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BUTTERED SIDE DOWN
“And so,” the story writers used to say, “they lived happily ever after.”
Um-m-m–maybe. After the glamour had worn off, and the glass slippers were worn out, did the Prince never find Cinderella’s manner redolent of the kitchen hearth; and was it never necessary that he remind her to be more careful of her finger-nails and grammar? After Puss in Boots had won wealth and a wife for his young master did not that gentleman often fume with chagrin because the neighbors, perhaps, refused to call on the lady of the former poor miller’s son?
It is a great risk to take with one’s book-children. These stories make no such promises. They stop just short of the phrase of the old story writers, and end truthfully, thus: And so they lived.
I. THE FROG AND THE PUDDLE
II. THE MAN WHO CAME BACK
III. WHAT SHE WORE
IV. A BUSH LEAGUE HERO
V. THE KITCHEN SIDE OF THE DOOR
VI. ONE OF THE OLD GIRLS
VI. MAYMEYS FROM CUBA
VIII. THE LEADING LADY
IX. THAT HOME-TOWN FEELING
X. THE HOMELY HEROINE
XI. SUN DRIED
XII. WHERE THE CAR TURNS AT 18TH
BUTTERED SIDE DOWN
THE FROG AND THE PUDDLE
Any one who has ever written for the magazines (nobody could devise a more sweeping opening; it includes the iceman who does a humorous article on the subject of his troubles, and the neglected wife next door, who journalizes) knows that a story the scene of which is not New York is merely junk. Take Fifth Avenue as a framework, pad it out to five thousand words, and there you have the ideal short story.
Consequently I feel a certain timidity in confessing that I do not know Fifth Avenue from Hester Street when I see it, because I’ve never seen it. It has been said that from the latter to the former is a ten-year journey, from which I have gathered that they lie some miles apart. As for Forty-second Street, of which musical comedians carol, I know not if it be a fashionable shopping thoroughfare or a factory district.
A confession of this kind is not only good for the soul, but for the editor. It saves him the trouble of turning to page two.
This is a story of Chicago, which is a first cousin of New York, although the two are not on chummy terms. It is a story of that part of Chicago which lies east of Dearborn Avenue and south of Division Street, and which may be called the Nottingham curtain district.
In the Nottingham curtain district every front parlor window is embellished with a “Rooms With or Without Board” sign. The curtains themselves have mellowed from their original department-store-basement-white to a rich, deep tone of Chicago smoke, which has the notorious London variety beaten by several shades. Block after block the two-story-and-basement houses stretch, all grimy and gritty and looking sadly down upon the five square feet of mangy grass forming the pitiful front yard of each. Now and then the monotonous line of front stoops is broken by an outjutting basement delicatessen shop. But not often. The Nottingham curtain district does not run heavily to delicacies. It is stronger on creamed cabbage and bread pudding.
Up in the third floor back at Mis’ Buck’s (elegant rooms $2.50 and up a week. Gents preferred) Gertie was brushing her hair for the night. One hundred strokes with a bristle brush. Anyone who reads the beauty column in the newspapers knows that. There was something heroic in the sight of Gertie brushing her hair one hundred strokes before going to bed at night. Only a woman could understand her doing it.
Gertie clerked downtown on State Street, in a gents’ glove department. A gents’ glove department requires careful dressing on the part of its clerks, and the manager, in selecting them, is particular about choosing “lookers,” with especial attention to figure, hair, and finger nails. Gertie was a looker. Providence had taken care of that. But you cannot leave your hair and finger nails to Providence. They demand coaxing with a bristle brush and an orangewood stick.
Now clerking, as Gertie would tell you, is fierce on the feet. And when your feet are tired you are tired all over. Gertie’s feet were tired every night. About eight-thirty she longed to peel off her clothes, drop them in a heap on the floor, and tumble, unbrushed, unwashed, unmanicured, into bed. She never did it.
Things had been particularly trying to-night. After washing out three handkerchiefs and pasting them with practised hand over the mirror, Gertie had taken off her shoes and discovered a hole the size of a silver quarter in the heel of her left stocking. Gertie had a country-bred horror of holey stockings. She darned the hole, yawning, her aching feet pressed against the smooth, cool leg of the iron bed. That done, she had had the colossal courage to wash her face, slap cold cream on it, and push back the cuticle around her nails.
Seated huddled on the side of her thin little iron bed, Gertie was brushing her hair bravely, counting the strokes somewhere in her sub-conscious mind and thinking busily all the while of something else. Her brush rose, fell, swept downward, rose, fell, rhythmically.
“Ninety-six, ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety — Oh, darn it! What’s the use!” cried Gertie, and hurled the brush across the room with a crack.
She sat looking after it with wide, staring eyes until the brush blurred in with the faded red roses on the carpet. When she found it doing that she got up, wadded her hair viciously into a hard bun in the back instead of braiding it carefully as usual, crossed the room (it wasn’t much of a trip), picked up the brush, and stood looking down at it, her under lip caught between her teeth. That is the humiliating part of losing your temper and throwing things. You have to come down to picking them up, anyway.
Her lip still held prisoner, Gertie tossed the brush on the bureau, fastened her nightgown at the throat with a safety pin, turned out the gas and crawled into bed.
Perhaps the hard bun at the back of her head kept her awake. She lay there with her eyes wide open and sleepless, staring into the darkness.
At midnight the Kid Next Door came in whistling, like one unused to boarding-house rules. Gertie liked him for that. At the head of the stairs he stopped whistling and came softly into his own third floor back just next to Gertie’s. Gertie liked him for that, too.
The two rooms had been one in the fashionable days of the Nottingham curtain district, long before the advent of Mis’ Buck. That thrifty lady, on coming into possession, had caused a flimsy partition to be run up, slicing the room in twain and doubling its rental.
Lying there Gertie could hear the Kid Next Door moving about getting ready for bed and humming “Every Little Movement Has a Meaning of Its Own” very lightly, under his breath. He polished his shoes briskly, and Gertie smiled there in the darkness of her own room in sympathy. Poor kid, he had his beauty struggles, too.
Gertie had never seen the Kid Next Door, although he had come four months ago. But she knew he wasn’t a grouch, because he alternately whistled and sang off-key tenor while dressing in the morning. She had also discovered that his bed must run along the same wall against which her bed was pushed. Gertie told herself that there was something almost immodest about being able to hear him breathing as he slept. He had tumbled into bed with a little grunt of weariness.
Gertie lay there another hour, staring into the darkness. Then she began to cry softly, lying on her face with her head between her arms. The cold cream and the salt tears mingled and formed a slippery paste. Gertie wept on because she couldn’t help it. The longer she wept the more difficult her sobs became, until finally they bordered on the hysterical. They filled her lungs until they ached and reached her throat with a force that jerked her head back.
“Rap-rap-rap!” sounded sharply from the head of her bed.
Gertie stopped sobbing, and her heart stopped ,beating. She lay tense and still, listening. Everyone knows that spooks rap three times at the head of one’s bed. It’s a regular high-sign with them.
Gertie’s skin became goose-flesh, and coldwater effects chased up and down her spine.
“What’s your trouble in there?” demanded an unspooky voice so near that Gertie jumped. “Sick?”
It was the Kid Next Door.
“N-no, I’m not sick,” faltered Gertie, her mouth close to the wall. Just then a belated sob that had stopped halfway when the raps began hustled on to join its sisters. It took Gertie by surprise, and brought prompt response from the other side of the wall.
“I’ll bet I scared you green. I didn’t mean to, but, on the square, if you’re feeling sick, a little nip of brandy will set you up. Excuse my mentioning it, girlie, but I’d do the same for my sister. I hate like sin to hear a woman suffer like that, and, anyway, I don’t know whether you’re fourteen or forty, so it’s perfectly respectable. I’ll get the bottle and leave it outside your door.”
“No you don’t!” answered Gertie in a hollow voice, praying meanwhile that the woman in the room below might be sleeping. “I’m not sick, honestly I’m not. I’m just as much obliged, and I’m dead sorry I woke you up with my blubbering. I started out with the soft pedal on, but things got away from me. Can you hear me?”
“Like a phonograph. Sure you couldn’t use a sip of brandy where it’d do the most good?”
“Well, then, cut out the weeps and get your beauty sleep, kid. He ain’t worth sobbing over, anyway, believe me.”
“He!” snorted Gertie indignantly. “You’re cold. There never was anything in peg-tops that could make me carry on like the heroine of the Elsie series.”
“Lost your job?”
“No such luck.”
“Well, then, what in Sam Hill could make a woman—-“
“Lonesome!” snapped Gertie. “And the floorwalker got fresh to-day. And I found two gray hairs to-night. And I’d give my next week’s pay envelope to hear the double click that our front gate gives back home.”
“Back home!” echoed the Kid Next Door in a dangerously loud voice. “Say, I want to talk to you. If you’ll promise you won’t get sore and think I’m fresh, I’ll ask you a favor. Slip on a kimono and we’ll sneak down to the front stoop and talk it over. I’m as wide awake as a chorus girl and twice as hungry. I’ve got two apples and a box of crackers. Are you on?”
Gertie snickered. “It isn’t done in our best sets, but I’m on. I’ve got a can of sardines and an orange. I’ll be ready in six minutes.”
She was, too. She wiped off the cold cream and salt tears with a dry towel, did her hair in a schoolgirl braid and tied it with a big bow, and dressed herself in a black skirt and a baby blue dressing sacque. The Kid Next Door was waiting outside in the hall. His gray sweater covered a multitude of sartorial deficiencies. Gertie stared at him, and he stared at Gertie in the sickly blue light of the boarding-house hall, and it took her one-half of one second to discover that she liked his mouth, and his eyes, and the way his hair was mussed.
“Why, you’re only a kid!” whispered the Kid Next Door, in surprise.
Gertie smothered a laugh. “You’re not the first man that’s been deceived by a pig-tail braid and a baby blue waist. I could locate those two gray hairs for you with my eyes shut and my feet in a sack. Come on, boy. These Robert W. Chambers situations make me nervous.”
Many earnest young writers with a flow of adjectives and a passion for detail have attempted to describe the quiet of a great city at night, when a few million people within it are sleeping, or ought to be. They work in the clang of a distant owl car, and the roar of an occasional “L” train, and the hollow echo of the footsteps of the late passer-by. They go elaborately into description, and are strong on the brooding hush, but the thing has never been done satisfactorily.
Gertie, sitting on the front stoop at two in the morning, with her orange in one hand and the sardine can in the other, put it this way:
“If I was to hear a cricket chirp now, I’d screech. This isn’t really quiet. It’s like waiting for a cannon cracker to go off just before the fuse is burned down. The bang isn’t there yet, but you hear it a hundred times in your mind before it happens.”
“My name’s Augustus G. Eddy,” announced the Kid Next Door, solemnly. “Back home they always called me Gus. You peel that orange while I unroll the top of this sardine can. I’m guilty of having interrupted you in the middle of what the girls call a good cry, and I know you’ll have to get it out of your system some way. Take a bite of apple and then wade right in and tell me what you’re doing in this burg if you don’t like it.”
“This thing ought to have slow music,” began Gertie. “It’s pathetic. I came to Chicago from Beloit, Wisconsin, because I thought that little town was a lonesome hole for a vivacious creature like me. Lonesome! Listen while I laugh a low mirthless laugh. I didn’t know anything about the three-ply, double-barreled, extra heavy brand of lonesomeness that a big town like this can deal out. Talk about your desert wastes! They’re sociable and snug compared to this. I know three-fourths of the people in Beloit, Wisconsin, by their first names. I’ve lived here six months and I’m not on informal terms with anybody except Teddy, the landlady’s dog, and he’s a trained rat-and-book-agent terrier, and not inclined to overfriendliness. When I clerked at the Enterprise Store in Beloit the women used to come in and ask for something we didn’t carry just for an excuse to copy the way the lace yoke effects were planned in my shirtwaists. You ought to see the way those same shirtwaist stack up here. Why, boy, the lingerie waists that the other girls in my department wear make my best hand-tucked effort look like a simple English country blouse. They’re so dripping with Irish crochet and real Val and Cluny insertions that it’s a wonder the girls don’t get stoop-shouldered carrying ’em around.”
“Hold on a minute,” commanded Gus. “This thing is uncanny. Our cases dovetail like the deductions in a detective story. Kneel here at my feet, little daughter, and I’ll tell you the story of my sad young life. I’m no child of the city streets, either. Say, I came to this town because I thought there was a bigger field for me in Gents’ Furnishings. Joke, what?”
But Gertie didn’t smile. She gazed up at Gus, and Gus gazed down at her, and his fingers fiddled absently with the big bow at the end of her braid.
“And isn’t there?” asked Gertie, sympathetically.
“Girlie, I haven’t saved twelve dollars since I came. I’m no tightwad, and I don’t believe in packing everything away into a white marble mausoleum, but still a gink kind of whispers to himself that some day he’ll be furnishing up a kitchen pantry of his own.”
“Oh!” said Gertie.
“And let me mention in passing,” continued Gus, winding the ribbon bow around his finger, “that in the last hour or so that whisper has been swelling to a shout.”
“Oh!” said Gertie again.
“You said it. But I couldn’t buy a secondhand gas stove with what I’ve saved in the last half-year here. Back home they used to think I was a regular little village John Drew, I was so dressy. But here I look like a yokel on circus day compared to the other fellows in the store. All they need is a field glass strung over their shoulder to make them look like a clothing ad in the back of a popular magazine. Say, girlie, you’ve got the prettiest hair I’ve seen since I blew in here. Look at that braid! Thick as a rope! That’s no relation to the piles of jute that the Flossies here stack on their heads. And shines! Like satin.”
“It ought to,” said Gertrude, wearily. “I brush it a hundred strokes every night. Sometimes I’m so beat that I fall asleep with my brush in the air. The manager won’t stand for any romping curls or hooks-and-eyes that don’t connect. It keeps me so busy being beautiful, and what the society writers call `well groomed,’ that I don’t have time to sew the buttons on my underclothes.”
“But don’t you get some amusement in the evening?” marveled Gus. “What was the matter with you and the other girls in the store? Can’t you hit it off?”
“Me? No. I guess I was too woodsy for them. I went out with them a couple of times. I guess they’re nice girls all right; but they’ve got what you call a broader way of looking at things than I have. Living in a little town all your life makes you narrow. These girls!–Well, maybe I’ll get educated up to their plane some day, but—-“
“No, you don’t!” hissed Gus. “Not if I can help it.”
“But you can’t,” replied Gertie, sweetly. “My, ain’t this a grand night! Evenings like this I used to love to putter around the yard after supper, sprinkling the grass and weeding the radishes. I’m the greatest kid to fool around with a hose. And flowers! Say, they just grow for me. You ought to have seen my pansies and nasturtiums last summer.”
The fingers of the Kid Next Door wandered until they found Gertie’s. They clasped them.
“This thing just points one way, little one. It’s just as plain as a path leading up to a cozy little three-room flat up here on the North Side somewhere. See it? With me and you married, and playing at housekeeping in a parlor and bedroom and kitchen? And both of us going down town to work in the morning just the same as we do now. Only not the same, either.”
“Wake up, little boy,” said Gertie, prying her fingers away from those other detaining ones. “I’d fit into a three-room flat like a whale in a kitchen sink. I’m going back to Beloit, Wisconsin. I’ve learned my lesson all right. There’s a fellow there waiting for me. I used to think he was too slow. But say, he’s got the nicest little painting and paper-hanging business you ever saw, and making money. He’s secretary of the K. P.’s back home. They give some swell little dances during the winter, especially for the married members. In five years we’ll own our home, with a vegetable garden in the back. I’m a little frog, and it’s me for the puddle.”
Gus stood up slowly. Gertie felt a little pang of compunction when she saw what a boy he was.
“I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a talk like this. I’ve heard about these dawn teas, but I never thought I’d go to one,” she said.
“Good-night, girlie,” interrupted Gus, abruptly. “It’s the dreamless couch for mine. We’ve got a big sale on in tan and black seconds to-morrow.”
THE MAN WHO CAME BACK
There are two ways of doing battle against Disgrace. You may live it down; or you may run away from it and hide. The first method is heart-breaking, but sure. The second cannot be relied upon because of the uncomfortable way Disgrace has of turning up at your heels just when you think you have eluded her in the last town but one.
Ted Terrill did not choose the first method. He had it thrust upon him. After Ted had served his term he came back home to visit his mother’s grave, intending to take the next train out. He wore none of the prison pallor that you read about in books, because he had been shortstop on the penitentiary all-star baseball team, and famed for the dexterity with which he could grab up red-hot grounders. The storied lock step and the clipped hair effect also were missing. The superintendent of Ted’s prison had been one of the reform kind.
You never would have picked Ted for a criminal. He had none of those interesting phrenological bumps and depressions that usually are shown to such frank advantage in the Bertillon photographs. Ted had been assistant cashier in the Citizens’ National Bank. In a mad moment he had attempted a little sleight-of-hand act in which certain Citizens’ National funds were to be transformed into certain glittering shares and back again so quickly that the examiners couldn’t follow it with their eyes. But Ted was unaccustomed to these now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t feats and his hand slipped. The trick dropped to the floor with an awful clatter.
Ted had been a lovable young kid, six feet high, and blonde, with a great reputation as a dresser. He had the first yellow plush hat in our town. It sat on his golden head like a halo. The women all liked Ted. Mrs. Dankworth, the dashing widow (why will widows persist in being dashing?), said that he was the only man in our town who knew how to wear a dress suit. The men were forever slapping him on the back and asking him to have a little something.
Ted’s good looks and his clever tongue and a certain charming Irish way he had with him caused him to be taken up by the smart set. Now, if you’ve never lived in a small town you will be much amused at the idea of its boasting a smart set. Which proves your ignorance. The small town smart set is deadly serious about its smartness. It likes to take six-hour runs down to the city to fit a pair of shoes and hear Caruso. Its clothes are as well made, and its scandals as crisp, and its pace as hasty, and its golf club as dull as the clothes, and scandals, and pace, and golf club of its city cousins.
The hasty pace killed Ted. He tried to keep step in a set of young folks whose fathers had made our town. And all the time his pocketbook was yelling, “Whoa!” The young people ran largely to scarlet-upholstered touring cars, and country-club doings, and house parties, as small town younger generations are apt to. When Ted went to high school half the boys in his little clique spent their after-school hours dashing up and down Main street in their big, glittering cars, sitting slumped down on the middle of their spines in front of the steering wheel, their sleeves rolled up, their hair combed a militant pompadour. One or the other of them always took Ted along. It is fearfully easy to develop a taste for that kind of thing. As he grew older, the taste took root and became a habit.
Ted came out after serving his term, still handsome, spite of all that story-writers may have taught to the contrary. But we’ll make this concession to the old tradition. There was a difference.
His radiant blondeur was dimmed in some intangible, elusive way. Birdie Callahan, who had worked in Ted’s mother’s kitchen for years, and who had gone back to her old job at the Haley House after her mistress’s death, put it sadly, thus:
“He was always th’ han’some divil. I used to look forward to ironin’ day just for the pleasure of pressin’ his fancy shirts for him. I’m that partial to them swell blondes. But I dinnaw, he’s changed. Doin’ time has taken the edge off his hair an’ complexion. Not changed his color, do yuh mind, but dulled it, like a gold ring, or the like, that has tarnished.”
Ted was seated in the smoker, with a chip on his shoulder, and a sick horror of encountering some one he knew in his heart, when Jo Haley, of the Haley House, got on at Westport, homeward bound. Jo Haley is the most eligible bachelor in our town, and the slipperiest. He has made the Haley House a gem, so that traveling men will cut half a dozen towns to Sunday there. If he should say “Jump through this!” to any girl in our town she’d jump.
Jo Haley strolled leisurely up the car aisle toward Ted. Ted saw him coming and sat very still, waiting.
“Hello, Ted! How’s Ted?” said Jo Haley, casually. And dropped into the adjoining seat without any more fuss.
Ted wet his lips slightly and tried to say something. He had been a breezy talker. But the words would not come. Jo Haley made no effort to cover the situation with a rush of conversation. He did not seem to realize that there was any situation to cover. He champed the end of his cigar and handed one to Ted.
“Well, you’ve taken your lickin’, kid. What you going to do now?”
The rawness of it made Ted wince. “Oh, I don’t know,” he stammered. “I’ve a job half promised in Chicago.”
Ted laughed a short and ugly laugh. “Driving a brewery auto truck.”
Jo Haley tossed his cigar dexterously to the opposite corner of his mouth and squinted thoughtfully along its bulging sides.
“Remember that Wenzel girl that’s kept books for me for the last six years? She’s leaving in a couple of months to marry a New York guy that travels for ladies’ cloaks and suits. After she goes it’s nix with the lady bookkeepers for me. Not that Minnie isn’t a good, straight girl, and honest, but no girl can keep books with one eye on a column of figures and the other on a traveling man in a brown suit and a red necktie, unless she’s cross-eyed, and you bet Minnie ain’t. The job’s yours if you want it. Eighty a month to start on, and board.”
“I–can’t, Jo. Thanks just the same. I’m going to try to begin all over again, somewhere else, where nobody knows me.”
“Oh yes,” said Jo. “I knew a fellow that did that. After he came out he grew a beard, and wore eyeglasses, and changed his name. Had a quick, crisp way of talkin’, and he cultivated a drawl and went west and started in business. Real estate, I think. Anyway, the second month he was there in walks a fool he used to know and bellows: `Why if it ain’t Bill! Hello, Bill! I thought you was doing time yet.’ That was enough. Ted, you can black your face, and dye your hair, and squint, and some fine day, sooner or later, somebody’ll come along and blab the whole thing. And say, the older it gets the worse it sounds, when it does come out. Stick around here where you grew up, Ted.”
Ted clasped and unclasped his hands uncomfortably. “I can’t figure out why you should care how I finish.”
“No reason,” answered Jo. “Not a darned one. I wasn’t ever in love with your ma, like the guy on the stage; and I never owed your pa a cent. So it ain’t a guilty conscience. I guess it’s just pure cussedness, and a hankerin’ for a new investment. I’m curious to know how’ll you turn out. You’ve got the makin’s of what the newspapers call a Leading Citizen, even if you did fall down once. If I’d ever had time to get married, which I never will have, a first-class hotel bein’ more worry and expense than a Pittsburg steel magnate’s whole harem, I’d have wanted somebody to do the same for my kid. That sounds slushy, but it’s straight.”
“I don’t seem to know how to thank you,” began Ted, a little husky as to voice.
“Call around to-morrow morning,” interrupted Jo Haley., briskly, “and Minnie Wenzel will show you the ropes. You and her can work together for a couple of months. After then she’s leaving to make her underwear, and that. I should think she’d have a bale of it by this time. Been embroidering them shimmy things and lunch cloths back of the desk when she thought I wasn’t lookin’ for the last six months.”
Ted came down next morning at 8 A.M. with his nerve between his teeth and the chip still balanced lightly on his shoulder. Five minutes later Minnie Wenzel knocked it off. When Jo Haley introduced the two jocularly, knowing that they had originally met in the First Reader room, Miss Wenzel acknowledged the introduction icily by lifting her left eyebrow slightly and drawing down the corners of her mouth. Her air of hauteur was a triumph, considering that she was handicapped by black sateen sleevelets.
I wonder how one could best describe Miss Wenzel? There is one of her in every small town. Let me think (business of hand on brow). Well, she always paid eight dollars for her corsets when most girls in a similar position got theirs for fifty-nine cents in the basement. Nature had been kind to her. The hair that had been a muddy brown in Minnie’s schoolgirl days it had touched with a magic red-gold wand. Birdie Callahan always said that Minnie was working only to wear out her old clothes.
After the introduction Miss Wenzel followed Jo Haley into the lobby. She took no pains to lower her voice.
“Well I must say, Mr. Haley, you’ve got a fine nerve! If my gentleman friend was to hear of my working with an ex-con I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d break off the engagement. I should think you’d have some respect for the feelings of a lady with a name to keep up, and engaged to a swell fellow like Mr. Schwartz.”
“Say, listen, m’ girl,” replied Jo Haley. “The law don’t cover all the tricks. But if stuffing an order was a criminal offense I’ll bet your swell traveling man would be doing a life term.”
Ted worked that day with his teeth set so that his jaws ached next morning. Minnie Wenzel spoke to him only when necessary and then in terms of dollars and cents. When dinner time came she divested herself of the black sateen sleevelets, wriggled from the shoulders down a la Patricia O’Brien, produced a chamois skin, and disappeared in the direction of the washroom. Ted waited until the dining-room was almost deserted. Then he went in to dinner alone. Some one in white wearing an absurd little pocket handkerchief of an apron led him to a seat in a far corner of the big room. Ted did not lift his eyes higher than the snowy square of the apron. The Apron drew out a chair, shoved it under Ted’s knees in the way Aprons have, and thrust a printed menu at him.
“Roast beef, medium,” said Ted, without looking up.
“Bless your heart, yuh ain’t changed a bit. I remember how yuh used to jaw when it was too well done,” said the Apron, fondly.
Ted’s head came up with a jerk.
“So yuh will cut yer old friends, is it?” grinned Birdie Callahan. “If this wasn’t a public dining-room maybe yuh’d shake hands with a poor but proud workin’ girrul. Yer as good lookin’ a divil as ever, Mister Ted.”
Ted’s hand shot out and grasped hers. “Birdie! I could weep on your apron! I never was so glad to see any one in my life. Just to look at you makes me homesick. What in Sam Hill are you doing here?”
“Waitin’. After yer ma died, seemed like I didn’t care t’ work fer no other privit fam’ly, so I came back here on my old job. I’ll bet I’m the homeliest head waitress in captivity.”
Ted’s nervous fingers were pleating the tablecloth. His voice sank to a whisper. “Birdie, tell me the God’s truth. Did those three years cause her death?”
“Niver!” lied Birdie. “I was with her to the end. It started with a cold on th’ chest. Have some French fried with yer beef, Mr. Teddy. They’re illigent to-day.”
Birdie glided off to the kitchen. Authors are fond of the word “glide.” But you can take it literally this time. Birdie had a face that looked like a huge mistake, but she walked like a panther, and they’re said to be the last cry as gliders. She walked with her chin up and her hips firm. That comes from juggling trays. You have to walk like that to keep your nose out of the soup. After a while the walk becomes a habit. Any seasoned dining-room girl could give lessons in walking to the Delsarte teacher of an Eastern finishing school.
From the day that Birdie Callahan served Ted with the roast beef medium and the elegant French fried, she appointed herself monitor over his food and clothes and morals. I wish I could find words to describe his bitter loneliness. He did not seek companionship. The men, although not directly avoiding him, seemed somehow to have pressing business whenever they happened in his vicinity. The women ignored him. Mrs. Dankworth, still dashing and still widowed, passed Ted one day and looked fixedly at a point one inch above his head. In a town like ours the Haley House is like a big, hospitable clubhouse. The men drop in there the first thing in the morning, and the last thing at night, to hear the gossip and buy a cigar and jolly the girl at the cigar counter. Ted spoke to them when they spoke to him. He began to develop a certain grim line about the mouth. Jo Haley watched him from afar, and the longer he watched the kinder and more speculative grew the look in his eyes. And slowly and surely there grew in the hearts of our townspeople a certain new respect and admiration for this boy who was fighting his fight.
Ted got into the habit of taking his meals late, so that Birdie Callahan could take the time to talk to him.
“Birdie,” he said one day, when she brought his soup, “do you know that you’re the only decent woman who’ll talk to me? Do you know what I mean when I say that I’d give the rest of my life if I could just put my head in my mother’s lap and have her muss up my hair and call me foolish names?”
Birdie Callahan cleared her throat and said abruptly: “I was noticin’ yesterday your gray pants needs pressin’ bad. Bring ’em down tomorrow mornin’ and I’ll give ’em th’ elegant crease in the laundry.”
So the first weeks went by, and the two months of Miss Wenzel’s stay came to an end. Ted thanked his God and tried hard not to wish that she was a man so that he could punch her head.
The day before the time appointed for her departure she was closeted with Jo Haley for a long, long time. When finally she emerged a bellboy lounged up to Ted with a message.
“Wenzel says th’ Old Man wants t’ see you. ‘S in his office. Say, Mr. Terrill, do yuh think they can play to-day? It’s pretty wet.”
Jo Haley was sunk in the depths of his big leather chair. He did not look up as Ted entered. “Sit down,” he said. Ted sat down and waited, puzzled.
“As a wizard at figures,” mused Jo Haley at last, softly as though to himself, “I’m a frost. A column of figures on paper makes my head swim. But I can carry a whole regiment of ’em in my head. I know every time the barkeeper draws one in the dark. I’ve been watchin’ this thing for the last two weeks hopin’ you’d quit and come and tell me.” He turned suddenly and faced Ted. “Ted, old kid,” he said sadly, “what’n’ell made you do it again?”
“What’s the joke?” asked Ted.
“Now, Ted,” remonstrated Jo Haley, “that way of talkin’ won’t help matters none. As I said, I’m rotten at figures. But you’re the first investment that ever turned out bad, and let me tell you I’ve handled some mighty bad smelling ones. Why, kid, if you had just come to me on the quiet and asked for the loan of a hundred or so why—-“
“What’s the joke, Jo?” said Ted again, slowly.
“This ain’t my notion of a joke,” came the terse answer. “We’re three hundred short.”
The last vestige of Ted Terrill’s old-time radiance seemed to flicker and die, leaving him ashen and old.
“Short?” he repeated. Then, “My God!” in a strangely colorless voice–“My God!” He looked down at his fingers impersonally, as though they belonged to some one else. Then his hand clutched Jo Haley’s arm with the grip of fear. “Jo! Jo! That’s the thing that has haunted me day and night, till my nerves are raw. The fear of doing it again. Don’t laugh at me, will you? I used to lie awake nights going over that cursed business of the bank–over and over–till the cold sweat would break out all over me. I used to figure it all out again, step by step, until–Jo, could a man steal and not know it? Could thinking of a thing like that drive a man crazy? Because if it could–if it could–then—-“
“I don’t know,” said Jo Haley, “but it sounds darned fishy.” He had a hand on Ted’s shaking shoulder, and was looking into the white, drawn face. “I had great plans for you, Ted. But Minnie Wenzel’s got it all down on slips of paper. I might as well call her, in again, and we’ll have the whole blamed thing out.”
Minnie Wenzel came. In her hand were slips of paper, and books with figures in them, and Ted looked and saw things written in his own hand that should not have been there. And he covered his shamed face with his two hands and gave thanks that his mother was dead.
There came three sharp raps at the office door. The tense figures within jumped nervously.
“Keep out!” called Jo Haley, “whoever you are.” Whereupon the door opened and Birdie Callahan breezed in.
“Get out, Birdie Callahan,” roared Jo. “You’re in the wrong pew.”
Birdie closed the door behind her composedly and came farther into the room. “Pete th’ pasthry cook just tells me that Minnie Wenzel told th’ day clerk, who told the barkeep, who told th’ janitor, who told th’ chef, who told Pete, that Minnie had caught Ted stealin’ some three hundred dollars.”
Ted took a quick step forward. “Birdie, for Heaven’s sake keep out of this. You can’t make things any better. You may believe in me, but—-“
“Where’s the money?” asked Birdie.
Ted stared at her a moment, his mouth open ludicrously.
“Why–I–don’t–know,” he articulated, painfully. “I never thought of that.”
Birdie snorted defiantly. “I thought so. D’ye know,” sociably, “I was visitin’ with my aunt Mis’ Mulcahy last evenin’.”
There was a quick rustle of silks from Minnie Wenzel’s direction.
“Say, look here—-” began Jo Haley, impatiently.
“Shut up, Jo Haley!” snapped Birdie. “As I was sayin’, I was visitin’ with my aunt Mis’ Mulcahy. She does fancy washin’ an’ ironin’ for the swells. An’ Minnie Wenzel, there bein’ none sweller, hires her to do up her weddin’ linens. Such smears av hand embridery an’ Irish crochet she never see th’ likes, Mis’ Mulcahy says, and she’s seen a lot. And as a special treat to the poor owld soul, why Minnie Wenzel lets her see some av her weddin’ clo’es. There never yet was a woman who cud resist showin’ her weddin’ things to every other woman she cud lay hands on. Well, Mis’ Mulcahy, she see that grand trewsow and she said she never saw th’ beat. Dresses! Well, her going away suit alone comes to eighty dollars, for it’s bein’ made by Molkowsky, the little Polish tailor. An’ her weddin’ dress is satin, do yuh mind! Oh, it was a real treat for my aunt Mis’ Mulcahy.”
Birdie walked over to where Minnie Wenzel sat, very white and still, and pointed a stubby red finger in her face. “‘Tis the grand manager ye are, Miss Wenzel, gettin’ satins an’ tailor-mades on yer salary. It takes a woman, Minnie Wenzel, to see through a woman’s thricks.”
“Well I’ll be dinged!” exploded Jo Haley.
“Yuh’d better be!” retorted Birdie Callahan.
Minnie Wenzel stood up, her lip caught between her teeth.
“Am I to understand, Jo Haley, that you dare to accuse me of taking your filthy money, instead of that miserable ex-con there who has done time?”
“That’ll do, Minnie,” said Jo Haley, gently. “That’s a-plenty.”
“Prove it,” went on Minnie, and then looked as though she wished she hadn’t.
“A business college edjication is a grand foine thing,” observed Birdie. “Miss Wenzel is a graduate av wan. They teach you everything from drawin’ birds with tail feathers to plain and fancy penmanship. In fact, they teach everything in the writin’ line except forgery, an’ I ain’t so sure they haven’t got a coorse in that.”
“I don’t care,” whimpered Minnie Wenzel suddenly, sinking in a limp heap on the floor. “I had to do it. I’m marrying a swell fellow and a girl’s got to have some clothes that don’t look like a Bird Center dressmaker’s work. He’s got three sisters. I saw their pictures and they’re coming to the wedding. They’re the kind that wear low-necked dresses in the evening, and have their hair and nails done downtown. I haven’t got a thing but my looks. Could I go to New York dressed like a rube? On the square, Jo, I worked here six years and never took a sou. But things got away from me. The tailor wouldn’t finish my suit unless I paid him fifty dollars down. I only took fifty at first, intending to pay it back. Honest to goodness, Jo, I did.”
“Cut it out,” said Jo Haley, “and get up. I was going to give you a check for your wedding, though I hadn’t counted on no three hundred. We’ll call it square. And I hope you’ll be happy, but I don’t gamble on it. You’ll be goin’ through your man’s pants pockets before you’re married a year. You can take your hat and fade. I’d like to know how I’m ever going to square this thing with Ted and Birdie.”
“An’ me standin’ here gassin’ while them fool girls in the dinin’-room can’t set a table decent, and dinner in less than ten minutes,” cried Birdie, rushing off. Ted mumbled something unintelligible and was after her.
“Birdie! I want to talk to you.”
“Say it quick then,” said Birdie, over her shoulder. “The doors open in three minnits.”
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am. This is no place to talk to you. Will you let me walk home with you to-night after your work’s done?”
“Will I?” said Birdie, turning to face him. “I will not. Th’ swell mob has shook you, an’ a good thing it is. You was travelin’ with a bunch of racers, when you was only built for medium speed. Now you’re got your chance to a fresh start and don’t you ever think I’m going to be the one to let you spoil it by beginnin’ to walk out with a dinin’-room Lizzie like me.”
“Don’t say that, Birdie,” Ted put in.
“It’s the truth,” affirmed Birdie. “Not that I ain’t a perfec’ly respectable girrul, and ye know it. I’m a good slob, but folks would be tickled for the chance to say that you had nobody to go with but the likes av me. If I was to let you walk home with me to-night, yuh might be askin’ to call next week. Inside half a year, if yuh was lonesome enough, yuh’d ask me to marry yuh. And b’gorra,” she said softly, looking down at her unlovely red hands, “I’m dead scared I’d do it. Get back to work, Ted Terrill, and hold yer head up high, and when yuh say your prayers to-night, thank your lucky stars I ain’t a hussy.”
WHAT SHE WORE
Somewhere in your story you must pause to describe your heroine’s costume. It is a ticklish task. The average reader likes his heroine well dressed. He is not satisfied with knowing that she looked like a tall, fair lily. He wants to be told that her gown was of green crepe, with lace ruffles that swirled at her feet. Writers used to go so far as to name the dressmaker; and it was a poor kind of a heroine who didn’t wear a red velvet by Worth. But that has been largely abandoned in these days of commissions. Still, when the heroine goes out on the terrace to spoon after dinner (a quaint old English custom for the origin of which see any novel by the “Duchess,” page 179) the average reader wants to know what sort of a filmy wrap she snatches up on the way out. He demands a description, with as many illustrations as the publisher will stand for, of what she wore from the bedroom to the street, with full stops for the ribbons on her robe de nuit, and the buckles on her ballroom slippers. Half the poor creatures one sees flattening their noses against the shop windows are authors getting a line on the advance fashions. Suppose a careless writer were to dress his heroine in a full-plaited skirt only to find, when his story is published four months later, that full-plaited skirts have been relegated to the dim past!
I started to read a story once. It was a good one. There was in it not a single allusion to brandy-and-soda, or divorce, or the stock market. The dialogue crackled. The hero talked like a live man. It was a shipboard story, and the heroine was charming so long as she wore her heavy ulster. But along toward evening she blossomed forth in a yellow gown, with a scarlet poinsettia at her throat. I quit her cold. Nobody ever wore a scarlet poinsettia; or if they did, they couldn’t wear it on a yellow gown. Or if they did wear it with a yellow gown, they didn’t wear it at the throat. Scarlet poinsettias aren’t worn, anyhow. To this day I don’t know whether the heroine married the hero or jumped overboard.
You see, one can’t be too careful about clothing one’s heroine.
I hesitate to describe Sophy Epstein’s dress. You won’t like it. In the first place, it was cut too low, front and back, for a shoe clerk in a downtown loft. It was a black dress, near-princess in style, very tight as to fit, very short as to skirt, very sleazy as to material. It showed all the delicate curves of Sophy’s under-fed, girlish body, and Sophy didn’t care a bit. Its most objectionable feature was at the throat. Collarless gowns were in vogue. Sophy’s daring shears had gone a snip or two farther. They had cut a startlingly generous V. To say that the dress was elbow-sleeved is superfluous. I have said that Sophy clerked in a downtown loft.
Sophy sold “sample” shoes at two-fifty a pair, and from where you were standing you thought they looked just like the shoes that were sold in the regular shops for six. When Sophy sat on one of the low benches at the feet of some customer, tugging away at a refractory shoe for a would-be small foot, her shameless little gown exposed more than it should have. But few of Sophy’s customers were shocked. They were mainly chorus girls and ladies of doubtful complexion in search of cheap and ultra footgear, and–to use a health term–hardened by exposure.
Have I told you how pretty she was? She was so pretty that you immediately forgave her the indecency of her pitiful little gown. She was pretty in a daringly demure fashion, like a wicked little Puritan, or a poverty-stricken Cleo de Merode, with her smooth brown hair parted in the middle, drawn severely down over her ears, framing the lovely oval of her face and ending in a simple coil at the neck. Some serpent’s wisdom had told Sophy to eschew puffs. But I think her prettiness could have triumphed even over those.
If Sophy’s boss had been any other sort of man he would have informed Sophy, sternly, that black princess effects, cut low, were not au fait in the shoe-clerk world. But Sophy’s boss had a rhombic nose, and no instep, and the tail of his name had been amputated. He didn’t care how Sophy wore her dresses so long as she sold shoes.
Once the boss had kissed Sophy–not on the mouth, but just where her shabby gown formed its charming but immodest V. Sophy had slapped him, of course. But the slap had not set the thing right in her mind. She could not forget it. It had made her uncomfortable in much the same way as we are wildly ill at ease when we dream of walking naked in a crowded street. At odd moments during the day Sophy had found herself rubbing the spot furiously with her unlovely handkerchief, and shivering a little. She had never told the other girls about that kiss.
So–there you have Sophy and her costume. You may take her or leave her. I purposely placed these defects in costuming right at the beginning of the story, so that there should be no false pretenses. One more detail. About Sophy’s throat was a slender, near-gold chain from which was suspended a cheap and glittering La Valliere. Sophy had not intended it as a sop to the conventions. It was an offering on the shrine of Fashion, and represented many lunchless days.
At eleven o’clock one August morning, Louie came to Chicago from Oskaloosa, Iowa. There was no hay in his hair. The comic papers have long insisted that the country boy, on his first visit to the city, is known by his greased boots and his high-water pants. Don’t you believe them. The small-town boy is as fastidious about the height of his heels and the stripe of his shift and the roll of his hat-brim as are his city brothers. He peruses the slangily worded ads of the “classy clothes” tailors, and when scarlet cravats are worn the small-town boy is not more than two weeks late in acquiring one that glows like a headlight.
Louie found a rooming-house, shoved his suitcase under the bed, changed his collar, washed his hands in the gritty water of the wash bowl, and started out to look for a job.
Louie was twenty-one. For the last four years he had been employed in the best shoe store at home, and he knew shoe leather from the factory to the ash barrel. It was almost a religion with him.
Curiosity, which plays leads in so many life dramas, led Louie to the rotunda of the tallest building. It was built on the hollow center plan, with a sheer drop from the twenty-somethingth to the main floor. Louie stationed himself in the center of the mosaic floor, took off his hat, bent backward almost double and gazed, his mouth wide open. When he brought his muscles slowly back into normal position he tried hard not to look impressed. He glanced about, sheepishly, to see if any one was laughing at him, and his eye encountered the electric-lighted glass display case of the shoe company upstairs. The case was filled with pink satin slippers and cunning velvet boots, and the newest thing in bronze street shoes. Louie took the next elevator up. The shoe display had made him feel as though some one from home had slapped him on the back.
The God of the Jobless was with him. The boss had fired two boys the day before.
“Oskaloosa!” grinned the boss, derisively. “Do they wear shoes there? What do you know about shoes, huh boy?”
Louie told him. The boss shuffled the papers on his desk, and chewed his cigar, and tried not to show his surprise. Louie, quite innocently, was teaching the boss things about the shoe business.
When Louie had finished–“Well, I try you, anyhow,” the boss grunted, grudgingly. “I give you so-and-so much.” He named a wage that would have been ridiculous if it had not been so pathetic.
“All right, sir,” answered Louie, promptly, like the boys in the Alger series. The cost of living problem had never bothered Louie in Oskaloosa.
The boss hid a pleased smile.
“Miss Epstein!” he bellowed, “step this way! Miss Epstein, kindly show this here young man so he gets a line on the stock. He is from Oskaloosa, Ioway. Look out she don’t sell you a gold brick, Louie.”
But Louie was not listening. He was gazing at the V in Sophy Epstein’s dress with all his scandalized Oskaloosa, Iowa, eyes.
Louie was no mollycoddle. But he had been in great demand as usher at the Young Men’s Sunday Evening Club service at the Congregational church, and in his town there had been no Sophy Epsteins in too-tight princess dresses, cut into a careless V. But Sophy was a city product–I was about to say pure and simple, but I will not–wise, bold, young, old, underfed, overworked, and triumphantly pretty.
“How-do!” cooed Sophy in her best baby tones. Louie’s disapproving eyes jumped from the objectionable V in Sophy’s dress to the lure of Sophy’s face, and their expression underwent a lightning change. There was no disapproving Sophy’s face, no matter how long one had dwelt in Oskaloosa.
“I won’t bite you,” said Sophy. “I’m never vicious on Tuesdays. We’ll start here with the misses’ an’ children’s, and work over to the other side.”
Whereupon Louie was introduced into the intricacies of the sample shoe business. He kept his eyes resolutely away from the V, and learned many things. He learned how shoes that look like six dollar values may be sold for two-fifty. He looked on in wide-eyed horror while Sophy fitted a No. 5 C shoe on a 6 B foot and assured the wearer that it looked like a made-to-order boot. He picked up a pair of dull kid shoes and looked at them. His leather-wise eyes saw much, and I think he would have taken his hat off the hook, and his offended business principles out of the shop forever if Sophy had not completed her purchase and strolled over to him at the psychological moment.
She smiled up at him, impudently. “Well, Pink Cheeks,” she said, “how do you like our little settlement by the lake, huh?”
“These shoes aren’t worth two-fifty,” said Louie, indignation in his voice.
“Well, sure,” replied Sophy. “I know it. What do you think this is? A charity bazaar?”
“But back home—-” began Louie, hotly.
“Ferget it, kid,” said Sophy. “This is a big town, but it ain’t got no room for back-homers. Don’t sour on one job till you’ve got another nailed. You’ll find yourself cuddling down on a park bench if you do. Say, are you honestly from Oskaloosa?”
“I certainly am,” answered Louie, with pride.
“My goodness!” ejaculated Sophy. “I never believed there was no such place. Don’t brag about it to the other fellows.”
“What time do you go out for lunch?” asked Louie.
“What’s it to you?” with the accent on the “to.”
“When I want to know a thing, I generally ask,” explained Louie, gently.
Sophy looked at him–a long, keen, knowing look. “You’ll learn,” she observed, thoughtfully.
Louie did learn. He learned so much in that first week that when Sunday came it seemed as though aeons had passed over his head. He learned that the crime of murder was as nothing compared to the crime of allowing a customer to depart shoeless; he learned that the lunch hour was invented for the purpose of making dates; that no one had ever heard of Oskaloosa, Iowa; that seven dollars a week does not leave much margin for laundry and general reck- lessness; that a madonna face above a V-cut gown is apt to distract one’s attention from shoes; that a hundred-dollar nest egg is as effective in Chicago as a pine stick would be in propping up a stone wall; and that all the other men clerks called Sophy “sweetheart.”
Some of his newly acquired knowledge brought pain, as knowledge is apt to do.
He saw that State Street was crowded with Sophys during the noon hour; girls with lovely faces under pitifully absurd hats. Girls who aped the fashions of the dazzling creatures they saw stepping from limousines. Girls who starved body and soul in order to possess a set of false curls, or a pair of black satin shoes with mother-o’-pearl buttons. Girls whose minds were bounded on the north by the nickel theatres; on the east by “I sez to him”; on the south by the gorgeous shop windows; and on the west by “He sez t’ me.”
Oh, I can’t tell you how much Louie learned in that first week while his eyes were getting accustomed to the shifting, jostling, pushing, giggling, walking, talking throng. The city is justly famed as a hot house of forced knowledge.
One thing Louie could not learn. He could not bring himself to accept the V in Sophy’s dress. Louie’s mother had been one of the old-fashioned kind who wore a blue-and-white checked gingham apron from 6 A.M. to 2 P.M., when she took it off to go downtown and help the ladies of the church at the cake sale in the empty window of the gas company’s office, only to don it again when she fried the potatoes for supper. Among other things she had taught Louie to wipe his feet before coming in, to respect and help women, and to change his socks often.
After a month of Chicago Louie forgot the first lesson; had more difficulty than I can tell you in reverencing a woman who only said, “Aw, don’t get fresh now!” when the other men put their arms about her; and adhered to the third only after a struggle, in which he had to do a small private washing in his own wash-bowl in the evening.
Sophy called him a stiff. His gravely courteous treatment of her made her vaguely uncomfortable. She was past mistress in the art of parrying insults and banter, but she had no reply ready for Louie’s boyish air of deference. It angered her for some unreasonable woman-reason.
There came a day when the V-cut dress brought them to open battle. I think Sophy had appeared that morning minus the chain and La Valliere. Frail and cheap as it was, it had been the only barrier that separated Sophy from frank shamelessness. Louie’s outraged sense of propriety asserted itself.
“Sophy,” he stammered, during a quiet half-hour, “I’ll call for you and take you to the nickel show to-night if you’ll promise not to wear that dress. What makes you wear that kind of a get-up, anyway?”
“Dress?” queried Sophy, looking down at the shiny front breadth of her frock. “Why? Don’t you like it?”
“Like it! No!” blurted Louie.
“Don’t yuh, rully! Deah me! Deah me! If I’d only knew that this morning. As a gen’ral thing I wear white duck complete down t’ work, but I’m savin’ my last two clean suits f’r gawlf.”
Louie ran an uncomfortable finger around the edge of his collar, but he stood his ground. “It–it–shows your–neck so,” he objected, miserably.
Sophy opened her great eyes wide. “Well, supposin’ it does?” she inquired, coolly. “It’s a perfectly good neck, ain’t it?”
Louie, his face very red, took the plunge. “I don’t know. I guess so. But, Sophy, it–looks so–so–you know what I mean. I hate to see the way the fellows rubber at you. Why don’t you wear those plain shirtwaist things, with high collars, like my mother wears back home?”
Sophy’s teeth came together with a click. She laughed a short cruel little laugh. “Say, Pink Cheeks, did yuh ever do a washin’ from seven to twelve, after you got home from work in the evenin’? It’s great! ‘Specially when you’re living in a six-by-ten room with all the modern inconveniences, includin’ no water except on the third floor down. Simple! Say, a child could work it. All you got to do, when you get home so tired your back teeth ache, is to haul your water, an’ soak your clothes, an’ then rub ’em till your hands peel, and rinse ’em, an’ boil ’em, and blue ’em, an’ starch ’em. See? Just like that. Nothin’ to it, kid. Nothin’ to it.”
Louie had been twisting his fingers nervously. Now his hands shut themselves into fists. He looked straight into Sophy’s angry eyes.
“I do know what it is,” he said, quite simply. “There’s been a lot written and said about women’s struggle with clothes. I wonder why they’ve never said anything about the way a man has to fight to keep up the thing they call appearances. God knows it’s pathetic enough to think of a girl like you bending over a tubful of clothes. But when a man has to do it, it’s a tragedy.”
“That’s so,” agreed Sophy. “When a girl gets shabby, and her clothes begin t’ look tacky she can take a gore or so out of her skirt where it’s the most wore, and catch it in at the bottom, and call it a hobble. An’ when her waist gets too soiled she can cover up the front of it with a jabot, an’ if her face is pretty enough she can carry it off that way. But when a man is seedy, he’s seedy. He can’t sew no ruffles on his pants.”
“I ran short last week, continued Louie. “That is, shorter than usual. I hadn’t the fifty cents to give to the woman. You ought to see her! A little, gray-faced thing, with wisps of hair, and no chest to speak of, and one of those mashed-looking black hats. Nobody could have the nerve to ask her to wait for her money. So I did my own washing. I haven’t learned to wear soiled clothes yet. I laughed fit to bust while I was doing it. But–I’ll bet my mother dreamed of me that night. The way they do, you know, when something’s gone wrong.”
Sophy, perched on the third rung of the sliding ladder, was gazing at him. Her lips were parted slightly, and her cheeks were very pink. On her face was a new, strange look, as of something half forgotten. It was as though the spirit of Sophy-as-she-might-have-been were inhabiting her soul for a brief moment. At Louie’s next words the look was gone.
“Can’t you sew something–a lace yoke–or whatever you call ’em–in that dress?” he persisted.
“Aw, fade!” jeered Sophy. “When a girl’s only got one dress it’s got to have some tong to it. Maybe this gown would cause a wave of indignation in Oskaloosa, Iowa, but it don’t even make a ripple on State Street. It takes more than an aggravated Dutch neck to make a fellow look at a girl these days. In a town like this a girl’s got to make a showin’ some way. I’m my own stage manager. They look at my dress first, an’ grin. See? An’ then they look at my face. I’m like the girl in the story. Muh face is muh fortune. It’s earned me many a square meal; an’ lemme tell you, Pink Cheeks, eatin’ square meals is one of my favorite pas- times.”
“Say looka here!” bellowed the boss, wrathfully. “Just cut out this here Romeo and Juliet act, will you! That there ladder ain’t for no balcony scene, understand. Here you, Louie, you shinny up there and get down a pair of them brown satin pumps, small size.”
Sophy continued to wear the black dress. The V-cut neck seemed more flaunting than ever.
It was two weeks later that Louie came in from lunch, his face radiant. He was fifteen minutes late, but he listened to the boss’s ravings with a smile.
“You grin like somebody handed you a ten-case note,” commented Sophy, with a woman’s curiosity. “I guess you must of met some rube from home when you was out t’ lunch.”
“Better than that! Who do you think I bumped right into in the elevator going down?”
“Well, Brothah Bones,” mimicked Sophy, who did you meet in the elevator going down?”
“I met a man named Ames. He used to travel for a big Boston shoe house, and he made our town every few months. We got to be good friends. I took him home for Sunday dinner once, and he said it was the best dinner he’d had in months. You know how tired those traveling men get of hotel grub.”
“Cut out the description and get down to action,” snapped Sophy.
“Well, he knew me right away. And he made me go out to lunch with him. A real lunch, starting with soup. Gee! It went big. He asked me what I was doing. I told him I was working here, and he opened his eyes, and then he laughed and said: `How did you get into that joint?’ Then he took me down to a swell little shoe shop on State Street, and it turned out that he owns it. He introduced me all around, and I’m going there to work next week. And wages! Why say, it’s almost a salary. A fellow can hold his head up in a place like that.”
“When you leavin’?” asked Sophy, slowly.
“Monday. Gee! it seems a year away.”
Sophy was late Saturday morning. When she came in, hurriedly, her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes glowed. She took off her hat and coat and fell to straightening boxes and putting out stock without looking up. She took no part in the talk and jest that was going on among the other clerks. One of the men, in search of the missing mate to the shoe in his hand, came over to her, greeting her carelessly. Then he stared.
“Well, what do you know about this!” he called out to the others, and laughed coarsely, “Look, stop, listen! Little Sophy Bright Eyes here has pulled down the shades.”
Louie turned quickly. The immodest V of Sophy’s gown was filled with a black lace yoke that came up to the very lobes of her little pink ears. She had got some scraps of lace from–Where do they get those bits of rusty black? From some basement bargain counter, perhaps, raked over during the lunch hour. There were nine pieces in the front, and seven in the back. She had sat up half the night putting them together so that when completed they looked like one, if you didn’t come too close. There is a certain strain of Indian patience and ingenuity in women that no man has ever been able to understand.
Louie looked up and saw. His eyes met Sophy’s. In his there crept a certain exultant gleam, as of one who had fought for something great and won. Sophy saw the look. The shy questioning in her eyes was replaced by a spark of defiance. She tossed her head, and turned to the man who had called attention to her costume.
“Who’s loony now?” she jeered. “I always put in a yoke when it gets along toward fall. My lungs is delicate. And anyway, I see by the papers yesterday that collarless gowns is slightly passay f’r winter.”
A BUSH LEAGUE HERO
This is not a baseball story. The grandstand does not rise as one man and shout itself hoarse with joy. There isn’t a three-bagger in the entire three thousand words, and nobody is carried home on the shoulders of the crowd. For that sort of thing you need not squander fifteen cents on your favorite magazine. The modest sum of one cent will make you the possessor of a Pink ‘Un. There you will find the season’s games handled in masterly fashion by a six-best-seller artist, an expert mathematician, and an original-slang humorist. No mere short story dub may hope to compete with these.
In the old days, before the gentry of the ring had learned the wisdom of investing their winnings in solids instead of liquids, this used to be a favorite conundrum: When is a prize-fighter not a prize-fighter?
Chorus: When he is tending bar.
I rise to ask you Brothah Fan, when is a ball player not a ball player? Above the storm of facetious replies I shout the answer:
When he’s a shoe clerk.
Any man who can look handsome in a dirty baseball suit is an Adonis. There is something about the baggy pants, and the Micawber-shaped collar, and the skull-fitting cap, and the foot or so of tan, or blue, or pink undershirt sleeve sticking out at the arms, that just naturally kills a man’s best points. Then too, a baseball suit requires so much in the matter of leg. Therefore, when I say that Rudie Schlachweiler was a dream even in his baseball uniform, with a dirty brown streak right up the side of his pants where he had slid for base, you may know that the girls camped on the grounds during the season.
During the summer months our ball park is to us what the Grand Prix is to Paris, or Ascot is to London. What care we that Evers gets seven thousand a year (or is it a month?); or that Chicago’s new South-side ball park seats thirty-five thousand (or is it million?). Of what interest are such meager items compared with the knowledge that “Pug” Coulan, who plays short, goes with Undine Meyers, the girl up there in the eighth row, with the pink dress and the red roses on her hat? When “Pug” snatches a high one out of the firmament we yell with delight, and even as we yell we turn sideways to look up and see how Undine is taking it. Undine’s shining eyes are fixed on “Pug,” and he knows it, stoops to brush the dust off his dirt-begrimed baseball pants, takes an attitude of careless grace and misses the next play.
Our grand-stand seats almost two thousand, counting the boxes. But only the snobs, and the girls with new hats, sit in the boxes. Box seats are comfortable, it is true, and they cost only an additional ten cents, but we have come to consider them undemocratic, and unworthy of true fans. Mrs. Freddy Van Dyne, who spends her winters in Egypt and her summers at the ball park, comes out to the game every afternoon in her automobile, but she never occupies a box seat; so why should we? She perches up in the grand-stand with the rest of the enthusiasts, and when Kelly puts one over she stands up and clinches her fists, and waves her arms and shouts with the best of ’em. She has even been known to cry, “Good eye! Good eye!” when things were at fever heat. The only really blase individual in the ball park is Willie Grimes, who peddles ice-cream cones. For that matter, I once saw Willie turn a languid head to pipe, in his thin voice, “Give ’em a dark one, Dutch! Give ’em a dark one!”
Well, that will do for the firsh dash of local color. Now for the story.
Ivy Keller came home June nineteenth from Miss Shont’s select school for young ladies. By June twenty-first she was bored limp. You could hardly see the plaits of her white tailored shirtwaist for fraternity pins and secret society emblems, and her bedroom was ablaze with college banners and pennants to such an extent that the maid gave notice every Thursday–which was upstairs cleaning day.
For two weeks after her return Ivy spent most of her time writing letters and waiting for them, and reading the classics on the front porch, dressed in a middy blouse and a blue skirt, with her hair done in a curly Greek effect like the girls on the covers of the Ladies’ Magazine. She posed against the canvas bosom of the porch chair with one foot under her, the other swinging free, showing a tempting thing in beaded slipper, silk stocking, and what the story writers call “slim ankle.”
On the second Saturday after her return her father came home for dinner at noon, found her deep in Volume Two of “Les Miserables.”
“Whew! This is a scorcher!” he exclaimed, and dropped down on a wicker chair next to Ivy. Ivy looked at her father with languid interest, and smiled a daughterly smile. Ivy’s father was an insurance man, alderman of his ward, president of the Civic Improvement club, member of five lodges, and an habitual delegate. It generally was he who introduced distinguished guests who spoke at the opera house on Decoration Day. He called Mrs. Keller “Mother,” and he wasn’t above noticing the fit of a gown on a pretty feminine figure. He thought Ivy was an expurgated edition of Lillian Russell, Madame De Stael, and Mrs. Pankburst.
“Aren’t you feeling well, Ivy?” he asked. “Looking a little pale. It’s the heat, I suppose. Gosh! Something smells good. Run in and tell Mother I’m here.”
Ivy kept one slender finger between the leaves of her book. “I’m perfectly well,” she replied. “That must be beefsteak and onions. Ugh!” And she shuddered, and went indoors.
Dad Keller looked after her thoughtfully. Then he went in, washed his hands, and sat down at table with Ivy and her mother.
“Just a sliver for me,” said Ivy, “and no onions.”
Her father put down his knife and fork, cleared his throat, and spake, thus:
“You get on your hat and meet me at the 2:45 inter-urban. You’re going to the ball game with me.”
“Ball game!” repeated Ivy. “I? But I’d—-“
“Yes, you do,” interrupted her father. “You’ve been moping around here looking a cross between Saint Cecilia and Little Eva long enough. I don’t care if you don’t know a spitball from a fadeaway when you see it. You’ll be out in the air all afternoon, and there’ll be some excitement. All the girls go. You’ll like it. They’re playing Marshalltown.”
Ivy went, looking the sacrificial lamb. Five minutes after the game was called she pointed one tapering white finger in the direction of the pitcher’s mound.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
“Pitcher,” explained Papa Keller, laconically. Then, patiently: “He throws the ball.”
“Oh,” said Ivy. “What did you say his name was?”
“I didn’t say. But it’s Rudie Schlachweiler. The boys call him Dutch. Kind of a pet, Dutch is.”
“Rudie Schlachweiler!” murmured Ivy, dreamily. “What a strong name!”
“Want some peanuts?” inquired her father.
“Does one eat peanuts at a ball game?”
“It ain’t hardly legal if you don’t,” Pa Keller assured her.
“Two sacks,” said Ivy. “Papa, why do they call it a diamond, and what are those brown bags at the corners, and what does it count if you hit the ball, and why do they rub their hands in the dust and then–er–spit on them, and what salary does a pitcher get, and why does the red-haired man on the other side dance around like that between the second and third brown bag, and doesn’t a pitcher do anything but pitch, and wh—-?”
“You’re on,” said papa.
After that Ivy didn’t miss a game during all the time that the team played in the home town. She went without a new hat, and didn’t care whether Jean Valjean got away with the goods or not, and forgot whether you played third hand high or low in bridge. She even became chummy with Undine Meyers, who wasn’t her kind of a girl at all. Undine was thin in a voluptuous kind of way, if such a paradox can be, and she had red lips, and a roving eye, and she ran around downtown without a hat more than was strictly necessary. But Undine and Ivy had two subjects in common. They were baseball and love. It is queer how the limelight will make heroes of us all.
Now “Pug” Coulan, who was red-haired, and had shoulders like an ox, and arms that hung down to his knees, like those of an orang-outang, slaughtered beeves at the Chicago stockyards in winter. In the summer he slaughtered hearts. He wore mustard colored shirts that matched his hair, and his baseball stockings generally had a rip in them somewhere, but when he was on the diamond we were almost ashamed to look at Undine, so wholly did her heart shine in her eyes.
Now, we’ll have just another dash or two of local color. In a small town the chances for hero worship are few. If it weren’t for the traveling men our girls wouldn’t know whether stripes or checks were the thing in gents’ suitings. When the baseball season opened the girls swarmed on it. Those that didn’t understand baseball pretended they did. When the team was out of town our form of greeting was changed from, “Good-morning!” or “Howdy-do!” to “What’s the score?” Every night the results of the games throughout the league were posted up on the blackboard in front of Schlager’s hardware store, and to see the way in which the crowd stood around it, and streamed across the street toward it, you’d have thought they were giving away gas stoves and hammock couches.
Going home in the street car after the game the girls used to gaze adoringly at the dirty faces of their sweat-begrimed heroes, and then they’d rush home, have supper, change their dresses, do their hair, and rush downtown past the Parker Hotel to mail their letters. The baseball boys boarded over at the Griggs House, which is third-class, but they used their tooth-picks, and held the postmortem of the day’s game out in front of the Parker Hotel, which is our leading hostelry. The postoffice receipts record for our town was broken during the months of June, July, and August.
Mrs. Freddy Van Dyne started the trouble by having the team over to dinner, “Pug” Coulan and all. After all, why not? No foreign and impecunious princes penetrate as far inland as our town. They get only as far as New York, or Newport, where they are gobbled up by many-moneyed matrons. If Mrs. Freddy Van Dyne found the supply of available lions limited, why should she not try to content herself with a jackal or so?
Ivy was asked. Until then she had contented herself with gazing at her hero. She had become such a hardened baseball fan that she followed the game with a score card, accurately jotting down every play, and keeping her watch open on her knee.
She sat next to Rudie at dinner. Before she had nibbled her second salted almond, Ivy Keller and Rudie Schlachweiler understood each other. Rudie illustrated certain plays by drawing lines on the table-cloth with his knife and Ivy gazed, wide-eyed, and allowed her soup to grow cold.
The first night that Rudie called, Pa Keller thought it a great joke. He sat out on the porch with Rudie and Ivy and talked baseball, and got up to show Rudie how he could have got the goat of that Keokuk catcher if only he had tried one of his famous open-faced throws. Rudie looked politely interested, and laughed in all the right places. But Ivy didn’t need to pretend. Rudie Schlachweiler spelled baseball to her. She did not think of her caller as a good-looking young man in a blue serge suit and a white shirtwaist. Even as he sat there she saw him as a blonde god standing on the pitcher’s mound, with the scars of battle on his baseball pants, his left foot placed in front of him at right angles with his right foot, his gaze fixed on first base in a cunning effort to deceive the man at bat, in that favorite attitude of pitchers just before they get ready to swing their left leg and h’ist one over.
The second time that Rudie called, Ma Keller said:
“Ivy, I don’t like that ball player coming here to see you. The neighbors’ll talk.”
The third time Rudie called, Pa Keller said: “What’s that guy doing here again?”
The fourth time Rudie called, Pa Keller and Ma Keller said, in unison: “This thing has got to stop.”
But it didn’t. It had had too good a start. For the rest of the season Ivy met her knight of the sphere around the corner. Theirs was a walking courtship. They used to roam up as far as the State road, and down as far as the river, and Rudie would fain have talked of love, but Ivy talked of baseball.
“Darling,” Rudie would murmur, pressing Ivy’s arm closer, “when did you first begin to care?”
“Why I liked the very first game I saw when Dad—-“
“I mean, when did you first begin to care for me?”
“Oh! When you put three men out in that game with Marshalltown when the teams were tied in the eighth inning. Remember? Say, Rudie dear, what was the matter with your arm to-day? You let three men walk, and Albia’s weakest hitter got a home run out of you.”
“Oh, forget baseball for a minute, Ivy! Let’s talk about something else. Let’s talk about–us.”
“Us? Well, you’re baseball, aren’t you?” retorted Ivy. “And if you are, I am. Did you notice the way that Ottumwa man pitched yesterday? He didn’t do any acting for the grandstand. He didn’t reach up above his head, and wrap his right shoulder with his left toe, and swing his arm three times and then throw seven inches outside the plate. He just took the ball in his hand, looked at it curiously for a moment, and fired it–zing!–like that, over the plate. I’d get that ball if I were you.”
“Isn’t this a grand night?” murmured Rudie.
“But they didn’t have a hitter in the bunch,” went on Ivy. “And not a man in the team could run. That’s why they’re tail-enders. Just the same, that man on the mound was a wizard, and if he had one decent player to give him some support—-“
Well, the thing came to a climax. One evening, two weeks before the close of the season, Ivy put on her hat and announced that she was going downtown to mail her letters.
“Mail your letters in the daytime,” growled Papa Keller.
“I didn’t have time to-day,” answered Ivy. “It was a thirteen inning game, and it lasted until six o’clock.”
It was then that Papa Keller banged the heavy fist of decision down on the library table.
“This thing’s got to stop!” he thundered. “I won’t have any girl of mine running the streets with a ball player, understand? Now you quit seeing this seventy-five-dollars-a-month bush leaguer or leave this house. I mean it.”
“All right,” said Ivy, with a white-hot calm. “I’ll leave. I can make the grandest kind of angel-food with marshmallow icing, and you know yourself my fudges can’t be equaled. He’ll be playing in the major leagues in three years. Why just yesterday there was a strange man at the game–a city man, you could tell by his hat-band, and the way his clothes were cut. He stayed through the whole game, and never took his eyes off Rudie. I just know he was a scout for the Cubs.”
“Probably a hardware drummer, or a fellow that Schlachweiler owes money to.”
Ivy began to pin on her hat. A scared look leaped into Papa Keller’s eyes. He looked a little old, too, and drawn, at that minute. He stretched forth a rather tremulous hand.
“Ivy-girl,” he said.
“What?” snapped Ivy.
“Your old father’s just talking for your own good. You’re breaking your ma’s heart. You and me have been good pals, haven’t we?”
“Yes,” said Ivy, grudgingly, and without looking up.
“Well now, look here. I’ve got a proposition to make to you. The season’s over in two more weeks. The last week they play out of town. Then the boys’ll come back for a week or so, just to hang around town and try to get used to the idea of leaving us. Then they’ll scatter to take up their winter jobs-cutting ice, most of ’em,” he added, grimly.
“Mr. Schlachweiler is employed in a large establishment in Slatersville, Ohio,” said Ivy, with dignity. “He regards baseball as his profession, and he cannot do anything that would affect his pitching arm.”
Pa Keller put on the tremolo stop and brought a misty look into his eyes.
“Ivy, you’ll do one last thing for your old father, won’t you?”
“Maybe,” answered Ivy, coolly.
“Don’t make that fellow any promises. Now wait a minute! Let me get through. I won’t put any crimp in your plans. I won’t speak to Schlachweiler. Promise you won’t do anything rash until the ball season’s over. Then we’ll wait just one month, see? Till along about November. Then if you feel like you want to see him—-“
“Hold on. You mustn’t write to him, or see him, or let him write to you during that time, see? Then, if you feel the way you do now, I’ll take you to Slatersville to see him. Now that’s fair, ain’t it? Only don’t let him know you’re coming.”
” M-m-m-yes,” said Ivy.
“Shake hands on it.” She did. Then she left the room with a rush, headed in the direction of her own bedroom. Pa Keller treated himself to a prodigious wink and went out to the vegetable garden in search of Mother.
The team went out on the road, lost five games, won two, and came home in fourth place. For a week they lounged around the Parker Hotel and held up the street corners downtown, took many farewell drinks, then, slowly, by ones and twos, they left for the packing houses, freight depots, and gents’ furnishing stores from whence they came.
October came in with a blaze of sumac and oak leaves. Ivy stayed home and learned to make veal loaf and apple pies. The worry lines around Pa Keller’s face began to deepen. Ivy said that she didn’t believe that she cared to go back to Miss Shont’s select school for young ladies.
October thirty-first came.
“We’ll take the eight-fifteen to-morrow,” said her father to Ivy.
“All right,” said Ivy.
“Do you know where he works?” asked he.
“No,” answered Ivy.
“That’ll be all right. I took the trouble to look him up last August.”
The short November afternoon was drawing to its close (as our best talent would put it) when Ivy and her father walked along the streets of Slatersville. (I can’t tell you what streets, because I don’t know.) Pa Keller brought up before a narrow little shoe shop.
“Here we are,” he said, and ushered Ivy in. A short, stout, proprietary figure approached them smiling a mercantile smile.
“What can I do for you?” he inquired.
Ivy’s eyes searched the shop for a tall, golden-haired form in a soiled baseball suit.
“We’d like to see a gentleman named Schlachweiler–Rudolph Schlachweiler,” said Pa Keller.
“Anything very special?” inquired the proprietor. “He’s–rather busy just now. Wouldn’t anybody else do? Of course, if—-“
“No,” growled Keller.
The boss turned. “Hi! Schlachweiler!” he bawled toward the rear of the dim little shop.
“Yessir,” answered a muffled voice.
“Front!” yelled the boss, and withdrew to a safe listening distance.
A vaguely troubled look lurked in the depths of Ivy’s eyes. From behind the partition of the rear of the shop emerged a tall figure. It was none other than our hero. He was in his shirt- sleeves, and he struggled into his coat as he came forward, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, hurriedly, and swallowing.
I have said that the shop was dim. Ivy and her father stood at one side, their backs to the light. Rudie came forward, rubbing his hands together in the manner of clerks.
“Something in shoes?” he politely inquired. Then he saw.
“Ivy!–ah–Miss Keller!” he exclaimed. Then, awkwardly: “Well, how-do, Mr. Keller. I certainly am glad to see you both. How’s the old town? What are you doing in Slatersville?”
“Why–Ivy—-” began Pa Keller, blunderingly.
But Ivy clutched his arm with a warning hand. The vaguely troubled look in her eyes had become wildly so.
“Schlachweiler!” shouted the voice of the boss. “Customers!” and he waved a hand in the direction of the fitting benches.
“All right, sir,” answered Rudie. “Just a minute.”
“Dad had to come on business,” said Ivy, hurriedly. “And he brought me with him. I’m–I’m on my way to school in Cleveland, you know. Awfully glad to have seen you again. We must go. That lady wants her shoes, I’m sure, and your employer is glaring at us. Come, dad.”
At the door she turned just in time to see Rudie removing the shoe from the pudgy foot of the fat lady customer.
We’ll take a jump of six months. That brings us into the lap of April.
Pa Keller looked up from his evening paper. Ivy, home for the Easter vacation, was at the piano. Ma Keller was sewing.
Pa Keller cleared his throat. “I see by the paper,” he announced, “that Schlachweiler’s been sold to Des Moines. Too bad we lost him. He was a great little pitcher, but he played in bad luck. Whenever he was on the slab the boys seemed to give him poor support.”
“Fudge!” exclaimed Ivy, continuing to play, but turning a spirited face toward her father. “What piffle! Whenever a player pitches rotten ball you’ll always hear him howling about the support he didn’t get. Schlachweiler was a bum pitcher. Anybody could hit him with a willow wand, on a windy day, with the sun in his eyes.”
THE KITCHEN SIDE OF THE DOOR
The City was celebrating New Year’s Eve. Spelled thus, with a capital C, know it can mean but New York. In the Pink Fountain room of the Newest Hotel all those grand old forms and customs handed down to us for the occasion were being rigidly observed in all their original quaintness. The Van Dyked man who looked like a Russian Grand Duke (he really was a chiropodist) had drunk champagne out of the pink satin slipper of the lady who behaved like an actress (she was forelady at Schmaus’ Wholesale Millinery, eighth floor). The two respectable married ladies there in the corner had been kissed by each other’s husbands. The slim, Puritan-faced woman in white, with her black hair so demurely parted and coiled in a sleek knot, had risen suddenly from her place and walked indolently to the edge of the plashing pink fountain in the center of the room, had stood contemplating its shallows with a dreamy half-smile on her lips, and then had lifted her slim legs slowly and gracefully over its fern-fringed basin and had waded into its chilling midst, trailing her exquisite white satin and chiffon draperies after her, and scaring the goldfish into fits. The loudest scream of approbation had come from the yellow-haired, loose-lipped youth who had made the wager, and lost it. The heavy blonde in the inevitable violet draperies showed signs of wanting to dance on the table. Her companion–a structure made up of layer upon layer, and fold upon fold of flabby tissue–knew all the waiters by their right names, and insisted on singing with the orchestra and beating time with a rye roll. The clatter of dishes was giving way to the clink of glasses.
In the big, bright kitchen back, of the Pink Fountain room Miss Gussie Fink sat at her desk, calm, watchful, insolent-eyed, a goddess sitting in judgment. On the pay roll of the Newest Hotel Miss Gussie Fink’s name appeared as kitchen checker, but her regular job was goddessing. Her altar was a high desk in a corner of the busy kitchen, and it was an altar of incense, of burnt-offerings, and of showbread. Inexorable as a goddess of the ancients was Miss Fink, and ten times as difficult to appease. For this is the rule of the Newest Hotel, that no waiter may carry his laden tray restaurantward until its contents have been viewed and duly checked by the eye and hand of Miss Gussie Fink, or her assistants. Flat upon the table must go every tray, off must go each silver dish-cover, lifted must be each napkin to disclose its treasure of steaming corn or hot rolls. Clouds of incense rose before Miss Gussie Fink and she sniffed it unmoved, her eyes, beneath level brows, regarding savory broiler or cunning ice with equal indifference, appraising alike lobster cocktail or onion soup, traveling from blue points to brie. Things a la and things glace were all one to her. Gazing at food was Miss Gussie Fink’s occupation, and just to see the way she regarded a boneless squab made you certain that she never ate.
In spite of the I-don’t-know-how-many (see ads) New Year’s Eve diners for whom food was provided that night, the big, busy kitchen was the most orderly, shining, spotless place imaginable. But Miss Gussie Fink was the neatest, most immaculate object in all that great, clean room. There was that about her which suggested daisies in a field, if you know what I mean. This may have been due to the fact that her eyes were brown while her hair was gold, or it may have been something about the way her collars fitted high, and tight, and smooth, or the way her close white sleeves came down to meet her pretty hands, or the way her shining hair sprang from her forehead. Also the smooth creaminess of her clear skin may have had something to do with it. But privately, I think it was due to the way she wore her shirtwaists. Miss Gussie Fink could wear a starched white shirtwaist under a close-fitting winter coat, remove the coat, run her right forefinger along her collar’s edge and her left thumb along the back of her belt and disclose to the admiring world a blouse as unwrinkled and unsullied as though it had just come from her own skilful hands at the ironing board. Miss Gussie Fink was so innately, flagrantly, beautifully clean-looking that–well, there must be a stop to this description.
She was the kind of girl you’d like to see behind the counter of your favorite delicatessen, knowing that you need not shudder as her fingers touch your Sunday night supper slices of tongue, and Swiss cheese, and ham. No girl had ever dreamed of refusing to allow Gussie to borrow her chamois for a second.
To-night Miss Fink had come on at 10 P.M., which was just two hours later than usual. She knew that she was to work until 6 A.M., which may have accounted for the fact that she displayed very little of what the fans call ginger as she removed her hat and coat and hung them on the hook behind the desk. The prospect of that all-night, eight-hour stretch may have accounted for it, I say. But privately, and entre nous, it didn’t. For here you must know of Heiny. Heiny, alas! now Henri.
Until two weeks ago Henri had been Heiny and Miss Fink had been Kid. When Henri had been Heiny he had worked in the kitchen at many things, but always with a loving eye on Miss Gussie Fink. Then one wild night there had been a waiters’ strike–wages or hours or tips or all three. In the confusion that followed Heiny had been pressed into service and a chopped coat. He had fitted into both with unbelievable nicety, proving that waiters are born, not made. Those little tricks and foibles that are characteristic of the genus waiter seemed to envelop him as though a fairy garment had fallen upon his shoulders. The folded napkin under his left arm seemed to have been placed there by nature, so perfectly did it fit into place. The ghostly tread, the little whisking skip, the half-simper, the deferential bend that had in it at the same time something of insolence, all were there; the very “Yes, miss,” and “Very good, sir,” rose automatically and correctly to his untrained lips. Cinderella rising resplendent from her ash-strewn hearth was not more completely transformed than Heiny in his role of Henri. And with the transformation Miss Gussie Fink had been left behind her desk disconsolate.