Part 2 out of 6
working a rapid and facetious right.
This corner, or Donovan's pool-shack, was their club, their forum. Here
they recounted their exploits, bragged of their triumphs, boasted of
their girls, flexed their muscles to show their strength. And all
through their talk there occurred again and again a certain term whose
use is common to their kind. Their remarks were prefaced and interlarded
and concluded with it, so that it was no longer an oath or a blasphemy.
"Je's, I was sore at 'm. I told him where to get off at. Nobody can talk
to me like that. Je's, I should say not."
So accustomed had it grown that it was not even thought of as
If Buzz's family could have heard him in his talk with his street-corner
companions they would not have credited their ears. A mouthy braggart in
company is often silent in his own home, and Buzz was no exception to
this rule. Fortunately, Buzz's braggadocio carried with it a certain
conviction. He never kept a job more than a month, and his own account
of his leave-taking was always as vainglorious as it was dramatic.
"'G'wan!' I says to him, 'Who you talkin' to? I don't have to take
nothin' from you nor nobody like you,' I says. 'I'm as good as you are
any day, and better. You can have your dirty job,' I says. And with that
I give him my time and walked out on 'm. Je's, he was sore!"
They would listen to him, appreciatively, but with certain mental
reservations; reservations inevitable when a speaker's name is Buzz. One
by one they would melt away as their particular girl, after flaunting by
with a giggle and a sidelong glance for the dozenth time, would switch
her skirts around the corner of Outagamie Street past the Brill House,
"Well, s'long," they would say. And lounging after her, would overtake
her in the shadow of the row of trees in front of the Agassiz School.
If the Werner family had been city folk they would, perforce, have
burrowed in one of those rabbit-warren tenements that line block after
block of city streets. But your small-town labouring man is likely to
own his two-story frame house with a garden patch in the back and a
cement walk leading up to the front porch, and pork roast on Sundays.
The Werners had all this, no thanks to Pa Werner; no thanks to Buzz,
surely; and little to Minnie Werner who clerked in the Sugar Bowl Candy
Store and tried to dress like Angie Hatton whose father owned the
biggest Pulp and Paper mill in the Fox River Valley. No, the house and
the garden, the porch and the cement sidewalk, and the pork roast all
had their origin in Ma Werner's tireless energy, in Ma Werner's thrift;
in her patience and unremitting toil, her nimble fingers and bent back,
her shapeless figure and unbounded and unexpressed (verbally, that
is) love for her children. Pa Werner--sullen, lazy, brooding,
tyrannical--she soothed and mollified for the children's sake, or
shouted down with a shrewish outburst, as the occasion required. An
expert stone-mason by trade, Pa Werner could be depended on only when he
was not drinking, or when he was not on strike, or when he had not
quarrelled with the foreman. An anarchist, Pa--dissatisfied with things
as they were, but with no plan for improving them. His evil-smelling
pipe between his lips, he would sit, stocking-footed, in silence,
smoking and thinking vague, formless, surly thoughts. This sullen unrest
and rebellion it was that, transmitted to his son, had made Buzz the
unruly braggart that he was, and which, twenty or thirty years hence,
would find him just such a one as his father--useless, evil-tempered,
half brutal, defiant of order.
It was in May, a fine warm sunny day, that Ma Werner, looking up from
the garden patch where she was spading, a man's old battered felt hat
perched grotesquely atop her white head, saw Buzz lounging homeward,
cutting across lots from Bates Street, his dinner pail glinting in the
sun. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. Ma Werner straightened
painfully and her over-flushed face took on a purplish tinge. She wiped
her moist chin with an apron-corner.
As Buzz espied her his gait became a swagger. At sight of that swagger
Ma knew. She dropped her spade and plodded heavily through the freshly
turned earth to the back porch as Buzz turned in at the walk. She
shifted her weight ponderously as she wiped first one earth-crusted shoe
and then the other.
"What's the matter, Ernie? You ain't sick, are you?"
"What you home so early for?"
"Because I feel like it, that's why."
He took the back steps at a bound and slammed the kitchen door behind
him. Ma Werner followed heavily after. Buzz was hanging his hat up
behind the kitchen door. He turned with a scowl as his mother entered.
She looked even more ludicrous in the house than she had outside, with
her skirts tucked up to make spading the easier, so that there was
displayed an unseemly length of thick ankle rising solidly above the old
pair of men's side-boots that encased her feet. The battered hat perched
rakishly atop her knob of gray-white hair gave her a jaunty, sporting
look, as of a ponderous, burlesque Watteau.
She abandoned pretense. "Ernie, your pa'll be awful mad. You know the
way he carried on the last time."
"Let him. He aint worked five days himself this month." Then, at a
sudden sound from the front of the house, "He ain't home, is he?"
"That's the shade flapping."
Buzz turned toward the inside wooden stairway that led to the half-story
above. But his mother followed, with surprising agility for so heavy a
woman. She put a hand on his arm. "Such a good-payin' job, Ernie. An'
you said only yesterday you liked it. Somethin' must've happened."
There broke a grim little laugh from Buzz. "Believe _me_ something
happened good an' plenty." A little frightened look came into his eyes.
"I just had a run-in with young Hatton."
The red faded from her face and a grey-white mask seemed to slip down
over it. "You don't mean Hatton! Not Hatton's son. Ernie, you ain't
A dash of his street-corner bravado came back to him. "Aw, keep your
hair on, Ma. I didn't know it was young Hatton when I hit'm. An' anyway
nobody his age is gonna tell me where to get off at. Say, w'en a guy who
ain't twenty-three, hardly, and that never done a lick in his life
except go to college, the sissy, tries t'--"
But the first sentence only had penetrated her brain. She grappled with
it, dizzily. "Hit him! Ernie, you don't mean you hit him! Not Hatton's
"Sure I did. You oughta seen his face." But there was very little
triumph or satisfaction in Buzz Werner's face or voice as he said it.
"Course, I didn't know it was him when I done it. I dunno would it have
made any difference if I had."
She seemed so old and so shrunken, in spite of her bulk, as she looked
up at him. The look in her eyes was so strained. The way her hand
brought her apron-corner up to her mouth, as though to stifle the fear
that shook her, was so groping, somehow, so uncertain, that,
paradoxically, the pitifulness of it reacted to make him savage.
When she quavered her next question, "What was he doin' in the mill?" he
turned toward the stairway again, flinging his answer over his shoulder.
"Learnin' the business, that's what. From the ground up, see?" He turned
at the first stair and leaned forward and down, one hand on the
door-jamb. "Well, believe me he don't use me as no ground-dirt. An' when
I'm takin' the screen off the big roll--see?--he comes up to me an'
says I'm handlin' it rough an' it's a delicate piece of mechanism.
'Who're you?' I says. 'Never mind who I am' he says, 'I'm working' on
this job,' he says, 'an' this is a paper mill you're workin' in,' he
says, 'not a boiler factory. Treat the machinery accordin', like a real
workman,' he says. The simp! I just stepped down off the platform of the
big press, and I says, 'Well, you look like a kinda delicate piece of
mechanism yourself,' I says, 'an' need careful handlin', so take that
for a starter,' I says. An' with that I handed him one in the nose."
Buzz laughed, but there was little mirth in it. "I bet he seen enough
wheels an' delicate machinery that minute to set up a whole new plant."
There was nothing of mirth in the woman's drawn face. "Oh, Ernie, f'r
God's sake! What they goin' to do to you!"
He was half way up the narrow stairway, she at the foot of it, peering
up at him. "They won't do anything. I guess old Hatton ain't so stuck on
havin' his swell golf club crowd know his little boy was beat up by one
of the workmen."
He was clumping about upstairs now. So she turned toward the kitchen,
dazedly. She glanced at the clock. Going on toward five. Still in
the absurd hat she got out a panful of potatoes and began to peel
them skilfuly, automatically. The seamed and hardened fingers
had come honestly by their deftness. They had twirled and peeled
pecks--bushels--tons of these brown balls in their time.
At five-thirty Pa came in. At six, Minnie. She had to go back to the
Sugar Bowl until nine. Five minutes later the supper was steaming on
"Ernie," called Ma, toward the ceiling. "Er-nie! Supper's on." The three
sat down at the table without waiting. Pa had slipped off his shoes, and
was in his stockinged feet. They ate in silence. It was a good meal. A
European family of the same class would have considered it a banquet.
There were meat and vegetables, butter and home-made bread, preserve and
cake, true to the standards of the extravagant American labouring-class
household. In the summer the garden supplied them with lettuce, beans,
peas, onions, radishes, beets, potatoes, corn, thanks to Ma's aching
back and blistered hands. They stored enough vegetables in the cellar to
last through the winter.
Buzz usually cleaned up after supper. But to-night, when he came down,
he was already clean-shaven, clean-shirted, and his hair was wet from
the comb. He took his place in silence. His acid-stained work shoes had
been replaced by his good tan ones. Evidently he was going down town
after supper. Buzz never took any exercise for the sake of his body's
good. Sometimes he and the Lembke boys across the way played a game of
ball in the middle of the road, or in the vacant lot, but they did it
out of the game instinct, and with no thought of their muscles' gain.
But to-night, evidently, there was to be no ball. Buzz ate little. His
mother, forever between the stove and the table, ate less. But that was
nothing unusual in her. She waited on the others, but mostly she hovered
about the boy.
"Ernie, you ain't eaten your potatoes. Look how nice an' mealy they
"Don't want none."
"Ernie, would you rather have a baked apple than the raspberry preserve?
I fixed a pan this morning."
"Naw. Lemme alone. I ain't hungry."
He slouched from the table. Minnie, teacup in hand, regarded him over
its rim with wide, malicious eyes. "I saw that Kearney girl go by here
before supper, and she rubbered in like everything."
"You're a liar," said Buzz, unemotionally.
"I did so! She went by and then she came back again. I saw her both
times. Say, I guess I ought to know her. Anybody in town'd know
Buzz had been headed toward the front porch. He hesitated and turned,
now, and picked up the newspaper from the sitting-room sofa. Pa Werner,
in trousers, shirt and suspenders, was padding about the kitchen with
his pipe and tobacco. He came into the sitting room now and stood a
moment, his lips twisted about the pipe-stem. The pipe's putt-putting
gave warning that he was about to break into unaccustomed speech. He
regarded Buzz with beady, narrowed eyes.
"You let me see you around with that Kearney girl and I'll break every
bone in your body, and hers too. The hussy!"
"Oh, you will, will you?"
Ma, who had been making countless trips from the kitchen to the back
garden with water pail and sprinkling can sagging from either arm, put
in a word to stay the threatening storm. "Now, Pa! Now, Ernie!" The two
men subsided into bristling silence.
Suddenly, "There she is again!" shrilled Minnie, from her bedroom. Buzz
shrank back in his chair. Old man Werner, with a muttered oath, went to
the open doorway and stood there, puffing savage little spurts of smoke
streetward. The Kearney girl stared brazenly at him as she strolled
slowly by, a slim and sinister figure. Old man Werner watched her until
she passed out of sight.
"You go gettin' mixed up with dirt like that," threatened he, "and I'll
learn you. She'll be hangin' around the mill yet, the brass-faced thing.
If I hear of it I'll get the foreman to put her off the place. You'll
stay home to-night. Carry a pail of water for your ma once."
"Carry it yourself."
Buzz, with a wary eye up the street, slouched out to the front porch,
into the twilight of the warm May evening. Charley Lembke, from his
porch across the street, called to him: "Goin' down town?"
"Yeh, I guess so."
"Ain't you afraid of bein' pinched?" Buzz turned his head quickly
toward the room just behind him. He turned to go in. Charley's voice
came again, clear and far-reaching. "I hear you had a run-in with
Hatton's son, and knocked him down. Some class t' you, Buzz, even if it
does cost you your job."
From within the sound of a newspaper hurled to the floor. Pa Werner was
at the door. "What's that! What's that he's sayin'?"
Buzz, cornered, jutted a threatening jaw at his father and brazened it
out. "Can't you hear good?"
"Come on in here."
Buzz hesitated a moment. Then he turned, slowly, and walked into the
little sitting room with an attempt at a swagger that failed to convince
even himself. He leaned against the side of the door, hands in pockets.
Pa Werner faced him, black-browed. "Is that right, what he said? Lembke?
"Sure it's right. I had a run-in with Hatton, an' licked him, and give'm
my time. What you goin' to do about it?"
Ma Werner was in the room, now. Minnie, passing through on her way to
work again, caught the electric current of the storm about to break and
escaped it with a parting:
"Oh, for the land's sakes! You two. Always a-fighting."
The two men faced each other. The one a sturdy man-boy nearing twenty,
with a great pair of shoulders and a clear eye, a long, quick arm and a
deft hand--these last his assets as a workman. The other, gnarled,
prematurely wrinkled, almost gnome-like. This one took his pipe from
between his lips and began to speak. The drink he had had at Wenzel's on
the way home sparked his speech.
He began with a string of epithets. They flowed from his lips, an acid
stream. Pick and choose as I will, there is none that can be repeated
here. Old Man Werner had, perhaps, been something of a tough guy
himself, in his youth. As he reviled his son now you saw that son, at
fifty, just such another stocking-footed, bitter old man, smoking a glum
pipe on the back porch, summer evenings, and spitting into the fresh
I don't say that this thought came to Buzz as his father flayed him with
his abuse. But there was something unusual, surely, in the
non-resistance with which he allowed the storm to beat about his head.
Something in his steady, unruffled gaze caused the other man to falter a
little in his tirade, and finally to stop, almost apprehensively. He had
paid no heed to Ma Werner's attempts at pacification. "Now, Pa!" she had
said, over and over, her hand on his arm, though he shook it off again
and again. "Now, Pa!--" But he stopped now, fist raised in a last
profane period. Buzz stood regarding him with his unblinking stare.
Finally: "You through?" said Buzz.
"Ya-as," snarled Pa, "I'm through. Get to hell out of here. You'll be
hung yet, you loafer. A good-for-nothing bum, that's what. Get out o'
"I'm gettin'," said Buzz. He took his hat off the hook and wiped it
carefully with the lower side of his sleeve, round and round. He placed
it on his head, jauntily. He stepped to the kitchen, took a tooth-pick
from the little red-and-white glass holder on the table, and--with this
emblem of insouciance, at an angle of ninety, between his
teeth--strolled indolently, nonchalantly down the front steps, along the
cement walk to the street and so toward town. The two old people, left
alone in the sudden silence of the house, stared after the swaggering
figure until the dim twilight blotted it out. And a sinister something
seemed to close its icy grip about the heart of one of them. A vague
premonition that she could only feel, not express, made her next words
"Pa, you oughtn't to talked to him like that. He's just a little wild.
He looked so kind of funny when he went out. I don'no, he looked so kind
"He looked like the bum he is, that's what. No respect for nothing. For
his pa, or ma, or nothing. Down on the corner with the rest of 'em,
that's where he's goin'. Hatton ain't goin' to let this go by. You see."
But she, on her way to the kitchen, repeated, "I don'no, he looked so
kind of funny. He looked so kind of--"
Considering all things--the happenings of the past few hours, at
least--Buzz, as he strolled on down toward Grand Avenue with his
sauntering, care-free gait, did undoubtedly look kind of funny. The
red-hot rage of the afternoon and the white-hot rage of the evening had
choked the furnace of brain and soul with clinkers so that he was
thinking unevenly and disconnectedly. On the surface he was cool and
unruffled. He stopped for a moment at the railroad tracks to talk with
Stumpy Gans, the one-legged gateman. The little bell above Stumpy's
shanty was ringing its warning, so he strolled leisurely over to the
depot platform to see the 7:15 come in from Chicago. When the train
pulled out Buzz went on down the street. His mind was darting here and
there, planning this revenge, discarding it; seizing on another,
abandoning that. He'd show'm. He'd show'm. Sick of the whole damn bunch,
anyway.... Wonder was Hatton going to raise a shindy.... Let'm. Who
cares?... The old man was a drunk, that's what.... Ma had looked kinda
He put that uncomfortable thought out of his mind and slammed the door
on it. Anyway, he'd show'm.
Out of the shadows of the great trees in front of the Agassiz School
stepped the Kearney girl, like a lean and hungry cat. One hand clutched
Buzz jumped and said something under his breath. Then he laughed,
shortly. "Might as well kill a guy as scare him to death!"
She thrust one hand through his arm and linked it with the other. "I've
been waiting for you, Buzz."
"Yeh. Well, let me tell you something. You quit traipsing up and down in
front of my house, see?"
"I wanted to see you. An' I didn't know whether you was coming down town
to-night or not."
"Well, I am. So now you know." He pulled away from her, but she twined
her arm the tighter about his.
"Ain't sore at me, are yuh, Buzz?"
"No. Leggo my arm."
"If you're sore because I been foolin' round with that little wart of a
Donahue--" She turned wise eyes up to him, trying to make them limpid in
"What do I care who you run with?"
"Don't you care, Buzz?" The words were soft but there was a steel edge
to her utterance.
"Oh, Buzz, I'm batty about you. I can't help it, can I? H'm? Look here,
you go on to Grand, and hang around for an hour, maybe, and I'll meet
you here an' we'll walk a ways. Will you? I got something to tell you."
"Naw, I can't to-night. I'm busy."
And then the steel edge cut. "Buzz, if you turn me down I'll have you
"Before old Colt. I can fix up charges. He'll believe it. Say, he knows
me, Judge Colt does. I can name you an'--"
"Me!" Sheer amazement rang in his voice. "Me? You must be crazy. I
ain't had anything to do with you. You make me sick."
"That don't make any difference. You can't prove it. I told you I was
crazy about you. I told you--"
He jerked loose from her then and was off. He ran one block. Then, after
a backward glance, fell into a quick walk that brought him past the
Brill House and to Schroeder's drug store corner. There was his
crowd--Spider, and Red, and Bing, and Casey. They took him literally
unto their breasts. They thumped him on the back. They bestowed on him
the low epithets with which they expressed admiration. Red worked at one
of the bleaching vats in the Hatton paper mill. The story of Buzz's
fistic triumph had spread through the big plant like a flame.
"Go on, Buzz, tell 'em about it," Red urged, now. "Je's, I like to died
laughing when I heard it. He must of looked a sight, the poor boob. Go
on, Buzz, tell 'em how you says to him he must be a kind of delicate
piece of--you know; go on, tell 'em."
Buzz hitched himself up with a characteristic gesture, and plunged into
his story. His audience listened entranced, interrupting him with an
occasional "Je's!" of awed admiration. But the thing seemed to lack a
certain something. Perhaps Casey put his finger on that something when,
at the recital's finish he asked:
"Didn't he see you was goin' to hit him?"
"No. He never see a thing."
Casey ruminated a moment. "You could of give him a chanst to put up his
dukes," he said at last. A little silence fell upon the group. Honour
Buzz shifted uncomfortably. "He's a bigger guy than I am. I bet he's
over six foot. The papers was always telling how he played football at
that college he went to."
Casey spoke up again. "They say he didn't wait for this here draft. He's
goin' to Fort Sheridan, around Chicago somewhere, to be made a officer."
"Yeh, them rich guys, they got it all their own way," Spider spoke up,
From down the street came a dull, muffled thud-thud-thud-thud. Already
Chippewa, Wisconsin, had learned to recognise it. Grand Avenue, none too
crowded on this mid-week night, pressed to the curb to see. Down the
street they stared toward the moving mass that came steadily nearer. The
listless group on the corner stiffened into something like interest.
"Company G," said Red. "I hear they're leavin' in a couple of days."
And down the street they came, thud-thud-thud, Company G, headed for the
new red-brick Armory for the building of which they had engineered
everything from subscription dances and exhibition drills to turkey
raffles. Chippewa had never taken Company G very seriously until now.
How could it, when Company G was made up of Willie Kemp, who clerked in
Hassell's shoe store; Fred Garvey, the reporter on the Chippewa
_Eagle_; Hermie Knapp, the real-estate man, and Earl Hanson who came
around in the morning for your grocery order.
Thud-thud-thud-thud. And to Chippewa, standing at the curb, quite
suddenly these every-day men and boys were transformed into something
remote and almost terrible. Something grim. Something sacrificial.
Thud-thud-thud-thud. Looking straight ahead.
"The poor boobs," said Spider, and spat, and laughed.
The company passed on down the street--vanished. Grand Avenue went its
A little silence fell upon the street-corner group. Bing was the first
"They won't git me in this draft. I got a mother an' two kid sisters to
"Yeh, a swell lot of supportin' you do!"
"Who says I don't! I can prove it."
"They'll get me all right," said Casey. "I ain't kickin'."
"I'm under age," from Red.
Spider said nothing. His furtive eyes darted here and there. Spider was
of age. And Spider had no family to support. But Spider had reason to
know that no examining board would pass him into the army of his
country. And it was a reason of which one did not speak. "You're only
twenty, ain't you, Buzz?" he asked, to cover the gap in the
"Yeh." Silence fell again. Then, "But I wouldn't mind goin'. Anything
for a change. This place makes me sick."
Spider laughed. "You better be a hero and go and enlist."
Buzz's head came up with a jerk. "Je's, I never thought of that!"
Red struck an attitude, one hand on his breast. "Now's your chanct,
Buzz, to save your country an' your flag. Enlistment office's right over
the Golden Eagle clothing store. Step up. Don't crowd gents! This way!"
Buzz was staring at him, open-mouthed. His gaze was fixed, tense.
Suddenly he seemed to gather all his muscles together as for a spring.
But he only threw his cigarette into the gutter, yawned elaborately, and
moved away. "S'long," he said; and lounged off. The others looked after
him a moment, puzzled, speculative. Buzz was not usually so laconic. But
evidently he was leaving with no further speech.
"I guess maybe he ain't so dead sure that Hatton bunch won't git him for
this, anyway," Casey said. Then, raising his voice: "Goin' home, Buzz?"
But he did not. If they had watched him they would have seen him change
his lounging gait when he reached the corner. They would have seen him
stand a moment, sending a quick glance this way and that, then turn,
retrace his steps almost at a run, and dart into the doorway that led
to the flight of wooden stairs at the side of the Golden Eagle clothing
A dingy room. A man at a bare table. Another seated at the window, his
chair tipped back, his feet on the sill, a pipe between his teeth. Buzz,
shambling, suddenly awkward, stood in the door.
"This the place where you enlist?"
The man at the table stood up. The chair in front of the open window
came down on all-fours.
"Sure," said the first man. "What's your name?"
Buzz told him.
"Meet Sergeant Keith. He's a Canadian. Been through the whole game."
Five minutes later Buzz's fine white torso rose above his trousers like
a great pillar. Unconsciously his sagging shoulders had straightened.
His stomach was held in. His chest jutted, shelf-like. His ribs showed
through the pink-white flesh.
"Get some of that pork off of him," observed Sergeant Keith, "and he'll
do in a couple of Fritzes before he's through."
"Me!" blurted Buzz, struggling now with his shirt. "A couple! Say, you
don't know me. Whaddyou mean, a couple? I can lick a whole regiment of
them beerheads with one hand tied behind me an' my feet in a sack." He
emerged from the struggle with his shirt, his face very red, his hair
Sergeant Keith smiled a grim little smile. "Keep your shirt on, kid,"
he said, "and remember, this isn't a fist fight you're going into. It's
Buzz, fumbling with his hat, put his question. "When--when do I go?" For
he had signed his name in his round, boyish, sixth-grade scrawl.
"To-morrow. Now listen to these instructions."
"T-to-morrow?" gasped Buzz.
He was still gasping as he reached the street and struck out toward
home. To-morrow! When the Kearney girl again stepped out of the
tree-shadows he stared at her as at something remote and trivial.
"I thought you tried to give me the slip, Buzz. Where you been?"
"Never mind where I've been."
She fell into step beside him, but had difficulty in matching his great
strides. She caught at his arm. At that Buzz turned and stopped. It was
too dark to see his face, but something in his voice--something new, and
hard, and resolute--reached even the choked and slimy cells of this
"Now looka here. You beat it. I got somethin' on my mind to-night and I
can't be bothered with no fool girl, see? Don't get me sore. I mean it."
Her hand dropped away from his arm. "I didn't mean what I said about
havin' you up, Buzz; honest t' Gawd I didn't."
"I don't care what you meant."
'Will you meet me to-morrow night? Will you, Buzz?"
"If I'm in this town to-morrow night I'll meet you. Is that good
He turned and strode away. But she was after him. "Where you goin'
"I'm goin' to war, that's where."
"Yes you are!" scoffed Miss Kearney. Then, at his silence: "You didn't
go and do a fool thing like that?"
"I sure did."
"When you goin'?"
"Well, of all the big boobs," sneered Miss Kearney; "what did you go and
do that for?"
"Search _me_," said Buzz, dully. "Search _me_."
Then he turned and went on toward home, alone. The Kearney girl's silly,
empty laugh came back to him through the darkness. It might have been
called a scornful laugh if the Kearney girl had been capable of any
emotion so dignified as scorn.
The family was still up. The door was open to the warm May night. The
Werners, in their moments of relaxation, were as unbuttoned and highly
_negligee_ as one of those group pictures you see of the Robert Louis
Stevenson family. Pa, shirt-sleeved, stocking-footed, asleep in his
chair. Ma's dress open at the front. Minnie, in an untidy kimono,
On this flaccid group Buzz burst, bomb-like. He hung his hat on the
hook, wordlessly. The noise he made woke his father, as he had meant
that it should. There came a muttered growl from the old man. Buzz
leaned against the stairway door, negligently. The eyes of the three
were on him.
"Well," he said, "I guess you won't be bothered with me much longer." Ma
Werner's head came up sharply at that.
"What you done, Ernie?"
"For the war; what do you suppose?"
Ma Werner rose at that, heavily. "Ernie! You never!"
Pa Werner was wide awake now. Out of his memory of the old country, and
soldier service there, he put his next question. "Did you sign to it?"
"When you goin'?"
Even Pa Werner gasped at that.
In families like the Werners emotion is rarely expressed. But now,
because of something in the stricken face and starting eyes of the
woman, and the open-mouthed dumbfoundedness of the old man, and the
sudden tender fearfulness in the face of the girl; and because, in that
moment, all these seemed very safe, and accustomed, and, somehow, dear,
Buzz curled his mouth into the sneer of the tough guy and spoke out of
the corner of that contorted feature.
"What did you think I was goin' to do? Huh? Stick around here and take
dirt from the bunch of you! Nix! I'm through!"
There was nothing dramatic about Buzz's going. He seemed to be whisked
away. One moment he was eating his breakfast at an unaccustomed hour, in
his best shirt and trousers, his mother, only half understanding even
now, standing over him with the coffee pot; the next he was standing
with his cheap shiny suitcase in his hand. Then he was waiting on the
depot platform, and Hefty Burke, the baggage man, was saying, "Where you
"Goin' to fight the Germans."
Hefty had hooted hoarsely: "Ya-a-as you are, you big bluff!"
"Who you callin' a bluff, you baggage-smasher, you! I'm goin' to war,
I'm tellin' you."
Hefty, still scoffing, turned away to his work. "Well, then, I guess
it's as good as over. Give old Willie a swipe for me, will you?"
"You bet I will. Watch me!"
I think he more than half meant it.
And thus Buzz Werner went to war. He was vague about its locality.
Somewhere in Europe. He was pretty sure it was France. A line from his
Fourth Grade geography came back to him. "The French," it had said, "are
a gay people, fond of dancing and light wines."
Well, that sounded all right.
The things that happened to Buzz Werner in the next twelve months
cannot be detailed here. They would require the space of what the
publishers call a 12-mo volume. Buzz himself could never have told you.
Things happened too swiftly, too concentratedly.
Chicago first. Buzz had never seen Chicago. Now that he saw it, he
hardly believed it. His first glimpse of it left him cowering,
terrified. The noise, the rush, the glitter, the grimness, the vastness,
were like blows upon his defenceless head. They beat the braggadocio and
the self-confidence temporarily out of him. But only temporarily.
Then came a camp. A rough, temporary camp compared to which the present
cantonments are luxurious. The United States Government took Buzz Werner
by the slack of the trousers and the slack of the mind, and, holding him
thus, shook him into shape--and into submission. And eventually--though
it required months--into an understanding of why that submission was
manly, courageous, and fine. But before he learned that he learned many
other things. He learned there was little good in saying, "Aw, g'wan!"
to a dapper young lieutenant if they clapped you into the guard-house
for saying it. There was little point to throwing down your shovel and
refusing to shovel coal if they clapped you into the guard house for
doing it; and made you shovel harder than ever when you came out. He
learned what it was to rise at dawn and go thud-thud-thudding down a
dirt road for endless weary miles. He became an olive-drab unit in an
olive-drab village. He learned what it was to wake up in the morning so
sore and lame that he felt as if he had been pulled apart, limb from
limb, during the night, and never put together again. He stood out with
a raw squad in the dirt of No Man's Land between barracks and went
through exercises that took hold of his great slack muscles and welded
them into whip-cords. And in front of him, facing him, stood a slim,
six-foot whipper-snapper of a lieutenant, hatless, coatless, tireless,
merciless--a creature whom Buzz at first thought he could snap between
thumb and finger--like that!--who made life a hell for Buzz Werner.
Until his muscles became used to it.
"One--_two_!--three! One--_two_--three! One--_two_--three!" yelled this
person. And, "_In_hale! _Ex_hale! _In_hale! _Ex_hale!" till Buzz's lungs
were bursting, his eyes were starting from his head, his chest carried a
sledge hammer inside it, his thigh-muscles screamed, and his legs, arms,
neck, were no longer parts of him, but horrid useless burdens, detached,
yet clinging. He learned what this person meant when he shouted (always
with the rising inflection), "Comp'ny! Right! _Whup_!" Buzz whupped with
the best of 'em. The whipper-snapper seemed tireless. Long after Buzz
felt that another moment of it would kill him the lithe young lieutenant
would be leaping about like a faun, and pride kept Buzz going though he
wanted to drop with fatigue, and his shirt and hair and face were wet
So much for his body. It soon became accustomed to the routine, then
hardened. His mind was less pliable. But that, too, was undergoing a
change. He found that the topics of conversation that used to interest
his little crowd on the street corner in Chippewa were not of much
interest, here. There were boys from every part of the great country.
And they talked of the places whence they had come and speculated about
the places to which they were going. And Buzz listened and learned.
There was strangely little talk about girls. There usually is when
muscles and mind are being driven to the utmost. But he heard men--men
as big as he--speak openly of things that he had always sneered at as
soft. After one of these conversations he wrote an awkward, but
significant scrawl home to his mother.
"Well Ma," he wrote, "I guess maybe you would like to hear a few words
from me. Well I like it in the army it is the life for me you bet. I am
feeling great how are you all--"
Ma Werner wasted an entire morning showing it around the neighbourhood,
and she read and reread it until it was almost pulp.
Six months of this. Buzz Werner was an intelligent machine composed of
steel, cord, and iron. I think he had forgotten that the Kearney girl
had ever existed. One day, after three months of camp life, the man in
the next cot had thrown him a volume of Kipling. Buzz fingered it,
disinterestedly. Until that moment Kipling had not existed for Buzz
Werner. After that moment he dominated his leisure hours. The Y.M.C.A.
hut had many battered volumes of this writer. Buzz read them all.
The week before Thanksgiving Buzz found himself on his way to New York.
For some reason unexplained to him he was separated from his company in
one of the great shake-ups performed for the good of the army. He never
saw them again. He was sent straight to a New York camp. When he beheld
his new lieutenant his limbs became fluid, and his heart leaped into his
throat, and his mouth stood open, and his eyes bulged. It was young
Hatton--Harry Hatton--whose aristocratic nose he had punched six months
before, in the Hatton Pulp and Paper Mill.
And even as he stared young Hatton fixed him with his eye, and then came
over to him and said, "It's all right, Werner."
Buzz Werner could only salute with awkward respect, while with one great
gulp his heart slid back into normal place. He had not thought that
Hatton was so tall, or so broad-shouldered, or so--
He no more thought of telling the other men that he had once knocked
this man down than he thought of knocking him down again. He would
almost as soon have thought of taking a punch at the President.
The day before Thanksgiving Buzz was told he might have a holiday. Also
he was given an address and a telephone number in New York City and told
that if he so desired he might call at that address and receive a
bountiful Thanksgiving dinner. They were expecting him there. That the
telephone exchange was Murray Hill, and the street Madison Avenue meant
nothing to Buzz. He made the short trip to New York, floundered about
the city, found every one willing and eager to help him find the address
on the slip, and brought up, finally, in front of the house on Madison
Avenue. It was a large, five-story stone place, and Buzz supposed it was
a flat, of course. He stood off and surveyed it. Then he ascended the
steps and rang the bell. They must have been waiting for him. The door
was opened by a large amiable-looking, middle-aged man who said, "Well,
well! Come in, come in, my boy!" a great deal as the folks in Chippewa,
Wisconsin, might have said it. The stout old party also said he was glad
to see him and Buzz believed it. They went upstairs, much to Buzz's
surprise. In Buzz's experience upstairs always meant bedrooms. But in
this case it meant a great bright sitting room, with books in it, and a
fireplace, very cheerful. There were not a lot of people in the room.
Just a middle-aged woman in a soft kind of dress, who came to him
without any fuss and the first thing he knew he felt acquainted. Within
the next fifteen minutes or so some other members of the family seemed
to ooze in, unnoticeably. First thing you knew, there they were. They
didn't pay such an awful lot of attention to you. Just took you for
granted. A couple of young kids, a girl of fourteen, and a boy of
sixteen who asked you easy questions about the army till you found
yourself patronising him. And a tall black-haired girl who made you
think of the vamps in the movies, only her eyes were different. And
then, with a little rush, a girl about his own age, or maybe younger--he
couldn't tell--who came right up to him, and put out her hand, and gave
him a grip with her hard little fist, just like a boy, and said, "I'm
"Pleased to meetcha," mumbled Buzz. And then he found himself talking to
her quite easily. She knew a surprising lot about the army.
"I've two brothers over there," she said. "And all my friends, of
course." He found out later, quite by accident, that this boyish, but
strangely appealing person belonged to some sort of Motor Service
League, and drove an automobile, every day, from eight to six, up and
down and round and about New York, working like a man in the service of
the country. He never would have believed that the world held that kind
Then four other men in uniform came in, and it turned out that three of
them were privates like himself, and the other a sergeant. Their awkward
entrance made him feel more than ever at ease, and ten minutes later
they were all talking like mad, and laughing and joking as if they had
known these people for years. They all went in to dinner. Buzz got
panicky when he thought of the knives and forks, but that turned out all
right, too, because they brought these as you needed them. And besides,
the things they gave you to eat weren't much different from the things
you had for Sunday or Thanksgiving dinner at home, and it was cooked the
way his mother would have cooked it--even better, perhaps. And lots of
it. And paper snappers and caps and things, and much laughter and talk.
And Buzz Werner, who had never been shown any respect or deference in
his life, was asked, politely, his opinion of the war, and the army, and
when he thought it all would end; and he told them, politely, too.
After dinner Mrs. Ladd said, "What would you boys like to do? Would you
like to drive around the city and see New York? Or would you like to go
to a matinee, or a picture show? Or do you want to stay here? Some of
Joyce's girl friends are coming in a little later."
And Buzz found himself saying, stumblingly, "I--I'd kind of rather stay
and talk with the girls." Buzz, the tough guy, blushing like a shy
They did not even laugh at that. They just looked as if they understood
that you missed girls at camp. Mrs. Ladd came over to him and put her
hand on his arm and said, "That's splendid. We'll all go up to the
ballroom and dance." And they did. And Buzz, who had learned to dance at
places like Kearney's saloon, and at the mill shindigs, glided expertly
about with Joyce Ladd of Madison Avenue, and found himself seated in a
great cushioned window-seat, talking with her about Kipling. It was like
talking to another fellow, almost, only it had a thrill in it. She said
such comic things. And when she laughed she threw back her head and your
eyes were dazzled by her slender white throat. They all stayed for
supper. And when they left Mrs. Ladd and Joyce handed them packages
that, later, turned out to be cigarettes, and chocolate, and books, and
soap, and knitted things and a wallet. And when Buzz opened the wallet
and found, with relief, that there was no money in it he knew that he
had met and mingled with American royalty as its equal.
Three days later he sailed for France.
Buzz Werner, the Chippewa tough guy, in Paris! Buzz Werner at Napoleon's
tomb, that glorious white marble poem. Buzz Werner in the Place de la
Concorde. Eating at funny little Paris restaurants.
Then a new life. Life in a drab, rain-soaked, mud-choked little French
village, sleeping in barns, or stables, or hen coops. If the French were
"a gay people, fond of dancing and light wines," he'd like to know where
it came in! Nothing but drill and mud, mud and drill, and rain, rain,
rain! And old women with tragic faces, and young women with old eyes.
And unbelievable stories of courage and sacrifice. And more rain, and
more mud, and more drill. And then--into it!
Into it with both feet. Living in the trenches. Back home, in camp, they
had refused to take the trenches seriously. They had played in them as
children play bear under the piano or table, and had refused to keep
their heads down. But Buzz learned to keep his down now, quickly enough.
A first terrifying stretch of this, then back to the rear again. More
mud and drill. Marches so long and arduous that walking was no longer
walking but a dreadful mechanical motion. He learned what thirst was,
did Buzz. He learned what it was to be obliged to keep your mind off the
thought of pails of water--pails that slopped and brimmed over, so that
you could put your head into them and lip around like a horse.
Then back into the trenches. And finally, over the top! Very little
memory of what happened after that. A rush. Trampling over soft heaps
that writhed. Some one yelling like an Indian with a voice somehow like
his own. The German trench reached. At them with his bayonet! He
remembered, automatically, how his manual had taught him to jerk out the
steel, after you had driven it home. He did it. Into the very trench
itself. A great six-foot German struggling with a slim figure that Buzz
somehow recognised as his lieutenant, Hatton. A leap at him, like an
"G'wan! who you shovin', you big slob you" yelled Buzz (I regret to
say). And he thrust at him, and through him. The man released his
grappling hold of Hatton's throat, and grunted, and sat down. And Buzz
laughed. And the two went on, Buzz behind his lieutenant, and then
something smote his thigh, and he too sat down. The dying German had
thrown his last bomb, and it had struck home.
Buzz Werner would never again do a double shuffle on Schroeder's
Hospital days. Hospital nights. A wheel chair. Crutches. Home.
It was May once more when Buzz Werner's train came into the little
red-brick depot at Chippewa, Wisconsin. Buzz, spick and span in his
uniform, looked down rather nervously, and yet with a certain pride at
his left leg. When he sat down you couldn't tell which was the real one.
As the train pulled in at the Chippewa Junction, just before reaching
the town proper, there was old Bart Ochsner ringing the bell for dinner
at the Junction eating house. Well, for the love of Mike! Wouldn't that
make you laugh. Ringing that bell, just like always, as if nothing had
happened in the last year! Buzz leaned against the window, to see. There
was some commotion in the train and some one spoke his name. Buzz
turned, and there stood Old Man Hatton, and a lot of others, and he
seemed to be making a speech, and kind of crying, though that couldn't
be possible. And his father was there, very clean and shaved and queer.
Buzz caught words about bravery, and Chippewa's pride, and he was fussed
to death, and glad when the train pulled in at the Chippewa station. But
there the commotion was worse than ever. There was a band, playing away
like mad. Buzz's great hands grown very white, were fidgeting at his
uniform buttons, and at the stripe on his sleeve, and the medal on his
breast. They wouldn't let him carry a thing, and when he came out on the
car platform to descend there went up a great sound that was half roar
and half scream. Buzz Werner was the first of Chippewa's men to come
After that it was rather hazy. There was his mother. His sister Minnie,
too. He even saw the Kearney girl, with her loose red mouth, and her
silly eyes, and she was as a strange woman to him. He was in Hatton's
glittering automobile, being driven down Grand Avenue. There were
speeches, and a dinner, and, later, when he was allowed to go home,
rather white, a steady stream of people pouring in and out of the house
all day. That night, when he limped up the stairs to his hot little room
under the roof he was dazed, spent, and not so very happy.
Next morning, though, he felt more himself, and inclined to joke. And
then there was a talk with old Man Hatton; a talk that left Buzz
somewhat numb, and the family breathless.
Visitors again, all that afternoon.
After supper he carried water for the garden, against his mother's
"What'll folks think!" she said, "you carryin' water for me?"
Afterward he took his smart visored cap off the hook and limped down
town, his boots and leggings and uniform very spick and span from Ma
Werner's expert brushing and rubbing. She refused to let Buzz touch
them, although he tried to tell her that he had done that job for a
At the corner of Grand and Outagamie, in front of Schroeder's drug
store, stood what was left of the gang, and some new members who had
come during the year that had passed. Buzz knew them all.
They greeted him at first with a mixture of shyness and resentment. They
eyed his leg, and his uniform, and the metal and ribbon thing that hung
at his breast. Bing and Red and Spider were there. Casey was gone.
Finally Spider spat and said, "G'wan, Buzz, give us your spiel about how
you saved young Hatton--the simp!"
"Who says he's a simp?" inquired Buzz, very quietly. But there was a
look about his jaw.
"Well--anyway--the papers was full of how you was a hero. Say, is that
right that old Hatton's goin' to send you to college? Huh? Je's!"
"Yeh," chorused the others, "go on, Buzz. Tell us."
Red put his question. "Tell us about the fightin', Buzz. Is it like they
It was Buzz Werner's great moment. He had pictured it a thousand times
in his mind as he lay in the wet trenches, as he plodded the muddy
French roads, as he reclined in his wheel chair in the hospital garden.
He had them in the hollow of his hand. His eyes brightened. He looked at
the faces so eagerly fixed on his utterance.
"G'wan, Buzz," they urged.
Buzz opened his lips and the words he used were the words he might have
used a year before, as to choice. "There's nothin' to tell. A guy didn't
have no time to be scairt. Everything kind of come at once, and you got
yours, or either you didn't. That's all there was to it. Je's, it was
They waited. Nothing more. "Yeh, but tell us--"
And suddenly Buzz turned away. The little group about him fell back,
respectfully. Something in his face, perhaps. A quietness, a new
"S'long, boys," he said. And limped off, toward home.
And in that moment Buzz, the bully and braggart, vanished forever. And
in his place--head high, chest up, eyes clear--limped Ernest Werner, the
The Self-Complacent Young Cub leaned an elbow against the mantel as
you've seen it done in English plays, and blew a practically perfect
smoke-ring. It hurtled toward me like a discus.
"Trouble with your stuff," he began at once (we had just been
introduced), "is that it lacks plot. Been meaning to meet and tell you
that for a long time. Your characterization's all right, and your
dialogue. In fact, I think they're good. But your stuff lacks _raison
d'etre_--if you know what I mean.
"But"--in feeble self-defence--"people's insides are often so much more
interesting than their outsides; that which they think or feel so much
more thrilling than anything they actually do. Bennett--Wells--"
"Rot!" remarked the young cub, briskly. "Plot's the thing."
* * * * *
There is no plot to this because there is no plot to Rose. There never
was. There never will be. Compared to the drab monotony of Rose's
existence a desert waste is as thrilling as a five-reel film.
They had called her Rose, fatuously, as parents do their first-born
girl. No doubt she had been normally pink and white and velvety. It is a
risky thing to do, however. Think back hastily on the Roses you know.
Don't you find a startling majority still clinging, sere and withered,
to the family bush?
In Chicago, Illinois, a city of two millions (or is it three?), there
are women whose lives are as remote, as grey, as unrelated to the world
about them as is the life of a Georgia cracker's woman-drudge. Rose was
one of these. An unwed woman, grown heavy about the hips and arms, as
houseworking women do, though they eat but little, moving dully about
the six-room flat on Sangamon Street, Rose was as much a slave as any
black wench of plantation days.
There was the treadmill of endless dishes, dirtied as fast as cleansed;
there were beds, and beds, and beds; gravies and soups and stews. And
always the querulous voice of the sick woman in the front bedroom
demanding another hot water bag. Rose's day was punctuated by hot water
bags. They dotted her waking hours. She filled hot water bags
automatically, like a machine--water half-way to the top, then one hand
clutching the bag's slippery middle while the other, with a deft twist,
ejected the air within; a quick twirl of the metal stopper, the bag
released, squirming, and, finally, its plump and rufous cheeks wiped
"Is that too hot for you, Ma? Where'd you want it--your head or your
A spinster nearing forty, living thus, must have her memories--one
precious memory, at least--or she dies. Rose had hers. She hugged it,
close. The L trains roared by, not thirty feet from her kitchen door.
Alley and yard and street sent up their noises to her. The life of
Chicago's millions yelped at her heels. On Rose's face was the vague,
mute look of the woman whose days are spent indoors, at sordid tasks.
At six-thirty every night that look lifted, for an hour. At six-thirty
they came home--Floss, and Al, and Pa--their faces stamped with the
marks that come from a day spent in shop and factory. They brought with
them the crumbs and husks of the day's happenings, and these they flung
carelessly before the life-starved Rose and she ate them, gratefully.
They came in with a rush, hungry, fagged, grimed, imperious, smelling of
the city. There was a slamming of doors, a banging of drawers, a clatter
of tongues, quarrelling, laughter. A brief visit to the sick woman's
room. The thin, complaining voice reciting its tale of the day's
discomfort and pain. Then supper.
"Guess who I waited on to-day!" Floss might demand.
Rose, dishing up, would pause, interested. "Who?"
"Gladys Moraine! I knew her the minute she came down the aisle. I saw
her last year when she was playing in 'His Wives.' She's prettier off
than on, I think. I waited on her, and the other girls were wild. She
bought a dozen pairs of white kids, and made me give 'em to her huge, so
she could shove her hand right into 'em, like a man does. Two sizes too
big. All the swells wear 'em that way. And only one ring--an emerald the
size of a dime."
"What'd she wear?" Rose's dull face was almost animated.
"Ah yes!" in a dreamy falsetto from Al, "what _did_ she wear?"
"Oh, shut up, Al! Just a suit, kind of plain, and yet you'd notice it.
And sables! And a Gladys Moraine hat. Everything quiet, and plain, and
dark; and yet she looked like a million dollars. I felt like a roach
while I was waiting on her, though she was awfully sweet to me."
Or perhaps Al, the eel-like, would descend from his heights to mingle a
brief moment in the family talk. Al clerked in the National Cigar
Company's store at Clark and Madison. His was the wisdom of the snake,
the weasel, and the sphinx. A strangely silent young man, this Al,
thin-lipped, smooth-cheeked, perfumed. Slim of waist, flat of hip,
narrow of shoulder, his was the figure of the born fox-trotter. He
walked lightly, on the balls of his feet, like an Indian, but without
the Indian's dignity.
"Some excitement ourselves, to-day, down at the store, believe me. The
Old Man's son started in to learn the retail selling end of the
business. Back of the showcase with the rest of us, waiting on trade,
and looking like a Yale yell."
Pa would put down his paper to stare over his reading specs at Al.
"Mannheim's son! The president!"
"Yep! And I guess he loves it, huh? The Old Man wants him to learn the
business from the ground up. I'll bet he'll never get higher than the
first floor. To-day he went out to lunch at one and never shows up again
till four. Wears English collars, and smokes a brand of cigarettes we
Thus was the world brought to Rose. Her sallow cheek would show a faint
hint of colour as she sipped her tea.
At six-thirty on a Monday morning in late April (remember, nothing's
going to happen) Rose smothered her alarm clock at the first warning
snarl. She was wide-awake at once, as are those whose yesterdays,
to-days and to-morrows are all alike. Rose never opened her eyes to the
dim, tantalising half-consciousness of a something delightful or a
something harrowing in store for her that day. For one to whom the
wash-woman's Tuesday visitation is the event of the week, and in whose
bosom the delivery boy's hoarse "Groc-rees!" as he hurls soap and cabbage
on the kitchen table, arouses a wild flurry, there can be very little
thrill on awakening.
Rose slept on the davenport-couch in the sitting-room. That fact in
itself rises her status in the family. This Monday morning she opened
her eyes with what might be called a start if Rose were any other sort
of heroine. Something had happened, or was happening. It wasn't the six
o'clock steam hissing in the radiator. She was accustomed to that. The
rattle of the L trains, and the milkman's artillery disturbed her as
little as does the chirping of the birds the farmer's daughter. A
sensation new, yet familiar; delicious, yet painful, held her. She
groped to define it, lying there. Her gaze, wandering over the expanse
of the grey woollen blanket, fixed upon a small black object trembling
there. The knowledge that came to her then had come, many weeks before,
in a hundred subtle and exquisite ways, to those who dwell in the open
places. Rose's eyes narrowed craftily. Craftily, stealthily, she sat up,
one hand raised. Her eyes still fixed on the quivering spot, the hand
descended, lightning-quick. But not quickly enough. The black spot
vanished. It sped toward the open window. Through that window there came
a balmy softness made up of Lake Michigan zephyr, and stockyards smell,
and distant budding things. Rose had failed to swat the first fly of the
season. Spring had come.
As she got out of bed and thud-thudded across the room on her heels to
shut the window she glanced out into the quiet street. Her city eyes,
untrained to nature's hints, failed to notice that the scraggy,
smoke-dwarfed oak that sprang, somehow, miraculously, from the mangey
little dirt-plot in front of the building had developed surprising
things all over its scrawny branches overnight. But she did see that the
front windows of the flat building across the way were bare of the
Chicago-grey lace curtains that had hung there the day before. House
cleaning! Well, most decidedly spring had come.
Rose was the household's Aurora. Following the donning of her limp and
obscure garments it was Rose's daily duty to tear the silent family from
its slumbers. Ma was always awake, her sick eyes fixed hopefully on the
door. For fourteen years it had been the same.
"Sleeping! I haven't closed an eye all night."
Rose had learned not to dispute that statement.
"It's spring out! I'm going to clean the closets and the bureau drawers
to-day. I'll have your coffee in a jiffy. Do you feel like getting up
and sitting out on the back porch, toward noon, maybe?"
On her way kitchenward she stopped for a sharp tattoo at the door of the
room in which Pa and Al slept. A sleepy grunt of remonstrance rewarded
her. She came to Floss's door, turned the knob softly, peered in. Floss
was sleeping as twenty sleeps, deeply, dreamlessly, one slim bare arm
outflung, the lashes resting ever so lightly on the delicate curve of
cheek. As she lay there asleep in her disordered bedroom, her clothes
strewing chair, dresser, floor, Floss's tastes, mental equipment,
spiritual make-up, innermost thoughts, were as plainly to be read by
the observer as though she had been scientifically charted by a
psycho-analyst, a metaphysician and her dearest girl friend.
"Floss! Floss, honey! Quarter to seven!" Floss stirred, moaned faintly,
dropped into sleep again.
Fifteen minutes later, the table set, the coffee simmering, the morning
paper brought from the back porch to Ma, Rose had heard none of the
sounds that proclaimed the family astir--the banging of drawers, the
rush of running water, the slap of slippered feet. A peep of enquiry
into the depths of the coffee pot, the gas turned to a circle of blue
beads, and she was down the hall to sound the second alarm.
"Floss, you know if Al once gets into the bathroom!" Floss sat up in
bed, her eyes still closed. She made little clucking sounds with her
tongue and lips, as a baby does when it wakes. Drugged with sleep, hair
tousled, muscles sagging, at seven o'clock in the morning, the most
trying hour in the day for a woman, Floss was still triumphantly pretty.
She had on one of those absurd pink muslin nightgowns, artfully designed
to look like crepe de chine. You've seen them rosily displayed in the
cheaper shop windows, marked ninety-eight cents, and you may have
wondered who might buy them, forgetting that there is an imitation mind
for every imitation article in the world.
Rose stooped, picked up a pair of silk stockings from the floor, and
ran an investigating hand through to heel and toe. She plucked a soiled
pink blouse off the back of a chair, eyed it critically, and tucked it
under her arm with the stockings.
"Did you have a good time last night?"
Floss yawned elaborately, stretched her slim arms high above her head;
then, with a desperate effort, flung back the bed-clothes, swung her
legs over the side of the bed and slipped her toes into the shabby,
pomponed slippers that lay on the floor.
"I say, did you have a g--"
"Oh Lord, I don't know! I guess so," snapped Floss. Temperamentally,
Floss was not at her best at seven o'clock on Monday morning. Rose did
not pursue the subject. She tried another tack.
"It's as mild as summer out. I see the Werners and the Burkes are
housecleaning. I thought I'd start to-day with the closets, and the
bureau drawers. You could wear your blue this morning, if it was
Floss yawned again, disinterestedly, and folded her kimono about her.
"Go as far as you like. Only don't put things back in my closet so's I
can't ever find 'em again. I wish you'd press that blue skirt. And wash
out the Georgette crepe waist. I might need it."
The blouse, and skirt, and stockings under her arm, Rose went back to
the kitchen to prepare her mother's breakfast tray. Wafted back to her
came the acrid odour of Pa's matutinal pipe, and the accustomed
bickering between Al and Floss over the possession of the bathroom.
"What do you think this is, anyway? A Turkish bath?"
"Shave in your own room!"
Between Floss and Al there existed a feud that lifted only when a third
member of the family turned against either of them. Immediately they
about-faced and stood united against the offender.
Pa was the first to demand breakfast, as always. Very neat, was Pa, and
fussy, and strangely young looking to be the husband of the grey-haired,
parchment-skinned woman who lay in the front bedroom. Pa had two manias:
the movies, and a passion for purchasing new and complicated household
utensils--cream-whippers, egg-beaters, window-clamps, lemon-squeezers,
silver-polishers. He haunted department store basements in search of
He opened his paper now and glanced at the head-lines and at the Monday
morning ads. "I see the Fair's got a spring housecleaning sale. They
advertise a new kind of extension curtain rod. And Scouro, three cakes
for a dime."
"If you waste one cent more on truck like that," Rose protested, placing
his breakfast before him, "when half the time I can't make the
housekeeping money last through the week!"
"Your ma did it."
"Fourteen years ago liver wasn't thirty-two cents a pound," retorted
Rose, "and besides--"
"Scramble 'em!" yelled Al, from the bedroom, by way of warning.
There was very little talk after that. The energies of three of them
were directed toward reaching the waiting desk or counter on time. The
energy of one toward making that accomplishment easy. The front door
slammed once--that was Pa, on his way; slammed again--Al. Floss rushed
into the dining-room fastening the waist-band of her skirt, her hat
already on. Rose always had a rather special breakfast for Floss. Floss
posed as being a rather special person. She always breakfasted last, and
late. Floss's was a fastidiousness which shrinks at badly served food, a
spotted table-cloth, or a last year's hat, while it overlooks a rent in
an undergarment or the accumulated dust in a hairbrush. Her blouse was
of the sheerest. Her hair shone in waves about her delicate checks. She
ate her orange, and sipped her very special coffee, and made a little
face over her egg that had been shirred in the oven or in some way
highly specialised. Then the front door slammed again--a semi-slam, this
time. Floss never did quite close a door. Rose followed her down the
hall, shut and bolted it, Chicago fashion. The sick woman in the front
bedroom had dropped into one of her fitful morning dozes. At eight
o'clock the little flat was very still.
If you knew nothing about Rose; if you had not already been told that
she slept on the sitting-room davenport; that she was taken for granted
as the family drudge; that she was, in that household, merely an
intelligent machine that made beds, fried eggs, filled hot water bags,
you would get a characterization of her from this: She was the sort of
person who never has a closet or bureau drawer all her own. Her few and
negligible garments hung apologetically in obscure corners of closets
dedicated to her sister's wardrobe or her brother's, or her spruce and
fussy old father's. Vague personal belongings, such as combings,
handkerchiefs, a spectacle case, a hairbrush, were found tucked away in
a desk pigeon-hole, a table drawer, or on the top shelf in the bathroom.
As she pulled the disfiguring blue gingham dust-cap over her hair now,
and rolled her sleeves to her elbows, you would never have dreamed that
Rose was embarking upon her great adventure. You would never have
guessed that the semi-yearly closet cleaning was to give to Rose a
thrill as delicious as it was exquisitely painful. But Rose knew. And so
she teased herself, and tried not to think of the pasteboard box on the
shelf in the hall closet, under the pile of reserve blankets, and told
herself that she would leave that closet until the last, when she would
have to hurry over it.
* * * * *
When you clean closets and bureau drawers thoroughly you have to carry
things out to the back porch and flap them, Rose was that sort of
housekeeper. She leaned over the porch railing and flapped things, so
that the dust motes spun and swirled in the sunshine. Rose's arms worked
up and down energetically, then less energetically, finally ceased their
motion altogether. She leaned idle elbows on the porch railing and gazed
down into the yard below with a look in her eyes such as no squalid
Chicago back yard, with its dusty debris, could summon, even in
The woman next door came out on her back porch that adjoined Rose's. The
day seemed to have her in its spell, too, for in her hand was something
woolly and wintry, and she began to flap it about as Rose had done. She
had lived next door since October, had that woman, but the two had never
exchanged a word, true to the traditions of their city training. Rose
had her doubts of the woman next door. She kept a toy dog which she
aired afternoons, and her kimonos were florid and numerous. Now, as the
eyes of the two women met, Rose found herself saying, "Looks like
The woman next door caught the scrap of conversation eagerly, hungrily.
"It certainly does! Makes me feel like new clothes, and housecleaning."
"I started to-day!" said Rose, triumphantly.
"Not already!" gasped the woman next door, with the chagrin that only a
woman knows who has let May steal upon her unawares.
From far down the alley sounded a chant, drawing nearer and nearer,
until there shambled into view a decrepit horse drawing a dilapidated
huckster's cart. Perched on the seat was a Greek who turned his dusky
face up toward the two women leaning over the porch railings. "Rhubarb,
leddy. Fresh rhubarb!"
"My folks don't care for rhubarb sauce," Rose told the woman next door.
"It makes the worst pie in the world," the woman confided to Rose.
Whereupon each bought a bunch of the succulent green and red stalks. It
was their offering at the season's shrine.
Rose flung the rhubarb on the kitchen table, pulled her dust-cap more
firmly about her ears, and hurried back to the disorder of Floss's dim
little bedroom. After that it was dust-cloth, and soapsuds, and
scrub-brush in a race against recurrent water bags, insistent doorbells,
and the inevitable dinner hour. It was mid-afternoon when Rose, standing
a-tiptoe on a chair, came at last to the little box on the top shelf
under the bedding in the hall closet. Her hand touched the box, and
closed about it. A little electric thrill vibrated through her body. She
stepped down from the chair, heavily, listened until her acute ear
caught the sound of the sick woman's slumbrous breathing; then, box in
hand, walked down the dark hall to the kitchen. The rhubarb pie, still
steaming in its pan, was cooling on the kitchen table. The dishes from
the invalid's lunch-tray littered the sink. But Rose, seated on the
kitchen chair, her rumpled dust-cap pushed back from her flushed,
perspiring face, untied the rude bit of string that bound the old candy
box, removed the lid, slowly, and by that act was wafted magically out
of the world of rhubarb pies, and kitchen chairs, and dirty dishes, into
that place whose air is the breath of incense and myrrh, whose paths are
rose-strewn, whose dwellings are temples dedicated to but one small god.
The land is known as Love, and Rose travelled back to it on the magic
rug of memory.
A family of five in a six-room Chicago flat must sacrifice sentiment to
necessity. There is precious little space for those pressed flowers,
time-yellowed gowns, and ribbon-bound packets that figured so
prominently in the days of attics. Into the garbage can with yesterday's
roses! The janitor's burlap sack yawns for this morning's mail; last
year's gown has long ago met its end at the hands of the ol'-clo'es man
or the wash-woman's daughter. That they had survived these fourteen
years, and the strictures of their owner's dwelling, tells more about
this boxful of letters than could be conveyed by a battalion of
Rose began at the top of the pile, in her orderly fashion, and read
straight through to the last. It took one hour. Half of that time she
was not reading. She was staring straight ahead with what is mistakenly
called an unseeing look, but which actually pierces the veil of years
and beholds things far, far beyond the vision of the actual eye. They
were the letters of a commonplace man to a commonplace woman, written
when they loved each other, and so they were touched with something of
the divine. They must have been, else how could they have sustained this
woman through fifteen years of drudgery? They were the only tangible
foundation left of the structure of dreams she had built about this man.
All the rest of her house of love had tumbled about her ears fifteen
years before, but with these few remaining bricks she had erected many
times since castles and towers more exquisite and lofty and soaring than
the original humble structure had ever been.
The story? Well, there really isn't any, as we've warned you. Rose had
been pretty then in much the same delicate way that Floss was pretty
now. They were to have been married. Rose's mother fell ill, Floss and
Al were little more than babies. The marriage was put off. The illness
lasted six months--a year--two years--became interminable. The breach
into which Rose had stepped closed about her and became a prison. The
man had waited, had grown impatient, finally rebelled. He had fled,
probably, to marry a less encumbered lady. Rose had gone dully on,
caring for the household, the children, the sick woman. In the years
that had gone by since then Rose had forgiven him his faithlessness.
She only remembered that he had been wont to call her his Roeschen,
his Rosebud, his pretty flower (being a German gentleman). She only
recalled the wonder of having been first in some one's thoughts--she
who now was so hopelessly, so irrevocably last.
As she sat there in her kitchen, wearing her soap-stained and faded blue
gingham, and the dust-cap pushed back at a rakish angle, a simpering
little smile about her lips, she was really very much like the
disappointed old maids you used to see so cruelly pictured in the comic
valentines. Had those letters obsessed her a little more strongly she
might have become quite mad, the Freudians would tell you. Had they held
less for her, or had she not been so completely the household's slave,
she might have found a certain solace and satisfaction in viewing the
Greek profile and marcel wave of the most-worshipped movie star. As it
was, they were her ballast, her refuge, the leavening yeast in the soggy
dough of her existence. This man had wanted her to be his wife. She had
found favour in his eyes. She was certain that he still thought of her,
sometimes, and tenderly, regretfully, as she thought of him. It helped
her to live. Not only that, it made living possible.
A clock struck, a window slammed, or a street-noise smote her ear
sharply. Some sound started her out of her reverie. Rose jumped, stared
a moment at the letters in her lap, then hastily, almost shamefacedly,
sorted them (she knew each envelope by heart) tied them, placed them in
their box and bore them down the hail. There, mounting her chair, she
scrubbed the top shelf with her soapy rag, placed the box in its
corner, left the hall closet smelling of cleanliness, with never a hint
of lavender to betray its secret treasure.
Were Rose to die and go to Heaven, there to spend her days thumbing a
golden harp, her hands, by force of habit, would, drop harp-strings at
quarter to six, to begin laying a celestial and unspotted table-cloth
for supper. Habits as deeply rooted as that must hold, even in
To-night's six-thirty stampede was noticeably subdued on the part of Pa
and Al. It had been a day of sudden and enervating heat, and the city
had done its worst to them. Pa's pink gills showed a hint of purple.
Al's flimsy silk shirt stuck to his back, and his glittering pompadour
was many degrees less submissive than was its wont. But Floss came in
late, breathless, and radiant, a large and significant paper bag in her
hand. Rose, in the kitchen, was transferring the smoking supper from pot
to platter. Pa, in the doorway of the sick woman's little room, had just
put his fourteen-year-old question with his usual assumption of
heartiness and cheer: "Well, well! And how's the old girl to-night? Feel
like you could get up and punish a little supper, eh?" Al engaged at the
telephone with some one whom he addressed proprietorially as Kid, was
deep in his plans for the evening's diversion. Upon this accustomed
scene Floss burst with havoc.
"Rose! Rose, did you iron my Georgette crepe? Listen! Guess what!" All
this as she was rushing down the hall, paper hat-bag still in hand.
"Guess who was in the store to-day!"
Rose, at the oven, turned a flushed and interested face toward Floss.
"Who? What's that? A hat?"
"Yes. But listen--"
"Let's see it."
Floss whipped it out of its bag, defiantly. "There! But wait a minute!
Let me tell you--"
Floss hesitated just a second. Her wage was nine dollars a week. Then,
"Seven-fifty, trimmed." The hat was one of those tiny, head-hugging
absurdities that only the Flosses can wear.
"Trimmed is right!" jeered Al, from the doorway.
Rose, thin-lipped with disapproval, turned to her stove again.
"Well, but I had to have it. I'm going to the theatre to-night. And
guess who with! Henry Selz!"
Henry Selz was the unromantic name of the commonplace man over whose
fifteen-year-old letters Rose had glowed and dreamed an hour before. It
was a name that had become mythical in that household--to all but one.
Rose heard it spoken now with a sense of unreality. She smiled a little
uncertainly, and went on stirring the flour thickening for the gravy.
But she was dimly aware that something inside her had suspended action
for a moment, during which moment she felt strangely light and
disembodied, and that directly afterward the thing began to work madly,
so that there was a choked feeling in her chest and a hot pounding in
"What's the joke?" she said, stirring the gravy in the pan.
"Joke nothing! Honest to God! I was standing back of the counter at
about ten. The rush hadn't really begun yet. Glove trade usually starts
late. I was standing there kidding Herb, the stock boy, when down the
aisle comes a man in a big hat, like you see in the western pictures,
hair a little grey at the temples, and everything, just like a movie
actor. I said to Herb, 'Is it real?' I hadn't got the words out of my
mouth when the fellow sees me, stands stock still in the middle of the
aisle with his mouth open and his eyes sticking out. 'Register
surprise,' I said to Herb, and looked around for the camera. And that
minute he took two jumps over to where I was standing, grabbed my hands
and says, 'Rose! Rose!' kind of choky. 'Not by about twenty years,' I
said. 'I'm Floss, Rose's sister. Let go my hands!'"
Rose--a transfigured Rose, glowing, trembling, radiant--repeated,
vibrantly, "You said, 'I'm Floss, Rose's sister. Let go my hands!'
"He looked kind of stunned, for just a minute. His face was a scream,
honestly. Then he said, 'But of course. Fifteen years. But I had always
thought of her as just the same.' And he kind of laughed, ashamed, like
a kid. And the whitest teeth!"
"Yes, they were--white," said Rose. "Well?"
"Well, I said, 'Won't I do instead?' 'You bet you'll do!' he said. And
then he told me his name, and how he was living out in Spokane, and his
wife was dead, and he had made a lot of money--fruit, or real estate, or
something. He talked a lot about it at lunch, but I didn't pay any
attention, as long as he really has it a lot I care how--"
"Everything from grape-fruit to coffee. I didn't know it could be done
in one hour. Believe me, he had those waiters jumping. It takes money.
He asked all about you, and ma, and everything. And he kept looking at
me and saying, 'It's wonderful!' I said, 'Isn't it!' but I meant the
lunch. He wanted me to go driving this afternoon--auto and everything.
Kept calling me Rose. It made me kind of mad, and I told him how you
look. He said, 'I suppose so,' and asked me to go to a show to-night.
Listen, did you press my Georgette? And the blue?"
"I'll iron the waist while you're eating. I'm not hungry. It only takes
a minute. Did you say he was grey?"
"Grey? Oh, you mean--why, just here, and here. Interesting, but not a
bit old. And he's got that money look that makes waiters and doormen and
taxi drivers just hump. I don't want any supper. Just a cup of tea. I
haven't got enough time to dress in, decently, as it is."
Al, draped in the doorway, removed his cigarette to give greater force
to his speech. "Your story interests me strangely, little gell. But
there's a couple of other people that would like to eat, even if you
wouldn't. Come on with that supper, Ro. Nobody staked me to a lunch
Rose turned to her stove again. Two carmine spots had leaped suddenly to
her cheeks. She served the meal in silence, and ate nothing, but that
was not remarkable. For the cook there is little appeal in the meat that
she has tended from its moist and bloody entrance in the butcher's
paper, through the basting or broiling stage to its formal appearance on
the platter. She saw that Al and her father were served. Then she went
back to the kitchen, and the thud of her iron was heard as she deftly
fluted the ruffles of the crepe blouse. Floss appeared when the meal was
half eaten, her hair shiningly coiffed, the pink ribbons of her corset
cover showing under her thin kimono. She poured herself a cup of tea and
drank it in little quick, nervous gulps. She looked deliriously young,
and fragile and appealing, her delicate slenderness revealed by the
flimsy garment she wore. Excitement and anticipation lent a glow to her
eyes, colour to her cheeks. Al, glancing expertly at the ingenuousness
of her artfully simple coiffure, the slim limpness of her body, her
wide-eyed gaze, laughed a wise little laugh.
"Every move a Pickford. And so girlish withal."
Floss ignored him. "Hurry up with that waist, Rose!"
"I'm on the collar now. In a second." There was a little silence. Then:
"Floss, is--is Henry going to call for you--here?"
"Well, sure! Did you think I was going to meet him on the corner? He
said he wanted to see you, or something polite like that."
She finished her tea and vanished again. Al, too, had disappeared to
begin that process from which he had always emerged incredibly sleek,
and dapper and perfumed. His progress with shaving brush, shirt, collar
and tie was marked by disjointed bars of the newest syncopation whistled
with an uncanny precision and fidelity to detail. He caught the broken
time, and tossed it lightly up again, and dropped it, and caught it
deftly like a juggler playing with frail crystal globes that seem
forever on the point of crashing to the ground.
Pa stood up, yawning. "Well," he said, his manner very casual, "guess
I'll just drop around to the movie."
From the kitchen, "Don't you want to sit with ma a minute, first?"
"I will when I come back. They're showing the third installment of 'The
Adventures of Aline,' and I don't want to come in in the middle of it."
He knew the selfishness of it, this furtive and sprightly old man. And
because he knew it he attempted to hide his guilt under a burst of
"I've been slaving all day. I guess I've got the right to a little
amusement. A man works his fingers to the bone for his family, and then
his own daughter nags him."
He stamped down the hall, righteously, and slammed the front door.
Rose came from the kitchen, the pink blouse, warm from the iron, in one
hand. She prinked out its ruffles and pleatings as she went. Floss,
burnishing her nails somewhat frantically with a dilapidated and greasy
buffer, snatched the garment from her and slipped bare arms into it. The
front door bell rang, three big, determined rings. Panic fell upon the
"It's him!" whispered Floss, as if she could be heard in the entrance
three floors below. "You'll have to go."
"I can't!" Every inch of her seemed to shrink and cower away from the
thought. "I can't!" Her eyes darted to and fro like a hunted thing
seeking to escape. She ran to the hall. "Al! Al, go to the door, will
"Can't," came back in a thick mumble. "Shaving."
The front door-bell rang again, three big, determined rings. "Rose!"
hissed Floss, her tone venomous. "I can't go with my waist open. For
heaven's sake! Go to the door!"
"I can't," repeated Rose, in a kind of wail. "I--can't." And went. As
she went she passed one futile, work-worn hand over her hair, plucked
off her apron and tossed it into; a corner, first wiping her flushed
face with it.
Henry Selz came up the shabby stairs springily as a man of forty should.
Rose stood at the door and waited for him. He stood in the doorway a
His uncertainty became incredulity. Then, "Why, how-do, Rose! Didn't
know you--for a minute. Well, well! It's been a long time. Let's
see--ten--fourteen--about fifteen years, isn't it?"
His tone was cheerfully conversational. He really was interested,
mathematically. He was as sentimental in his reminiscence as if he had
been calculating the lapse of time between the Chicago fire and the
"Fifteen," said Rose, "in May. Won't you come in? Floss'll be here in a
Henry Selz came in and sat down on the davenport couch and dabbed at his
forehead. The years had been very kind to him--those same years that had
treated Rose so ruthlessly. He had the look of an outdoor man; a man who
has met prosperity and walked with her, and followed her pleasant ways;
a man who has learned late in life of golf and caviar and tailors, but
who has adapted himself to these accessories of wealth with a minimum of
"It certainly is warm, for this time of year." He leaned back and
regarded Rose tolerantly. "Well, and how've you been? Did little sister
tell you how flabbergasted I was when I saw her this morning? I'm darned
if it didn't take fifteen years off my age, just like that! I got kind
of balled up for one minute and thought it was you. She tell you?"
"Yes, she told me," said Rose.
"I hear your ma's still sick. That certainly is tough. And you've never
"Never married," echoed Rose.
And so they made conversation, a little uncomfortably, until there came
quick, light young steps down the hallway, and Floss appeared in the
door, a radiant, glowing, girlish vision. Youth was in her eyes, her
cheeks, on her lips. She radiated it. She was miraculously well dressed,
in her knowingly simple blue serge suit, and her tiny hat, and her neat
shoes and gloves.
"Ah! And how's the little girl to-night?" said Henry Selz.
Floss dimpled, blushed, smiled, swayed. "Did I keep you waiting a
terribly long time?"
"No, not a bit. Rose and I were chinning over old times, weren't we,
Rose?" A kindly, clumsy thought struck him. "Say, look here, Rose. We're
going to a show. Why don't you run and put on your hat and come along.
H'm? Come on!"
Rose smiled as a mother smiles at a child that has unknowingly hurt her.
"No, thanks, Henry. Not to-night. You and Floss run along. Yes, I'll
remember you to Ma. I'm sorry you can't see her. But she don't see
anybody, poor Ma."
Then they were off, in a little flurry of words and laughter. From force
of habit Rose's near-sighted eyes peered critically at the hang of
Floss's blue skirt and the angle of the pert new hat. She stood a
moment, uncertainly, after they had left. On her face was the queerest
look, as of one thinking, re-adjusting, struggling to arrive at a
conclusion in the midst of sudden bewilderment. She turned mechanically
and went into her mother's room. She picked up the tray on the table by
"Who was that?" asked the sick woman, in her ghostly, devitalised voice.
"That was Henry Selz," said Rose.
The sick woman grappled a moment with memory. "Henry Selz! Henry--oh,
yes. Did he go out with Rose?"
"Yes," said Rose.
"It's cold in here," whined the sick woman.
"I'll get you a hot bag in a minute, Ma." Rose carried the tray down the
hall to the kitchen. At that Al emerged from his bedroom, shrugging
himself into his coat. He followed Rose down the hall and watched her as
she filled the bag and screwed it and wiped it dry.
"I'll take that in to Ma," he volunteered. He was up the hall and back
in a flash. Rose had slumped into a chair at the dining-room table, and
was pouring herself a cup of cold and bitter tea. Al came over to her
and laid one white hand on her shoulder.
"Ro, lend me a couple of dollars till Saturday, will you?"
"I should say not."
Al doused his cigarette in the dregs of a convenient teacup. He bent
down and laid his powdered and pale cheek against Rose's sallow one. One
arm was about her, and his hand patted her shoulder.
"Oh, come on, kid," he coaxed. "Don't I always pay you back? Come on! Be
a sweet ol' sis. I wouldn't ask you only I've got a date to go to the
White City to-night, and dance, and I couldn't get out of it. I tried."
He kissed her, and his lips were moist, and he reeked of tobacco, and
though Rose shrugged impatiently away from him he knew that he had won.
Rose was not an eloquent woman; she was not even an articulate one, at
times. If she had been, she would have lifted up her voice to say now:
"Oh, God! I am a woman! Why have you given me all the sorrows, and the
drudgery, and the bitterness and the thanklessness of motherhood, with
none of its joys! Give me back my youth! I'll drink the dregs at the
bottom of the cup, but first let me taste the sweet!"
But Rose did not talk or think in such terms. She could not have put
into words the thing she was feeling even if she had been able to
diagnose it. So what she said was, "Don't you think I ever get sick and
tired of slaving for a thankless bunch like you? Well, I do! Sick and
tired of it. That's what! You make me tired, coming around asking for
money, as if I was a bank."
But Al waited. And presently she said, grudgingly, wearily, "There's a
dollar bill and some small change in the can on the second shelf in the
Al was off like a terrier. From the pantry came the clink of metal
against metal. He was up the hall in a flash, without a look at Rose.
The front door slammed a third time.
Rose stirred her cold tea slowly, leaning on the table's edge and gazing
down into the amber liquid that she did not mean to drink. For suddenly
and comically her face puckered up like a child's. Her head came down
among the supper things with a little crash that set the teacups, and
the greasy plates to jingling, and she sobbed as she lay there, with
great tearing, ugly sobs that would not be stilled, though she tried to
stifle them as does one who lives in a paper-thin Chicago flat. She was
not weeping for the Henry Selz whom she had just seen. She was not
weeping for envy of her selfish little sister, or for loneliness, or
weariness. She was weeping at the loss of a ghost who had become her
familiar. She was weeping because a packet of soiled and yellow old
letters on the top shelf in the hall closet was now only a packet of
soiled and yellow old letters, food for the ash can. She was weeping
because the urge of spring, that had expressed itself in her only this
morning pitifully enough in terms of rhubarb, and housecleaning and a
bundle of thumbed old love letters, had stirred in her for the last
But presently she did stop her sobbing and got up and cleared the table,
and washed the dishes and even glanced at the crumpled sheets of the
morning paper that she never found time to read until evening. By eight
o'clock the little flat was very still.
Theresa Platt (she that had been Terry Sheehan) watched her husband
across the breakfast table with eyes that smouldered. When a woman's
eyes smoulder at 7.30 a.m. the person seated opposite her had better
look out. But Orville Platt was quite unaware of any smouldering in
progress. He was occupied with his eggs. How could he know that these
very eggs were feeding the dull red menace in Terry Platt's eyes?
When Orville Platt ate a soft-boiled egg he concentrated on it. He
treated it as a great adventure. Which, after all, it is. Few adjuncts
of our daily life contain the element of chance that is to be found in a
three-minute breakfast egg.
This was Orville Platt's method of attack: First, he chipped off the
top, neatly. Then he bent forward and subjected it to a passionate and
relentless scrutiny. Straightening--preparatory to plunging his spoon
therein--he flapped his right elbow. It wasn't exactly a flap; it was a
pass between a hitch and a flap, and presented external evidence of a
mental state. Orville Platt always gave that little preliminary jerk
when he was contemplating a step, or when he was moved, or
argumentative. It was a trick as innocent as it was maddening.
Terry Platt had learned to look for that flap--they had been married
four years--to look for it, and to hate it with a morbid, unreasoning
hate. That flap of the elbow was tearing Terry Platt's nerves into raw,
Her fingers were clenched tightly under the table, now. She was
breathing unevenly. "If he does that again," she told herself, "if he
flaps again when he opens the second egg, I'll scream. I'll scream. I'll
scream! I'll sc--"
He had scooped the first egg into his cup. Now he picked up the second,
chipped it, concentrated, straightened, then--up went the elbow, and
down, with the accustomed little flap.
The tortured nerves snapped. Through the early morning quiet of Wetona,
Wisconsin, hurtled the shrill, piercing shriek of Terry Platt's
"Terry! For God's sake! What's the matter!"
Orville Platt dropped the second egg, and his spoon. The egg yolk
trickled down his plate. The spoon made a clatter and flung a gay spot
of yellow on the cloth. He started toward her.
Terry, wild-eyed, pointed a shaking finger at him. She was laughing,
now, uncontrollably. "Your elbow! Your elbow!"
"Elbow?" He looked down at it, bewildered; then up, fright in his face.
"What's the matter with it?"
She mopped her eyes. Sobs shook her. "You f-f-flapped it."
"F-f-f--" The bewilderment in Orville Platt's face gave way to anger.
"Do you mean to tell me that you screeched like that because my--because
I moved my elbow?"
His anger deepened and reddened to fury. He choked. He had started from
his chair with his napkin in his hand. He still clutched it. Now he
crumpled it into a wad and hurled it to the centre of the table, where
it struck a sugar bowl, dropped back, and uncrumpled slowly,
reprovingly. "You--you--" Then bewilderment closed down again like a fog
over his countenance. "But why? I can't see--"
"Because it--because I can't stand it any longer. Flapping. This is what
you do. Like this."
And she did it. Did it with insulting fidelity, being a clever mimic.
"Well, all I can say is you're crazy, yelling like that, for nothing."
"It isn't nothing."
"Isn't, huh? If that isn't nothing, what is?" They were growing
incoherent. "What d'you mean, screeching like a maniac? Like a wild
woman? The neighbours'll think I've killed you. What d'you mean,
"I mean I'm tired of watching it, that's what. Sick and tired."
"Y'are, huh? Well, young lady, just let me tell _you_ something--"
He told her. There followed one of those incredible quarrels, as
sickening as they are human, which can take place only between two
people who love each other; who love each other so well that each knows
with cruel certainty the surest way to wound the other; and who stab,
and tear, and claw at these vulnerable spots in exact proportion to
Ugly words. Bitter words. Words that neither knew they knew flew between
them like sparks between steel striking steel.
From him--"Trouble with you is you haven't got enough to do. That's the
trouble with half you women. Just lay around the house, rotting. I'm a
fool, slaving on the road to keep a good-for-nothing--"
"I suppose you call sitting around hotel lobbies slaving! I suppose the
house runs itself! How about my evenings? Sitting here alone, night
after night, when you're on the road."
Finally, "Well, if you don't like it," he snarled, and lifted his chair
by the back and slammed it down, savagely, "if you don't like it, why
don't you get out, h'm? Why don't you get out?"
And from her, her eyes narrowed to two slits, her cheeks scarlet:
"Why, thanks. I guess I will."
Ten minutes later he had flung out of the house to catch the 8.19 for
Manitowoc. He marched down the street, his shoulders swinging
rhythmically to the weight of the burden he carried--his black leather
hand-bag and the shiny tan sample case, battle-scarred, both, from many
encounters with ruthless porters and 'bus men and bell boys. For four
years, as he left for his semi-monthly trip, he and Terry had observed a
certain little ceremony (as had the neighbours). She would stand in the
doorway watching him down the street, the heavier sample-case banging
occasionally at his shin. The depot was only three blocks away. Terry
watched him with fond, but unillusioned eyes, which proves that she
really loved him. He was a dapper, well-dressed fat man, with a weakness
for pronounced patterns in suitings, and addicted to brown derbies. One
week on the road, one week at home. That was his routine. The wholesale
grocery trade liked Platt, and he had for his customers the fondness
that a travelling salesman has who is successful in his territory.
Before his marriage to Terry Sheehan his little red address book had
been overwhelming proof against the theory that nobody loves a fat man.
Terry, standing in the doorway, always knew that when he reached the
corner, just where Schroeder's house threatened to hide him from view,
he would stop, drop the sample case, wave his hand just once, pick up
the sample case and go on, proceeding backward for a step or two, until
Schroeder's house made good its threat. It was a comic scene in the
eyes of the onlooker, perhaps because a chubby Romeo offends the sense
of fitness. The neighbours, lurking behind their parlour curtains, had
laughed at first. But after awhile they learned to look for that little
scene, and to take it unto themselves, as if it were a personal thing.
Fifteen-year wives whose husbands had long since abandoned flowery
farewells used to get a vicarious thrill out of it, and to eye Terry
with a sort of envy.
This morning Orville Platt did not even falter when he reached
Schroeder's corner. He marched straight on, looking steadily ahead, the
heavy bags swinging from either hand. Even if he had stopped--though she
knew he wouldn't--Terry Platt would not have seen him. She remained
seated at the disordered breakfast table, a dreadfully still figure, and
sinister; a figure of stone and fire; of ice and flame. Over and over in
her mind she was milling the things she might have said to him, and had
not. She brewed a hundred vitriolic cruelties that she might have flung
in his face. She would concoct one biting brutality, and dismiss it for
a second, and abandon that for a third. She was too angry to cry--a
dangerous state in a woman. She was what is known as cold mad, so that
her mind was working clearly and with amazing swiftness, and yet as
though it were a thing detached; a thing that was no part of her.
She sat thus for the better part of an hour, motionless except for one
forefinger that was, quite unconsciously, tapping out a popular and
cheap little air that she had been strumming at the piano the evening
before, having bought it down town that same afternoon. It had struck
Orville's fancy, and she had played it over and over for him. Her right
forefinger was playing the entire tune, and something in the back of her
head was following it accurately, though the separate thinking process
was going on just the same. Her eyes were bright, and wide, and hot.
Suddenly she became conscious of the musical antics of her finger. She
folded it in with its mates, so that her hand became a fist. She stood
up and stared down at the clutter of the breakfast table. The egg--that
fateful second egg--had congealed to a mottled mess of yellow and white.
The spoon lay on the cloth. His coffee, only half consumed, showed tan
with a cold grey film over it. A slice of toast at the left of his plate
seemed to grin at her with the semi-circular wedge that he had bitten