Part 1 out of 3
THE BLOOD RED DAWN
CHARLES CALDWELL DOBIE
To My Mother
The pastor's announcement had been swallowed up in a hum of truant
inattention, and as the heralded speaker made his appearance upon the
platform Claire Robson, leaning forward, said to her mother:
"What?... Did you catch his name?"
"A foreigner of some sort!" replied Mrs. Robson, with smug sufficiency.
For a moment the elder woman's sneer dulled the edge of Claire's
anticipations, but presently the man began to speak, and at once she
felt a sense of power back of his halting words, a sudden bursting fort
of bloom amid the frozen assembly that sat ice-bound, refusing to be
melted by the fires of an alien enthusiasm. She could not help wondering
whether he felt how hopeless it would be to force a sympathetic response
from his audience. In ordinary times the Second Presbyterian Church of
San Francisco could not possibly have had any interest in Serbia except
as a field for foreign missionaries. Now, with America in the war and
speeding up the draft, these worthy people were too much concerned with
problems nearer their own hearthstones to be swept off their feet by a
specific and almost inarticulate appeal for an obscure country, made
only a shade less remote by the accident of being accounted an ally.
Claire, straining at attention, found it hard to follow him. He talked
rapidly and with unfamiliar emphasis, and he waved his hands. Frankly,
people were bored. They had come to hear a concert and incidentally
swell the Red Cross fund, but they had not reckoned on quite this type
of harangue. Besides, an appetizing smell of coffee from the church
kitchen had begun to beguile their senses. And yet, the man talked on
and on, until quite suddenly Claire Robson began to have a strange
feeling of disquiet, an embarrassment for him, such as one feels when an
intimate friend or kinsman unconsciously makes a spectacle of himself.
She wished that he would stop. She longed to rise from her seat and
scream, to create an outlandish scene, to do anything, in short, that
would silence him. At this point he turned his eyes in her direction,
and she felt the scorch of an intense inner fire. Instinctively she
lowered her glance.... When she looked up again his gaze was still fixed
upon her. She felt her color rise. From that moment on she had a sense
that she was his sole audience. He was talking to her. The others did
not matter. She still did not have any very distinct idea what it was
all about, but the manner of it held her captive. But gradually the
mists cleared, he became more coherent, and slowly, imperceptibly, bit
by bit, he won the others. Yet never for an instant did he take his
eyes from _her_. When he finished, a momentary silence blocked the final
burst of applause. But Claire Robson's hands were locked tightly
together, and it was not until he had disappeared that she realized that
she had not paid him the tribute of even a parting glance.
The pastor came back upon the platform and announced that refreshments
would be served at the conclusion of the next number. A heavy odor of
coffee continued to float from the church kitchen. A red-haired woman
stepped forward and began to sing.
Already Claire Robson dreaded the ordeal of supper. The fact that tables
were being laid further disturbed her. This meant that she and her
mother would have to push their way into some group which, at best,
would remain indifferent to their presence. When coffee was served
informally things were not so awkward. To be sure, one had to balance
coffee-cup and cake-plate with an amazing and painful skill, but, on the
other hand, table-less groups did not emphasize one's isolation. Claire
had got to the point where she would have welcomed active hostility on
the part of her fellow church members, but their utter indifference was
soul-killing. She would have liked to remember one occasion when any one
had betrayed the slightest interest in either her arrival or departure,
or rather in the arrival and departure of her mother and herself.
The solo came to an end, and the inevitable applause followed, but
before the singer could respond to the implied encore most of the
listeners began frank and determined advances upon the tables. The
concert was over.
Mrs. Robson rose and faced Claire with a look of bewilderment. As usual,
mother and daughter stood irresolutely, caught like two trembling leaves
in the backwater of a swirling eddy. At last Claire made a movement
toward the nearest table. Mrs. Robson followed. They sat down.
The scattered company speedily began to form into congenial groups.
There was a great deal of suddenly loosened chatter. Claire Robson sat
silently, rather surprised and dismayed to find that she and her mother
had chosen a table which seemed to be the objective of all the prominent
church members. The company facing her was elegant, if not precisely
smart, and there were enough laces and diamonds displayed to have done
excellent service if the proper background had been provided. Claire was
further annoyed to discover that her mother was regarding the situation
with a certain ruffling self-satisfaction which she took no pains to
conceal. Mrs. Robson bowed and smirked, and even called gaily to every
one within easy range. There was something distasteful in her mother's
sudden and almost aggressive self-assurance.
Gradually the company adjusted itself; the tables were filled. The only
moving figures were those of young women carrying huge white pitchers of
steaming coffee. Claire Robson settled into her seat with a resignation
born of subtle inner misery. Across her brain flashed the insistent and
pertinent questions that such a situation always evoked. Why was she not
one of these young women engaged in distributing refreshments? Did the
circles close automatically so as to exclude her, or did her own
aloofness shut her out? What was the secret of these people about her
that gave them such an assured manner? No one spoke to her with cordial
enthusiasm.... It was not a matter of wealth, or brains, or prominent
church activity. It was not even a matter of obscurity. Like all large
organizations, the Second Presbyterian Church was made up of every
clique in the social calendar; the obscure circle was as clannish and
distinctive in its way as any other group. But Claire Robson was forced
to admit that she did not belong even to the obscure circle. She
belonged nowhere--that was the galling and oppressive truth that was
forced upon her.
At this point she became aware that one of the most prominent church
members, Mrs. Towne, was making an unmistakably cordial advance in her
direction. Claire had a misgiving.... Mrs. Towne was never excessively
friendly except for a definite aim.
"My dear Miss Robson," Mrs. Towne began, sweetly, drooping
confidentially to a whispering posture, "I am so sorry, but I shall have
to disturb you and your mother!... It just happens that this table has
been reserved for the elders and their wives.... I hope you'll
For a moment Claire merely stared at the messenger of evil news. Then,
recovering herself, she managed to reply:
"Oh yes, Mrs. Towne! I understand perfectly.... I am sure we were very
stupid.... Come, mother!"
Mrs. Robson responded at once to her daughter's command. The two women
rose. By this time the task of securing another place was quite
hopeless. Claire felt that every eye in the room was turned upon them.
Picking their way between a labyrinth of tables and chairs, they
literally were stumbling in the direction of an exit when Claire felt a
hand upon her arm. She turned.
"Pardon me," the man opposite her was saying, "but may I offer you a
place at our table?"
Claire said nothing; she followed blindly. Her mother was close upon her
The table was a small one, and only two people were occupying it--the
man who had halted Claire, and a woman. The man, standing with one hand
on the chair which he had drawn up for Mrs. Robson, said, simply:
"My name is Stillman, and of course you know Mrs. Condor--the lady who
has just sung for us."
Claire gave a swift, inclusive glance. Yes, it was the same woman who
had attempted to beguile a weary audience from its impending repletion;
at close range one could not escape the intense redness of her hair or
the almost immoral whiteness of the shoulders and arms which she was at
such little pains to conceal.
"Stillman?" Mrs. Robson was fluttering importantly. "Not the old Rincon
"Yes, the old Rincon Hill family," the man replied.
Mrs. Robson sat down with preening self-satisfaction. Wearily the
daughter dropped into the seat which Mrs. Condor proffered. The name of
Ned Stillman was not unfamiliar to any San Franciscan who scanned the
social news with even a casual glance, and Claire had a vague
remembrance that Mrs. Condor also figured socially, but in a rather more
inclusive way than her companion. At all events, it was plain that her
mother, with unerring feminine insight, had placed the pair to her
satisfaction. Already the elder woman was contriving to let Stillman
know something of _her_ antecedents. _She_ was Emily Carrol, also of
Rincon Hill, and of course he knew her two sisters--Mrs. Thomas Wynne
and Mrs. Edward Finch-Brown! As Stillman returned a smiling assurance to
Mrs. Robson's attempts to be impressive, a young woman in white arrived
with ice-cream and messy layer-cake. Unconsciously Claire Robson began
to smile. She could not have said why, but somehow the presence of Ned
Stillman and Mrs. Condor at a table spread with such vacuous delights
seemed little short of ridiculous. They did not fit the picture any more
than her beetle-browed, red-lipped Serbian who.... She turned
deliberately and swept the room with her glance. Of course he had gone.
It was not to be expected that _he_ would descend to the level of such
puerile feasting. A sudden contempt for everything that only an hour ago
seemed so desirable rose within her, and, in answer to the young woman's
query as to whether she preferred coffee to ice-cream, she answered with
"Neither, thank you.... I am not hungry."
Stillman looked at her searchingly. She returned his gaze without
Claire Robson did not sleep that night. She lay for hours, quite
motionless, staring into the gloom of her narrow bedroom, her mind
ruthlessly shaping formless, vague intuitions into definite convictions.
She could not put her finger upon the precise reason for her inquietude.
Was it chargeable to so trivial a circumstance as a stranger's formal
courtesy or had something more subtle moved her? If the depths of her
isolation had been thrown into too high relief by the almost shameful
sense of obligation she felt toward Stillman for his courtesy, what was
to be said of the uniqueness of the solitary position which the Serbian
awarded her by singling her out for a sympathetic response? Could it be
that a vague pity had stirred him, too? Had things reached a point where
her loneliness showed through the threadbare indifference of her glance?
In short, had both men been won to gallantry by her distress? In one
case, at least, she decided that there was a reasonable chance to doubt.
And that doubt quickened her pulse like May wine.
But the humiliation of her last encounter with chivalry stuck with
profound irritation. She recalled the scene again and again. She
remembered her contemptuous silence before Stillman's obvious suavities,
the high, assured laugh which his companion, Mrs. Condor, threw out to
meet his quiet sallies, the ruffling satisfaction of her mother,
chattering on irrelevantly, but with the undisguised purpose of creating
a proper impression. How easily Stillman must have seen through Claire's
muteness and the elder woman's eager craving for an audience! And all
the time Mrs. Condor had been laughing, not ill-naturedly, but with the
irony of an experienced woman possessing a sense of humor.
And at the end, when the four had left the church together, to be
whirled home in Stillman's car, the sudden nods and smiles and farewells
that had blossomed along the path of her mother's exit! Claire could
have laughed it all away if her mother had not betrayed such eagerness
to drink this snobbish flattery to the lees....
Claire's father had never entered very largely into her calculations,
but to-night her readjusted vision included him. Stubborn, kind, a bit
weak, and inclined to copying poetry in a red-covered album, he had been
no match for the disillusionments of married life. Her mother's people
had felt a sullen resentment at his downfall--he had taken to drink and
died ingloriously when Claire was still in her seventh year. Claire,
influenced by the family traditions, had shared this resentment. But now
she found herself wondering whether there was not a word or two to be
said in his behalf. Her father had been a cheap clerk in a wholesale
house when he had married. The uncertain Carrol fortunes were waning
swiftly at the time, and Emily Carrol had been thrown at him with all
the panic that then possessed a public schooled in the fallacy that
marriage was a woman's only career. The result was to have been
expected. Extravagance, debts, too much family, drink, death--the
sequence was complete. He had been captured, withered, cast aside, by a
tribe that had not even had the decency to grant his memory the
kindness of an excuse.
Wide-eyed and restless, Claire Robson felt a sudden pity for her father.
Tears sprang to her eyes; it overwhelmed her to discover this new father
so full of human failings and yet so full of human provocation. In her
twenty-four years of life she had never shed a tear for him, or felt the
slightest pang for his failure. If she had ever doubted the Carrol
viewpoint, she had never given her lack of faith any scope. She had
taken their cast-off prejudices and threadbare convictions as docilely
as she had once received their stale garments. She had shrunk from
spiritual independence with all the obsequious arrogance of a poor
relation at a feast. Her diffidence, her self-consciousness, her
timidity, were the outward forms of an inbred snobbery. It was curious
how suddenly all this was made clear to her....
At length she fell into a troubled sleep.... When she awoke the room's
outlines were reviving before the advances of early morning. For the
first time in her life she caught the poetry of the new day at first
hand. For years she had reveled vicariously in the delights of morning.
But it had always been to her a thing apart, a matter which the writers
of romantic verse beheld and translated for the benefit of late
sleepers. It never occurred to her that the day crawling into the
light-well of her Clay Street flat was lit with precisely the same flame
that colored the far-flung peaks of the poet's song. And instantly a
phrase of the Serbian's harangue came to her--blood-red dawn! He had
repeated these words over and over again, and somehow under the heat of
his ardor and longing for his native land this hackneyed phrase took on
its real and dreadful value. In the sudden sweep of this vital
remembrance, Claire Robson rose for a moment above the fretful drip of
circumstance.... _Blood-red Dawn_!... She threw herself back upon her
bed and shuddered....
She rose at seven o'clock, but already the morning had grown pallid and
flecked with gray clouds.
An apologetic tap came at the door, and the voice of Mrs. Robson
repeating a formula that she never varied:
"Better hurry, Claire. If you don't you'll be late for the office!"
As Claire stepped out into the cold sunlight of early November, she
smiled bitterly at the exaggeration of last night's mood. After the
first hectic flush of dawn there is nothing so sane and sweet and
commonplace as morning. The spectacle of Mrs. Finnegan, who lodged in
the flat below, slopping warm suds over the thin marble steps, added a
final note of homeliness, which divorced Claire completely from heroics.
"Well, Miss Robson, so you really got home, last night," broke from the
industrious neighbor as she straightened up and tucked her lifted skirts
in more securely. "I thought you never would come!... A package came
from New York for you. The man nearly banged your door down. I had
Finnegan put it on your back stoop.... It's from that cousin of yours, I
guess. I was so excited about it I kept wishing you'd get home early so
that I could get a peep at all the pretty things. But I'll run up just
as soon as I get through with the breakfast dishes."
Claire smiled wanly. "It was very good of you to take all that trouble,
I'm sure, Mrs. Finnegan!"
"Oh, bother my trouble!" Mrs. Finnegan responded. "I just knew how crazy
I'd be about a box. I guess we women are all alike, Miss Robson.
Anyway, your mother and I are!"
Mrs. Finnegan bent over her task again with a quick exasperated
movement, and Claire passed on. Her neighbor's abrupt rebuke gave Claire
a renewed sense of exclusion. She had meant to be warmly appreciative,
but she knew now that she had been only coldly polite. But, as a matter
of fact, the prospect of delving through a box of Gertrude Sinclair's
discarded finery moved her this morning to a dull fury. She felt
suddenly tired of cast-offs, of compromise, of all the other shabby
adjustments of genteel poverty. And by the time she reached the office
of the Falcon Insurance Company her soul was seething with a curious and
unreasonable revolt. The feminine office force seemed seething also, but
with an impersonal, quivering excitement. Nellie Whitehead had been
This Nellie Whitehead, the stenographer-in-chief, was big, vigorous,
blond--vulgar, energetic, vivid; and Miss Munch, her assistant, a thin,
hollow-chested spinster, who loafed upon her job so that she might save
her sight for the manufacture of incredible yards of tatting, never
missed an opportunity to lift her eyes significantly behind her
"And what do you suppose?" Miss Munch was querying as Claire stepped
into the dressing-room. "She told Mr. Flint to go to hell!... Yes,
positively, she used those very words. And I must say he was a gentleman
throughout it all. He told her gently but firmly that her example in the
office wasn't what it should be and that in justice to the other
Claire turned impatiently away. The fiction of Mr. Flint's belated
interest in the morals of his feminine office force was unconvincing
enough to be irritating. For a man who never missed an opportunity to
force his attentions, he was showing an amazingly ethical viewpoint. On
second thought, Claire remembered that Miss Munch was never the
recipient of Mr. Flint's attentions, which to the casual eye might have
seemed innocent enough--on rainy days gallantly bending his ample girth
in a rather too prolonged attempt to slip on the girls' rubbers,
insisting on the quite unnecessary task of incasing them in their
jackets and smoothing the sleeves of their shirt-waists in the process,
flicking imaginary threads where the feminine curves were most opulent.
Not that Mr. Flint was a wolf in sheep's clothing; he played the part of
sheep, but he needed no disguise for his performance; he merely lived up
to a sort of flock-mind consciousness where women were concerned.
The group clustered about Miss Munch broke up at the approach of Mr.
Flint, who gave a significant glance in the direction of Claire Robson,
intent upon her morning work. But the excitement persisted in spite of
the scattered auditors, and the fact was mysteriously communicated that
Miss Munch's interest in the event was chargeable to her hopes. It
seemed impossible to Miss Munch that any one but herself could succeed
to the vacant post of stenographer-in-chief.
At precisely eleven o'clock the buzzer on Claire Robson's desk hummed
three times. This announced that she was wanted by Mr. Flint. She
gathered her note-book and pencils and answered the call.
Mr. Flint was busy at the telephone when Claire entered the private
office. She seated herself at the flat oak table in the center of the
Mr. Flint's office bore all the conventional signs of
business--commissions of authority from insurance companies, state
licenses in oak frames, an oil-painting of Thomas Sawyer Flint, the
founder of the firm, over a fireplace that maintained its useless
dignity in spite of the steam-radiator near the window. On his desk was
the inevitable picture of his wife framed in silver, a hand-illumined
platitude of Stevenson, an elaborate set of desk paraphernalia in beaten
brass that bore little evidence of service. In two green-glazed bowls of
Japanese origin, roses from Mr. Flint's garden at Yolanda scattered
faint pink petals on the Smyrna rug. These flowers were the only
concession to esthetics that Mr. Flint indulged. In spite of a masculine
distaste for carrying flowers, hardly a day went by when he did not
appear at the office with a huge harvest of blossoms from his country
Claire was bending over, intent on picking up the crumpled rose-petals,
when Mr. Flint finally spoke. She straightened herself slowly. Her
unhurried movements had a certain grace that did not escape the man
opposite her. She tossed the bruised leaves into a waste-basket and
reached for her pencil. Her heart was pounding, but she faced Mr. Flint
with a clear, direct gaze.
"Miss Robson, of course you've heard all about the rumpus," Mr. Flint
was saying. "I had to fire Miss Whitehead.... I think you can fill the
Claire rose without replying. Mr. Flint left his seat and crossed over
"I hope," he said, flicking a thread from her shoulder, "that you're
game.... Some girls, of course, don't care a damn about getting on ...
especially if there's a Johnny somewhere in sight with enough cash in
his pocket for a marriage license."
"I am very much taken by surprise," Claire faltered. "You see, the
change means a great deal to me."
Mr. Flint moved closer. His manner was intimate and distasteful.
"Sometimes I think we business men ought to get more of a slant on our
employees.... You know what I mean, not exactly bothering about how many
lumps of sugar they take in their coffee, or their taste in after-dinner
cheese ... but, well, just how often they have to resole their boots and
turn the ribbons on their spring bonnets.... Now, in Miss Whitehead's
case.... But of course you're not interested in Miss Whitehead."
"Why, I wouldn't say that," stammered Claire. Then, as she reached for
her shorthand book she said, more confidently: "To be quite frank, Mr.
Flint, I liked Miss Whitehead tremendously. She was so alive ... and
Flint beamed. "Do you know why I picked you instead of that Munch
dame?... It's because you had all the frills of a woman and none of the
nastiness. For instance, you wouldn't be bothered in the least if I took
a notion to overload the office with another pretty girl.... I've
watched you for some time. It has taken me six months to make up my mind
to fire Miss Whitehead and boost you into her job."
He stood with an air of condescending arrogance, his thumbs bearing down
heavily on his trousers pockets, his broad fingers beating a
self-satisfied tattoo upon his thighs. Claire shrank nearer the table.
"You mean, Mr. Flint, that you dismissed Miss Whitehead merely to give
me her position?"
Flint smiled. "Well, now you're coming down to brass-headed tacks. I'm
not keen on spelling out the whys and wherefores of anything I do....
But one thing is certain enough--if Miss Munch had been the only
available candidate I _could_ have stood Miss Whitehead.... There ain't
much question about that."
"Oh, Mr. Flint! I'm sorry!"
He gave a wide guffaw. "That only makes you all the more of a corker!"
he answered, rubbing his hands together in narrow-eyed satisfaction.
She escaped into the outer office, flushed, but with her head thrown
back in an attitude of instinctive defense, and the next instant she
literally ran into the arm of a man.
"Why, Miss Robson, but this _is_ pleasant! I'm just dropping in to see
She drew back. Mr. Stillman stood smiling before her.
Greetings and questions flowed with all the genial ease of one who is
never quite taken unawares. Claire, outwardly calm, felt overcome with
inner confusion. She passed rapidly to her desk and sat down.
Miss Munch was upon her almost instantly.
"Do _you_ know Ned Stillman?" Miss Munch asked, veiling her real
"Yes," replied Claire, with uncomfortable brevity.
"I have a cousin who was housekeeper for his wife's father.... You know
about his wife, of course."
Claire lifted her clear eyes in a startled glance that was almost as
instantly converted into a look of challenge.
"Yes," she lied.
Miss Munch hesitated, then plunged at once into the issue uppermost in
her mind. "It's too bad you've had to be bothered with Flint's
dictation, Miss Robson. It just happens I'm writing up a long
home-office report, otherwise I'm sure he wouldn't have annoyed you."
Claire Robson fixed Miss Munch with a coldly polite stare. "You've made
a mistake, Miss Munch. Mr. Flint has given me no dictation." The speech
in itself was nothing, but Claire's tone gave it unmistakable point.
Miss Munch grew white and then flushed. She turned away without a word,
but Claire Robson knew that in a twinkling of an eye she had gained not
only an enemy, but an uncommon one.
* * * * *
That night Claire took an unusually long way round on her walk home. Her
path from the Falcon Insurance Company's office on California Street to
the Clay Street flat was never a direct one, first, because there were
hills to be avoided, and, second, because Claire found the streets at
twilight too full of charm for a rapid homeward flight. The year was on
the wane and the November days were coming to an early blackness. Claire
reveled in the light-flooded dusk of these late autumn evenings. To her,
the city became a vast theater, darkened suddenly for the purpose of
throwing the performers into sharper relief. Most clerks made their way
up Montgomery Street toward Market, but Claire climbed past the German
Bank to Kearny Street. She liked this old thoroughfare, struggling
vainly to pull itself up to its former glory. The Kearny Street crowd
was a varying quantity, frankly shabby or flashily prosperous, as far
south as Sutter Street, suddenly dignified and reserved for the two
blocks beyond. To-night Claire missed the direct appeal of the streets
lined with bright shops. They formed the proper background for her
broodings, but they scarcely entered into her mood. She could not have
said just what flight her mood was taking, or upon just which branch her
thought would alight. She was confused and puzzled and vaguely uneasy.
She had a sense that somehow, somewhere, a door had been opened and that
a strong, devastating wind was clearing the air and bringing dead things
to ground in a disorderly shower. She was stirred by twilights of
uneasiness. It was almost as if the monotonous truce of noonday had been
darkened by a huge, composite, masculine shadow, made up in some
mysterious way of the ridiculous Serbian and his blood-red dawn, and
this man Stillman, who had a wife, and Flint, with hands so ready to
flick threads from her sloping shoulders. Yesterday her outlook had been
peaceful and unhappy; to-day she felt stimulation of an impending
struggle. She was afraid, and yet she would not have turned back for one
swift moment. And suddenly the words of Mrs. Finnegan recurred, "I guess
we women are all alike." Were they?
At which point she came upon a pastry-shop window and she went in and
bought a half-dozen French pastries. The thought of her mother's
pleasure at this unusual treat brought her in due time smiling to her
Mrs. Robson was not in her accustomed place at the head of the stairs;
about half-way up the long flight her voice sounded triumphantly:
"Oh, Claire, do hurry and see what Gertrude has sent! Everything is
Claire quickened her pace and gained the cramped living-room. Thrown
about in a sort of joyous disorder, Gertrude Sinclair's finery quite lit
up the shabbiness. Hats, plumes, scraps of vivid silks, gilded slippers,
a spangled fan--their unrelated vividness struck Claire as fantastic as
a futurist painting. Her mother seemed suddenly young again. Claire
wondered whether, after the toll of sixty-odd years, she could be moved
to momentary youth by the mere sight of the prettiness that was
quickening her mother's pulse.
Mrs. Robson held up a filmy evening gown of black net embroidered with a
rich design of dull gold. "Isn't this heavenly?" she demanded. "And it
will just fit you, Claire. I think Gertrude has spread herself this
"Yes, on finery, mother. But didn't she send anything sensible? What
possessed her to load us up with a lot of things we can never possibly
get a chance to wear?"
Claire had not meant to be disagreeable, but there was rancor in her
voice. Mrs. Robson cast aside the dress with the carelessness of a
spoiled favorite; she always adapted her manner to the tone of her
"Claire Robson!" she cried, good-naturedly. "You're a regular old woman!
I'm sure _I_ haven't much to be cheerful about, but I just won't let
anything down me!... If I wanted to, I could give up right now. Where
would we have been, I'd like to know, if I hadn't held my head up?
Goodness knows, _my_ folks didn't help me. If they had had their way,
I'd been out manicuring people's nails and washing heads for a living.
And _you_ in an orphan-asylum! That's what my people did for me! As it
is, they shoved you out to work. What chance have you of meeting nice
people? No, Claire, I don't care how they have treated me, but they
might have given you a chance. I'll never forgive them for that!... I
thought last night when I was talking to Mrs. Condor and watching you
and Mr. Stillman how nice it would have been if.... Oh, that reminds me!
Who do you think has been here to-day?... Mrs. Towne! She came to
apologize about asking us to move our seats the other night. _She_ knows
the Stillmans well. The old people were pillars of the Second Church in
the 'sixties. I fancy he is dancing about that Mrs. Condor's heels a
bit. Of course, as Mrs. Towne said, _she_ wouldn't be likely to make
herself a permanent feature of Second Church entertainments. But now in
war-times _anything_ is possible. Mrs. Towne was telling me all about
Stillman and his wife. I _should_ have remembered, but somehow I forgot.
Get your things off and I'll tell you all about it."
Claire handed her mother the package of pastries. "I heard about it
to-day," she said, coldly.
"But Mrs. Towne knows the whole thing from A to Z," insisted Mrs.
"I'm not interested in the details," Claire returned, doggedly.
Mrs. Robson's face wore a puzzled, almost a harried, expression. Claire
moved away. Her mother gave a shrug and renewed her efforts to drag
further finery from the mysterious depths of the treasure-box. Her
daughter cast a last incurious glance back. The glow on Mrs. Robson's
face, which Claire had mistaken for youth, seemed now a thing hectic and
unpleasant, and gave an uncanny sense of a skeleton sitting among gauds
A feeling of isolation swept Claire, such as she had never experienced.
The person who should have been closest suddenly had become a
stranger.... She went into her room and closed the door.
The following week Claire was surprised to find a letter on her desk at
the office. The few written favors that came her way usually were
addressed to the Clay Street flat, so that she was puzzled by this
innovation and the unfamiliar handwriting. Glancing swiftly at the
signature, she was surprised to see the name "Lily Condor," scrawled
loosely at the foot of the note. It seemed that Mrs. Condor was giving a
little musicale in Ned Stillman's apartments on the following Friday
night, and, if one could believe such a thing, the lady implied that the
evening would scarcely be complete without the presence of Claire
Robson--or, to put it more properly, Claire Robson and her _mother_.
As Claire had scarcely said a half-dozen words to Mrs. Condor on the
night of the Red Cross concert, this invitation seemed little short of
extraordinary. But, as Claire thought it over, she recalled that there
had been some general conversation about music, in which she had
admitted a discreet passion for this form of entertainment, even going
so far as to confess that she played the piano herself upon occasion.
Her first impulse, clinched by the familiar feminine excuse that she had
nothing suitable to wear, was to send her regrets. At once she thought
of the scorned finery that Gertrude Sinclair had included in her last
box, and the more she thought about it the more convinced she became
that she had no real reason for refusing. But a swift, strange regret
that her mother had been included in the invitation took the edge off
her anticipations. She tried to dismiss this feeling, but it grew more
definite as the morning progressed.
For days Claire had been striking at the shackles of habit with a rancor
bred of disillusionment. She had been on tiptoe for new and vital
experiences, and yet, for any outward sign, her life bid fair to escape
the surge of any torrential circumstance. Particularly, at the office,
things had gone on smoothly. The other clerks had accepted Claire's
advancement without either protest or enthusiasm. Even Miss Munch had
veiled her resentment behind the saving trivialities of daily
intercourse. She had gone so far as to introduce Claire to her cousin, a
Mrs. Richards, who had come in at the noon hour for a new tatting
design. This cousin was a large, red-faced woman, with an aggressively
capable manner. She had the quick, ferret-like eyes of Miss Munch and
the loose mouth of a perpetual gossip.
"She's the one I told you about the other day," Miss Munch had explained
later--"the housekeeper for _your friend_ Stillman's father-in-law." She
gave nasty emphasis to this trivial speech.
Flint had been direct and business-like almost to the point of
bruskness. But Claire knew that such moods were not unusual, so she took
little stock in the ultimate significance of his restrained manner.
Perhaps the most indefinable change had come over Claire's home life.
Her mother's unfailing string of trivial gossip, formerly not without a
certain interest, now scarcely held her to even polite attention.
Indeed, her self-absorbed silence, while Mrs. Robson poured out the
latest news about Mrs. Finnegan's second sister's husband's mother--who
was suddenly stricken with some incurable disease, made all the more
mysterious by the fact that its nature was not divulged--was so apparent
that her mother, goaded on to a mild exasperation, would ask,
"What's the matter, Claire? Have you a headache?"
Mrs. Robson was never so happy as in the discovery of some one with a
mysterious disease, particularly if the victim's relatives were loath to
discuss the issue.
"They think they fool me!" she would say, triumphantly, to Claire, "but
I guess I know what ails her.... Didn't her mother, and her uncle, and
her sister's oldest child die of consumption? I tell you it's in the
family. The last time I saw her she nearly coughed her head off."
Not that Mrs. Robson was unsympathetic; brought face to face with
suffering, she blossomed with every impulsive tenderness, but her
experiences had confirmed her in pessimism, and every fresh tragedy
testified to the soundness of her faith. Her pride at diagnosing
people's ills and pronouncing their death-sentences was almost
professional. And she had an irritating way of making comments such as
"Well, Claire, I see that old Mrs. Talbot is dead at last!... I knew she
wouldn't live another winter. They'll feel terribly, no doubt; but, of
course, it is a great relief."
"Why, here is the death notice of Isaac Rice! I thought he died _years_
ago. My, but he was a trial! What a blessing!"
This was the type of conversation that Claire was finding either empty
of meaning or illuminating to the point of annoyance. What amazed her
was the fact that she had remained blind so long to the slightest of the
conversational food upon which she had been fed.
Claire did not tell her mother about the invitation to Mrs. Condor's
"I'll wait," she said to herself. "Thursday will be time enough."
Although why delay would prove advantageous was not particularly
On Wednesday night at the dinner-table, Mrs. Robson, as if still puzzled
at her daughter's altered mood, said, rather cautiously:
"There's to be a reception at the church on Friday night."
"For whom?" inquired Claire, with pallid interest.
"I didn't quite catch the name.... Some woman back from France. She's
been nursing in one of the British hospitals. She's to get Red Cross
work started at the church. It seems San Francisco is a bit slow over
taking up the work, but, then, you know, we're poked off here in a
corner and I suppose we don't quite realize yet.... Anyway, Mrs. Towne
wants us to help with the coffee. She says you should have been in the
church-work long ago. You look so self-contained and efficient.... I
told her we would be there at half past seven and get the dishes into
Claire's heart beat violently. "Friday night? I'm sorry, mother; I have
"Another engagement? Why, Claire, how funny! You never said anything
about it. I don't know what to say to Mrs. Towne."
Claire felt calm again. "Just tell her the truth."
"But she'll think so strange that I didn't know ... that I...."
"You shouldn't have spoken for me until you found out whether I was
"Willing! _Willing!_ I didn't suppose you'd be anything else. I've been
trying to get you in with the right people at the church for the last
fifteen years. I've tried so hard...."
"Yes, mother, I know," said Claire, patiently. "But don't you see?
That's just it. You've tried too hard."
Mrs. Robson began to whimper discreetly. "How you do talk, Claire! I
declare I don't know what to make of it. I suppose you're bitter about
Mrs. Towne the other night. I felt so at first, but I can see now we
were at the wrong table. And, after all, everything came out
beautifully. We sat with Mr. Stillman, and that had a very good effect,
I can tell you. Especially when everybody saw us leave with him. Why, it
brought Mrs. Towne to her feet."
"Yes, and that's the humiliating part of it."
"Well, Claire, when you've lived as long as I have you won't be so
uppish about making compromises," flung back Mrs. Robson. "Of course, if
you've got another engagement, you've got another engagement, but
"I wouldn't have gone, anyway. I'm through with that sort of thing."
"Why, Claire, how can you! It's your duty, _now_!--with your country at
war--and ... and ... Even that dreadful Serbian the other night made
"I'll go with you to church on Sundays, of course, but--"
"What am _I_ to do?" wailed Mrs. Robson. "At least you might think of
me! I've not had much pleasure in my life, goodness knows, and now just
Mrs. Robson broke off abruptly on a flood of tears. Two weeks ago these
tears would have overwhelmed Claire. As it was, she sat calmly stirring
her tea, surprised and a little ashamed of her coldness. The truth was
that Claire Robson was feeling all the fanatical cruelty that comes with
sudden conviction. The forms of her new faith had hardened too quickly
and left outlines sharp and uncompromising.
For years Claire had found shelter from the glare of middle-class
snobbery beating about her head, by shrinking into her mother's
inadequate shadow as a desert bird shrinks into the thin shadow of a dry
reed by some burned-out watercourse. Now a full noon of disillusionment
had annihilated this shadow and given her the courage of necessity. And
there was something more than courage--there was an eagerness to stand
alone in the commonplace words with which she sought to temper her
refusal to assist at the coming church reception:
"I can't see any good reason, mother, why you shouldn't go and help Mrs.
Towne.... What have my plans to do with it?"
To which her mother answered:
"I do so hate to be seen at such places alone, Claire."
Claire made no reply. She did not want to give her mother's indecision a
chance to crystallize into a definite stand. She knew by long experience
that if this happened it would be fatal. But in a swift flash of
decision Claire made up her mind for one thing--she would either go to
Mrs. Condor's evening alone or she would send her regrets.
By a series of neutral subterfuges and tactful evasions Claire Robson
won her point--she went to the Condor musicale at Ned Stillman's
apartments alone, and on that same night her mother wended a rather
grudging way to the Second Presbyterian Church reception.
Acting under her mother's advice, Claire timed her arrival for nine
o'clock, an hour which seemed incredibly late to one schooled in the
temperate hour of church socials. Mrs. Condor herself opened the door in
answer to Claire's ring.
"Oh, my dear, but I _am_ glad to see you!" burst from the elder woman as
she waved her in. But she did not so much as mention the absence of Mrs.
Robson, and Claire was divided between a feeling of wounded family
pride, and gratification at the intuition which had warned her to leave
her mother to her own devices. More people arrived on Claire's heels,
and in the lively bustle she was left to shed her wraps in one of the
bedrooms. Her heart was pounding with reaction at her outwardly
self-contained entrance. She let her rather shabby cloak slip to the
floor, revealing a strange, new Claire resplendent in the
gold-embroidered gown that had once so stirred her rancor. For a brief
instant she had an impulse to gather the discarded wrap securely about
her and make a quick exit. A swooning fear at the thought of meeting a
roomful of people assailed her. But there succeeded a courage born of
the realization that they all would be strangers. With a sense of
bravado she stepped out into the entrance hall again.
Ned Stillman came forward. She halted and waited for him. His face had
lit with a sudden pleasure, which told Claire that for once in her life
her presence roused positive interest. He inquired after her health, why
her mother had not come, whether the abominable fog was clearing. His
easy formality put her, as usual, completely at ease.
It was only when he asked her, with the most inconsequential tone in the
world, "whether she could read music at sight" that a sinking fear came
over her. And yet she found courage enough to be truthful and say yes.
"That's fine!" he returned. "Our accompanist hasn't come yet and we want
to start off with a song or two."
From this moment on the evening impressed itself on Claire in a series
of blurred hectic pictures.... She knew that Stillman was leading her
toward the piano, but the living-room and its toned lights gave her a
curious sense of unreality. She seated herself before the white keyboard
and folded her hands with desperate resignation while she waited for
Stillman to dictate the next move.
"My dear Mrs. Condor," Stillman explained, as that lady came up to them,
"we sha'n't have to wait for Flora Menzies. Miss Robson will accompany
Claire sat unmoved. She was beyond so trivial a sensation as anxiety.
Stillman drifted away; Mrs. Condor began to run through the sheet music
lying on the piano.
"Of course you know Schumann, Miss Robson. Shall we start at once? How
is the light? If you moved your stool a little--so. There, that's
Claire did not reply. She looked at the music before her. She was
conscious that it was a piece she knew, although its name registered no
other impression. She began to play. The opening bars almost startled
her. She felt a hush fall over the noisy room. Her fingers stumbled--she
caught the melody again with staggering desperation. Mrs. Condor was
singing.... The room faded; even the sound of Mrs. Condor's voice became
remote. Claire had a desire to laugh.
All manner of strange, disconnected thoughts ran through her head. She
remembered a doll she had broken years ago and buried with great pomp
and circumstance, a pink parasol that had been given her as a child, the
gigantic and respectable wig which had incased the head of her old
German music-teacher, Frau Pfaff. And as she played on and on the music
further evoked the memory of this worthy lady who had given her services
in exchange for lodgings in an incredibly small hall bedroom, with
certain privileges at the kitchen stove. And pictures of this irritating
woman rose before her, stewing dried fruit, or preparing sour beef, or
borrowing the clothes boiler for a perennial wash. What compromises her
mother had made to give her child the gentle accomplishments that Mrs.
Robson associated with breeding! It came to Claire that it was almost
cruel to have denied this mother a share in the triumphs of that
evening. And with that, she realized that Mrs. Condor had ceased
singing. A hum broke loose, followed by applause. Claire grew faint. Her
head began to swirl. She clutched the piano stool and by sheer terror at
the thought of creating a scene she managed to keep her consciousness as
she felt Mrs. Condor's hand upon her shoulder and heard a voice that
just missed being patronizing:
"My dear, you did it beautifully."
Claire longed to burst into tears....
The concert was over shortly after eleven o'clock. Besides Mrs. Condor,
there had been a 'cellist, very masculine in his looks but rather
forceless in his playing, and a young, frail girl who brought great
breadth and vigor to her interpretations at the piano. But Claire was
really too excited for calm enjoyment. Supper followed--creamed minced
chicken and extraordinarily thin sandwiches, and a dry, pale wine that
Claire found at first rather distasteful. Claire sat with a little group
composed of Mrs. Condor, Ned Stillman, a fashionable young man, Phil
Edington, who frankly confessed boredom at all things musical except
one-steps and fox-trots, and two or three artistic-looking souls who
pretended to be quite shocked by young Edington's frankness.
Conversation veered naturally to the subject of the war. Edington had
tried for a commission in an officers' training-camp and failed. He was
extraordinarily frank about it all, and good-natured at the chaffing
that Mrs. Condor and Stillman threw at him.
"I'm going to wait now and be drafted," he announced. "As long as I
failed to make a high grade I want to begin at the bottom and see the
Claire rather waited for a word from Stillman as to his convictions on
the subject. Of course one could see that he was over the draft age,
still.... For the most part she was silent, but happy and content. By
contributing her share to the evening's entertainment she had justified
her presence. Wine as a factor in midnight suppers was a new but not a
revolutionary experience to Claire Robson, but she gasped a bit when the
maid passed cigarettes to the ladies. And yet she felt a delicious sense
of being a party to something quite daring and _outre_, although she did
not have either courage or skill to enjoy one of the slender,
The time for departure finally came. Claire rose reluctantly. Mrs.
Condor, slipping one arm in Phil Edington's and the other in Claire's,
sauntered with them toward the entrance hall.
"I say," ventured Edington as Stillman caught up to the group. "What's
the matter with just us four dropping down to the Palace for a whirl or
Claire stared. She had not grown used to the novelty of being included,
but any instinctive objections to the plan were promptly silenced by
Mrs. Condor's enthusiastic approval.
They arrived at the Palace Hotel shortly before midnight. The Rose Room
was crowded. All the tables seemed filled, and Claire had a moment of
disappointment caused by the fear that their party would be unable to
gain admittance. But young Edington's presence soon set any uneasiness
on that score at rest, and a place was evolved with deftness and
despatch. The novelty of the situation to Claire was nothing compared
with her matter-of-fact acceptance of it. She was neither self-conscious
nor timid. Her three companions had a way of tacitly including her in
even their trivial chatter that was unmistakable, though hard to define.
She felt that she was one of them, and she blossomed in this strange new
warmth like a chilled blossom at the final approach of a belated spring.
All evening her starved sense of self-importance had been feeding
greedily upon the compliments that had come her way. There had been her
mother's rather apologetic words of approval at her appearance, to begin
with, then Mrs. Condor's appreciation at the piano, and finally a word
dropped by one of the women who had shared a mirror with her at the hour
"How do you manage your hair, Miss Robson?" the other had said, digging
viciously at her shifting locks with a hairpin. "I do declare you're the
only woman in the room that looks presentable."
But it was Edington's words to Stillman while they stood waiting for the
hotel attendants to prepare the table that brought a quickened beat to
her heart. The conversation was low and not meant for her ears, but her
senses were too sharpened to miss Edington's furtive words as he
whispered to Stillman:
"Where did ... amazing.... Miss Robson?"
Claire did not catch the reply which must have also been something of a
query, but she heard Edington continue.
"Well ... a little too silent, I must admit.... No, I don't dislike 'em
that way ... but I'm afraid of them."
Stillman answered with a low laugh.
They sat down. Edington ordered wine. The crowd at the tables was rather
a mixed one. There was plenty of elaborate gowning among the groups of
formal diners who had prolonged their feasting into the supper hour, but
many casuals, drifting in for a few drinks and a dance or two, robbed
the scene of its earlier brilliance.
The orchestra struck up a one-step. Claire denied Stillman the dance,
explaining that she knew none of the new steps, and he whirled away with
Mrs. Condor. Edington, robbed of his chance, pouted unashamed.
"I say, Miss Robson, can't you do a one-step--really? There isn't
anything to it! Come on--try; I'll pull you through."
Claire's knowledge of dancing was instinctive, but not a matter of much
practice, yet his distress was so comic that she relented. She wondered
if he could feel her trembling as they swung into the dance. She
stumbled once or twice from timidity, but Edington guided unerringly.
Half-way round she suddenly struck the proper swing.
"There--that's it," cried Edington, enthusiastically. "Now you've got
His praise mounted to her brain like a heady wine, and suddenly, in the
twinkling of an eye, all the repressed youth within her awoke with a
sweet and terrible joy.... They danced madly, perfectly, the rhythm
entering into them like something at once fluid and flaming. Her ecstasy
awoke a vague response in her partner, who bent forward as he kept
"And you said you couldn't, Miss Robson! Fancy, you said you couldn't!"
The music stopped abruptly with a crash. Some of the dancers made their
way leisurely back among the tables, but the most of them wandered about
the polished' floor, clapping insistent hands for an encore. In this
brief interlude, groups arrived and departed. The musicians lifted their
instruments to chin and lip, struck an opening chord; couples began to
whirl and glide. Claire Robson, palpitant and eager, followed Edington's
lead, but almost at the first moment of their rhythmic flight they came
crashing into the overcoated bulk of a man cutting across the corner of
the ballroom in an attempt at a swift exit. A smothered protest escaped
Edington, and Claire detached herself from her partner long enough to
see the offender bow very low and hear his apology in a voice and manner
that seemed curiously familiar:
"I beg your pardon. Pray forgive me! I should have known better."
In the twinkling of an eye the interrupted dancers were sweeping on
again, and the apologetic stranger, hat in hand, turning for a farewell
look at the pair. Claire Robson felt an up-leap of the heart; a fresh
ecstasy quickened her. It was the Serbian!
They finished the dance almost opposite their table and were met by a
patter of applause from Mrs. Condor and Stillman, who were already
Claire was flaming with embarrassment as she faced Stillman.
"I hope you'll understand, Mr. Stillman," she faltered. "But Mr.
Edington seemed willing to risk my ignorance."
Mrs. Condor turned Claire's plaintive apology into a covert attack upon
Stillman's courage, but Stillman rescued Claire from further confusion
by laughing back:
"Well, I'll have my revenge on Edington. I'll grant him all the
one-steps, but he can't have any of the waltzes, Miss Robson."
The waiter began to pour out the champagne. Claire settled back in her
seat with a feeling of delightful languor. The dance had released all
the pent-up emotions that a night of vivid sensations had called into
her life. She had come into the Rose Room of the Palace Hotel quivering
in the leash of a restrained enjoyment; it had taken the quick lash of
opportunity to send her spirits hurtling forward in wild and headlong
abandon. She lifted her wine-glass in answer to the upraised glasses of
her companions, and the thought flashed over her that it would be
impossible for her to have quite her old vision again. In every life
there are culminating moments of joy or sorrow which either clear or
dim the horizon, and Claire felt that such moment was now hers.
Stillman rose promptly in his seat at the first strains of the waltz,
which proved to be the next number. Claire stepped out upon the floor
She did not need any word of reassurance this time to tell her that her
dancing was more than acceptable, and, true to her brief experience with
Stillman, he refrained from voicing the obvious. They had begun the
dance promptly and for the first whirl about they had the floor almost
to themselves. Claire's discreet sidelong glances detected many
approving nods in their direction; people were noticing them and making
favorable comment.... The floor filled, but even in the crowd Claire had
a sense that she and her partner were standing out distinctly.
The very nature of the waltz contrasted sharply with the one-step. There
was less abandon and more art. The first dance had expressed a primitive
emotion; the present slow and measured whirl a discriminating sensation.
And slowly, under the spell of Stillman's calm and yet strangely glowing
manner, Claire recovered her poise. All night she had been inhaling
every fresh delight rapturously with the closed eyes and open senses
that one brings to the enjoyment of blossoms heavy with perfume. It took
Stillman's influence to rob the hours of their swooning delight by
recapturing her self-consciousness. Things became at once orderly and
reasonable. And as he led her back to their table she felt the flame
within cease its flarings and become steady, with a pleasurable glow.
For a moment she felt uneasy, as if she were being trapped by something
sweetfully insidious. Slowly, almost cautiously, she withdrew her arm
from his. He made no comment; it was doubtful if he really noticed her
* * * * *
Long past its appointed time the hall light in the Robson flat continued
to burn dimly. Mrs. Robson, sleepless and a bit anxious, waited alertly
for the sound of Claire's key in the door. The welcome click came
finally, succeeded by the unmistakable slam of an automobile door and
the sharp, quick note of a machine speeding up.
"She's come home in Stillman's car," flashed through Mrs. Robson's mind,
as she sat up in bed. At that moment Mrs. Finnegan's cuckoo clock,
sounding distinctly through the thin flooring, warbled twice with a
voice of friendly betrayal. "Mercy! it's two o'clock!" she muttered. "I
wonder if Mrs. Finnegan is awake?... I do hope she heard the
Seated at the foot of her mother's bed, Claire tried her best to give a
satisfactory report of the evening, but she found that she had
overlooked most of the details that her mother found interesting. Who
was there? What did Mrs. Condor wear? Did they have an elaborate
spread?--the questions rippled on in an endless flow.
Under the acceleration of Claire's recital, Mrs. Robson found her
experiences at the church reception left far behind. Even with scant
details, Claire had managed to evolve a fascinating picture of a life
robbed sufficiently of puritanism to be properly piquant. There was a
tang of the swift, immoral, fascinating 'seventies in Claire's still
cautious reference to champagne and cigarettes. It was impossible for
any San Franciscan who had lived through those splendid madcap bonanza
days to deny the lure of gay wickedness. At least it was hard to keep
one's eyes on a prayer-book while the car of pleasure rattled by. And a
coffee-and-cake social was, after all, a rather tame experience in the
face of beverages more sparkling and eatables distinctly enticing.... Of
course, if Claire had been introduced to any of these questionable
delights by anybody short of a survivor of the Stillman clan, Mrs.
Robson might have had a misgiving. As it was, she was not above a
certain forewarning sense that made her say with an air of inconsequence
as Claire finished her recital:
"Mrs. Towne tells me that there is a chance that Mr. Stillman's wife may
get well. She's in a private sanitarium, at Livermore, you know." She
stopped to draw up the bedclothes higher. "I do hope it's so!... But I'm
always skeptical about _crazy_ people ever amounting to anything again.
Seems to me they're better off dead."
For Claire Robson, there followed after the memorable Condor-Stillman
musicale a period of slack-water. It seemed as if a deadly stagnation
was to poison her existence, so sharp and emphasized was her boredom. On
the other hand, Mrs. Robson seemed to have contrived, from years of
living among arid pleasures, the ability to conserve every happiness
that she chanced upon to its last drop. Claire's invitation to be one of
a distinguished group fed her vanity long after her daughter had outworn
the delights of retrospection. The memory of this incident filled Mrs.
Robson's thoughts, her dreams, her conversation. Gradually, as the days
dragged by, bit by bit, she gleaned detached details of what had
transpired, weaving them into a vivid whole, for the entertainment of
herself and the amazement of her neighbor, Mrs. Finnegan.
Formerly Mrs. Finnegan's information regarding what went on in exclusive
circles was confined to society dramas on the screen and the Sunday
supplement. The personal note which Mrs. Robson brought to her recitals
was a new and pleasing experience. After listening to the authentic
gossip of Mrs. Robson, Mrs. Finnegan would return to her threshold with
a sense of having shared state secrets. On such occasions Mrs. Robson's
frankness had almost a challenge in it; she exaggerated many details and
"Yes," she would repeat, emphatically, "they served cigarettes along
with the wine. They _always_ do."
"Well, Mrs. Robson," Mrs. Finnegan inevitably returned, "far be it from
me to criticize what your daughter's friends do. But I don't approve of
As a matter of fact, neither did Mrs. Robson, but she felt in duty bound
to resent Mrs. Finnegan's narrow attacks upon society.
"Well, Mrs. Finnegan, that's only because you're not accustomed to it.
Now, if you had ever...."
"Did Claire smoke?"
"Why, of course _not_! How can you ask such a thing? I hope I've brought
my daughter up decently, Mrs. Finnegan."
And with that, Mrs. Robson would deftly switch to a less exciting detail
of the Condor-Stillman musicale, before her neighbor had a chance to
pick flaws in her logic. But sooner or later the topic would again verge
on the controversial. Usually at the point where the scene shifted from
Ned Stillman's apartments to the Palace Hotel, Mrs. Finnegan's pug nose
was lifted with tentative disapproval, as she inquired:
"How many did you say went down to the Palace?"
"Only four--Mr. Stillman, Claire, Mrs. Condor, and a young fellow named
"I suppose _that_ Mrs. Condor was the chaperon. Finnegan knows her well!
She used to hire hacks when Finnegan was in the livery business years
ago. She's a gay one, I can tell you. When only the steam-dummy ran out
to the Cliff House...."
"That's nothing. Everybody who was anybody had dinners at the Cliff
House in those days. I remember how my father...."
"Yes, Mrs. Robson, maybe you do! But I'll bet _you_ never went to such a
place without your husband ... and ... with a _strange_ man."
Mrs. Robson never had, and she would tell Mrs. Finnegan so decidedly.
This always had the effect of switching the subject again and Mrs.
Robson found her desire to know the real details of Mrs. Condor's
questionable gaieties offered up on the altar of class loyalty. For it
never occurred to Mrs. Robson to doubt that her social exile had nothing
to do with the inherent rights of her position.
When everything else in the way of an irritating program failed to rouse
Mrs. Robson's dignified ire, her neighbor fell back upon the fact that
Stillman was a married man. Mrs. Finnegan really worshiped Mrs. Robson
to distraction, but she had a natural combative tendency that was at
odds with even her loyalty.
"Mr. Stillman is a married man," Mrs. Finnegan would insist, doggedly.
"And I don't approve of married men taking an interest in young girls.
Who knows?--he may spoil your daughter's chances."
This statement always had the effect of dividing Mrs. Robson against
herself. She resented Mrs. Finnegan's insinuations concerning Stillman,
because it was not in her nature to be anything but partizan, and at the
same time she was mollified by her neighbor's recognition of the fact
that Claire had such things as chances. She always managed cleverly at
this point by saying, patronizingly:
"Why, how you talk, Mrs. Finnegan! Mr. Stillman is just like an old
friend. Not that we've known _him_ so long ... but the family, you know
... they're old-timers. Everybody knows the Stillmans! Really one
couldn't want a better friend."
Thus did Mrs. Robson take meager and colorless realities and expand them
into things of blossoming promise. She was almost creative in the
artistry she brought to these transmutations. In the end she convinced
_herself_ of their existence and she was quite sure that Mrs. Finnegan
shared equally in the delights of her fancy.
Meanwhile November passed, and the first weeks of December crowded the
old year to its death. November had been shrouded in clammy fogs, but no
rain had fallen, and everybody began to have the restless feeling
engendered by the usual summer drought in California prolonged beyond
its appointed season. The country and the people needed rain. Claire,
always responsive to the moods of wind and weather, longed for the
cleansing flood to descend and wash the dust-drab town colorful again.
She awoke one morning to the delicious thrill of the moisture-laden
southeast wind blowing into her room and the warning voice of her mother
at her bedroom door calling to her:
"You'd better put on your thick shoes, Claire! We're in for a storm."
She leaped out of bed joyously and hurried with her dressing.
As she walked down to work the warm yet curiously refreshing wind flung
itself in a fine frenzy over the gray city. Dark-gray clouds were
closing in from the south, and in the east an ominous silver band of
light marked the sullen flight of the sun. People were scampering about
buoyantly, running for street-cars, chasing liberated hats, battling
with billowing skirts. It seemed as if the promise of rain had revived
laughter and motion to an extraordinary degree. At the office this
ecstasy of spirit persisted; even Miss Munch came in hair awry and
blowsy, her beady eyes almost laughing.
Mr. Flint had not been to the office for two days. A sniffling cold had
kept him at home. Claire had rather looked for him to-day, and had
prepared herself for a flood of accumulated dictation. But the threat of
dampness evidently dissuaded him, for the noon hour came and went and
Mr. Flint did not put in an appearance. At about three o'clock in the
afternoon a long-distance call came on the telephone for Miss Robson.
Claire answered. Flint was on the other end of the wire. He wanted to
know if she could come at once over to Yolanda and take several pages of
dictation. His cold was uncertain and he might not get out for the rest
of the week. He realized that it was something of an imposition on her
good nature, but she would be doing him a great favor if.... She
interrupted him with her quick assent and he finished:
"I'll have the car at the station, and of course you'll stay for
Claire hung up the receiver and looked at her watch. It was just half
after three. The next ferryboat connecting at Sausalito with the
electric train for Yolanda left at three-forty-five. She had no time to
lose; it was a good ten minutes' walk from the office to the ferry and
little to be gained by taking a street-car. She managed her preparations
for departure successfully, but in the end she had to ask Miss Munch to
telephone her mother. Miss Munch assented with an alarmingly sweet
Claire walked briskly down California Street toward the ferry-building.
No rain had fallen, but the air was full of ominous promise. The wind
was even brisker than it had been in the morning, and its breath almost
"At sundown it will simply pour," thought Claire, as she exchanged fifty
cents for a ticket to Yolanda.
She presented her ticket at the entrance to the waiting-room and passed
in. The passageway to the boat was already open; she went at once and
found a sheltered corner outside on the upper deck. A strong sea was
running and already the ferryboat was plunging and straining like a
restless bloodhound in leash. The air was full of screaming gulls and
the clipped whistling of restless bay craft. Claire was so intent on all
this elemental agitation that she took no notice of the people about
her, but as the boat slid lumberingly out of the slip she was recalled
by a voice close at hand saying:
"Why, Miss Robson, who would think of seeing you here at this hour!"
Claire turned and discovered Miss Munch's cousin sitting beside her,
intent on the inevitable tatting.
"Oh, Mrs. Richards, how stupid of me! Have you been here long?"
"About ten minutes. But I get so interested in my work I never have eyes
for anything else. How do you put in the time? A trip like this is so
Claire delved into her bag and brought out knitting-needles and an
"I'm trying a hand at this," she admitted, holding her handiwork up
ruefully. "But I'm afraid I'm not very skilful."
Mrs. Richards inspected the sock with critical disapproval.
"Oh, well," she encouraged, "you'll learn ... practice makes perfect.
I've just finished a half-dozen pairs. I suppose I'm laying myself out
for a roast doing tatting in public _these_ war days! But it's restful
and I'm not one to pretend. As long as my conscience is clear I can
afford to be perfectly independent.... You don't make this trip every
night, do you?"
"Oh my, no! I'm going over to Mr. Flint's to take some dictation. He's
"I saw Mrs. Flint and the children coming _off_ the boat just as I got
on." Mrs. Richards's voice took on a tone of casual directness.
"You know Mrs. Flint?"
"My dear girl, a trained nurse knows everybody--and everything about
them, too. You never get a real line on people until you live with
them. I've never nursed any of the Flint family, but I wouldn't have to
to get their reputation--or perhaps I should say, old Flint's."
"_Old_ Flint's?" echoed Claire.
"Well, of course he isn't so awfully old, but men like him always give
that impression. They're so awfully wise--about _some_ things. I _was_
so relieved when Gertie didn't get that dreadful Miss Whitehead's
place. Being in the general office is bad enough, but in his _private_
office...." Mrs. Richards lifted and dropped her tatting-filled hands
Claire felt the blood rush to her face. "I'm in the private office, Mrs.
Richards.... No doubt you forgot it."
"Well now, you know I _had_ ... for the moment. But with a girl like you
it's different. Some women can handle men, but Gertie would be so
The humor of Mrs. Richards's remark saved the situation for Claire. She
changed the subject deliberately. But somehow, with the conversation
forced from the particular to the general, Miss Munch's cousin lost
interest, and by the time the boat had passed Alcatraz Island Claire was
deep in her thoughts again and the other woman following the measured
flight of the tatting-shuttle with strained attention.
The boat was romping through the stiff sea like a playful porpoise,
dipping and plunging. A half-score of adventuresome gulls were still
following in the foam-churned wake. In the face of all the pitching
about, Mrs. Richards had quite a battle to direct her shuttle to any
efficient purpose, and Claire was almost amused at the grim
determination she brought to the performance.
Presently a warning whistle from the ferryboat betrayed the fact that
they were nearing Sausalito. Mrs. Richards began to gather up her
numerous bundles, and Claire and she made their way down the narrow
stairs to the lower deck. Their progress was slow and uncertain. The
southeaster was tearing across the open spaces and bending everything
before it; the lumbering boat dipped sideward in a stolid encounter with
"Mercy! What a night!" gasped Mrs. Richards, clutching at Claire's arm.
A gust of wind struck them with its force just as they reached the lower
deck. Mrs. Richards staggered and wrestled vainly with tatting-bag and
bundles and a refractory skirt. For the moment both women were stalled
in a desperate effort to retain their equilibrium.
"Come!" gasped Claire. "Let's get over there in the shelter of that
They made the leeward side of the automobile in question, and while Mrs.
Richards began to recover her roughly handled dignity Claire turned her
attention to the car. It was a huge dark-red affair, evidently fresh
from the shop. Claire knew none of the fine points of automobiles, but
this one had unmistakable evidences of distinction. She was peering in
at its opulent depths when who should surprise her but Ned Stillman.
"My dear Miss Robson!" he cried, in a tone of delight, as he faced her
from the opposite side of the car. "What do you think of it?"
"Yours?" she queried.
"Just out of the shop to-day. I couldn't wait until it cleared. I just
had to get out with it. And this kind of weather always puts me up on my
toes. Where are you going--to Ross? If you are, don't bother with the
train. Come along with me."
He circled about the machine and came up to her with a frank,
outstretched hand. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" he murmured as Mrs. Richards
came into view.
Claire began an introduction, but Mrs. Richards cut in with her odd,
"Oh, _I_ know Mr. Stillman! But I guess he's forgotten _me_. It's been
some years, of course. At Mr. Faville's--your _wife's_ father's house."
Stillman paled for the briefest of moments, but he recovered himself
cleverly. "Mrs. Richards--of course! How do you do? It _has_ been some
"I'm going to Mr. Flint's--at Yolanda," said Claire, "to take some
dictation. He's been ill, you know."
"Ill? No, I hadn't heard it. Nothing serious, I hope."
"Not serious enough to keep Mrs. Flint at home, anyway," volunteered
Mrs. Richards, in her characteristically disagreeable way.
"Mrs. Richards saw Mrs. Flint and the children coming off the boat...."
"As I got on," interrupted the lady again.
"Oh, indeed, is that so?" Claire fancied that Stillman's tone held
something more than polite acceptance of what he had just heard. "I can
take you ladies to Yolanda if you'd like a spin in the open better than
a stuffy ride in the train."
"Thank you," Mrs. Richards returned, "but I get off at Sausalito. I've
no doubt Miss Robson will be delighted."
"I think I'd better not," said Claire. "Mr. Flint is sending his car to
the train for me. I shouldn't want to change my program and cause
confusion. But I'd like nothing better! The air is so bracing!"
"You can excuse _me_!" put in Mrs. Richards, moving toward the forward
deck. "It's going to pour in less than ten minutes. I'm not one of those
amphibious creatures who like to get wringing wet just for the fun of
Stillman lifted his hat. Claire stood for a moment undecided whether to
follow Mrs. Richards or remain for a chat with Stillman.
"I'm an awful fool, I suppose," Stillman smiled at Claire, "bringing the
car out on a night like this. But the truth is Edington promised to
catch this boat and I wanted him to try out the new plaything. I might
have known he wouldn't make it. We're running over for dinner with
At this moment the boat crashed clumsily against the Sausalito
ferry-slip, and in the sudden confusion of landing Claire was swept
along without further ado.
She looked back. Stillman waved a genial good-by to her. She felt glad
that he was behind her, in a vague, impersonal, thoroughly inexplainable
Claire was disappointed that Mrs. Flint was not to be at home. She had
caught glimpses of her now and then coming into the office and she was
interested in the hope of seeing her at closer range. Mrs. Flint was a
rather frumpish individual, who always gave the impression of pieced-out
"She must subscribe to the _Ladies' Home Journal_," Nellie Whitehead had
commented one day. "You know that 'go-up-into-the-garret-and-get-five-
yards-of-grandmother's-wedding-gown' column. Well, she's a walking ad
for it. She's no raving beauty, but if she would throw out her chest and
chuck those flat-heeled clogs of hers, and put a marcel wave in her
hair, maybe the old man would sit up and take notice."
To which Miss Munch had replied:
"Well, she's a mighty sweet woman, anyway!" in a tone calculated to
freeze the irrepressible Nellie Whitehead into silence.
"Who says she isn't? And at that, a good tailor-made suit and a
decent-looking hat won't spoil her disposition any...."
The children, too, were what Nellie Whitehead had termed "perfect guys."
On warm days Mrs. Flint would drag these two daughters of hers into the
office, dressed in plaid suits and velveteen hats; and when a cold north
wind blew it seemed inevitable that they would appear in gay and airy
costumes up to their knees, with impossible straw bonnets trimmed with
daisies and faded cornflowers, reminiscent of the white-leghorn-hat era.
"Men don't marry women for their clothes," Miss Munch used to say,
challengingly, to Nellie.
"Oh, don't they, indeed! Well, I've lived longer than sixteen and a half
years and I've noticed that it's the up-to-the-minute dame that gets
away with it and holds onto it every time, just the same. And any woman
silly enough to work the rag-bag game when her husband can afford seven
yards of taffeta and a Butterick pattern is a fool!"
Claire knew women who looked dowdy on dress-parade and yet managed to be
quite charming in their own houses. She was wondering whether this might
not be Mrs. Flint's case; anyway, she had hoped for a chance to decide
this point, and now Mrs. Flint was not at home.
As she settled into her matting-covered seat in the train she began to
wonder just who _would_ be home at the Flint establishment. And she
thought suddenly of the disagreeable emphasis that Mrs. Richards had
seen fit to give the fact that Mrs. Flint was bound cityward. At this
stage she became lost in discovering so many points of contact between
Mrs. Richards and her cousin, Miss Munch. Then the train started with a
quick lurch, and a view of the rapidly darkening landscape claimed her
Claire always took a childish delight in watching the panorama of the
countryside unroll swiftly before the space-conquering flight of a
train. And to-night the quick close of the December day warned her to
make the most of her opportunity. The wind was whipping the upper
reaches of the bay into a shallow fury, and the water in turn was
beating against the slimy mud and swallowing it up in gray, futile
anger. This part of the ride just out of Sausalito was always more or
less depressing unless a combination of full tide and vivid sunshine
gave its muddy stretches the enlivening grace of sky-blue reflections.
Worm-eaten and tottering piles, abandoned hulks, half-swamped skiffs,
all the water-logged dissolution of stagnant shore lines the world over,
flashed by, to be succeeded by the fresher green of channel-cut marshes.
The hills were wind-swept, huddling their scant oak covering into the
protecting folds of shallow canons. At intervals, clumps of
eucalyptus-trees banded together or drew out in long, thin, soldier-like
Presently it began to rain. There was no preliminary patter, but the
storm broke suddenly, hurling great gray drops of moisture against the
windows. Claire withdrew from any further attempt to watch the whirling
landscape. It was now quite dark, the short December day dying even more
suddenly under a black pall of lowering clouds.
She began to have distinctly uncomfortable thoughts about her visit to
the Flints'. But the more uncomfortable her thoughts became, the more
reason she brought to bear for conquering them. Surely one was not to be
persuaded into a panic by any such person as Mrs. Richards! And by the
time the brakeman announced the train's approach to Yolanda, Claire had
recovered her common sense. What of it if Mrs. Flint had gone to town?
There must be other women in the household--at least a maid. It was
absurd! The train stopped and Claire got off.
Flint's car was waiting, and Jerry Donovan, the chauffeur, stood with a
dripping umbrella almost at Claire's elbow as she hopped upon the
As they swished through the inky blackness, Claire said to Jerry, with
as inconsequential an air as she could muster:
"I thought I saw Mrs. Flint get off the boat in town. But I guess I was
mistaken. She wouldn't be leaving Mr. Flint alone ... when he's ill."
"Ill?" Jerry chuckled. "Well, he ain't dead by a long shot. Just a case
of sniffles, and a good excuse for hitting the booze. He's in prime
condition, I can tell you."
Claire had never seen Flint in "prime condition," but she had it from
Nellie Whitehead that there were moments when the gentleman in question
could "go some," to use her predecessor's precise terms.
"About twice a year," Nellie had once confided to Claire, "the old boy
starts in to cure a cold. I helped him cure one ... but _never_ again!"
Jerry's observations aroused fresh anxiety, but they did not settle the
issue for Claire. She felt that she could not turn back at the eleventh
hour. There was nothing else for her to do but go through with the game.
Yet she still hoped for the best.
"_Did_ Mrs. Flint go to town to-day?" she finally asked, point-blank.
"Sure thing," said Jerry, swinging the car past the Flint gateway.
Claire refused to be totally lacking in faith.
"There must be a maid," flashed through her mind, as Jerry stopped the
car and swung down to help her out.
A Japanese boy threw open the door as they scrambled up the rain-soaked
steps. But the fine, orderly, Colonial interior reassured Claire. The
few country homes she had seen had been of the rambling, unrelated
bungalow type, with paneled redwood walls either stained to a dismal
brown or quite frankly left to their rather characterless pink. This
home was different. Even the pungent oak logs crackling in the fireplace
did so with indefinable distinction. The general tone of the
surroundings was as little in keeping with the patchwork personality of
its mistress as one could imagine. It was as if the singular
completeness of Mrs. Flint's home left no time nor energy for a finished
individuality. Claire got all this in the briefest of flashes, just a
swift, inclusive glance about the entrance hall and through the doorways
leading into the rooms beyond. Particularly did she sense the severe
opulence of the dining-room, twinkling at a remoter distance than the
living-room--its perfectly polished silver, its spotless linen, its
wonderfully blue china, not to mention the disconcerting fact that the
table in the center was laid for but two.
And then Flint himself came forward with a very red face and an absurdly
"Well, I began to wonder whether you'd risk it. This will be a storm and
no mistake.... Here, let me have your coat. Come, you're quite wet....
Shall you warm up on a hot toddy or something cooler--a cocktail?"
She felt his hand sliding down her arm as she released the coat to his
too-eager fingers. "Oh no, Mr. Flint! Thank you, nothing. It's only a
bit of rain on the surface. I'm quite dry."
"Quite dry!" He echoed her words with a guffaw. "Well, then, we'll have
to moisten you up. I always say everything's a good excuse for a drink.
If you're cold you take a drink to warm up; if you're warm you take one
to cool off. You dry out on one, and you wet up on one. I don't know of
any habit with so many good reasons back of it. I'm dry, too.... We'll
have a Bronx! That's a nice, ladylike drink."
Claire weighed her reply. She did not want to strike the wrong note; she
wanted to let him have a feeling that she was accepting everything in a
normal, matter-of-fact way, as if she saw nothing extraordinary in the
"You're very kind, but really you know ... if I'm to get my dictation
"Well, perhaps there won't be any dictation. We're not slaves, you and
I. Maybe it will be much pleasanter to sit before the fire and listen to
the storm. What do you say to that?"
She turned from him deliberately, under the fiction of fluffing up her
hair before a gilt mirror near the door. She was thinking quickly and
with a tremendous, if concealed, agitation. "Why," she laughed back,
finally, "that _would_ be pleasant. But I came to take dictation, Mr.
Flint. And women ... women, you know, are so funny! If they make up
their minds to one thing, they can't switch suddenly to another idea."
He was paying no attention to her remark, a remark which she felt would
have fallen flat in any event, since it was so palpably studied.
"The living-room is in there," he said, pointing. "Make yourself at
She went in and sat before the fire. Flint disappeared. She tried hard
to analyze the situation. It was unthinkable that Mr. Flint had
deliberately planned this piece of foolishness. He must have had some
idea of work when he had telephoned her; perhaps he still had. It was
his way of being facetious, she argued, this fine pretense that it was
all to be a pleasant lark, or it may have been his idea of hospitality.
Of course he had been drinking, but she took comfort in the thought that
there must be instinctive standards in a man like Flint that even whisky
could not swamp. At least he must respect his wife--surely it was not
possible for Flint, drunk or sober, to offer such an affront to _her_,
however little he respected the women in his employ. She dismissed Mrs.
Richards's exaggerated insinuations with their well-deserved contempt,
but she could not thrust aside quite so readily the eye-lifting tone
with which Stillman had met the announcement of Mrs. Flint's absence
This was the first time that Claire had seen Stillman since the
musicale. She had thought a great deal about him and particularly about
his problem. She felt a great desire to know everything--all the details
of the unfortunate circumstance that had driven his wife into a
madhouse, and yet whenever her mother broached the subject Claire
changed the topic with curious panic. She seemed to dread the hard,
almost triumphant manner that her mother assumed in tracking misfortune
to its lair and gloating over it. She began to wonder whether Stillman
would be swinging back to the city on a late boat ... or would the storm
keep him at Edington's sister's home all night?
She was in the midst of this speculation when Flint came into the room.
"We'll eat early and have that off our minds," he announced. His manner
was brusk and business-like again. Claire felt reassured.
But she was disturbed to find a cocktail at her place at the table.
"Well, here's glad to see you!" Flint raised his glass and tilted it
ever so slightly in her direction. Claire lifted the cocktail to her
lips and set it down untasted. "What's the matter? Getting unsociable
"No, Mr. Flint. I don't care for cocktails."
"Oh, all right! We'll send down-cellar and get some wine."
"Thank you, not for me."
"I suppose you don't care for wine, either?" His voice had a bantering
quality, with a shade of menace in it. "Or maybe the right party isn't
here. I've noticed that makes a difference. Females are damned moral
with the wrong fellow."
His attack was so direct and insolent that Claire missed the trepidation
that might have come with a more covert move. She was no longer
uncertain. There was a sharp relief in realizing that all the cards were
on the table. She felt also that there was no immediate danger. Flint
was far from sober, but he was in his own home. She had the conviction
that he was merely skirmishing, testing the strength or weakness of the
line he hoped to penetrate. Her reply was rather more of a challenge
than she could have imagined herself giving under such a circumstance.
"And if I were to tell you that I don't care for wine, Mr. Flint?"
He threw open his napkin with a flourish. "You'd be telling me a damned
lie! You drink wine at the Palace with Stillman and Edington."
She had felt that he was going to say some such thing and for a moment
it amused her. It was so ridiculous to find this rather wan and wistful
indiscretion assuming damaging proportions. But a nasty fear succeeded
her faint amusement. Could it be possible that Stillman had gossiped?
"Who told you?" she demanded.
"Oh, don't be afraid; it wasn't Stillman! You're like all women, you
moon about sentimentalizing over Ned until it makes a man like me sick!
I like Ned; I always have. But even when we went to college together it
was the same way. Everybody ... yes, even the men ... always gave him
credit for a high moral tone. Not that he ever took it.... I'll say that
for him.... Ned Stillman didn't tell me, for the simple reason that he
didn't have to. Nobody told me. I go to the Palace myself under
pressure, and I've got two eyes. As a matter of fact, there isn't any
reason why Edington or Stillman or the waiter who drew the corks
shouldn't have mentioned it. A glass of wine is no crime. But the thing
that makes me hot is to see any one pretending. If you drink with
Stillman, you haven't any license to refuse a glass with me."
There was something more than wine-heated rancor back of his harangue.
Claire guessed instinctively that he both loved and hated Stillman with
a curious confusion of impulses. It was a feeling of affection torn by
the irritating superiority of its object. One gets the same thing in
families ... among children. It was at once subtle and extremely
"My dear Mr. Flint, this isn't quite the same thing. I've work to do for
one thing and, and...."
"And ... and.... Why don't you say it? You're alone with me and all that
sort of rubbish! Want a chaperon, I suppose. Mrs. Condor, for
instance.... Good Lord!"
Claire dipped her spoon into the steaming bouillon-cup in front of her.
She was growing quite calm under the directness of Flint's attack.
"It isn't the same," she reiterated, stubbornly. "I've work to do, Mr.
"I tell you that you haven't!" Flint brought his fist down upon the
"Well, then, why did you send for me?"
"I had something to say to you.... Gad! one can't talk in that ramping
office of mine. We've never even settled the matter of an increase in
salary for you. By the way, how much money do you get?"
Claire had never seen any man look so crafty and disagreeable. He gave
her the impression of a petty tyrant about to bestow largess upon an
obsequious and fawning slave.
"Sixty-five dollars a month."
"Well, I don't exactly know.... I've been trying to figure out just how
valuable you are to me, Miss Robson. Or, rather, how valuable you're
likely to be." He thrust aside his soup and leaned heavily upon the
table. "That's why I invited you over to-night. I wanted to see you at a
little closer range. You live with your mother, don't you?"
"Yes, Mr. Flint."
"You ... you support your mother, I believe?"
"Yes, Mr. Flint."
"Well, sixty-five dollars don't leave much margin for hair ribbons and
the like, does it, now?"
"No, Mr. Flint."
"No, Mr. Flint.... Yes, Mr. Flint...." he mocked. "Good Lord! can't you
cut that school-girl-to-her-dignified-guardian attitude. I'm human.
Dammit all, I'm as human as your friend Ned Stillman. I'll bet you don't
yes-sir and no-sir him.... You know, that night I saw you at the Palace
you quite bowled me over. I'd been thinking of you as a shy,
unsophisticated young thing. But you were hitting the high places like a
veteran. Even old lady Condor didn't have anything on you. Except, of
course, that she looks the part. By the way, where did you meet
"At ... at a church social," Claire stammered.
"At a church social! Say, I wasn't born yesterday. Ned Stillman doesn't
go to church. Tell me something easy."
"It was really a Red Cross concert. He went with Mrs. Condor," Claire
found herself explaining in spite of her anger. "We sat at the same
table when the ice-cream was served."
Flint was roaring with exaggerated laughter. Even Claire could not
restrain a smile. What made the statement so ridiculous, she found
herself wondering. Was she unconsciously reflecting Flint's attitude or
had she herself changed so tremendously in the last few weeks?
"Stillman at a church social! But that _is_ good! And eating
ice-cream.... How long ago did all this happen, pray?"
"Sometime in November."
He stopped his senseless guffawing and looked at her keenly. "Where did
you get the church-social habit?"
"I ... why, I guess I formed it early, Mr. Flint. As you say, sixty-five
dollars a month doesn't leave much for hair ribbons or anything else.
Going to church socials is about the cheapest form of recreation I can
The bitterness of her tone seemed to pull Flint up with a round turn.
"Well, we're going to get you out of this silly church-social habit.
Dammit all, Stillman isn't the only possibility in sight. That's just
what I wanted to get at--your viewpoint. I take an interest in you, Miss
Robson--a tremendous interest. Good Lord! I can dance one-steps and
fox-trots and hesitations as well as anybody! I danced every bit as
well as Ned Stillman when we went to dancing-school together. But he
always got most of the applause. He _has_ an air, I don't deny that, but
he's working it overtime.... And he's not in any better position for
being friendly to you than I am--_he's_ married."
The talk was sobering him a little. Claire was amazed to find that she
did not feel indignant. His tone was offensive, but at least it was
forthright. Besides, she had known instinctively that some day he would
force the issue, and she was rather glad to get it settled. And she
began to hope that she could persuade him skilfully against his warped
convictions. She was trembling inwardly, too, at the thought that she
might make a false step and find herself out of a position. Positions
were not easy to land these days. She knew a half-score of girls who had
tramped the town over in a desperate effort to find a vacancy. Two or
three months without salary meant debts piling up, clothes in ribbons,
and no end of hectic worries.
"I think you've got a decidedly wrong impression of my friendship for
Mr. Stillman," she said, after some deliberation. "I really know him
only slightly. He was good enough, or rather I should say Mrs. Condor
was good enough, to include me in a little musical evening. That was on
the night you saw me at the Palace. We dropped down for a dance or two
after the music was over. I'd never been to such a place before, and I
dare say I'll never go again. It was just one of those experiences that
come to a person out of a clear sky. It's over as quickly as a shower."
"Oh, don't you worry! There'll be other showers. I'm going to see to
that. You know, the more I talk to you the more amazing you are....
Fancy your graduating from dinky church things into Stillman musicales,
and Palace dansants, and young Edington, and old lady Condor, all of a
sudden ... and getting away with it as if you were an old hand at the
game. Say, if you're that apt I'll give you a post-graduate course in
high life that'll make your hair curl forty-seven ways. I don't mean
anything vulgar or common ... _you_ understand. I'm a gentleman, Miss
Robson, at that."
He stopped for a moment to ring the bell for the Japanese boy. Claire
maintained a discreet silence. She had a feeling that it would be just
as well to let him take his full rein. The servant came in and cleared
away the empty bouillon-cups. Fish was served.
Flint took one taste of the fish and shoved it away impatiently. "You
know, a fellow like me gets awfully bored at all this sort of thing." He
swept the room with an inclusive gesture. "Not that my wife isn't the
best little woman in the world, but _you_ know. She's got standards and
convictions and all that sort of rot. I can't bundle _her_ off for
dinner and a little lark at the Red Paint or Bonini's or some other
Bohemian joint like them.... You know what I mean, no rough stuff ...
but a good feed, and two kinds of wine, and a cigarette with the small
black. Just gay and frivolous.... Of course I can get any number of
girls to run around and help eat up all the nourishment I care to
provide. But, good Lord! that isn't it! I'm looking for somebody with
human intelligence. Not that I want to discuss free verse and the Little
Theater movement. But I like to feel that if I took such a crazy notion
the person sitting opposite me could qualify for a good comeback.... I
like my home and everything, but.... Oh, well, what's the use in
pretending? I'm just as human as your friend Ned Stillman and I've got
just as keen an eye for class."
He sat back in his seat with an air of satisfaction, waiting for
Claire's reply. She had been calm enough while he talked, but under the
tenseness of his silent expectancy she felt her heart bound.
"Dammit all! Why don't you say something?" he blurted out. "I know, you
need a little wine. I'm going down-stairs and pick out the best in the
cellar ... _myself_."
She did not attempt to dissuade him; as a matter of fact, she felt
relieved to be left alone for a moment. She must leave as soon as dinner
was over. She began to wonder about the trains. The storm was raging
outside. She could hear the frenzied trees flinging their branches about
and a noisy flood of rain against the windows. She spoke to the Japanese
boy as he was carrying away Flint's unfinished fish course.
"Do you know what time the next train leaves?"
He laid the tray on the serving-table. "Please.... I telephone. Please!"
He bobbed at her absurdly and went out into the hall. She listened. He
was ringing up the station-master. He came back promptly.
"Please," he began, sucking in his breath, "please ... no train
"No train to-night? Why, what do you mean?"
"Please ... very much water. Train track washed out. No train to-night.
To-morrow morning, maybe."
"Oh, but I must go home to-night! I really must! I...."
She broke off suddenly, realizing the futility of her protest.
"To-morrow morning," replied the Japanese, blandly. "All right to-morrow
morning. You stay here.... I fix a place. You see.... I fix a very nice
place for young lady."
He went out with the tray and Claire rose and walked to the window.
Flint broke into the room noisily. She turned--he had two dusty bottles
in his hand, and an air of triumph.
"Mr. Flint, it seems that there has been a washout. I understand that no
trains are running. What can I do? I must get back; really I...."
"Who says so?" Flint laid the bottles down with an irritating calmness.
"The station-master. Your ... your servant just telephoned for me."
"Oh, well, _we_ should worry! Sit down."
"Mr. Flint, really, I must.... You know I can't.... I...."
His tone was a dash of cold water thrown in the face of her rising
hysteria. She sat down. Flint ignored the bottles on the table and,
crossing over to the Sheraton sideboard, poured himself a stiff drink
of whisky. His hair-towsled condition stood out sharply against the
He made no further comment, but he began to open the bottles of wine
deliberately. Then he rummaged in the china-closet for the wine-glasses
and set four, two at his place and two at Claire's, upon the table.
"White wine with the entree and red wine with the roast," he muttered.
And he poured out the white wine without further ado.
The servant came in with creamed sweetbreads. Claire forced herself to
make a pretense of eating, although her appetite had long since deserted
her. She was thinking, and thinking hard.
She should never have come, in the first place--at least she should have
turned back upon the strength of Jerry's announcement. But she saw now,
with a clearness that surprised her, that the situation had really
challenged her imagination. She had been too calm, too collected, too
well-poised, full of smug over-confidence. She had read in the current
novels of the day how hysterically unsophisticated heroines conducted
themselves in tight corners and she had followed their writhings with
ill-concealed impatience. She never had really put herself in their
place, but she had had a vague notion that they carried on absurdly. Her
fear all evening had been not what Mr. Flint would do or say or even
suggest--she had been anxious merely to have the impending storm over,
the air cleared, and her position in the office assured upon a purely
business-like basis. She had really welcomed the forced issue; for weeks
her mind had been entertaining and dismissing the idea that Mr. Flint
had any questionable motives in yielding Nellie Whitehead's place to
her. With this fleeting trepidation had come the realization of her
dependence, the importance her sixty-five dollars a month in the scheme
of things, the compromises that she might be forced into accepting in
order to insure its continuance; not definite and soul-searing
compromises, it was true, but petty, irritating trucklings which wear
It had been the primitive violence of Flint's commanding, "Sit down!" to
thrust the issue from the economic to the elemental. For the first time
in her life Claire was face to face with unstripped masculine brutality.
She had wondered why women of a lower order took men's blows without
striking back, without at least escaping from further torment. But she
was beginning to see, as her spirits tried to rise reeling from Flint's
verbal assault, the fawning submission, half admiration, half fear, that
could follow a frank, hard-fisted blow. And she had a terror, sitting
there trying to thrust food between her trembling lips, that the sheer
physical force of the male opposite her might shatter in one blow a will
that could have withstood any amount of spiritual or material attrition.
She had never seen Flint so clearly as at this moment; in fact, she had
never seen him _at all_. Formerly, he had been a conventionalized