Susan Lenox: Her Rise and Fall by David Graham Phillips
She was awakened by a crash so uproarious that she sat bolt upright before she had her eyes open. Her head struck stunningly against the bottom of the upper berth. This further confused her thoughts. She leaped from the bed, caught up her slippers, reached for her opened-up bundle. The crash was still billowing through the boat; she now recognized it as a great gong sounding for breakfast. She sat down on the bed and rubbed her head and laughed merrily. "I am a greenhorn!" she said. "Another minute and I'd have had the whole boat laughing at me."
She felt rested and hungry--ravenously hungry. She tucked in her blouse, washed as well as she could in the tiny bowl on the little washstand. Then before the cloudy watermarked mirror she arranged her scarcely mussed hair. A charming vision of fresh young loveliness, strong, erect, healthy, bright of eye and of cheek, she made as, after a furtive look up and down the saloon, she stepped from her door a very few minutes after the crash of that gong. With much scuffling and bustling the passengers, most of them country people, were hurrying into places at the tables which now had their extension leaves and were covered with coarse white tablecloths and with dishes of nicked stoneware, white, indeed, but shabbily so. But Susan's young eyes were not critical. To her it all seemed fine, with the rich flavor of adventure. A more experienced traveler might have been filled with gloomy foreboding by the quality of the odor from the cooking. She found it delightful and sympathized with the unrestrained eagerness of the homely country faces about her, with the children beating their spoons on their empty plates. The colored waiters presently began to stream in, each wearing a soiled white jacket, each bearing aloft a huge tray on which were stacked filled dishes and steaming cups.
Colored people have a keen instinct for class. One of the waiters happened to note her, advanced bowing and smiling with that good-humored, unservile courtesy which is the peculiar possession of the Americanized colored race. He flourished her into a chair with a "Good morning, miss. It's going to be a fine day." And as soon as she was seated he began to form round her plate a large inclosing arc of side dishes--fried fish, fried steak, fried egg, fried potatoes, wheat cakes, canned peaches, a cup of coffee. He drew toward her a can of syrup, a pitcher of cream, and a bowl of granulated sugar.
"Anything else?" said he, with a show of teeth white and sound.
"No--nothing. Thank you so much."
Her smile stimulated him to further courtesies. "Some likes the yeggs biled. Shall I change 'em?"
"No. I like them this way." She was so hungry that the idea of taking away a certainty on the chance of getting something out of sight and not yet cooked did not attract her.
"Perhaps--a little better piece of steak?"
"No--this looks fine." Her enthusiasm was not mere politeness.
"I clean forgot your hot biscuits." And away he darted.
When he came back with a heaping plate of hot biscuits, Sally Lunn and cornbread, she was eating as heartily as any of her neighbors. It seemed to her that never had she tasted such grand food as this served in the white and gold saloon with strangeness and interest all about her and the delightful sense of motion--motion into the fascinating golden unknown. The men at the table were eating with their knives; each had one protecting forearm and hand cast round his arc of small dishes as if to ward off probable attempt at seizure. And they swallowed as if the boat were afire. The women ate more daintily, as became members of the finer sex on public exhibition. They were wearing fingerless net gloves, and their little fingers stood straight out in that gesture which every truly elegant woman deems necessary if the food is to be daintily and artistically conveyed to her lips. The children mussed and gormed themselves, their dishes, the tablecloth. Susan loved it all. Her eyes sparkled. She ate everything, and regretted that lack of capacity made it impossible for her to yield to the entreaties of her waiter that she "have a little more."
She rose, went into the nearest passageway between saloon and promenade, stealthily took a ten-cent piece from her pocketbook. She called her waiter and gave it to him. She was blushing deeply, frightened lest this the first tip she had ever given or seen given be misunderstood and refused. "I'm so much obliged," she said. "You were very nice."
The waiter bowed like a prince, always with his simple, friendly smile; the tip disappeared under his apron. "Nobody could help being nice to you, lady."
She thanked him again and went to the promenade. It seemed to her that they had almost arrived. Along shore stretched a continuous line of houses--pretty houses with gardens. There were electric cars. Nearer the river lay several parallel lines of railway track along which train after train was speeding, some of them short trains of ordinary day coaches, others long trains made up in part of coaches grander and more beautiful than any she had ever seen. She knew they must be the parlor and dining and sleeping cars she had read about. And now they were in the midst of a fleet of steamers and barges, and far ahead loomed the first of Cincinnati's big suspension bridges, pictures of which she had many a time gazed at in wonder. There was a mingling of strange loud noises--whistles, engines, on the water, on shore; there was a multitude of what seemed to her feverish activities--she who had not been out of quiet Sutherland since she was a baby too young to note things.
The river, the shores, grew more and more crowded. Susan's eyes darted from one new object to another; and eagerly though she looked she felt she was missing more than she saw.
"Why, Susan Lenox!" exclaimed a voice almost in her ear.
She closed her teeth upon a cry; suddenly she was back from wonderland to herself. She turned to face dumpy, dressy Mrs. Waterbury and her husband with the glossy kinky ringlets and the long wavy mustache. "How do you do?" she stammered.
"We didn't know you were aboard," said Mrs. Waterbury, a silly, duck-legged woman looking proudly uncomfortable in her bead-trimmed black silk.
"Yes--I'm--I'm here," confessed Susan.
"Going to the city to visit?"
"Yes," said Susan. She hesitated, then repeated, "Yes."
"What elegant breakfasts they do serve on these boats! I suppose your friends'll meet you. But Mort and I'll look after you till they come."
"Oh, it isn't necessary," protested Susan. The steamer was passing under the bridge. There were cities on both shores--huge masses of dingy brick, streets filled with motion of every kind--always motion, incessant motion, and change. "We're about there, aren't we?" she asked.
"The wharf's up beyond the second bridge--the Covington Bridge," explained Waterbury with the air of the old experienced globe-trotter. "There's a third one, further up, but you can't see it for the smoke." And he went on and on, volubly airing his intimate knowledge of the great city which he visited once a year for two or three days to buy goods. He ended with a scornful, "My, but Cincinnati's a dirty place!"
Dirty it might be, but Susan loved it, dirt and all. The smoke, the grime somehow seemed part of it, one of its charms, one of the things that made it different from, and superior to, monotonous country and country town. She edged away from the Waterburys, hid in her stateroom watching the panorama through the curtained glass of her promenade deck door. She was completely carried away. The city! So, this was the city! And her dreams of travel, of new sights, new faces, were beginning to come true. She forgot herself, forgot what she had left behind, forgot what she was to face. All her power of thought and feeling was used up in absorbing these unfolding wonders. And when the June sun suddenly pierced the heavy clouds of fog and smoke, she clasped her hands and gasped, "Lovely! Oh, how lovely!"
And now the steamer was at the huge wharf-boat, in shape like the one at Sutherland, but in comparative size like the real Noah's Ark beside a toy ark. And from the whole tremendous scene rose an enormous clamor, the stentorian voice of the city. That voice is discordant and terrifying to many. To Susan, on that day, it was the most splendid burst of music. "Awake--awake!" it cried. "Awake, and live!" She opened her door that she might hear it better--rattle and rumble and roar, shriek of whistle, clang of bell. And the people!--Thousands on thousands hurrying hither and yon, like bees in a hive. "Awake awake, and live!"
The noises from the saloon reminded her that the journey was ended, that she must leave the boat. And she did not know where to go--she and her bundle. She waited until she saw the Waterburys, along with the other passengers, moving up the levee. Then she issued forth--by the promenade deck door so that she would not pass the office. But at the head of the companionway, in the forward part of the deck, there the clerk stood, looking even pettier and more offensive by daylight. She thought to slip by him. But he stopped stroking his mustache and called out to her, "Haven't your friends come?"
She frowned, angry in her nervousness. "I shall get on very well," she said curtly. Then she repented, smiled politely, added, "Thank you."
"I'll put you in a carriage," he offered, hastening down the stairs to join her.
She did not know what to say or do. She walked silently beside him, he carrying her bundle. They crossed the wharf-boat. A line of dilapidated looking carriages was drawn up near the end of the gangplank. The sight of them, the remembrance of what she had heard of the expensiveness of city carriages, nerved her to desperation. "Give me my things, please," she said. "I think I'll walk."
"Where do you want to go?"
The question took her breath away. With a quickness that amazed her, her lips uttered, "The Gibson House."
"Oh! That's a right smart piece. But you can take a car. I'll walk with you to the car. There's a line a couple of squares up that goes almost by the door. You know it isn't far from Fourth Street."
She was now in a flutter of terror. She went stumbling along beside him, not hearing a word of his voluble and flirtatious talk. They were in the midst of the mad rush and confusion. The noises, no longer mingled but individual, smote savagely upon her ears, startling her, making her look dazedly round as if expecting death to swoop upon her. At the corner of Fourth Street the clerk halted. He was clear out of humor with her, so dumb, so unappreciative. "There'll be a car along soon," said he sourly.
"You needn't wait," said she timidly. "Thank you again."
"You can't miss it. Good-by." And he lifted his hat--"tipped" it, rather--for he would not have wasted a full lift upon such a female. She gave a gasp of relief when he departed; then a gasp of terror--for upon the opposite corner stood the Waterburys. The globe-trotter and his wife were so dazed by the city that they did not see her, though in their helpless glancing round they looked straight at her. She hastily ran into a drug store on the corner. A young man in shirt sleeves held up by pink garters, and with oily black hair carefully parted and plastered, put down a pestle and mortar and came forward. He had kind brown eyes, but there was something wrong with the lower part of his face. Susan did not dare look to see what it was, lest he should think her unfeeling. He was behind the counter. Susan saw the soda fountain. As if by inspiration, she said, "Some chocolate soda, please."
"Ice cream?" asked the young man in a peculiar voice, like that of one who has a harelip.
"Please," said Susan. And then she saw the sign, "Ice Cream, ten cents," and wished she hadn't.
The young man mixed the soda, put in a liberal helping of ice cream, set it before her with a spoon in it, rested the knuckles of his brown hairy hands on the counter and said:
"It is hot."
"Yes, indeed," assented Susan. "I wonder where I could leave my bundle for a while. I'm a stranger and I want to look for a boarding house."
"You might leave it here with me," said the young man. "That's about our biggest line of trade--that and postage stamps and telephone--and the directory. " He laughed heartily. Susan did not see why; she did not like the sound, either, for the young man's deformity of lower jaw deformed his laughter as well as his speech. However, she smiled politely and ate and drank her soda slowly.
"I'll be glad to take care of your bundle," the young man said presently. "Ever been here before?"
"No," said Susan. "That is, not since I was about four years old."
"I was four," said the young man, "when a horse stepped on my mouth in the street."
"My, how dreadful!" exclaimed Susan.
"You can see some of the scar yet," the young man assured her, and he pointed to his curiously sunken mouth. "The doctors said it was the most remarkable case of the kind on record," continued he proudly. "That was what led me into the medical line. You don't seem to have your boarding house picked."
"I was going to look in the papers."
"That's dangerous--especially for a young lady. Some of them boarding houses--well, they're no better'n they ought to be."
"I don't suppose you know of any?"
"My aunt keeps one. And she's got a vacancy, it being summer."
"I'm afraid it'd be too expensive for me," said Susan, to feel her way.
The young man was much flattered. But he said, "Oh, it ain't so toppy. I think you could make a deal with her for five per."
Susan looked inquiring.
"Five a week--room and board."
"I might stand that," said Susan reflectively. Then, deciding for complete confidence, "I'm looking for work, too."
"Oh, I never tried anything. I thought maybe dressmaking or millinery."
"Mighty poor season for jobs. The times are bad, anyhow." He was looking at her with kindly curiosity. "If I was you, I'd go back home--and wait."
Susan shrank within herself. "I can't do that," she said.
The young man thought awhile, then said: "If you should go to my aunt's, you can say Mr. Ellison sent you. No, that ain't me. It's the boss. You see, a respectable boarding house asks for references."
Susan colored deeply and her gaze slowly sank. "I didn't know that," she murmured.
"Don't be afraid. Aunt Kate ain't so particular--leastways, not in summer when things is slow. And I know you're quiet."
By the time the soda was finished, the young man--who said his name was Robert Wylie--had written on the back of Ellison's business card in a Spencerian hand: "Mrs. Kate Wylie, 347 West Sixth Street." He explained that Susan was to walk up two squares and take the car going west; the conductor would let her off at the right place. "You'd better leave your things here," said Mr. Wylie, holding up the card so that they could admire his penmanship together. "You may not hit it off with Aunt Kate. Don't think you've got to stay there just because of me."
"I'm sure I'll like it," Susan declared confidently. Her spirits were high; she felt that she was in a strong run of luck.
Wylie lifted her package over the counter and went to the door with her to point out the direction. "This is Fourth. The next up is Fifth. The next wide one is Sixth--and you can read it on the lamp-post, too."
"Isn't that convenient!" exclaimed Susan. "What a lovely city this is!"
"There's worse," said Mr. Wylie, not to seem vain of his native town.
They shook hands most friendly and she set out in the direction he had indicated. She was much upset by the many vehicles and the confusion, but she did her best to seem at ease and at home. She watched a girl walking ahead of her--a shopgirl who seemed well-dressed and stylish, especially about the hat and hair. Susan tried to walk like her. "I suppose I look and act greener than I really am," thought she. "But I'll keep my eyes open and catch on." And in this, as in all her thoughts and actions since leaving, she showed confidence not because she was conceited, but because she had not the remotest notion what she was actually attempting. How many of us get credit for courage as we walk unconcerned through perils, or essay and conquer great obstacles, when in truth we are not courageous but simply unaware! As a rule knowledge is power or, rather, a source of power, but there are times when ignorance is a power and knowledge a weakness. If Susan had known, she might perhaps have stayed at home and submitted and, with crushed spirit, might have sunk under the sense of shame and degradation. But she did not know; so Columbus before his sailors or Caesar at the Rubicon among his soldiers did not seem more tranquil than she really was. Wylie, who suspected in the direction of the truth, wondered at her. "She's game, she is," he muttered again and again that morning. "What a nerve for a kid--and a lady, too!"
She found the right corner and the right car without further adventure; and the conductor assured her that he would set her down before the very door of the address on the card. It was an open car with few passengers. She took the middle of the long seat nearest the rear platform and looked about her like one in a happy dream. On and on and yet on they went. With every square they passed more people, so it seemed to her, than there were in all Sutherland. And what huge stores! And what wonderful displays of things to wear! Where would the people be found to buy such quantities, and where would they get the money to pay? How many restaurants and saloons! Why, everybody must be eating and drinking all the time. And at each corner she looked up and down the cross streets, and there were more and ever more magnificent buildings, throngs upon throngs of people. Was there no end to it? This was Sixth Street, still Sixth Street, as she saw at the corner lamp-posts. Then there must be five more such streets between this and the river; and she could see, up the cross streets, that the city was even vaster in the direction of the hills. And there were all these cross streets! It was stupefying--overwhelming--incredible.
She began to be nervous, they were going so far. She glanced anxiously at the conductor. He was watching her interestedly, understood her glance, answered it with a reassuring nod. He called out:
"I'm looking out for you, miss. I've got you on my mind. Don't you fret."
She gave him a bright smile of relief. They were passing through a double row of what seemed to her stately residences, and there were few people on the sidewalks. The air, too, was clearer, though the walls were grimy and also the grass in the occasional tiny front yards. But the curtains at the windows looked clean and fresh, and so did the better class of people among those on the sidewalk. It delighted her to see so many well-dressed women, wearing their clothes with an air which she told herself she must acquire. She was startled by the conductor's calling out:
She rose as he rang the bell and was ready to get off when the car stopped, for she was eager to cause him as little trouble as possible.
"The house is right straight before you," said the conductor. "The number's in the transom."
She thanked him, descended, was on the sidewalk before Mrs. Wylie's. She looked at the house and her heart sank. She thought of the small sum in her purse; it was most unlikely that such a house as this would harbor her. For here was a grand stone stairway ascending to a deep stone portico, and within it great doors, bigger than those of the Wright mansion, the palace of Sutherland. However, she recalled the humble appearance and mode of speech of her friend the drug clerk and plucked up the courage to ascend and to ring.
A slattern, colored maid opened the door. At the first glance within, at the first whiff of the interior air, Susan felt more at ease. For she was seeing what even her bedazzled eyes recognized as cheap dowdiness, and the smell that assailed her nostrils was that of a house badly and poorly kept--the smell of cheap food and bad butter cooking, of cats, of undusted rooms, of various unrecognizable kinds of staleness. She stood in the center of the big dingy parlor, gazing round at the grimed chromos until Mrs. Wylie entered--a thin middle-aged woman with small brown eyes set wide apart, a perpetual frown, and a chin so long and so projected that she was almost jimber-jawed. While Susan explained stammeringly what she had come for, Mrs. Wylie eyed her with increasing disfavor. When Susan had finished, she unlocked her lips for the first time to say:
"The room's took."
"Oh!" cried Susan in dismay.
The telephone rang in the back parlor. Mrs. Wylie excused herself to answer. After a few words she closed the doors between. She was gone fully five minutes; to Susan it seemed an hour. She came back, saying:
"I've been talking to my nephew. He called up. Well, I reckon you can have the room. It ain't my custom to take in ladies as young as you. But you seem to be all right. Your parents allowed you to come?"
"I haven't any," replied Susan. "I'm here to find a place and support myself."
Mrs. Wylie continued to eye her dubiously. "Well, I have no wish to pry into your affairs. `Mind your own business,' that's my rule." She spoke with defiance, as if the contrary were being asserted by some invisible person who might appear and gain hearing and belief. She went on: "If Mr. Ellison wants it, why I suppose it's all right. But you can't stay out later'n ten o'clock."
"I shan't go out at all of nights," said Susan eagerly.
"You look quiet," said Mrs. Wylie, with the air of adding that appearances were rarely other than deceptive.
"Oh, I am quiet," declared Susan. It puzzled her, this recurrence of the suggestion of noisiness.
"I can't allow much company--none in your room."
"There won't be any company." She blushed deeply. "That is, a--a young man from our town--he may call once. But he'll be off for the East right away."
Mrs. Wylie reflected on this, Susan the while standing uneasily, dreading lest decision would be against her. Finally Mrs. Wylie said:
"Robert says you want the five-dollar room. I'll show it to you."
They ascended two flights through increasing shabbiness. On the third floor at the rear was a room--a mere continuation of the narrow hall, partitioned off. It contained a small folding bed, a small table, a tiny bureau, a washstand hardly as large as that in the cabin on the boat, a row of hooks with a curtain of flowered chintz before them, a kitchen chair, a chromo of "Awake and Asleep," a torn and dirty rag carpet. The odor of the room, stale, damp, verging on moldy, seemed the fitting exhalation from such an assemblage of forbidding objects.
"It's a nice, comfortable room," said Mrs. Wylie aggressively. "I couldn't afford to give it and two meals for five dollars except till the first of September. After that it's eight."
"I'll be glad to stay, if you'll let me," said Susan. Mrs. Wylie's suspicion, so plain in those repellent eyes, took all the courage out of her. The great adventure seemed rapidly to be losing its charms. She could not think of herself as content or anything but sad and depressed in such surroundings as these. How much better it would be if she could live out in the open, out where it was attractive!
"I suppose you've got some baggage," said Mrs. Wylie, as if she rather expected to hear that she had not.
"I left it at the drug store," explained Susan.
Susan started nervously at that explosive exclamation. "I--I haven't got a trunk--only a few things in a shawl strap."
"Well, I never!"
Mrs. Wylie tossed her head, clucked her tongue disgustedly against the roof of her mouth. "But I suppose if Mr. Ellison says so, why you can stay."
"Thank you," said Susan humbly. Even if it would not have been basest ingratitude to betray her friend, Mr. Wylie, still she would not have had the courage to confess the truth about Mr. Ellison and so get herself ordered into the street. "I--I think I'll go for my things."
"The custom is to pay in advance," said Mrs. Wylie sharply.
"Oh, yes--of course," stammered Susan.
She seated herself on the wooden chair and opened out her purse. She found the five among her few bills, extended it with trembling fingers toward Mrs. Wylie. At the same time she lifted her eyes. The woman's expression as she bored into the pocketbook terrified her. Never before had she seen the savage greediness that is bred in the city among the people who fight against fearful odds to maintain their respectability and to save themselves from the ever threatened drop to the despised working class.
"Thank you, " said Mrs. Wylie, taking the bill as if she were conferring a favor upon Susan. "I make everybody pay promptly. The first of the week or out they go! I used to be easy and I came near going down."
"Oh, I shouldn't stay a minute if I couldn't pay," said the girl. "I'm going to look for something right away."
"Well, I don't want to discourage you, but there's a great many out of work. Still, I suppose you'll be able to wheedle some man into giving you a job. But I warn you I'm very particular about morals. If I see any signs----" Mrs. Wylie did not finish her sentence. Any words would have been weaker than her look.
Susan colored and trembled. Not at the poisonous hint as to how money could be got to keep on paying for that room, for the hint passed wide of Susan. She was agitated by the thought: if Mrs. Wylie should learn that she was not respectable! If Mrs. Wylie should learn that she was nameless--was born in disgrace so deep that, no matter how good she might be, she would yet be classed with the wicked.
"I'm down like a thousand of brick on any woman that is at all loose with the men," continued the landlady. "I never could understand how any woman could so far forget herself." And the woman whom the men had all her life been helping to their uttermost not to "forget herself" looked sharp suspicion and envy at Susan, the lovely. Why are women of the Mrs. Wylie sort so swift to suspect? Can it be that in some secret chamber of their never assailed hearts there lurks a longing--a feeling as to what they would do if they had the chance? Mrs. Wylie continued, "I hope you have strict Christian principles?"
"I was brought up Presbyterian," said Susan anxiously. She was far from sure that in Cincinnati and by its Mrs. Wylies Presbyterian would be regarded as Christian.
"There's your kind of a church a few squares from here," was all Mrs. Wylie deigned to reply. Susan suspected a sneer at Presbyterianism in her accent.
"That'll be nice," she murmured. She was eager to escape. "I'll go for my things."
"You can walk down and take the Fourth Street car," suggested her landlady. "Then you can watch out and not miss the store. The conductors are very impudent and forgetful."
Susan escaped from the house as speedily as her flying feet would take her down the two flights. In the street once more, her spirits rose. She went south to Fourth Street, decided to walk instead of taking a car. She now found herself in much more impressive surroundings than before, and realized that Sixth Street was really one of the minor streets. The further uptown she went, the more excited she became. After the district of stately mansions with wonderful carriages driving up and away and women dressed like those in the illustrated story papers, came splendid shops and hotels, finer than Susan had believed there were anywhere in the world. And most of the people--the crowds on crowds of people!--looked prosperous and cheerful and so delightfully citified! She wondered why so many of the men stared at her. She assumed it must be something rural in her appearance though that ought to have set the women to staring, too. But she thought little about this, so absorbed was she in seeing all the new things. She walked slowly, pausing to inspect the shop windows--the gorgeous dresses and hats and jewelry, the thousand costly things scattered in careless profusion. And the crowds! How secure she felt among these multitudes of strangers, not one of them knowing or suspecting her secret of shame! She no longer had the sense of being outcast, branded.
When she had gone so far that it seemed to her she certainly must have missed the drug store, carefully though she had inspected each corner as she went, she decided that she must stop someone of this hurrying throng and inquire the way. While she was still screwing her courage to this boldness, she espied the sign and hastened joyfully across the street. She and Wylie welcomed each other like old friends. He was delighted when he learned that she had taken the room.
"You won't mind Aunt Kate after a while," said he. "She's sour and nosey, but she's honest and respectable--and that's the main thing just now with you. And I think you'll get a job all right. Aunt Kate's got a lady friend that's head saleslady at Shillito's. She'll know of something."
Wylie was so kind and so hopeful that Susan felt already settled. As soon as customers came in, she took her parcel and went, Wylie saying, "I'll drop round after supper and see how things are getting on." She took the Sixth Street car back, and felt like an old resident. She was critical of Sixth Street now, and of the women she had been admiring there less than two hours before--critical of their manners and of their dress. The exterior of the boarding house no longer awed her. She was getting a point of view--as she proudly realized. By the time Sam came--and surely that wouldn't be many days--she would be quite transformed.
She mounted the steps and was about to ring when Mrs. Wylie herself, with stormy brow and snapping eyes, opened the door. "Go into the parlor," she jerked out from between her unpleasant-looking receding teeth.
Susan gave her a glance of frightened wonder and obeyed.