It took Harrietta some time to realize this because they were not taking the book scenes in their sequence. They took them according to light, convenience, location. Indoor scenes were taken in one group, so that the end of the story might often be the first to be filmed.
For a week Harrietta was dressed, made up, and ready for work at nine o'clock, and for a week she wasn't used in a single scene. The hours of waiting made her frantic. The sun was white hot. Her little dressing room was stifling. She hated her face with its dead-white mask and blue-lidded eyes. When, finally, her time came she found that after being dressed and ready from nine until five-thirty daily she was required, at 4:56 on the sixth day, to cross the set, open a door, stop, turn, appear to be listening, and recross the set to meet someone entering from the opposite side. This scene, trivial as it appeared, was rehearsed seven times before the director was satisfied with it.
The person for whom she had paused, turned, and crossed was Lydia Lissome. And Lydia Lissome, it soon became evident, had the lead in this film. In the process of changing from novel to scenario, the Young Wife had become a rather middle-aged wife, and the Flapper of seventeen had become the heroine. And Harrietta Fuller, erstwhile actress of youthful comedy parts for the stage, found herself moving about in black velvet and pearls and a large plumed fan as a background for the white ruffles and golden curls and sunny scenes in which Lydia Lissome held the camera's eye.
For years Harrietta Fuller's entrance during a rehearsal always had created a little stir among the company. This one rose to give her a seat; that one made her a compliment; Sam Klein, the veteran director, patted her cheek and said: "You're going to like this part, Miss Fuller. And they're going to eat it up. You see." The author bent over her in mingled nervousness and deference and admiration. The Young Thing who was to play the ingenue part said shyly: "Oh, Miss Fuller, may I tell you how happy I am to be playing with you? You've been my ideal, etc."
And now Harrietta Fuller, in black velvet, was the least important person on the lot. No one was rude to her. Everyone was most kind, in fact. Kind! To Harrietta Fuller! She found that her face felt stiff and expressionless after long hours of waiting, waiting, and an elderly woman who was playing a minor part showed her how to overcome this by stretching her face, feature for feature, as a dancer goes through limbering exercises in the wings. The woman had been a trouper in the old days of one-night stands. Just before she stepped in front of the camera you saw her drawing down her face grotesquely, stretching her mouth to form an oval, dropping her jaw, twisting her lips to the right, to the left, rolling her eyes round and round. It was a perfect lesson in facial calisthenics, and Harrietta was thankful for it. Harrietta was interested in such things—interested in them, and grateful for what they taught her.
She told herself that she didn't mind the stir that Lydia Lissome made when she was driven up in the morning in her great blue limousine with the two Japs sitting so straight and immobile in front, like twin Nipponese gods. But she did. She told herself she didn't mind when the director said: "Miss Fuller, if you'll just watch Miss Lissome work. She has perfect picture tempo." But she did. The director was the new-fashioned kind, who spoke softly, rehearsed you almost privately, never bawled through a megaphone. A slim young man in a white shirt and flannel trousers and a pair of Harvard-looking glasses. Everybody was young. That was it! Not thirty, or thirty-two, or thirty-four, or thirty-seven, but young. Terribly, horribly, actually young. That was it.
Harrietta Fuller was too honest not to face this fact squarely. When she went to a Thursday-night dance at the Hollywood Hotel she found herself in a ballroom full of slim, pliant, corsetless young things of eighteen, nineteen, twenty. The men, with marcelled hair and slim feet and sunburnt faces, were mere boys. As juveniles on the stage they might have been earning seventy-five or one hundred or one hundred and fifty dollars a week. Here they owned estates, motor cars in fleets, power boats; had secretaries, valets, trainers. Their technique was perfect and simple. They knew their work. When they kissed a girl, or entered a room, or gazed after a woman, or killed a man in the presence of a woman (while working) they took off their hats. Turned slowly, and took off their hats. They were mannerly, too, outside working hours. They treated Harrietta with boyish politeness—when they noticed her at all.
"Oh, won't you have this chair, Miss Fuller? I didn't notice you were standing."
They didn't notice she was standing!
"What are you doing, Miss—ah—Fuller? Yes, you did say Fuller. Names—— Are you doing a dowager bit?"
"I see. You're new to the game, aren't you? I saw you working to-day. We always speak of these black-velvet parts as dowager bits. Just excuse me. I see a friend of mine——" The friend of mine would be a willow wand with golden curls, and what Harrietta rather waspishly called a Gunga Din costume. She referred to that Kipling description in which:
The uniform 'e wore Was nothin' much before, An' rather less than 'arf o' that be'ind.
"They're wearing them that way here in Hollywood," she wrote Ken. She wrote Ken a good many things. But there were, too, a good many things she did not write him.
At the end of the week she would look at her check—and take small comfort. "You've got everything you really want right here," Ken had said, "if you only knew it."
If only she had known it.
Well, she knew it now. Now, frightened, bewildered, resentful. Thirty-seven. Why, thirty-seven was old in Hollywood. Not middle-aged, or getting on, or well preserved, but old. Even Lydia Lissome, at twenty, always made them put one thickness of chiffon over the camera's lens before she would let them take the close-ups. Harrietta thought of that camera now as a cruel Cyclops from whose hungry eye nothing escaped—wrinkles, crow's-feet—nothing.
They had been working two months on the picture. It was almost finished. Midsummer. Harrietta's little bungalow garden was ablaze with roses, dahlias, poppies, asters, strange voluptuous flowers whose names she did not know. The roses, plucked and placed in water, fell apart, petal by petal, two hours afterward. From her veranda she saw the Sierra Madre range and the foothills. She thought of her "unexcelled view of Park" which could be had by flattening one ear and the side of your face against the window jamb.
The sun came up, hard and bright and white, day after day. Hard and white and hot and dry. "Like a woman," Harrietta thought, "who wears a red satin gown all the time. You'd wish she'd put on gingham just once, for a change." She told herself that she was parched for a walk up Riverside Drive in a misty summer rain, the water sloshing in her shoes.
"Happy, my ducky?" Irish Mary would say, beaming upon her.
"Perfectly," from Harrietta.
"It's time, too. Real money you're pullin' down here. And a paradise if ever there was one."
"I notice, though, that as soon as they've completed a picture they take the Overland back to New York and make dates with each other for lunch at the Claridge, like matinee girls."
Irish Mary flapped a negligent palm. "Ah, well, change is what we all want, now and then." She looked at Harrietta sharply. "You're not wantin' to go back, are ye?"
"N-no," faltered Harrietta. Then, brazenly, hotly: "Yes, yes!" ending, miserably, with: "But my contract. Six months."
"You can break it, if you're fool enough, when they've finished this picture, though why you should want to——" Irish Mary looked as belligerent as her kindly Celtic face could manage.
But it was not until the last week of the filming of Let's get a Husband that Harrietta came to her and said passionately: "I do! I do!"
"Do what?" Irish Mary asked, blankly.
"Do want to break my contract. You said I could after this picture."
"Sure you can. They hired you because I put Lyddy up to askin' them to. I'd thought you'd be pleased for the big money an' all. There's no pleasin' some."
"It isn't that. You don't understand. To-day——"
"Well, what's happened to-day that's so turrible, then?"
But how could Harrietta tell her? "To-day——" she began again, faltered, stopped. To-day, you must know, this had happened: It was the Big Scene of the film. Lydia Lissome, in black lace nightgown and ermine negligee, her hair in marcel waves, had just been "shot" for it.
"Now then, Miss Fuller," said young Garvey, the director, "you come into the garden, see? You've noticed Joyce go out through the French window and you suspect she's gone to meet Talbot. We show just a flash of you looking out of the drawing-room windows into the garden. Then you just glance over your shoulder to where your husband is sitting in the library, reading, and you slip away, see? Then we jump to where you find them in the garden. Wait a minute"—He consulted the sheaf of typewritten sheets in his hand—"yeh—here it says: 'Joyce is keeping her tryst under the great oak in the garden with her lover.' Yeh. Wait a minute ... 'tryst under tree with'—well, you come quickly forward—down to about here—and you say: 'Ah, there you are!'"
Harrietta looked at him for a long, long minute. Her lips were parted. Her breath came quickly. She spoke: "I say—what?"
"You say: 'Ah, there you are.'"
"Never!" said Harrietta Fuller, and brought her closed fist down on her open palm for emphasis. "Never!"
* * * * *
It was August when she again was crossing desert, plains, and farmlands. It was the tail-end of a dusty, hot, humid August in New York when Ken stood at the station, waiting. As he came forward, raising one arm, her own arm shot forward in quick protest, even while her glad eyes held his.
"Don't take it off!"
"Your hat. Don't take it off. Kiss me—but leave your hat on."
She clutched his arm. She looked up at him. They were in the taxi bound for Fifty-sixth Street. "She moved? She's out? She's gone? You told her I'd pay her anything—a bonus——" Then, as he nodded, she leaned back, relaxed. Something in her face prompted him.
"You're young and beautiful and bewitching," said Ken.
"Keep on saying it," pleaded Harrietta. "Make a chant of it." ...
Sam Klein, the veteran, was the first to greet her when she entered the theatre at that first September rehearsal. The company was waiting for her. She wasn't late. She had just pleasantly escaped being unpunctual. She came in, cool, slim, electric. Then she hesitated. For the fraction of a second she hesitated. Then Sam Klein greeted her: "Company's waiting, Miss Fuller, if you're ready." And the leading man came forward, a flower in his buttonhole, carefully tailored and slightly yellow as a leading man of forty should be at 10:30 A. M. "How wonderful you're looking, Harrietta," he said.
Sam Klein took her aside. "You're going to make the hit of your career in this part, Miss Fuller. Yessir, dear, the hit of your career. You mark my words."
"Don't you think," stammered Harrietta—"don't you think it will take someone—someone—younger—to play the part?"
"Younger than what?"
Sam Klein stared. Then he laughed. "Younger than you! Say, listen, do you want to get the Gerry Society after me?"
And as he turned away a Young Thing with worshipful eyes crept up to Harrietta's side and said tremulously: "Oh, Miss Fuller, this is my first chance on Broadway, and may I tell you how happy I am to be playing with you? You've been my ideal ever since I was a—for a long, long time."
Wilson avenue, Chicago, is not merely an avenue but a district; not only a district but a state of mind; not a state of mind alone but a condition of morals. For that matter, it is none of these things so much as a mode of existence. If you know your Chicago—which you probably don't—(sotto voce murmur, Heaven forbid!)—you are aware that, long ago, Wilson Avenue proper crept slyly around the corner and achieved a clandestine alliance with big glittering Sheridan Road; which escapade changed the demure thoroughfare into Wilson Avenue improper.
When one says "A Wilson Avenue girl," the mind—that is, the Chicago mind—pictures immediately a slim, daring, scented, exotic creature dressed in next week's fashions; wise-eyed; doll-faced; rapacious. When chiffon stockings are worn Wilson Avenue's hosiery is but a film over the flesh. Aigrettes and mink coats are its winter uniform. A feverish district this, all plate glass windows and delicatessen dinners and one-room-and-kitchenette apartments, where light housekeepers take their housekeeping too lightly.
At six o'clock you are likely to see Wilson Avenue scurrying about in its mink coat and its French heels and its crepe frock, assembling its haphazard dinner. Wilson Avenue food, as displayed in the ready-cooked shops, resembles in a startling degree the Wilson Avenue ladies themselves: highly coloured, artificial, chemically treated, tempting to the eye, but unnutritious. In and out of the food emporia these dart, buying dabs of this and bits of that. Chromatic viands. Vivid scarlet, orange, yellow, green. A strip of pimento here. A mound of mayonnaise there. A green pepper stuffed with such burden of deceit as no honest green pepper ever was meant to hold. Two eggs. A quarter-pound of your best creamery butter. An infinitesimal bottle of cream. "And what else?" says the plump woman in the white bib-apron, behind the counter. "And what else?" Nothing. I guess that'll be all. Mink coats prefer to dine out.
As a cripple displays his wounds and sores, proudly, so Wilson Avenue throws open its one-room front door with a grandiloquent gesture as it boasts, "Two hundred and fifty a month!" Shylock, purchasing a paper-thin slice of pinky ham in Wilson Avenue, would know his own early Venetian transaction to have been pure philanthropy.
It took Raymond and Cora Atwater twelve years to reach this Wilson Avenue, though they carried it with them all the way. They had begun their married life in this locality before it had become a definite district. Twelve years ago the neighbourhood had shown no signs of mushrooming into its present opulence. Twelve years ago Raymond, twenty-eight, and Cora, twenty-four, had taken a six-room flat at Racine and Sunnyside. Six rooms. Modern. Light. Rental, $28.50 per month.
"But I guess I can manage it, all right," Raymond had said. "That isn't so terrible—for six rooms."
Cora's full under lip had drawn itself into a surprisingly thin straight line. Later, Raymond came to recognize the meaning of that labial warning. "We don't need all those rooms. It's just that much more work."
"I don't want you doing your own work. Not unless you want to. At first, maybe, it'd be sort of fun for you. But after a while you'll want a girl to help. That'll take the maid's room off the kitchen."
"Well, supposing? That leaves an extra room, anyway."
A look came into Raymond's face. "Maybe we'll need that, too—later. Later on." He actually could have been said to blush, then, like a boy. There was much of the boy in Raymond at twenty-eight.
Cora did not blush.
Raymond had married Cora because he loved her; and because she was what is known as a "home girl." From the first, business girls—those alert, pert, confident little sparrows of office and shop and the street at lunch hour—rather terrified him. They gave you as good as you sent. They were always ready with their own nickel for carfare. You never knew whether they were laughing at you or not. There was a little girl named Calhoun in the binoculars (Raymond's first Chicago job was with the Erwin H. Nagel Optical Company on Wabash). The Calhoun girl was smart. She wore those plain white waists. Tailored, Raymond thought they called them. They made her skin look fresh and clear and sort of downy-blooming like the peaches that grew in his own Michigan state back home. Or perhaps only girls with clear fresh skins could wear those plain white waist things. Raymond had heard that girls thought and schemed about things that were becoming to them, and then stuck to those things. He wondered how the Calhoun girl might look in a fluffy waist. But she never wore one down to work. When business was dull in the motor and sun-glasses (which was where he held forth) Raymond would stroll over to Laura Calhoun's counter and talk. He would talk about the Invention. He had no one else to talk to about it. No one he could trust, or who understood.
The Calhoun girl, polishing the great black eyes of a pair of field glasses, would look up brightly to say, "Well, how's the Invention coming on?" Then he would tell her.
The Invention had to do with spectacles. Not only that, if you are a wearer of spectacles of any kind, it has to do with you. For now, twelve years later, you could not well do without it. The little contraption that keeps the side-piece from biting into your ears—that's Raymond's.
Knowing, as we do, that Raymond's wife is named Cora we know that the Calhoun girl of the fresh clear skin, the tailored white shirtwaists, and the friendly interest in the Invention, lost out. The reason for that was Raymond's youth, and Raymond's vanity, and Raymond's unsophistication, together with Lucy Calhoun's own honesty and efficiency. These last qualities would handicap any girl in love, no matter how clear her skin or white her shirtwaist.
Of course, when Raymond talked to her about the Invention she should have looked adoringly into his eyes and said, "How perfectly wonderful! I don't see how you think of such things."
What she said, after studying its detail thoughtfully for a moment, was: "Yeh, but look. If this little tiny wire had a spring underneath—just a little bit of spring—it'd take all the pressure off when you wear a hat. Now women's hats are worn so much lower over their ears, d'you see? That'd keep it from pressing. Men's hats, too, for that matter."
She was right. Grudgingly, slowly, he admitted it. Not only that, he carried out her idea and perfected the spectacle contrivance as you know it to-day. Without her suggestion it would have had a serious flaw. He knew he ought to be grateful. He told himself that he was grateful. But in reality he was resentful. She was a smart girl, but—well—a fella didn't feel comfortable going with a girl that knew more than he did. He took her to the theatre—it was before the motion picture had attained its present-day virulence. She enjoyed it. So did he. Perhaps they might have repeated the little festivity and the white shirtwaist might have triumphed in the end. But that same week Raymond met Cora.
Though he had come to Chicago from Michigan almost a year before, he knew few people. The Erwin H. Nagel Company kept him busy by day. The Invention occupied him at night. He read, too, books on optometry. Don't think that he was a Rollo. He wasn't. But he was naturally somewhat shy, and further handicapped by an unusually tall lean frame which he handled awkwardly. If you had a good look at his eyes you forgot his shyness, his leanness, his awkwardness, his height. They were the keynote of his gentle, studious, kindly, humorous nature. But Chicago, Illinois, is too busy looking to see anything. Eyes are something you see with, not into.
Two of the boys at Nagel's had an engagement for the evening with two girls who were friends. On the afternoon of that day one of the boys went home at four with a well-developed case of grippe. The other approached Raymond with his plea.
"Say, Atwater, help me out, will you? I can't reach my girl because she's downtown somewheres for the afternoon with Cora. That's her girl friend. And me and Harvey was to meet 'em for dinner, see? And a show. I'm in a hole. Help me out, will you? Go along and fuss Cora. She's a nice girl. Pretty, too, Cora is. Will you, Ray? Huh?"
Ray went. By nine-thirty that evening he had told Cora about the Invention. And Cora had turned sidewise in her seat next to him at the theatre and had looked up at him adoringly, awe-struck. "Why, how perfectly wonderful! I don't see how you think of such things."
"Oh, that's nothing. I got a lot of ideas. Things I'm going to work out. Say, I won't always be plugging down at Nagel's, believe me. I got a lot of ideas."
"Really! Why, you're an inventor, aren't you! Like Edison and those. My, it must be wonderful to think of things out of your head. Things that nobody's ever thought of before."
Ray glowed. He felt comfortable, and soothed, and relaxed and stimulated. And too large for his clothes. "Oh, I don't know. I just think of things. That's all there is to it. That's nothing."
"Oh, isn't it! No, I guess not. I've never been out with a real inventor before ... I bet you think I'm a silly little thing."
He protested, stoutly. "I should say not." A thought struck him. "Do you do anything? Work downtown somewheres, or anything?"
She shook her head. Her lips pouted. Her eyebrows made pained twin crescents. "No. I don't do anything. I was afraid you'd ask that." She looked down at her hands—her white, soft hands with little dimples at the finger-bases. "I'm just a home girl. That's all. A home girl. Now you will think I'm a silly stupid thing." She flashed a glance at him, liquid-eyed, appealing.
He was surprised (she wasn't) to find his hand closed tight and hard over her soft dimpled one. He was terror-stricken (she wasn't) to hear his voice saying, "I think you're wonderful. I think you're the most wonderful girl I ever saw, that's what." He crushed her hand and she winced a little. "Home girl."
Cora's name suited her to a marvel. Her hair was black and her colouring a natural pink and white, which she abetted expertly. Cora did not wear plain white tailored waists. She wore thin, fluffy, transparent things that drew your eyes and fired your imagination. Raymond began to call her Coral in his thoughts. Then, one evening, it slipped out. Coral. She liked it. He denied himself all luxuries and most necessities and bought her a strand of beads of that name, presenting them to her stammeringly, clumsily, tenderly. Tender pink and cream, they were, like her cheeks, he thought.
"Oh, Ray, for me! How darling! You naughty boy!... But I'd rather have had those clear white ones, without any colouring. They're more stylish. Do you mind?"
When he told Laura Calhoun she said, "I hope you'll be very happy. She's a lucky girl. Tell me about her, will you?"
Would he! His home girl!
When he had finished she said, quietly, "Oh, yes."
And so Raymond and Cora were married and went to live in six-room elegance at Sunnyside and Racine. The flat was furnished sumptuously in Mission and those red and brown soft leather cushions with Indian heads stamped on them. There was a wooden rack on the wall with six monks' heads in coloured plaster, very life-like, stuck on it. This was a pipe-rack, though Raymond did not smoke a pipe. He liked a mild cigar. Then there was a print of Gustave Richter's "Queen Louise" coming down that broad marble stair, one hand at her breast, her great girlish eyes looking out at you from the misty folds of her scarf. What a lot of the world she has seen from her stairway! The shelf that ran around the dining room wall on a level with your head was filled with steins in such shapes and colours as would have curdled their contents—if they had ever had any contents.
They planned to read a good deal, evenings. Improve their minds. It was Ray's idea, but Cora seconded it heartily. This was before their marriage.
"Now, take history alone," Ray argued: "American history. Why, you can read a year and hardly know the half of it. That's the trouble. People don't know the history of their own country. And it's interesting, too, let me tell you. Darned interesting. Better'n novels, if folks only knew it."
"My, yes," Cora agreed. "And French. We could take up French, evenings. I've always wanted to study French. They say if you know French you can travel anywhere. It's all in the accent; and goodness knows I'm quick at picking up things like that."
"Yeh," Ray had said, a little hollowly, "yeh, French. Sure."
But, somehow, these literary evenings never did materialize. It may have been a matter of getting the books. You could borrow them from the public library, but that made you feel so hurried. History was something you wanted to take your time over. Then, too, the books you wanted never were in. You could buy them. But buying books like that! Cora showed her first real display of temper. Why, they came in sets and cost as much as twelve or fifteen dollars. Just for books! The literary evenings degenerated into Ray's thorough scanning of the evening paper, followed by Cora's skimming of the crumpled sheets that carried the department store ads, the society column, and the theatrical news. Raymond began to use the sixth room—the unused bedroom—as a workshop. He had perfected the spectacle contrivance and had made the mistake of selling his rights to it. He got a good sum for it.
"But I'll never do that again," he said, grimly. "Somebody'll make a fortune on that thing." He had unwisely told Cora of this transaction. She never forgave him for it. On the day he received the money for it he had brought her home a fur set of baum marten. He thought the stripe in it beautiful. There was a neckpiece known as a stole, and a large muff.
"Oh, honey!" Cora had cried. "Aren't you fun-ny!" She often said that, always with the same accent. "Aren't you fun-ny!"
"What's the matter?"
"Why didn't you let me pick it out? They're wearing Persian lamb sets."
"Oh. Well, maybe the feller'll change it. It's all paid for, but maybe he'll change it."
"Do you mind? It may cost a little bit more. You don't mind my changing it though, do you?"
"No. No-o-o-o! Not a bit."
They had never furnished the unused bedroom as a bedroom. When they moved out of the flat at Racine and Sunnyside into one of those new four-room apartments on Glengyle the movers found only a long rough work-table and a green-shaded lamp in that sixth room. Ray's delicate tools and implements were hard put to it to find a resting place in the new four-room apartment. Sometimes Ray worked in the bathroom. He grew rather to like the white-tiled place, with its look of a laboratory. But then, he didn't have as much time to work at home as he formerly had had. They went out more evenings.
The new four-room flat rented at sixty dollars. "Seems the less room you have the more you pay," Ray observed.
"There's no comparison. Look at the neighbourhood! And the living room's twice as big."
It didn't seem to be. Perhaps this was due to its furnishings. The Mission pieces had gone to the second-hand dealer. Ray was assistant manager of the optical department at Nagel's now and he was getting royalties on a new smoked glass device. There were large over-stuffed chairs in the new living room, and a seven-foot davenport, and oriental rugs, and lamps and lamps and lamps. The silk lampshade conflagration had just begun to smoulder in the American household. The dining room had one of those built-in Chicago buffets. It sparkled with cut glass. There was a large punch bowl in the centre, in which Cora usually kept receipts, old bills, moth balls, buttons, and the tarnished silver top to a syrup jug that she always meant to have repaired. Queen Louise was banished to the bedroom where she surveyed a world of cretonne.
Cora was a splendid cook. She had almost a genius for flavouring. Roast or cheese souffle or green apple pie—your sense of taste never experienced that disappointment which comes of too little salt, too much sugar, a lack of shortening. Expert as she was at it, Cora didn't like to cook. That is, she didn't like to cook day after day. She rather liked doing an occasional meal and producing it in a sort of red-cheeked triumph. When she did this it was an epicurean thing, savoury, hot, satisfying. But as a day-after-day programme Cora would not hear of it. She had banished the maid. Four rooms could not accommodate her. A woman came in twice a week to wash and iron and clean. Often Cora did not get up for breakfast and Ray got his at one of the little lunch rooms that were springing up all over that section of the North Side. Eleven o'clock usually found Cora at the manicure's, or the dressmaker's, or shopping, or telephoning luncheon arrangements with one of the Crowd. Ray and Cora were going out a good deal with the Crowd. Young married people like themselves, living royally just a little beyond their income. The women were well-dressed, vivacious, somewhat shrill. They liked stories that were a little off-colour. "Blue," one of the men called these stories. He was in the theatrical business. The men were, for the most part, a rather drab-looking lot. Colourless, good-natured, open-handed. Almost imperceptibly the Crowd began to use Ray as a target for a certain raillery. It wasn't particularly ill-natured, and Ray did not resent it.
"Oh, come on, Ray! Don't be a wet blanket.... Lookit him! I bet he's thinking about those smoked glasses again. Eh, Atwater? He's in a daze about that new rim that won't show on the glasses. Come out of it! First thing you know you'll lose your little Cora."
There was little danger of that. Though Cora flirted mildly with the husbands of the other girls in the Crowd (they all did) she was true to Ray.
Ray was always talking of building a little place of their own. People were beginning to move farther and farther north, into the suburbs.
"Little place of your own," Ray would say, "that's the only way to live. Then you're not paying it all out in rent to the other feller. Little place of your own. That's the right idear."
But as the years went by, and Ray earned more and more money, he and Cora seemed to be getting farther and farther away from the right idear. In the $28.50 apartment Cora's morning marketing had been an orderly daily proceeding. Meat, vegetables, fruit, dry groceries. But now the maidless four-room apartment took on, in spite of its cumbersome furnishings, a certain air of impermanence.
"Ray, honey, I haven't a scrap in the house. I didn't get home until almost six. Those darned old street cars. I hate 'em. Do you mind going over Jo Bauer's to eat? I won't go, because Myrtle served a regular spread at four. I couldn't eat a thing. D'you mind?"
"Why, no." He would get into his coat again and go out into the bleak November wind-swept street to Bauer's restaurant.
Cora was always home when Raymond got there at six. She prided herself on this. She would say, primly, to her friends, "I make a point of being there when Ray gets home. Even if I have to cut a round of bridge. If a woman can't be there when a man gets home from work I'd like to know what she's good for, anyway."
The girls in the Crowd said she was spoiling Raymond. She told Ray this. "They think I'm old-fashioned. Well, maybe I am. But I guess I never pretended to be anything but a home girl."
"That's right," Ray would answer. "Say, that's the way you caught me. With that home-girl stuff."
"Caught you!" The thin straight line of the mouth. "If you think for one minute——"
"Oh, now, dear. You know what I mean, sweetheart. Why, say, I never could see any girl until I met you. You know that."
He was as honestly in love with her as he had been nine years before. Perhaps he did not feel now, as then, that she had conferred a favour upon him in marrying him. Or if he did he must have known that he had made fair return for such favour.
Cora had a Hudson seal coat now, with a great kolinsky collar. Her vivid face bloomed rosily in this soft frame. Cora was getting a little heavier. Not stout, but heavier, somehow. She tried, futilely, to reduce. She would starve herself at home for days, only to gain back the vanished pounds at one afternoon's orgy of whipped-cream salad, and coffee, and sweets at the apartment of some girl in the Crowd. Dancing had come in and the Crowd had taken it up vociferously. Raymond was not very good at it. He had not filled out with the years. He still was lean and tall and awkward. The girls in the crowd tried to avoid dancing with him. That often left Cora partnerless unless she wanted to dance again and again with Raymond.
"How can you expect the boys to ask me to dance when you don't dance with their wives! Good heavens, if they can learn, you can. And for pity's sake don't count! You're so fun-ny!"
He tried painstakingly to heed her advice, but his long legs made a sorry business of it. He heard one of the girls refer to him as "that giraffe." He had put his foot through an absurd wisp of tulle that she insisted on calling a train.
They were spending a good deal of money now, but Ray jousted the landlord, the victualler, the furrier, the milliner, the hosiery maker, valiantly and still came off the victor. He did not have as much time as he would have liked to work on the new invention. The invisible rim. It was calculated so to blend with the glass of the lens as to be, in appearance, one with it, while it still protected the eyeglass from breakage. "Fortune in it, girlie," he would say, happily, to Cora. "Million dollars, that's all."
He had been working on the invisible rim for five years. Familiarity with it had bred contempt in Cora. Once, in a temper, "Invisible is right," she had said, slangily.
They had occupied the four-room apartment for five years. Cora declared it was getting beyond her. "You can't get any decent help. The washwoman acts as if she was doing me a favour coming from eight to four, for four dollars and eighty-five cents. And yesterday she said she couldn't come to clean any more on Saturdays. I'm sick and tired of it."
Raymond shook a sympathetic head. "Same way down at the store. Seems everything's that way now. You can't get help and you can't get goods. You ought to hear our customers. Yesterday I thought I'd go clear out of my nut, trying to pacify them."
Cora inserted the entering wedge, deftly. "Goodness knows I love my home. But the way things are now ..."
"Yeh," Ray said, absently. When he spoke like that Cora knew that the invisible rim was revolving in his mind. In another moment he would be off to the little cabinet in the bathroom where he kept his tools and instruments.
She widened the opening. "I noticed as I passed to-day that those new one-room kitchenette apartments on Sheridan will be ready for occupancy October first." He was going toward the door. "They say they're wonderful."
"Who wants to live in one room, anyway?"
"It's really two rooms—and the kitchenette. There's the living room—perfectly darling—and a sort of combination breakfast room and kitchen. The breakfast room is partitioned off with sort of cupboards so that it's really another room. And so handy!"
"How'd you know?"
"I went in—just to look at them—with one of the girls."
Until then he had been unconscious of her guile. But now, suddenly, struck by a hideous suspicion—"Say, looka here. If you think——"
"Well, it doesn't hurt to look at 'em, does it!"
A week later. "Those kitchenette apartments on Sheridan are almost all gone. One of the girls was looking at one on the sixth floor. There's a view of the lake. The kitchen's the sweetest thing. All white enamel. And the breakfast room thing is done in Italian."
"What d'you mean—done in Italian?"
"Why—uh—Italian period furniture, you know. Dark and rich. The living room's the same. Desk, and table, and lamps."
"Oh, they're furnished?"
"Complete. Down to the kettle covers and the linen and all. The work there would just be play. All the comforts of a home, with none of the terrible aggravations."
"Say, look here, Coral, we don't want to go to work and live in any one room. You wouldn't be happy. Why, we'd feel cooped up. No room to stretch.... Why, say, how about the beds? If there isn't a bedroom how about the beds? Don't people sleep in those places?"
"There are Murphy beds, silly."
"Murphy? Who's he?"
"Oh, goodness, I don't know! The man who invented 'em, I suppose. Murphy."
Raymond grinned in anticipation of his own forthcoming joke. "I should think they'd call 'em Morphy beds." Then, at her blank stare. "You know—short for Morpheus, god of sleep. Learned about him at high school."
Cora still looked blank. Cora hardly ever understood Ray's jokes, or laughed at them. He would turn, chuckling, to find her face a blank. Not even bewildered, or puzzled, or questioning. Blank. Unheeding. Disinterested as a slate.
Three days later Cora developed an acute pain in her side. She said it was nothing. Just worn out with the work, and the worry and the aggravation, that's all. It'll be all right.
Ray went with her to look at the Sheridan Road apartment. It was one hundred and fifty dollars. "Phew!"
"But look at what you save? Gas. Light. Maid service. Laundry. It's really cheaper in the end."
Cora was amazingly familiar with all the advantages and features of the sixth-floor apartment. "The sun all morning." She had all the agent's patter. "Harvey-Dickson ventilated double-spring mattresses. Dressing room off the bathroom. No, it isn't a closet. Here's the closet. Range, refrigerator, combination sink and laundry tub. Living room's all panelled in ivory. Shower in the bathroom. Buffet kitchen. Breakfast room has folding-leaf Italian table. Look at the chairs. Aren't they darlings! Built-in book shelves——"
"Oh, well, we can use them for fancy china and ornaments. Or—oh, look!—you could keep your stuff there. Tools and all. Then the bathroom wouldn't be mussy all the time."
"Right here. Isn't that wonderful. Would you ever know it was there? You can work it with one hand. Look."
"Do you really like it, Coral?"
"I love it. It's heavenly."
He stood in the centre of the absurd living room, a tall, lank, awkward figure, a little stooped now. His face was beginning to be furrowed with lines—deep lines that yet were softening, and not unlovely. He made you think, somehow, as he stood there, one hand on his own coat lapel, of Saint-Gaudens' figure of Lincoln, there in the park, facing the Drive. Kindly, thoughtful, harried.
They moved in October first.
The over-stuffed furniture of the four-room apartment was sold. Cora kept a few of her own things—a rug or two, some china, silver, bric-a-brac, lamps. Queen Louise was now permanently dethroned. Cora said her own things—"pieces"—would spoil the effect of the living room. All Italian.
"No wonder the Italians sit outdoors all the time, on the steps and in the street"—more of Ray's dull humour. He surveyed the heavy gloomy pieces, so out of place in the tiny room. One of the chairs was black velvet. It was the only really comfortable chair in the room but Ray never sat in it. It reminded him, vaguely, of a coffin. The corridors of the apartment house were long, narrow, and white-walled. You traversed these like a convict, speaking to no one, and entered your own cubicle. A toy dwelling for toy people. But Ray was a man-size man. When he was working downtown his mind did not take temporary refuge in the thought of the feverish little apartment to which he was to return at night. It wasn't a place to come back to, except for sleep. A roost. Bedding for the night. As permanent-seeming as a hay-mow.
Cora, too, gave him a strange feeling of impermanence. He realized one day, with a shock, that he hardly ever saw her with her hat off. When he came in at six or six-thirty Cora would be busy at the tiny sink, or the toy stove, her hat on, a cigarette dangling limply from her mouth. Ray did not object to women smoking. That is, he had no moral objection. But he didn't think it became them. But Cora said a cigarette rested and stimulated her. "Doctors say all nervous women should smoke," she said. "Soothes them." But Cora, cooking in the little kitchen, squinting into a kettle's depths through a film of cigarette smoke, outraged his sense of fitness. It was incongruous, offensive. The time, and occupation, and environment, together with the limply dangling cigarette, gave her an incredibly rowdy look.
When they ate at home they had steak or chops, and, perhaps, a chocolate eclair for dessert; and a salad. Raymond began to eat mental meals. He would catch himself thinking of breaded veal chops, done slowly, simmeringly, in butter, so that they came out a golden brown on a parsley-decked platter. With this mashed potatoes with brown butter and onions that have just escaped burning; creamed spinach with egg grated over the top; a rice pudding, baked in the oven, and served with a tart crown of grape jell. He sometimes would order these things in a restaurant at noon, or on the frequent evenings when they dined out. But they never tasted as he had thought they would.
They dined out more and more as spring drew on and the warm weather set in. The neighbourhood now was aglitter with eating places of all sorts and degrees, from the humble automat to the proud plush of the Sheridan Plaza dining room. There were tea-rooms, cafeterias, Hungarian cafes, chop suey restaurants. At the table d'hote places you got a soup, followed by a lukewarm plateful of meat, vegetables, salad. The meat tasted of the vegetables, the vegetables tasted of the meat, and the salad tasted of both. Before ordering Ray would sit down and peer about at the food on the near-by tables as one does in a dining car when the digestive fluids have dried in your mouth at the first whiff through the doorway. It was on one of these evenings that he noticed Cora's hat.
"What do you wear a hat for all the time?" he asked, testily.
"Seems to me I haven't seen you without a hat in a month. Gone bald, or something?" He was often cross like this lately. Grumpy, Cora called it. Hats were one of Cora's weaknesses. She had a great variety of them. These added to Ray's feeling of restlessness and impermanence. Sometimes she wore a hat that came down over her head, covering her forehead and her eyes, almost. The hair he used to love to touch was concealed. Sometimes he dined with an ingenue in a poke bonnet; sometimes with a senorita in black turban and black lace veil, mysterious and provocative; sometimes with a demure miss in a wistful little turned-down brim. It was like living with a stranger who was always about to leave.
When they ate at home, which was rarely, Ray tried, at first, to dawdle over his coffee and his mild cigar, as he liked to do. But you couldn't dawdle at a small, inadequate table that folded its flaps and shrank into a corner the minute you left it. Everything in the apartment folded, or flapped, or doubled, or shot in, or shot out, or concealed something else, or pretended to be something it was not. It was very irritating. Ray took his cigar and his evening paper and wandered uneasily into the Italian living room, doubling his lean length into one of his queer, angular hard chairs.
Cora would appear in the doorway, hatted. "Ready?"
"Huh? Where you going?"
"Oh, Ray, aren't you fun-ny! You know this is the Crowd's poker night at Lil's."
The Crowd began to say that old Ray was going queer. Honestly, didja hear him last week? Talking about the instability of the home, and the home being the foundation of the state, and the country crumbling? Cora's face was a sight! I wouldn't have wanted to be in his boots when she got him home. What's got into him, anyway?
Cora was a Wilson Avenue girl now. You saw her in and out of the shops of the district, expensively dressed. She was almost thirty-six. Her legs, beneath the absurdly short skirt of the day, were slim and shapely in their chiffon hose, but her upper figure was now a little prominent. The scant, brief skirt fore-shortened her; gave her a stork-like appearance; a combination of girlishness and matronliness not pleasing.
There were times when Ray rebelled. A peace-loving man, and gentle. But a man. "I don't want to go out to eat. My God, I'm tired! I want to eat at home."
"Honey, dear, I haven't a thing in the house. Not a scrap."
"I'll go out and get something, then. What d'you want?"
"Get whatever looks good to you. I don't want a thing. We had tea after the matinee. That's what made me so late. I'm always nagging the girls to go home. It's getting so they tease me about it."
He would go foraging amongst the delicatessen shops of the neighbourhood. He saw other men, like himself, scurrying about with moist paper packets and bags and bundles, in and out of Leviton's, in and out of the Sunlight Bakery. A bit of ham. Some cabbage salad in a wooden boat. A tiny broiler, lying on its back, its feet neatly trussed, its skin crackly and tempting-looking, its white meat showing beneath the brown. But when he cut into it at home it tasted like sawdust and gutta-percha. "And what else?" said the plump woman in the white bib-apron behind the counter. "And what else?"
In the new apartment you rather prided yourself on not knowing your next-door neighbours. The paper-thin walls permitted you to hear them living the most intimate details of their lives. You heard them laughing, talking, weeping, singing, scolding, caressing. You didn't know them. You did not even see them. When you met in the halls or elevators you did not speak. Then, after they had lived in the new apartment about a year Cora met the woman in 618 and Raymond met the woman in 620, within the same week. The Atwaters lived in 619.
There was some confusion in the delivery of a package. The woman in 618 pressed the Atwaters' electric button for the first time in their year's residence there.
A plump woman, 618; blonde; in black. You felt that her flesh was expertly restrained in tight pink satin brassieres and long-hipped corsets and many straps.
"I hate to trouble you, but did you get a package for Mrs. Hoyt? It's from Field's."
It was five-thirty. Cora had her hat on. She did not ask the woman to come in. "I'll see. I ordered some things from Field's to-day, too. I haven't opened them yet. Perhaps yours ... I'll look."
The package with Mrs. Hoyt's name on it was there. "Well, thanks so much. It's some georgette crepe. I'm making myself one those new two-tone slip-over negligees. Field's had a sale. Only one sixty-nine a yard."
Cora was interested. She sewed rather well when she was in the mood. "Are they hard to make?"
"Oh, land, no! No trick to it at all. They just hang from the shoulder, see? Like a slip-over. And then your cord comes round——"
She stepped in. She undid the box and shook out the vivid folds of the filmy stuff, vivid green and lavender. "You wouldn't think they'd go well together but they do. Makes a perfectly stunning negligee."
Cora fingered the stuff. "I'd get some. Only I don't know if I could cut the——"
"I'll show you. Glad to." She was very friendly. Cora noticed she used expensive perfume. Her hair was beautifully marcelled. The woman folded up the material and was off, smiling. "Just let me know when you get it. I've got a lemon cream pie in the oven and I've got to run." She called back over her shoulder. "Mrs. Hoyt."
Cora nodded and smiled. "Mine's Atwater." She saw that the woman's simple-seeming black dress was one she had seen in a Michigan Avenue shop, and had coveted. Its price had been beyond her purse.
Cora mentioned the meeting to Ray when he came home. "She seems real nice. She's going to show me how to cut out a new negligee."
"What'd you say her name was?" She told him. He shrugged. "Well, I'll say this: she must be some swell cook. Whenever I go by that door at dinner time my mouth just waters. One night last week there was something must have been baked spare-ribs and sauerkraut. I almost broke in the door."
The woman in 618 did seem to cook a great deal. That is, when she cooked. She explained that Mr. Hoyt was on the road a lot of the time and when he was home she liked to fuss for him. This when she was helping Cora cut out the georgette negligee.
"I'd get coral colour if I was you, honey. With your hair and all," Mrs. Hoyt had advised her.
"Why, that's my name! That is, it's what Ray calls me. My name's really Cora." They were quite good friends now.
It was that same week that Raymond met the woman in 620. He had left the apartment half an hour later than usual (he had a heavy cold, and had not slept) and encountered the man and woman just coming out of 620.
"And guess who it was!" he exclaimed to Cora that evening. "It was a girl who used to work at Nagel's, in the binoculars, years ago, when I started there. Calhoun, her name was. Laura Calhoun. Smart little girl, she was. She's married now. And guess what! She gets a big salary fitting glasses for women at the Bazaar. She learned to be an optician. Smart girl."
Cora bridled, virtuously. "Well, I think she'd better stay home and take care of that child of hers. I should think she'd let her husband earn the living. That child is all soul alone when she comes home from school. I hear her practising. I asked Mrs. Hoyt about her. She say's she's seen her. A pindling scrawny little thing, about ten years old. She leaves her alone all day."
Ray encountered the Calhoun girl again, shortly after that, in the way encounters repeat themselves, once they have started.
"She didn't say much but I guess her husband is a nit-wit. Funny how a smart girl like that always marries one of these sap-heads that can't earn a living. She said she was working because she wanted her child to have the advantages she'd missed. That's the way she put it."
One heard the long-legged, melancholy child next door practising at the piano daily at four. Cora said it drove her crazy. But then, Cora was rarely home at four. "Well," she said now, virtuously, "I don't know what she calls advantages. The way she neglects that kid. Look at her! I guess if she had a little more mother and a little less education it'd be better for her."
"Guess that's right," Ray agreed.
It was in September that Cora began to talk about the mink coat. A combination anniversary and Christmas gift. December would mark their twelfth anniversary. A mink coat.
Raymond remembered that his mother had had a mink coat, back there in Michigan, years ago. She always had taken it out in November and put it away in moth balls and tar paper in March. She had done this for years and years. It was a cheerful yellow mink, with a slightly darker marking running through it, and there had been little mink tails all around the bottom edge of it. It had spread comfortably at the waist. Women had had hips in those days. With it his mother had carried a mink muff; a small yellow-brown cylinder just big enough for her two hands. It had been her outdoor uniform, winter after winter, for as many years as he could remember of his boyhood. When she had died the mink coat had gone to his sister Carrie, he remembered.
A mink coat. The very words called up in his mind sharp winter days; the pungent moth-bally smell of his mother's fur-coated bosom when she had kissed him good-bye that day he left for Chicago; comfort; womanliness. A mink coat.
"How much could you get one for? A mink coat."
Cora hesitated a moment. "Oh—I guess you could get a pretty good one for three thousand."
"You're crazy," said Ray, unemotionally. He was not angry. He was amused.
But Cora was persistent. Her coat was a sight. She had to have something. She never had had a real fur coat.
"How about your Hudson seal?"
"Hudson seal! Did you ever see any seals in the Hudson! Fake fur. I've never had a really decent piece of fur in my life. Always some mangy make-believe. All the girls in the Crowd are getting new coats this year. The woman next door—Mrs. Hoyt—is talking of getting one. She says Mr. Hoyt——"
"Say, who are these Hoyts, anyway?"
Ray came home early one day to find the door to 618 open. He glanced in, involuntarily. A man sat in the living room—a large, rather red-faced man, in his shirt-sleeves, relaxed, comfortable, at ease. From the open door came the most tantalizing and appetizing smells of candied sweet potatoes, a browning roast, steaming vegetables.
Mrs. Hoyt had run in to bring a slice of fresh-baked chocolate cake to Cora. She often brought in dishes of exquisitely prepared food thus, but Raymond had never before encountered her. Cora introduced them. Mrs. Hoyt smiled, nervously, and said she must run away and tend to her dinner. And went. Ray looked after her. He strode into the kitchenette where Cora stood, hatted, at the sink.
"Say, looka here, Cora. You got to quit seeing that woman, see?"
"One calls herself Mrs. Hoyt. That woman. Mrs. Hoyt! Ha!"
"Why, Ray, what in the world are you talking about! Aren't you fun-ny!"
"Yeh; well, you cut her out. I won't have you running around with a woman like that. Mrs. Hoyt! Mrs. Fiddlesticks!"
They had a really serious quarrel about it. When the smoke of battle cleared away Raymond had paid the first instalment on a three thousand dollar mink coat. And, "If we could sub-lease," Cora said, "I think it would be wonderful to move to the Shoreham. Lil and Harry are going there in January. You know yourself this place isn't half respectable."
Raymond had stared. "Shoreham! Why, it's a hotel. Regular hotel."
"Yes," placidly. "That's what's so nice about it. No messing around in a miserable little kitchenette. You can have your meals sent up. Or you can go down to the dining room. Lil says it's wonderful. And if you order for one up in your room the portions are big enough for two. It's really economy, in the end."
"Nix," said Ray. "No hotel in mine. A little house of our own. That's the right idea. Build."
"But nobody's building now. Materials are so high. It'll cost you ten times as much as it would if you waited a few—a little while. And no help. No maids coming over, hardly. I think you might consider me a little. We could live at the Shoreham a while, anyway. By that time things will be better, and we'd have money saved up and then we might talk of building. Goodness knows I love my home as well as any woman——"
They looked at the Shoreham rooms on the afternoon of their anniversary. They were having the Crowd to dinner, downtown, that evening. Cora thought the Shoreham rooms beautiful, though she took care not to let the room-clerk know she thought so. Ray, always a silent, inarticulate man, was so wordless that Cora took him to task for it in a sibilant aside.
"Ray, for heaven's, sake say something. You stand there! I don't know what the man'll think."
"A hell of a lot I care what he thinks." Ray was looking about the garish room—plush chairs, heavy carpets, brocade hangings, shining table-top, silly desk.
"Two hundred and seventy-five a month," the clerk was saying. "With the yearly lease, of course. Otherwise it's three twenty-five." He seemed quite indifferent.
Ray said nothing. "We'll let you know," said Cora.
The man walked to the door. "I can't hold it for you, you know. Our apartments are practically gone. I've a party who practically has closed for this suite already. I'd have to know."
Cora looked at Ray. He said nothing. He seemed not to have heard. His face was gaunt and haggard. "We'll let you know—to-morrow," Cora said. Her full under lip made a straight thin line.
When they came out it was snowing. A sudden flurry. It was already dark. "Oh, dear," said Cora. "My hat!" Ray summoned one of the hotel taxis. He helped Cora into it. He put money into the driver's hand.
"You go on, Cora. I'm going to walk."
"Walk! Why! But it's snowing. And you'll have to dress for dinner."
"I've got a little headache. I thought I'd walk. I'll be home. I'll be home."
He slammed the door then, and turned away. He began to walk in the opposite direction from that which led toward the apartment house. The snow felt cool and grateful on his face. It stung his cheeks. Hard and swift and white it came, blinding him. A blizzard off the lake. He plunged through it, head down, hands jammed into his pockets.
So. A home girl. Home girl. God, it was funny. She was a selfish, idle, silly, vicious woman. She was nothing. Nothing. It came over him in a sudden blinding crashing blaze of light. The woman in 618 who wasn't married to her man, and who cooked and planned to make him comfortable; the woman in 620 who blindly left her home and her child every day in order to give that child the thing she called advantages—either of these was better than his woman. Honester. Helping someone. Trying to, anyway. Doing a better job than she was.
He plunged across the street, blindly, choking a little with the bitterness that had him by the throat.
Hey! Watcha!——A shout rising to a scream.
A bump. Numbness. Silence. Nothingness.
* * * * *
"Well, anyway, Cora," said the girls in the Crowd, "you certainly were a wonderful wife to him. You can always comfort yourself with that thought. My! the way you always ran home so's to be there before he got in."
"I know it," said Cora, mournfully. "I always was a home girl. Why, we always had planned we should have a little home of our own some day. He always said that was the right idear—idea."
Lil wiped her eyes. "What are you going to do about your new mink coat, Cora?"
Cora brushed her hair away from her forehead with a slow, sad gesture. "Oh, I don't know. I've hardly thought of such trifling things. The woman next door said she might buy it. Hoyt, her name is. Of course I couldn't get what we paid for it, though I've hardly had it on. But money'll count with me now. Ray never did finish that invisible rim he was working on all those years. Wasting his time. Poor Ray.... I thought if she took it, I'd get a caracul, with a black fox collar. After I bought it I heard mink wasn't so good anyway, this year. Everything's black. Of course, I'd never have said anything to Raymond about it. I'd just have worn it. I wouldn't have hurt Ray for the world."
AIN'T NATURE WONDERFUL!
When a child grows to boyhood, and a boy to manhood under the soul-searing blight of a given name like Florian, one of two things must follow. He will degenerate into a weakling, crushed beneath the inevitable diminutive—Flossie; or he will build up painfully, inch by inch, a barrier against the name's corroding action. He will boast of his biceps, flexing them the while. He will brag about cold baths. He will prate of chest measurements; regard golf with contempt; and speak of the West as God's country.
Florian Sykes was five feet three and a half, and he liked to quote those red-blooded virile poems about the big open spaces out where the West begins. The biggest open space in his experience was Madison Square, New York; and Eighth Avenue spelled the Far West for him. When Florian spoke or thought of great heights it was never in terms of nature, such as mountains, but in artificial ones, like skyscrapers. Yet his job depended on what he called the great outdoors.
The call of the wild, by the time it had filtered into his city abode, was only a feeble cheep. But he answered it daily from his rooms to the store in the morning, from the store to his rooms in the evening. It must have been fully ten blocks each way. There are twenty New York blocks to the mile. He threw out his legs a good deal when he walked and came down with his feet rather flat, and he stooped ever so little with the easy slouch that came in with the one-button sack suit. It's the walk you see used by English actors of the what-what school who come over here to play gentlemanly juveniles.
Down at Inverness & Heath's they called him Nature's Rival, but that was mostly jealousy, with a strong dash of resentment. Two of the men in his department had been Maine guides, and another boasted that he knew the Rockies as he knew the palm of his hand. But Florian, whose trail-finding had all been done in the subway shuttle, and who thought that butter sauce with parsley was a trout's natural element, had been promoted above their heads half a dozen times until now he lorded it over the fifth floor.
Not one of you, unless bedridden from birth, but has felt the influence of the firm of Inverness & Heath. You may never have seen the great establishment itself, rising story on story just off New York's main shopping thoroughfare. But you have felt the call of their catalogue. Surely at one time or another, they have supplied you with tents or talcum; with sleeping-bags or skis or skates; with rubber boots, or resin or reels. On their fourth floor you can be hatted for Palm Beach or booted for Skagway. On the third, outfitted for St. Moritz or San Antonio. But the fifth floor is the pride of the store. There is the camper's dream realized. There you will find man's most ingenious devices for softening Mother Nature's flinty bosom. Mosquito-proof tents; pails that will not leak; fleece-lined sleeping-bags; cooking outfits made up of pots and pans of every size, each shaped to disappear mysteriously into the next, like a conjurer's outfit, the whole swallowed up by a magic leather case.
Here Florian reigned. If you were a regular Inverness & Heath customer you learned to ask for him as soon as the elevator tossed you up to his domain. He met you with what is known in the business efficiency guides as the strong personality greeting. It consisted in clasping your hand with a grip that drove your ring into the bone, looking you straight in the eye, registering alert magnetic force, and pronouncing your name very distinctly. Like this: hand-clasp firm—straight in the eye—"How do you do, Mr. Outertown. Haven't seen you since last June. How was the trip?" He didn't mean to be a liar. And yet he lied daily and magnificently for years, to the world and himself. When, for example, in the course of purchasing rods, flies, tents, canoes, saddles, boots, or sleeping-bags of him, you spoke of the delights of your contemplated vacation, he would say, "That's the life. I'm a Western man, myself.... God's country!" He said it with a deep breath, and an exhalation, as one who pants to be free of the city's noisome fumes. You felt he must have been born with an equipment of chaps, quirts, spurs, and sombrero. You see him flinging himself on a horse and clattering off with a flirt of hoofs as they do it in the movies. His very manner sketched in a background of plains, mountains, six-shooters, and cacti.
The truth of it was Florian Sykes had been born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. At the age of three he had been brought to New York by a pair of inexpert and migratory parents. Their reasons for migrating need not concern us. They must, indeed, have been bad reasons. For Florian, at thirteen, a spindle-legged errand-boy in over-size knickers, a cold sore on his lip, and shoes chronically in need of resoling, had started to work for the great sporting goods store of Inverness & Heath.
Now, at twenty-nine, he was head of the fifth floor. The cold sore had vanished permanently under a regime of health-food, dumb-bells, and icy plunges. The shoes were bench-made and flawless. If the legs still were somewhat spindling their correctly creased casings hid the fact.
There's little doubt that if Florian had been named Bill, and if the calves of his legs had bulged, and if, in his youth, he had gone to work for a wholesale grocer, he would never have forged for himself a coat of mail whose links were pretense and whose bolts were sham. He probably would have been frankly content with the sight of an occasional ball-game out at the Polo Grounds, and the newspaper bulletins of a prizefight by rounds. But here he was at the base that supplied America's outdoor equipment. He who outfitted mountaineers must speak knowingly of glaciers, chasms, crevices, and peaks. He who advised canoeists must assume wisdom of paddles, rapids, currents, and portages. He whose sleeping hours were spangled with the clang of the street cars must counsel such hardy ones as were preparing cheerfully to seek rest rolled in blankets before a camp-fire's dying embers. And so, slowly, year by year, in his rise from errand to stock boy, from stock boy to clerk, from clerk to assistant manager, thence to his present official position, he had built about himself a tissue of innocent lies. He actually believed them himself.
Sometimes a customer who in June had come in to purchase his vacation supplies with the city pallor upon him, returned in September, brown, hard, energized, to thank Florian for the comfort of the outfit supplied him.
"I just want to tell you, Sykes, that that was a great little outfit you sold me. Yessir! Not a thing too much, and not a thing too little, either. Remember how I kicked about that air mattress? Well, say, it saved my life! I slept like a baby every night. And the trip! You've been there, haven't you?"
Florian would smile and nod his head. His grateful customer would clap him on the shoulder. "Some pebble, that mountain!"
"Get to the top?" Florian would ask.
"Well, we didn't do the peak. That is, not right to the top. Started to a couple of times, but the girls got tired, and we didn't want to leave 'em alone. Pretty stiff climb, let me tell you, young feller."
"You should have made the top."
"Been up, have you?"
"A dozen times."
"Oh, well, that's your business, you might say. Next time, maybe, we'll do it. The missus says she wants to go back there every year."
Florian would shake his head. "Oh, you don't want to do that. Have you been out to Glacier? Have you done the Yellowstone on horseback? Ever been down the Grand Canyon?"
"You've got a few thrills coming to you then."
The sunburned traveller would flush mahogany. "That's all right for you to say. But I'm no chamois. But it was a great trip, just the same. I want to thank you."
Then, for example, Florian's clothes. He had adopted that careful looseness—that ease of fit—that skilful sloppiness—which is the last word in masculine sartorial smartness. In talking he dropped his final g's and said "sportin'" and "mountain climbin'" and "shootin'." From June until September he wore those Norfolk things with bow ties, and his shirt patterns were restrained to the point of austerity. A signet ring with a large scrolled monogram on the third finger of his right hand was his only ornament, and he had worn a wrist watch long before the War. He had never seen a mountain. The ocean meant Coney Island. He breakfasted at Child's. He spent two hours over the Sunday papers. He was a Tittlebat Titmouse without the whiskers. And Myra loved him.
If Florian had not pretended to be something he wasn't; and if he had not professed an enthusiastic knowledge of things of which he was ignorant, he would, in the natural course of events, have loved Myra quickly in return. In fact, he would have admitted that he had loved her first, and desperately. And there would have been no story entitled, "Ain't Nature Wonderful!"
Myra worked in the women's and misses', third floor, and she didn't care a thing about the big outdoors or the great open spaces. She didn't even pretend to—at first. A clear-eyed, white-throated, capable young woman, almost poignantly pretty. You sensed it was the kind of loveliness that fades a bit with marriage. In its place come two sturdy babies to carry on the torch of beauty. You sensed, too, that Myra would keep their noses wiped, their knees scrubbed, and their buttons buttoned and that, between a fresh blouse for herself and fresh rompers for them, the blouse would always lose.
She hated discomfort, did Myra, as does one who has always had too much of it. After you have stood all day, from 8:30 A. M. to 5:30 P. M., selling sweaters, riding togs, golf clothes, and trotteurs to athletic Dianas whose lines are more lathe than lithe, you can't work up much enthusiasm about exercising for the pure joy of it. Myra had never used a tennis-racket in her life, but daily she outfitted for the sport bronzed young ladies who packed a nasty back-hand wallop in their right. She wore (and was justly proud of) a 4-A shoe, and took a good deal of comfort in the fact as she sold 7-Cs at $22.50 a pair to behemothian damsels who possessed money in proportion to Myra's beauty. Myra was the only girl in her section who never tried to dress in imitation of the moneyed ones whom she served. The other girls were wont to wear severely tailored shirts, mannish ties, stocks, flat-heeled shoes, rough tweed skirts. Not so Myra. That delicate cup-like hollow at the base of her white throat was fittingly framed in a ruffle of frilly georgette. She did her hair in soft undulations that flowed away from forehead and temple, and she powdered her nose a hundred times a day. Her little shoes were high-heeled and her hands were miraculously white, and if you prefer Rosalind to Viola you'd better quit her now.
"Anybody who wants to wear those cross-country clothes is welcome to them," she said. "I'm a girl and I'm satisfied to be. I don't see why I should wear a hard-boiled shirt and a necktie any more than a man should wear a pink georgette trimmed with filet. By the end of the week, when I've spent six solid days selling men's clothes to women, I feel's if I'd die happy if I could take a milk bath and put on white satin and pearls and a train six yards long from the shoulders—you know."
Not the least of Myra's charm was a certain unexpected and pleasing humour. It was as though, on opening a chocolate box, you were to find it contained caviar.
Of course by now you know that Myra is the girl you used to see smiling out at you from the Inverness & Heath catalogue entitled Sportswomen's Apparel. The head of her department had soon discovered that Myra, posing for illustrations to be used in the spring booklet, raised that pamphlet's selling power about 100 per cent. Sunburned misses, with wind-ravaged complexions, gazing at the picture of Myra, cool, slim, luscious-looking, saw themselves as they would fain be—and bought the Knollwood sweater depicted—in silk or wool—putty, maize, navy, rose, copen, or white—$35. Myra posed in paddock coat and breeches—she who had never been nearer a horse than the distance between sidewalk and road. She smiled at you over her shoulder radiant in a white tricot Palm Beach suit, who thought palms grew in jardinieres only. On page 17 she was revealed in the boyish impudence of our Aiken Polo Habit, complete, $90. She was ravishing in her golf clothes, her small feet in sturdy, flat-heeled boots planted far apart, and only the most carping would have commented on the utter impossibility of her stance. Then there was the Killiecrankie Travel Tog (background of assorted mountains) made of Scotch tweed (she would never come nearer Scotland than oatmeal for breakfast) only $140. To say nothing of motor clothes, woodland suits, trap-shooting costumes, Yellowstone Park outfits, hunting habits. She wore brogues, and boots, and skating shoes, and puttees and tennis ties; sou'westers, leather topcoats, Jersey silks, military capes. You saw her fishing, hunting, boating, riding, golfing, snow-shoeing, swimming. She was equally lovely in khaki with woollen stockings, or in a habit of white linen and the shiniest of riding-boots. And as she peeled off the one to put on the next she remarked wearily, "A kimono and felt slippers and my hair down my back will look pretty good to me to-night, after this."
You see, Myra and Florian really had so much in common that if he had been honest with himself the course of their love would have run too smooth to be true. But Florian, in his effort to register as a two-fisted, hard-riding, nature-taming male, made such a success of it that for a long time he deceived even Myra who loved him. And during that time she, too, lied in her frantic effort to match her step with his. When he talked of riding and swimming; of long, hard mountain hikes; of impenetrable woods, she looked at him with sparkling eyes. (She didn't need to throw much effort into that, nature having supplied her with the ground materials.) When, on their rare Sundays together, he suggested a long tramp up the Palisades she agreed enthusiastically, though she hated it. Not only that, she went, loathing it. The stones hurt her feet. Her slender ankles ached. The sun burned her delicate skin. The wind pierced her thin coat. Florian strode along with the exaggerated step of the short man who bitterly resents his lack of stature. Every now and then he stood still, and breathed deeply, and said, "Glorious!" And Myra looked at his straight back, and his clear-cut profile, and his well-dressed legs and said, "Isn't it!" and wished he would kiss her. But he never did.
In between times he bemoaned his miserable two weeks' vacation which made impossible the sort of thing he said he craved—a long, hard, rough trip into a mountain interior. The Rockies, preferably, in their jaggedest portions.
"That's the kind of thing that makes a fellow over. Roughing it. You forget about the city. In the saddle all day—nothing but sky and mountains. God's big open spaces! That's the life!"
Myra trudged along, painfully. "But isn't it awfully uncomfortable? You know. Cold? And tents? I don't think I'd like——"
"I wouldn't give a cent for a person who was so soft they couldn't stand roughing it a little. That's the trouble with you Easterners. Soft! No red blood. Too many street cars, and high buildings, and restaurants. Chop down a few trees and fry your own bacon, and make your own camp, and saddle your own horses—that's what I call living. I'm going back to it some day, see if I don't."
Myra looked down at her own delicate wrists, with the blue veins so exquisitely etched against the white flesh. A little look of terror and hopelessness came into her eyes.
"I—I couldn't chop down a tree," she said. She was panting a little in keeping up with him, for he was walking very fast. "I'd be afraid to saddle a horse. You have to stand right next to them, don't you? Most girls can't chop——"
Florian smiled a little superior smile. "Miss Jessie Heath can." Myra looked up at him, quickly. "She's a wonder! She was in yesterday," he went on. "Spent all of two hours up in my department, looking things over. There's nothing she can't do. She won a blue ribbon at the Horse Show in February. Saddle. She's climbed every peak that amounts to anything in Europe. Did the Alps when she was a little girl. This summer she's going to do the Rockies, because things are so mussed up in Europe, she says. I'm selecting the outfit for the party. Gad, what a trip!" He sighed, deeply.
Myra was silent. She was not ungenerous toward women, as are so many pretty girls. But she was human, after all, and she did love this Florian, and Jessie Heath was old man Heath's daughter. Whenever she came into the store she created a little furore among the clerks. Myra could not resist a tiny flash of claws.
"She's flat, like a man. And she wears 7-1/2-C. And her face looks as if it had been rubbed with a scouring brick."
"She's a goddess!" said Florian, striding along. Myra laughed, a little high hysterical laugh. Then she bit her lip, and then she was silent for a long time. He was silent, too, until suddenly he heard a little sound that made him turn quickly to look at her stumbling along at his side. And she was crying.
"Why—what's the matter! What's!——"
"I'm tired," sobbed Myra, and sank in a little limp heap on a convenient rock. "I'm tired. I want to go home."
"Why"—he was plainly bewildered—"why didn't you tell me you were tired!"
"I'm telling you now."
They took the nearest ferry across the river, and the Subway home. At the entrance to the noisy, crowded flat in which she lived Myra turned to face him. She was through with pretense. She was tired of make-believe. She felt a certain relief in the thought of what she had to say. She faced him squarely.
"I've lived in the city all my life and I'm crazy about it. I love it. I like to walk in the park a little maybe, Sundays, but I hate tramping like we did this afternoon, and you might as well know it. I wouldn't chop down a tree, not if I was freezing to death, and I'd hate to have to sleep in a tent, so there! I hate sunburn, and freckles, and ants in the pie, and blisters on my feet, and getting wet, and flat-heeled shoes, and I never saddled a horse. I'd be afraid to. And what's more, I don't believe you do, either."
"Don't believe I do what?" asked Florian in a stunned kind of voice.
But Myra had turned and left him. And as he stood there, aghast, bewildered, resentful, clear and fair in the back of his mind, against all the turmoil of thoughts that seethed there, was the picture of her white, slim, exquisite throat with a little delicate pulse beating in it as she cried out her rebellion. He wished—or some one inside him that he could not control wished—that he could put his fingers there on her throat, gently.
It was very warm that evening, for May. And as he sat by the window in his pajamas, just before going to bed, he thought about Myra, and he thought about himself. But when he thought about himself he slammed the door on what he saw. Florian's rooms were in Lexington Avenue in the old brownstone district that used to be the home of white-headed millionaires with gold-headed canes, who, on dying, left their millions to an Alger newsboy who had once helped them across the street. Millionaires, gold-headed canes, and newsboys had long vanished, and the old brownstone fronts were rooming houses now, interspersed with delicatessens, interior decorators, and dressmaking establishments. Florian was fond of boasting when he came down to the store in the morning, after a hot, muggy July night, "My place is like a summer resort. Breeze just sweeps through it. I have to have the covers on."
Sometimes Mrs. Pet, his landlady, made him a pitcher of lemonade and brought it up to him, and he sipped it, looking out over the city, soothed by its roar, fascinated by its glow and brilliance. Mrs. Pet said it was a pleasure to have him around, he was so neat.
Florian was neat. Not only neat, but methodical. He had the same breakfast every week-day morning at Child's; half a grapefruit, one three-minute egg, coffee, rolls. On Sunday morning he had bacon and eggs. It was almost automatic. Speaking of automatics, he never took his meals at one of those modern mechanical feeders. Though at Child's he never really beheld the waitress with his seeing eye, he liked to have her slap his dishes down before him with a genial crash. A gentleman has his little foibles, and being waited on at meal-time was one of his. Occasionally, to prove to himself that he wasn't one of those fogies who get in a rut, he ordered wheat cakes with maple syrup for breakfast. They always disagreed with him.
She was a wise young woman, Myra.
Perhaps Florian, as he sat by his window that Sunday night of Myra's outburst, thought on these things. But he would not admit to himself whither his thinking led. And presently he turned back the spread, neatly, and turned out the light, and opened the window a little wider, and felt of his chin, as men do, though the next shave is eight hours distant, and slept, and did not dream of white throats as he had secretly hoped he would.
And next morning, at eleven, a very wonderful thing began to happen. Next morning, at eleven, Miss Jessie Heath loped (well, it can't be helped. That describes it exactly) into the broad aisles of the fifth floor. She had been coming in a great deal, lately. The Western trip, no doubt.
Descriptions of people are clumsy things, at best, and stop one's story. But Jessie Heath must have her paragraph. A half-dozen lines ought to do it. Well—she was the kind of girl who always goes around with a couple of Airedales, and in woollen stockings, low shoes and mannish shirts, and shell-rimmed glasses, and you felt she wore Ferris waists. Her hair was that ashen blonde with no glint of gold in it. You knew it would become grey in middle age with no definite period of transition. She never buttoned her heavy welted gloves but wore them back over her hand, like a cuff, very English. You felt there must be a riding crop concealed about her somewhere. Perhaps up her spine.
As has been said, there was always a little flurry when she came into the big store that had made millions for her father. It would be nonsense to suppose that Jessie Heath ever deliberately set out to attract a man who was an employee in that store. But it is pleasant and soothing to be admired, and to have a fine pair of eyes look fine things into one's own (shell-rimmed) ones. And, after all, the Jessie Heaths of this world are walked with, and golfed with, and ridden with, and tennised with, and told that they're wonderful pals. But it's the Myras that are made love to. So now, when Florian Sykes looked at her, and flushed a little, and said, "I suppose there are a lot of lucky ones going along with you on this trip, Miss—Jessie," she flushed, too, and flicked her boot with her riding crop—No, no! I forgot. She didn't have a riding crop. Well, anyway she gave the effect of flicking her boot with her riding crop, and said:
"Would you like to go?"
"Would I like to go——!" He choked over it. Then he sighed, and smiled rather wistfully. "That's needlessly cruel of you, Miss Jessie."
"Maybe it's not so cruel as you think," Jessie Heath answered. "Did you make out that list?"
"I spent practically all of yesterday on it." Which we know was a lie because, look, wasn't he with Myra?
They went over the list together. Fishing tackle, tents, pocket-flashes, puttees, ponchos, chocolate, quirts, slickers, matches, medicine-case, sweaters, cooking utensils, blankets. It grew longer, and longer. Their heads came close together over it. And they trailed from department to department, laughing and talking together. And the two Maine ex-guides and the clerk who boasted he knew the Rockies like the palm of his hand, said to one another, "Get on to Nature's Rival trying to make a hit with Jessie."
Meanwhile Jessie was saying, "Of course you know the Rockies, being a Western man, and all."
Florian smiled rather deprecatingly. "Queer part of it is I don't know the Rockies so well—" with an emphasis on the word Rockies that led one to think his more noteworthy feats of altitude had been accomplished about the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Andes, and the lesser Appalachians.
"But you've climbed them, haven't you?"
He burned his bridges behind him. "Only the—ah—eastern slopes."
"Oh, that's all right, then. We're going to do the west. It'll be wonderful having you——"
"Nothing. Let's go on with the list. M-m-m—where were we? Oh, yes. Now trout flies. Which do you honestly think best for mountain trout? The Silver Doctor or the Gray Hackle or the Yellow Professor? U'm?"
Inspiration comes to us at such times. It could have been nothing less that prompted him to say, "Well—doesn't that depend a lot on the weather and the depth of the—ahem!—water?"
"Yes, of course. How silly of me. We'll take a lot of all kinds, and then we'll be safe."
He breathed again and smiled. He had a winning smile, Florian. Jessie Heath smiled in return and they stood there, the two of them, lips parted, eyes holding eyes.
"My God!" said the man who boasted he knew the Rockies like the palm of his own hand, "it looks as if he'd landed her, the stiff."
Certainly it looked as if he had. For next morning old Heath, red-faced, genial-looking (and not so genial as he looked) approached the head of the fifth floor and said, "How long you been with us, Sykes?"
"Well, I came here as errand boy at thirteen. That's ten—twelve—fifteen—just about sixteen years next June. Yes, sir."
"How'd Jessie—how'd my daughter get the idea you were from the West, and a regular mountain goat, and a peak-climber and all that?"
He did look a little uncomfortable then, but it was too late for withdrawal. "I am from the West, you know."
"Have you had any long vacations since you've been with us?"
"No, sir. You see, in the summer, of course—our busy season. I never can get away then. So I've taken my two weeks in the fall."
Old Heath's eyes narrowed musingly. "Well, you couldn't have done all this mountain climbing before you were thirteen. And Jessie says——" He paused, rather blankly. "You say you do know the Rockies, though, eh?"
Florian drew himself up a little. "As well as I know any mountain."
"Oh, well, then, that's all right. Seems Jessie thinks you'd be a fine fellow to have along on this trip. I can't go myself. I hate this mountain climbing, anyway. Too darned hard work. But it's all right for young folks. Well, now, what do you say? Want to go? You've earned a vacation, after sixteen years. There's about eight in Jessie's crowd. Not counting guides. What do you say? Like to go?"
For a dazed moment Florian stared at him. "Why, yessir. Yes, sir, I'd—I'd like to go—very much." And he coughed to hide his joy and terror.
And two weeks later he went.
The thing swept the store like a flame. In an hour everyone knew it from the shipping-room to the roof-restaurant. Myra saw him the day he left. She was game, that girl.
"I hope you're going to have a beautiful time, Mr. Sykes."
"Thanks, Myra." He could afford to be lenient with her, poor little girl.
She ventured a final wretched word or two. "It's—it's wonderful of Mr. Heath and—Miss Heath—isn't it?" She was rubbing salt into her own wound and taking a fierce sort of joy in it.
"Wonderful! Say, they're a couple of God's green footstools, that's what they are!" He was a little mixed, but very much in earnest. "A couple of God's green footstools." And he went.
He went, and Myra watched him go, and except for a little swelling gulp in her white throat you'd never have known she'd been hit. He was going with Jessie Heath. Now, Myra had no illusions about those things. Old man Heath's wife, now dead, had been a girl with no money and no looks, and yet he had married her. If Jessie Heath happened to take a fancy to Florian, why——
Myra's little world stood still, and in it were small voices, far away, asking for 6-1/2-B; and have you it in brown, and other unimportant things like that.
Ten minutes after the train had started Florian Sykes knew he shouldn't have come. He had suspected it before. He kept saying to himself, over and over: "You've always wanted a mountain trip, and now you're going to have it. You're a lucky guy, that's what you are. A lucky guy." But in his heart he knew he was lying.
In the first place, they were all so glib with their altitudes, and their packs, and their trails, and their horses and their camps. It was a rather mixed and raggle-taggle group that Miss Jessie Heath had gathered about her for this expedition to the West. They ranged all the way from a little fluffy witless golden-haired girl they all called Mud, for some obscure reason, and who had been Miss Heath's room-mate at college, surprisingly enough, to a lady of stern and rock-bound countenance who looked like a stage chaperon made up for the part. She was Miss Heath's companion in lieu of Mrs. Heath, deceased. In between there were a couple of men of Florian's age; two youngsters of twenty-one or two who talked of Harvard and asked Florian what his university had been; an old girl whose name Florian never did learn; and two others of Jessie Heath's age and general style. Florian found himself as bewildered by their talk and views as though they had been jabbering a foreign language. Every now and then, though, one of them would turn to him for a bit of technical advice. If it happened to concern equipment Florian could answer it readily enough. Ten years on the fifth floor had taught him many things. But if the knowledge sought happened to be of things geographical or of nature, he floundered, struggled, sank. And it took them just about half a day to learn this. The trip out takes four, from New York.
At first they asked him things to see him suffer. But they tired of that, after a bit. It was too easy. Queerly enough, Jessie Heath, mountain-wise though she was, believed in him almost to the end. But that only made the next three weeks the bitterer for Florian Sykes. For when it came to leaping from peak to peak Jessie turned out to be the young gazelle. And she liked to have Florian with her. On the trail she was a mosquito afoot, a jockey ahorseback. A thousand times, in those three weeks of torture, he would fix his eye on a tree ten feet away, up the steep trail. And to himself he would say, "I'll struggle, somehow, as far as that tree, and then die under it." And he would stagger another ten feet, his heart pounding in the unaccustomed altitude, his lungs bursting, his lips parted, his breath coming sobbingly, his eyes starting from his head. Leaping lightly ahead of him, around the bend, was Jessie, always. She had a way of calling to the laggard—hallooing, I believe it's supposed to be. And she expected an answer. An answer! When your lungs were bursting through your chest and your heart was crowding your tonsils. When he reached her it was always to find her perched on a seemingly inaccessible rock, demanding that he join her to admire the view. Before three days had gone by the sound of that halloo with its breeziness and breath-control and power, made him sick all over. Sometimes she sang, going up the trail. He could not have croaked a note if failure to do it had meant instant death. The Harvard hellions (it is his own term) were indefatigable, simian, pitiless. At nine thousand feet they aimed at ten. At ten they would have nothing less than twelve. At twelve thousand they were all for making another drive for it and having lunch at an altitude of thirteen thousand five hundred. As he toiled painfully along hundreds of feet behind them, Florian used to take a hideous pleasure in fancying how, on reaching the ever-distant top, the Harvard hellions would be missing. And after searching and hallooing he would peer over the edge (13,500 feet, at the very least, surely) and there, at the bottom, would discern their mangled forms, distorted, crushed, and quite, quite dead.
"Yoo-o-o—hoo-oo-oo-oo!" Jessie, up the trail. His rosy dream would vanish.
He learned why seasoned mountain climbers make nothing of the ascent. He learned, in bitterness and unshed tears, that it is the descent that breaks the heart and shatters the already broken frame. That down-climb with your toes crashing through your boots at every step; with your knee-brakes refusing to work, your thighs creaking, your joints spavined. The views were wonderful. But, oh, the price he paid! The air was intoxicating. But what, he asked himself, was wine to a dead man! Miserable little cockney that he was he told himself a hundred times a day that if he ever survived this he'd never look at another view again, unless from the Woolworth Tower, on a calm day. He thought of New York as a traveller, dying of thirst in the desert, thinks of the lush green oasis. New York in July! Dear New York in July, its furs in storage, its collar unstarched, its coat unbuttoned; even its doormen and chauffeurs almost human. Would he ever see it again? And then, as if in answer to his question, there befell an incident so harrowing, so nerve-shattering, as almost to make a negative answer seem inevitable.
Florian got lost.
It was the third week of the trip. Florian had answered Jessie's eleven thousandth question about things of which he was quite, quite ignorant. His brain felt queer and tight, as though something were about to snap.
They were to climb the Peak next day. All that day they had been approaching it. Florian looked at it. And he hated it. It was like a colossal forbidding finger pointing upward, upward, taunting him, menacing him. He wished that some huge cataclysm of nature would occur, swallowing up this hideous mass of pitiless rock.
Jessie Heath's none too classic nose had peeled long ere this and her neck was like a choice cut of underdone beefsteak. Florian told himself that there was something almost indecent about a girl who cared so little about her skin, and hair, and eyes, and hands. He actually hated her sturdy legs in their boots or puttees—those tireless, pitiless legs, always twinkling ahead of him, up the trail.
On the fateful day he was tired. He had often been tired to the point of desperation during the past three weeks. But this was different. Every step was torture. Every breath was pain. Jessie was a few hundred feet up the trail, as always, and hallooing to him every dozen paces. The Harvard hellions were doing the chamois ahead of her. The rest of the party were toiling along behind. One guide was just ahead. Another, leading two horses, bringing up the rear. Suddenly, desperately, Florian knew he must rest. He would fling himself on a bed of moss by the side of the trail, in the shade, near a stunted, wind-tortured timber-line pine, and let the whole procession pass him, and then catch up with them before they disappeared.
He stepped to the side of the narrow trail, almost indiscernible at this height, flung himself down with a little groan of relief, and shut his sun-seared eyes. The voices of the others came to him. There was little conversation. He heard Jessie's accursed halloo. Then the soft thud of the pack-horses' hoofs, the creak of the saddles. He must get up and follow now. In a minute. In a minute. In a m——
He must have slept there for two hours. When he awoke the light had changed and the air was chill. He sat up, bewildered. He rose. He looked about, called, hallooed, shouted, did all the futile frenzied things that a city man does who is lost in the mountains, and, knowing he is lost, is panic-stricken. The trail, of course! He looked for it, and there was no trail, to his town-wise eyes. He ran hither and thither, and back to hither again. He went forward, seemingly, and found himself back whence he started. He looked for cairns, for tree-blazes, for any one of the signs of which he had learned in the last three weeks. He found none. He called again, shrilly. A terror seized him. Terror of those grim, menacing, towering mountain masses. He ran round and round and round; darted backward and forward; called; stumbled; fell, and subsided, beaten.
He had a tiny box of matches with him, but little else. He had found the trail difficult enough without being pack-burdened. Food? He bethought himself of a little blue tin box in his coat pocket. He took it out and looked at it. Its very name struck terror to his heart.
U. S. Emergency Ration. It was printed on the box. Just below that he made out:
Powdered sugar Chocolate Cocoa butter Malted milk Egg Albumin Casein. Not to be opened except on command of officer.
My God! He had come to this! He looked at it, wide-eyed. He was very hungry. The ration, in its blue tin, like a box of shaving talcum, had been handed to each of the party in a chorus of shouting and laughter. And now it was to save his life. He managed to pry open the box, and ate some of its contents, slowly. It was not agreeable.
Dusk was coming on. There were mountain lions, he knew that. Those rocks and crevices were peopled with all sorts of stealthy, snarling, slinking, four-footed creatures. He would build a fire. They were afraid of the flames, he had read somewhere, and would not come near. Perhaps the others would see the light, and come back to find him. Curse them! Why hadn't they come before now!
It was dusk by the time he had his fire built. He had crouched over it for a half-hour, blowing it, coaxing it, wheedling it. There were few twigs or sticks at this height. He was very cold. His heavy sweater was in the pack on the horse's back. Finally he was rewarded with a feeble flicker, a tiny tongue of flame. He rose from his knees and passed his hand over his forehead with a gesture of utter weariness and despair. And then he stared, transfixed. For on the plateau above him rose a great shaft of fire. The kind of fire that only Pete, the most expert among guides, could build. And as he stared there burst out at him from behind trees, rocks, crevices, a whole horde of imps shrieking with fiendish laughter.
"Ho, ho," laughed Jessie.
And "Ha, ha!" howled the Harvard hellions.
"Thought you were lost, didn'tcha?"
"Gosh, you looked funny!"
Florian stared at them. He did not smile. He went quietly over to his tiny camp-fire and stamped it out, neatly, as he had been taught to do. He took his can of emergency ration (not to be opened except on command of officer) and hurled it far, far down the mountainside. Jessie Heath laughed, contemptuously. And Florian, looking at her, didn't care. Didn't care. Didn't care.
The nightmare was over in August. Over, that is, for Florian. The rest were to do another four weeks of it, farther into the interior. Florian sickened at the thought of it. When he bade them farewell he was so glad to be free of them that he almost loved them. When he found himself actually on the little jerkwater train that was to connect him with the main line he patted the dusty red plush seat, gratefully, as one would stroke a faithful beast. When he came into the Grand Central station he would have stooped and kissed the steps of the marble staircase if his porter had not been on the point of vanishing with his bags. That night on reaching home he stayed in the bathtub for an hour, just lying there in the warm, soothing liquid, only moving to dapple his fingers now and then as a lazy fish moves a languid fin. God's country! This was it.