“Good-by! Good-by! Write, now! Be sure! Mebbe you can get off in a week, for a visit. Good-by! Good—-”
They were gone. Their voices came back to the crowd on the depot platform– high, clear young voices; almost like the voices of children, shouting.
Well, you wrote letters–fat, bulging letters–and in turn you received equally plump envelopes with a red emblem in one corner.
You sent boxes of homemade fudge (nut variety) and cookies and the more durable forms of cake.
Then, unaccountably, Chuck was whisked all the way to California.
He was furious at parting with his mates, and his indignation was expressed in his letters to Tessie. She sympathized with him in her replies. She tried to make light of it, but there was a little clutch of terror in it, too. California! Might as well send a person to the end of the world while they were about it. Two months of that. Then, inexplicably again, Chuck’s letters bore the astounding postmark of New York. She thought, in a panic, that he was Franceward bound, but it turned out not to be so. Not yet. Chuck’s letters were taking on a cosmopolitan tone. “Well,” he wrote, “I guess the little old town is as dead as ever. It seems funny you being right there all this time and I’ve traveled from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Everybody treats me swell. You ought to seen some of those California houses. They make Hatton’s place look like a dump.”
The girls, Cora and Tess and the rest, laughed and joked among themselves and assured one another, with a toss of the head, that they could have a good time without the fellas. They didn’t need boys around.
They gave parties, and they were not a success. There was one of the type known as a stag. “Some hen party!” they all said. They danced, and sang “Over There.” They had ice cream and chocolate layer cake and went home in great hilarity, with their hands on each other’s shoulders, still singing.
But the thing was a failure, and they knew it. Next day, at the lunch hour and in the washroom, there was a little desultory talk about the stag. But the meat of such an aftergathering is contained in phrases such as “I says to him”–and “He says to me.” They wasted little conversation on the stag. It was much more exciting to exhibit letters on blue-lined paper with the red emblem at the top. Chuck’s last letter had contained the news of his sergeancy.
Angie Hatton, home from the East, was writing letters, too. Everyone in Chippewa knew that. She wrote on that new art paper with the gnawed- looking edges and stiff as a newly laundered cuff. But the letters which she awaited so eagerly were written on the same sort of paper as were those Tessie had from Chuck–blue-lined, cheap in quality. A New York fellow, Chippewa learned; an aviator. They knew, too, that young Hatton was an infantry lieutenant somewhere in the East. These letters were not from him.
Ever since her home-coming, Angie had been sewing at the Red Cross shop on Grand Avenue. Chippewa boasted two Red Cross shops. The Grand Avenue shop was the society shop. The East End crowd sewed there, capped, veiled, aproned–and unapproachable. Were your fingers ever so deft, your knowledge of seams and basting mathematical, your skill with that complicated garment known as a pneumonia jacket uncanny, if you did not belong to the East End set, you did not sew at the Grand Avenue shop. No matter how grossly red the blood which the Grand Avenue bandages and pads were ultimately to stanch, the liquid in the fingers that rolled and folded them was pure cerulean.
Tessie and her crowd had never thought of giving any such service to their country. They spoke of the Grand Avenue workers as “that stinkin’ bunch.” Yet each one of the girls was capable of starting a blouse in an emergency on Saturday night and finishing it in time for a Sunday picnic, buttonholes and all. Their help might have been invaluable. It never was asked.
Without warning, Chuck came home on three days’ furlough. It meant that he was bound for France right enough this time. But Tessie didn’t care.
“I don’t care where you’re goin’,” she said exultantly, her eyes lingering on the stocky, straight, powerful figure in its rather ill-fitting khaki. “You’re here now. That’s enough. Ain’t you tickled to be home, Chuck? Gee!” `
`I’ll say,” responded Chuck. But even he seemed to detect some lack in his tone and words. He elaborated somewhat shamefacedly:
“Sure. It’s swell to be home. But I don’t know. After you’ve traveled around, and come back, things look so kind of little to you. I don’t know–kind of—-” He floundered about, at a loss for expression. Then tried again: “Now, take Hatton’s place, for example. I always used to think it was a regular palace, but, gosh, you ought to see places where I was asked to in San Francisco and around there. Why, they was–were–enough to make the Hatton house look like a shack. Swimmin’ pools of white marble, and acres of yard like a park, and the help always bringing you something to eat or drink. And the folks themselves–why, say! Here we are scraping and bowing to Hattons and that bunch. They’re pikers to what some people are that invited me to their houses in New York and Berkeley, and treated me and the other guys like kings or something. Take Megan’s store, too”–he was warming to his subject, so that he failed to notice the darkening of Tessie’s face–“it’s a joke compared to New York and San Francisco stores. Reg’lar hick joint.”
Tessie stiffened. Her teeth were set, her eyes sparkled. She tossed her head. “Well, I’m sure, Mr. Mory, it’s good enough for me. Too bad you had to come home at all now you’re so elegant and swell, and everything. You better go call on Angie Hatton instead of wasting time on me. She’d probably be tickled to see you.”
He stumbled to his feet, then, awkwardly. “Aw, say, Tessie, I didn’t mean–why, say–you don’t suppose–why, believe me, I pretty near busted out cryin’ when I saw the Junction eatin’ house when my train came in. And I been thinking of you every minute. There wasn’t a day—-”
“Tell that to your swell New York friends. I may be a hick but I ain’t a fool.” She was near to tears.
“Why, say, Tess, listen! Listen! If you knew–if you knew–A guy’s got to–he’s got no right to—-”
And presently Tessie was mollified, but only on the surface. She smiled and glanced and teased and sparkled. And beneath was terror. He talked differently. He walked differently. It wasn’t his clothes or the army. It was something else–an ease of manner, a new leisureliness of glance, an air. Once Tessie had gone to Milwaukee over Labor Day. It was the extent of her experience as a traveler. She remembered how superior she had felt for at least two days after. But Chuck! California! New York! It wasn’t the distance that terrified her. It was his new knowledge, the broadening of his vision, though she did not know it and certainly could not have put it into words.
They went walking down by the river to Oneida Springs, and drank some of the sulphur water that tasted like rotten eggs. Tessie drank it with little shrieks and shudders and puckered her face up into an expression indicative of extreme disgust.
“It’s good for you,” Chuck said, and drank three cups of it, manfully. “That taste is the mineral qualities the water contains–sulphur and iron and so forth.”
“I don’t care,” snapped Tessie irritably. “I hate it!” They had often walked along the river and tasted of the spring water, but Chuck had never before waxed scientific. They took a boat at Baumann’s boathouse and drifted down the lovely Fox River.
“Want to row?” Chuck asked. “I’ll get an extra pair of oars if you do.”
“I don’t know how. Besides, it’s too much work. I guess I’ll let you do it.”
Chuck was fitting his oars in the oarlocks. She stood on the landing looking down at him. His hat was off. His hair seemed blonder than ever against the rich tan of his face. His neck muscles swelled a little as he bent. Tessie felt a great longing to bury her face in the warm red skin. He straightened with a sigh and smiled at her. “I’ll be ready in a minute.” He took off his coat and turned his khaki shirt in at the throat, so that you saw the white line of his untanned chest in strange contrast to his sun- burned throat. A feeling of giddy faintness surged over Tessie. She stepped blindly into the boat and would have fallen if Chuck’s hard, firm grip had not steadied her. “Whoa, there! Don’t you know how to step into a boat? There. Walk along the middle.”
She sat down and smiled up at him. “I don’t know how I come to do that. I never did before.”
Chuck braced his feet, rolled up his sleeves, and took an oar in each brown hand, bending rhythmically to his task. He looked about him, then at the girl, and drew a deep breath, feathering his oars. “I guess I must have dreamed about this more’n a million times.”
“Have you, Chuck?”
They drifted on in silence. “Say, Tess, you ought to learn to row. It’s good exercise. Those girls in California and New York, they play tennis and row and swim as good as the boys. Honest, some of ’em are wonders!”
Oh, I’m sick of your swell New York friends! Can’t you talk about something else?”
He saw that he had blundered without in the least understanding how or why. “All right. What’ll we talk about?” In itself a fatal admission.
“About–you.” Tessie made it a caress.
“Me? Nothin’ to tell about me. I just been drillin’ and studyin’ and marchin’ and readin’ some—- Oh, say, what d’you think?”
“They been learnin’ us–teachin’ us, I mean–French. It’s the darnedest language! Bread is pain. Can you beat that? If you want to ask for a piece of bread, you say like this: DONNAY MA UN MORSO DOO PANG. See?”
“My!” breathed Tessie.
And within her something was screaming: Oh, my God! Oh, my God! He knows French. And those girls that can row and swim and everything. And me, I don’t know anything. Oh, God, what’ll I do?
It was as though she could see him slipping away from her, out of her grasp, out of her sight. She had no fear of what might come to him in France. Bullets and bayonets would never hurt Chuck. He’d make it, just as he always made the 7:50 when it seemed as if he was going to miss it sure. He’d make it there and back, all right. But he’d be a different Chuck, while she stayed the same Tessie. Books, travel, French, girls, swell folks—-
And all the while she was smiling and dimpling and trailing her hand in the water. “Bet you can’t guess what I got in that lunch box.”
“Well, of course I’ve got chocolate cake. I baked it myself this morning.”
“Yes, you did!” “Why, Chuck Mory, I did so! I guess you think I can’t do anything, the way you talk.”
“Oh, don’t I! I guess you know what I think.”
“Well, it isn’t the cake I mean. It’s something else.”
“Oh, now you’ve gone and guessed it.” She pouted prettily.
“You asked me to, didn’t you?”
Then they laughed together, as at something exquisitely witty. Down the river, drifting, rowing. Tessie pointed to a house half hidden among the trees on the farther shore: “There’s Hatton’s camp. They say they have grand times there with their swell crowd some Saturdays and Sundays. If I had a house like that, I’d live in it all the time, not just a couple of days out of the whole year.” She hesitated a moment. “I suppose it looks like a shanty to you now.”
Chuck surveyed it, patronizingly. “No, it’s a nice little place.”
They beached their boat, and built a little fire, and had supper on the riverbank, and Tessie picked out the choice bits for him–the breast of the chicken, beautifully golden brown; the ripest tomato; the firmest, juiciest pickle; the corner of the little cake which would give him a double share of icing.
From Chuck, between mouthfuls: “I guess you don’t know how good this tastes. Camp grub’s all right, but after you’ve had a few months of it you get so you don’t believe there IS such a thing as real fried chicken and homemade chocolate cake.”
“I’m glad you like it, Chuck. Here, take this drumstick. You ain’t eating a thing!” His fourth piece of chicken.
Down the river as far as the danger line just above the dam, with Tessie pretending fear just for the joy of having Chuck reassure her. Then back again in the dusk, Chuck bending to the task now against the current. And so up the hill, homeward bound. They walked very slowly, Chuck’s hand on her arm. They were dumb with the tragic, eloquent dumbness of their kind. If she could have spoken the words that were churning in her mind, they would have been something like this:
“Oh, Chuck, I wish I was married to you. I wouldn’t care if only I had you. I wouldn’t mind babies or anything. I’d be glad. I want our house, with a dining-room set, and a mahogany bed, and one of those overstuffed sets in the living room, and all the housework to do. I’m scared. I’m scared I won’t get it.
What’ll I do if I don’t?”
And he, wordlessly: “Will you wait for me, Tessie, and keep on thinking about me? And will you keep yourself like you are so that if I come back—-”
Aloud, she said: “I guess you’ll get stuck on one of those French girls. I should worry! They say wages at the watch factory are going to be raised, workers are so scarce. I’ll probably be as rich as Angie Hatton time you get back.”
And he, miserably: “Little old Chippewa girls are good enough for Chuck. I ain’t counting on taking up with those Frenchies. I don’t like their jabber, from what I know of it. I saw some pictures of ’em, last week, a fellow in camp had who’d been over there. Their hair is all funny, and fixed up with combs and stuff, and they look real dark like foreigners.”
It had been reassuring enough at the time. But that was six months ago. And now here was the Tessie who sat on the back porch, evenings, surveying the sunset. A listless, lackadaisical, brooding Tessie. Little point to going downtown Saturday nights now. There was no familiar, beloved figure to follow you swiftly as you turned off Elm Street, homeward bound. If she went downtown now, she saw only those Saturday-night family groups which are familiar to every small town. The husband, very damp as to hair and clean as to shirt, guarding the gocart outside while the woman accomplished her Saturday-night trading at Ding’s or Halpin’s. Sometimes there were as many as half a dozen gocarts outside Halpin’s, each containing a sleeping burden, relaxed, chubby, fat-cheeked. The waiting men smoked their pipes and conversed largely. “Hello, Ed. The woman’s inside, buyin’ the store out, I guess.”
“That so? Mine, to. Well, how’s everything?”
Tessie knew that presently the woman would come out, bundle laden, and that she would stow these lesser bundles in every corner left available by the more important sleeping bundle–two yards of oilcloth; a spool of 100, white; a banana for the baby; a new stewpan at the five-and-ten.
There had been a time when Tessie, if she thought of these women at all, felt sorry for them–worn, drab, lacking in style and figure. Now she envied them.
There were weeks upon weeks when no letter came from Chuck. In his last letter there had been some talk of his being sent to Russia. Tessie’s eyes, large enough now in her thin face, distended with a great fear. Russia! His letter spoke, too, of French villages and chateaux. He and a bunch of fellows had been introduced to a princess or a countess or something–it was all one to Tessie–and what do you think? She had kissed them all on both cheeks! Seems that’s the way they did in France.
The morning after the receipt of this letter the girls at the watch factory might have remarked her pallor had they not been so occupied with a new and more absorbing topic.
“Tess, did you hear about Angie Hatton?”
“What about her?”
“She’s going to France. It’s in the Milwaukee paper, all about her being Chippewa’s fairest daughter, and a picture of the house, and her being the belle of the Fox River Valley, and she’s giving up her palatial home and all to go to work in a canteen for her country and bleeding France.”
“Ya-as she is!” sneered Tessie, and a dull red flush, so deep as to be painful, swept over her face from throat to brow. “Ya-as she is, the doll-faced simp! Why, say, she never wiped up a floor in her life, or baked a cake, or stood on them feet of hers. She couldn’t cut up a loaf of bread decent. Bleeding France! Ha! That’s rich, that is.” She thrust her chin out brutally, and her eyes narrowed to slits. “She’s going over there after that fella of hers. She’s chasing him. It’s now or never, and she knows it and she’s scared, same’s the rest of us. On’y we got to set home and make the best of it. Or take what’s left.” She turned her head slowly to where Nap Ballou stood over a table at the far end of the room. She laughed a grim, un- lovely little laugh. “I guess when you can’t go after what you want, like Angie, why you gotta take second choice.”
All that day, at the bench, she was the reckless, insolent, audacious Tessie of six months ago. Nap Ballou was always standing over her, pretending to inspect some bit of work or other, his shoulder brushing hers. She laughed up at him so that her face was not more than two inches from his. He flushed, but she did not. She laughed a reckless little laugh.
“Thanks for helping teach me my trade, Mr. Ballou. ‘Course I only been at it over three years now, so I ain’t got the hang of it yet.”
He straightened up slowly, and as he did so he rested a hand on her shoulder for a brief moment. She did not shrug it off.
That night, after supper, Tessie put on her hat and strolled down to Park Avenue. It wasn’t for the walk. Tessie had never been told to exercise systematically for her body’s good, or her mind’s. She went in a spirit of unwholesome brooding curiosity and a bitter resentment. Going to France, was she? Lots of good she’d do there. Better stay home and–and what? Tessie cast about in her mind for a fitting job for Angie. Guess she might’s well go, after all. Nobody’d miss her, unless it was her father, and he didn’t see her but about a third of the time. But in Tessie’s heart was a great envy of this girl who could bridge the hideous waste of ocean that separated her from her man. Bleeding France. Yeh! Joke!
The Hatton place, built and landscaped twenty years before, occupied a square block in solitary grandeur, the show place of Chippewa. In architectural style it was an impartial mixture of Norman castle, French chateau, and Rhenish schloss, with a dash of Coney Island about its facade. It represented Old Man Hatton’s realized dream of landed magnificence.
Tessie, walking slowly past it, and peering through the high iron fence, could not help noting an air of unwonted excitement about the place, usually so aloof, so coldly serene. Automobiles standing out in front. People going up and down. They didn’t look very cheerful. Just as if it mattered whether anything happened to her or not!
Tessie walked around the block and stood a moment, uncertainly. Then she struck off down Grand Avenue and past Donovan’s pool shack. A little group of after-supper idlers stood outside, smoking and gossiping, as she knew there would be. As she turned the corner she saw Nap Ballou among them. She had known that, too. As she passed she looked straight ahead, without bowing. But just past the Burke House he caught up with her. No half-shy “Can I walk home with you?” from Nap Ballou. No. Instead: “Hello, sweetheart!”
“Somebody’s looking mighty pretty this evening, all dolled up in pink.”
“Think so?” She tried to be pertly indifferent, but it was good to have someone following, someone walking home with you. What if he was old enough to be her father, with graying hair? Lots of the movie heroes had graying hair at the sides.
They walked for an hour. Tessie left him at the corner. She had once heard her father designate Ballou as “that drunken skunk.” When she entered the sitting room her cheeks held an unwonted pink. Her eyes were brighter than they had been in months. Her mother looked up quickly, peering at her over a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles, very much askew.
“Where you been, Tessie?”
“Why, she was here, callin’ for you, not more’n an hour ago.”
Tessie, taking off her hat on her way upstairs, met this coolly. “Yeh, I ran into her comin’ back.”
Upstairs, lying fully dressed on her hard little bed, she stared up into the darkness, thinking, her hands limp at her sides. Oh, well, what’s the diff? You had to make the best of it. Everybody makin’ a fuss about the soldiers–feeding ’em, and asking ’em to their houses, and sending ’em things, and giving dances and picnics and parties so they wouldn’t be lonesome. Chuck had told her all about it. The other boys told the same. They could just pick and choose their good times. Tessie’s mind groped about, sensing a certain injustice. How about the girls? She didn’t put it thus squarely. Hers was not a logical mind. Easy enough to paw over the men- folks and get silly over brass buttons and a uniform. She put it that way. She thought of the refrain of a popular song: “What Are You Going to Do to Help the Boys?” Tessie, smiling a crooked little smile up there in the darkness, parodied the words deftly: “What’re you going to do to help the girls?” she demanded. “What’re you going to do—-” She rolled over on one side and buried her head in her arms.
There was news again next morning at the watch factory. Tessie of the old days had never needed to depend on the other girls for the latest bit of gossip. Her alert eye and quick ear had always caught it first. But of late she had led a cloistered existence, indifferent to the world about her. The Chippewa Courier went into the newpaper pile behind the kitchen door without a glance from Tessie’s incurious eye.
She was late this morning. As she sat down at the bench and fitted her glass in her eye, the chatter of the others, pitched in the high key of unusual excitement, penetrated even her listlessness.
“And they say she never screeched or fainted or anything. She stood there, kind of quiet, looking straight ahead, and then all of a sudden she ran to her pa—-”
“I feel sorry for her. She never did anything to me. She—-“
Tessie spoke, her voice penetrating the staccato fragments all about her and gathering them into a whole. “Say, who’s the heroine of this picture? I come in in the middle of the film, I guess.”
They turned on her with the unlovely eagerness of those who have ugly news to tell. They all spoke at once, in short sentences, their voices high with the note of hysteria.
“Angie Hatton’s beau was killed—-”
“They say his airyoplane fell ten thousand feet—-”
“The news come only last evening about eight—-”
“She won’t see nobody but her pa—-”
Eight! At eight Tessie had been standing outside Hatton’s house, envying Angie and hating her. So that explained the people, and the automobiles, and the excitement. Tessie was not receiving the news with the dramatic reaction which its purveyors felt it deserved. Tessie, turning from one to the other quietly, had said nothing. She was pitying Angie. Oh, the luxury of it! Nap Ballou, coming in swiftly to still the unwonted commotion in work hours, found Tessie the only one quietly occupied in that chatter-filled room. She was smiling as she worked. Nap Ballou, bending over her on some pretense that deceived no one, spoke low-voiced in her ear. But she veiled her eyes insolently and did not glance up. She hummed contentedly all the morning at her tedious work.
She had promised Nap Ballou to go picknicking with him Sunday. Down the river, boating, with supper on shore. The small, still voice within her had said, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” But the harsh, high-pitched, reckless overtone said, “Go on! Have a good time. Take all you can get.”
She would have to lie at home and she did it. Some fabrication about the girls at the watchworks did the trick. Fried chicken, chocolate cake. She packed them deftly and daintily. High-heeled shoes, flimsy blouse, rustling skirt. Nap Ballou was waiting for her over in the city park. She saw him before he espied her. He was leaning against a tree, idly, staring straight ahead with queer, lackluster eyes. Silhouetted there against the tender green of the pretty square, he looked very old, somehow, and different– much older than he looked in his shop clothes, issuing orders. Tessie noticed that he sagged where he should have stuck out, and protruded where he should have been flat. There flashed across her mind a vividly clear picture of Chuck as she had last seen him–brown, fit, high of chest, flat of stomach, slim of flank.
Ballou saw her. He straightened and came toward her swiftly. “Somebody looks mighty sweet this afternoon.”
Tessie plumped the heavy lunch box into his arms. “When you get a line you like you stick to it, don’t you?”
Down at the boathouse even Tessie, who had confessed ignorance of boats and oars, knew that Ballou was fumbling clumsily. He stooped to adjust the oars to the oarlocks. His hat was off. His hair looked very gray in the cruel spring sunshine. He straightened and smiled up at her.
“Ready in a minute, sweetheart,” he said. He took off his collar and turned in the neckband of his shirt. His skin was very white. Tessie felt a little shudder of disgust sweep over her, so that she stumbled a little as she stepped into the boat.
The river was very lovely. Tessie trailed her fingers in the water and told herself that she was having a grand time. She told Nap the same when he asked her.
“Having a good time, little beauty?” he said. He was puffing a little with the unwonted exercise.
Tessie tried some of her old-time pertness of speech. “Oh, good enough, considering the company.”
He laughed admiringly at that and said she was a sketch.
When the early evening came on they made a clumsy landing and had supper. This time Nap fed her the tidbits, though she protested.
“White meat for you,” he said, “with your skin like milk.”
“You must of read that in a book,” scoffed Tessie. She glanced around her at the deepening shadows. “We haven’t got much time.
It gets dark so early.”
“No hurry,” Nap assured her. He went on eating in a leisurely, finicking sort of way, though he consumed very little food, actually.
“You’re not eating much,” Tessie said once, halfheartedly. She decided that she wasn’t having such a very grand time, after all, and that she hated his teeth, which were very bad. Now, Chuck’s strong, white, double row—-
“Well,” she said, “let’s be going.”
“No hurry,” again.
Tessie looked up at that with the instinctive fear of her kind. “What d’you mean, no hurry! ‘Spect to stay here till dark?” She laughed at her own joke.
She got up then, the blood in her face. “Well, _I_ don’t.”
He rose, too. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t, that’s why.” She stooped and began picking up the remnants of the lunch, placing spoons and glass bottles swiftly and thriftily into the lunch box. Nap stepped around behind her.
“Let me help,” he said. And then his arm was about her and his face was close to hers, and Tessie did not like it. He kissed her after a little wordless struggle. And then she knew. She had been kissed before. But not like this. Not like this! She struck at him furiously. Across her mind flashed the memory of a girl who had worked in the finishing room. A nice girl, too. But that hadn’t helped her. Nap Ballou was laughing a little as he clasped her.
At that she heard herself saying: “I’ll get Chuck Mory after you–you drunken bum, you! He’ll lick you black and blue. He’ll—-”
The face, with the ugly, broken brown teeth, was coming close again. With all the young strength that was in her she freed one hand and clawed at that face from eyes to chin. A howl of pain rewarded her. His hold loosened. Like a flash she was off. She ran. It seemed to her that her feet did not touch the earth. Over brush, through bushes, crashing against trees, on and on. She heard him following her, but the broken-down engine that was his heart refused to do the work. She ran on, though her fear was as great as before. Fear of what might have happened–to her, Tessie Golden, that nobody could even talk fresh to. She gave a sob of fury and fatigue. She was stumbling now. It was growing dark. She ran on again, in fear of the overtaking darkness. It was easier now. Not so many trees and bushes. She came to a fence, climbed over it, lurched as she landed, leaned against it weakly for support, one hand on her aching heart. Before her was the Hatton summer cottage, dimly outlined in the twilight among the trees.
A warm, flickering light danced in the window. Tessie stood a moment, breathing painfully, sobbingly. Then, with an instinctive gesture, she patted her hair, tidied her blouse, and walked uncertainly toward the house, up the steps to the door. She stood there a moment, swaying slightly. Somebody’d be there.
The light. The woman who cooked for them or the man who took care of the place. Somebody’d—-
She knocked at the door feebly. She’d tell ’em she had lost her way and got scared when it began to get dark. She knocked again, louder now. Footsteps. She braced herself and even arranged a crooked smile. The door opened wide. Old Man Hatton!
She looked up at him, terror and relief in her face. He peered over his glasses at her. “Who is it?” Tessie had not known, somehow, that his face was so kindly.
Tessie’s carefully planned story crumbled into nothingness. “It’s me!” she whimpered. “It’s me!”
He reached out and put a hand on her arm and drew her inside.
“Angie! Angie! Here’s a poor little kid—-”
Tessie clutched frantically at the last crumbs of her pride. She tried to straighten, to smile with her old bravado. What was that story she had planned to tell?
“Who is it, Dad? Who—-?” Angie Hatton came into the hallway. She stared at Tessie. Then: “Why, my dear!” she said. “My dear! Come in here.”
Angie Hatton! Tessie began to cry weakly, her face buried in Angie Hatton’s expensive shoulder. Tessie remembered later that she had felt no surprise at the act.
“There, there!” Angie Hatton was saying. “Just poke up the fire, Dad. And get something from the dining room. Oh, I don’t know. To drink, you know. Something—-”
Then Old Man Hatton stood over her, holding a small glass to her lips. Tessie drank it obediently, made a wry little face, coughed, wiped her eyes, and sat up. She looked from one to the other, like a trapped little animal. She put a hand to her tousled head.
“That’s all right,” Angie Hatton assured her. “You can fix it after a while.”
There they were, the three of them: Old Man Hatton with his back to the fire, looking benignly down upon her; Angie seated, with some knitting in her hands, as if entertaining bedraggled, tear-stained young ladies at dusk were an everyday occurrence; Tessie, twisting her handkerchief in a torment of embarrassment. But they asked no questions, these two. They evinced no curiosity about this disheveled creature who had flung herself in upon their decent solitude.
Tessie stared at the fire. She looked up at Old Man Hatton’s face and opened her lips. She looked down and shut them again. Then she flashed a quick look at Angie, to see if she could detect there some suspicion, some disdain. None. Angie Hatton looked–well, Tessie put it to herself, thus: “She looks like she’d cried till she couldn’t cry no more–only inside.”
And then, surprisingly, Tessie began to talk. “I wouldn’t never have gone with this fella, only Chuck, he was gone. All the boys’re gone. It’s fierce. You get scared, sitting home, waiting, and they’re in France and everywhere, learning French and everything, and meeting grand people and having a fuss made over ’em. So I got mad and said I didn’t care, I wasn’t going to squat home all my life, waiting—-”
Angie Hatton had stopped knitting now. Old Man Hatton was looking down at her very kindly. And so Tessie went on. The pent-up emotions and thoughts of these past months were finding an outlet at last. These things which she had never been able to discuss with her mother she now was laying bare to Angie Hatton and Old Man Hatton! They asked no questions. They seemed to understand. Once Old Man Hatton interrupted with: “So that’s the kind of fellow they’ve got as escapement-room foreman, eh?”
Tessie, whose mind was working very clearly now, put out a quick hand. “Say, it wasn’t his fault. He’s a bum, all right, but I knew it, didn’t I? It was me. I didn’t care. Seemed to me it didn’t make no difference who I went with, but it does.” She looked down at her hands clasped so tightly in her lap.
“Yes, it makes a whole lot of difference,” Angie agreed, and looked up at her father.
At that Tessie blurted her last desperate problem: “He’s learning all kind of new things. Me, I ain’t learning anything. When Chuck comes home he’ll just think I’m dumb, that’s all. He—-”
“What kind of thing would you like to learn, Tessie, so that when Chuck comes home—-”
Tessie looked up then, her wide mouth quivering with eagerness. “I’d like to learn to swim–and row a boat–and play tennis–like the rich girls– like the girls that’s making such a fuss over the soldiers.”
Angie Hatton was not laughing. So, after a moment’s hesitation, Tessie brought out the worst of it. “And French. I’d like to learn to talk French.”
Old Man Hatton had been surveying his shoes, his mouth grim. He looked at Angie now and smiled a little. “Well, Angie, it looks as if you’d found your job right here at home, doesn’t it? This young lady’s just one of hundreds, I suppose. Thousands. You can have the whole house for them, if you want it, Angie, and the grounds, and all the money you need. I guess we’ve kind of overlooked the girls. Hm, Angie? What d’you say?”
But Tessie was not listening. She had scarcely heard. Her face was white with earnestness.
“Can you speak French?”
“Yes,” Angie answered.
“Well,” said Tessie, and gulped once, “well, how do you say in French: `Give me a piece of bread’? That’s what I want to learn first.”
Angie Hatton said it correctly.
“That’s it! Wait a minute! Say it again, will you?”
Angie said it again, Tessie wet her lips. Her cheeks were smeared with tears and dirt. Her hair was wild and her blouse awry. “DONNAY-MA-UN-MORSO-DOO-PANG,” she articulated painfully. And in that moment, as she put her hand in that of Chuck Mory, across the ocean, her face was very beautiful with contentment.
Chet Ball was painting a wooden chicken yellow. The wooden chicken was mounted on a six-by-twelve board. The board was mounted on four tiny wheels. The whole would eventually be pulled on a string guided by the plump, moist hand of some blissful five-year-old.
You got the incongruity of it the instant your eye fell upon Chet Ball. Chet’s shoulders alone would have loomed large in contrast with any wooden toy ever devised, including the Trojan horse. Everything about him, from the big, blunt-fingered hands that held the ridiculous chick to the great muscular pillar of his neck, was in direct opposition to his task, his surroundings, and his attitude.
Chet’s proper milieu was Chicago, Illinois (the West Side); his job that of lineman for the Gas, Light & Power Company; his normal working position astride the top of a telegraph pole, supported in his perilous perch by a lineman’s leather belt and the kindly fates, both of which are likely to trick you in an emergency.
Yet now he lolled back among his pillows, dabbing complacently at the absurd yellow toy. A description of his surroundings would sound like pages 3 to 17 of a novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward. The place was all greensward, and terraces, and sundials, and beeches, and even those rhododendrons without which no English novel or country estate is complete. The presence of Chet Ball among his pillows and some hundreds similarly disposed revealed to you at once the fact that this particular English estate was now transformed into Reconstruction Hospital No. 9.
The painting of the chicken quite finished (including two beady black paint eyes), Chet was momentarily at a loss. Miss Kate had not told him to stop painting when the chicken was completed. Miss Kate was at the other end of the sunny garden walk, bending over a wheel chair. So Chet went on painting, placidly. One by one, with meticulous nicety, he painted all his fingernails a bright and cheery yellow. Then he did the whole of his left thumb and was starting on the second joint of the index finger when Miss Kate came up behind him and took the brush gently from his strong hands.
“You shouldn’t have painted your fingers,” she said.
Chet surveyed them with pride. “They look swell.”
Miss Kate did not argue the point. She put the freshly painted wooden chicken on the table to dry in the sun. Her eyes fell upon a letter bearing an American postmark and addressed to Sergeant Chester Ball, with a lot of cryptic figures and letters strung out after it, such as A.E.F. and Co. 11.
“Here’s a letter for you!” She infused a lot of Glad into her voice. But Chet only cast a languid eye upon it and said, “Yeh?”
“I’ll read it to you, shall I? It’s a nice fat one.”
Chet sat back, indifferent, negatively acquiescent. And Miss Kate began to read in her clear young voice, there in the sunshine and scent of the centuries-old English garden.
It marked an epoch in Chet’s life–that letter. It reached out across the Atlantic Ocean from the Chester Ball of his Chicago days, before he had even heard of English gardens.
Your true lineman has a daredevil way with the women, as have all men whose calling is a hazardous one. Chet was a crack workman. He could shinny up a pole, strap his emergency belt, open his tool kit, wield his pliers with expert deftness, and climb down again in record time. It was his pleasure–and seemingly the pleasure and privilege of all lineman’s gangs the world over–to whistle blithely and to call impudently to any passing petticoat that caught his fancy.
Perched three feet from the top of the high pole he would cling protected, seemingly, by some force working in direct defiance of the law of gravity. And now and then, by way of brightening the tedium of their job, he and his gang would call to a girl passing in the street below, “Hoo-hoo! Hello, sweetheart!”
There was nothing vicious in it. Chet would have come to the aid of beauty in distress as quickly as Don Quixote. Any man with a blue shirt as clean and a shave as smooth and a haircut as round as Chet Ball’s has no meanness in him. A certain daredeviltry went hand in hand with his work–a calling in which a careless load dispatcher, a cut wire, or a faulty strap may mean instant death. Usually the girls laughed and called back to them or went on more quickly, the color in their cheeks a little higher.
But not Anastasia Rourke. Early the first morning of a two-week job on the new plant of the Western Castings Company, Chet Ball, glancing down from his dizzy perch atop an electric-light pole, espied Miss Anastasia Rourke going to work. He didn’t know her name or anything about her, except that she was pretty. You could see that from a distance even more remote than Chet’s. But you couldn’t know that Stasia was a lady not to be trifled with. We know her name was Rourke, but he didn’t.
So then: “Hoo-hoo!” he had called. “Hello, sweetheart! Wait for me and I’ll be down.”
Stasia Rourke had lifted her face to where he perched so high above the streets. Her cheeks were five shades pinker than was their wont, which would make them border on the red.
“You big ape, you!” she called, in her clear, crisp voice. “If you had your foot on the ground you wouldn’t dast call to a decent girl like that. If you were down here I’d slap the face of you. You know you’re safe up there.”
The words were scarcely out of her mouth before Chet Ball’s sturdy legs were twinkling down the pole. His spurred heels dug into the soft pine of the pole with little ripe, tearing sounds. He walked up to Stasia and stood squarely in front of her, six feet of brawn and brazen nerve. One ruddy cheek he presented to her astonished gaze. “Hello, sweetheart,” he said. And waited. The Rourke girl hesitated just a second. All the Irish heart in her was melting at the boyish impudence of the man before her. Then she lifted one hand and slapped his smooth cheek. It was a ringing slap. You saw the four marks of her fingers upon his face. Chet straightened, his blue eyes bluer. Stasia looked up at him, her eyes wide. Then down at her own hand, as if it belonged to somebody else. Her hand came up to her own face. She burst into tears, turned, and ran. And as she ran, and as she wept, she saw that Chet was still standing there, looking after her.
Next morning, when Stasia Rourke went by to work, Chet Ball was standing at the foot of the pole, waiting.
They were to have been married that next June. But that next June Chet Ball, perched perilously on the branch of a tree in a small woodsy spot somewhere in France, was one reason why the American artillery in that same woodsy spot was getting such a deadly range on the enemy. Chet’s costume was so devised that even through field glasses (made in Germany) you couldn’t tell where tree left off and Chet began.
Then, quite suddenly, the Germans got the range. The tree in which Chet was hidden came down with a crash, and Chet lay there, more than ever indiscernible among its tender foliage.
Which brings us back to the English garden, the yellow chicken, Miss Kate, and the letter.
His shattered leg was mended by one of those miracles of modern war surgery, though he never again would dig his spurred heels into the pine of a G. L. & P. Company pole. But the other thing–they put it down under the broad general head of shock. In the lovely English garden they set him to weaving and painting as a means of soothing the shattered nerves. He had made everything from pottery jars to bead chains, from baskets to rugs. Slowly the tortured nerves healed. But the doctors, when they stopped at Chet’s cot or chair, talked always of “the memory center.” Chet seemed satisfied to go on placidly painting toys or weaving chains with his great, square-tipped fingers–the fingers that had wielded the pliers so cleverly in his pole-climbing days.
“It’s just something that only luck or an accident can mend,” said the nerve specialist. “Time may do it–but I doubt it. Sometimes just a word– the right word–will set the thing in motion again. Does he get any letters?”
“His girl writes to him. Fine letters. But she doesn’t know yet about– about this. I’ve written his letters for him. She knows now that his leg is healed and she wonders—-”
That had been a month ago. Today Miss Kate slit the envelope post- marked Chicago. Chet was fingering the yellow wooden chicken, pride in his eyes. In Miss Kate’s eyes there was a troubled, baffled look as she began to read:
Chet, dear, it’s raining in Chicago. And you know when it
rains in Chicago it’s wetter, and muddier, and rainier than any
place in the world. Except maybe this Flanders we’re reading
so much about. They say for rain and mud that place takes the
I don’t know what I’m going on about rain and mud for, Chet
darling, when it’s you I’m thinking of. Nothing else and
nobody else. Chet, I got a funny feeling there’s something
you’re keeping back from me. You’re hurt worse than just the
leg. Boy, dear, don’t you know it won’t make any difference
with me how you look, or feel, or anything? I don’t care how
bad you’re smashed up. I’d rather have you without any
features at all than any other man with two sets. Whatever’s
happened to the outside of you, they can’t change your
insides. And you’re the same man that called out to me that
day, “Hoo-hoo! Hello, sweetheart!” and when I gave you a piece of my mind, climbed down off the pole, and put your face
up to be slapped, God bless the boy in you—-
A sharp little sound from him. Miss Kate looked up, quickly. Chet Ball was staring at the beady-eyed yellow chicken in his hand.
“What’s this thing?” he demanded in a strange voice.
Miss Kate answered him very quietly, trying to keep her own voice easy and natural. “That’s a toy chicken, cut out of wood.”
“What’m I doin’ with it?”
“You’ve just finished painting it.”
Chet Ball held it in his great hand and stared at it for a brief moment, struggling between anger and amusement. And between anger and amusement he put it down on the table none too gently and stood up, yawning a little.
“That’s a hell of a job for a he-man!” Then in utter contrition: “Oh, beggin’ your pardon! That was fierce! I didn’t—-”
But there was nothing shocked about the expression on Miss Kate’s face. She was registering joy–pure joy.
The Maternal Feminine
Called upon to describe Aunt Sophy, you would have to coin a term or fall back on the dictionary definition of a spinster. “An unmarried woman,” states that worthy work, baldly, “especially when no longer young.” That, to the world, was Sophy Decker. Unmarried, certainly. And most certainly no longer young. In figure, she was, at fifty, what is known in the corset ads as a “stylish stout.” Well dressed in dark suits, with broad-toed health shoes and a small, astute hat. The suit was practical common sense. The health shoes were comfort. The hat was strictly business. Sophy Decker made and sold hats, both astute and ingenuous, to the female population of Chippewa, Wisconsin. Chippewa’s East End set bought the knowing type of hat, and the mill hands and hired girls bought the naive ones. But whether lumpy or possessed of that thing known as line, Sophy Decker’s hats were honest hats.
The world is full of Aunt Sophys, unsung. Plump, ruddy, capable women of middle age. Unwed, and rather looked down upon by a family of married sisters and tolerant, good-humored brothers-in-law, and careless nieces and nephews.
“Poor Aunt Soph,” with a significant half smile. “She’s such a good old thing. And she’s had so little in life, really.”
She was, undoubtedly, a good old thing–Aunt Soph. Forever sending a model hat to this pert little niece in Seattle; or taking Adele, Sister Flora’s daughter, to Chicago or New York as a treat on one of her buying trips.
Burdening herself, on her business visits to these cities, with a dozen foolish shopping commissions for the idle womenfolk of her family. Hearing without partisanship her sisters’ complaints about their husbands, and her sisters’ husbands’ complaints about their wives. It was always the same.
“I’m telling you this, Sophy. I wouldn’t breathe it to another living soul. But I honestly think, sometimes, that if it weren’t for the children—-”
There is no knowing why they confided these things to Sophy instead of to each other, these wedded sisters of hers. Perhaps they held for each other an unuttered distrust or jealousy. Perhaps, in making a confidante of Sophy, there was something of the satisfaction that comes of dropping a surreptitious stone down a deep well and hearing it plunk, safe in the knowledge that it has struck no one and that it cannot rebound, lying there in the soft darkness. Sometimes they would end by saying, “But you don’t know what it is, Sophy. You can’t. I’m sure I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
But when Sophy answered, sagely, “I know; I know,” they paid little heed, once having unburdened themselves. The curious part of it is that she did know. She knew as a woman of fifty must know who, all her life, has given and given and in return has received nothing. Sophy Decker had never used the word inhibition in her life. She may not have known what it meant. She only knew (without in the least knowing she knew) that in giving of her goods, of her affections, of her time, of her energy, she found a certain relief. Her own people would have been shocked if you had told them that there was about this old-maid aunt something rather splendidly Rabelaisian. Without being what is known as a masculine woman, she had, somehow, acquired the man’s viewpoint, his shrewd value sense. She ate a good deal, and enjoyed her food. She did not care for those queer little stories that married women sometimes tell, with narrowed eyes, but she was strangely tolerant of what is known as sin. So simple and direct she was that you wondered how she prospered in a line so subtle as the millinery business.
You might have got a fairly true characterization of Sophy Decker from one of fifty people: from a salesman in a New York or Chicago wholesale millinery house; from Otis Cowan, cashier of the First National Bank of Chippewa; from Julia Gold, her head milliner and trimmer; from almost anyone, in fact, except a member of her own family. They knew her least of all. Her three married sisters–Grace in Seattle, Ella in Chicago, and Flora in Chippewa–regarded her with a rather affectionate disapproval from the snug safety of their own conjugal inglenooks.
“I don’t know. There’s something–well–common about Sophy,” Flora confided to Ella. Flora, on shopping bent, and Sophy, seeking hats, had made the five-hour run from Chippewa to Chicago together. “She talks to everybody. You should have heard her with the porter on our train. Chums! And when the conductor took our tickets it was a social occasion. You know how packed the seven-fifty-two is. Every seat in the parlor car taken. And Sophy asking the colored porter about how his wife was getting along–she called him William–and if they were going to send her West, and all about her. I wish she wouldn’t.”
Aunt Sophy undeniably had a habit of regarding people as human beings. You found her talking to chambermaids and delivery boys, and elevator starters, and gas collectors, and hotel clerks–all that aloof, unapproachable, superior crew. Under her benign volubility they bloomed and spread and took on color as do those tight little paper water flowers when you cast them into a bowl. It wasn’t idle curiosity in her. She was interested. You found yourself confiding to her your innermost longings, your secret tribulations, under the encouragement of her sympathetic, “You don’t say!” Perhaps it was as well that Sister Flora was in ignorance of the fact that the millinery salesmen at Danowitz & Danowitz, Importers, always called Miss Decker Aunt Soph, as, with one arm flung about her plump shoulder, they revealed to her the picture of their girl in the back flap of their billfold.
Flora, with a firm grip on Chippewa society, as represented by the East End set, did not find her position enhanced by a sister in the millinery business in Elm Street.
“Of course it’s wonderful that she’s self-supporting and successful and all,” she told her husband. “But it’s not so pleasant for Adele, now that she’s growing up, having all the girls she knows buying their hats of her aunt. Not that I–but you know how it is.”
H. Charnsworth Baldwin said yes, he knew.
When the Decker girls were young, the Deckers had lived in a sagging old frame house (from which the original paint had long ago peeled in great scrofulous patches) on an unimportant street in Chippewa. There was a worm-eaten, russet-apple tree in the yard, an untidy tangle of wild-cucumber vine over the front porch, and an uncut brush of sunburned grass and weeds all about.
From May until September you never passed the Decker place without hearing the plunkety-plink of a mandolin from somewhere behind the vines, laughter, and the creak-creak of the hard- worked and protesting hammock hooks.
Flora, Ella, and Grace Decker had had more beaux and fewer clothes than any other girls in Chippewa. In a town full of pretty young things, they were, undoubtedly, the prettiest; and in a family of pretty sisters (Sophy always excepted) Flora was the acknowledged beauty. She was the kind of girl whose nose never turns red on a frosty morning. A little, white, exquisite nose, purest example of the degree of perfection which may be attained by that vulgarest of features. Under her great gray eyes were faint violet shadows which gave her a look of almost poignant wistfulness. Her slow, sweet smile give the beholder an actual physical pang. Only her family knew she was lazy as a behemoth, untidy about her person, and as sentimental as a hungry shark. The strange and cruel part of it was that, in some grotesque, exaggerated way, as a cartoon may be like a photograph, Sophy resembled Flora. It was as though nature, in prankish mood, had given a cabbage the color and texture of a rose, with none of its fragile reticence and grace.
It was a manless household. Mrs. Decker, vague, garrulous, referred to her dead husband, in frequent reminiscence, as poor Mr. Decker. Mrs. Decker dragged one leg as she walked–rheumatism, or a spinal affection. Small wonder, then, that Sophy, the plain, with a gift for hatmaking, a knack at eggless cake baking, and a genius for turning a sleeve so that last year’s style met this year’s without a struggle, contributed nothing to the sag in the center of the old twine hammock on the front porch.
That the three girls should marry well, and Sophy not at all, was as inevitable as the sequence of the seasons. Ella and Grace did not manage badly, considering that they had only their girlish prettiness and the twine hammock to work with. But Flora, with her beauty, captured H. Charnsworth Baldwin. Chippewa gasped. H. Charnsworth Baldwin drove a skittish mare to a high-wheeled yellow runabout; had his clothes made at Proctor Brothers in Milwaukee; and talked about a game called golf. It was he who advocated laying out a section of land for what he called links, and erecting a clubhouse thereon.
“The section of the bluff overlooking the river,” he explained, “is full of natural hazards, besides having a really fine view.”
Chippewa–or that comfortable, middle-class section of it which got its exercise walking home to dinner from the store at noon, and cutting the grass evenings after supper–laughed as it read this interview in the Chippewa Eagle.
“A golf course,” they repeated to one another, grinning. “Conklin’s cow pasture, up the river. It’s full of natural–wait a minute–what was?–oh, yeh, here it is–hazards. Full of natural hazards. Say, couldn’t you die!”
For H. Charnsworth Baldwin had been little Henry Baldwin before he went East to college. Ten years later H. Charnsworth, in knickerbockers and gay-topped stockings, was winning the cup in the men’s tournament played on the Chippewa golf-club course, overlooking the river. And his name, in stout gold letters, blinked at you from the plate-glass windows of the office at the corner of Elm and Winnebago:
NORTHERN LUMBER AND LAND COMPANY H. Charnsworth Baldwin, Pres.
Two blocks farther down Elm Street was another sign, not so glittering, which read:
Miss Sophy Decker
Sophy’s hatmaking, in the beginning, had been done at home. She had always made her sisters’ hats, and her own, of course, and an occasional hat for a girl friend. After her sisters had married, Sophy found herself in possession of a rather bewildering amount of spare time. The hat trade grew so that sometimes there were six rather botchy little bonnets all done up in yellow paper pyramids with a pin at the top, awaiting their future wearers. After her mother’s death Sophy still stayed on in the old house. She took a course in millinery in Milwaukee, came home, stuck up a homemade sign in the parlor window (the untidy cucumber vines came down), and began her hatmaking in earnest. In five years she had opened a shop on a side street near Elm, had painted the old house, installed new plumbing, built a warty stucco porch, and transformed the weedy, grass-tangled yard into an orderly stretch of green lawn and bright flower beds. In ten years she was in Elm Street, and the Chippewa Eagle ran a half column twice a year describing her spring and fall openings. On these occasions Aunt Sophy, in black satin and marcel wave and her most relentless corsets, was, in all the superficial things, not a pleat or fold or line or wave behind her city colleagues. She had all the catch phrases:
“This is awfully good this year.”
“Here’s a sweet thing. A Mornet model.”
“. . . Well, but, my dear, it’s the style–the line–you’re paying for, not the material.”
“No, that hat doesn’t do a thing for you.”
“I’ve got it. I had you in mind when I bought it. Now don’t say you can’t wear henna. Wait till you see it on.”
When she stood behind you as you sat, uncrowned and expectant before the mirror, she would poise the hat four inches above your head, holding it in the tips of her fingers, a precious, fragile thing. Your fascinated eyes were held by it, and your breath as well. Then down it descended, slowly, slowly. A quick pressure.
Her fingers firm against your temples. A little sigh of relieved suspense.
“That’s wonderful on you! . . . You don’t! Oh, my dear! But that’s because you’re not used to it. You know how you said, for years, you had to have a brim, and couldn’t possibly wear a turban, with your nose, until I proved to you that if the head size was only big . . . Well, perhaps this needs just a lit-tle lift here. Ju-u-ust a nip. There! That does it.”
And that did it. Not that Sophy Decker ever tried to sell you a hat against your judgment, taste, or will. She was too wise a psychologist and too shrewd a businesswoman for that. She preferred that you go out of her shop hatless rather than with an unbecoming hat. But whether you bought or not you took with you out of Sophy Decker’s shop something more precious than any hatbox ever contained. Just to hear her admonishing a customer, her good-natured face all aglow:
“My dear, always put on your hat before you get into your dress.
I do. You can get your arms above your head, and set it right. I put on my hat and veil as soon’s I get my hair combed.”
In your mind’s eye you saw her, a stout, well-stayed figure in tight brassiere and scant slip, bare-armed and bare-bosomed, in smart hat and veil, attired as though for the street from the neck up and for the bedroom from the shoulders down.
The East End set bought Sophy Decker’s hats because they were modish and expensive hats. But she managed, miraculously, to gain a large and lucrative following among the paper-mill girls and factory hands as well. You would have thought that any attempt to hold both these opposites would cause her to lose one or the other. Aunt Sophy said, frankly, that of the two, she would have preferred to lose her smart trade.
“The mill girls come in with their money in their hands, you might say. They get good wages and they want to spend them. I wouldn’t try to sell them one of those little plain model hats. They wouldn’t understand ’em or like them. And if I told them the price they’d think I was trying to cheat them. They want a hat with something good and solid on it. Their fathers wouldn’t prefer caviar to pork roast, would they? It’s the same idea.”
Her shopwindows reflected her business acumen. One was chastely, severely elegant, holding a single hat poised on a slender stick.
In the other were a dozen honest arrangements of velvet and satin and plumes.
At the spring opening she always displayed one of those little toques completely covered with violets. That violet-covered toque was a symbol.
“I don’t expect ’em to buy it,” Sophy Decker explained. “But everybody feels there should be a hat like that at a spring opening. It’s like a fruit centerpiece at a family dinner. Nobody ever eats it, but it has to be there.”
The two Baldwin children–Adele and Eugene–found Aunt Sophy’s shop a treasure trove. Adele, during her doll days, possessed such boxes of satin and velvet scraps, and bits of lace and ribbon and jet as to make her the envy of all her playmates. She used to crawl about the floor of the shop workroom and under the table and chairs like a little scavenger.
“What in the world do you do with all that truck, child?” asked Aunt Sophy. “You must have barrels of it.”
Adele stuffed another wisp of tulle into the pocket of her pinafore.
“I keep it,” she said.
When she was ten Adele had said to her mother, “Why do you always say `Poor Sophy’?”
“Because–Aunt Sophy’s had so little in life. She never has married, and has always worked.”
Adele considered that. “If you don’t get married do they say you’re poor?”
“Then I’ll get married,” announced Adele. A small, dark, eerie child, skinny and rather foreign-looking. The boy, Eugene, had the beauty which should have been the girl’s. Very tall, very blond, with the straight nose and wistful eyes of the Flora of twenty years ago. “If only Adele could have had his looks,” his mother used to say. “They’re wasted on a man. He doesn’t need them, but a girl does. Adele will have to be well dressed and interesting. And that’s such hard work.”
Flora said she worshiped her children. And she actually sometimes still coquetted heavily with her husband. At twenty she had been addicted to baby talk when endeavoring to coax something out of someone. Her admirers had found it irresistible. At forty it was awful. Her selfishness was colossal. She affected a semi-invalidism and for fifteen years had spent one day a week in bed. She took no exercise and a great deal of soda bicarbonate and tried to fight her fat with baths. Fifteen or twenty years had worked a startling change in the two sisters, Flora the beautiful and Sophy the plain. It was more than a mere physical change. It was a spiritual thing, though neither knew nor marked it. Each had taken on weight, the one, solidly, comfortably; the other, flabbily, unhealthily. With the encroaching fat, Flora’s small, delicate features seemed, somehow, to disappear in her face, so that you saw it as a large white surface bearing indentations, ridges, and hollows like one of those enlarged photographs of the moon’s surface as seen through a telescope. A self-centered face, and misleadingly placid. Aunt Sophy’s large, plain features, plumply padded now, impressed you as indicating strength, courage, and a great human understanding.
From her husband and her children, Flora exacted service that would have chafed a galley slave into rebellion. She loved to lie in bed, in an orchid bed jacket with ribbons, and be read to by Adele, or Eugene, or her husband. They all hated it.
“She just wants to be waited on, and petted, and admired,” Adele had stormed one day, in open rebellion, to her Aunt Sophy. “She uses it as an excuse for everything and has, ever since Gene and I were children. She’s as strong as an ox.” Not a daughterly speech, but true.
Years before, a generous but misguided woman friend, coming in to call, had been ushered in to where Mrs. Baldwin lay propped up in a nest of pillows.
“Well, I don’t blame you,” the caller had gushed. “If I looked the way you do in bed I’d stay there forever. Don’t tell me you’re sick, with all that lovely color!”
Flora Baldwin had rolled her eyes ceilingward. “Nobody ever gives me credit for all my suffering and ill-health. And just because all my blood is in my cheeks.”
Flora was ambitious, socially, but too lazy to make the effort necessary for success in that direction.
“I love my family,” she would say. “They fill my life. After all, that’s a profession in itself–being a wife and mother.”
She showed her devotion by taking no interest whatever in her husband’s land schemes; by forbidding Eugene to play football at school for fear he might be injured; by impressing Adele with the necessity for vivacity and modishness because of what she called her unfortunate lack of beauty.
“I don’t understand it,” she used to say in the child’s presence. “Her father’s handsome enough, goodness knows; and I wasn’t such a fright when I was a girl. And look at her! Little dark skinny thing.”
The boy, Eugene, grew up a very silent, handsome, shy young fellow. The girl, dark, voluble, and rather interesting. The husband, more and more immersed in his business, was absent from home for long periods irritable after some of these home-comings; boisterously high-spirited following other trips. Now growling about household expenses and unpaid bills; now urging the purchase of some almost prohibitive luxury. Anyone but a nagging, self-absorbed, and vain woman such as Flora would have marked these unmistakable signs. But Flora was a taker, not a giver. She thought herself affectionate because she craved affection unduly. She thought herself a fond mother because she insisted on having her children with her, under her thumb, marking their devotion as a prisoner marks time with his feet, stupidly, shufflingly, advancing not a step.
Sometimes Sophy, the clear-eyed, seeing this state of affairs, tried to stop it.
“You expect too much of your husband and children,” she said one day, bluntly, to her sister.
“I!” Flora’s dimpled hand had flown to her breast like a wounded thing. “I! You’re crazy! There isn’t a more devoted wife and mother in the world. That’s the trouble. I love them too much.”
“Well, then,” grimly, “stop it for a change. That’s half Eugene’s nervousness–your fussing over him. He’s eighteen. Give him a chance. You’re weakening him. And stop dinning that society stuff into Adele’s ears. She’s got brains, that child. Why, just yesterday, in the workroom, she got hold of some satin and a shape and turned out a little turban that Angie Hatton—-“
“Do you mean to tell me that Angie Hatton saw my Adele working in your shop! Now, look here, Sophy. You’re earning your living, and it’s to your credit. You’re my sister. But I won’t have Adele associated in the minds of my friends with your hat store, understand? I won’t have it. That isn’t what I sent her away to an expensive school for. To have her come back and sit around a millinery workshop with a lot of little, cheap, shoddy sewing girls! Now, understand, I won’t have it! You don’t know what it is to be a mother. You don’t know what it is to have suffered. If you had brought two children into the world—-“
So, then, it had come about during the years between their childhood and their youth that Aunt Sophy received the burden of their confidences, their griefs, their perplexities. She seemed, somehow, to understand in some miraculous way, and to make the burden a welcome one.
“Well, now, you tell Aunt Sophy all about it. Stop crying, Della. How can I hear when you’re crying! That’s my baby. Now, then.”
This when they were children. But with the years the habit clung and became fixed. There was something about Aunt Sophy’s house–the old frame house with the warty stucco porch. For that matter, there was something about the very shop downtown, with its workroom in the rear, that had a cozy, homelike quality never possessed by the big Baldwin house. H. Charnsworth Baldwin had built a large brick mansion, in the Tudor style, on a bluff overlooking the Fox River, in the best residential section of Chippewa. It was expensively furnished. The hall console alone was enough to strike a preliminary chill to your heart.
The millinery workroom, winter days, was always bright and warm and snug. The air was a little close, perhaps, and heavy, but with a not unpleasant smell of dyes and stuffs and velvet and glue and steam and flatiron and a certain racy scent that Julia Gold, the head trimmer, always used. There was a sociable cat, white with a dark-gray patch on his throat and a swipe of it across one flank that spoiled him for style and beauty but made him a comfortable-looking cat to have around. Sometimes, on very cold days, or in the rush season, the girls would not go home to dinner, but would bring their lunches and cook coffee over a little gas heater in the corner. Julia Gold, especially, drank quantities of coffee. Aunt Sophy had hired her from Chicago. She had been with her for five years. She said Julia was the best trimmer she had ever had. Aunt Sophy often took her to New York or Chicago on her buying trips. Julia had not much genius for original design, or she never would have been content to be head milliner in a small-town shop. But she could copy a fifty-dollar model from memory down to the last detail of crown and brim. It was a gift that made her invaluable.
The boy, Eugene, used to like to look at Julia Gold. Her hair was very black and her face was very white, and her eyebrows met in a thick dark line. Her face as she bent over her work was sullen and brooding, but when she lifted her head suddenly, in conversation, you were startled by a vivid flash of teeth and eyes and smile. Her voice was deep and low. She made you a little uncomfortable. Her eyes seemed always to be asking something. Around the worktable, mornings, she used to relate the dream she had had the night before. In these dreams she was always being pursued by a lover. “And then I woke up, screaming.” Neither she nor the sewing girls knew what she was revealing in these confidences of hers. But Aunt Sophy, the shrewd, somehow sensed it.
“You’re alone too much, evenings. That’s what comes of living in a boardinghouse. You come over to me for a week. The change will do you good, and it’ll be nice for me, too, having somebody to keep me company.”
Julia often came for a week or ten days at a time. Julia, about the house after supper, was given to those vivid splashy negligees with big flower patterns strewn over them. They made her hair look blacker and her skin whiter by contrast. Sometimes Eugene or Adele or both would drop in and the four would play bridge. Aunt Sophy played a shrewd and canny game, Adele a rather brilliant one, Julia a wild and disastrous hand, always, and Eugene so badly that only Julia would take him on as a partner. Mrs. Baldwin never knew about these evenings.
It was on one of these occasions that Aunt Sophy, coming unexpectedly into the living room from the kitchen, where she and Adele were foraging for refreshments after the game, beheld Julia Gold and Eugene, arms clasped about each other, cheek to cheek. They started up as she came in and faced her, the woman defiantly, the boy bravely. Julia Gold was thirty (with reservations) at that time, and the boy not quite twenty-one.
“How long?” said Aunt Sophy, quietly. She had a mayonnaise spoon and a leaf of lettuce in her hand then, and still she did not look comic.
“I’m crazy about her,” said Eugene. “We’re crazy about each other. We’re going to be married.”
Aunt Sophy listened for the reassuring sound of Adele’s spoons and plates in the kitchen. She came forward. “Now, listen—-” she began.
“I love him,” said Julia Gold, dramatically. “I love him!”
Except that it was very white and, somehow, old-looking, Aunt Sophy’s face was as benign as always. “Now, look here, Julia, my girl. That isn’t love, and you know it. I’m an old maid, but I know what love is when I see it. I’m ashamed of you, Julia. Sensible woman like you, hugging and kissing a boy like that, and old enough to be his mother.”
“Now, look here, Aunt Sophy! If you’re going to talk that way—- Why, she’s wonderful. She’s taught me what it means to really—-”
“Oh, my land!” Aunt Sophy sat down, looking suddenly very ill.
And then, from the kitchen, Adele’s clear young voice: “Heh! What’s the idea! I’m not going to do all the work. Where’s everybody?”
Aunt Sophy started up again. She came up to them and put a hand– a capable, firm, steadying hand–on the arm of each. The woman drew back, but the boy did not.
“Will you promise me not to do anything for a week? Just a week! Will you promise me? Will you?”
“Are you going to tell Father?”
“Not for a week, if you’ll promise not to see each other in that week. No, I don’t want to send you away, Julia, I don’t want to. . . . You’re not a bad girl. It’s just–he’s never had–at home they never gave him a chance. Just a week, Julia. Just a week, Eugene. We can talk things over then.”
Adele’s footsteps coming from the kitchen.
“I promise,” said Eugene. Julia said nothing.
“Well, really,” said Adele, from the doorway, “you’re a nervy lot, sitting around while I slave in the kitchen. Gene, see if you can open the olives with this fool can opener. I tried.”
There is no knowing what she expected to do in that week, Aunt Sophy; what miracle she meant to perform. She had no plan in her mind. Just hope. She looked strangely shrunken and old, suddenly. But when, three days later, the news came that America was to go into the war she had her answer.
Flora was beside herself. “Eugene won’t have to go. He isn’t old enough, thank God! And by the time he is it will be over. Surely.” She was almost hysterical.
Eugene was in the room. Aunt Sophy looked at him and he looked at Aunt Sophy. In her eyes was a question. In his was the answer. They said nothing. The next day Eugene enlisted. In three days he was gone. Flora took to her bed. Next day Adele, a faint, unwonted color marking her cheeks, walked into her mother’s bedroom and stood at the side of the recumbent figure. Her father, his hands clasped behind him, was pacing up and down, now and then kicking a cushion that had fallen to the floor. He was chewing a dead cigar, one side of his face twisted curiously over the cylinder in his mouth so that he had a sinister and crafty look.
“Charnsworth, won’t you please stop ramping up and down like that! My nerves are killing me. I can’t help it if the war has done something or other to your business. I’m sure no wife could have been more economical than I have. Nothing matters but Eugene, anyway. How could he do such a thing! I’ve given my whole life to my children—-”
H. Charnsworth kicked the cushion again so that it struck the wall at the opposite side of the room. Flora drew her breath in between her teeth as though a knife had entered her heart.
Adele still stood at the side of the bed, looking at her mother. Her hands were clasped behind her, too. In that moment, as she stood there, she resembled her mother and her father so startlingly and simultaneously that the two, had they been less absorbed in their own affairs, must have marked it.
The girl’s head came up stiffly. “Listen. I’m going to marry Daniel Oakley.”
Daniel Oakley was fifty, and a friend of her father’s. For years he had been coming to the house and for years she had ridiculed him. She and Eugene had called him Sturdy Oak because he was always talking about his strength and endurance, his walks, his rugged health; pounding his chest meanwhile and planting his feet far apart. He and Baldwin had had business relations as well as friendly ones.
At this announcement Flora screamed and sat up in bed. H. Charnsworth stopped short in his pacing and regarded his daughter with a queer look; a concentrated look, as though what she had said had set in motion a whole mass of mental machinery within his brain.
“When did he ask you?”
“He’s asked me a dozen times. But it’s different now. All the men will be going to war. There won’t be any left. Look at England and France. I’m not going to be left.” She turned squarely toward her father, her young face set and hard. “You know what I mean. You know what I mean.”
Flora, sitting up in bed, was sobbing. “I think you might have told your mother, Adele. What are children coming to! You stand there and say, `I’m going to marry Daniel Oakley.’ Oh, I am so faint . . . all of a sudden . . . Get the spirits of ammonia.”
Adele turned and walked out of the room. She was married six weeks later. They had a regular prewar wedding–veil, flowers, dinner, and all. Aunt Sophy arranged the folds of her gown and draped her veil. The girl stood looking at herself in the mirror, a curious half smile twisting her lips. She seemed slighter and darker than ever.
“In all this white, and my veil, I look just like a fly in a quart of milk,” she said, with a laugh. Then, suddenly, she turned to her aunt, who stood behind her, and clung to her, holding her tight, tight. “I can’t!” she gasped. “I can’t! I can’t!”
Aunt Sophy held her off and looked at her, her eyes searching the girl.
“What do you mean, Della? Are you just nervous or do you mean you don’t want to marry him? Do you mean that? Then what are you marrying for? Tell me! Tell your Aunt Sophy.”
But Adele was straightening herself and pulling out the crushed folds of her veil. “To pay the mortgage on the old homestead, of course. Just like the girl in the play.” She laughed a little. But Aunt Sophy did not.
“Now look here, Della. If you’re—-”
But there was a knock at the door. Adele caught up her flowers. “It’s all right,” she said. Aunt Sophy stood with her back against the door. “If it’s money,” she said. “It is! It is, isn’t it! I’ve got money saved. It was for you children. I’ve always been afraid. I knew he was sailing pretty close, with his speculations and all, since the war. He can have it all. It isn’t too late yet. Adele! Della, my baby.”
“Don’t, Aunt Sophy. It wouldn’t be enough, anyway. Daniel has been wonderful, really. Dad’s been stealing money for years. Dan’s. Don’t look like that. I’d have hated being poor, anyway.
Never could have got used to it. It is ridiculous, though, isn’t it? Like something in the movies. I don’t mind. I’m lucky, really, when you come to think of it. A plain little black thing like me.”
“But your mother—-”
“Mother doesn’t know a thing.”
Flora wept mistily all through the ceremony, but Adele was composed enough for two.
When, scarcely a month later, Baldwin came to Sophy Decker, his face drawn and queer, Sophy knew.
“How much?” she said.
“Thirty thousand will cover it. If you’ve got more than that—-”
“I thought Oakley—-Adele said—-”
“He did, but he won’t any more, and this thing’s got to be met. It’s this damned war that’s done it. I’d have been all right. People got scared. They wanted their money. They wanted it in cash.”
“Speculating with it, were you?”
“Oh, well, a woman doesn’t understand these business deals.”
“No, naturally,” said Aunt Sophy, “a butterfly like me.”
“Sophy, for God’s sake don’t joke now. I tell you this will cover it, and everything will be all right. If I had anybody else to go to for the money I wouldn’t ask you. But you’ll get it back. You know that.”
Aunt Sophy got up, heavily, and went over to her desk. “It was for the children, anyway. They won’t need it now.”
He looked up at that. Something in her voice. “Who won’t? Why won’t they?”
“I don’t know what made me say that. I had a dream.”
“Oh, well, we’re all nervous. Flora has dreams every night and presentiments every fifteen minutes. Now, look here, Sophy. About this money. You’ll never know how grateful I am. Flora doesn’t understand these things, but I can talk to you. It’s like this—-”
“I might as well be honest about it,” Sophy interrupted. “I’m doing it, not for you, but for Flora, and Della–and Eugene. Flora has lived such a sheltered life. I sometimes wonder if she ever really knew any of you. Her husband, or her children. I sometimes have the feeling that Della and Eugene are my children–were my children.”
When he came home that night Baldwin told his wife that old Soph was getting queer. “She talks about the children being hers,” he said.
“Oh, well, she’s awfully fond of them,” Flora explained. “And she’s lived her little, narrow life, with nothing to bother her but her hats and her house. She doesn’t know what it means to suffer as a mother suffers –poor Sophy.”
“Um,” Baldwin grunted.
When the official notification of Eugene’s death came from the War Department, Aunt Sophy was so calm it might have appeared that Flora had been right. She took to her bed now in earnest, did Flora. Sophy neglected everything to give comfort to the stricken two.
“How can you sit there like that!” Flora would rail. “How can you sit there like that! Even if you weren’t his mother, surely you must feel something.”
“It’s the way he died that comforts me,” said Aunt Sophy.
“What difference does that make!”
AMERICAN RED CROSS
(Croix Rouge Americaine)
MY DEAR MRS. BALDWIN:
I am sure you must have been officially notified by the U.S. War Dept. of the death of your son, Lieut. Eugene H. Baldwin. But I want to write you what I can of his last hours. I was with him much of that time as his nurse. I’m sure it must mean much to a mother to hear from a woman who was privileged to be with her boy at the last.
Your son was brought to our hospital one night badly gassed from the fighting in the Argonne Forest. Ordinarily we do not receive gassed patients, as they are sent to a special hospital near here. But two nights before, the Germans wrecked that hospital, so many gassed patients have come to us. Your son was put in the officers’ ward, where the doctors who examined him told me there was absolutely no hope for him, as he had inhaled so much gas that it was only a matter of a few hours.
I could scarcely believe that a man so big and strong as he was could not pull through.
The first bad attack he had, losing his breath and nearly choking, rather frightened him, although the doctor and I were both with him. He held my hand tightly in his, begging me not to leave him, and repeating, over and over, that it was good to have a woman near. He was propped high in bed and put his head on my shoulder while I fanned him until he breathed more easily. I stayed with him all that night, though I was not on duty. You see, his eyes also were badly burned. But before he died he was able to see very well. I stayed with him every minute of that night and have never seen a finer character than he showed during all that fight for life.
He had several bad attacks that night and came through each one simply because of his great will power and fighting spirit. After each attack he would grip my hand and say, “Well, we made it that time, didn’t we, nurse?” Toward morning he asked me if he was going to die. I could not tell him the truth. He needed all his strength. I told him he had one chance in a thousand. He seemed to become very strong then, and sitting bolt upright in bed, he said: “Then I’ll fight for it!” We kept him alive for three days, and actually thought we had won when on the third day . . .
But even in your sorrow you must be very proud to have been the mother of such a son. . . .
I am a Wisconsin girl–Madison. When this is over and I come home, will you let me see you so that I may tell you more than I can possibly write?
It was in March, six months later, that Marian King came. They had hoped for it, but never expected it. And she came. Four people were waiting in the living room of the big Baldwin house overlooking the river. Flora and her husband, Adele and Aunt Sophy. They sat, waiting. Now and then Adele would rise, nervously, and go to the window that faced the street. Flora was weeping with audible sniffs. Baldwin sat in his chair, frowning a little, a dead cigar in one corner of his mouth. Only Aunt Sophy sat quietly, waiting.
There was little conversation. None in the last five minutes. Flora broke the silence, dabbing at her face with her handkerchief as she spoke.
“Sophy, how can you sit there like that? Not that I don’t envy you. I do. I remember I used to feel sorry for you. I used to say `Poor Sophy.’ But you unmarried ones are the happiest, after all. It’s the married woman who drinks the cup to the last, bitter drop. There you sit, Sophy, fifty years old, and life hasn’t even touched you. You don’t know how cruel life can be to a mother.”
Suddenly, “There!” said Adele. The other three in the room stood up and faced the door. The sound of a motor stopping outside. Daniel Oakley’s hearty voice: “Well, it only took us five minutes from the station. Pretty good.”
Footsteps down the hall. Marian King stood in the doorway. They faced her, the four–Baldwin and Adele and Flora and Sophy. Marian King stood a moment, uncertainly, her eyes upon them. She looked at the two older women with swift, appraising glances. Then she came into the room, quickly, and put her two hands on Aunt Soph’s shoulders and looked into her eyes straight and sure.
“You must be a very proud woman,” she said. “You ought to be a very proud woman,”