? There isn't any way?"
His passion cooled instantly.
"There isn't any way," he said regretfully. "I'd not dare tell my father."
"Yes, we must wait till you're of age, and have your education, and are free. Then----" She drew a long breath, looked at him with a brave smile. The large moon was shining upon them. "We'll think of that, and not let ourselves be unhappy--won't we?"
"Yes," he said. "But I must go."
"I forgot for the minute. Good-by, dearest." She put up her lips. He kissed her, but without passion now.
"You might go with me as far as the wharf," she suggested.
"No--someone might see--and that would ruin everything. I'd like to--I'd----"
"It wouldn't do," she interrupted. "I wouldn't let you come."
With sudden agitation she kissed him--he felt that her lips were cold. He pressed her hands--they, too, were cold. "Good-by, my darling," he murmured, vaulted lightly over the rail and disappeared in the deep shadows of the shrubbery. When he was clear of the grounds he paused to light a cigarette. His hand was shaking so that the match almost dropped from his fingers. "I've been making a damn fool of myself," he said half aloud. "A double damn fool! I've got to stop that talk about marrying, somehow--or keep away from her. But I can't keep away. I must have her! Why in the devil can't she realize that a man in my position couldn't marry her? If it wasn't for this marrying talk, I'd make her happy. I've simply got to stop this marrying talk. It gets worse and worse."
Her calmness deceived her into thinking herself perfectly sane and sober, perfectly aware of what she was about. She had left her hat and her bundle behind the door. She put on the hat in the darkness of the hall with steady fingers, took up the well-filled shawl strap and went forth, closing the door behind her. In the morning they would find the door unlocked but that would not cause much talk, as Sutherland people were all rather careless about locking up. They would not knock at the door of her room until noon, perhaps. Then they would find on the pincushion the letter she had written to her uncle, saying good-by and explaining that she had decided to remove forever the taint of her mother and herself from their house and their lives--a somewhat theatrical letter, modeled upon Ouida, whom she thought the greatest writer that had ever lived, Victor Hugo and two or three poets perhaps excepted.
Her bundle was not light, but she hardly felt it as she moved swiftly through the deserted, moonlit streets toward the river. The wharf boat for the Cincinnati and Louisville mail steamers was anchored at the foot of Pine Street. On the levee before it were piled the boxes, bags, cases, crates, barrels to be loaded upon the "up boat." She was descending the gentle slope toward this mass of freight when her blood tingled at a deep, hoarse, mournful whistle from far away; she knew it was the up boat, rounding the bend and sighting the town. The sound echoed musically back and forth between the Kentucky and the Indiana bluffs, died lingeringly away. Again the whistle boomed, again the dark forest-clad steeps sent the echoes to and fro across the broad silver river. And now she could see the steamer, at the bend--a dark mass picked out with brilliant dots of light; the big funnels, the two thick pennants of black smoke. And she could hear the faint pleasant stroke of the paddles of the big side wheels upon the water.
At the wharf boat there had not been a sign of life. But with the dying away of the second whistle lights--the lights of lanterns--appeared on the levee close to the water's edge and on the wharf boat itself. And, behind her, the doors of the Sutherland Hotel opened and its office lit up, in preparation for any chance arrivals. She turned abruptly out of the beaten path down the gravel levee, made for the lower and darker end of the wharf boat. There would be Sutherland people going up the river. But they would be more than prompt; everyone came early to boats and trains to begin the sweet draught of the excitement of journeying. So she would wait in the darkness and go aboard when the steamer was about to draw in its planks. At the upper end of the wharf boat there was the broad gangway to the levee for passengers and freight; at the lower and dark and deserted end a narrow beam extended from boat to shore, to hold the boat steady. Susan, balancing herself with her bundle, went up to the beam, sat down upon a low stanchion in the darkness where she could see the river.
Louder and louder grew the regular musical beat of engine and paddle. The searchlight on the forward deck of the General Lytle, after peering uncertainly, suspiciously, at the entire levee, and at the river, and at the Kentucky shore, abruptly focused upon the wharf boat. The General Lytle now seemed a blaze of lights--from lower deck, from saloon deck, from pilot house deck, and forward and astern. A hundred interesting sounds came from her--tinkling of bells, calls from deck to deck, whistling, creaking of pulleys, lowing of cattle, grunting of swine, plaint of agitated sheep, the resigned cluckings of many chickens. Along the rail of the middle or saloon deck were seated a few passengers who had not yet gone to bed. On the lower deck was a swarm of black roustabouts, their sooty animal faces, their uncannily contrasting white teeth and eyeballs, their strange and varied rags lit up by the torches blazing where a gangplank lay ready for running out. And high and clear in the lovely June night sailed the moon, spreading a faint benign light upon hills and shores and glistening river, upon the graceful, stately mail steamer, now advancing majestically upon the wharf boat. Susan watched all, saw all, with quick beating heart and quivering interest. It was the first time that her life had been visited by the fascinating sense of event, real event. The tall, proud, impetuous child-woman, standing in the semi-darkness beside her bundle, was about to cast her stake upon the table in a bold game with Destiny. Her eyes shone with the wonderful expression that is seen only when courage gazes into the bright face of danger.
The steamer touched the edge of the wharf-boat with gentle care; the wharf-boat swayed and groaned. Even as the gangplanks were pushing out, the ragged, fantastic roustabouts, with wild, savage, hilarious cries, ran and jumped and scrambled to the wharf-boat like a band of escaping lunatics and darted down its shore planks to pounce upon the piles of freight. The mate, at the steamer edge to superintend the loading, and the wharf master on the levee beside the freight released each a hoarse torrent of profanity to spur on the yelling, laughing roustabouts, more brute than man. Torches flared; cow and sheep, pig and chicken, uttered each its own cry of dissatisfaction or dismay; the mate and wharf master cursed because it was the custom to curse; the roustabouts rushed ashore empty-handed, came filing back, stooping under their burdens. It was a scene of animation, of excitement, savage, grotesque, fascinating.
Susan, trembling a little, so tense were her nerves, waited until the last struggling roustabouts were staggering on the boat, until the deep whistle sounded, warning of approaching departure. Then she took up her bundle and put herself in the line of roustabouts, between a half-naked negro, black as coal and bearing a small barrel of beer, and a half-naked mulatto bearing a bundle of loud-smelling untanned skins. "Get out of the way, lady!" yelled the mate, eagerly seizing upon a new text for his denunciations. "Get out of the way, you black hellions! Let the lady pass! Look out, lady! You damned sons of hell, what're you about! I'll rip out your bowels----"
Susan fled across the deck and darted up the stairs to the saloon. The steamer was all white without except the black metal work. Within--that is, in the long saloon out of which the cabins opened to right and left and in which the meals were served at extension tables--there was the palatial splendor of white and gilt. At the forward end near the main entrance was the office. Susan, peering in from the darkness of the deck, saw that the way was clear. The Sutherland passengers had been accommodated. She entered, put her bundle down, faced the clerk behind the desk.
"Why, howdy, Miss Lenox," said he genially, beginning to twist his narrow, carefully attended blond mustache. "Any of the folks with you?"
She remembered his face but not his name. She remembered him as one of the "river characters" regarded as outcast by the Christian respectability of Sutherland. But she who could not but be polite to everybody smiled pleasantly, though she did not like his expression as he looked at her. "No, I'm alone," said she.
"Oh--your friends are going to meet you at the wharf in the morning," said he, content with his own explanation. "Just sign here, please." And, as she wrote, he went on: "I've got one room left. Ain't that lucky? It's a nice one, too. You'll be very comfortable. Everybody at home well? I ain't been in Sutherland for nigh ten years. Every week or so I think I will, and then somehow I don't. Here's your key--number 34 right-hand side, well down toward the far end, yonder. Two dollars, please. Thank you--exactly right. Hope you sleep well."
"Thank you," said Susan.
She turned away with the key which was thrust through one end of a stick about a foot long, to make it too bulky for absent-minded passengers to pocket. She took up her bundle, walked down the long saloon with its gilt decorations, its crystal chandeliers, its double array of small doors, each numbered. The clerk looked after her, admiration of the fine curve of her shoulders, back, and hips written plain upon his insignificant features. And it was a free admiration he would not have dared show had she not been a daughter of illegitimacy--a girl whose mother's "looseness" raised pleasing if scandalous suggestions and even possibilities in the mind of every man with a carnal eye. And not unnaturally. To think of her was to think of the circumstances surrounding her coming into the world; and to think of those circumstances was to think of immorality.
Susan, all unconscious of that polluted and impudent gaze, was soon standing before the narrow door numbered 34, as she barely made out, for the lamps in the saloon chandeliers were turned low. She unlocked it, entered the small clean stateroom and deposited her bundle on the floor. With just a glance at her quarters she hurried to the opposite door--the one giving upon the promenade. She opened it, stepped out, crossed the deserted deck and stood at the rail.
The General Lytle was drawing slowly away from the wharf-boat. As that part of the promenade happened to be sheltered from the steamer's lights, she was seeing the panorama of Sutherland--its long stretch of shaded waterfront, its cupolas and steeples, the wide leafy streets leading straight from the river by a gentle slope to the base of the dark towering bluffs behind the town--all sleeping in peace and beauty in the soft light of the moon. That farthest cupola to the left--it was the Number Two engine house, and the third place from it was her uncle's house. Slowly the steamer, now in mid-stream, drew away from the town. One by one the familiar landmarks--the packing house, the soap factory, the Geiss brewery, the tall chimney of the pumping station, the shorn top of Reservoir Hill--slipped ghostlily away to the southwest. The sobs choked up into her throat and the tears rained from her eyes. They all pitied and looked down on her there; still, it had been home the only home she ever had known or ever would know. And until these last few frightful days, how happy she had been there! For the first time she felt desolate, weak, afraid. But not daunted. It is strange to see in strong human character the strength and the weakness, two flat contradictions, existing side by side and making weak what seems so strong and making strong what seems so weak. However, human character is a tangle of inconsistencies, as disorderly and inchoate as the tangible and visible parts of nature. Susan felt weak, but not the kind of weakness that skulks. And there lay the difference, the abysmal difference, between courage and cowardice. Courage has full as much fear as cowardice, often more; but it has a something else that cowardice has not. It trembles and shivers but goes forward.
Wiping her eyes she went back to her own cabin. She had neglected closing its other door, the one from the saloon. The clerk was standing smirking in the doorway.
"You must be going away for quite some time," said he. And he fixed upon her as greedy and impudent eyes as ever looked from a common face. It was his battle glance. Guileful women, bent on trimming him for anything from a piece of plated jewelry to a saucer of ice cream, had led him to believe that before it walls of virtue tottered and fell like Jericho's before the trumpets of Joshua.
"It makes me a little homesick to see the old town disappear," hastily explained Susan, recovering herself. The instant anyone was watching, her emotions always hid.
"Wouldn't you like to sit out on deck a while?" pursued the clerk, bringing up a winning smile to reinforce the fetching stare.
The idea was attractive, for she did not feel like sleep. It would be fine to sit out in the open, watch the moon and the stars, the mysterious banks gliding swiftly by, and new vistas always widening out ahead. But not with this puny, sandy little "river character," not with anybody that night. "No," replied she. "I think I'll go to bed."
She had hesitated--and that was enough to give him encouragement. "Now, do come," he urged. "You don't know how nice it is. And they say I'm mighty good company."
"No, thanks." Susan nodded a pleasant dismissal.
The clerk lingered. "Can't I help you in some way? Wouldn't you like me to get you something?"
"Going to visit in Cincinnati? I know the town from A to Izzard. It's a lot of fun over the Rhine. I've had mighty good times there--the kind a pretty, lively girl like you would take to."
"When do we get to Cincinnati?"
"About eight--maybe half-past seven. Depends on the landings we have to make, and the freight."
"Then I'll not have much time for sleep," said Susan. "Good night." And no more realizing the coldness of her manner than the reason for his hanging about, she faced him, hand on the door to close it.
"You ain't a bit friendly," wheedled he.
"I'm sorry you think so. Good night--and thank you." And he could not but withdraw his form from the door. She closed it and forgot him. And she did not dream she had passed through one of those perilous adventures incident to a female traveling alone--adventures that even in the telling frighten ladies whose nervousness for their safety seems to increase in direct proportion to the degree of tranquillity their charms create in the male bosom. She decided it would be unwise regularly to undress; the boat might catch fire or blow up or something. She took off skirt, hat and ties, loosened her waist, and lay upon the lower of the two plain, hard little berths. The throb of the engines, the beat of the huge paddles, made the whole boat tremble and shiver. Faintly up from below came the sound of quarrels over crap-shooting, of banjos and singing--from the roustabouts amusing themselves between landings. She thought she would not be able to sleep in these novel and exciting surroundings. She had hardly composed herself before she lost consciousness, to sleep on and on dreamlessly, without motion.