Part 2 out of 8
advantages would think she had heaven on earth."
"I hate it, I tell you. Flora and Snow and all those girls, with nothing
on their brains except fellows and fancy work, make me positively sick."
"I notice Flora had enough brains to become engaged to a fine young
fellow with prospects like Vincent Bankhead."
"Every time I sit down at that circle I think I'm going to scream. I
just can't rake up enthusiasm over French knots. Something in me begins
to suffocate and I can't get out from under. I hate it."
Regarding her daughter through the bluish aroma of bacon in the frying,
her early-morning coiffure and wrapper not lenient with her, a
bitterness pulled at the lips of Mrs. Becker.
"That settles it. I'm going to have a talk with your father this
"Oh, mamma, please don't begin a scene!"
"Ben, are you ready for breakfast? Come down. What do you do up there so
long? You've been one solid hour splashing around the bathroom, as if I
didn't have to get down on my hands and knees to wipe up the flood
around the bathtub. Hurry! Your daughter has something to say to you."
"Coming, Carrie. Don't get excited."
"Don't get excited! I think your father would ram that down my throat if
this house was tumbling around our heads."
It was true that Mr. Becker's imperturbability incased him like a kindly
coating of tallow. His daily and peremptory call to breakfast brought
him down only after the last satisfactory application of whisk, tooth,
hand, shoe, bath, and hair brush, his invariable white-linen string tie
adjusted to a nicety, his neat gray business suit buttoned over a
"If I took as good care of myself as my husband does, I'd live to be a
"Now, little woman, you got up on the wrong side of bed to-day."
On this particular morning he descended genial, rubbing cold,
soap-exuding hands together.
"Well, little woman! Good morning, daughter."
"Ben, I'm at my row's end with Lilly. Something has got to be done or I
can't stand it."
He sat down, an immediate tiredness out in his face, adjusting his
napkin by the patent fasteners to each coat lapel.
"Now, Carrie, have you and Lilly been quarreling again? Doesn't it seem
too bad, Lilly, that you and your mother cannot get on without these
disturbances? Your mother may have her peculiarities, but she
A ready wave of red self-commiseration dashed itself across Mrs.
"I can't stand it, Ben. I don't know what she wants. Maybe you can
please her. I can't. Everything I do is wrong. Everything."
In her little blue-gingham morning dress, out of which her neck flowered
white and ever beautiful of nape, Lilly crumbled up her biscuit, eyes
miserably down, the red-hot pricklings which invariably accompanied
these scenes flashing over her and a crowding in her throat as if she
must tear it open for language to make them understand.
"Talk to your father, now! Tell him some of the things you hound me
"Lilly, what seems to be the trouble?"
"I--I don't know. Mamma gets so excited right away. I just happened to
mention that--I don't know what to do with myself."
"Do with yourself! Help me in the house. I can give you enough to do
with yourself. I don't get lonesome."
"Carrie, now, don't holler."
"That's the way she is, papa. She gets excited and hollers at me
because I can't get interested in sewing clubs and housework."
"It's because you've got it too good that you're not satisfied. That
Flora Kemble, that never has a decent thing to wear, gets engaged
"Now, Carrie, that's no way to talk."
"Mamma always makes me feel uncomfortable because I'm not married yet."
"Now do you believe what I go through with, Ben?"
"You haven't any faith in me, but--somewhere--destiny, or whatever you
want to call it, has a job waiting for me!"
"That's too poetical for me to keep up with. Thank goodness I'm a plain
woman who knows her place in life."
"Exactly, mamma. It isn't that I consider myself above Flora's party
to-morrow night. It's not my place. I don't belong there. I hate it, I
"You hear that, Ben? That's the thanks I get. You know the way I've
tried to make this little home one a child could be proud of. Take the
time that fine young Bryant fellow came to call. Why, that little parlor
of ours was fit for a princess. His knuckles didn't suit her! They
cracked, she said. I've heard of lots of excuses for not taking to boys,
but that beats all. Three girls out of the sewing club already married
and Flora engaged to that well-to-do Bankhead boy, and mine holds
herself above them all."
"Your mother isn't all wrong, Lilly."
"I've run my legs off for the white organdie so Katy Stutz could make it
up for Flora's engagement party to-morrow night. Does she appreciate it?
Oh yes, long face is the kind of appreciation I get."
"I'd rather stay home, mamma, and practice my singing or
"You'll sing _there_. Mrs. Kemble has it all fixed for Flora to call on
you just before the refreshments. If you begin to pout about this party,
"Oh," cried Lilly, turning her face away to hide the embitterment of lip
and still crumbling up her biscuit, "don't worry. I'm going if--if it
Suddenly Mrs. Becker's face quivered ominously, the impending
"I wish I was dead. What do I get out of it? Struggle and sacrifice, and
all for an ungrateful daughter that isn't happy in her home."
"It isn't that. Just let me be--myself!"
"Then what is yourself? For God's sake tell us what? Anything to end
this state of affairs."
"I'm suffocating here. Let me make something out of myself."
"Listen to her, Ben. Make something. Her stories come back from the
editors. Her teacher keeps telling me her voice isn't ready yet. Miss
Lee says her piano technique is lazy--"
"Then let me travel--college--anything."
"She thinks we're millionaires, Ben."
"Lilly, Lilly! What is the young generation coming to?"
"I wish I was dead. Dead," cried Mrs. Becker, beating at the table until
the dishes shivered. Danger lights sprang out in little green signals
around about the flanges of her nose. She was mounting to hysteria.
"Lilly, aren't you ashamed to torture your mother like this?" cried Mr.
Becker, his voice shot through with what for him amounted to a pistol
report. "Comfort your mother. Apologize at once!"
"Mamma, I'm sorry! I am, dear."
"You would think we were plotting against her."
"Now, now, Carrie, Lilly doesn't mean all she says."
"But she eats my life out."
"She wants to please us. Don't you, Lilly?"
"Now let us see if things can't run smoother in our little home, eh,
Lilly? We'll all try and do each his part, eh, Lilly?"
"It's late," cried Mrs. Becker, suddenly, on the single gong of half
after seven, and, ever quick and kaleidoscopic of mood: "Katy Stutz will
be here any minute. That's her now. Run upstairs, Lilly, and take the
top off the sewing machine and lay out the white organdie. Quick, Lilly.
I want you to have it without fail for to-morrow night."
It was at this controversial gathering of young people at the home of
Flora Kemble that Lilly met, for the first time, Albert Penny.
The Kemble home lent itself gracefully to occasions of this kind, the
parlor and reception hall opening into one, and the impending
refreshments in the dining room shut off with folding doors. There was
more of ostentation in the Kemble home. More festooning of fringed
scarfs, gilt chairs, and a glass curio cabinet crammed with knickknacks.
"Dutch as sauerkraut," was Mrs. Becker's indictment; and Flora Kemble
came under the gaucherie of the impeachment, too.
She had attained tall and exceedingly supine proportions, wore pinks and
blues and an invariable necklace of pink paste pearls to fine advantage,
and a fuzz of yellow bangs that fell down over her eyes, only to be
repeatedly flung back again.
Again MRS. BECKER (who could be caustic): "She makes me so nervous, with
her hair down over her eyes like a poodle dog, that I could scream."
Nevertheless, at eighteen Flora's neat spiritous air lay calm as a
wimple over her keenly motivated little self. The same apparently
guileless exterior that had concealed her struggle along a road lit with
midnight oil toward her graduation, enveloped the campaign of strategy
and minutiae that had resulted victoriously in her engagement to Vincent
Bankhead, assistant credit man to his father.
Albert Penny at this time was second-assistant buyer for Slocum-Hines,
and, at the instance of his friend Vincent, somewhat reluctantly
"Al, what are you doing to-night?"
"Oh, about the same old thing! Take a stroll and turn in, I guess. Why?"
"There is a little gathering up at the Kembles' this evening. Thought
maybe you'd like to meet the girl. Nothing formal, just a few of the
girls and boys over to celebrate."
"I'm not much on that kind of thing, Bankhead. Guess you'd better count
"Come along. Want to show you the kind of little peach I've picked."
"Ask me out some night to a quiet little supper, Bankhead. I feel a cold
"Quiet little supper, nothing. That's your trouble now, too much quiet.
Nice people, her folks. It'll do you good."
And so it came that when the folding doors between the Kemble dining
room and parlor were thrown open, Lilly Becker, still flushed from a
self-accompanied rendition of "Angels' Serenade" and an encore,
"Jocelyn," and Albert Penny, in a neat business suit and plaid
four-in-hand, found themselves side by side, napkin and dish of ice
cream on each of their laps, gay little bubbles of conversation, that
were constantly exploding into laughter, floating up from off the
There is a photograph somewhere in an album of Lilly much as she must
have looked that night. Her white organdie frock out charmingly around
her, a fluted ruffle at the low neck forming fitting calyx for the fine
upward flow of her high white chest into firm, smooth throat; the
enormous puff sleeves of the period ending above the elbow where her
arm was roundest; the ardent, rather upward thrust of face as if the
stars were fragrant; the little lilt to the eyebrows; the straight gray
eyes; the complexion smooth as double cream, flowing in cleanest
jointure into the shining brown hair, worn in an age of Psyche or
Pompadour, so swiftly and shiningly drawn back that it might have been
That was the Lilly Becker upon whom Albert Penny cast the first second
glance he had ever spared her sex.
"Miss Becker, we certainly did enjoy your solo."
She was still warmed from the effort, the tingling nervousness of the
moment not yet died down, and she was eager and grateful.
"Oh, Mr. Penny, did you really? I was so afraid I flatted there at the
"I had to laugh the way they broke in with clapping before you were
finished. I knew you weren't done."
"Oh, then you're musical, too?"
"No, but I could see there was one more page you hadn't turned."
"My! but you can go high! Like a regular opera singer."
"Oh, if I thought you meant that! It's my ambition to sing--real big
opera, you know."
"It certainly was a pretty song, not so much the song as the way you
sang it. I could understand every word."
"If only my parents could hear you say that. You see, they don't
approve. They think it's all right for a girl to have a parlor voice,
but it must stop right there, otherwise it becomes a liability instead
of an asset."
At this little conceit of speech he turned delighted eyes upon her.
"Why, you're a regular little business woman!" he cried.
"Yes," she sighed out at him through a smile, "I took the commercial
course at High."
Inhibitions induce callosities, and Albert Penny's inhibitions, incased
within the shell of himself, were as catalogic as Homer's list of ships.
First, like Tithonus, he had no youth. Persiflage, which he secretly
envied in others, on his own lips went off like damp fireworks. He loved
order and his mind easily took in statistics. He had invented a wire
kind of dish for utilizing the left-over blobs of soap. He never
received so much as a street-car transfer without reading its entire
face contents. In seven years he had not availed himself of the annual
two weeks' vacation offered him by his firm, and, conspire as he would
against it, Sunday continued to represent to him a hebdomadal vacuity of
morning paper, afternoon nap and walk, unsatisfactory cold supper, and
early to bed. His very capacity for monotony seemed to engender it. He
could sit in Forest Park the whole of a Sunday afternoon, poring over a
chance railroad time-table picked up on the bench; paring his straight,
clean finger nails with a penknife; observing the carriages go by; or
sit beside the lake, watching the skiffs glide about at twenty-five
cents the hour; and finally, hat brim down over his eyes, doze until
twilight seeped damply into his consciousness.
This same unsensitiveness to routine had enhanced his value with
Slocum-Hines from delivery boy at fifteen to second-assistant buyer at
twenty-five, an amenability, however, that threatened to pauperize him
of any capacity for play. Under the well-meant banterings of friends he
became conscious of it, but to cast it off was to cast off the thing he
was. He tried to learn to recreate, and took Saturday-evening street-car
rides to Forest Park Highlands and joined a bowling club. He paid ten
dollars in advance for a course of six dancing lessons, too, and only
took four of them.
There had never been a woman, a perfume, or a regret in his life. In the
period of ten years since his migration from the paternal farm ten miles
outside of Sparta, Missouri, he had worked for one firm, boarded with
one landlady, and eaten about three thousand quick lunches in the Old
Rock Bakery at Lucas Avenue and Broadway. To further account for the
state of existing hiatus in Mr. Penny's scheme of things would be
A short femur line gave him an entirely false appearance of stockiness.
On the contrary, he stood a full five feet ten, was thewed with fine
compactness and solid with clean living and clean with solid living.
Even the fiber of his remarkably fine hair was strong. It was the
brilliant honey color of full-moon shine, lay off his brow, but not
down, lending him a look of distinction to which he was hardly entitled.
He regarded Lilly with a furtiveness prompted solely by a desire not to
appear audacious. Her softly rising throat just recovering its normal
beat reminded him of the sweet agitation of pigeons in the park. He was
close enough to be conscious of an amazing impulse on his part to reach
over and touch the soft white flesh above the cove of her elbow. A
little blue thread of a vein showed there, maddeningly. A sense of inner
pounding suffocated him. He felt as if he had suddenly stepped into a
bath of charged waters, little explosions all over the surface of him.
Then a numbness so that, when he placed his tongue to the roof of his
mouth, it was insensate, and, somewhat frightened, he pinched the back
of his hand, relieved by the stab of pain.
"Do you dance, Mr. Penny?"
"Me? I--No, I guess I'm what you would call temperance when it comes to
A little clearing had been made in the parlor, a music box pricking out
the "Blue Danube." From the dining room they sat regarding the three or
four couples, Lilly marking time with the toe of her white-kid slipper.
The elixir of the dance could rush to her head like wine, but she was
not sought after as a partner, due to her reserve against a too locked
embrace and a curious tendency to lead.
"To me, dancing is poetry as written by the feet."
He relieved her of her napkin and ice-cream dish, eager for suitable
reply to this syrupy observation.
"Speaking of feet, have you seen the show at Forest Park Highlands this
"Well, really remarkable. There is an armless fellow there who eats and
juggles, even writes, with his toes."
"Sometime if you would honor me by--by accompanying--I--er--Becker, did
I understand the name to be? I wonder if by any chance you are related
to Ben Becker."
She turned upon him with the immemorial sense of a point about to be
scored, her eyes full of relish.
"Why, I think I'm slightly related, Mr. Penny. He happens to be my
He whacked his thigh.
"You don't tell me! Why, I've bought rope and twine from your father for
three years! A mighty fine gentleman, there. Well, well, this is a small
world, after all."
She noticed his large, protuberant Adam's apple throbbing with the
accelerando of pleasure, and a thaw set in between them. He let his arm
drape over the back of her chair, a stolen sense of her nearness
dizzying him. He was like a man with a suddenly developed new sense,
which he could not tickle enough.
"Well, well!" he said. "Well, well, well!" And she sighed out again
through her smile that he could fall so short of what he looked to be.
"I used to say, when I was a little girl, Mr. Penny, that I wished my
father were in a more romantic business than rope and twine. I wanted
him to be a florist or a wood carver or a music publisher or some of the
perfectly silly things that girls get into their heads."
"I always say of myself that I must have been born with a wooden spoon
in my mouth. Took to hardware from the very start. Left my stepfather's
farm and general store at fifteen and made a bee line for the hardware
business before I hardly knew what hardware meant. I suppose I'll die
with my nose to one of those very grindstones we carry in stock and be
buried with one of those same wooden spoons in my mouth. Although I
always say, no burial for mine. Burn me up--cremate me when I'm
"Papa is that way, too, about his business, I mean. Tied up in twine, I
"Just ask your father if he knows Albert Penny, Miss Becker. Queer how
things happen. This very day I turned over a memorandum to the head of
my department, advising a certain buy in hemp rope, Becker and Co. in
the back of my head all the time."
At eleven o'clock the first guest rose to go, Lilly following immediate
His state of eagerness rose redly to his ears.
"Will you permit me to escort you home, Miss Becker?"
"Why, yes, if it won't upset Flora's plans for me. I only live two
blocks over on Page."
"I wish you lived as far as Carondalet," he said, choking over words too
strange to be his.
They walked home through quiet streets that smelled sweetly and moistly.
He was scrupulously careful of her at crossings, his tingling fingers
closing over the roundest part of her arm, the warmth of her shining
through to the fabric of her eider-down-bordered cape, lending it a
vibrant living quality that thrilled him.
"I certainly have enjoyed a perfect evening, Miss Becker."
The magic of youth stole out of the citified night upon her.
"See!" she cried, her arm darting out of her cape, "that's Taurus up
there. I can always tell him. He's green. See how he glitters to-night.
Sometimes I feel sorry for Taurus. It's as if his little emerald soul is
bursting to twinkle itself out of the monotony of all the white ones.
That's what they were at the party to-night, all white. All of a color."
"Oh! Do you know the names of the stars, Mr. Penny?"
"I know the Dipper. It's our trade-mark, you know. That's how I
happened to work out our nest of aluminum dippers. Wonder if you
wouldn't permit me to bring you out a set of those dippers, Miss Becker.
All sizes fitted into one another. Just a little kitchen novelty you
They were at her front steps now, the hall light flickering out over
"I just certainly have enjoyed this evening, Miss Becker."
"Nice of you to put it that way, Mr. Penny," she said, trying to appear
unconscious of the unmistakable suns in his eyes.
"I--I'm not much of a fellow for this kind of thing, but I see I've been
making a mistake. A fellow like myself ought to get about more. But most
of the--er--er--ladies--young ladies--I have met, if you will pardon my
saying it, haven't been the sensible kind like yourself that a fellow
could sit down and have a talk with."
"I'm not very congenial, either, Mr. Penny, with the boys and girls I am
thrown in with. Flora's all right, and Vincent, but I'd rather stay at
home with my music or a good book than waste my time with social life. I
just ache sometimes for something better."
"Well, well," he said, "we certainly agree in a lot of ways. I thought I
was the only home body."
She was inside the door now, bare arm escaping the cape and out toward
"Good night, Miss Becker. I--I hope I may be permitted to bring over
those dippers some evening."
"Why--er--yes, thank you."
Turning out the hall light, Lilly felt her way carefully upstairs to
"Lilly, that you?"
"Tear your dress?"
"Turn out the hall light?"
"Tight? Wait. I'm getting up."
But during the process of Lilly's undressing, huddled on the bed edge,
arms hugging herself, Mrs. Becker held midnight commune.
"Who was there?"
"Oh, the usual crowd."
"Anybody admire your dress?"
"Don't tell me too much, Lilly. I might enjoy hearing it."
"But, mamma, won't it keep until to-morrow? I'm sleepy now, dear."
"Who brought you home--Roy?"
"A Mr. Penny."
"Who? I thought you said only the old crowd was there. It's like pulling
teeth to get a word out of you."
"A friend of Vincent's. Works at Slocum-Hines's."
"Seems to me I've heard your father mention that name. Penny--familiar.
Is he nice?"
Lilly shuddered into a yawn. In the long drop of nightdress from
shoulder to peeping toes, her hair cascading straight but full of
electric fluff to her waist, she was as vibrant and as eupeptic as
Diana, and as aloof from desire.
"Yes, he's nice enough--"
"--if you like him."
"I say he's nice enough if you like his kind."
"Well, Miss Fastidious, I wish I knew who your kind is."
"I wish I did too, mamma."
Suddenly Mrs. Becker leaned to the door, her voice lifted.
"Oh, mamma, he's asleep!"
"Mamma, how can you?"
"Isn't that assistant buyer down at Slocum-Hines's, the one you say has
thrown some orders in your way, named Penny?"
"Mamma, surely that will keep until morning."
"Isn't it, Ben?"
"Yes, Carrie; but come back to bed."
"I knew it! He's one of the coming young men at Slocum-Hines's. Vincent
Bankhead swears by him. He throws some fine orders in your papa's way. I
knew the name had a ring. Lilly, did he ask to--call?"
"Mamma, I'm sleepy."
Then Mrs. Becker, full of small, eager ways, insisted upon tucking her
daughter into bed, patting the light coverlet well up under her chin and
opening the windows.
"Good night, baby," she said, giving the covers a final pat. "Sleep
tight and don't get up for breakfast. I want to bring it up to you."
But, contrary to the blandishment, Lilly lay awake, open-eyed, for quite
a round hour after her mother's voice, broken into occasionally by the
patient but sleepy tones of her father, had died down.
From her window she could see quite a patch of sky, finely powdered with
stars, the Dipper pricked out boldly.
For some reason, regarding it, a layer of tears formed on her eyes and
dried over her hot stare.
On the 6th of the following July, Lilly Becker and Albert Penny were
The day dawned one of those imperturbable blues that hang over that
latitude of the country like a hot wet blanket steaming down. The corn
belt shriveled of thirst. The automobile had not yet bitten so deeply
into the country roads, but even a light horse and buggy traveled in a
whirligig of its own dust. St. Louis lay stark as if riveted there by
the Cyclopean eye of the sun. For twenty-four hours the weather vanes of
the great Middle West stood stock-still while July came in like a lion.
The city slept in strange, improvised beds drawn up beside windows or
made up on floors, and awoke enervated and damp at the back of the neck.
Throughout the Becker household, however, the morning moved with a whir,
the newly installed telephone lifting its shrill scream, delivery wagons
at the door, the horses panting under wet sponges and awning hats,
Georgia wide-eyed at the concurrence of events.
For the half-dozenth time that morning Mrs. Becker suffered a little
collapse, dropping down to the kitchen chair or hall bench, fanning
herself with the end of her apron.
"I'm dead! Another day like this will finish me. Georgia, have you
polished the door bell? Those delivery boys finger it up so. I'm
wringing wet with _prespiration_. If only there is a breeze in the
church to-night. Georgia, if that is Mr. Albert on the telephone, tell
him Miss Lilly isn't going to leave her room until noon. No, wait. I
want to speak to him myself. Hello, Albert? Well, bridegroom, good
morning!... What's left of me is fine.... I'm making her stay in her
room. Poor child, she's all nerves. Don't be late. I hate last-minute
weddings. Did you see the item in the morning _Globe_?... Yes, the name
is spelled wrong, Pen-nie, but there's quite a few lines. 'In lieu of a
honeymoon,' it goes on to say, 'the young couple will go to housekeeping
at once in their new home, 5199 Page Avenue, directly across from the
parents of the bride.' I'm sending over now to have all the windows
opened so it won't be stuffy for you to-night. Wait until you see the
presents, Albert, that came this morning. A check for five hundred
dollars all the way from her uncle Buck in Alaska. That makes six
hundred in checks. Three beautiful clocks, a dozen berry spoons from my
euchre club, and an invitation in poetry for her to become a member of
the Junior Matron Friday Club. If I wasn't so rushed I think I--I could
just sit down and have a good cry. Albert, be careful of those silk
sleeve garters I sent you for your wedding shirt, don't adjust them too
tight; and you know how you catch cold. Don't perspire and go in a
draught. And--and Albert, I see I have to remind you of little things
the way I do Ben. You men with your heads so chock full of business!"
(Very _sotto voce_.) "Send Lilly flowers this afternoon.
Lilies-of-the-valley and white rosebuds. Remley's on your corner is a
good place. Tell them your mother-in-law is a good customer and they'll
give you a little discount.... Yes, she's upset, poor child. I was the
same way. My mother almost had to shove me into the carriage. Well,
Albert, call up again about noon. She'll be up by then. Good-by--son."
A pox of perspiration was out over her face, sparkling forth again after
each mopping. A box arrived from a jeweler's and one from a department
store. They were a pie knife and a table crumber in the form of a
miniature carpet sweeper. The usual futilities with which such occasions
can be cluttered and which have shaped the destinies of immemorial women
into a tyranny of petty things.
Then Mrs. Becker hurried upstairs, her white wrapper floating after.
In the bathroom her husband leaned to a mirror, his jaw line thrust to
the cleave of a razor.
"I really envy you, Ben. Not even your daughter's wedding day can
disturb you. For a cent I could cry my eyes out. It's only excitement
keeps me going. I--could--c-c-cry."
"Now, now, little woman."
She sat down on a hall chair, regarding him through the open bathroom
"Has she said anything to you, Ben, since yesterday? It's made me so
"Now, now, little woman, you must make allowances for a young girl's
"I know, Ben, but it worries me so. It's not natural for her to have
crying spells like that one yesterday."
"Nonsense! I'm not so sure you weren't a red-eyed bride."
"My nervousness wasn't anything like hers. She'll make herself sick."
"You mean you will."
"Have you heard her moving about her room yet?"
"Shall I knock?"
"No, Carrie; now let the child alone this morning."
"I never knew her to stay in bed so long. It's after eleven, and the
hair dresser coming at twelve. It will seem funny, won't it, Ben,
her--little room empty to-night."
"Now, now, no waterworks. What if she was moving away to another city
instead of just settling down across the street? You worked this thing
your way, and even now you don't feel satisfied."
"I do feel satisfied, Ben, but I want her to be, too."
"Now, little woman, mark my word, Lilly may feel that she is doing this
thing in more or less of a spirit of sacrifice to our pleasure, but
inside of a week she'll be as busy and happy a little housekeeper as
"Is that her calling?"
"Yes. Go to her, Carrie."
Out in the little upper square of hallway Lilly appeared suddenly; her
hair still down in the beautiful way she let it toss about her in sleep,
and her body boldly outlined in a Japanese kimono she held tightly
"Mamma, will you and papa please come to my room? I want to talk to
"Your father is shaving, Lilly. Can't you talk to us out here? How is
our girl on her wedding day? Frightened? You're me all over again. Ask
your father if I wasn't as pale as you are." She kissed her daughter on
lips that were cold, brushing back the shower of hair from her
shoulders. "You ought to see the presents, Lilly, that just--"
"Mamma--papa--you must listen."
"Please, won't you let me off? Please!"
Her father regarded her from behind the white mud of lather, his eyes
"Now, now, sweetheart," he said, using one of his rarest words of
endearment, "this won't do at all."
"But I can't, papa. I just can't. I know it's terrible, this last
minute, but--but--I tell you--I can't."
"My God, Ben!"
"Can't what, Lilly?"
"Can't! I never had such a funny--a terrible feeling. I can't explain
it, only let me off. Please! It's not too late. Lots of girls have done
it--found out at the last minute they couldn't--"
"My God! What are we to do, Ben? Ben!"
"Carrie, if only you will hold your horses I'll handle this." He mopped
off his face hurriedly, sliding into a dressing gown.
"Come now, Lilly, into the front room. Sit down."
She moved after him with the rather groping look of the blind.
"Now what is this nonsense, Lilly, you've been hinting these last few
"I've made a mistake, papa. I should have said so weeks--ago--from the
start. It isn't Albert's fault. It isn't anybody's fault. I've had it
all along, this queer feeling all through the engagement and parties,
but I kept hoping for your sakes I'd get over it--hoping--in vain--"
"Why, of course, Lilly, you'll get over it! It's natural for a young
girl to feel--"
"No! No! My feeling won't lift! If only I had said nothing the night
he--proposed. But mamma was waiting up. She--she pressed me so. It was
so hard the way you put it. I know he's a fine fellow. I know, papa,
he's thrown big orders in your way. But I can't help being what I am.
Please, papa, let me off! Please!"
An actual shrinkage of face seemed to have taken place in Mrs. Becker.
"What'll we do? What'll we do, Ben?" she kept repeating, rocking herself
back and forth in what seemed to border on dementia.
"You see, papa, it's only to be a small wedding. We could so easily call
things off. I'll take all the blame--"
"No! No! No!"
"Mamma dear, I'm as sorry--about it as you are, but--"
"No! No! She's ruining our lives, Ben--disgracing--"
"Lilly, are you sure that you are telling us everything?"
"I swear it, papa. I know I'm inarticulate, I don't seem able to explain
the terrible state I've been in for days--"
"It's nervousness, Lilly."
"I tell you, no! I can't make you understand. But I'm not cut out, papa,
for what I'm going to settle down to. I'm something else than what you
think I am. I guess I--I am a sort of botanical sport, papa, off our
family tree. I know what you're going to say, and maybe you're right. I
may have more ideas than I have talent, but let me go my way. Let me be
what I am."
"Lilly, Lilly, let us take this thing step by step, quietly. Surely,
daughter, you appreciate the enormity of the situation!"
"I do. I do."
"Now to go back to the beginning. Did you consent to this engagement of
your own free will?"
"I did and I didn't."
"Oh, I know you let me decide for myself, but don't you think I felt the
undercurrent of your attitudes? All the other girls settling down, as
you put it. You and Albert such good friends, and then Albert himself
so--so what he should be."
"Now you are talking. If your mother and I hadn't felt that Albert was
the fine and upright man for their little girl to marry, do you think
they would have--"
"I know! There we go around in the circle again. Everything is perfect.
The little house, Albert's promotion to first assistant. Everything
perfect, but me. I don't want it. I don't love him. You hear me! There
is something in me he hasn't touched. Respect him? Yes, but respect is
only a poor relation to love and comes in for the left-over and the
"Her head is full of the novels she reads!"
"You can't keep me from thinking like a woman. Feeling like one. Is it
shameful to want to love? Is it wrong to desire in the man you are to
marry that fundamental passion that makes the world go around? I'm not
supposed to know any thing about the thing I'm plunging into until after
I've plunged! I'm afraid, papa. Save me!"
"Ben, I could swear who is at the bottom of this indecent talk of hers.
I found his picture cut out of the school magazine and pasted in her
diary. She's a changed child since that Lindsley came to the High School
the year before she graduated."
"Mamma! Mamma!" fairly exploded to her feet by the potency of her sense
of outrage. "Oh, you--you--"
"I know I'm right."
"Why, I haven't even seen him since I graduated! I've never talked ten
words to the man in my life! Oh--oh--how can you?"
"Just the same, he's been your ruination. Since you got him into your
head not one of the boys you met has been good enough. I knew you had
him in mind the day you told me you wished Albert was a little more
bookish and musical. I know why you wanted him to subscribe to the
Symphony. The spats you made him buy. Poor boy! and his ankles aren't
cut for them. Love! Your father and I weren't so much in love, let me
tell you. Only I knew my parents wanted it and that was enough. I wish
to God I'd never lived to see this day--"
"I do. Noon of my daughter's wedding day, and she can't make up her mind
whether she'll be married or not. O God! it's funny--love, now at the
last minute--oh--oh--" A geyser of hysteria shot up, raining down in a
glassy kind of laugh. "Oh--oh, it's funny!--love--"
"Carrie, you're hysterical. Here, smell this ammonia."
"The little house--my heart's blood in it. A doll's house, ready for her
to walk into. Membership in the Junior Matrons--trousseau--oh, it's
"For God's sake, papa, try to calm her!"
With a wave of sobs that broke over her, she went down, then, literally
to her knees, her back heaving and shuddering.
"Her wedding day--O God--funny--"
"Mamma! Mamma! It's all right, dear. Don't--holler like that. I just got
upset, that's all. Frightened like--like any other girl would. I'm all
right now, mamma. I'm sorry."
"We want to see you happy, baby. It's for your good."
"Of course you do. I know it. I'm all right now, mamma."
"We're your best friends, Lilly. We would go through fire for you."
"Of course, mamma. I--I was nervous, that's all."
"There's no finer boy breathes than Albert."
"He's sending you lilies-of-the-valley, baby. He's ordered himself some
white-flannel tennis pants, too--the kind you admired. He got his report
from the life-insurance people and he's a grand risk, Lilly. In as fine
a condition to marry as a man could be. Baby, tell me--tell papa--aren't
"I am--I--oh, I am, dear! Why, here is Elsa ready to dress my hair!
Mamma--dear--I'm all right now. Fine."
* * * * *
At eight o'clock that evening, in the Garrison Avenue Rock Church,
little Evelyn Kemble, in the bushiest of white skirts and to the
accompaniment of organ music rolling over her, placed a white-satin
cushion before the smilax-banked altar.
Kneeling on it, and to the antiphonal beat of the Reverend Stickney's
voice, Lilly Becker and Albert Penny became as one.
By a strange conspiracy of middle-class morality, which clothes the
white nude of life in suggestive factory-made garments, and by her own
sheer sappiness, which vitalized her, but with the sexlessness of a
young tree, Lilly, with all her rather puerile innocence left her,
walked into her marriage like a blind Nydia, hands out and groping
The same, in a measure, was true of Albert, who came into his immaculate
inheritance, himself immaculate, but with a nervous system well
insulated by a great cautiousness of life.
He was highly subject to head colds and occasional attacks of dyspepsia,
due to his inability to abstain from certain foods. He was, therefore,
sensitive to draughts and would not eat hot bread. He carried an
umbrella absolutely upon all occasions and a celluloid toothpick in his
Then, too, he gargled. To chronicle the heroic emotions that motivate
men is a fine task. Love and hate and all the chemistry of their
mingling that go to form the plasma of human experience. It is a lesser,
even an ignominious one to narrate Lilly's kind of anguish during this
matinal performance of her husband. She suffered a tight-throated sort
of anguish that could have been no keener had it been of larger
provocation. Her toes and her fingers would curl and a quick ripple of
flesh rush over her.
Mornings, when he departed, his kiss, which smelled of mouth wash, would
remain coldly against her lips with the peculiar burn of camphor ice.
All her sensibilities seemed suddenly to fester.
On a week day of the third week of her marriage, in her little canary
cage of a yellow bedroom dominated with the monstrous brass bedstead of
the period and a swell-front dresser elaborate in Honiton and flat
silver, she endured, with her head crushed into the chair back, those
noisome ablutions from across the hallway. She was wearing, these first
mornings, a rose-colored negligée, foamy with lace and still violet
scented from the trousseau chest, and especially designed to pink this
It lay light to a skin that, strangely enough, did not covet its sensual
touch. She craved back to the starchy blue-gingham morning dresses. It
was as if she sat among the ruins of those crispy potential yesterdays,
all her to-morrows ruthlessly and terribly solved.
Something swift and eager had died within her. She was herself gone
flabby. A wife, with a sudden and, to her, horrid new consciousness that
had twisted every ligament of life.
Her husband's collar so intimately there on the dresser top. His shirt,
awaiting studs, spread out on the bed--their bed. His suspenders
straddling the chair back. The ordering of the evening beefsteak lurking
back in her consciousness. He liked sirloin, stabbing it vertically (he
had a way of holding his fork upright between first and third fingers)
when he carved, and cutting it skillfully away from the T bone. After
the first week, he liked the bone, too, gnawing it, not mussily, but
with his broad white teeth predatory and his temples working. She was a
veritable bundle of these petty accumulated concepts, harrowed to
She knew that presently he would enter the room in his trousers and
undershirt, which he did upon the very minute, the little purple circle,
like a stamp mark on the rind of a bacon, showing just beneath his
Adam's apple, the shag of his yellow hair wetly curly from dousing, like
"Certainly fine water pressure we have in the bathroom, Lilly. I am
going to bring home some tubing from the store and attach a spray."
She looked out of the window over the languid little patch of front
lawn, more gray than green from the scourge of heat. Insect life hung
midair like a curtain of buzzings. Directly opposite the dusty, unmade
street, she could see her parents' home standing unprotected except for
one sapling maple, the sun already pressing against the drawn shades.
There was a slight breeze through this morning that turned the sapling
leaves and even lifted the little twist of tendril at the nape of
It was just that spot, while tugging at his collar, that Albert Penny
stooped to kiss.
"Little wife," he said.
"Ugh!" she felt.
"Poor little wife, it was ninety-four and a half at six-thirty-eight
His capacity for accuracy could madden her.
He computed life in the minutiae of fractions, reckoning in terms of the
halfpenny, the half minute, the half degree.
She sat now, laying pleats in the pink negligée where it flowed over her
knees, a half smile forced out on her lips.
"Well, Albert," she said, wanting to keep her voice lifted, "I guess
we're in it, aren't we? Up to our necks."
Leaning to the mirror for the adjustment of his collar button, he
paused, regarding her reflection.
"Well now, what an idea! Of course we're in it, and the wonder to me is
how we ever stayed out so long."
She reached up to yawn, her long white arms stretched above her head.
"Oh dear! oh dear! oh dear!" she said in what might have been the key of
"Poor little girl!" he said. "I wish I could make it cooler for you."
"It isn't that."
"What then is bothering your little head?"
"I--oh, I don't know. I guess it's just the reaction after the
excitement of the wedding."
He came back to kiss the same tendril at the nape of her neck.
"I'm glad it's over, too. Feels mighty good to settle down."
"'Settle down.' Somehow I hate that expression."
"All right, then, Mrs. Penny, we'll settle up. Speaking of settling up,
I guess the missus wants her Monday-morning allowance, doesn't she?"
He placed three already counted out five-dollar bills on the dresser,
weighting them down with a silver-back mirror.
"See if you can't make it last this week, Lilly. You watch Mother Becker
market and you'll come out all right."
"Oh, I can't pick around raw meat the way mamma does. It makes me sick."
"Housekeeping may seem a little strange at first, but I'm not afraid my
little wife is going to let any of them get ahead of her."
"Whoever wants it, can have that honor."
"What's the program for to-day, Lilly?"
"Oh, I don't know."
"I'm going to send Joe out from the store to-day with some washers for
the kitchen faucets and some poultry netting for a chicken yard. I'll
potter around this evening and build one behind the woodshed. Chickens
give a place a right homey touch."
"And send out a man from Knatt's to fix the piano. They delivered it
with a middle C that sticks."
"Yes, and I'll send a can of Killbug out with the wire. I noticed a
cockroach run over the ice box last night. You must watch that a little,
even in a new house."
"I hope I'm not getting a cold. I feel kind of that way. Mother Becker
fixed me up fine with that wet cloth around my neck last time. I'll try
"Come," she said, "breakfast is ready."
They descended to the little oak dining room, quite a glitter of new cut
glass on the sideboard and the round table white and immaculately
spread. There was a little maidservant, Lena Obendorfer, the
fifteen-year-old daughter of the Kemble washerwoman, shy and red rims
about her eyes from secret tears of homesickness.
"Why, Lena, the breakfast table looks lovely; and don't forget, dearie,
Mr. Penny takes three eggs in the morning, and he doesn't like his
The child, her poor flat face pock-marked, fluttered into service.
Lilly regarded her husband through his meal, elbows on table, cheek in
her palm. He ate the three two-minute eggs with gusto, alternating with
deep draughts of coffee, and crisp little ribbons of bacon made into a
sandwich between his rolls.
"This is certainly delicious bacon."
"Mamma sent a whole one over yesterday."
"I like it lean. Always buy it with plenty of dark streaks through it.
Don't you like it lean?"
"Can't you eat, Lilly? That's a shame."
"Lena, bring Mr. Penny some more bacon."
"Certainly delicious. I like it lean."
She watched his temples quiver to the motion of his jaws, her
unspeakable depression tightening up her tonsils and the very pit of her
scared and empty.
"I--What if you should find that I--I'm not--not--"
"Not right--here. Not the--wife for you."
He leaned over to pinch her cheek, waggling it softly and masticating
well before he spoke.
"If my little wife suited me any better they would have to chain me
down. Ah, it's great! I tell you, Lilly, a man makes the mistake of his
life not to do it earlier. If I had it to do over again I'd marry at
twenty. Solid comfort. Something to work for. I feel five years closer
to the general managership than I did six months ago. Certainly fine
bacon. Best I ever ate."
"Albert--let us not permit our marriage to drag us down into the kind
of rut we see all about us. Take Flora and Vincent. Married five months
and she never so much as wears corsets when she takes him to the street
car, mornings. And he used to be such a clever dresser, and look at him
now. All baggy. Let's not get baggy, Albert."
"I agree with you there. A man owes it to himself and his business to
appear well pressed. It's a slogan of mine. Clothes may not make the
man, but neatness often goes a long way toward making the opportunity.
Don't you worry about me becoming baggy, Lilly. I'm going to send one of
those folding ironing boards up from the store this day."
"I don't mean only that. You mustn't be so literal about everything. I
mean let's not become baggy-minded. Take Flora again. Flora was her
class poetess and I don't believe she has a literary thought or a book
in her head now except her account book. Let us improve ourselves,
Albert. Read evenings and subscribe to the Symphony and the Rubinstein
"Speaking of Rubinstein, Lilly, I'm going to take out a thousand
dollars' burglary insurance with Eckstein. One cannot be too careful."
She pushed back from the table. "We're invited over to the Duncans'
to-night for supper. They've one of the new self-playing pianos."
He felt in his waistcoat pocket for the toothpick.
"I'll go if you want it, Lilly, but guess where I'd rather eat my
"Right here. And fry the sirloin the way Mother Becker does it, Lilly,
sprinkle a few onions on it. If I were you I wouldn't let Lena
"This is the third night for beefsteak."
"Fine. You'll learn this about your hubby, he--"
"Don't use that word, Albert. I hate it."
"All right then, husband. Bless her heart, she likes to hear the real
thing. Well then, your husband is a beefsteak fellow. Let the others
have all the ruffly dishes they want. Good strong beefsteak is my pace."
She let him lift her face for a kiss.
"I'll be home six-forty-six to the dot. That's what I've figured out it
takes me if I leave the office at six-five."
He kissed her again, pressing her head backward against the cove of his
arm, pinching her cheeks together so that her mouth puckered.
"Won't kiss my little wife on the lips this morning. I'm getting a head
cold. Good-by, Mrs. Penny. Um-m-m! like to say it."
"Mother Becker coming over to-day?"
"Yes. We had planned to go to the meat market together."
"But I'm not going."
"I--don't know. Too hot, I guess."
He looked at her rather intently.
"That's right, Lilly," he said, his eyes, with something new in them,
roving over her figure; "if you don't feel up to the mark, just you take
care of yourself. Jove!" he repeated. "Jove!" kissed her again, and went
down the front steps, whistling.
At eleven o'clock Mrs. Becker, hatted, crossed the sun-bleached street,
carrying outheld something that wetted through the snowy napkin that
covered it. At the door she surrendered it to Lena.
"Put this in the ice box for Mr. Albert's supper. It's some of my
coldslaw he's so fond of, and a pound of sweet butter, I took from my
dairyman. See that Miss Lilly never uses it for cooking, Lena; the salt
butter I brought yesterday is for that."
"And, Lena," drawing a palm across the banister and showing it up,
"look. That isn't nice. In my house I go over every piece of woodwork
from top to bottom on my hands and knees. You mustn't wait for Miss
Lilly to tell you everything. Where is she?"
She ascended to a jeremiad of the cardinal laws of housekeeping, palm
still suspicious. Her daughter rose out of a low mound beside
"Good morning, mamma."
"Lilly, you should help upstairs wash days with the housework. Eight
o'clock and my house is spick span, even my cellar steps wiped down.
Take off that pink thing and I'll help you make the bed. It was all
right to wear it around the first week for your husband, but now one of
your cotton crepes will do. Come, help turn the mattress."
"Oh, mamma, Lena will make the bed."
"Who ever heard of not doing your upstairs work on wash day? Really,
Lilly, I was ignorant as a bride, too, but I wasn't lazy. I wouldn't
give a row of pins for--"
"Please, mamma--don't begin."
"Well, it's your house. If it suits your husband, it suits me."
"Well, it does suit him."
"Not if I judge him right. Albert likes order. I went over his socks the
other day, and he kept them matched up as a bachelor just like a woman
would. He's methodical."
"Don't lift that heavy mattress alone, mamma. Here, if you insist upon
doing it, I'll help."
They dressed the bed to its snowy perfection, a Honiton counterpane over
pink falling almost to the floor.
"Well, that's more like it." Her face quickly moist from exertion, Mrs.
Becker regarded her daughter across the completed task.
"Now for the carpet sweeper."
Lilly returned to her chair, lying back to fan her face with a lacy
fribble of pocket handkerchief. "You can wear yourself out if you
insist, mamma, but I can't see any reason for it. I'm--tired."
Mrs. Becker sat down, hitching her chair toward her daughter's.
"Lilly," she paid, eagerly forward and a highly specialized significance
in her voice, "don't you feel well--baby?"
"Of course I feel well, mamma. As well as anyone can feel in this heat.
If only you wouldn't harass me about this--old house."
Mrs. Becker withdrew, her entire manner lifting with her shoulders.
"Well, if that's the way you feel about it, you need not be afraid that
I'm going to interfere. That's one thing I made up my mind to from the
start, never to be a professional mother-in-law in my daughter's home.
"Mamma, I didn't mean it that way, and you know it. I realize that you
mean well. But I suppose many a family skeleton rattles its bones to the
tune of 'they meant well.'"
"Lilly, you're not yourself. I'm sure you don't feel well. Baby, you
mustn't be bashful with your own mother."
"Please, please don't ask me that again in--in that voice. You know I
always feel well."
"We're both married women now, Lilly. If--if there's anything you want
"I always say, a single woman doesn't know she's on earth. Isn't it so,
Suddenly Lilly shot her hand out to her mother's arm, her fingers
digging into the flesh.
"You should have told me something--beforehand!"
"I'd have cut out my tongue sooner. What kind of a mother do you think I
"It's wicked to rear a girl with no conception of life."
"You're no greener than I was. That's what a man wants in the girl he
"It all comes naturally to a woman after she's married, life does."
"I--I hate life."
"I do! I do! I do!"
"You poor child!" said Mrs. Becker, stroking her hand, and her voice
pitched to a very private key. "Life is life and what are you going to
do about it?"
"Only love--some sort of magic potion which Nature uses to drug us, can
make her methods seem anything but gross--horrible."
"What's on your mind, Lilly? We don't need to be bashful together any
more. We're married women."
Lilly rose then, moving toward the dresser, drawing the large
tortoise-shell pins from the smooth coil of her hair.
"If you want me to go to the meat market with you, mamma, I'd better be
dressing before it gets any hotter."
"You're too warm, Lilly. I'll go myself. You can learn the beef cuts
"I would rather stay at home and practice awhile. I haven't touched the
"Tack up your shelf paper while I'm gone, Lilly--your cupboards look so
bare--and then come over to lunch with me and we'll go to the euchre
together. It's your first afternoon at the Junior Matrons and I want you
to look your best. Wear your flowered dimity."
"If you don't mind, mamma, I want to unpack my music this afternoon and
get my books straightened. I'd rather not go."
"The nerve! And that poor little Mrs. Wempner goes to extra trouble in
your honor. I hear she's to have pennies attached to the tally cards.
Pretty idea, pennies for Penny. Well, I'm not going to worry my life
away! Work it out your own way. I'll send you home a steak and some
quinine from the drug store for Albert to take to-night."
Presently Lilly heard the lower door slam. It came down across her
nerves like the descent of a cleaver.
For another hour she sat immovable. A light storm had come up with
summer caprice, thunder without lightning, and a thin fall of rain that
hardly laid the dust. There was a certain whiteness to the gloom,
indicating the sun's readiness to pierce it, but a breeze had sprung up,
fanning the Swiss curtains in against Lilly's cheek, and across the
street she could see her mother's shades fly up and windows open to the
refreshment of it.
At twelve o'clock the telephone rang. It was her husband. "Yes, she was
well. Pouring downtown? Funny. Only a light shower out there. No, the
man had not brought the missing caster for the bedstead. Yes,
six-forty-six, and she would put the steak on at six-twenty. Yes, the
poultry netting had come. Fine. Bathtub stopper. Yes."
For quite a while after this she sat in the hallway, her hand on the
instrument, in the attitude of hanging up the receiver.
She did piddle among her books then, a vagabond little collection of
them. Textbooks, in many cases her initials and graduating year printed
in lead pencil along the edges. Rolfe's complete edition of Shakespeare.
A large illustrated edition of Omar Khayyam. Several gift volumes of
English poets. Complete set of small red Poes that had come free with a
two-year magazine subscription. Graduation gift of Emerson's essays.
_Vision of Sir Launfal_. _Journeys to the Homes of Great Men_.
_Lucille_, in padded leather. An unaccountably present _Life of Cardinal
Newman_. _The Sweet Girl Graduate_. _Faust_. _How to Interpret Dreams_.
They occupied three shelves of the little case; the remaining two she
filled in with stacks of sheet music, laying aside ten picked selections
marked "Repertoire" and occasionally sitting back on her heels to hum
through the pages of a score. Once she carried a composition to the
piano, "Who is Sylvia?" to be exact, singing it through to her own
accompaniment. Her voice lifted nicely against the little square
confines of reception hall, Lena, absolutely wringing wet with suds and
perspiration, poking her head up from the laundry stairs.
"Oh, Miss Lilly, that's grand! Please sing it over again."
She did, quickened in spite of herself. Her voice had a pleasant
plangency, a quality of more yet to come and as if the wells of her
vitality were far from drained.
She could hear from the laundry the resumed thrubbing and even smell the
hot suds. The afternoon reeked of Monday. She left off, finally, and
rocked for a time on the cool porch, watching the long, silent needles
of rain, wisps of thought floating like feathers.
"Who am I? Lilly Becker. How do I happen to be me? What if I were Melba
instead? What if Melba were frying the sirloin to-night and five
thousand people were coming to hear me sing in the Metropolitan Opera
House? Albert--husband. What a queer word! Husband. Love. Hate.
Lindsley. Language. How did language ever come to be? We feel, and then
we try to make sounds to convey that feeling. What language could ever
convey the boiling inside of me? I must be a sea, full of terrible
deep-down currents and smooth on top. How does one know whether or not
he is crazy--mad? How do I know that I am not really singing to five
thousand? Maybe this is the dream. Page Avenue. Lena in the laundry.
That sirloin steak being delivered around the side entrance, by a boy
with a gunny sack for an apron. Dreams. Freud. Suppressed desires.
That's me. Thousands--thousands of them. Am I my conscious or my
unconscious self? Can I break through this--this dream into reality?
Which part of me is here on this front porch and which part is
Marguerite with the pearls in her hair? Bed casters, they're real. And
Albert--husband--the rows of days--and nights--nights of my marriage. O
God, make it a dream! Make it a dream!"
At six-forty-six Albert Penny came home to supper.
There was nothing consciously premeditated about the astonishing speech
Lilly made to her husband that evening. Yet it was as if the words had
been in burning rehearsal, so scuttling hot they came off her lips.
There had been a coolly quiet evening on the front porch, a telephone
from Flora Bankhead, a little run-in visit from her parents, and now at
ten o'clock her husband, shirt-sleeved and before the mirror, tugging to
unbutton his collar.
She did not want that collar off. It brought, rawly, a sense of his
possession of her. She sat fully dressed, in her chair beside the
window, the black irises almost crowding out the gray in her eyes, her
hands tightening and tightening against that removal of collar. Finally
one half of it flew open, and on that tremendous trifle Lilly spoke.
"Let me go!"
"It's wrong. I've made a mistake. I don't want to be married."
For a full second he held that pose at his collar button, his entire
being seeming to suspend a beat.
"What say?" not exactly doubting, but wanting to corroborate his senses.
She was amazed at her ability to reply.
"I said I have made a terrible mistake. I can't stand being married to
He came toward her with the open side of his collar jerking like an old
door on its hinges.
"Now lookahere," he said, rather roughly for him; "it's all right for a
woman to have her whims once in a while, but there are limits. I've been
as considerate with you as I know how to be. A darn sight more than many
a man with his woman."
"I'm not that!" she cried, springing to her feet.
"Call it what you want," he said, "all I know is that you're my wife and
I married you to settle down to a decent, self-respecting home life and
that a sensible woman leaves her whims behind her."
She stood with her hands to the beat of her throat, looking at him as if
he had hunted her into her corner, which he had not.
"Let me go," she said.
He seemed trying to gain control of his large, loose hands, clenching
and unclenching them.
"Good God!" he said. "What say?"
"It's no use! I've tried. I'm wrong. Something in me is stronger than
you or mamma or papa or--or environment. All my life I've been fighting
against just--just--this. And now I've let it trap me."
"Darn funny time to be finding it out."
"That's the terrible part! To think it took this--marriage--to awaken me
to a meaning of myself."
"Bah! Your meaning to yourself is no better than any other woman's."
"A month ago it would have been so simple--to have had the
courage--then. To have realized then! Why--why can life be like that?"
"You remember the night coming home from the Highlands? I tried to tell
you. Something in me was rebelling. Ask mamma; papa. They knew! That's
been my great trouble. My desires for myself were never strong enough to
combat their desires for me. They've always placed me under such ghastly
obligation for their having brought me into the world. Their obligation
is to _me_, for having brought me here, the accident of their desires!
But I let the molasses lake of family sentiment--suck--me in. If only I
had fought harder! It took this trap--marriage! All of a sudden I'm
awake! Don't try to keep me, Albert. I haven't known until this minute
that my mind is made up. So made up that it frightens me even more than
you. I'd rather be on my own in a garret, Albert! It's kinder to tell
you. We mustn't get into this thing deeper. Nothing can change me.
She put up her hands as if to ward off some sort of blow, but in her
heart not afraid, and she wanted to be afraid of him. He did whirl a
chair toward her by the back, but sat down, jerking her into one
opposite, facing her so that their knees touched, and she could see the
spots on his temples that responded so to beefsteak, throbbing. Her
terror rose a little to the volume of his silence. His head was so
square. She wanted him to rage and she to hurl herself against his
storm. Her whole being wanted a lashing. She could pinch herself to the
capacity of her strength without wincing.
But on the contrary, his voice, when it came, was muted.
"Lilly," he said, "you're sick. You're affected with the heat." His look
of utter daze irritated her.
"Sick! You mean I was sick before! I'm well now."
"You're either sick or crazy!"
"I'm trapped. I was born trapped, but now I tell you I'm free! Something
up here in my brain--down here in my heart--has set me free! You can't
keep me. No one can. I want out!"
"In God's name, what are you driving at?"
"You wouldn't understand. Love might have made you--this--possible, but
it didn't come. It didn't come, Albert."
He reached for his coat to plunge into it.
"I'm going across for your mother and father. I'm afraid of you. There
is something behind all this. One of us is crazy!"
"No, no, Albert. Please, not them. I'll run out of the house if they
come. They've defeated me so often. That terrible wall they erect--out
of flesh that bleeds every time I try to climb it. They've killed me
with the selfishness of their love, those two. They put me body and soul
into Chinese shoes the day I was born. I've never ceased paying up for
being their child. Suppose they did sacrifice for me--clothe me--feed
me--what does parenthood mean but that? Don't you dare to call them
over! Don't you dare!"
"In God's name, then, what!"
"Just let me go, Albert--quietly."
She went toward him, her fine white throat palpitating as if her heart
were beating up in it, something even wheedling in her voice.
"I've thought it all out, Albert. These unbearable days since--this.
I'll go quietly; I'll take the blame. In these cases where a woman
leaves it becomes desertion--"
"If you're talking divorce, I'll see you burn like brimstone before
I'll sacrifice my respectability in this community before your
She quivered, and it was a full second before she was able to continue.
"I know, Albert, to you it sounds--worse, probably, than it is. But
think how much worse, how degrading it would be for me to stay here--in
your house--hating. I'll make it so easy. It's done every day, only we
don't happen to hear of it. That's what makes our kind the marrow of
society. We're too immorally respectable to live honestly. We build a
shell of conventionality over the surface of things and rot underneath.
Nature doesn't care how she uses us. It's the next generation concerns
her. She has to drug us or we couldn't endure. We're drugged on
respectability. On a few of us the drug won't react. I'm one. Let me go,
Albert. To Chicago. I was there once with mamma and papa to the Rope and
Hemp Manufacturers' Convention. Or, better still, New York. That's the
field for my kind of work. Many a girl with less voice than I has gotten
on there. Albert, won't you let me go?"
He was like nothing so much as a cornered bull, trying to bash his
bewildered head through the impenetrable wall of things. Little red
shreds had come out in the white of his eyes; he was sweating coarsely
and feeling the corners of his mouth with his tongue.
"You won't ruin my name--you won't ruin my name."
"I'll take the blame. I'll love taking it. You'll have a clean case of
Suddenly he took a step toward her with the threat of a roar in his
voice, and again she found relief in the rising velocity of his anger
and practically thrust herself in the hope of a blow.
"What are you that I am married to," he cried, "a she-devil? What have
I got to do? Treat you like one? Huh? Huh?"
He stopped just short of her, the upper half of his body thrust backward
from restraining his impulse to lunge, his face distorted and quivering
down at her.
"Be careful," he said. "By God! be careful when I get my blood up. The
woman don't live that can touch my respectability. If you go, you go
without a divorce. You're trying to harm me--ruin my life--that's what
you are. Ruin my life." And suddenly, before the impulse to strike had
traveled down his tightening arm, collapsed weakly, his entire body
retched by the dry sobs that men weep. He could so readily arouse her
aversion, that even now, with a quick pity for him stinging her
eyeballs, she could regard him dispassionately, a certain disgust for
He turned toward her finally with the look of a stricken St. Bernard
dog, his lower lids salt-bitten and showing half moons of red flesh.
"What is it, Lilly? What have I failed in? For God's sake tell me and
I'll make it right."
"That's the terrible part, Albert. You haven't failed. You're _you_.
It's something neither of us can control any more than we can control
the color of our eyes. It's as if I were a--a problem in chemistry that
had reacted differently than was expected and blew off the top
"Bah! the trouble with you women to-day is that you've got an itch that
you don't know how to scratch. Well, it's high time for you to learn a
way to scratch yours by settling down like a respectable married woman
has to." His voice rising and his wrongs red before him: "I wish to God
I'd never laid eyes on you. I thought you were more sensible than most
and I find you a crazy woman."
"Then, Albert, you don't want a crazy woman for your wife!"
"Ah no, you don't! No, you don't! I've worked like a dog to get where I
am. I'm a respected member of this community and I intend to stay one.
No woman gets a divorce out of me unless over my dead body. I'm a leader
of a Bible class and an officer in my lodge. I wore a plume and gold
braid at the funeral of the mayor of this town. I'm first-assistant
buyer and I propose to become general manager. I'm a respectable citizen
trying to settle down to a respectable home, and, by God! no woman
tomfoolery is going to bamboozle me out of it."
She sat with her eyes closed, tears seeping through them, and her fist
beating softly into her palm.
"Oh, Albert--Albert--how can I make you understand? My brain is
"Lilly," he interrupted, explosively reaching out and closing over her
wrist, and sudden perception lifting his voice, "I know! You--you're not
well! You're ailing. Women aren't--aren't always quite themselves--at
times. You--Lilly--could it be--"
"No! No! No! I'll go mad if you, too, begin to insinuate--that! I'm
myself, I tell you. Never more so in my life."
He regarded her through frank and even tender tears, his voice humoring
"Of course, you're high strung, Lilly, and a high-strung woman is like a
high-strung horse, has to be handled lightly. Don't exert yourself.
If--if I'm embarrassing to you--talk to mother. These are the times a
girl needs her mother. You go ahead and pick on me to your heart's
content. I--I'm a pretty slow kind of fellow about some things. Never
been around women enough. Come, it's ten-thirty-six. You need all the
sleep you can get. Come, Lilly. Why--I--I've been thick-headed--that's
She suffered him to kiss her on the cheek as she turned her face from
"Have it your own way," she said, limp with a sudden sense of futility
and as if all the reflex resiliency had oozed out of her.
"We're all right together, Lilly. Just don't you worry your head. We'll
get adjusted in no time. You and--and mother talk things over to-morrow.
I've been a thick-headed old fool. Pshaw! I--Pshaw!"
She moved to the dresser, removing pins until her hair fell shiningly
all over her, brushing through its thick fluff and weaving it into two
heavy braids over her shoulders. He laid hesitant and rather clumsy
hands to its thickness.
"Fine head of hair."
She jumped back as if a pain had stabbed her.
"Don't forget, Albert, to lock the downstairs windows."
He was full of new comprehensions.
"I understand. Take your time to undress, Lilly. I'll be about fifteen
minutes locking up, and I want to attach some new safety locks I brought
with me. Everything all right?"
"You don't need to keep the light burning."
He opened his lips to say something, but, instead, turned and went out,
the closed half of his collar drenched in perspiration.
When he returned, after a generous fifteen minutes, the room was in
darkness except for a thin veil of whiteness from the arc light in the
street. Between the sweetly new sheets the long, supple mound of Lilly
lay along the bed, her bare arms close to her body.
Her breathing was sufficiently deep to simulate sleep. He undressed in
the darkness and the silence.
Half the night through he tossed, keeping carefully to the bed edge, and
often she heard him sigh out and was conscious that he mopped
continually at the back of his hands. Once he whispered her name.
She deepened her breathing.
About four o'clock he dozed off, swooning deeply into sleep, his lips
opening and a slight snore coming.
She lay with her eyes open to the darkness, letting it lave over her as
if it were water and she had drowned in it with her gaze wide.
She felt bathed in a colorless fluid of unreality. Those Swiss window
curtains! To what era of her consciousness did their purchase belong?
She and her mother had shopped them at Gentle's. They hung now lightly
against the darkness. The blond girl who had sold them to her must be
sleeping now, too, in this same curious pool of unreality. She lay sunk
in a strange pause. Once she propped herself on an elbow, gazing across
the street to the blank front of her parents' house. They were sleeping
behind that middle upper window, their clothing folded across chairs, as
if waiting. How eagerly they would greet their new day of small duties,
small pleasures, and small emotions. What gave them the courage to meet
the years of days cut off one identical pattern, like a whole regiment
of paper dolls cut from a folded newspaper? She began to count. Uncle
Buck, five hundred. Grandma Ploag, one hundred. Mamma and papa, one
hundred and fifty. Seven hundred and fifty in the bank in her name! Her
own little checking account. The tan-bound check book. The new tan
valise, monogrammed, L.B.P. The stack of music marked "Répertoire." New
York! She fell to trembling, forcing herself into rigidity when the
figure beside her stirred. She was burning with fever and wanted to
plunge from the cool sheets. She could have run a mile--two.
Instead, she lay the long night through, her mind a loom weaving a
tapestry of her plan of action, and dawn came up pink, hot, and
At seven o'clock her husband awakened with an ejaculation that landed
him sitting on the bed edge. She lay with her eyes closed, wanting not
to blink. He dressed silently, but she could hear him tiptoeing about,
and finally lay with her hands clenched against the gargling noises that
came through the closed door of the bathroom. At last she was conscious
that, fully dressed, he was standing beside her, looking down. She could
tell by the aroma of mouth wash.
"Lilly?" he said, in a coarse whisper.
She continued to simulate sleep.
She did not employ the deception of a start, but opened her eyes quietly
to meet his.
"Lazy!" he said. "It is twenty-six minutes past seven."
"So late?" she said, twisting into a long, luxurious yawn. He kissed her
directly on that yawn between the open lips.
"You stay in bed this morning. Rest up."
"I think I will, Albert, if you don't mind."
"You turn right over and have your nap out. I'll be home at
"Good-by, Albert," she said into the crotch of her elbow.
He kissed her again on the ear lobe and the nape of her neck.
"Good-by, Lilly, and if I were you I'd have a little talk with mother
if I found myself not feeling just right. I'm sending Joe up with a pair
of granite scrub buckets and that stopper for the bathtub. All right?"
After a while she could hear him below, the tink of breakfast cutlery
and the little passings in and out of Lena through the swinging pantry
door. Then the front door closed gently, and on its click she swung
herself lightly out of bed, standing barefooted behind the Swiss
curtains to watch the square-shouldered figure swing across the street
toward the Page Avenue car. Her energy to be up and doing suddenly
unstoppered, she turned back to the room, jerking out a dresser drawer
until it flew out to the floor.
At nine o'clock she was still in her nightdress, sloughing about in an
engagement gift of little blue knitted bedroom slippers. There were the
new valise and an old dress-suitcase tightly packed and shoved beneath
the bed, and over a chair a tan-linen suit inserted with strips of
large-holed embroidery that had been dyed in coffee by Katy Stutz. It
had originally been designed as a traveling suit for a honeymoon trip to
Excelsior Springs until that project had been decided against in favor
of immediate possession of the little house.
"Put that extra money into your furniture," Mrs. Becker had advised, to
which Albert had been highly amenable.
There was a large _pièce de resistance_ of a hat, too, floppy of brim
and borne down at one spot by an enormous flat satin rose. Lilly had
rebelled against its cart-wheel proportions, but in the end her mother's
She dressed hurriedly, emerging from her bath with her hair wet at the
edges, but combing back easily into its smoothness.
Her nervousness conveyed itself to her mostly through her breathing; it
was short and very fast, but she was as cool of the flesh as the fresh
linen she donned. That was part of the clean young wonder of her. Her
vitality flowed and showered back upon itself, like the ornamental
waters of a fountain. She awoke like a rose with the dew on. Even Albert
Penny, rubbing the grit out of his eyes, had marveled at the matinal
bloom of her.
She ran in her movements, closing drawers and doors after her to keep
down her rising sense of confusion, pinning where fingers could not wait
to fit hook to eye. There were twenty-eight dollars in her little
brown-leather purse and a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars,
payable to "self," in a little chamois bag around her neck.
The pretty solitaire engagement ring, a little aquamarine breastpin,
gift of the groom, a gold band bracelet, and after some hesitation her
wedding ring, she placed in an envelope in the now empty top dresser
drawer, scribbling across it, "Valuable." She pried it open again after
sealing, to drop in a tiny gold chain with a pearl-and-turquoise drop,
still another gift, suggested by her mother to the bridegroom. Finally,
there were the little trinkets of more remote days which she dropped
into her purse. A rolled-gold link bracelet dangling a row of friendship
hearts. Her class pin. A tiny reproduction on porcelain, like the one
burned into the china plate in the parlor, of her parents, cheek to
cheek. Regarding it, her throat tightened and she sat down suddenly.
"O God!" she said, half audibly, "what am I doing?" But on the second
she cocked her head to a passer-by and finally leaned out to hail in a
neighborhood man of all work, paying him a dollar and car fare to carry
her bags down to the new Union Station and check them. Seeing them
lugged out of the house was another moment when it seemed to her that
she must faint of the crowding around her heart.
Lena she dispatched to the grocer's on the homely errand of beeswax for
ironing, and, trembling to take advantage of the interval of her
absence, hurried into her jacket and hat, her face deeply within the
wide brim. Opposite, her mother was scrubbing an upper window sill, the
brush grating against the silence. She waited behind the Swiss curtains
for the figure to withdraw.
The wide, peaceful morning filled with order and sunshine! The pleasant
greeny light cast by awnings into her bedroom. What devil dance was in
her blood? What prickly rash lay under her being? Her mother at that
ordered scrubbing of the window sill! Her eyes swung the smaller orbit
of the room. The rumpled bed. That discarded collar on the dresser, the
two stretched buttonholes like two tiny mouths. That collar...
She caught up her purse and ran downstairs. Her telephone was ringing
violently as she hurried toward the Page Avenue car.
On the ride down there occurred one of those incidents that sometimes
leap out like a long arm of coincidence pointing the way. A classmate
with whom she had once sung in the Girl's High School Glee Club, and
whom she had long lost sight of, sat down beside her.
"Why, it's Lilly Becker!"
"Of all people! The same pretty and stylish Lilly."
Remembering Vera's readiness with the platitude, Lilly smiled down upon
"And you, too, Vera, you look natural"--but the words almost petered out
on her lips. Much of Vera's slender prettiness was gone. She had gone
hippy, as the saying is, even her face insidiously wider and
"What are you doing, Vera? Have you kept up your music?"
"Oh no! I'm married!"
There was a little click to the finish of that speech that seemed
automatically to lock against the intrusion of old dreams.
"A ten-months-old daughter furnishes me all the music I have time for.
Didn't I read where you got married, Lilly?"
"Yes. You had such a pretty touch on the piano, Vera."
"Why, I don't believe I've opened the piano in six months! Marriage
knocks it out of you pretty quick, don't it? And, say, wait until the
babies begin to come. I said to him last night, 'Ed, why is marriage
like quicksands?' He's no good at conundrums. 'Because it sucks you
down,' I said, and he didn't even see the point. But it's a fact, isn't
it? Mine is city salesman for the Mound City Shoe Company.