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THE GIRL WHO LAUGHED
by EDNA FERBER
TO MY DEAR MOTHER
WHO FREQUENTLY INTERRUPTS
MY SISTER FANNIE
WHO SAYS “SH-SH-SH!” OUTSIDE MY DOOR
I THE SMASH-UP
II MOSTLY EGGS
III GOOD As NEW
IV DAWN DEVELOPS A HEIMWEH
V THE ABSURD BECOMES SERIOUS
VI STEEPED IN GERMAN
VII BLACKIE’S PHILOSOPHY
VIII KAFFEE AND KAFFEEKUCHEN
IX THE LADY FROM VIENNA
X A TRAGEDY OF GOWNS
XI VON GERHARD SPEAKS
XII BENNIE THE CONSOLER
XIII THE TEST
XIV BENNIE AND THE CHARMING OLD MAID XV FAREWELL TO KNAPFS’
XVI JUNE MOONLIGHT, AND A NEW BOARDING HOUSE XVII THE SHADOW OF TERROR
XVIII PETER ORME
XIX A TURN OF THE WHEEL
XX BLACKIE’S VACATION COMES
There are a number of things that are pleasanter than being sick in a New York boarding-house when one’s nearest dearest is a married sister up in far-away Michigan.
Some one must have been very kind, for there were doctors, and a blue-and-white striped nurse, and bottles and things. There was even a vase of perky carnations– scarlet ones. I discovered that they had a trick of nodding their heads, saucily. The discovery did not appear to surprise me.
“Howdy-do!” said I aloud to the fattest and reddest carnation that overtopped all the rest. “How in the world did you get in here?”
The striped nurse (I hadn’t noticed her before) rose from some corner and came swiftly over to my bedside, taking my wrist between her fingers.
“I’m very well, thank you,” she said, smiling, “and I came in at the door, of course.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” I snapped, crossly, “I was speaking to the carnations; particularly to that elderly one at the top–the fat one who keeps bowing and wagging his head at me.”
“Oh, yes,” answered the striped nurse, politely, “of course. That one is very lively, isn’t he? But suppose we take them out for a little while now.”
She picked up the vase and carried it into the corridor, and the carnations nodded their heads more vigorously than ever over her shoulder.
I heard her call softly to some one. The some one answered with a sharp little cry that sounded like, “Conscious!”
The next moment my own sister Norah came quietly into the room, and knelt at the side of my bed and took me in her arms. It did not seem at all surprising that she should be there, patting me with reassuring little love pats, murmuring over me with her lips against my check, calling me a hundred half-forgotten pet names that I had not heard for years. But then, nothing seemed to surprise me that surprising day. Not even the sight of a great, red-haired, red-faced, scrubbed looking man who strolled into the room just as Norah was in the midst of denouncing newspapers in general, and my newspaper in particular, and calling the city editor a slave-driver and a beast. The big, red-haired man stood regarding us tolerantly.
“Better, eh?” said he, not as one who asks a question, but as though in confirmation of a thought. Then he too took my wrist between his fingers. His touch was very firm and cool. After that he pulled down my eyelids and said, “H’m.” Then he patted my cheek smartly once or twice. “You’ll do,” he pronounced. He picked up a sheet of paper from the table and looked it over, keen-eyed. There followed a clinking of bottles and glasses, a few low-spoken words to the nurse, and then, as she left the room the big red-haired man seated himself heavily in the chair near the bedside and rested his great hands on his fat knees. He stared down at me in much the same way that a huge mastiff looks at a terrier. Finally his glance rested on my limp left hand.
For a moment the word would not come. I could hear Norah catch her breath quickly. Then–“Yes,” answered I.
“Husband living?” I could see suspicion dawning in his cold gray eye.
Again the catch in Norah’s throat and a little half warning, half supplicating gesture. And again, “Yes,” said I.
The dawn of suspicion burst into full glow.
“Where is he?” growled the red-haired doctor. “At a time like this?”
I shut my eyes for a moment, too sick at heart to resent his manner. I could feel, more than see, that Sis was signaling him frantically. I moistened my lips and answered him, bitterly.
“He is in the Starkweather Hospital for the insane.”
When the red-haired man spoke again the growl was quite gone from his voice.
“And your home is–where?”
“Nowhere,” I replied meekly, from my pillow. But at that Sis put her hand out quickly, as though she had been struck, and said:
“My home is her home.”
“Well then, take her there,” he ordered, frowning, “and keep her there as long as you can. Newspaper reporting, h’m? In New York? That’s a devil of a job for a woman. And a husband who . . . Well, you’ll have to take a six months’ course in loafing, young woman. And at the end of that time, if you are still determined to work, can’t you pick out something easier–like taking in scrubbing, for instance?”
I managed a feeble smile, wishing that he would go away quickly, so that I might sleep. He seemed to divine my thoughts, for he disappeared into the corridor, taking Norah with him. Their voices, low-pitched and carefully guarded, could be heard as they conversed outside my door.
Norah was telling him the whole miserable business. I wished, savagely, that she would let me tell it, if it must be told. How could she paint the fascination of the man who was my husband? She had never known the charm of him as I had known it in those few brief months before our marriage. She had never felt the caress of his voice, or the magnetism of his strange, smoldering eyes glowing across the smoke-dimmed city room as I had felt them fixed on me. No one had ever known what he had meant to the girl of twenty, with her brain full of unspoken dreams–dreams which were all to become glorious realities in that wonder-place, New York.
How he had fired my country-girl imagination! He had been the most brilliant writer on the big, brilliant sheet–and the most dissolute. How my heart had pounded on that first lonely day when this Wonder-Being looked up from his desk, saw me, and strolled over to where I sat before my typewriter! He smiled down at me, companionably. I’m quite sure that my mouth must have been wide open with surprise. He had been smoking a cigarette an expensive-looking, gold-tipped one. Now he removed it from between his lips with that hand that always shook a little, and dropped it to the floor, crushing it lightly with the toe of his boot. He threw back his handsome head and sent out the last mouthful of smoke in a thin, lazy spiral. I remember thinking what a pity it was that he should have crushed that costly-looking cigarette, just for me.
“My name’s Orme,” he said, gravely. “Peter Orme. And if yours isn’t Shaughnessy or Burke at least, then I’m no judge of what black hair and gray eyes stand for.”
“Then you’re not,” retorted I, laughing up at him, “for it happens to be O’Hara–Dawn O’Hara, if ye plaze.”
He picked up a trifle that lay on my desk–a pencil, perhaps, or a bit of paper–and toyed with it, absently, as though I had not spoken. I thought he had not heard, and I was conscious of feeling a bit embarrassed, and very young. Suddenly he raised his smoldering eyes to mine, and I saw that they had taken on a deeper glow. His white, even teeth showed in a half smile.
“Dawn O’Hara,” said he, slowly, and the name had never sounded in the least like music before, “Dawn O’Hara. It sounds like a rose–a pink blush rose that is deeper pink at its heart, and very sweet.”
He picked up the trifle with which he had been toying and eyed it intently for a moment, as though his whole mind were absorbed in it. Then he put it down, turned, and walked slowly away. I sat staring after him like a little simpleton, puzzled, bewildered, stunned. That had been the beginning of it all.
He had what we Irish call “a way wid him.” I wonder now why I did not go mad with the joy, and the pain, and the uncertainty of it all. Never was a girl so dazzled, so humbled, so worshiped, so neglected, so courted. He was a creature of a thousand moods to torture one. What guise would he wear to-day? Would he be gay, or dour, or sullen, or teasing or passionate, or cold, or tender or scintillating? I know that my hands were always cold, and my cheeks were always hot, those days.
He wrote like a modern Demosthenes, with all political New York to quiver under his philippics. The managing editor used to send him out on wonderful assignments, and they used to hold the paper for his stuff when it was late. Sometimes he would be gone for days at a time, and when he returned the men would look at him with a sort of admiring awe. And the city editor would glance up from beneath his green eye-shade and call out:
“Say, Orme, for a man who has just wired in about a million dollars’ worth of stuff seems to me you don’t look very crisp and jaunty.”
“Haven’t slept for a week,” Peter Orme would growl, and then he would brush past the men who were crowded around him, and turn in my direction. And the old hot-and-cold, happy, frightened, laughing, sobbing sensation would have me by the throat again.
Well, we were married. Love cast a glamour over his very vices. His love of drink? A weakness which I would transform into strength. His white hot flashes of uncontrollable temper? Surely they would die down at my cool, tender touch. His fits of abstraction and irritability? Mere evidences of the genius within. Oh, my worshiping soul was always alert with an excuse.
And so we were married. He had quite tired of me in less than a year, and the hand that had always shaken a little shook a great deal now, and the fits of abstraction and temper could be counted upon to appear oftener than any other moods. I used to laugh, sometimes, when I was alone, at the bitter humor of it all. It was like a Duchess novel come to life.
His work began to show slipshod in spots. They talked to him about it and he laughed at them. Then, one day, he left them in the ditch on the big story of the McManus indictment, and the whole town scooped him, and the managing editor told him that he must go. His lapses had become too frequent. They would have to replace him with a man not so brilliant, perhaps, but more reliable.
I daren’t think of his face as it looked when he came home to the little apartment and told me. The smoldering eyes were flaming now. His lips were flecked with a sort of foam. I stared at him in horror. He strode over to me, clasped his fingers about my throat and shook me as a dog shakes a mouse.
“Why don’t you cry, eh?” he snarled. Why don’t you cry!”
And then I did cry out at what I saw in his eyes. I wrenched myself free, fled to my room, and locked the door and stood against it with my hand pressed over my heart until I heard the outer door slam and the echo of his footsteps die away.
Divorce! That was my only salvation. No, that would be cowardly now. I would wait until he was on his feet again, and then I would demand my old free life back once more. This existence that was dragging me into the gutter–this was not life! Life was a glorious, beautiful thing, and I would have it yet. I laid my plans, feverishly, and waited. He did not come back that night, or the next, or the next, or the next. In desperation I went to see the men at the office. No, they had not seen him. Was there anything that they could do? they asked. I smiled, and thanked them, and said, oh, Peter was so absent-minded! No doubt he had misdirected his letters, or something of the sort. And then I went back to the flat to resume the horrible waiting.
One week later he turned up at the old office which had cast him off. He sat down at his former desk and began to write, breathlessly, as he used to in the days when all the big stories fell to him. One of the men reporters strolled up to him and touched him on the shoulder, man-fashion. Peter Orme raised his head and stared at him, and the man sprang back in terror. The smoldering eyes had burned down to an ash. Peter Orme was quite bereft of all reason. They took him away that night, and I kept telling myself that it wasn’t true; that it was all a nasty dream, and I would wake up pretty soon, and laugh about it, and tell it at the breakfast table.
Well, one does not seek a divorce from a husband who is insane. The busy men on the great paper were very kind. They would take me back on the staff. Did I think that I still could write those amusing little human interest stories? Funny ones, you know, with a punch in ’em.
Oh, plenty of good stories left in me yet, I assured them. They must remember that I was only twenty-one, after all, and at twenty-one one does not lose the sense of humor.
And so I went back to my old desk, and wrote bright, chatty letters home to Norah, and ground out very funny stories with a punch in ’em, that the husband in the insane asylum might be kept in comforts. With both hands I hung on like grim death to that saving sense of humor, resolved to make something of that miserable mess which was my life–to make something of it yet. And now–
At this point in my musings there was an end of the low-voiced conversation in the hall. Sis tiptoed in and looked her disapproval at finding me sleepless.
“Dawn, old girlie, this will never do. Shut your eyes now, like a good child, and go to sleep. Guess what that great brute of a doctor said! I may take you home with me next week! Dawn dear, you will come, won’t you? You must! This is killing you. Don’t make me go away leaving you here. I couldn’t stand it.”
She leaned over my pillow and closed my eyelids gently with her sweet, cool fingers. “You are coming home with me, and you shall sleep and eat, and sleep and eat, until you are as lively as the Widow Malone, ohone, and twice as fat. Home, Dawnie dear, where we’ll forget all about New York. Home, with me.”
I reached up uncertainly, and brought her hand down to my lips and a great peace descended upon my sick soul. “Home–with you,” I said, like a child, and fell asleep.
Oh, but it was clean, and sweet, and wonderfully still, that rose-and-white room at Norah’s! No street cars to tear at one’s nerves with grinding brakes and clanging bells; no tramping of restless feet on the concrete all through the long, noisy hours; no shrieking midnight joy-riders; not one of the hundred sounds which make night hideous in the city. What bliss to lie there, hour after hour, in a delicious half-waking, half-sleeping, wholly exquisite stupor, only rousing myself to swallow egg-nogg No. 426, and then to flop back again on the big, cool pillow!
New York, with its lights, its clangor, its millions, was only a far-away, jumbled nightmare. The office, with its clacking typewriters, its insistent, nerve-racking telephone bells, its systematic rush, its smoke-dimmed city room, was but an ugly part of the dream.
Back to that inferno of haste and scramble and clatter? Never! Never! I resolved, drowsily. And dropped off to sleep again.
And the sheets. Oh, those sheets of Norah’s! Why, they were white, instead of gray! And they actually smelled of flowers. For that matter, there were rosebuds on the silken coverlet. It took me a week to get chummy with that rosebud-and-down quilt. I had to explain carefully to Norah that after a half-dozen years of sleeping under doubtful boarding-house blankets one does not so soon get rid of a shuddering disgust for coverings which are haunted by the ghosts of a hundred unknown sleepers. Those years had taught me to draw up the sheet with scrupulous care, to turn it down, and smooth it over, so that no contaminating and woolly blanket should touch my skin. The habit stuck even after Norah had tucked me in between her fragrant sheets. Automatically my hands groped about, arranging the old protecting barrier.
“What’s the matter, Fuss-fuss?” inquired Norah, looking on. “That down quilt won’t bite you; what an old maid you are!”
“Don’t like blankets next to my face,” I elucidated, sleepily, “never can tell who slept under ’em last–“
You cat!” exclaimed Norah, making a little rush at me. “If you weren’t supposed to be ill I’d shake you! Comparing my darling rosebud quilt to your miserable gray blankets! Just for that I’ll make you eat an extra pair of eggs.”
There never was a sister like Norah. But then, who ever heard of a brother-in-law like Max? No woman–not even a frazzled-out newspaper woman–could receive the love and care that they gave me, and fail to flourish under it. They had been Dad and Mother to me since the day when Norah had tucked me under her arm and carried me away from New York. Sis was an angel; a comforting, twentieth-century angel, with white apron strings for wings, and a tempting tray in her hands in place of the hymn books and palm leaves that the picture-book angels carry. She coaxed the inevitable eggs and beef into more tempting forms than Mrs. Rorer ever guessed at. She could disguise those two plain, nourishing articles of diet so effectually that neither hen nor cow would have suspected either of having once been part of her anatomy. Once I ate halfway through a melting, fluffy, peach-bedecked plate of something before I discovered that it was only another egg in disguise.
“Feel like eating a great big dinner to-day, Kidlet? “Norah would ask in the morning as she stood at my bedside (with a glass of egg-something in her hand, of course).
“Eat!”–horror and disgust shuddering through my voice–“Eat! Ugh! Don’t s-s-speak of it to me. And for pity’s sake tell Frieda to shut the kitchen door when you go down, will you? I can smell something like ugh!–like pot roast, with gravy!” And I would turn my face to the wall.
Three hours later I would hear Sis coming softly up the stairs, accompanied by a tinkling of china and glass. I would face her, all protest.
“Didn’t I tell you, Sis, that I couldn’t eat a mouthful? Not a mouthf–um-m-m-m! How perfectly scrumptious that looks! What’s that affair in the lettuce leaf? Oh, can’t I begin on that divine-looking pinky stuff in the tall glass? H’m? Oh, please!”
“I thought–” Norah would begin; and then she would snigger softly.
“Oh, well, that was hours ago,” I would explain, loftily. “Perhaps I could manage a bite or two now.”
Whereupon I would demolish everything except the china and doilies.
It was at this point on the road to recovery, just halfway between illness and health, that Norah and Max brought the great and unsmiling Von Gerhard on the scene. It appeared that even New York was respectfully aware of Von Gerhard, the nerve specialist, in spite of the fact that he lived in Milwaukee. The idea of bringing him up to look at me occurred to Max quite suddenly. I think it was on the evening that I burst into tears when Max entered the room wearing a squeaky shoe. The Weeping Walrus was a self-contained and tranquil creature compared to me at that time. The sight of a fly on the wall was enough to make me burst into a passion of sobs.
“I know the boy to steady those shaky nerves of yours, Dawn,” said Max, after I had made a shamefaced apology for my hysterical weeping, “I’m going to have Von Gerhard up here to look at you. He can run up Sunday, eh, Norah?”
“Who’s Von Gerhard?” I inquired, out of the depths of my ignorance. “Anyway, I won’t have him. I’ll bet he wears a Vandyke and spectacles.”
“Von Gerhard!” exclaimed Norah, indignantly. “You ought to be thankful to have him look at you, even if he wears goggles and a flowing beard. Why, even that red-haired New York doctor of yours cringed and looked impressed when I told him that Von Gerhard was a friend of my husband’s, and that they had been comrades at Heidelberg. I must have mentioned him dozens of times in my letters.”
“Queer,” commented Max, “he runs up here every now and then to spend a quiet Sunday with Norah and me and the Spalpeens. Says it rests him. The kids swarm all over him, and tear him limb from limb. It doesn’t look restful, but he says it’s great. I think he came here from Berlin just after you left for New York, Dawn. Milwaukee fits him as if it had been made for him.”
“But you’re not going to drag this wonderful being up here just for me!” I protested, aghast.
Max pointed an accusing finger at me from the doorway. “Aren’t you what the bromides call a bundle of nerves? And isn’t Von Gerhard’s specialty untying just those knots? I’ll write to him to-night.”
And he did. And Von Gerhard came. The Spalpeens watched for him, their noses flattened against the window-pane, for it was raining. As he came up the path they burst out of the door to meet him. From my bedroom window I saw him come prancing up the walk like a boy, with the two children clinging to his coat-tails, all three quite unmindful of the rain, and yelling like Comanches.
Ten minutes later he had donned his professional dignity, entered my room, and beheld me in all my limp and pea-green beauty. I noted approvingly that he had to stoop a bit as he entered the low doorway, and that the Vandyke of my prophecy was missing.
He took my hand in his own steady, reassuring clasp. Then he began to talk. Half an hour sped away while we discussed New York–books–music–theatres–everything and anything but Dawn O’Hara. I learned later that as we chatted he was getting his story, bit by bit, from every twitch of the eyelids, from every gesture of the hands that had grown too thin to wear the hateful ring; from every motion of the lips; from the color of my nails; from each convulsive muscle; from every shadow, and wrinkle and curve and line of my face.
Suddenly he asked: “Are you making the proper effort to get well? You try to conquer those jumping nerfs, yes?”
I glared at him. “Try! I do everything. I’d eat woolly worms if I thought they might benefit me. If ever a girl has minded her big sister and her doctor, that girl is I. I’ve eaten everything from pate de foie gras to raw beef, and I’ve drunk everything from blood to champagne.”
“Eggs? ” queried Von Gerhard, as though making a happy suggestion.
“Eggs!” I snorted. “Eggs! Thousands of ’em! Eggs hard and soft boiled, poached and fried, scrambled and shirred, eggs in beer and egg-noggs, egg lemonades and egg orangeades, eggs in wine and eggs in milk, and eggs au naturel. I’ve lapped up iron-and-wine, and whole rivers of milk, and I’ve devoured rare porterhouse and roast beef day after day for weeks. So! Eggs!”
“Mein Himmel!” ejaculated he, fervently, “And you still live!” A suspicion of a smile dawned in his eyes. I wondered if he ever laughed. I would experiment.
“Don’t breathe it to a soul,” I whispered, tragically, “but eggs, and eggs alone, are turning my love for my sister into bitterest hate. She stalks me the whole day long, forcing egg mixtures down my unwilling throat. She bullies me. I daren’t put out my hand suddenly without knocking over liquid refreshment in some form, but certainly with an egg lurking in its depths. I am so expert that I can tell an egg orangeade from an egg lemonade at a distance of twenty yards, with my left hand tied behind me,and one eye shut, and my feet in a sack.”
“You can laugh, eh? Well, that iss good,” commented the grave and unsmiling one.
“Sure,” answered I, made more flippant by his solemnity. “Surely I can laugh. For what else was my father Irish? Dad used to say that a sense of humor was like a shillaly–an iligent thing to have around handy, especially when the joke’s on you.”
The ghost of a twinkle appeared again in the corners of the German blue eyes. Some fiend of rudeness seized me.
“Laugh!” I commanded.
Dr. Ernst von Gerhard stiffened. “Pardon?” inquired he, as one who is sure that he has misunderstood.
“Laugh!” I snapped again. “I’ll dare you to do it. I’ll double dare you! You dassen’t!”
But he did. After a moment’s bewildered surprise he threw back his handsome blond head and gave vent to a great, deep infectious roar of mirth that brought the Spalpeens tumbling up the stairs in defiance of their mother’s strict instructions.
After that we got along beautifully. He turned out to be quite human, beneath the outer crust of reserve. He continued his examination only after bribing the Spalpeens shamefully, so that even their rapacious demands were satisfied, and they trotted off contentedly.
There followed a process which reduced me to a giggling heap but which Von Gerhard carried out ceremoniously. It consisted of certain raps at my knees, and shins, and elbows, and fingers, and certain commands to–“look at my finger! Look at the wall! Look at my finger! Look at the wall!”
“So!” said Von Gerhard at last, in a tone of finality. I sank my battered frame into the nearest chair. “This–this newspaper work–it must cease.” He dismissed it with a wave of the hand.
“Certainly,” I said, with elaborate sarcasm. “How should you advise me to earn my living in the future? In the stories they paint dinner cards, don’t they? or bake angel cakes?”
“Are you then never serious?” asked Von Gerhard, in disapproval.
“Never,” said I. “An old, worn-out, worked-out newspaper reporter, with a husband in the mad-house, can’t afford to be serious for a minute, because if she were she’d go mad, too, with the hopelessness of it all.” And I buried my face in my hands.
The room was very still for a moment. Then the great Von Gerhard came over, and took my hands gently from my face. “I–I do beg your pardon,” he said. He looked strangely boyish and uncomfortable as he said it. “I was thinking only of your good. We do that, sometimes, forgetting that circumstances may make our wishes impossible of execution. So. You will forgive me?”
“Forgive you? Yes,indeed,” I assured him. And we shook hands, gravely. “But that doesn’t help matters much, after all, does it?”
“Yes, it helps. For now we understand one another, is it not so? You say you can only write for a living. Then why not write here at home? Surely these years of newspaper work have given you a great knowledge of human nature. Then too, there is your gift of humor. Surely that is a combination which should make your work acceptable to the magazines. Never in my life have I seen so many magazines as here in the United States. But hundreds! Thousands!”
“Me!” I exploded–“A real writer lady! No more interviews with actresses! No more slushy Sunday specials! No more teary tales! Oh, my!
When may I begin? To-morrow? You know I brought my typewriter with me. I’ve almost forgotten where the letters are on the keyboard.”
“Wait, wait; not so fast! In a month or two, perhaps. But first must come other things outdoor things. Also housework.”
“Housework!” I echoed, feebly.
“Naturlich. A little dusting, a little scrubbing, a little sweeping, a little cooking. The finest kind of indoor exercise. Later you may write a little–but very little. Run and play out of doors with the children. When I see you again you will have roses in your cheeks like the German girls, yes?”
“Yes,” I echoed, meekly, “I wonder how Frieda will like my elephantine efforts at assisting with the housework. If she gives notice, Norah will be lost to you.”
But Frieda did not give notice. After I had helped her clean the kitchen and the pantry I noticed an expression of deepest pity overspreading her lumpy features. The expression became almost one of agony as she watched me roll out some noodles for soup, and delve into the sticky mysteries of a new kind of cake.
Max says that for a poor working girl who hasn’t had time to cultivate the domestic graces, my cakes are a distinct triumph. Sis sniffs at that, and mutters something about cups of raisins and nuts and citron hiding a multitude of batter sins. She never allows the Spalpeens to eat my cakes, and on my baking days they are usually sent from the table howling. Norah declares, severely, that she is going to hide the Green Cook Book. The Green Cook Book is a German one. Norah bought it in deference to Max’s love of German cookery. It is called Aunt Julchen’s cook book, and the author, between hints as to flour and butter, gets delightfully chummy with her pupil. Her cakes are proud, rich cakes. She orders grandly:
“Now throw in the yolks of twelve eggs; one-fourth of a pound of almonds; two pounds of raisins; a pound of citron; a pound of orange-peel.”
As if that were not enough, there follow minor instructions as to trifles like ounces of walnut meats, pounds of confectioner’s sugar, and pints of very rich cream. When cold, to be frosted with an icing made up of more eggs, more nuts, more cream, more everything.
The children have appointed themselves official lickers and scrapers of the spoons and icing pans, also official guides on their auntie’s walks. They regard their Aunt Dawn as a quite ridiculous but altogether delightful old thing.
And Norah–bless her! looks up when I come in from a romp with the Spalpeens and says: “Your cheeks are pink! Actually! And you’re losing a puff there at the back of your ear, and your hat’s on crooked. Oh, you are beginning to look your old self, Dawn dear!”
At which doubtful compliment I retort, recklessly: “Pooh! What’s a puff more or less, in a worthy cause? And if you think my cheeks are pink now, just wait until your mighty Von Gerhard comes again. By that time they shall be so red and bursting that Frieda’s, on wash day, will look anemic by comparison. Say, Norah, how red are German red cheeks, anyway?”
GOOD AS NEW
So Spring danced away, and Summer sauntered in. My pillows looked less and less tempting. The wine of the northern air imparted a cocky assurance. One blue-and-gold day followed the other, and I spent hours together out of doors in the sunshine, lying full length on the warm, sweet ground, to the horror of the entire neighborhood. To be sure, I was sufficiently discreet to choose the lawn at the rear of the house. There I drank in the atmosphere, as per doctor’s instructions, while the genial sun warmed the watery blood in my veins and burned the skin off the end of my nose.
All my life I had envied the loungers in the parks– those silent, inert figures that lie under the trees all the long summer day, their shabby hats over their faces, their hands clasped above their heads, legs sprawled in uncouth comfort, while the sun dapples down between the leaves and, like a good fairy godmother, touches their frayed and wrinkled garments with flickering figures of golden splendor, while they sleep. They always seemed so blissfully care-free and at ease–those sprawling men figures–and I, to whom such simple joys were forbidden, being a woman, had envied them.
Now I was reveling in that very joy, stretched prone upon the ground, blinking sleepily up at the sun and the cobalt sky, feeling my very hair grow, and health returning in warm, electric waves. I even dared to cross one leg over the other and to swing the pendant member with nonchalant air, first taking a cautious survey of the neighboring back windows to see if any one peeked. Doubtless they did, behind those ruffled curtains, but I grew splendidly indifferent.
Even the crawling things–and there were myriads of them–added to the enjoyment of my ease. With my ear so close to the ground the grass seemed fairly to buzz with them. Everywhere there were crazily busy ants, and I, patently a sluggard and therefore one of those for whom the ancient warning was intended, considered them lazily. How they plunged about, weaving in and out, rushing here and there, helter-skelter, like bargain-hunting women darting wildly from counter to counter!
“O, foolish, foolish anties!” I chided them, “stop wearing yourselves out this way. Don’t you know that the game isn’t worth the candle, and that you’ll give yourselves nervous jim-jams and then you’ll have to go home to be patched up? Look at me! I’m a horrible example.”
But they only bustled on, heedless of my advice, and showed their contempt by crawling over me as I lay there like a lady Gulliver.
Oh, I played what they call a heavy thinking part. It was not only the ants that came in for lectures. I preached sternly to myself.
“Well, Dawn old girl, you’ve made a beautiful mess of it. A smashed-up wreck at twenty-eight! And what have you to show for it? Nothing! You’re a useless pulp, like a lemon that has been squeezed dry. Von Gerhard was right. There must be no more newspaper work for you, me girl. Not if you can keep away from the fascination of it, which I don’t think you can.”
Then I would fall to thinking of those years of newspapering–of the thrills of them, and the ills of them. It had been exhilarating, and educating, but scarcely remunerative. Mother had never approved. Dad had chuckled and said that it was a curse descended upon me from the terrible old Kitty O’Hara, the only old maid in the history of the O’Haras, and famed in her day for a caustic tongue and a venomed pen. Dad and Mother–what a pair of children they had been! The very dissimilarity of their natures had been a bond between them. Dad, light-hearted, whimsical, care-free, improvident; Mother, gravely sweet, anxious-browed, trying to teach economy to the handsome Irish husband who, descendant of a long and royal line of spendthrift ancestors, would have none of it.
It was Dad who had insisted that they name me Dawn. Dawn O’Hara! His sense of humor must have been sleeping. “You were such a rosy, pinky, soft baby thing,” Mother had once told me, “that you looked just like the first flush of light at sunrise. That is why your father insisted on calling you Dawn.”
Poor Dad! How could he know that at twenty-eight I would be a yellow wreck of a newspaper reporter–with a wrinkle between my eyes. If he could see me now he would say:
“Sure, you look like the dawn yet, me girl but a Pittsburgh dawn.”
At that, Mother, if she were here, would pat my check where the hollow place is, and murmur: “Never mind, Dawnie dearie, Mother thinks you are beautiful just the same.” Of such blessed stuff are mothers made.
At this stage of the memory game I would bury my face in the warm grass and thank my God for having taken Mother before Peter Orme came into my life. And then I would fall asleep there on the soft, sweet grass, with my head snuggled in my arms, and the ants wriggling, unchided, into my ears.
On the last of these sylvan occasions I awoke, not with a graceful start, like the story-book ladies, but with a grunt. Sis was digging me in the ribs with her toe. I looked up to see her standing over me, a foaming tumbler of something in her hand. I felt that it was eggy and eyed it disgustedly.
“Get up,” said she, “you lazy scribbler, and drink this.”
I sat up, eyeing her severely and picking grass and ants out of my hair.
“D’ you mean to tell me that you woke me out of that babe-like slumber to make me drink that goo? What is it, anyway? I’ll bet it’s another egg-nogg.”
“Egg-nogg it is; and swallow it right away, because there are guests to see you.”
I emerged from the first dip into the yellow mixture and fixed on her as stern and terrible a look at any one can whose mouth is encircled by a mustache of yellow foam.
“Guests!” I roared, “not for me! Don’t you dare to say that they came to see me!”
“Did too,” insists Norah, with firmness, “they came especially to see you. Asked for you, right from the jump.”
I finished the egg-nogg in four gulps, returned the empty tumbler with an air of decision, and sank upon the grass.
“Tell ’em I rave. Tell ’em that I’m unconscious, and that for weeks I have recognized no one, not even my dear sister. Say that in my present nerve-shattered condition I–“
“That wouldn’t satisfy them,” Norah calmly. interrupts, “they know you’re crazy because they saw you out here from their second story back windows. That’s why they came. So you may as well get up and face them. I promised them I’d bring you in. You can’t go on forever refusing to see people, and you know the Whalens are–“
“Whalens!” I gasped. “How many of them? Not–not the entire fiendish three?”
“All three. I left them champing with impatience.”
The Whalens live just around the corner. The Whalens are omniscient. They have a system of news gathering which would make the efforts of a New York daily appear antiquated. They know that Jenny Laffin feeds the family on soup meat and oat-meal when Mr. Laffin is on the road; they know that Mrs. Pearson only shakes out her rugs once in four weeks; they can tell you the number of times a week that Sam Dempster comes home drunk; they know that the Merkles never have cream with their coffee because little Lizzie Merkle goes to the creamery every day with just one pail and three cents; they gloat over the knowledge that Professor Grimes, who is a married man, is sweet on Gertie Ashe, who teaches second reader in his school; they can tell you where Mrs. Black got her seal coat, and her husband only earning two thousand a year; they know who is going to run for mayor, and how long poor Angela Sims has to live, and what Guy Donnelly said to Min when he asked her to marry him.
The three Whalens–mother and daughters–hunt in a group. They send meaning glances to one another across the room, and at parties they get together and exchange bulletins in a corner. On passing the Whalen house one is uncomfortably aware of shadowy forms lurking in the windows, and of parlor curtains that are agitated for no apparent cause.
Therefore it was with a groan that I rose and prepared to follow Norah into the house. Something in my eye caused her to turn at the very door. “Don’t you dare!” she hissed; then, banishing the warning scowl from her face, and assuming a near-smile, she entered the room and I followed miserably at her heels.
The Whalens rose and came forward effusively; Mrs. Whalen, plump, dark, voluble; Sally, lean, swarthy, vindictive; Flossie, pudgy, powdered, over-dressed. They eyed me hungrily. I felt that they were searching my features for signs of incipient insanity.
“Dear, DEAR girl!” bubbled the billowy Flossie, kissing the end of my nose and fastening her eye on my ringless left hand.
Sally contented herself with a limp and fishy handshake. She and I were sworn enemies in our school-girl days, and a baleful gleam still lurked in Sally’s eye. Mrs. Whalen bestowed on me a motherly hug that enveloped me in an atmosphere of liquid face-wash, strong perfumery and fried lard. Mrs. Whalen is a famous cook. Said she:
“We’ve been thinking of calling ever since you were brought home, but dear me! you’ve been looking so poorly I just said to the girls, wait till the poor thing feels more like seeing her old friends. Tell me, how are you feeling now?”
The three sat forward in their chairs in attitudes of tense waiting.
I resolved that if err I must it should be on the side of safety. I turned to sister Norah.
“How am I feeling anyway, Norah?” I guardedly inquired.
Norah’s face was a study. “Why Dawn dear,” she said, sugar-sweet, “no doubt you know better than I. But I’m sure that you are wonderfully improved–almost your old self, in fact. Don’t you think she looks splendid, Mrs. Whalen?”
The three Whalens tore their gaze from my blank countenance to exchange a series of meaning looks.
“I suppose,” purred Mrs. Whalen, ” that your awful trouble was the real cause of your–a-a-a-sickness, worrying about it and grieving as you must have.”
She pronounces it with a capital T, and I know she means Peter. I hate her for it.
“Trouble!” I chirped. “Trouble never troubles me. I just worked too hard, that’s all, and acquired an awful `tired.’ All work and no play makes Jill a nervous wreck, you know.”
At that the elephantine Flossie wagged a playful finger at me. “Oh, now, you can’t make us believe that, just because we’re from the country! We know all about you gay New Yorkers, with your Bohemian ways and your midnight studio suppers, and your cigarettes, and cocktails and high jinks!”
Memory painted a swift mental picture of Dawn O’Hara as she used to tumble into bed after a whirlwind day at the office, too dog-tired to give her hair even one half of the prescribed one hundred strokes of the brush. But in turn I shook a reproving forefinger at Flossie.
“You’ve been reading some naughty society novel! One of those millionaire-divorce-actress-automobile novels. Dear, dear! Shall I, ever forget the first New York actress I ever met; or what she said!”
I felt, more than saw, a warning movement from Sis. But the three Whalens had hitched forward in their chairs.
“What did she say?” gurgled Flossie. “Was it something real reezk?”
“Well, it was at a late supper–a studio supper given in her honor,” I confessed.
“Yes-s-s-s ” hissed the Whalens.
“And this actress–she was one of those musical comedy actresses, you know; I remember her part called for a good deal of kicking about in a short Dutch costume–came in rather late, after the performance. She was wearing a regal-looking fur-edged evening wrap, and she still wore all her make-up”–out of the corner of my eye I saw Sis sink back with an air of resignation–“and she threw open the door and said–
“Yes-s-s-s! ” hissed the Whalens again, wetting their lips.
“–said: `Folks, I just had a wire from mother, up in Maine. The boy has the croup. I’m scared green. I hate to spoil the party, but don’t ask me to stay. I want to go home to the flat and blubber. I didn’t even stop to take my make-up off. My God! If anything should happen to the boy!–Well, have a good time without me. Jim’s waiting outside.'” A silence.
Then–“Who was Jim?” asked Flossie, hopefully.
“Jim was her husband, of course. He was in the same company.”
“Is that all?” demanded Sally from the corner in which she had been glowering.
“All! You unnatural girl! Isn’t one husband enough?”
Mrs. Whalen smiled an uncertain, wavering smile. There passed among the three a series of cabalistic signs. They rose simultaneously.
“How quaint you are!” exclaimed Mrs. Whalen, “and so amusing! Come girls, we mustn’t tire Miss–ah–Mrs.– er–“with another meaning look at my bare left hand.
“My husband’s name is still Orme,” I prompted, quite, quite pleasantly.
“Oh, certainly. I’m so forgetful. And one reads such queer things in the newspapers nowa-days. Divorces, and separations, and soul-mates and things.” There was a note of gentle insinuation in her voice.
Norah stepped firmly into the fray. “Yes, doesn’t one? What a comfort it must be to you to know that your dear girls are safe at home with you, and no doubt will be secure, for years to come, from the buffeting winds of matrimony.”
There was a tinge of purple in Mrs. Whalen’s face as she moved toward the door, gathering her brood about her. “Now that dear Dawn is almost normal again I shall send my little girlies over real often. She must find it very dull here after her–ah–life in New York.”
“Not at all,” I said, hurriedly, “not at all. You see I’m–I’m writing a book. My entire day is occupied.”
“A book!” screeched the three. “How interesting! What is it? When will it be published?”
I avoided Norah’s baleful eye as I answered their questions and performed the final adieux.
As the door closed, Norah and I faced each other, glaring.
“Hussies!” hissed Norah. Whereupon it struck us funny and we fell, a shrieking heap, into the nearest chair. Finally Sis dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief, drew a long breath, and asked, with elaborate sarcasm, why I hadn’t made it a play instead of a book, while I was about it.
“But I mean it,” I declared. “I’ve had enough of loafing. Max must unpack my typewriter to-night. I’m homesick for a look at the keys. And to-morrow I’m to be installed in the cubbyhole off the dining-room and I defy any one to enter it on peril of their lives. If you value the lives of your offspring, warn them away from that door. Von Gerhard said that there was writing in my system, and by the Great Horn Spoon and the Beard of the Prophet, I’ll have it out! Besides, I need the money. Norah dear, how does one set about writing a book? It seems like such a large order.”
DAWN DEVELOPS A HEIMWEH
It’s hard trying to develop into a real Writer Lady in the bosom of one’s family, especially when the family refuses to take one seriously. Seven years of newspaper grind have taught me the fallacy of trying to write by the inspiration method. But there is such a thing as a train of thought, and mine is constantly being derailed, and wrecked and pitched about.
Scarcely am I settled in my cubby-hole, typewriter before me, the working plan of a story buzzing about in my brain, when I hear my name called in muffled tones, as though the speaker were laboring with a mouthful of hairpins. I pay no attention. I have just given my heroine a pair of calm gray eyes, shaded with black lashes and hair to match. A voice floats down from the upstairs regions.
“Dawn! Oh, Dawn! Just run and rescue the cucumbers out of the top of the ice-box, will you? The iceman’s coming, and he’ll squash ’em.”
A parting jab at my heroine’s hair and eyes, and I’m off to save the cucumbers.
Back at my typewriter once more. Shall I make my heroine petite or grande? I decide that stateliness and Gibsonesque height should accompany the calm gray eyes. I rattle away happily, the plot unfolding itself in some mysterious way. Sis opens the door a little and peers in. She is dressed for the street.
“Dawn dear, I’m going to the dressmaker’s. Frieda’s upstairs cleaning the bathroom, so take a little squint at the roast now and then, will you? See that it doesn’t burn, and that there’s plenty of gravy. Oh, and Dawn– tell the milkman we want an extra half-pint of cream to-day. The tickets are on the kitchen shelf, back of the clock. I’ll be back in an hour.”
“Mhmph,” I reply.
Sis shuts the door, but opens it again almost immediately.
“Don’t let the Infants bother you. But if Frieda’s upstairs and they come to you for something to eat, don’t let them have any cookies before dinner. If they’re really hungry they’ll eat bread and butter.”
I promise, dreamily, my last typewritten sentence still running through my head. The gravy seems to have got into the heroine’s calm gray eyes. What heroine could remain calm-eyed when her creator’s mind is filled with roast beef? A half-hour elapses before I get back on the track. Then appears the hero–a tall blond youth, fair to behold. I make him two yards high, and endow him with a pair of clothing-advertisement shoulders.
There assails my nostrils a fearful smell of scorching. The roast! A wild rush into the kitchen. I fling open the oven door. The roast is mahogany-colored, and gravyless. It takes fifteen minutes of the most desperate first-aid-to-the-injured measures before the roast is revived.
Back to the writing. It has lost its charm. The gray-eyed heroine is a stick; she moves like an Indian lady outside a cigar shop. The hero is a milk-and-water sissy, without a vital spark in him. What’s the use of trying to write, anyway? Nobody wants my stuff. Good for nothing except dubbing on a newspaper!
Rap! Rap! Rappity-rap-rap! Bing! Milk!
I dash into the kitchen. No milk! No milkman! I fly to the door. He is disappearing around the corner of the house.
“Hi! Mr. Milkman! Say, Mr. Milkman!” with frantic beckonings.
He turns. He lifts up his voice. “The screen door was locked so I left youse yer milk on top of the ice-box on the back porch. Thought like the hired girl was upstairs an’ I could git the tickets to-morra.”
I explain about the cream, adding that it is wanted for short-cake. The explanation does not seem to cheer him. He appears to be a very gloomy and reserved milkman. I fancy that he is in the habit of indulging in a little airy persiflage with Frieda o’ mornings, and he finds me a poor substitute for her red-cheeked comeliness.
The milk safely stowed away in the ice-box, I have another look at the roast. I am dipping up spoonfuls of brown gravy and pouring them over the surface of the roast in approved basting style, when there is a rush, a scramble, and two hard bodies precipitate themselves upon my legs so suddenly that for a moment my head pitches forward into the oven. I withdraw my head from the oven, hastily. The basting spoon is immersed in the bottom of the pan. I turn, indignant. The Spalpeens look up at me with innocent eyes.
“You little divils, what do you mean by shoving your old aunt into the oven! It’s cannibals you are!”
The idea pleases them. They release my legs and execute a savage war dance around me. The Spalpeens are firm in the belief that I was brought to their home for their sole amusement, and they refuse to take me seriously. The Spalpeens themselves are two of the finest examples of real humor that ever were perpetrated upon parents. Sheila is the first-born. Norah decided that she should be an Irish beauty, and bestowed upon her a name that reeks of the bogs. Whereupon Sheila, at the age of six, is as flaxen-haired and blue-eyed and stolid a little German madchen as ever fooled her parents, and she is a feminine reproduction of her German Dad. Two years later came a sturdy boy, and they named him Hans, in a flaunt of defiance. Hans is black-haired, gray-eyed and Irish as Killarny.
“We’re awful hungry,” announces Sheila.
“Can’t you wait until dinner time? Such a grand dinner!”
Sheila and Hans roll their eyes to convey to me that, were they to wait until dinner for sustenance we should find but their lifeless forms.
“Well then, Auntie will get a nice piece of bread and butter for each of you.”
“Don’t want bread an’ butty!” shrieks Hans. “Want tooky!”
“Cooky!” echoes Sheila, pounding on the kitchen table with the rescued basting spoon.
“You can’t have cookies before dinner. They’re bad for your insides.”
“Can too,” disputes Hans. “Fwieda dives us tookies. Want tooky!” wailingly.
“Please, ple-e-e-ease, Auntie Dawnie dearie,” wheedles Sheila, wriggling her soft little fingers in my hand.
“But Mother never lets you have cookies before dinner,” I retort severely. “She knows they are bad for you.”
“Pooh, she does too! She always says, `No, not a cooky!’ And then we beg and screech, and then she says, `Oh, for pity’s sake, Frieda, give ’em a cooky and send ’em out. One cooky can’t kill ’em.'” Sheila’s imitation is delicious.
Hans catches the word screech and takes it as his cue. He begins a series of ear-piercing wails. Sheila surveys him with pride and then takes the wail up in a minor key. Their teamwork is marvelous. I fly to the cooky jar and extract two round and sugary confections. I thrust them into the pink, eager palms. The wails cease. Solemnly they place one cooky atop the other, measuring the circlets with grave eyes.
“Mine’s a weeny bit bigger’n yours this time,” decides Sheila, and holds her cooky heroically while Hans takes a just and lawful bite out of his sister’s larger share.
“The blessed little angels! ” I say to myself, melting. “The dear, unselfish little sweeties!” and give each of them another cooky.
Back to my typewriter. But the words flatly refuse to come now. I make six false starts, bite all my best finger-nails, screw my hair into a wilderness of cork-screws and give it up. No doubt a real Lady Writer could write on, unruffled and unhearing, while the iceman squashed the cucumbers, and the roast burned to a frazzle, and the Spalpeens perished of hunger. Possessed of the real spark of genius, trivialities like milkmen and cucumbers could not dim its glow. Perhaps all successful Lady Writers with real live sparks have cooks and scullery maids, and need not worry about basting, and gravy, and milkmen.
This book writing is all very well for those who have a large faith in the future and an equally large bank account. But my future will have to be hand-carved, and my bank account has always been an all too small pay envelope at the end of each week. It will be months before the book is shaped and finished. And my pocketbook is empty. Last week Max sent money for the care of Peter. He and Norah think that I do not know.
Von Gerhard was here in August. I told him that all my firm resolutions to forsake newspaperdom forever were slipping away, one by one.
“I have heard of the fascination of the newspaper office,” he said, in his understanding way. “I believe you have a heimweh for it, not?”
“Heimweh! That’s the word,” I had agreed. “After you have been a newspaper writer for seven years–and loved it–you will be a newspaper writer, at heart and by instinct at least, until you die. There’s no getting away from it. It’s in the blood. Newspaper men have been known to inherit fortunes, to enter politics, to write books and become famous, to degenerate into press agents and become infamous, to blossom into personages, to sink into nonentities, but their news-nose remained a part of them, and the inky, smoky, stuffy smell of a newspaper office was ever sweet in their nostrils.”
But, “Not yet,” Von Gerhard had said, “It unless you want to have again this miserable business of the sick nerfs. Wait yet a few months.”
And so I have waited, saying nothing to Norah and Max. But I want to be in the midst of things. I miss the sensation of having my fingers at the pulse of the big old world. I’m lonely for the noise and the rush and the hard work; for a glimpse of the busy local room just before press time, when the lights are swimming in a smoky haze, and the big presses downstairs are thundering their warning to hurry, and the men are breezing in from their runs with the grist of news that will be ground finer and finer as it passes through the mill of copy-readers’ and editors’ hands. I want to be there in the thick of the confusion that is, after all, so orderly. I want to be there when the telephone bells are zinging, and the typewriters are snapping, and the messenger boys are shuffling in and out, and the office kids are scuffling in a corner, and the big city editor, collar off, sleeves rolled up from his great arms, hair bristling wildly above his green eye-shade, is swearing gently and smoking cigarette after cigarette, lighting each fresh one at the dying glow of the last. I would give a year of my life to hear him say:
“I don’t mind tellin’ you, Beatrice Fairfax, that that was a darn good story you got on the Millhaupt divorce. The other fellows haven’t a word that isn’t re-hash.”
All of which is most unwomanly; for is not marriage woman’s highest aim, and home her true sphere? Haven’t I tried both? I ought to know. I merely have been miscast in this life’s drama. My part should have been that of one who makes her way alone. Peter, with his thin, cruel lips, and his shaking hands, and his haggard face and his smoldering eyes, is a shadow forever blotting out the sunny places in my path. I was meant to be an old maid, like the terrible old Kitty O’Hara. Not one of the tatting-and-tea kind, but an impressive, bustling old girl, with a double chin. The sharp-tongued Kitty O’Hara used to say that being an old maid was a great deal like death by drowning–a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling.
Norah has pleaded with me to be more like other women of my age, and for her sake I’ve tried. She has led me about to bridge parties and tea fights, and I have tried to act as though I were enjoying it all, but I knew that I wasn’t getting on a bit. I have come to the conclusion that one year of newspapering counts for two years of ordinary, existence, and that while I’m twenty-eight in the family Bible I’m fully forty inside. When one day may bring under one’s pen a priest, a pauper, a prostitute, a philanthropist, each with a story to tell, and each requiring to be bullied, or cajoled, or bribed, or threatened, or tricked into telling it; then the end of that day’s work finds one looking out at the world with eyes that are very tired and as old as the world itself.
I’m spoiled for sewing bees and church sociables and afternoon bridges. A hunger for the city is upon me. The long, lazy summer days have slipped by. There is an autumn tang in the air. The breeze has a touch that is sharp.
Winter in a little northern town! I should go mad. But winter in the city! The streets at dusk on a frosty evening; the shop windows arranged by artist hands for the beauty-loving eyes of women; the rows of lights like jewels strung on an invisible chain; the glitter of brass and enamel as the endless procession of motors flashes past; the smartly-gowned women; the keen-eyed, nervous men; the shrill note of the crossing policeman’s whistle; every smoke-grimed wall and pillar taking on a mysterious shadowy beauty in the purple dusk, every unsightly blot obscured by the kindly night. But best of all, the fascination of the People I’d Like to Know. They pop up now and then in the shifting crowds, and are gone the next moment, leaving behind them a vague regret. Sometimes I call them the People I’d Like to Know and sometimes I call them the People I Know I’d Like, but it means much the same. Their faces flash by in the crowd, and are gone, but I recognize them instantly as belonging to my beloved circle of unknown friends.
Once it was a girl opposite me in a car–a girl with a wide, humorous mouth, and tragic eyes, and a hole in her shoe. Once it was a big, homely, red-headed giant of a man with an engineering magazine sticking out of his coat pocket. He was standing at a book counter reading Dickens like a schoolboy and laughing in all the right places, I know, because I peaked over his shoulder to see. Another time it was a sprightly little, grizzled old woman, staring into a dazzling shop window in which was displayed a wonderful collection of fashionably impossible hats and gowns. She was dressed all in rusty black, was the little old lady, and she had a quaint cast in her left eye that gave her the oddest, most sporting look. The cast was working overtime as she gazed at the gowns, and the ridiculous old sprigs on her rusty black bonnet trembled with her silent mirth. She looked like one of those clever, epigrammatic, dowdy old duchesses that one reads about in English novels. I’m sure she had cardamon seeds in her shabby bag, and a carriage with a crest on it waiting for her just around the corner. I ached to slip my hand through her arm and ask her what she thought of it all. I know that her reply would have been exquisitely witty and audacious, and I did so long to hear her say it.
No doubt some good angel tugs at my common sense, restraining me from doing these things that I am tempted to do. Of course it would be madness for a woman to address unknown red-headed men with the look of an engineer about them and a book of Dickens in their hands; or perky old women with nutcracker faces; or girls with wide humorous mouths. Oh, it couldn’t be done, I suppose. They would clap me in a padded cell in no time if I were to say:
“Mister Red-headed Man, I’m so glad your heart is young enough for Dickens. I love him too–enough to read him standing at a book counter in a busy shop. And do you know, I like the squareness of your jaw, and the way your eyes crinkle up when you laugh; and as for your being an engineer–why one of the very first men I ever loved was the engineer in `Soldiers of Fortune.'”
I wonder what the girl in the car would have said if I had crossed over to her, and put my hand on her arm and spoken, thus:
“Girl with the wide, humorous mouth, and the tragic eyes, and the hole in your shoe, I think you must be an awfully good sort. I’ll wager you paint, or write, or act, or do something clever like that for a living. But from that hole in your shoe which you have inked so carefully, although it persists in showing white at the seams, I fancy you are stumbling over a rather stony bit of Life’s road just now. And from the look in your eyes, girl, I’m afraid the stones have cut and bruised rather cruelly. But when I look at your smiling, humorous mouth I know that you are trying to laugh at the hurts. I think that this morning, when you inked your shoe for the dozenth time, you hesitated between tears and laughter, and the laugh won, thank God! Please keep right on laughing, and don’t you dare stop for a minute! Because pretty soon you’ll come to a smooth easy place, and then won’t you be glad that you didn’t give up to lie down by the roadside, weary of your hurts?”
Oh, it would never do. Never. And yet no charm possessed by the people I know and like can compare with the fascination of those People I’d Like to Know, and Know I Would Like.
Here at home with Norah there are no faces in the crowds. There are no crowds. When you turn the corner at Main street you are quite sure that you will see the same people in the same places. You know that Mamie Hayes will be flapping her duster just outside the door of the jewelry store where she clerks. She gazes up and down Main street as she flaps the cloth, her bright eyes keeping a sharp watch for stray traveling men that may chance to be passing. You know that there will be the same lounging group of white-faced, vacant-eyed youths outside the pool-room. Dr. Briggs’s patient runabout will be standing at his office doorway. Outside his butcher shop Assemblyman Schenck will be holding forth on the subject of county politics to a group of red-faced, badly dressed, prosperous looking farmers and townsmen, and as he talks the circle of brown tobacco juice which surrounds the group closes in upon them, nearer and nearer. And there, in a roomy chair in a corner of the public library reference room, facing the big front window, you will see Old Man Randall. His white hair forms a halo above his pitiful drink-marred face. He was to have been a great lawyer, was Old Man Randall. But on the road to fame he met Drink, and she grasped his arm, and led him down by-ways, and into crooked lanes, and finally into ditches, and he never arrived at his goal. There in that library window nook it is cool in summer, and warm in winter. So he sits and dreams, holding an open volume, unread, on his knees. Some times he writes, hunched up in his corner, feverishly scribbling at ridiculous plays, short stories, and novels which later he will insist on reading to the tittering schoolboys and girls who come into the library to do their courting and reference work. Presently, when it grows dusk, Old Man Randall will put away his book, throw his coat over his shoulders, sleeves dangling, flowing white locks sweeping the frayed velvet collar. He will march out with his soldierly tread, humming a bit of a tune, down the street and into Vandermeister’s saloon, where he will beg a drink and a lunch, and some man will give it to him for the sake of what Old Man Randall might have been.
All these things you know. And knowing them, what is left for the imagination? How can one dream dreams about people when one knows how much they pay their hired girl, and what they have for dinner on Wednesdays?
THE ABSURD BECOMES SERIOUS
I can understand the emotions of a broken-down war horse that is hitched to a vegetable wagon. I am going to Milwaukee to work! It is a thing to make the gods hold their sides and roll down from their mountain peaks with laughter. After New York–Milwaukee!
Of course Von Gerhard is to blame. But I think even he sees the humor of it. It happened in this way, on a day when I was indulging in a particularly greenery-yallery fit of gloom. Norah rushed into my room. I think I was mooning over some old papers, or letters, or ribbons, or some such truck in the charming, knife-turning way that women have when they are blue.
“Out wid yez!” cried Norah. “On with your hat and coat! I’ve just had a wire from Ernst von Gerhard. He’s coming, and you look like an under-done dill pickle. You aren’t half as blooming as when he was here in August, and this is October. Get out and walk until your cheeks are so red that Von Gerhard will refuse to believe that this fiery-faced puffing, bouncing creature is the green and limp thing that huddled in a chair a few months ago. Out ye go!”
And out I went. Hatless, I strode countrywards, leaving paved streets and concrete walks far behind. There were drifts of fallen leaves all about, and I scuffled through them drearily, trying to feel gloomy, and old, and useless, and failing because of the tang in the air, and the red-and-gold wonder of the frost-kissed leaves, and the regular pump-pump of good red blood that was coursing through my body as per Norah’s request.
In a field at the edge of the town, just where city and country begin to have a bowing acquaintance, the college boys were at football practice. Their scarlet sweaters made gay patches of color against the dull gray-brown of the autumn grass.
“Seven-eighteen-two-four!” called a voice. There followed a scuffle, a creaking of leather on leather, a thud. I watched them, a bit enviously, walking backwards until a twist in the road hid them from view. That same twist transformed my path into a real country road– a brown, dusty, monotonous Michigan country road that went severely about its business, never once stopping to flirt with the blushing autumn woodland at its left, or to dally with the dimpling ravine at its right.
“Now if that were an English country road,” thought I, “a sociably inclined, happy-go-lucky, out-for-pleasure English country road, one might expect something of it. On an English country road this would be the psychological moment for the appearance of a blond god, in gray tweed. What a delightful time of it Richard Le Gallienne’s hero had on his quest! He could not stroll down the most innocent looking lane, he might not loiter along the most out-of-the-way path, he never ambled over the barest piece of country road, that he did not come face to face with some witty and lovely woman creature, also in search of things unconventional, and able to quote charming lines from Chaucer to him.”
Ah, but that was England, and this is America. I realize it sadly as I step out of the road to allow a yellow milk wagon to rattle past. The red letters on the yellow milk cart inform the reader that it is the property of August Schimmelpfennig, of Hickory Grove. The Schimmelpfennig eye may be seen staring down upon me from the bit of glass in the rear as the cart rattles ahead, doubtless being suspicious of hatless young women wandering along country roads at dusk, alone. There was that in the staring eye to which I took exception. It wore an expression which made me feel sure that the mouth below it was all a-grin, if I could but have seen it. It was bad enough to be stared at by the fishy Schimmelpfennig eye, but to be grinned at by the Schimmelpfennig mouth!–I resented it. In order to show my resentment I turned my back on the Schimmelpfennig cart and pretended to look up the road which I had just traveled.
I pretended to look up the road, and then I did look in earnest. No wonder the Schimmelpfennig eye and mouth had worn the leering expression. The blond god in gray tweed was swinging along toward me! I knew that he was blond because he wore no hat and the last rays of the October sun were making a little halo effect about his head. I knew that his-gray clothes were tweed because every well regulated hero on a country road wears tweed. It’s almost a religion with them. He was not near enough to make a glance at his features possible. I turned around and continued my walk. The yellow cart, with its impudent Schimmelpfennig leer, was disappearing in a cloud of dust. Shades of the “Duchess” and Bertha M. Clay! How does one greet a blond god in gray tweed on a country road, when one has him!
The blond god solved the problem for me.
“Hi!” he called. I did not turn. There was a moment’s silence. Then there came a shrill, insistent whistle, of the kind that is made by placing four fingers between the teeth. It is a favorite with the gallery gods. I would not have believed that gray tweed gods stooped to it.
“Hi!” called the voice again, very near now. “Lieber Gott! Never have I seen so proud a young woman!”
I whirled about to face Von Gerhard; a strangely boyish and unprofessional looking Von Gerhard.
“Young man,” I said severely, “have you been a-follerin’ of me?”
“For miles,” groaned he, as we shook hands. You walk like a grenadier. I am sent by the charming Norah to tell you that you are to come home to mix the salad dressing, for there is company for supper. I am the company.”
I was still a bit dazed. “But how did you know which road to take? And when–“
“Wunderbar, nicht wahr?” laughed Von Gerhard. “But really quite simple. I come in on an earlier train than I had expected, chat a moment with sister Norah, inquire after the health of my patient, and am told that she is running away from a horde of blue devils!–quote your charming sister–that have swarmed about her all day. What direction did her flight take? I ask. Sister Norah shrugs her shoulders and presumes that it is the road which shows the reddest and yellowest autumn colors. That road will be your road. So!”
“Pooh! How simple! That is the second`disappointment you have given me to-day.”
“But how is that possible? The first has not had time to happen.”
“The first was yourself,” I replied, rudely.
“I had been longing for an adventure. And when I saw you ‘way up the road, such an unusual figure for our Michigan country roads, I forgot that I was a disappointed old grass widder with a history, and I grew young again, and my heart jumped up into my throat, and I sez to mesilf, sez I: `Enter the hero!’ And it was only you.”
Von Gerhard stared a moment, a curious look on his face. Then he laughed one of those rare laughs of his, and I joined him because I was strangely young, light, and happy to be alive.
“You walk and enjoy walking, yes?” asked Von Gerhard, scanning my face. “Your cheeks they are like–well, as unlike the cheeks of the German girls as Diana’s are unlike a dairy maid’s. And the nerfs? They no longer jump, eh?”
“Oh, they jump, but not with weariness. They jump to get into action again. From a life of too much excitement I have gone to the other extreme. I shall be dead of ennui in another six months.”
“Ennui?” mused he, “and you are–how is it?– twenty-eight years, yes? H’m!”
There was a world of exasperation in the last exclamation.
“I am a thousand years old,” it made me exclaim, “a million!”
“I will prove to you that you are sixteen,” declared Von Gerhard, calmly.
We had come to a fork in the road. At the right the narrower road ran between two rows of great maples that made an arch of golden splendor. The frost had kissed them into a gorgeous radiance.
“Sunshine Avenue,” announced Von Gerhard. “It beckons us away from home, and supper and salad dressing and duty, but who knows what we shall find at the end of it!”
“Let’s explore,” I suggested. “It is splendidly golden enough to be enchanted.”
We entered the yellow canopied pathway.
“Let us pretend this is Germany, yes?” pleaded Von Gerhard. “This golden pathway will end in a neat little glass-roofed restaurant, with tables and chairs outside, and comfortable German papas and mammas and pig-tailed children sitting at the tables, drinking coffee or beer. There will be stout waiters, and a red-faced host. And we will seat ourselves at one of the tables, and I will wave my hand, and one of the stout waiters will come flying. `Will you have coffee, _Fraulein_, or beer?’ It sounds prosaic, but it is very, very good, as you will see. Pathways in Germany always end in coffee and Kuchen and waiters in white aprons.”
But, “Oh, no!” I exclaimed, for his mood was infectious. “This is France. Please! The golden pathway will end in a picturesque little French farm, with a dairy. And in the doorway of the farmhouse there will be a red-skirted peasant woman, with a white cap! and a baby on her arm! and sabots! Oh, surely she will wear sabots!”
“Most certainly she will wear sabots,” Von Gerhard said, heatedly, “and blue knitted stockings. And the baby’s name is Mimi!
We had taken hands and were skipping down the pathway now, like two excited children.
“Let’s run,” I suggested. And run we did, like two mad creatures, until we rounded a gentle curve and brought up, panting, within a foot of a decrepit rail fence. The rail fence enclosed a stubbly, lumpy field. The field was inhabited by an inquiring cow. Von Gerhard and I stood quite still, hand in hand, gazing at the cow. Then we turned slowly and looked at each other.
“This pathway of glorified maples ends in a cow,” I said, solemnly. At which we both shrieked with mirth, leaning on the decrepit fence and mopping our eyes with our handkerchiefs.
“Did I not say you were sixteen?” taunted Von Gerhard. We were getting surprisingly well acquainted.
“Such a scolding as we shall get! It will be quite dark before we are home. Norah will be tearing her hair.”
It was a true prophecy. As we stampeded up the steps the door was flung open, disclosing a tragic figure.
“Such a steak!” wailed Norah, ” and it has been done for hours and hours, and now it looks like a piece of fried ear. Where have you two driveling idiots been? And mushrooms too.”
“She means that the ruined steak was further enhanced by mushrooms,” I explained in response to Von Gerhard’s bewildered look. We marched into the house, trying not to appear like sneak thieves. Max, pipe in mouth, surveyed us blandly.
“Fine color you’ve got, Dawn,” he remarked.
“There is such a thing as overdoing this health business,” snapped Norah, with a great deal of acidity for her. “I didn’t tell you to make them purple, you know.”
Max turned to Von Gerhard. “Now what does she mean by that do you suppose, eh Ernst?”
“Softly, brother, softly!” whispered Von Gerhard. “When women exchange remarks that apparently are simple, and yet that you, a man, cannot understand, then know there is a woman’s war going on, and step softly, and hold your peace. Aber ruhig!”
Calm was restored with the appearance of the steak, which was found to have survived the period of waiting, and to be incredibly juicy and tender. Presently we were all settled once more in the great beamed living room, Sis at the piano, the two men smoking their after-dinner cigars with that idiotic expression of contentment which always adorns the masculine face on such occasions.
I looked at them–at those three who had done so much for my happiness and well being, and something within me said: “Now! Speak now!” Norah was playing very softly, so that the Spalpeens upstairs might not be disturbed. I took a long breath and made the plunge.
“Norah, if you’ll continue the slow music, I’ll be much obliged. `The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things.'”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Norah, over her shoulder, and went on playing.
“I never was more serious in my life, good folkses all. I’ve got to be. This butterfly existence has gone on long enough. Norah, and Max, and Mr. Doctor Man, I am going away.”
Norah’s hands crashed down on the piano keys with a jangling discord. She swung about to face me.
“Not New York again, Dawn! Not New York!”
“I am afraid so,” I answered.
Max–bless his great, brotherly heart– rose and came over to me and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t you like it here, girlie? Want to be hauled home on a shutter again, do you? You know that as long as we have a home, you have one. We need you here.”
But I shook my head. From his chair at the other side of the room I could feel Von Gerhard’s gaze fixed upon us. He had said nothing.
“Need me! No one needs me. Don’t worry; I’m not going to become maudlin about it. But I don’t belong here, and you know, it. I have my work to do. Norah is the best sister that a woman ever had. And Max, you’re an angel brother-in-law. But how can I stay on here and keep my self-respect?” I took Max’s big hand in mine and gathered courage from it.
“But you have been working,” wailed Norah, “every morning. And I thought the book was coming on beautifully. And I’m sure it will be a wonderful book, Dawn dear. You are so clever.”
“Oh, the book–it is too uncertain. Perhaps it will go, but perhaps it won’t. And then–what? It will be months before the book is properly polished off. And then I may peddle it around for more months. No; I can’t afford to trifle with uncertainties. Every newspaper man or woman writes a book. It’s like having the measles. There is not a newspaper man living who does not believe, in his heart, that if he could only take a month or two away from the telegraph desk or the police run, he could write the book of the year, not to speak of the great American Play. Why, just look at me! I’ve only been writing`seriously for a few weeks, and already the best magazines in the country are refusing my manuscripts daily.”
“Don’t joke,” said Norah, coming over to me, “I can’t stand it.”
“Why not? Much better than weeping, isn’t it? And anyway, I’m no subject for tears any more. Dr. von Gerhard will tell you how well and strong I am. Won’t you, Herr Doktor?”
Well,” said Von Gerhard, in his careful, deliberate English, “since you ask me, I should say that you might last about one year, in New York.”
“There! What did I tell you!” cried Norah.
“What utter blither!” I scoffed, turning to glare at Von Gerhard.
“Gently,” warned Max. “Such disrespect to the man who pulled you back from the edge of the yawning grave only six months ago!”
“Yawning fiddlesticks!” snapped I, elegantly. “There was nothing wrong with me except that I wanted to be fussed over. And I have been. And I’ve loved it. But it must stop now.” I rose and walked over to the table and faced Von Gerhard, sitting there in the depths of a great chair. “You do not seem to realize that I am not free to come and go, and work and play, and laugh and live like other women. There is my living to make. And there is–Peter Orme. Do you think that I could stay on here like this? Oh, I know that Max is not a poor man. But he is not a rich man, either. And there are the children to be educated, and besides, Max married Norah O’Hara, not the whole O’Hara tribe. I want to go to work. I am not a free woman, but when I am working, I forget, and am almost, happy. I tell you I must be well again! I will be well! I am well!”
At the end of which dramatic period I spoiled the whole effect by bowing my head on the table and giving way to a fit of weeping such as I had not had since the days of my illness.
“Looks like it,” said Max, at which I decided to laugh, and the situation was saved.
It was then that Von Gerhard proposed the thing that set us staring at him in amused wonder. He came over and stood looking down at us, his hands outspread upon the big library table, his body bent forward in an attitude of eager intentness. I remember thinking what wonderful hands they were, true indexes of the man’s character; broad, white, surgeonly hands; the fingers almost square at the tips. They were hands as different from those slender, nervous, unsteady, womanly hands of Peter Orme as any hands could be, I thought. They were hands made for work that called for delicate strength, if such a paradox could be; hands to cling to; to gain courage