Part 3 out of 8
"Lucille Wright is married. And remember Edna Ponscarme? Twins. Nine
months to a day. Maybe she wasn't in a hurry! And Stella Loire, the
class beauty? She wheels her past our house on her way to market every
morning. More like the class dishrag now. Well, well! it does seem
funny. Lilly Becker married and settled down like the rest of us, and
we had you down in the class prophecy for a famous opera singer.
At Eighteenth Street Lilly left the car, transferring for Union Station.
A sudden exultation was racing through her. She sat well forward on her
seat, as if that could quicken transit.
Union Station, one of the first of those dividend-built and
dividend-building terminals that were to spring up quickly and
palatially the country over, rose with a peculiarly American trick out
of one of the most squalid sections of the city. Fifteen railroads
threaded into it, a gaseous shed _de luxe_, picking up St. Louis like a
gigantic bead upon the necklace of commerce.
The coughing of steam up against a glass roof threw off repetitions of
self. The boom of a train announcer's voice rang out, the echoes fitting
smaller and smaller into one another like a collapsible drinking cup. A
hither and thither! A bustle that caught Lilly up into it. She was
immediately drunk with the moment and train smoke. Life was a gigantic
The clerk at the Terminal Hotel, Mrs. Kemble's brother-in-law, in fact,
cashed her check for her, without question, but a sort of unspoken
askance, sending it across the street, with his additional indorsement,
to a bank. There were six one-hundred-dollar bills, two fifties, and
five tens. She folded their considerable bulk into the bag around
True to direction, the checks for her bags had been left at the
Information Desk in an addressed envelope. A porter scurried for them.
Backed by the precedent of the trip to Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and
Chicago, she bought her ticket, and then, rather more reluctantly and
against her sense of thrift, a berth, which already necessitated a
foray into the little chamois bag.
Last, she dropped an already stamped and addressed envelope into the
station mail box, her heart seeming to swoon to her feet as she did so.
It contained a half-hundredth version of a week-old letter finally
MY DEAREST PARENTS,--When you receive this I will be on my way. I won't
try to explain my action except that now I see plainly my entire life
has been directed toward this moment.
Had I found this courage two months ago a great deal of suffering might
have been spared one person, at least. I cannot say enough for Albert's
patient struggle to make possible the impossible, or for you, my dear
parents, for whom my love is as great as my rebellion.
I am not leaving an address. That would be useless. My decision is
unalterable. It is futile to come after or try to find me. In a large
city I will immediately become a needle in a haystack and that is what I
want and need for my work. Do not worry. You know very well I can take
excellent care of myself, and in case of unforeseen accident I will
always be identified by your name and address on me. So by my very
silence you are to know I am well and happy. Some day, when success has
justified this seemingly rash step, who knows what happy reunion may be
in store for us?
Take Albert into your home. He will be a better son to you than I have
been a daughter. God bless you all. LILLY.
At ten-five the B. & O. Limited, for New York, pulled out. In a Pullman,
her bags on the seat opposite and her hands locked so that her finger
nails bit in, sat Lilly, gazing out over the moving landscape of dirty,
uneven fringe of city. Crossing Eads Bridge, the higher and lighter
rumble of the train, induced by steel over water, was like thin soprano
laughter with ice in it.
She was suddenly terrifyingly conscious of an impulse to join in that
laughter--to laugh and to laugh.
There is a sense of detachment from this old planet of ours goes with
travel, that is not unlike that instant when the pole vaulter's feet are
farthest off ground. It seemed to Lilly, after a while, that both her
starting point and her destination had fallen away. She hung in
abeyance. She was the unanchored streak of a rocket through space.
Time was dropping away from her with a sense of the same steep declivity
that could awaken her out of a doze to a sense of falling. She was
rolling through the pleasant monotony of Indiana, against the light
slant of a morning suddenly turned rainy. Quick diagonal streaks flecked
the pane and she could see the drops spat down into a thick white-plush
road, clipping it of nap.
The sleeper was quite empty save for a medley of drummers' talk and the
rattle of chips from the smoking room and an old man in a skull cap who
dozed incessantly. Even the porter dozed. She sat the day through
without responding to calls for meals, the rain falling steadily now
like a curtain. At five o'clock the lamps were already burning and a
rash of little lights began to break out over the landscape.
"Some day," she mused, "I'll look back upon all this and laugh. I'll
tell it in a newspaper interview. Lillian Ploag. No, Luella Ploag.
Ploag. No-o, Luella--Luella Parlow! Not bad. Luella Parlow!"
She asked a passing porter the time.
* * * * *
She slept fitfully, awakening with little exclamations, and once came so
suddenly out of a doze that she awoke sitting bolt upright, bumping her
head against the top of the berth. Cup her hands as she would against
the window pane, she could not see out, but it seemed to her that dawn
must be imminent. She felt for her little watch, leaning to the streak
of light the curtains let in. Ten-five! Not yet midnight. She lay back
on the gritty bed, trembling.
At six o'clock there were still stars, but a coral tremor was against
the sky line and clouds coming up furiously. Suddenly she realized that
the clouds were mountains and that the flat territory had flowed through
the night into Pennsylvania mountains that were like plunging waves, and
with the changed physiognomy, her mood quickened. She would not wait for
the sun, dressing in her berth.
At eight o'clock, and for only the third time in her life, she
breakfasted in a dining car. It was well crowded, the old man in the
skull cap across the aisle from her gouging out an orange. She ordered
with a sense of novelty and thrift, passing on from grilled spring
chicken, bar-le-duc, and honey-dew melon to eggs and bacon. A drummer
with a gold-mounted elk's tooth dangling from his chain ogled her, so
she sat very prim of back, gazing out over flying villages that were
like white-pine toys cut in the cisalpine Alps and invitingly more
clipped and groomed than the straggling Indiana towns of yesterday. She
was cruelly conscious of self, and throughout the meal kept the tail of
her glance darting at her surroundings, dropping a piece of toast once
and apologizing to the waiter, continuing to smile in an agony of strain
after the incident. She ate slowly, her little finger at right angle to
her movements, masticating with closed lips, her napkin constantly
dabbing up at them.
Finally the head waiter, who had been hovering, to Lilly's great
discomfiture, directly at her shoulder, steered a young woman, with a
great deal of very fuzzy light-brown hair about her face, to the empty
seat opposite. She had a certain air of chic, was modishly dressed, wore
no rings except a marriage band, and long pink nails with careful half
moons. With the ripple of a thrill over her, Lilly registered her as
"typical New Yorker." As a matter of fact, she was the wife of a teacher
of physics in Brooklyn Manual Training School, returning from a two
weeks' visit to her mother-in-law in Indianapolis.
She ordered with somewhat of a manner, asking for an immediate cup of
hot water, and to Lilly there was something esoteric even in that. The
sturdy, fine machine of her own body had the crass ability to start off
the day with bacon and eggs. She blushed for the healthiness of
A patter of conversation sprang up between them, something like this:
"Would you mind passing me the sugar?"
"Why, certainly not!" from an eager Lilly.
"Going all the way to New York?"
"No. Do you?"
"Yes, since my marriage."
"Do you like it?"
"New York is not a point of view, my dear. It's a habit. Your system
comes to demand it just as an opium fiend comes to require so many
pipefuls. You know it's bad for you, but the fumes are delicious."
"The fumes of the metropolis, my dear. The perfumes of wealth. The next
best to being Mrs. Four Hundred herself is to walk past her Fifth Avenue
home and see her step out of her automobile."
"I suppose so, if wealth is what one craves most."
"It isn't a craving in New York; it's a necessity. But to those of us to
whom life is pretty much of a compromise anyway, there is something in
mere propinquity to wealth that is like smelling into a tumbler with its
sides still wet from some rare old chartreuse. It isn't filling, but
"That's exactly the way I feel about life; it's worth going after if you
only get the aroma. If I can't be Venus, then let me be the star dust
that is nearest to her!"
It seemed to Lilly that she was suddenly talking to her own kind. New
York spoke her language.
"Fearful coffee. I always say the only place outside of my own
percolator I can get a decent cup of coffee is the new Hudson."
"The Hudson? Is that a good hotel?"
"Yes, splendid. Are you alone?"
There occurred to Lilly a swift talent for the moment.
"Certainly," she said, shaping her own voice into a petard against the
little clang of surprise in the voice of her _vis-à-vis_. "I always
travel alone. I'm a professional."
"Really?" her glance running over the somewhat florid details of the
corn-colored linen. "With that fine chest, I'll warrant you're
"I wonder if you know Margaret Mazarin."
"Indeed I do, from hearsay."
"Well, we virtually gave Margaret her start. Madge Evans is her real
name. My husband grew up next door to her in Indianapolis. She
practically used to make our apartment her home. One day when she was
about as close to bed rock as a girl could be, my husband said to her:
'Madge, if the managers won't give you a hearing, why don't you try some
of those agencies in the Pittman Building in Longacre Square? I see all
sorts of musical and theatrical agencies' signs on the windows.' Bless
us, if the very first one to which she applied didn't give her the
position that indirectly led her straight to the Metropolitan! Some one
connected with one of the biggest patrons of the opera heard her singing
down at a little old ten-twenty-and-thirty theater and got her an
audience right off."
"Oh," cried Lilly, her face ardent, "if only--I--some day--"
"Yes," continued her companion, dipping into her finger bowl and pushing
back, "Madge always says it was that tip from my husband, a mere chance
suggestion, gave her a start."
They paid, each her check, leaving small womanish tips beside their
"Well, I hope some day to have the pleasure of hearing you sing. Are you
"Oh yes, concert."
"I must watch for your name," digging down into a reticule for a bit of
cardboard. "Mine is Towser--Mrs. Seymour Towser. What is yours?"
"Mine? Lilly Penny," she replied, her whole body flashing to rescind
the word no sooner than it was spoken. "Lilly-Penny-Parlow."
They swayed their way through the chain of cars, Lilly's coach running
two ahead of her companion's.
"Well, good-by, Miss Parlow, I hope we meet again some day."
"Good-by," said Lilly, making her way relievedly through two more cars
Once in her seat, she withdrew hastily from her valise a small red
memorandum book, giltly inscribed "Mid-West Insurance Company," plying a
quick and small chirography on to its first page:
Pittman Building, Longacre Square.
The day, which for Lilly began with the tickle of aërial champagne,
petered out humiliatingly. Quite without the precedent of the previous
trip to Buffalo, Niagara Palls, and Chicago, train-sickness set in and
the remainder of the day was spent hunched with her face to the prickly
hot plush of the seat, her hair and linen suit awry, and not a spot on
the pillow mercifully proffered by the porter that would remain cool to
It was well past nine o'clock, and two hours behind schedule, when a
very limp and rumpled Lilly followed the weary straggle of weary
passengers through the pale fog of the New Jersey station to the waiting
ferry. She found a place at the very bow, and, standing there beside her
bags, hat off to the sudden kiss of fresh air, her prostrated senses
seemed to lift.
There was something Trojan, Illiadic, in the way in which they moved out
presently, to bay. The first tang of salt air, that rotten,
indescribable smell of the sea, tickled her nostrils. It was all she
could do to keep from being drunk with it. She felt skittish. She wanted
to kick up.
The approach was not spectacular. The great spangled flank of herself
which New York turns to her harbor had just about died down, only a
lighted tower jutting above the gauze of fog like a château perched on a
mountain. Fog horns sent up rockets of dissonance. Peer as she would,
Lilly could only discern ahead a festoon of lights each smeared a bit
into the haze.
She began her trick of dramatizing the moment. She wanted suddenly to
claw apart the dimness with her finger nails. She wanted to lean into
the beyond, to wind herself in that necklace of lights out there and
bend back until she touched the floor of the universe.
They slid into slip. Chains dropped. There was a sudden plunge forward.
Night was day, white arc lights grilling into a vast black shed. A few
automobiles and a line of horse cabs backed up against a curb--the
one-horse variety that directly antedated the general use of the
taxicab. A porter shoved her bags into one of these, the driver leaning
an ear down off his box.
"Where to, miss?"
"Hudson Hotel," she said, sitting back against the leather tufting.
They rattled over the cobblestones until her very flesh shivered, and
she bit into her tongue and her hands bounced as they lay in her lap,
and, trying to peer out of the window, she bumped her head, and finally
sat back, forced to be inert as she bumbled over the deep narrow streets
of lower Manhattan which at night become deserted runways to slaughter,
ghostly with the silent thunder of a million stampeding feet.
It was ten o'clock when they finally drew up at the side entrance of the
hotel in a street disappointingly narrow, but which seemed to burst,
just a few feet beyond, into a wildly tossed stream of light,
pedestrians, and, above all, a momentum of traffic that was like the
fast toss of a mountain stream. The cab fare was overwhelmingly large.
Her bags disappeared; she followed them, immediately enveloped in an
atmosphere of upholstery, mosaic floors that seemed to slide from under
her, palms that leaned out of corners, crystal chandeliers, uniforms,
rivulets of music. She had dined upon several occasions at the Planters'
Hotel in St. Louis, and had once spent a night at the Briggs House,
Chicago, and the Hotel Imperial at Niagara Palls, and had objected when
her father signed, "B. T. Becker, Wife and Daughter," taking the pen to
write out her own name boldly under his, and upon all summer excursions
had taken upon herself the ordering of the family meals.
But the Hudson awed her, the very Carrara magnitude of the walls, the
remote gold-leaf ceilings, light-studded, the talcy odor _de luxe_. She
wanted to back out of that lobby of groups of well-dressed loungers; to
turn; to run. Instead, she wrote her name on the register, marveling at
her steady chirography:
Luella Parlow, Dallas
A narrow clerk scanned the bulk of her baggage, unhooked some keys, and
called, "Front." She was mildly taken for granted and her assurance
"What are your rates?"
"Three-fifty and up."
He shifted among his keys and she noticed that when she returned the pen
to him his hand lingered just too long. She had a way of lifting her
eyebrows to express her archest scorn. The smile on the clerk's face did
not die, but neither did it widen.
She shot upward in an elevator. She padded her way through long hallways
deeply carpeted to eat in footfalls. It seemed to her they must have
rounded a city square of those hallways, door after door after door as
imperturbable as eyeless masks, and yet which somehow seemed to look on.
"Anything else, ma'am?"
"Nothing." She interpreted his wait and felt for a ten-cent piece. He
shifted the key to the room inside of the door and went out.
She was alone in a twelfth-story room that enhanced her aërial sense of
light-headedness. She looked at the bed. Curly birch with a fine sense
of depth to its whiteness. There was a glass top on the dresser, with a
lace scarf beneath it which appealed to her sense of novelty. Also an
extra light above it which she jerked on, peering at herself in
There were soot rims about her eyes, and when she removed her hat her
hair was glued to her brow in its outline. But just the same, the pollen
that gave to her skin its velvetiness was there. She leaned to the
mirror, baring her teeth to scan their whiteness; turned her profile as
if to appraise its strong, sure cast; swelled her chest after the manner
of inhaling for an octave, letting her hand ride on it. Then she
undressed slowly, luxuriating in a deep hot bath that rested her as she
lay back in it. She even washed her hair, wrapping it finally in one of
the thick turkish towels, and then leaned out of her window for a while,
her body well over the sill, and the air, with a cool washed quality to
it, flowing through her nightdress. She looked down on what she thought
must be the bosom of Broadway. Actually it was Forty-fourth Street. An
ocean of roofs billowed under her gaze.
She thought of Tuefelsdröck alone with his stars. Or rather, wanted to
think of herself as thinking of him.
A telephone directory on the desk caught her eye. For an hour she pored
over its pages, names that had blazoned themselves incandescently from
the pages of musical reviews and magazines mixed in casually with the
clayey ones of mere persons. A thrill shot over her with each encounter.
The book began to exhale an odor of sanctity.
It was two o'clock when she turned off her lights, just enough glow from
the hallway pressing against her transom to reassure her. The sheets
were fragrant with cleanliness and she let her body give to the
delicious sag of the mattress. The rumble of the train was gone from
her ears. She felt washed, light, drowsy; cast aside her pillow; wound
her arm up under her head; sighed out of deliciousness; slept.
She awoke with a sense of red. A flame of fear shot through her, and a
first thought of fire, but even before she could rise she saw it was
static, this crimson gash across the blackness, and shaped like a grin.
She began to tremble, and an unreasoning fear of the depth of the
darkness to take hold of her. A sort of paralysis locked her, and,
although she wanted to scream, she lay there drenched in terror.
Finally, out of contempt for her fear, she sprang, landing both feet on
A little window in the box of the wall telephone, one of those modern
hotel devices _de luxe_ and _de trop_, had flashed up redly, spelling
out to her dilated gaze, "MAIL IN YOUR BOX." Regarding it, her relief
shifted suddenly to terror. Mail! Not even had she herself known what
her address might be! Her mother--father--Albert? But how? The drummer
with the gold-mounted elk's tooth! The clerk and that almost
imperceptible trail of the hand. Detectives! Her window showed a streak
of dawn. Five-forty by her watch. She tried to go back to bed, but at
six she was up again, dressed fumblingly, finally sliding the linen
jacket over an unbuttoned blouse. She had some difficulty locating the
elevator, scurrying through the deserted halls only to dash herself
against repeated _cul-de-sacs_. It was almost seven when she descended
into a lobby that was littered with sawdust in the sweeping up.
She asked for her mail, a strange clerk handing it out to her without
askance, and hurried to a chair behind a pillar, holding the envelope
between the folds of her skirt without glancing at it, and trying to
hide the trembling of her arm. She sat down, forcing her hand around and
her gaze to meet it. The envelope was blank; she tore its flap and read:
"Valet Service. Suits Cleaned and Pressed in One Hour."
And then she went out into 7 A.M. Broadway, all swept clean and caroling
with the song of the car gong and the whistlings of steamboats. A
line-up of theaters, early-morning mausoleums of last night's madnesses,
first met her eye in the clean light. One of them was violently postered
with lithographs of Minnie Maddern Fiske. A three-sheet proclaimed
Melba. Broadway became an Olympus, every passer-by a probable immortal.
She half expected to pass John Drew there as the Rialto cleaned its
cuspidors, polished its brass, and swept its front. She thought she
caught a flash of Margaret Mazarin in a cab. An exultant chill raced
over her at the vertical sign, "Rector's." A musical comedy full of
frothy and naughty allusions to Rector's had once played Forest Park
Highlands, St. Louis. It was like strolling the pages of an illustrated
magazine. Some one jostled her and smiled around very closely into her
face. Suddenly her eyebrows shot up. It seemed to her that the face
under the gray derby hat was as coldly and as bonelessly fat as an
oyster. Her two hands could have met around the little neck which was
tightly incased in a soft blue collar held with a gold bar pin. She
quickened her step and, what with the lifted brows, promptly lost him.
She stopped finally at a florid lace-and-glass-fronted restaurant on
Forty-third Street, with a mimeographed breakfast menu up against the
window. Her food went down through a throat constricted against it. Her
tightness would not relax.
At half after eight she was back once more in her room, changing from
the tan linen into a pink mull, heavily inserted, too, and throwing up
quite an aura of rosiness about her. She had only the tan hat, too wide
and too floppy of brim, but it had a picturesque value, which is a
greater selling quality than _chic_. In fact, in her own eyes, as she
tilted the mirror for a full-length view, the art of Katy Stutz stood
unimpeached. Eying her reflection in the mirrored walls of the elevator,
she felt as pinkly blown as a rose, and looked it. A head or two turned
after her youth. At the desk she inquired for the Pittman Building. Just
opposite! A policeman held up traffic to let her cross. She picked a
name off a third-story window, "Barnett Bureau--Musical Service," and
rode up to it.
By one of those astonishing flukes of beginner's good fortune, upon the
occasion of this very first effort Lilly obtained.
A ground-glass door opened into a room the size and bareness of a
packing case and crammed to its capacity with a roller-top desk, a
stenographer at a white-pine table, a cuspidor, a pair of shirt sleeves,
a black mustache, and a blacker cigar.
Entering, Lilly was surprised at the measured tempo of her voice and the
manner in which she permitted her eyebrows to arch ever so
"I'm looking for an engagement," she said, speaking through the ticking
of the typewriter.
The jaw ate in half an inch more of cigar and swung around in the
"Yes. High soprano."
He ran a swift cocked eye over her points and turned to the white-pine
"Send her down to Visigoth," he said to the stenographer, who took up
where he left off.
She was as blond and as bland as a summer's day. A Pompadour dipped down
over one eye and her jaws moved as rhythmically as rigorously to gum
with a pull to it. She was herself caricatured. She and Lilly exchanged
that quickest of inventories, woman's for woman.
"Our rules. Ten dollars a year bureau membership, and fifty per cent of
first two weeks' salary."
"But what if--"
"We always place sooner or later."
"But in case--"
"Take this card down to the Union Family Theater, Union Square, and ask
for Robert Visigoth. It's a two-a-day. If you don't do business with
him, come back to-morrow morning."
A quick dozen of questions rushed to Lilly's lips, but instead she laid
down a new ten-dollar bill, crammed the slip into her palm through the
hole in her glove, and went out, the snapping torrent of typewriting
The Union Family Theater was the first of a succession of variety houses
that was to spread, first to Harlem, then Philadelphia, and later gird
the country like a close-link chain. Vaudeville prefaced with
stereopticon views, designed to appeal to the strict respectability of
the most strictly respectable audiences in the world.
The high-class Rialto houses might pander to low-class comedy and
Broadway take its entertainment broad, but Robert Visigoth laid the
corner stone of subsequent fortunes when he decided that a
ten-twenty-thirty vaudeville audience that smells sour of perspiration
and strong foods demands entertainment as pink and as sweet as a baby's
heel, and that a gunman in the gallery will catcall his prototype on
Let the Noras and all the pyschanalyzed Magdas go their problematic and
not always prophylactic ways, the Visigoth Family Theaters wanted 'em
sweet, high-necked and low-browed.
Robert Visigoth, attorney-at-law, whose practice had suddenly, by one of
those arbitrary twists as difficult to account for as the changed course
of a river, assumed a theatrical twist, had taken over, on cleverly
obtained backing, the Union Family Theater from an insolvent client.
Within a year it had made a disappearing island of the law office,
flowing over and finally submerging that enterprise in the swifter
waters of the new.
At the end of two years, Bruce Visigoth, a younger brother by ten years
and snatched from the law the very day he graduated into it, was already
in Chicago, launching under the auspices of The Enterprise Amusement
Company, the People's Family Theater, Popular Prices, the sixth link of
the chain already in the soldering.
When Lilly found out the older of these brothers, he was standing in the
black auditorium of the theater, holding an electric bulb made portable
by a coil of cord, and directing the reverberating hammering down of an
additional brace of three orchestra chairs for which room had been found
by shifting the position of the bass drum.
A hairy old watchdog, tilted back against the brick side of the building
and smoking a pipe so foul that its tang clung to her hair that night as
she brushed it out, inspected her slip of paper and led her through a
black labyrinth of wings and properties.
An aroma lay on that blackness that in some indefinable way quickened
her, set her nostrils quivering, and ran along her entire being like a
line of fire. It smelled of Elizabethans in buckskin. Bottom rollicked
through it, thumb to nose. Ophelia leaned out of it. Bernhardt,
Coquelin, Melba, intoned into it. Its cold, pink paintiness lay damply
to her face. She had never smelled simmering mascara, but her lashes
were hot with it. Suddenly to herself she was herself, running ahead of
the wind, her aching senses bathed in an odor which somehow intoxicated
them. She was on a stage for the first time in her life, a bunch light
only half revealing it to her. Through the megaphone of cupped hands and
the dimness of the auditorium a voice came at her.
"Come down here, around through the left box."
She groped her way to a steel door, stumbling down two unsuspected
steps, and was suddenly in the carpeted silence of an aisle. Robert
Visigoth came toward her, the electric bulb held high and dragging the
yards of cord behind him.
"I'm from the agency," she said at once, the little beating quality that
she was feeling all over her in her voice, and holding out the slip.
"Come out here," he said, "where I can see you."
Some daylight flowed in through a slightly open fire exit and she
caught at a last moment of darkness to straighten her hat.
He shoved open the iron door so that more light flowed over her.
"Why," he said, "you're a big girl, aren't you?"
"I don't know," she said, through a little laugh of embarrassment, and
noticing that, regarding her, he wetted his lips.
"That part's all right. What I need is a good refined ballad voice.
Understand? The kind that can sing 'The Suwanee River' as if the only
thing in the world that mattered is that old plantation down there.
He spoke through a slight patois, New-Yorkese, but which she misjudged
for Virginian. He was in inverse ratio to her stock idea of theatrical
manager. Both brothers were to become more and more subject to this soft
Born in one of those old morose houses in lower Lexington Avenue, each
had lived there until he obtained his degree of LL.D. from a state
university. It had been a sedate, a mildly prosperous, even an historic
home. A Vice President of the United States had once owned it. Then a
Major O. Higginbothom, and finally, for fifteen years of tenancy, the
Visigoths. One of the kind whose genteel hall light had burned through
the fanlight decade after decade, and then suddenly, overnight, as it
were, disintegrated into a furnished-room house with a sign over the
One evening Horace R. Visigoth, of the law firm of Visigoth, Visigoth &
Higginbothom, did not answer his wife's soft question to him across the
green-shaded reading lamp of their library table. His head was quite
sunk forward in a sheaf of proofs. He was dead. One month later his wife
failed to awaken to Pauline Visigoth's frenzied attempts or to even a
dexterous physician's respiratory methods. The year following Pauline
Visigoth married the dexterous physician and moved to Chicago.
The Lexington Avenue house succumbed to a quick sale, and in attempting
to divert the law business out of the clayey rut of quiet old
conservatism, the Enterprise Amusement Company was ultimately to
Robert Visigoth, twenty-nine at the time, betrayed little of the
heritage his name suggested. His Teutonic blood pretty well laid, he was
a trifle too short and a trifle too heavy, and with none of his mother's
lean patrician quality to which both his younger brother and older
sister had fallen heir.
Suggesting future rotundities and a reddishness of complexion that was
presently to purple, at this stage his chin was undoubted and as square
as a spade, and, as so often happens to chins of this potentiality,
punctuated absurdly with a dimple, and he wore a little clipped edge of
black mustache which he tried to twirl.
Busy at the mannerism, if not the act, of twirling that hirsute
adornment of upper lip, he continued to observe Lilly.
"You understand? What I need is a real heart-to-heart voice."
"I'm quite good at ballads."
"Quite good or darn good?"
"I'm just in from as far west as--Dallas."
"Now what I want is a turn that hasn't struck the West yet. Understand?
It originated right here in this theater. There is a firm of music
publishers in this town makes up slides of its songs, and all you have
to do is stand beside the screen and sing to the stereopticon
illustrations. Understand? You don't have to follow the pictures. The
pictures follow you. It is sure fire if it is handled right, only the
girl we had on last week must have wrapped her vocal cords in sandpaper.
The secret of the whole thing is to make them--out there--live the song.
"Every woman in the audience has to be the sweetheart and every man the
lover you are singing to them about. And to do that the first one to
live that song must be you. Believe in yourself before you expect the
world to. If you come in here and tell me you sing _quite_ good, it
won't be easy to convince me of more if you begin to warble like Melba.
Now you go up there and let me hear a bar or two. Take care of the last
row gallery and the first row orchestra will take care of
"I--haven't my music with me--my répertoire--"
"Nonsense! Just a bar or two--'Suwanee River'--anything with heart in
it. Give us some lights up there, Bob."
Through the blackness Lilly moved as if she were sleep-walking in it.
Little needles of nervousness were out all over her, and, absurdly
enough, there walked across her vision the utterly irrelevant spectacle
of old black Willie with her feet bound in gunny sacks and the pencil
nubs in her hair, and just as irrelevantly her mind began to pop with a
little explosive ejaculative prayer: "O God, make him take me! O God,
make him take me!"
The bunch light had been dragged down center stage. She stood beside it,
opening her mouth as if to muster voice, then closing it. It was as if
water were swirling around and around her, the unseen presence in the
back of the house surging at her like a multitude.
She looked appealingly in the direction of the hammering down of the
"Never mind that. Sing to the top row of the gallery."
A fearful recurrence of yesterday's train-sickness rushed over her; she
could have crumpled to her knees, had even a sense of wanting to faint,
but instead she opened her lips again, her eyes fixed on the unseen last
two tows of the unseen top gallery, and by miracle finding a pitch that
left her plenty of range.
"Way down upon the Suwanee River-"
"Far, far away,
There's where my heart is turning ever,
There's where the old folks stay.
All the world am sad and dreary,
Everywhere I roam.
Oh, darkies, how my heart grows weary--"
The lay of Page Avenue was before her, swollen through tears. Her mother
sewing beside Katy Stutz. The patient back of her father's gray head.
Her parents on their knees, far back there somewhere beside her bed of
fever. Albert! Their wedding night when the door had closed behind
them! "O God, make him take me! Please!
"Far from the o-old folks--at ho--"
"That will do."
She stood with her mouth an O on the unfinished note, hand to the little
rise of her bosom.
"Meet me around in my office back stage." His voice was like a call in a
fog, retreating and retreating. She followed it. They met in a narrow
patch of broad daylight.
"I'm afraid," she began, her voice breaking on a gulp--"I'm afraid I
"You did very well," he said, kindly. "Little off key and your voice
won't set the world on fire, and it has a tremolo quality that may be
rotten-bad singing, but it's the right stuff for the act."
She thought, with a swoop of perception, that in this she discerned the
astuteness of a buyer too clever to praise the article he covets. She
felt lighter, as if some of her had melted in the ordeal. The machinery
of her body began to take up again, the saliva to flow, and her heart to
beat without seeming to hit its walls.
"I'll try you out for a week. Twenty dollars?"
"Yes." Trying to seem to pro and con.
"Come to-morrow at ten and I'll have a man down to go over next week's
slides with you. That gives you until Monday. Something pink on the
order of what you are wearing will do, only fluffier. Rough up your hair
a bit, too. No, leave it slick like that, but something fluffy in a hat
or a sun-bonnet with a pink bow under the chin. Right there--under that
Her head flew up from his touch.
"I think so."
"I know so."
"Good. Never let a think show through your answer. Yes or no!"
He tweaked her chin again.
"Watch out somebody doesn't steal you on your way home, big girl."
"To-morrow at ten," she repeated, going out into the sunshine that smote
her with the sting of hot lances. The tweak from his hand lay back
somewhere, branded none too pleasantly into her consciousness.
But just the same, when she inquired of a traffic policeman the
direction to the Hotel Hudson, even the mundane wording of her asking
clicked like happy castanets into her spirit.
And so it came about, through events of surprisingly simple shaping,
that her first week in the metropolis found Lilly integral to it.
She liked the consciousness that unless she appeared at the Union Family
Theater at two-fifteen and at eight-fifteen she was breaking into the
continuity of a sequence of events in which she had her place.
She was already in the rush of assurance that followed her sense of
earning capacity, regarding the Union Family Theater merely as a means
to an end, and in spare time had registered at two concert bureaus, read
off the same building of plate-glass windows, and had purchased the
score of "Carmen," humming Michaela's aria, in bed of mornings. There
was a letter she had once obtained from Max Rinehardt, addressed:
"_To Whom It May Concern. Miss Lilly Becker has studied with me for a
period of three years. I consider her voice a lyric soprano of fine
Evidently it concerned no one. The clerk at the concert bureau tossed it
aside without comment. Visigoth, when he read it one day in the wings,
returned it in just that manner.
She was secretly ashamed of her professional debut in a role that would
not have survived the ridicule of even Flora Bankhead's easy standards.
Many a time, together at matinées, they had giggled and munched
chocolates over acts that hardly rivaled hers for sentimental appeal of
about one dimension. Plenty of length and no depth.
To a series of colored views thrown upon the screen, Lilly sang from a
dark stage into the warm musk and stale linen-smelling theater, a ballad
as slow and sweet as taffy in the pulling.
"Dressed up in her gingham gown,
Just to come with me to town.
How the sun was shining down!
It seemed to bless our lit-tul wedding day."
"Darling Sue--e dear,
How I miss your laughing!
Seems to me I hear it in the same old way.
Darling Sue dear, don't believe I'm chaffing.
Bless your heart! I love you in the same old way."
Lights! Revealing Lilly in the pink mull and dangling sunbonnet beside
the blank white screen. They liked her, invariably demanding encore,
this time the words and score of the chorus thrown upon the screen and,
to Lilly's importunings and pretty encouragement, the house joining in.
By arrangement with the publishing house, this exploitation of song hits
cost the Visigoth brothers nothing. In fact the little novelty soon came
to supplement one of the eight acts on the program, thus eliminating
Each week a new song score bordered in hearts and flowers was thrown
upon that darkness, the audience eager to find a hum in it.
Lilly's second song, "Mamma, Why Are You So Sad To-night?" went even
better than the first, and it so pleased Robert Visigoth, who in those
years had his ears to the ground of the daily audience, to hear them
filing out, whistling and carrying it on little tra-la-las, that he
called Lilly into his office the first day of the second week, to
announce a five-dollar raise in salary.
She had been in the habit of oozing past him rather hurriedly in and out
the dark passages, conscious that his touch was ever ready to slide down
her length of arm, or his knee to find out hers and press it if he sat
down beside her as she waited in the wings.
It was before the realty aspect, the buying, leasing, and selling, of
theater property had engulfed him, and his presence around the theater,
often shirt-sleeved, was hardly a matter of moment.
However favorably he differed in aspect from Lilly's preconception of
the managerial genius, her inhibitions concerning him were strong. She
always sat on the edge of her chair in his presence. To accept so much
as a slip of paper from him meant that his touch would trail to the last
long-drawn second. His eyes had a habit of focusing, seeming to move in
a bit toward the tip of his nose and grill intimately into her being.
And then his wetted lips, as if his mouth were watering.
"You need to be waked up," he said once to her. "You're like a great big
She jerked away from his touch and his reference, hurrying from the
theater, as always, immediately after her act, which came first on the
afternoon and evening bill. Secretly she was thoroughly ashamed of what
she was doing, putting each performance quickly behind her.
Six hundred and twenty-two dollars still lay in the chamois bag against
her bosom, but the additional five dollars a week on to her salary was a
saving prop against the not infrequent sag of her spirit.
She was listed at half a dozen agencies, but nothing presented itself.
Her first hotel bill, twenty-eight dollars, sent her scurrying, against
further and deeper inroads into the chamois bag, to an immediately
adjoining side street of brownstone fronts as without identity as a row
of soldiers, all of them proclaiming the furnished room to that great
sandstorm of New York transients who blow in and out of them in
Their dreariness flowed over her in cold, soupy odors, that left a
feeling of a coating of grease over the surface of her. The poor filbert
of gaslight burning into floor after floor of slits of hallway. The
climb after a whole processional of spotty landladies whose shortness of
breath contributed to the odor-laden air.
The room which she finally obtained at three dollars a week was a
third-floor front, shaped like a shoe box, with an aisle of walking
space between the cot and washstand, and as dank to her and as
shiver-inducing as a damp bathing suit donned at dawn.
But the matting on the floor smelled scrubbed, the bathroom at the head
of the stairs contained a porcelain tub instead of the usual horror in
painted tin, and except for June bugs that bumbled all night against her
ceiling, attracted by the incandescence from the theater sign across the
street, was free from those scavengers of bed slats and woodwork which,
often as she inspected from room to room, to her agonized flush, had
crawled across a landlady's very denial of them.
Robert Visigoth had a habit of appraising this ready blush of hers. It
never rushed hotly to her face but what he noted it in persiflage.
"Look at her blush!" he cried, one afternoon as they both stooped to
recover her dropped hand bag, their heads bumping so that they sprang
apart in laughter.
"The idea, Mr. Visigoth! I'm not blushing!" she cried, stinging with her
inability to control the too ready red.
He ran his hand over the smooth glaze of her hair.
"Let's see if it will muss. I'll wager it's painted on."
"It grows that way," she said, levelly.
"I like it! Clean as a whistle. Interesting. In fact, you're a mighty
interesting young woman, if you want to know it, Miss Luella Parlow."
"What is the song for next week, Mr. Visigoth?"
"'My Pretty, My Pretty,'" he said, his intimate eyes watching her
wriggle, with a sense of being ridiculous, on the hook of his glance.
"I never know how to take you," she flared, infuriated, and rushed
toward the door.
"Take me--with you."
"Really now--this--this is too absurd."
"Where are you going?"
"Home, of course. I have all this time to myself between now and the
evening performance. Why waste it sitting around with the dog and
"Where do you live?"
"West Forty-fourth Street, near Eighth."
"West Forty-fourth Street."
"Hm-m-m!" he said, with a new easiness of manner that alarmed her.
"Selfish little girl. All this time to yourself."
"You would be surprised how it flies."
"What do you do?"
"Oh, no end of odds and ends. Wash out things. Read. Sew. Practice.
"What do you write? Letters to suitors? Lucky chaps."
"Nonsense!" she said, coloring.
"A girl like you must have a string of them after her."
"No! I write--you see, I've always sort of wanted to write fiction.
Magazine stories. I like to scribble in my spare time."
"Story writing? You can't serve two masters in this profession."
"Oh, and then I practice." It was here she had shown him the letter
addressed, "To Whom It May Concern." "I haven't a piano, but you would
be surprised how helpful it is just to memorize the role from
"I know four. Michaela is my last. I haven't memorized all of her aria
yet, but half the time I'm singing her with my mind, if you know what I
mean. I once had twelve lessons on Marguerite. With study, Mr. Visigoth,
and perhaps some more lessons with one of the big teachers here, do you
think I have the slightest chance for opera or--concert? You can be
frank with me. Do you?"
He patted her.
"Too much ambition will make that satiny head of yours ache."
"Let it ache."
"What you need more than lessons is some one to wake you up. That will
do more for you than all the training money can buy. You need a
rousing-good love affair. Love, that's the secret!"
She walked past him now, swinging open the stage door.
"You can be so nice, Mr. Visigoth, and so--horrid."
He followed, laughing.
"I'll walk a ways. Which way you going?"
They strolled into the syrupy warmth of a late Indian-summer afternoon.
At each crossing he took her arm, closing gently into the flesh.
"Yes, my little lady, that's what you need."
"To be waked up."
"Oh, there you go again! Is there no limit to sex self-consciousness? I
want to be a person in my work. An individual. Not first and foremost
"Why, my dear girl, you talk like a child! Sex is the very soul of art.
The greatest songs have been sung and the greatest pictures painted
because men and women have loved. Don't tell me a great big handsome
creature like you doesn't realize that!"
"Well, just the same," with feminine subjectiveness, "I mean to make my
way as an individual first and a woman second. I give nothing to you men
and I ask nothing except a fighting chance. I don't believe in all this
pay-the-price business. I don't recognize you as the arbiters of my
destiny. I'll pay my price with my ability, and if I can't pay up that
way then I deserve to fail. Women can fight back at the world with
something besides their sex. I intend to prove it."
He closed tighter over her arm.
"I like you when you tilt at windmills, Miss Don Quixote, and I like the
way your eyes turn black."
"There you are at it again."
"Certainly; it's the law of life."
"You mean it's the law of men! Why should you set the price of our
success? We women are going to batter down the monopoly."
"You're a regular little holy terror for woman's rights. Come in here
for a drink and tell me about it."
They were approaching the rapids of Broadway, the quickened torrent of
the pleasure zone that leaps high in folly even under sunlight. Sidewalk
humanity quickened and had a shove to it. Street cars and cabs plunged
in seemingly impassable directions. Frivolity was showing her naked
shoulder on lithograph roof garden and matinée stage. The Times Building
stood like a colossus, breakwater to the tide. Rector's invited.
"Come in for a drink," he repeated.
She threw him a northwest glance with what for her amounted to quite an
adventure in coquetry.
"Aha!" in the key of burlesque. "Either I sully these fair lips with
alcohol or to-morrow I awake jobless."
He was visibly annoyed, dropping her arm and hurrying past the mirrored
"You flatter yourself."
She bit into her lips, again with a sense of her ridiculousness,
confessing, in her stress and against the old inhibition, to a state of
"It isn't that, and you know it! I'm done up these last few days.
Feeling seedy. It must be this Indian-summerish heat."
"Poor pussy!" he said, again good-humored.
It was true that a recurring sense of dizziness would sweep like a
sudden wave over her, in street cars, even in bed before she rose
mornings, and that very afternoon as she sang into the murky darkness a
terrifying sense of it had threatened her.
In the little restaurant in Union Square which she frequented, her
healthy young appetite would prompt her to order foods that when they
arrived she would suddenly reject. She tried to guard against these
nervous recurrences by resolutely permitting no thought of her
yesterdays to crop into her to-days. Except, daily, she visited the
Public Library, reading over St. Louis newspapers of last week's
vintage, and never failing to glance at the death notices. For one week
an advertisement under PERSONAL appeared, which every time she
encountered it was sure to blur over her vision with quick tears:
Lilly, come home. All is forgiven.
She attributed some of her nervousness to the condition of mind this
little paragraph invariably induced. To bear out this conviction she
even omitted the visits to the Library for three or four days, but still
the flashes of discomfort persisted.
They had stopped at the stoop of her lean-looking rooming house.
"So this is where you live," he said, half a smile out and his lids well
"Yes," she said, unconsciously defiant, "and for my purpose it's fine."
"Clean, quiet, and reasonable."
"I see," he said through the same smile that was somehow hateful to her,
and after a moment of apparent indecision raised his hat and walked off.
The following evening, without waiting for the second refrain of chorus
or the lights to flash up, and creating some confusion down in the
orchestra, Lilly left the stage rather hurriedly, her hand groping ahead
of her as if to ward off muzziness, and her very first step into the
wings crumpled up quietly in a faint.
She awoke in her little damp dungeon of a dressing room, a trick bicycle
rider in sateen knickerbockers fanning her with a spangled jockey cap
and immediately rushing off for her act, Robert Visigoth standing and
looking down at her.
Embarrassment flooded her. She insisted upon standing immediately,
smoothing herself down and brushing at the wet spots where the water had
trickled away from her lips.
"Why," she said, through a gasp of apology, "of all things! Why, I have
never done such a thing in my life! It was the heat. Oh, how silly of
me! How unutterably silly!"
He pressed her down into a chair.
"You had better sit quiet there, my young miss, and get yourself
together. One eighth of an inch nearer that bicycle trapeze in the wings
and that smooth head of yours might not be so smooth right now."
"I'm so ashamed."
"I'll call a cab and take you home."
"I'd rather you didn't trouble."
"But I'd rather I did."
She smiled through an impulse to dig her nails into her palms and weep
her sense of ignominy.
While he procured the cab she hurriedly changed from the pink into the
coffee-colored linen, and, frightened at her pallor with the rouge
removed, tried to pinch her cheeks back to pinkness.
In the hansom and behind the wooden apron his hand crept over to hers,
"Poor little sick girl!" he said.
She tried to withdraw, but the black spots were swimming before her, and
to save herself from their engulfing her, as the shields and bracelets
must have buried Tarpeia, sat suddenly erect, blinking and shaking
"Oh, I say now!"
"Why, I--I'm all right--"
His one arm was at her waist and with the other he was poking open the
little trap door.
"Stop at the corner."
She closed her eyes, and almost immediately they drew up at a corner
drug store adjoining a long row of brownstone fronts deep in brown
studies. He helped her down, reading up at one of them. Dr. Barney Lee.
"He leaves his name at the box office once in a while. Suppose you stop
in here instead of the drug store. Don't like the idea of soda-fountain
cures. You've a little sunstroke, I think."
"No, no, Mr. Visigoth. Why, I've hardly ever had a doctor in my life!
The--drug store will--"
"One, two, three--march!"
"March! Got money? Good! I'll have a smoke in the cab. If he's not in,
then I'll drive you around to our house doctor."
He was in. But for ten minutes she sat in a leather-and-oak waiting
room, beneath a fly-specked Rembrandt's "Night-Watch," a clock ticking
spang into the gaslighted silence and the very chairs seeming to
meditate as they stood.
Then a pair of black-walnut doors slid back, and on a puff of iodoform
Lilly passed between them and they clicked shut again.
When she emerged Robert Visigoth's cigar was smoked two thirds its
length and he was slumped down, with one knee hooked comfortably about
He sprang out to help her in.
Her smile was drawn across her face almost like a gash.
"Tired waiting?" she said, holding her lips lifted.
"Fix you up?"
"You were right. A little sunstroke. A good night's rest will fix me
"You've been playing 'possum."
"That's it," she said, with the plating of hired gayety over her tones,
but her nails printing little half moons into her palms.
"Just for punishment, I'm going to drive you around the Park."
"No, no, no! I don't feel quite up to it. He said rest--a good night's
He regarded her unmistakable pallor.
"Oh, all right," sulkily, "you tantalizing enigma, you! Gad! you--you'd
drive a man crazy! There's something over your face. A veil. I'd like to
tear it off--"
"You--you're talking like a Third Avenue melodrama."
"I suppose I am," he said, subsiding and regarding the hooked top of his
cane the remaining ten minutes of the drive. "I suppose I am."
He dismissed the cab at her curb. To escape his arm she even ran up the
steps, and to prove how complete recovery called down over one shoulder:
"You've been kind and I'm grateful. Good night."
"Prove it," he said, up and after her, his arm at her waist.
"What?" she said, his meaning flashing as she spoke. She was crowding
away from his nearness against one of the storm doors which folded back
against the entrance, sooty light filtering over them through a frosted
His face twisted out of repose, flooded darker and darker with red.
"You devil," he said, "you knew you'd get me."
"You go!" she cried, her lips pulled with the degradation of the moment.
He grasped her so that the breath jumped out of her.
"Oh," she cried, wrenching herself free, "don't you dare put your foot
in this house--"
"Then the Gramatan, Lilly. It's quiet and first class there--we can have
a talk. I'll call a cab--the Gramatan. Or my place--I live alone."
"If you do I--I'll bite! I'll bite, you hear?"
"Do it," he said, his face the color that was Iago's, grasping her then
in the shadow of the storm door, and kissing her so on the open lips
that to evade him she had to wriggle down to her knees and out of
The shamefulness of the scene not to be endured, she held her hand with
the key in it behind her back; then suddenly let it fly up for
"If you come near me--"
He stood back from her upflung arm, his refinement of feature
incongruous under the rush of ox-blood red, his teeth showing whiter as
"What the devil do you want, then? You devil! Who are you? There's only
one woman in a thousand I'd follow to a joint like this. I'm afraid of
them. Now I've had enough of this baby talk from you. It doesn't match
this house! What's your game? Let me up."
"What do you expect, with an address like this? There's two kinds of
women. You can't be the kind you pretend to be and live here. What is
the comedy? I like you, Lilly. Let me up. Come, put that little arm
down. God damn it! what do you want?"
With a wrench that threw him backward, a frenzied instant of struggle
for the lock, and she was in, slamming the door behind her, and up the
two flights with such a sense of pursuit that her breath turned to moans
in her throat.
Once within her room, locking her door on its very slam, and her hat
sliding down on her unpinned hair, she dropped down on her bed edge so
that the springs coughed, seeming to bleed her tears, so roundly and
full of agony they came.
The white light from the electric sign opposite created a pallor in the
room that enveloped her like a veil. She rocked herself as she sat. She
pressed her palms into her eyes until the terrible kind of darkness they
induced was sprinkled with red. She clapped her hands to her mouth to
keep down the rise of shrieks. She burrowed her head down into her
pillow, beating into the surrounding area of bed, chewing at the sheet
end, twisting it until it became rigid. She slid to the floor as if for
relief of its hardness; sat looking into the white kind of darkness with
the rims of her eyes stretched until her gaze seemed to sleep. She fell
to rocking herself again and twisting the sheet in an outrageous
abandonment of despair that was abashing because it was so naked. Her
hands wound each other in a dry wash. She sobbed in long coughs drawn
through a resisting throat. Pounded the matting. Dragged her palms down
over her face, pulling the hair with it.
Half the night through she paced the narrow aisle of the room, repeating
and repeating until the darkness seemed filled with the rushing of a
million frantic little wings:
"O God! O God! Help me, God! Make it a lie! Tell me that the doctor
lied! God, I need you! Where are you? Save me! Where are you? Help me,
God! Help me!"
Thus did Lilly Penny greet the coming of her child.
There was no egress for Lilly's state of panic. It hurled itself into
this and that _cul-de-sac_, only to dash into a black, a colossal wall
of ignorance builded on the sands of false and revolting modesty, and
which, as it tottered, threatened to crush her.
Her mind ran hither and thither, panic and anger plunging into storm
waves of sobs. Around and around spun her terror in its trap. Each pore
of her body might have been a mouth screaming. Distaste for her physical
awareness mounted upon her old peculiar aversion. The maternal did not
even lift its head. She could have beaten her own head, and did, for the
relief of pain. One alternative after another flickered into her
consciousness, only to die out again into blackness. Home! But by the
merest flash of the incongruous, not to say absurd, vision of Albert
Penny's wilted collar on the chiffonier, or his shirt sleeves that were
held back with pink rubber garters, bending over the recalcitrant bed
caster, knew how impossible that!
Forceps sensitive enough to lay hold of an antenna could not capture the
vagariousness of all of this, but none the less it was just that
ridiculous and irrelevant flash across her vision that eliminated the
almost unbearable tugging of nostalgia at her heart strings.
There were long hours of dizzying and fascinated contemplation down into
the cypress-sided vale of self-destruction; that ravine which gets its
glance from most and even the best of us. It seemed to her that she
could not even think for the rush of its dark waters pressing against
her reason; but love of life was strongest of all in Lilly. It was the
sweep of her own vitality which she felt pressing.
She tried to desire what had befallen her, to think in terms of beauty;
to feel the miracle of her state and the age-old throbs that make
maternity sublime. The sense of her aversion debased while it immersed
her. She reasoned how valiantly whole eternities of women had gone down
to meet motherhood and how proudly those eternities of women had worn
the moment. Her mother. Mrs. Kemble. The concept awed her, but then
memory came scourging out of that long night of her childhood:
MRS. KEMBLE: "Kill me, God! Put me out of it! Please! I can't suffer any
more! Kill me, God!"
She buried her head into her pillow; tried to think in terms of God; to
intimidate her rebellion. Finally she did cool to a sort of leaden
despair through which slow determination began to percolate.
At nine o'clock the following morning, a Sunday that wrapped the city
windily in the first cold gray of autumn, without having undressed the
night through, she ventured as far as Times Square for a newspaper, the
dark halls of the house and the rows of closed doors suddenly sinister.
The wind caught at her flimsy skirts, blowing them forward, and she was
forced to clutch the wide brim of her hat. Summer was gone.
But more than that, it seemed to Lilly that a black gauze lay across her
eyes, the very complexion of the streets had darkened, the hurried
wind-blown clouds stamping the whole aspect of things with turbulence.
She could not keep the run out of her steps, and her palms were full of
the half moons impressed there by her finger nails. The city, as joyous
as Chloe, had suddenly turned a frightening grimace upon her.
She bought a Sunday paper, letting the prankish gale around Times Square
scurry the bulk of it through the streets while she stood in the shelter
of the news stand, unfolding the Furnished Room section. Wind puffed the
sheets up into her face, and finally she crossed to a white-tiled lunch
room, ordering coffee and rolls more for the temporary shelter than for
appetite. Scanning column after column, occasionally she poked a
toothpick through the page, and once tore out a little segment, dropping
it into her hand bag. It read:
Neatly Furnished Room near Columbia University and Kroeg School of
Music. Three dollars and a half a week and breakfasts if desired. Ideal
for refined young lady. Inquire at 9000 Amsterdam Avenue.
She paid her check, inquired direction of the cashier, and, hurrying
out, boarded a north-bound Amsterdam Avenue car, riding for half an hour
through streets lined in petty shops and presenting the peculiar swept
look of Sunday.
She had cooled to apathy, a drowsiness descending that made her
reluctant to leave the car; could have ridden on and on in this eased
and half-narcotized state, but people had a habit of remembering her. A
truckman had followed her only the day before through half a block of
snarled traffic to see that she turned properly to the right. New York,
mad as a March hare, was eager to direct her. The conductor now walked
up the aisle of car to tap her on the shoulder.
"Your corner, miss."
Nine thousand Amsterdam Avenue was a drug store sidled in between a
bakeshop that six days a week poured forth sweet hot breath, and an
undertaking establishment with a white-satin infant's coffin _de luxe_
tilted in the window. The sight of it caught Lilly like a pain. That
peculiar power of an obsessed mind to see in everything its own state
reflected had set in. Queer that this infant's coffin should tilt at
her. A bouncing youngster leaned out of its perambulator to dance
She hurried into the drug store. Isaac Neugass, Chemist.
It was the older-style pharmacy, with a gilt mortar and pestle for a
sign; and as she entered, a bell attached by a pulley rang somewhere in
a thin, tattling voice. The soda fountain, fountain pen, the picture
postcard, the umbrella, and the face-powder demonstrator had not yet
invaded here. Isaac Neugass, Chemist--was just that. His walls were
lined in labeled jars of panacea. The pungency of valerianate of ammonia
smote the entrant. He pummeled his own pills, percolated his own
paregoric, prescribed for neighborhood miseries from an invariable
bottle that was slow, sluggish, and malodorous in the pouring, anointed
the neighborhood bruises, and extracted, always gratis, neighborhood
cinders from neighborhood eyes.
A Madison Avenue physician, erstwhile of Amsterdam Avenue, and more
recently of two honorary degrees, his own private hospital, two outer
waiting rooms, three assistants, and four-figure operations, still
diverted quite a runnel of his clientele to the impeccable pharmaceutics
of the little Amsterdam Avenue shop, so that the motor car and the
carriage not infrequently sidled up to its curb.
At Lilly's entrance, Isaac Neugass came shuffling around the
ground-glass prescription partition, his hands at their perpetual dry
washing of each other. There was something of a dressed-up wishbone
about him, in the way his clothing scarcely suggested the thin body
within them. They had scarcely a point of contact, even with his angles.
He was a mere inner tubing to what he wore. A skull cap hid his
baldness, a fringe of gray below it suggesting what was not beneath it.
His little eyes were like steel, humorously glinting gimlets in the
process of boring, the old face wrinkling up around them as pliantly as
a dough eraser. In fact, when he laughed his little chin with the tip of
beard did curl up like one of those rubber-toy faces where chin
"Well," he said, with a great dip of nose down into his smile, "whad can
I do for you?" He reminded Lilly of a great auk, something alcidine in
the thin cheeks with the mouth cutting so widely toward the ears.
She had not realized it, but suddenly the terrible, the impersonal
detachment of the past weeks smote her. There had been voiceless days
and days when the sound of herself asking direction or ordering from a
bill of fare had an element of surprise in it, and the toneless voice of
public service was the only one directed to her: "Step lively." "Two
blocks east." "Don't mention it." "No more rice pudding left, ma'am."
When Isaac Neugass said, "Well, whad can I do for you?" something within
her thawed so that she could have cried.
"I'm looking for this furnished room," she said, and held out the slip
"You wand my wife," he said, waving her the direction. "Go right
outside to the next stoop and ring the bell over Neugass."
"Oh, thank you!" she said, suiting her action to his word.
"It's a nize room. I could wish it to an early bird to catch it."
"That's what I want, a nice, quiet room."
"Then you got it," he cried. "It's a room for a needle," his thumb and
forefinger indicating an infinitesibly fine point.
"So it could hear itself fall."
In his own way Mr. Neugass was a jokester, insisting upon the laugh,
sitting back upon his figurative haunches, waiting.
"Then it is just what I want," said Lilly, giving him his smile, "only I
hope it isn't too--"
He took to waggling his head, his little kindly eyes illuminated with a
sunburst of wrinkles and his voice a festooned chant of rising and
"Sa-y, if you can't pay three-fifty, she'll make it three. You doan'
need to tell her I told you, but for such a young lady like you, sa-y,
the brice in the newspaper doan' always got to be the brice in the hand,
She laughed, the irises that had crowded out the gray in her eyes
suddenly smaller and back to normal.
In the little entrance adjoining, with its line-up of door bells, she
pressed the button as directed. A clicking answered her ring, and she
had to learn from a child who entered with a dangling pail of milk, that
she was to speak upward through a tube above the bell.
"About the room?" Yes, she was to come up.
She climbed two flights of dark, clean-smelling stairs, and Mrs.
Neugass herself opened the door.
Mary, Rispah, Cornelia, Monica, Martha Washington, Mrs. Whistler,
Margaret Ogilvy, and Mrs. Neugass, blessed be their tribe, must all have
had about the same look about the eyes. Masha Neugass was sixty, and
looked it. A blue-gingham apron held her in at the waist so that she
bulged softly and fatly above and below it.
Thirty minutes and one hundred years removed from Millionaires' Row, the
apartment was just another of those paradoxes which the city can shake
from its spangled sleeve. Built like a coach, each room opening off a
strip of hallway, it was a scoured chromo of Victoria's age of horrors.
The brilliantly flower-splashed wall paper and carpeting. A front room
that smelled and pricked of horsehair. The little patch of dining room
brightened by a red tablecloth, two canaries, and a window-sill array of
turnips sprouting in bottles. The rush of bead portières as you walked
through them. Hassocks. A freshly washed-and-ironed ribbon bow on a
chair back. Pillow shams. Nottingham-lace curtains with sham drapes
woven into them. A pair of bisque pugs.
The room to let was the size of a freight elevator and crammed with a
fine old walnut bed when there was scarcely room for a cot. Also an
overflow of curlicue divan, and a washstand. It was clean to coolness,
as if the very air were washed, but, entering it, Mrs. Neugass flecked
an imaginary dust particle from the divan with her apron, then wrapping
it muff fashion about her hands.
"It ain't big, but it's gumfortable."
"Indeed it is!" said Lilly, sniffing in appreciatively.
"We doan' got to rent this room, miss. It's our first time. My husband,
if he had his way, wouldn't. But I say it's a shame for the waste, since
our youngest daughter ain't in it no more...."
"You see out there between those two chimneys? That's Columbia
University. You're from the college? Yes? We brefer it should be
"I--I'm a high-school graduate, but not exactly a college student. I
mean--I'm a music student. Voice."
"You doan' tell me! Now ain't that a coinstidance! For why you think I
should have this room empty if not my own baby daughter is in Europe
with her voice! For three years already, with her gone, miss, and my
husband's daughter down to her bookkeeping all day, as I tell him, it's
like my heart will burst from the silence."
"There is something I had better explain--"
"I want a young girl in the house again, I tell him."
Standing there, the words pressing for utterance against her very teeth,
Lilly swallowed them back again.
"I see," she said, smiling her misery. "Then I'm afraid--I--"
"We're used to a young girl. You read maybe of our daughter only in last
Sunday's papers. Millie du Gass, with the Milan Opera?"
Lilly had. "Millie du Gass--your daughter!"
"We got more only last night from her in 'Traviata.' They pulled her
carriage after the opera. Felix Auchinloss went special from Vienna to
conduct her. That's her picture there and there and there. Say, ain't
that a coinstidance you should be a voice!"
Lilly stood regarding one of the framed photographs. A lifted young
profile, ever so slightly of the father's aquilinity, a vocal-looking
swell to the bosom, and a chin that locked up prettily to the
protuberant upper lip.
Regarding her, such a nausea of bitterness flowed over Lilly that her
lips were too wry to speak and she could have sobbed out her plight to
the simple soul there, with her hands in the muff of her apron, and her
gaze soft to tears upon the photograph.
"That ain't so good of her, miss, as some her papa keeps down in the
store. In Milan they call her the American Beauty. Auchinloss won't
conduct 'Faust' without our Millie's Marguerite. How she used to
practice it, miss, righd on that piano you seen in the front room. It's
worth all the sacrifices we made for such a success like hers. I doan'
know who you study with, but if you come to us here, I wand once you
should let her old teacher, Ballman, hear you. He's the man that can
find your voice if you got it."
"Oh, I do want to come here, Mrs. Neugass. I--If only--. Will you--will
you let me talk to you as I would to my own mother? I--somehow--I--I
think you will understand--"
Then Mrs. Neugass came closer, a little whisper of garlic in her breath
and her eyes screwed to conniving.
"Sa-y, miss, you doan' need to worry. Doan' tell it to my husband that
the reduction came from me, but if three dollars is all you can pay,
since it's for some one who will use the piano and liven up things a
little, it's worth the difference to me in pleasure."
"Oh, Mrs. Neugass, if you knew what a place like this would mean to
me--now! If only you--"
"All righd, then, for a few cents we doan' dicker. Say we make it three
dollars, and on rainy mornings coffee and rolls so you doan' get your
"We're blain beoble, miss, but we got a respegtable standing in the
neighborhood for fifteen years. My husband's daughter by his first
marriage is sixteen years bookkeeper down by Aaron Schmoll Paper Box
Company in Green Street. We doan' got to rent, miss, unless it should be
to the righd person. A nice young lady like you--"
"But what if I were to tell you, Mrs. Neugass, that I'm a mar--"
"You got references? It ain't I don't trust, but business is business,
"I'm afraid I haven't. You see, I'm a stranger. Here from--the West to
study. I don't quite like it where I am. In fact, I want to get
"Say, doan' I know how things can happen? For two months after she
arrived in Munich, where she went first, my Millie used to write home,
'Mamma, I can't get myself settled righd.' In one place bugs and in
another they complained of her practicing. I got sympathy for a girl
trying to get settled. You can come righd away up into a room of mine,
miss. There's no extra cleaning to be done."
"Oh, Mrs. Neugass, if I may! I've only my valise and suitcase."
A complete shrugging of Mrs. Neugass took place, her voice, brow, and
"Valise and suitcase. Is that a baggage?"
"I'm sending West for my trunks later, Mrs. Neugass."
"You'm _Goyem_, not?"
"You're Gentiles, ain't it? Well, with _Goyem_ such things ain't so
important. I'll show you sometimes the way my Millie left home, complete
even to hand-crocheted washrags. Three of us had to sit on her trunk.
You'm _Goyem_, not?"
"I was reared in the Unitarian Church, if that's what you mean,
until--well, I guess until I sort of figured out my own religion
"We're Jews, you know, miss, in case you should have any _richas_."
"Prejudices against us, like some. My husband has one of the finest
cantor voices of any temple in the city."
"No, no, Mrs. Neugass. I just love Jewish people. Some of the nicest
folks we knew in St. Lo--I ever knew--have been Jews," cried Lilly, with
the colossal, the unconscious patronage of race consciousness.
It left no welt, however, across the sensibilities of Mrs. Neugass. The
centuries had seen to that. She was craven and she was superb in
"I always say, thank God for whad I am, but it doan' matter to me whad
anybody else is, just so she is that with the best she has in her."
"Exactly. There--there is something I ought to say to you, Mrs. Neugass.
You've made it so difficult, with your kindness, but I--well, I--There
are certain conditions I want you to know about. I--Not a--I could
only take the room for a few months, Mrs. Neugass, because I--"
"Say, doan' I know how it is with students?"
"They go home when it comes summer. You doan' got to worry. It ain't
like we need it to pay rent with. You got my word it's all righd,
Miss--The name, blease--Miss what?"
"Par--Parlow. Lilly Parlow."
"All righd, Miss Parlow; that makes everything fine."
She opened her purse, unfolding a bill.
"I'll pay now," she said, calm with sudden decision.
"Sa-y, I would have trusted you. But you're like me, I always say money
speaks louder than words."
"I'll be right back, Mrs. Neugass."
"That's good. I'll have out fresh towels. That's one thing I doan'
expect from nobody is to stint on towels."
And so it came about that at the moment Robert Visigoth was confronted
with a sudden gap in his program, Lilly Penny, with almost the week's
lodging still to her credit, was tiptoeing through the moldy halls of
the house in Forty-fourth Street, her luggage hitting against wall and
banisters and a palpitating fear fuddling her haste.
At the second flight down she experienced her first and by no means
fragrant encounter in these hallways. A door flew open with a rush and,
her thin body wrapped in something ornate and flowing that was like a
quick sheaf of flame around her, a woman dragged suddenly out to the
head of the stairs, by the actual scruff of the neck, the ridiculous
figure of a male, his collar--the necktie streaming from it--in
She spat then a bombardment of screaming profanity that sickened Lilly
as she stood unseen and flattened against the wall. A further shove sent
him sprawling down the remaining stairs, and from the open doorway a
flung waistcoat and coat draped him ludicrously as they struck.
"Cheap skate! Piker! Skinflint!"
Then a slamming, reverberating door, and, while she stood trembling and
waiting, the creature on the stairs, a hulk of Swede with short, square
teeth and a corner of lip that snarled back to bare them, scrambled into
his coat, stumbling out the front door, collar still in his clutch.
Then Lilly wound her weak-kneed way down the flight after him, softly,
to save the creak, her luggage held out before her.
The air outside seemed cleansing as water to her. She could not breathe
deeply enough of it. For a long and indeterminate period she stood at
the corner, Amsterdam Avenue car after car rumbling past, her luggage on
the sidewalk and inclosing her in a little island.
Indecision buffeted her. Even Mrs. Neugass and her apartment had
suddenly become abhorrent; Broadway as barren as any granite gully and
somehow terrifying. She strolled a block toward the station, yet it is
doubtful whether in the back of her head Lilly did not know the impulse
of home to be a mock one.
The tremendous trifles began their running fire.
Her mother pulling her corsets in so that they bottled her up more and
more into the shape of an hourglass. That caster for the brass bed.
Those interminable discussions over that caster for the brass bed!
She boarded an Amsterdam Avenue car.
The following months of her life always seemed to Lilly to have hung
suspended without any forward march to them, and entirely surrounded
with a colorless fluid which distorted reality, as a hand seen through a
fish bowl of water is distorted. There descended upon her whole rows of
days that were swollen with inertia. Her little window looked out upon
an ocean of roofs, and across her distant horizon was a strident picture
in electricity of an old woman in a Dutch cap beating a tub of
proclaimed soap flakes into an incandescent froth.
She would sit with her cheek crumpled against her hand, looking out over
this, her mind hardly stirring. There still lay three one-hundred-dollar
bills, crisply warm, against her bosom, and during the long arid spell
that followed her first stroke of good fortune they were to her like a
sedative touch, pressing down a more and more frequently recurring
rise of fear.
Two or three mornings a week she ventured in among the agencies,
occasionally an address handed out to her which she followed up,
There was something gone from Lilly, these months, as if a line of
resiliency within her had snapped like a rubber band. It showed most in
her slowed step and her head not quite so flung up.
One Saturday night she did earn twenty dollars, singing, a
red-white-and-blue paper cap on her head, the "Star-spangled Banner" and
the "Marsellaise" on the up-and-down-stream excursion of the Annual
Convention of Commercial Photographers.
During their clambake and dance at Grody's Grove, just beyond Coney
Island, she remained on the boat, lying back in a deck chair, facing a
night brilliantly pointed with stars. The machinery of her mind might
have ceased with the chugging of the boat. She lay the five hours of her
wait, floating in a state of the complete disembodiment of which she was
At one o'clock the convention, highly inflamed, came trooping back on
board, the boat nosing downstream, brilliant and terrible with orgy.
Twice she was grasped by revelers who were little more than bashing
bulls, and before she could fight them off, her face and neck, through
the sheerness of her blouse, were covered with hot, wet, and beery
kisses. The third time she fought off with her hatpin, inflicting a deep
red scratch across a too loose jowl. She took refuge, finally, finding
out by desperate instinct the only other woman on board. A cook down in
the reeking kitchen of the one-screw steamer, who had grown old so
horribly that her only remaining tooth was a tusk that hung deeply
beneath her lower lip. But she found out a bench rug for Lilly, so that
the trip home she lay there in the stench of strong foods and hot
machinery, stupefied with misery.
And yet, withal, a certain exultation had hold of her these strangely
unreal weeks, her terror of the life about to be subdued somewhere
underneath her consciousness, and each to-morrow reassuringly remote.
The long unfettered days. Her own latchkey to come and go at will. The
lay of those three crisp bills against her heart. Her little economies,
however, grew against a day which she hardly contemplated and for which
she certainly did not plan. Very often she ate in her own room, a
sandwich and a bottle of milk from a corner delicatessen. She had
already learned those small private economies of the petty and penny
wise. The mirror-pasted handkerchief. The gas-jet-brewed egg. The
hand-fluted ruching. Once, in her absence, Mrs. Neugass had pressed out
her dark-brown-cloth coat suit, wrinkled from weeks in her suitcase, and
which she had left hanging before the open window.
The print of these kindly people was like an indelible rubber stamp into
the premises. Mr. Neugass had already presented her with a jar of Millie
face cream and a preparation for cleaning kid gloves. Sundays she was
invariably importuned to dine with the family, and of occasional
evenings, Alma Neugass, angular and full of the knobs of protruding
neckbones, elbows, and shoulder blades, and with little sacs under her
eyes as if she had wept down into them that life could be so tasteless,
would knock at her door, and for an hour or two, and sometimes up to
midnight, sit on the edge of Lilly's bed, the drone of their
conversation surviving repeated rappings from the parental bedroom,
There was something about Alma of an old glove just about ready to
breathe out and flatten from the print of a recent hand. Fifteen years
of debit and credit and days which swung with pendulum fidelity within
the arc of routine had creased and dried her of sap.
The whiteness of Lilly and the swift, shining, backward rush of her hair
were a source of wistful and vicarious delight to her. "Whoever named
you Lilly was right," she said upon one of these midnight confabs so
immemoriably dear to women, when hairpins can be removed and the dig of
skirt bands unhooked. "You're so snowy, and soft, too; you feel like a
kitten's ear. And that shining head of yours!"
"But all my life I've wanted to be blond. Sun people I call them."
"Millie is a blonde," said Miss Neugass, glancing toward one of the
photographs that graced even Lilly's wall. "There's a girl was born
in the sun!"
"You've been part of her sun, Miss Neugass. Your parents have told me
how for eight years half of your earnings went toward her education."
"Life is a beehive, Miss Parlow," said Alma, her rather grandiloquent
and apiarian simile highly inaccurate, "some of us are the drones, some
the workers, and some the queens. Millie happened to be a queen."
"How can you say that? Happened! What if Napoleon had never left
Corsica, or Lincoln the backwoods, or Jeanne d'Arc her village, just
because they decided environment had placed them there."
"Quite right, but it is their being queens, drones, or workers
determines their action."
"Well, whether or not I was born for it, I aspire to be a queen."
"Fine. Only be sure your arm is long enough to reach what you want."
"But how can I tell if I don't stretch and stretch?"
"You can't. Most of us never know when we've used up the last inch of
reach, and keep on straining to touch what God or circumstance, or call
it what you will, has placed beyond us."
"Yes, but it is not knowing makes us capable of hoping and striving."
"To me that is one of the tragedies of living. The hearts that pass by
the jobs they are fitted for, to eat themselves out struggling to do
what they think they're fitted for."
"You're a fatalist."
"Not at all. The way to know the reach of your arm is to sprain it. I
sprained mine, and it wasn't until the ligaments began to pull that I
had the courage to face the fact that I was made out of bookkeeper
instead of concert-pianist stuff."
"You, Miss Neugass, a pianist!"
"Sounds queer to you, doesn't it?"
"My own realization. One night before he moved from the neighborhood
Doctor Feldman sent pa a pair of seats for De Pachman. I was seventeen
then, and Millie seven. Ma stayed in the store and pa and I went. I
remember as if it were yesterday. The concert was at Beethoven Hall and
it snowed so that when we arrived I made pa slip off his shoes under the
chair, for his socks to dry. I had been studying for eight years then
and my teacher was arranging a recital. Strangest thing, but De Pachman
played every single thing of Chopin's that I had on my own little
repertoire, only under his touch it was real lace played into perfect
design. I think pa must have lived through everything with me that
night. He's got the finest musical instinct in the family, Millie
included. We didn't say a word all the way home, but next day when I
told him that I was going to business college on the money we were going
to put into the recital, he didn't say a word, either. Just patted my
hand. He knew! It wasn't so much a matter of technique, only when I
played Nocturne in D flat a hammer inside the piano case hit a wire;
when De Pachman touched those same keys a nerve kissed a heartbeat."
"Alma--Neugass! You poor--you splendid girl!"
Curled up there on the narrow bed, her bony profile against the wall and
her knees hugged up to her after the manner of the excessively thin, a
smile had come out on Miss Neugass's face as if the taste of
renunciation were anything but bitter.
"I don't know what kind of a pianist I might have made, but I do know
I've made a good bookkeeper and that a little talent took a chance on
stepping aside for a bigger."
"You mean your sister?"
"There's a talent for you! Millie has a voice like one of those
revolving barber poles, as round at the bottom as it is at the top, and
it goes up and up seemingly without end. There never was any doubt
"Oh, Miss Neugass, you frighten me! What if my arm is too short? Your
sister's teacher, Ballman, to whom your mother sent me, says so little."