Mrs. Mandle was not only a queen but a spoiled old lady. And not only a spoiled old lady but a confessedly spoiled old lady. Bridling and wagging her white head she admitted her pampered state. It was less an admission than a boast. Her son Hugo had spoiled her. This, too, she acknowledged. "My son Hugo spoils me," she would say, and there was no proper humbleness in her voice. Though he was her only son she never spoke of him merely as "Hugo," or "My son," but always as "My son Hugo." She rolled the three words on her tongue as though they were delicious morsels from which she would extract all possible savour and sweetness. And when she did this you could almost hear the click of the stiffening spines of Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser. For they envied her her son Hugo, and resented him as only three old ladies could who were living, tolerated and dependent, with their married sons and their sons' wives.
Any pleasant summer afternoon at four o'clock you might have seen Mrs. Mandle holding court. The four old women sat, a decent black silk row, on a shady bench in Washington Park (near the refectory and afternoon coffee). Three of them complained about their daughters-in-law. One of them bragged about her son. Adjective crowding adjective, pride in her voice, majesty in her mien, she bragged about my son Hugo.
My son Hugo had no wife. Not only that, Hugo Mandle, at forty, had no thought of marrying. Not that there was anything austere or saturnine about Hugo. He made you think, somehow, of a cherubic, jovial monk. It may have been his rosy rotundity, or, perhaps, the way in which his thinning hair vanished altogether at the top of his head, so as to form a tonsure. Hugo Mandle, kindly, generous, shrewd, spoiled his old mother in the way in which women of seventy, whose middle life has been hard, like to be spoiled. First of all, of course, she reigned unchecked over the South Park Avenue flat. She quarrelled wholesomely and regularly with Polish Anna. Alternately she threatened Anna with dismissal and Anna threatened Ma Mandle with impending departure. This had been going on, comfortably, for fifteen years. Ma Mandle held the purse and her son filled it. Hugo paid everything from the rent to the iceman, and this without once making his mother feel a beneficiary. She possessed an infinitesimal income of her own, left her out of the ruins of her dead husband's money, but this Hugo always waved aside did she essay to pay for her own movie ticket or an ice cream soda. "Now, now! None of that, Ma. Your money's no good to-night."
When he returned from a New York business trip he usually brought her two gifts, one practical, the other absurd. She kissed him for the first and scolded him for the second, but it was the absurdity, fashioned of lace, or silk, or fragile stuff, that she pridefully displayed to her friends.
"Look what my son Hugo brought me. I should wear a thing like that in my old days. But it's beautiful anyway, h'm? He's got taste, my son Hugo."
In the cool of the evening you saw them taking a slow and solemn walk together, his hand on her arm. He surprised her with matinee tickets in pairs, telling her to treat one of her friends. On Anna's absent Thursdays he always offered to take dinner downtown. He brought her pound boxes of candy tied with sly loops and bands of gay satin ribbon which she carefully rolled and tucked away in a drawer. He praised her cooking, and teased her with elephantine playfulness, and told her that she looked like a chicken in that hat. Oh, yes, indeed! Mrs. Mandle was a spoiled old lady.
At half-past one she always prepared to take her nap in the quiet of her neat flat. She would select a plump, after-lunch chocolate from the box in her left-hand bureau drawer, take off her shoes, and settle her old frame in comfort. No noisy grandchildren to disturb her rest. No fault-finding daughter-in-law to bustle her out of the way. The sounds that Anna made, moving about in the kitchen at the far end of the long hall, were the subdued homely swishings and brushings that lulled and soothed rather than irritated. At half-past two she rose, refreshed, dressed herself in her dotted swiss with its rows of val, or in black silk, modish both. She was, in fact, a modish old lady as were her three friends. They were not the ultra-modern type of old lady who at sixty apes sixteen. They were neat and rather tart-tongued septuagenarians, guiltless of artifice. Their soft white hair was dressed neatly and craftily so as to conceal the thinning spots that revealed the pink scalp beneath. Their corsets and their stomachs were too high, perhaps, for fashion, and their heavy brooches and chains and rings appeared clumsy when compared to the hoar-frost tracery of the platinumsmith's exquisite art. But their skirts had pleats when pleated skirts were worn, and their sleeves were snug when snug sleeves were decreed. They were inclined to cling over-long to a favourite leather reticule, scuffed and shapeless as an old shoe, but they could hold their own at bridge on a rainy afternoon. In matters of material and cut Mrs. Mandle triumphed. Her lace was likely to be real where that of the other three was imitation.
So there they sat on a park bench in the pleasant afternoon air, filling their lives with emptiness. They had married, and brought children into the world; sacrificed for them, managed a household, been widowed. They represented magnificent achievement, those four old women, though they themselves did not know it. They had come up the long hill, reached its apex, and come down. Their journey was over and yet they sat by the roadside. They knew that which could have helped younger travellers over the next hill, but those fleet-footed ones pressed on, wanting none of their wisdom. Ma Mandle alone still moved. She still queened it over her own household; she alone still had the delightful task of making a man comfortable. If the world passed them by as they sat there it did not pass unscathed. Their shrewd old eyes regarded the panorama, undeceived. They did not try to keep up with the procession, but they derived a sly amusement and entertainment from their observation of the modes and manners of this amazing day and age. Perhaps it was well that this plump matron in the over-tight skirt or that miss mincing on four-inch heels could not hear the caustic comment of the white-haired four sitting so mildly on the bench at the side of the path.
Their talk, stray as it might, always came back to two subjects. They seemed never to tire of them. Three talked of their daughters-in-law, and bitterness rasped their throats. One talked of her son, and her voice was unctuous with pride.
"My son's wife—" one of the three would begin. There was something terribly significant in the mock respect with which she uttered the title.
"If I had ever thought," Mrs. Brunswick would say, shaking her head, "if I had ever thought that I would live to see the day when I had to depend on strangers for my comfort, I would have wished myself dead."
"You wouldn't call your son a stranger, Mrs. Brunswick!" in shocked tones from Mrs. Mandle.
"A stranger has got more consideration. I count for nothing. Less than nothing. I'm in the way. I don't interfere in that household. I see enough, and I hear enough, but I say nothing. My son's wife, she says it all."
A silence, thoughtful, brooding. Then, from Mrs. Wormser: "What good do you have of your children? They grow up, and what do you have of them?"
More shaking of heads, and a dark murmur about the advisability of an Old People's Home as a refuge. Then:
"My son Hugo said only yesterday, 'Ma,' he said, 'when it comes to housekeeping you could teach them all something, believe me. Why,' he says, 'if I was to try and get a cup of coffee like this in a restaurant—well, you couldn't get it in a restaurant, that's all. You couldn't get it in any hotel, Michigan Avenue or I don't care where.'"
Goaded, Mrs. Lamb would look up from her knitting. "Mark my words, he'll marry yet." She was a sallow, lively woman, her hair still markedly streaked with black. Her rheumatism-twisted fingers were always grotesquely busy with some handiwork, and the finished product was a marvel of perfection.
Mrs. Wormser, plump, placid, agreed. "That's the kind always marries late. And they get it the worst. Say, my son was no spring chicken, either, when he married. And you would think the sun rises and sets in his wife. Well, I suppose it's only natural. But you wait."
"Some girl is going to have a snap." Mrs. Brunswick, eager, peering, a trifle vindictive, offered final opinion. "The girls aren't going to let a boy like your Hugo get away. Not nowadays, the way they run after them like crazy. All they think about is dress and a good time."
The three smiled grimly. Ma Mandle smiled, too, a little nervously, her fingers creasing and uncreasing a fold of her black silk skirt as she made airy answer: "If I've said once I've said a million times to my son Hugo, 'Hugo, why don't you pick out some nice girl and settle down? I won't be here always.' And he says, 'Getting tired of me, are you, Ma? I guess maybe you're looking for a younger fellow.' Only last night I said, at the table, 'Hugo, when are you going to get married?' And he laughed. 'When I find somebody that can cook dumplings like these. Pass me another, Ma'."
"That's all very well," said Mrs. Wormser.
"But when the right one comes along he won't know dumplings from mud."
"Oh, a man of forty isn't such a—"
"He's just like a man of twenty-five—only worse."
Mrs. Mandle would rise, abruptly. "Well, I guess you all know my son Hugo better than his own mother. How about a cup of coffee, ladies?"
They would proceed solemnly and eagerly to the columned coolness of the park refectory where they would drink their thick, creamy coffee. They never knew, perhaps, how keenly they counted on that cup of coffee, or how hungrily they drank it. Their minds, unconsciously, were definitely fixed on the four-o'clock drink that stimulated the old nerves.
Life had not always been so plumply upholstered for old lady Mandle. She had known its sharp corners and cruel edges. At twenty-three, a strong, healthy, fun-loving girl, she had married Herman Mandle, a dour man twenty-two years her senior. In their twenty-five years of married life together Hattie Mandle never had had a five-cent piece that she could call her own. Her husband was reputed to be wealthy, and probably was, according to the standards of that day. There were three children: Etta, the oldest; a second child, a girl, who died; and Hugo. Her husband's miserliness, and the grind of the planning, scheming, and contriving necessary to clothe and feed her two children would have crushed the spirit of many women. But hard and glum as her old husband was he never quite succeeded in subduing her courage or her love of fun. The habit of heart-breaking economy clung to her, however, even when days of plenty became hers. It showed in little hoarding ways: in the saving of burned matches, of bits of ribbon, of scraps of food, of the very furniture and linen, as though, when these were gone, no more would follow.
Ten years after her marriage her husband retired from active business. He busied himself now with his real estate, with mysterious papers, documents, agents. He was forever poking around the house at hours when a household should be manless, grumbling about the waste where there was none, peering into bread boxes, prying into corners never meant for masculine eyes. Etta, the girl, was like him, sharp-nosed, ferret-faced, stingy. The mother and the boy turned to each other. In a wordless way they grew very close, those two. It was as if they were silently matched against the father and daughter.
It was a queer household, brooding, sinister, like something created in a Bronte brain. The two children were twenty-four and twenty-two when the financial avalanche of '93 thundered across the continent sweeping Herman Handle, a mere speck, into the debris. Stocks and bonds and real estate became paper, with paper value. He clawed about with frantic, clutching fingers but his voice was lost in the shrieks of thousands more hopelessly hurt. You saw him sitting for hours together with a black tin box in front of him, pawing over papers, scribbling down figures, muttering. The bleak future that confronted them had little of terror for Hattie Mandle. It presented no contrast with the bleakness of the past. On the day that she came upon him, his head fallen at a curious angle against the black tin box, his hands, asprawl, clutching the papers that strewed the table, she was appalled, not at what she found, but at the leap her heart gave at what she found. Herman Handle's sudden death was one of the least of the tragedies that trailed in the wake of the devastating panic.
Thus it was that Hugo Handle, at twenty-three, became the head of a household. He did not need to seek work. From the time he was seventeen he had been employed in a large china-importing house, starting as a stock boy. Brought up under the harsh circumstances of Hugo's youth, a boy becomes food for the reformatory or takes on the seriousness and responsibility of middle age. In Hugo's case the second was true. From his father he had inherited a mathematical mind and a sense of material values. From his mother, a certain patience and courage, though he never attained her iron indomitability.
It had been a terrific struggle. His salary at twenty-three was most modest, but he was getting on. He intended to be a buyer, some day, and take trips abroad to the great Austrian and French and English china houses.
The day after the funeral he said to his mother, "Well, now we've got to get Etta married. But married well. Somebody who'll take care of her."
"You're a good son, Hugo," Mrs. Handle had said.
Hugo shook his head. "It isn't that. If she's comfortable and happy—or as happy as she knows how to be—she'll never come back. That's what I want. There's debts to pay, too. But I guess we'll get along."
They did get along, but at snail's pace. There followed five years of economy so rigid as to make the past seem profligate. Etta, the acid-tongued, the ferret-faced, was not the sort to go off without the impetus of a dowry. The man for Etta, the shrew, must be kindly, long-suffering, subdued—and in need of a start. He was. They managed a very decent trousseau and the miracle of five thousand dollars in cash. Every stitch in the trousseau and every penny in the dowry represented incredible sacrifice and self-denial on the part of mother and brother. Etta went off to her new home in Pittsburg with her husband. She had expressed thanks for nothing and had bickered with her mother to the last, but even Hugo knew that her suit and hat and gloves and shoes were right. She was almost handsome in them, the unwonted flush of excitement colouring her cheeks, brightening her eyes.
The next day Hugo came home with a new hat for his mother, a four-pound steak, and the announcement that he was going to take music lessons. A new era had begun in the life of Ma Mandle.
Two people, no matter how far apart in years or tastes, cannot struggle side by side, like that, in a common cause, without forging between them a bond indissoluble. Hugo, at twenty-eight, had the serious mien of a man of forty. At forty he was to revert to his slighted twenty-eight, but he did not know that then. His music lessons were his one protest against a beauty-starved youth. He played rather surprisingly well the cheap music of the day, waggling his head (already threatening baldness) in a professional vaudeville manner and squinting up through his cigar smoke, happily. His mother, seated in the room, sewing, would say, "Play that again, Hugo. That's beautiful. What's the name of that?" He would tell her, for the dozenth time, and play it over, she humming, off-key, in his wake. The relation between them was more than that of mother and son. It was a complex thing that had in it something conjugal. When Hugo kissed his mother with a resounding smack and assured her that she looked like a kid she would push him away with little futile shoves, pat her hair into place, and pretend annoyance. "Go away, you big rough thing!" she would cry. But all unconsciously she got from it a thrill that her husband's withered kisses had never given her.
Twelve years had passed since Etta's marriage. Hugo's salary was a comfortable thing now, even in these days of soaring prices. The habit of economy, so long a necessity, had become almost a vice in old lady Mandle. Hugo, with the elasticity of younger years, learned to spend freely, but his mother's thrift and shrewdness automatically swelled his savings. When he was on the road, as he sometimes was for weeks at a time, she spent only a tithe of the generous sum he left with her. She and Anna ate those sketchy meals that obtain in a manless household. When Hugo was home the table was abundant and even choice, though Ma Mandle often went blocks out of her way to save three cents on a bunch of new beets. So strong is usage. She would no more have wasted his money than she would have knifed him in the dark. She ran the household capably, but her way was the old-fashioned way. Sometimes Hugo used to protest, aghast at some petty act of parsimony.
"But, Ma, what do you want to scrimp like that for! You're the worst tightwad I ever saw. Here, take this ten and blow it. You're worse than the squirrels in the park, darned if you ain't!"
She couldn't resist the ten. Neither could she resist showing it, next day, to Mrs. Brunswick, Mrs. Lamb, and Mrs. Wormser. "How my son Hugo spoils me! He takes out a ten-dollar bill, and he stuffs it into my hand and says 'Ma, you're the worst tightwad I ever saw.'" She laughed contentedly. But she did not blow the ten. As she grew older Hugo regularly lied to her about the price of theatre tickets, dainties, articles of dress, railway fares, luxuries. Her credulity increased with age, shrewd though she naturally was.
It was a second blooming for Ma Mandle. When he surprised her with an evening at the theatre she would fuss before her mirror for a full hour. "Some gal!" Hugo would shout when finally she emerged. "Everybody'll be asking who the old man is you're out with. First thing I know I'll have a police-woman after me for going around with a chicken."
"Don't talk foolishness." But she would flush like a bride. She liked a musical comedy with a lot of girls in it and a good-looking tenor. Next day you would hear her humming the catch-tune in an airy falsetto. Sometimes she wondered about him. She was, after all, a rather wise old lady, and she knew something of men. She had a secret horror of his becoming what she called fast.
"Why don't you take out some nice young girl instead of an old woman like me, Hugo? Any girl would be only too glad." But in her heart was a dread. She thought of Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Wormser, and Mrs. Brunswick.
So they had gone on, year after year, in the comfortable flat on South Park Avenue. A pleasant thing, life.
And then Hugo married, suddenly, breathlessly, as a man of forty does.
Afterward, Ma Mandle could recall almost nothing from which she might have taken warning. That was because he had said so little. She remembered that he had come home to dinner one evening and had spoken admiringly of a woman buyer from Omaha. He did not often speak of business.
"She buys like a man," he had said at dinner. "I never saw anything like it. Knew what she wanted and got it. She bought all my best numbers at rock bottom. I sold her a four-figure bill in half an hour. And no fuss. Everything right to the point and when I asked her out to dinner she turned me down. Good looking, too. She's coming in again to-morrow for novelties."
Ma Mandle didn't even recall hearing her name until the knife descended. Hugo played the piano a great deal all that week, after dinner. Sentimental things, with a minor wail in the chorus. Smoked a good deal, too. Twice he spent a full hour in dressing, whistling absent-mindedly during the process and leaving his necktie rack looking like a nest of angry pythons when he went out, without saying where he was going. The following week he didn't touch the piano and took long walks in Washington Park, alone, after ten. He seemed uninterested in his meals. Usually he praised this dish, or that.
"How do you like the blueberry pie, Hugo?"
"'S all right." And declined a second piece.
The third week he went West on business. When he came home he dropped his bag in the hall, strode into his mother's bedroom, and stood before her like a schoolboy. "Lil and I are going to be married," he said.
Ma Mandle had looked up at him, her face a blank. "Lil?"
"Sure. I told you all about her." He hadn't. He had merely thought about her, for three weeks, to the exclusion of everything else. "Ma, you'll love her. She knows all about you. She's the grandest girl in the world. Say, I don't know why she ever fell for a dub like me. Well, don't look so stunned. I guess you kind of suspicioned, huh?"
"I never thought she'd look at me. Earned her own good salary, and strictly business, but she's a real woman. Says she wants her own home an—'n everything. Says every normal woman does. Says—"
They were married the following month.
Hugo sub-leased the flat on South Park and took an eight-room apartment farther east. Ma Mandle's red and green plush parlour pieces, and her mahogany rockers, and her rubber plant, and the fern, and the can of grapefruit pits that she and Anna had planted and that had come up, miraculously, in the form of shiny, thick little green leaves, all were swept away in the upheaval that followed. Gone, too, was Polish Anna, with her damp calico and her ubiquitous pail and dripping rag and her gutturals. In her place was a trim Swede who wore white kid shoes in the afternoon and gray dresses and cob-web aprons. The sight of the neat Swede sitting in her room at two-thirty in the afternoon, tatting, never failed to fill Ma Mandle with a dumb fury. Anna had been an all-day scrubber.
But Lil. Hugo thought her very beautiful, which she was not. A plump, voluble, full-bosomed woman, exquisitely neat, with a clear, firm skin, bright brown eyes, an unerring instinct for clothes, and a shrewd business head. Hugo's devotion amounted to worship.
He used to watch her at her toilette in their rose and black mahogany front bedroom. Her plump white shoulders gleamed from pink satin straps. She smelled pleasantly of sachet and a certain heady scent she affected. Seated before the mirror, she stared steadily at herself with a concentration such as an artist bestows upon a work that depends, for its perfection, upon nuances of light and shade. Everything about her shone and glittered. Her pink nails were like polished coral. Her hair gleamed in smooth undulations, not a strand out of place. Her skin was clear and smooth as a baby's. Her hands were plump and white. She was always getting what she called a facial, from which process she would emerge looking pinker and creamier than ever. Lil knew when camisoles were edged with filet, and when with Irish. Instinctively she sensed when taffeta was to be superseded by foulard. The contents of her scented bureau drawers needed only a dab of whipped cream on top to look as if they might have been eaten as something souffle.
"How do I look in it, Hugo? Do you like it?" was a question that rose daily to her lips. A new hat, or frock, or collar, or negligee. Not that she was unduly extravagant. She knew values, and profited by her knowledge.
"Le's see. Turn around. It looks great on you. Yep. That's all right."
He liked to fancy himself a connoisseur in women's clothes and to prove it he sometimes brought home an article of feminine apparel glimpsed in a shop window or showcase, but Lil soon put a stop to that. She had her own ideas on clothes. He turned to jewellery. On Lil's silken bosom reposed a diamond-and-platinum pin the size and general contour of a fish-knife. She had a dinner ring that crowded the second knuckle, and on her plump wrist sparkled an oblong so encrusted with diamonds that its utilitarian dial was almost lost.
It wasn't a one-sided devotion, however. Lil knew much about men, and she had an instinct for making them comfortable. It is a gift that makes up for myriad minor shortcomings. She had a way of laying his clean things out on the bed—fresh linen, clean white socks (Hugo was addicted to white socks and tan, low-cut shoes), silk shirt, immaculate handkerchief. When he came in at the end of a hard day downtown—hot, fagged, sticky—she saw to it that the bathroom was his own for an hour so that he could bathe, shave, powder, dress, and emerge refreshed to eat his good dinner in comfort. Lil was always waiting for him cool, interested, sweet-smelling.
When she said, "How's business, lover?" she really wanted to know. More than that, when he told her she understood, having herself been so long in the game. She gave him shrewd advice, too, so shrewdly administered that he never realized he had been advised, and so, man-like, could never resent it.
Ma Mandle's reign was over.
To Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser Ma Mandle lied magnificently. Their eager, merciless questions pierced her like knives, but she made placid answer: "Young folks are young folks. They do things different. I got my way. My son's wife has got hers." Their quick ears caught the familiar phrase.
"It's hard, just the same," Mrs. Wormser insisted, "after you've been boss all these years to have somebody else step in and shove you out of the way. Don't I know!"
"I'm glad to have a little rest. Marketing and housekeeping nowadays is no snap, with the prices what they are. Anybody that wants the pleasure is welcome."
But they knew, the three. There was, in Ma Mandle's tone, a hollow pretence that deceived no one. They knew, and she knew that they knew. She was even as they were, a drinker of the hemlock cup, an eater of ashes.
Hugo Mandle was happier and more comfortable than he had ever been in his life. It wasn't merely his love for Lil, and her love for him that made him happy. Lil set a good table, though perhaps it was not as bounteous as his mother's had been. His food, somehow, seemed to agree with him better than it used to. It was because Lil selected her provisions with an eye to their building value, and to Hugo's figure. She told him he was getting too fat, and showed him where, and Hugo agreed with her and took off twenty-five burdensome pounds, but Ma Mandle fought every ounce of it.
"You'll weaken yourself, Hugo! Eat! How can a man work and not eat? I never heard of such a thing. Fads!"
But these were purely physical things. It was a certain mental relaxation that Hugo enjoyed, though he did not definitely know it. He only knew that Lil seemed, somehow, to understand. For years his mother had trailed after him, putting away things that he wanted left out, tidying that which he preferred left in seeming disorder. Lil seemed miraculously to understand about those things. He liked, for example, a certain grimy, gritty old rag with which he was wont to polish his golf clubs. It was caked with dirt, and most disreputable, but it was of just the right material, or weight, or size, or something, and he had for it the unreasoning affection that a child has for a tattered rag doll among a whole family of golden-haired, blue-eyed beauties. Ma Mandle, tidying up, used to throw away that rag in horror. Sometimes he would rescue it, crusted as it was with sand and mud and scouring dust. Sometimes he would have to train in a new rag, and it was never as good as the old. Lil understood about that rag, and approved of it. For that matter, she had a rag of her own which she used to remove cold cream from her face and throat. It was a clean enough bit of soft cloth to start with, but she clung to it as an actress often does, until it was smeared with the pink of makeup and the black of Chicago soot. She used to search remote corners of it for an inch of unused, unsmeared space. Lil knew about not talking when you wanted to read the paper, too. Ma Mandle, at breakfast, had always had a long and intricate story to tell about the milkman, or the strawberries that she had got the day before and that had spoiled overnight in the icebox. A shame! Sometimes he had wanted to say, "Let me read my paper in peace, won't you!" But he never had. Now it was Lil who listened patiently to Ma Mandle's small grievances, and Hugo was left free to peruse the head-lines.
If you had told Ma Mandle that she was doing her best to ruin the life of the one person she loved best in all the world she would have told you that you were insane. If you had told her that she was jealous she would have denied it, furiously. But both were true.
When Hugo brought his wife a gift he brought one for his mother as well.
"You don't need to think you have to bring your old mother anything," she would say, unreasonably.
"Didn't I always bring you something, Ma?"
If seventy can be said to sulk, Ma Mandle sulked.
Lil, on her way to market in the morning, was a pleasant sight, trim, well-shod, immaculate. Ma, whose marketing costume had always been neat but sketchy, would eye her disapprovingly. "Are you going out?"
"Just to market. I thought I'd start early, before everything was picked over."
"Oh—to market! I thought you were going to a party, you're so dressy."
In the beginning Lil had offered to allow Ma Mandle to continue with the marketing but Mrs. Mandle had declined, acidly. "Oh, no," she had said. "This is your household now."
But she never failed to inspect the groceries as they lay on the kitchen table after delivery. She would press a wise and disdainful thumb into a head of lettuce; poke a pot-roast with disapproving finger; turn a plump chicken over and thump it down with a look that was pregnant with meaning.
Ma Mandle disapproved of many things. Of Lil's silken, lacy lingerie; of her social activities; of what she termed her wastefulness. Lil wore the fewest possible undergarments, according to the fashion of the day, and she worried, good-naturedly, about additional plumpness that was the result of leisure and of rich food. She was addicted to afternoon parties at the homes of married women of her own age and station—pretty, well-dressed, over-indulged women who regularly ate too much. They served a mayonnaise chicken salad, and little hot buttery biscuits, and strong coffee with sugar and cream, and there were dishes of salted almonds, and great, shining, oily, black ripe olives, and a heavy, rich dessert. When she came home she ate nothing.
"I couldn't eat a bite of dinner," she would say. "Let me tell you what we had." She would come to the table in one of her silken, lace-bedecked teagowns and talk animatedly to Hugo while he ate his dinner and eyed her appreciatively as she sat there leaning one elbow on the cloth, the sleeve fallen back so that you saw her plump white forearm. She kept her clear, rosy skin in spite of the pastry and sweets and the indolent life, and even the layers of powder with which she was forever dabbing her face had not coarsened its texture.
Hugo, man-like, was unconscious of the undercurrent of animosity between the two women. He was very happy. He only knew that Lil understood about cigar ashes; that she didn't mind if a pillow wasn't plumped and patted after his Sunday nap on the davenport; that she never complained to him about the shortcomings of the little Swede, as Ma Mandle had about Polish Anna. Even at house-cleaning time, which Ma Mandle had always treated as a scourge, things were as smooth-running and peaceful as at ordinary times. Just a little bare, perhaps, as to floors, and smelling of cleanliness. Lil applied businesslike methods to the conduct of her house, and they were successful in spite of Ma Mandle's steady efforts to block them. Old lady Mandle did not mean to be cruel. She only thought that she was protecting her son's interests. She did not know that the wise men had a definite name for the mental processes which caused her, perversely, to do just the thing which she knew she should not do.
Hugo and Lil went out a great deal in the evening. They liked the theatre, restaurant life, gayety. Hugo learned to dance and became marvellously expert at it, as does your fat man.
"Come on and go out with us this evening, Mother," Lil would say.
"Sure!" Hugo would agree, heartily. "Come along, Ma. We'll show you some night life."
"I don't want to go," Ma Mandle would mutter. "I'm better off at home. You enjoy yourself better without an old woman dragging along."
That being true, they vowed it was not, and renewed their urging. In the end she went, grudgingly. But her old eyes would droop; the late supper would disagree with her; the noise, the music, the laughter, and shrill talk bewildered her. She did not understand the banter, and resented it.
Next day, in the park, she would boast of her life of gayety to the vaguely suspicious three.
Later she refused to go out with them. She stayed in her room a good deal, fussing about, arranging bureau drawers already geometrically precise, winding endless old ribbons, ripping the trimming off hats long passe and re-trimming them with odds and ends and scraps of feathers and flowers.
Hugo and Lil used to ask her to go with them to the movies, but they liked the second show at eight-thirty while she preferred the earlier one at seven. She grew sleepy early, though she often lay awake for hours after composing herself for sleep. She would watch the picture absorbedly, but when she stepped, blinking, into the bright glare of Fifty-third Street, she always had a sense of let-down, of depression.
A wise old lady of seventy, who could not apply her wisdom for her own good. A rather lonely old lady, with hardening arteries and a dilating heart. An increasingly fault-finding old lady. Even Hugo began to notice it. She would wait for him to come home and then, motioning him mysteriously into her own room, would pour a tale of fancied insult into his ear.
"I ran a household and brought up a family before she was born. I don't have to be told what's what. I may be an old woman but I'm not so old that I can sit and let my own son be made a fool of. One girl isn't enough, she's got to have a wash woman. And now a wash woman isn't enough she's got to have a woman to clean one day a week."
An hour later, from the front bedroom, where Hugo was dressing, would come the low murmur of conversation. Lil had reached the complaining point, goaded by much repetition.
The attitude of the two women distressed and bewildered Hugo. He was a simple soul, and this was a complex situation. His mind leaped from mother to wife, and back again, joltingly. After all, one woman at a time is all that any man can handle successfully.
"What's got into you women folks!" he would say. "Always quarrelling. Why can't you get along."
One night after dinner Lil said, quite innocently, "Mother, we haven't a decent picture of you. Why don't you have one taken? In your black lace."
Old lady Mandle broke into sudden fury. "I guess you think I'm going to die! A picture to put on the piano after I'm gone, huh? 'That's my dear mother that's gone.' Well, I don't have any picture taken. You can think of me the way I was when I was alive."
The thing grew and swelled and took on bitterness as it progressed. Lil's face grew strangely flushed and little veins stood out on her temples. All the pent-up bitterness that had been seething in Ma Mandle's mind broke bounds now, and welled to her lips. Accusation, denial; vituperation, retort.
"You'll be happy when I'm gone."
"If I am it's your fault."
"It's the ones that are used to nothing that always want the most. They don't know where to stop. When you were working in Omaha—"
"The salary I gave up to marry your son was more money than you ever saw."
And through it all, like a leit-motiv, ran Hugo's attempt at pacification: "Now, Ma! Don't, Lil. You'll only excite yourself. What's got into you two women?"
It was after dinner. In the end Ma Mandle slammed out of the house, hatless. Her old legs were trembling. Her hands shook. It was a hot June night. She felt as if she were burning up. In her frantic mind there was even thought of self-destruction. There were thousands of motor cars streaming by. The glare of their lamps and the smell of the gasoline blinded and stifled her. Once, at a crossing, she almost stumbled in front of an on-rushing car. The curses of the startled driver sounded in her terrified ears after she had made the opposite curb in a frantic bound. She walked on and on for what seemed to her to be a long time, with plodding, heavy step. She was not conscious of being tired. She came to a park bench and sat down, feeling very abused, and lonely and agonized. This was what she had come to in her old days. It was for this you bore children, and brought them up and sacrificed for them. How right they were—Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser. Useless. Unconsidered. In the way.
By degrees she grew calmer. Her brain cooled as her fevered old body lost the heat of anger. Lil had looked kind of sick. Perhaps ... and how worried Hugo had looked....
Feeling suddenly impelled she got up from the bench and started toward home. Her walk, which had seemed interminable, had really lasted scarcely more than half an hour. She had sat in the park scarcely fifteen minutes. Altogether her flight had been, perhaps, an hour in duration.
She had her latchkey in her pocket. She opened the door softly. The place was in darkness. Voices from the front bedroom, and the sound of someone sobbing, as though spent. Old lady Mandle's face hardened again. The door of the front bedroom was closed. Plotting against her! She crouched there in the hall, listening. Lil's voice, hoarse with sobs.
"I've tried and tried. But she hates me. Nothing I do suits her. If it wasn't for the baby coming sometimes I think I'd—"
"You're just nervous and excited, Lil. It'll come out all right. She's an old lady—"
"I know it. I know it. I've said that a million times in the last year and a half. But that doesn't excuse everything, does it? Is that any reason why she should spoil our lives? It isn't fair. It isn't fair!"
"Sh! Don't cry like that, dear. Don't! You'll only make yourself sick."
Her sobs again, racking, choking, and the gentle murmur of his soothing endearments. Then, unexpectedly, a little, high-pitched laugh through the tears.
"No, I'm not hysterical. I—it just struck me funny. I was just wondering if I might be like that. When I grow old, and my son marries, maybe I'll think everything his wife does is wrong. I suppose if we love them too much we really harm them. I suppose—"
"Oh, it's going to be a son, is it?"
Another silence. Then: "Come, dear. Bathe your poor eyes. You're all worn out from crying. Why, sweetheart, I don't believe I ever saw you cry before."
"I know it. I feel better now. I wish crying could make it all right. I'm sorry. She's so old, dear. That's the trouble. They live in the past and they expect us to live in the past with them. You were a good son to her, Hughie. That's why you make such a wonderful husband. Too good, maybe. You've spoiled us both, and now we both want all of you."
Hugo was silent a moment. He was not a quick-thinking man. "A husband belongs to his wife," he said then, simply. "He's his mother's son by accident of birth. But he's his wife's husband by choice, and deliberately."
But she laughed again at that. "It isn't as easy as that, sweetheart. If it was there'd be no jokes in the funny papers. My poor boy! And just now, too, when you're so worried about business."
"Business'll be all right, Lil. Trade'll open up next winter. It's got to. We've kept going on the Japanese and English stuff. But if the French and Austrian factories start running we'll have a whirlwind year. If it hadn't been for you this last year I don't know how I'd have stood the strain. No importing, and the business just keeping its head above water. But you were right, honey. We've weathered the worst of it now."
"I'm glad you didn't tell Mother about it. She'd have worried herself sick. If she had known we both put every cent we had into the business—"
"We'll get it back ten times over. You'll see."
The sound of footsteps. "I wonder where she went. She oughtn't to be out alone. I'm kind of worried about her, Hugo. Don't you think you'd better—"
Ma Mandle opened the front door and then slammed it, ostentatiously, as though she had just come in.
"That you, Ma?" called Hugo.
He turned on the hall light. She stood there, blinking, a bent, pathetic little figure. Her eyes were averted. "Are you all right, Ma? We began to worry about you."
"I'm all right. I'm going to bed."
He made a clumsy, masculine pretence at heartiness. "Lil and I are going over to the drug store for a soda, it's so hot. Come on along, Ma."
Lil joined him in the doorway of the bedroom. Her eyes were red-rimmed behind the powder that she had hastily dabbed on, but she smiled bravely.
"Come on, Mother," she said. "It'll cool you off."
But Ma Mandle shook her head. "I'm better off at home. You run along, you two."
That was all. But the two standing there caught something in her tone. Something new, something gentle, something wise.
She went on down the hall to her room. She took off her clothes, and hung them away, neatly. But once in her nightgown she did not get into bed. She sat there, in the chair by the window. Old lady Mandle had lived to be seventy and had acquired much wisdom. One cannot live to be seventy without having experienced almost everything in life. But to crystallize that experience of a long lifetime into terms that would express the meaning of life—this she had never tried to do. She could not do it now, for that matter. But she groped around, painfully, in her mind. There had been herself and Hugo. And now Hugo's wife and the child to be. They were the ones that counted, now. That was the law of life. She did not put it into words. But something of this she thought as she sat there in her plain white nightgown, her scant white locks pinned in a neat knob at the top of her head. Selfishness. That was it. They called it love, but it was selfishness. She must tell them about it to-morrow—Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser. Only yesterday Mrs. Brunswick had waxed bitter because her daughter-in-law had let a moth get into her husband's winter suit.
"I never had a moth in my house!" Mrs. Brunswick had declared. "Never. But nowadays housekeeping is nothing. A suit is ruined. What does my son's wife care! I never had a moth in my house."
Ma Mandle chuckled to herself there in the darkness. "I bet she did. She forgets. We all forget."
It was very hot to-night. Now and then there was a wisp of breeze from the lake, but not often.... How red Lil's eyes had been ... poor girl. Moved by a sudden impulse Ma Mandle thudded down the hall in her bare feet, found a scrap of paper in the writing-desk drawer, scribbled a line on it, turned out the light, and went into the empty front room. With a pin from the tray on the dresser she fastened the note to Lil's pillow, high up, where she must see it the instant she turned on the light. Then she scuttled down the hall to her room again.
She felt the heat terribly. She would sit by the window again. All the blood in her body seemed to be pounding in her head ... pounding in her head ... pounding....
At ten Hugo and Lil came in, softly. Hugo tiptoed down the hall, as was his wont, and listened. The room was in darkness. "Sleeping, Ma?" he whispered. He could not see the white-gowned figure sitting peacefully by the window, and there was no answer. He tiptoed with painful awkwardness up the hall again.
"She's asleep, all right. I didn't think she'd get to sleep so early on a scorcher like this."
Lil turned on the light in her room. "It's too hot to sleep," she said. She began to disrobe languidly. Her eye fell on the scrap of paper pinned to her pillow. She went over to it, curiously, leaned over, read it.
"Oh, look, Hugo!" She gave a little tremulous laugh that was more than half sob. He came over to her and read it, his arm around her shoulder.
"My son Hugo and my daughter Lil they are the best son and daughter in the world."
A sudden hot haze before his eyes blotted out the words as he finished reading them.
YOU'VE GOT TO BE SELFISH
When you try to do a story about three people like Sid Hahn and Mizzi Markis and Wallie Ascher you find yourself pawing around among the personalities helplessly. For the three of them are what is known in newspaper parlance as national figures. One n.f. is enough for any short story. Three would swamp a book. It's like one of those plays advertised as having an all-star cast. By the time each luminary has come on, and been greeted, and done his twinkling the play has faded into the background. You can't see the heavens for the stars.
Surely Sid Hahn, like the guest of honour at a dinner, needs no introduction. And just as surely will he be introduced. He has been described elsewhere and often; perhaps nowhere more concisely than on Page 16, paragraph two, of a volume that shall be nameless, though quoted, thus:
"Sid Hahn, erstwhile usher, call-boy, press agent, advance man, had a genius for things theatrical. It was inborn. Dramatic, sensitive, artistic, intuitive, he was often rendered inarticulate by the very force and variety of his feelings. A little, rotund, ugly man, with the eyes of a dreamer, the wide, mobile mouth of a humourist, the ears of a comic ol' clo'es man. His generosity was proverbial, and it amounted to a vice."
Not that that covers him. No one paragraph could. You turn a fine diamond this way and that, and as its facets catch the light you say, "It's scarlet! No—it's blue! No—rose!—orange!—lilac!—no—"
That was Sid Hahn.
I suppose he never really sat for a photograph and yet you saw his likeness in all the magazines. He was snapped on the street, and in the theatre, and even up in his famous library-study-office on the sixth and top floor of the Thalia Theatre Building. Usually with a fat black cigar—unlighted—in one corner of his commodious mouth. Everyone interested in things theatrical (and whom does that not include!) knew all about Sid Hahn—and nothing. He had come, a boy, from one of those middle-western towns with a high-falutin Greek name. Parthenon, Ohio, or something incredible like that. No one knows how he first approached the profession which he was to dominate in America. There's no record of his having asked for a job in a theatre, and received it. He oozed into it, indefinably, and moved with it, and became a part of it and finally controlled it. Satellites, fur-collared and pseudo-successful, trailing in his wake, used to talk loudly of I-knew-him-when. They all lied. It had been Augustin Daly, dead these many years, who had first recognized in this boy the genius for discovering and directing genius. Daly was, at that time, at the zenith of his career—managing, writing, directing, producing. He fired the imagination of this stocky, gargoyle-faced boy with the luminous eyes and the humorous mouth. I don't know that Sid Hahn, hanging about the theatre in every kind of menial capacity, ever said to himself in so many words:
"I'm going to be what he is. I'm going to concentrate on it. I won't let anything or anybody interfere with it. Nobody knows what I'm going to be. But I know.... And you've got to be selfish. You've got to be selfish."
Of course no one ever really made a speech like that to himself, even in the Horatio Alger books. But if the great ambition and determination running through the whole fibre of his being could have been crystallized into spoken words they would have sounded like that.
By the time he was forty-five he had discovered more stars than Copernicus. They were not all first-magnitude twinklers. Some of them even glowed so feebly that you could see their light only when he stood behind them, the steady radiance of his genius shining through. But taken as a whole they made a brilliant constellation, furnishing much of the illumination for the brightest thoroughfare in the world.
He had never married. There are those who say that he had had an early love affair, but that he had sworn not to marry until he had achieved what he called success. And by that time it had been too late. It was as though the hot flame of ambition had burned out all his other passions. Later they say he was responsible for more happy marriages contracted by people who did not know that he was responsible for them than a popular east-side shadchen. He grew a little tired, perhaps, of playing with make-believe stage characters, and directing them, so he began to play with real ones, like God. But always kind.
No woman can resist making love to a man as indifferent as Sid Hahn appeared to be. They all tried their wiles on him: the red-haired ingenues, the blonde soubrettes, the stately leading ladies, the war horses, the old-timers, the ponies, the prima donnas. He used to sit there in his great, luxurious, book-lined inner office, smiling and inscrutable as a plump joss-house idol while the fair ones burnt incense and made offering of shew-bread. Figuratively, he kicked over the basket of shew-bread, and of the incense said, "Take away that stuff! It smells!"
Not that he hated women. He was afraid of them, at first. Then, from years of experience with the femininity of the theatre, not nearly afraid enough. So, early, he had locked that corner of his mind, and had thrown away the key. When, years after, he broke in the door, lo! (as they say when an elaborate figure of speech is being used) lo! the treasures therein had turned to dust and ashes.
It was he who had brought over from Paris to the American stage the famous Renee Paterne of the incorrigible eyes. She made a fortune and swept the country with her song about those delinquent orbs. But when she turned them on Hahn, in their first interview in his office, he regarded her with what is known as a long, level look. She knew at that time not a word of English. Sid Hahn was ignorant of French. He said, very low, and with terrible calm to Wallie Ascher who was then acting as a sort of secretary, "Wallie, can't you do something to make her stop rolling her eyes around at me like that? It's awful! She makes me think of those heads you shy balls at, out at Coney. Take away my ink-well."
Renee had turned swiftly to Wallie and had said something to him in French. Sid Hahn cocked a quick ear. "What's that she said?"
"She says," translated the obliging and gifted Wallie, "that monsieur is a woman-hater."
"My God! I thought she didn't understand English!"
"She doesn't. But she's a woman. Not only that, she's a French woman. They don't need to know a language to understand it."
"Where did you get that, h'm? That wasn't included in your Berlitz course, was it?"
Wallie Ascher had grinned—that winning flash lighting up his dark, keen face. "No. I learned that in another school."
Wallie Ascher's early career in the theatre, if repeated here, might almost be a tiresome repetition of Hahn's beginning. And what Augustin Daly had been to Sid Hahn's imagination and ambition, Sid Hahn was to Wallie's. Wallie, though, had been born to the theatre—if having a tumbler for a father and a prestidigitator's foil for a mother can be said to be a legitimate entrance into the world of the theatre.
He had been employed about the old Thalia for years before Hahn noticed him. In the beginning he was a spindle-legged office boy in the upstairs suite of the firm of Hahn & Lohman, theatrical producers; the kind of office-boy who is addicted to shrill, clear whistling unless very firmly dealt with. No one in the outer office realized how faultless, how rhythmic were the arpeggios and cadences that issued from those expertly puckered lips. There was about his performance an unerring precision. As you listened you felt that his ascent to the inevitable high note was a thing impossible of achievement. Up—up—up he would go, while you held your breath in suspense. And then he took the high note—took it easily, insouciantly—held it, trilled it, tossed it.
"Now, look here," Miss Feldman would snap—Miss Feldman of the outer office typewriter—"look here, you kid. Any more of that bird warbling and you go back to the woods where you belong. This ain't a—a—"
"Aviary," suggested Wallie, almost shyly.
Miss Feldman glared. "How did you know that word?"
"I don't know," helplessly. "But it's the word, isn't it?"
Miss Feldman turned back to her typewriter. "You're too smart for your age, you are."
"I know it," Wallie had agreed, humbly.
There's no telling where or how he learned to play the piano. He probably never did learn. He played it, though, as he whistled—brilliantly. No doubt it was as imitative and as unconscious, too, as his whistling had been. They say he didn't know one note from another, and doesn't to this day.
At twenty, when he should have been in love with at least three girls, he had fixed in his mind an image, a dream. And it bore no resemblance to twenty's accepted dreams. At that time he was living in one room (rear) of a shabby rooming house in Thirty-ninth Street. And this was the dream: By the time he was—well, long before he was thirty—he would have a bachelor apartment with a Jap, Saki. Saki was the perfect servant, noiseless, unobtrusive, expert. He saw little dinners just for four—or, at the most, six. And Saki, white-coated, deft, sliding hot plates when plates should be hot; cold plates when plates should be cold. Then, other evenings, alone, when he wanted to see no one—when, in a silken lounging robe (over faultless dinner clothes, of course, and wearing the kind of collar you see in the back of the magazines) he would say, "That will do, Saki." Then, all evening, he would play softly to himself those little, intimate, wistful Schumanny things in the firelight with just one lamp glowing softly—almost sombrely—at the side of the piano (grand).
His first real meeting with Sid Hahn had had much to do with the fixing of this image. Of course he had seen Hahn hundreds of times in the office and about the theatre. They had spoken, too, many times. Hahn called him vaguely, "Heh, boy!" but he grew to know him later as Wallie. From errand-boy, office-boy, call-boy he had become, by that time, a sort of unofficial assistant stage manager. No one acknowledged that he was invaluable about the place, but he was. When a new play was in rehearsal at the Thalia, Wallie knew more about props, business, cues, lights, and lines than the director himself. For a long time no one but Wallie and the director were aware of this. The director never did admit it. But that Hahn should find it out was inevitable.
He was nineteen or thereabouts when he was sent, one rainy November evening, to deliver a play manuscript to Hahn at his apartment. Wallie might have refused to perform an errand so menial, but his worship of Hahn made him glad of any service, however humble. He buttoned his coat over the manuscript, turned up his collar, and plunged into the cold drizzle of the November evening.
Hahn's apartment—he lived alone—was in the early fifties, off Fifth Avenue. For two days he had been ill with one of the heavy colds to which he was subject. He was unable to leave the house. Hence Wallie's errand.
It was Saki—or Saki's equivalent—who opened the door. A white-coated, soft-stepping Jap, world-old looking like the room glimpsed just beyond. Someone was playing the piano with one finger, horribly.
"You're to give this to Mr. Hahn. He's waiting for it."
"Genelmun come in," said the Jap, softly.
"No, he don't want to see me. Just give it to him, see?"
"Genelmun come in." Evidently orders.
"Oh, all right. But I know he doesn't want—"
Wallie turned down his collar with a quick flip, looked doubtfully at his shoes, and passed through the glowing little foyer into the room beyond. He stood in the doorway. He was scarcely twenty then, but something in him sort of rose, and gathered, and seethed, and swelled, and then hardened. He didn't know it then but it was his great resolve.
Sid Hahn was seated at the piano, a squat, gnomelike little figure, with those big ears, and that plump face, and those soft eyes—the kindest eyes in the world. He did not stop playing as Wallie appeared. He glanced up at him, ever so briefly, but kindly, too, and went on playing the thing with one short forefinger, excruciatingly. Wallie waited. He had heard somewhere that Hahn would sit at the piano thus, for hours, the tears running down his cheeks because of the beauty of the music he could remember but not reproduce; and partly because of his own inability to reproduce it.
The stubby little forefinger faltered, stopped. He looked up at Wallie.
"God, I wish I could play!"
"Helps a lot."
"Oh, most anything I've heard once. And some things I kind of make up."
"Compose, you mean?"
"Play one of those."
So Wallie Ascher played one of those. Of course you know "Good Night—Pleasant Dreams." He hadn't named it then. It wasn't even published until almost two years later, but that was what he played for Sid Hahn. Since "After The Ball" no popular song has achieved the success of that one. No doubt it was cheap, and no doubt it was sentimental, but so, too, are "The Suwanee River" and "My Old Kentucky Home," and they'll be singing those when more classical songs have long been forgotten. As Wallie played it his dark, thin face seemed to gleam and glow in the lamplight.
When he had finished Sid Hahn was silent for a moment. Then, "What're you going to do with it?"
"With what you've got. You know."
Wallie knew that he did not mean the song he had just played. "I'm going to—I'm going to do a lot with it."
"Yeh, but how?"
Wallie was looking down at his two lean brown hands on the keys. For a long minute he did not answer. Then: "By thinking about it all the time. And working like hell.... And you've got to be selfish ... You've got to be selfish ..."
As Sid Hahn stared at him, as though hypnotized, the Jap appeared in the doorway. Sid Hahn said, "Stay and have dinner with me," instead of what he had meant to say.
"Oh, I can't! Thanks. I—" He wanted to terribly, but the thought was too much.
They had dinner together. Even under the influence of Hahn's encouragement and two glasses of mellow wine whose name he did not know, Wallie did not become fatuous. They talked about music—neither of them knew anything about it, really. Wallie confessed that he used it as an intoxicant and a stimulant.
"That's it!" cried Hahn, excitedly. "If I could play I'd have done more. More."
"Why don't you get one of those piano-players, What-you-call'ems?" Then, immediately, "No, of course not."
"Nah, that doesn't do it," said Hahn, quickly. "That's like adopting a baby when you can't have one of your own. It isn't the same. It isn't the same. It looks like a baby, and acts like a baby, and sounds like a baby—but it isn't yours. It isn't you. That's it! It isn't you!"
"Yeh," agreed Wallie, nodding. So perfectly did they understand each other, this ill-assorted pair.
It was midnight before Wallie left. They had both forgotten about the play manuscript whose delivery had been considered so important. The big room was gracious, quiet, soothing. A fire flickered in the grate. One lamp glowed softly—almost sombrely.
As Wallie rose at last to go he shook himself slightly like one coming out of a trance. He looked slowly about the golden, mellow room. "Gee!"
"Yes, but it isn't worth it," said Hahn, "after you've got it."
"That's what they all say"—grimly—"after they've got it."
The thing that had been born in Sid Hahn's mind thirty years before was now so plainly stamped on this boy's face that Hahn was startled into earnestness. "But I tell you, it's true! It's true!"
"Maybe. Some day, when I'm living in a place like this, I'll let you know if you're right."
In less than a year Wallie Ascher was working with Hahn. No one knew his official title or place. But "Ask Wallie. He'll know," had become a sort of slogan in the office. He did know. At twenty-one his knowledge of the theatre was infallible (this does not include plays unproduced; in this no one is infallible) and his feeling for it amounted to a sixth sense. There was something uncanny about the way he could talk about Lottie, for example, as if he had seen her; or Mrs. Siddons; or Mrs. Fiske when she was Minnie Maddern, the soubrette. It was as though he had the power to cast himself back into the past. No doubt it was that power which gave later to his group of historical plays (written by him between the ages of thirty and thirty-five) their convincingness and authority.
When Wallie was about twenty-three or -four Sid Hahn took him abroad on one of his annual scouting trips. Yearly, in the spring, Hahn swooped down upon London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, seeking that of the foreign stage which might be translated, fumigated, desiccated, or otherwise rendered suitable for home use. He sent Wallie on to Vienna, alone, on the trail of a musical comedy rumoured to be a second Merry Widow in tunefulness, chic, and charm. Of course it wasn't. Merry Widows rarely repeat. Wallie wired Hahn, as arranged. The telegram is unimportant, perhaps, but characteristic.
MR. SID. HAHN, Hotel Savoy, London, England.
It's a second all right but not a second Merry Widow. Heard of a winner in Budapest. Shall I go. Spent to-day from eleven to five running around the Ringstrasse looking for mythical creature known as the chic Viennese. After careful investigation wish to be quoted as saying the species if any is extinct.
This, remember, was in the year 1913, B.W. Wallie, obeying instructions, went to Budapest, witnessed the alleged winner, found it as advertised, wired Hahn to that effect, and was joined by that gentleman three days later.
Budapest, at that time, was still Little Paris, only wickeder. A city of magnificent buildings, and unsalted caviar, and beautiful, dangerous women, and frumpy men (civilian) and dashing officers in red pants, and Cigany music, and cafes and paprika and two-horse droshkies. Buda, low and flat, lay on one side; Pest, high and hilly, perched picturesquely on the other. Between the two rolled the Blue Danube (which is yellow).
It was here that Hahn and Wallie found Mizzi Markis. Mizzi Markis, then a girl of nineteen, was a hod carrier.
Wallie had three days in Budapest before Hahn met him there. As the manager stepped from the train, looking geometrically square in a long ulster that touched his ears and his heels, Wallie met him with a bound.
"Hello, S.H.! Great to see you! Say, listen, I've found something. I've found something big!"
Hahn had never seen the boy so excited. "Oh, shucks! No play's as good as that."
"Play! It isn't a play."
"Why, you young idiot, you said it was good! You said it was darned good! You don't mean to tell me—"
"Oh, that! That's all right. It's good—or will be when you get through with it."
"What you talking about then? Here, let's take one of these things with two horses. Gee, you ought to smoke a fat black seegar and wear a silk hat when you ride in one of these! I feel like a parade." He was like a boy on a holiday, as always when in Europe.
"But let me tell you about this girl, won't you!"
"Oh, it's a girl! What's her name? What's she do?"
"Her name's Mizzi."
"I don't know. She's a hod carrier. She—"
"That's all right, Wallie. I'm here now. An ice bag on your head and real quiet for two-three days. You'll come round fine."
But Wallie was almost sulking. "Wait till you see her, S.H. She sings."
"Beautiful, is she?"
"No, not particularly. No."
"Wonderful voice, h'm?"
"N-n-no. I wouldn't say it was what you'd call exactly wonderful."
Sid Hahn stood up in the droshky and waved his short arms in windmill circles. "Well, what the devil does she do then, that's so good? Carry bricks!"
"She is good at that. When she balances that pail of mortar on her head and walks off with it, her arms hanging straight at her sides—"
But Sid Hahn's patience was at an end. "You're a humourist, you are. If I didn't know you I'd say you were drunk. I'll bet you are, anyway. You've been eating paprika, raw. You make me sick."
Inelegant, but expressive of his feelings. But Wallie only said, "You wait. You'll see."
Sid Hahn did see. He saw next day. Wallie woke him out of a sound sleep so that he might see. It was ten-thirty A.M. so that his peevishness was unwarranted. They had seen the play the night before and Hahn had decided that, translated and with interpolations (it was a comic opera), it would captivate New York. Then and there he completed the negotiations which Wallie had begun. Hahn was all for taking the first train out, but Wallie was firm. "You've got to see her, I tell you. You've got to see her."
Their hotel faced the Corso. The Corso is a wide promenade that runs along the Buda bank of the Danube. Across the river, on the hill, the royal palace looks down upon the little common people. In that day the monde and the demi-monde of Budapest walked on the Corso between twelve and one. Up and down. Up and down. The women, tall, dark, flashing-eyed, daringly dressed. The men sallow, meagre, and wearing those trousers which, cut very wide and flappy at the ankles, make them the dowdiest men in the world. Hahn's room and Wallie's were on the second floor of the hotel, and at a corner. One set of windows faced the Corso, the river, and Pest on the hill. The other set looked down upon a new building being erected across the way. It was on this building that Mizzi Markis worked as hod carrier.
The war accustomed us to a million women in overalls doing the work of a million men. We saw them ploughing, juggling steel bars, making shells, running engines, stoking furnaces, handling freight. But to these two American men, at that time, the thing at which these labouring women were employed was dreadful and incredible.
Said Wallie "By the time we've dressed, and had breakfast, and walked a little and everything, it'll be almost noon. And noon's the time. After they've eaten their lunch. But I want you to see her before."
By now his earnestness had impressed Hahn who still feigned an indifference he did not feel. It was about 11:30 when Wallie propelled him by the arm to the unfinished building across the way. And there he met Mizzi.
They were just completing the foundation. The place was a busy hive. Back and forth with pails. Back and forth with loads of bricks.
"What's the matter with the men?" was Hahn's first question.
Wallie explained. "They do the dainty work. They put one brick on top of the other, with a dab of mortar between. But none of the back-breaking stuff for them. The women do that."
And it was so. They were down in the pits mixing the mortar, were the women. They were carrying great pails of it. They were hauling bricks up one ladder and down. They wore short, full skirts with a musical-comedy-chorus effect. Some of them looked seventy and some seventeen. It was fearful work for a woman. A keen wind was blowing across the river. Their hands were purple.
"Pick Mizzi," said Wallie. "If you can pick her I'll know I'm right. But I know it, anyway."
Five minutes passed. The two men stood silent. "The one with the walk and the face," said Hahn, then. Which wasn't very bright of him, because they all walked and they all had faces. "Going up the pit-ladder now. With the pail on her head." Wallie gave a little laugh of triumph. But then, Hahn wouldn't have been Hahn had he not been able to pick a personality when he saw it.
Years afterward the reviewers always talked of Mizzi's walk. They called it her superb carriage. They didn't know that you have to walk very straight, on the balls of your feet, with your hips firm, your stomach held in flat, your shoulders back, your chest out, your chin out and a little down, if you are going to be at all successful in balancing a pail of mortar on your head. After a while that walk becomes a habit.
"Watch her with that pail," said Wallie.
Mizzi filled the pail almost to the top with the heavy white mixture. She filled it quickly, expertly. The pail, filled, weighed between seventeen and twenty kilos. One kilo is equal to about two and one fifth pounds. The girl threw down her scoop, stooped, grasped the pail by its two handles, and with one superb, unbroken motion raised the pail high in her two strong arms and placed it on her head. Then she breathed deeply, once, set her whole figure, turned stiffly, and was off with it. Sid Hahn took on a long breath as though he himself had just accomplished the gymnastic feat.
"Well, so far it's pretty good. But I don't know that the American stage is clamouring for any hod carriers and mortar mixers, exactly."
A whistle blew. Twelve o'clock. Bricks, mortar, scoops, shovels were abandoned. The women, in their great clod-hopping shoes, flew chattering to the tiny hut where their lunch boxes were stored. The men followed more slowly, a mere handful of them. Not one of them wore overalls or apron. Out again with their bundles and boxes of food—very small bundles. Very tiny boxes. They ate ravenously the bread and sausage and drank their beer in great gulps. Fifteen minutes after the whistle had blown the last crumb had vanished.
"Now, then," said Wallie, and guided Hahn nearer. He looked toward Mizzi. Everyone looked toward her. Mizzi stood up, brushing crumbs from her lap. She had a little four-cornered black shawl, folded cross-wise, over her head and tied under her chin. Her face was round and her cheeks red. The shawl, framing this, made her look very young and cherubic.
She did not put her hands on her hips, or do any of those story-book things. She grinned, broadly, showing strong white teeth made strong and white through much munching of coarse black bread; not yet showing the neglect common to her class. She asked a question in a loud, clear voice.
"What's that?" asked Hahn.
"She's talking a kind of hunky Hungarian, I guess. The people here won't speak German, did you know that? They hate it."
The crowd shouted back with one voice. They settled themselves comfortably, sitting or standing. Their faces held the broad smile of anticipation.
"She asked them what they want her to sing. They told her. It's the same every day."
Mizzi Markis stood there before them in the mud, and clay, and straw of the building debris. And she sang for them a Hungarian popular song of the day which, translated, sounds idiotic and which runs something like this:
A hundred geese in a row Going into the coop. At the head of the procession A stick over his shoulder—
No, you can't do it. It means less than nothing that way, and certainly would not warrant the shrieks of mirth that came from the audience gathered round the girl. Still, when you recall the words of "A Hot Time":
When you hear dem bells go ding-ling-ling, All join round and sweetly you must sing And when the words am through in the chorus all join in There'll be a hot time In the old town To-night. My Ba- By.
And yet it swept this continent, and Europe, and in Japan they still think it's our national anthem.
When she had finished, the crowd gave a roar of delight, and clapped their hands, and stamped their feet, and shouted. She had no unusual beauty. Her voice was untrained though possessed of strength and flexibility. It wasn't what she had sung, surely. You heard the song in a hundred cafes. Every street boy whistled it. It wasn't that expressive pair of shoulders, exactly. It wasn't a certain soothing tonal quality that made you forget all the things you'd been trying not to remember.
There is something so futile and unconvincing about an attempted description of an intangible thing. Some call it personality; some call it magnetism; some a rhythm sense; and some, genius. It's all these things, and none of them. Whatever it is, she had it. And whatever it is, Sid Hahn has never failed to recognize it.
So now he said, quietly, "She's got it."
"You bet she's got it!" from Wallie. "She's got more than Renee Paterne ever had. A year of training and some clothes—"
"You don't need to tell me. I'm in the theatrical business, myself."
"I'm sorry," stiffly.
But Hahn, too, was sorry immediately. "You know how I am, Wallie. I like to run a thing off by myself. What do you know about her? Find out anything?"
"Well, a little. She doesn't seem to have any people. And she's decent. Kind of a fierce kid, I guess, and fights when offended. They say she's Polish, not Hungarian. Her mother was a peasant. Her father—nobody knows. I had a dickens of a time finding out anything. The most terrible language in the world—Hungarian. They'll stick a b next to a k and follow it up with a z and put an accent mark over the whole business and call it a word. Last night I followed her home. And guess what!"
"What?" said Hahn, obligingly.
"On her way she had to cross the big square—the one they call Gisela Ter, with all the shops around it. Well, when she came to Gerbeaud's—"
"That's the famous tea room and pastry shop where all the swells go and guzzle tea with rum in it and eat cakes—and say! It isn't like our pastry that tastes like sawdust covered with shaving soap. Marvellous stuff, this is!"
After all, he was barely twenty-four. So Hahn said, good-naturedly, "All right, all right. We'll go there this afternoon and eat an acre of it. Go on. When she came to Gerbeaud's...?"
"Well, when she came to Gerbeaud's she stopped and stood there, outside. There was a strip of red carpet from the door to the street. You know—the kind they have at home when there's a wedding on Fifth Avenue. There she stood at the edge of the carpet, waiting, her face, framed in that funny little black shawl, turned toward the window, and the tail of the little shawl kind of waggling in the wind. It was cold and nippy. I waited, too. Finally I sort of strolled over to her—I knew she couldn't any more than knock me down—and said, kind of casual, 'What's doing?' She looked up at me, like a kid, in that funny shawl. She knew I was an Englees, right away. I guess I must have a fine, open countenance. And I had motioned toward the red carpet, and the crowded windows. Anyway, she opens up with a regular burst of fireworks Hungarian, in that deep voice of hers. Not only that, she acted it out. In two seconds she had on an imaginary coronet and a court train. And haughty! Gosh! I was sort of stumped, but I said, 'You don't say!' and waited some more. And then they flung open the door of the tea shop thing. At the same moment up dashed an equipage—you couldn't possibly call it anything less—with flunkeys all over the outside, like trained monkeys. The people inside the shop stood up, with their mouths full of cake, and out came an old frump with a terrible hat and a fringe. And it was the Archduchess, and her name is Josefa."
"Your story interests me strangely, boy," Hahn said, grinning, "but I don't quite make you. Do archduchesses go to tea rooms for tea? And what's that got to do with our gifted little hod carrier?"
"This duchess does. Believe me, those tarts are good enough for the Queen of Hearts, let alone a duchess, no matter how arch. But the plot of the piece is this. The duchess person goes to Gerbeaud's about twice a week. And they always spread a red carpet for her. And Mizzi always manages to cut away in time to stand there in front of Gerbeaud's and see her come out. She's a gorgeous mimic, that little kid. And though I couldn't understand a word she said I managed to get out of it just this: That some day they're going to spread a red carpet for Mizzi and she's going to walk down it in glory. If you'd seen her face when she said it, S.H., you wouldn't laugh."
"I wouldn't laugh anyway," said Hahn, seriously.
And that's the true story of Mizzi Markis's beginning. Few people know it.
* * * * *
There they were, the three of them. And of the three, Mizzi's ambition seemed to be the fiercest, the most implacable. She worked like a horse, cramming English, French, singing. In some things she was like a woman of thirty; in others a child of ten. Her gratitude to Hahn was pathetic. No one ever doubted that he was in love with her almost from the first—he who had resisted the professional beauties of three decades.
You know she wasn't—and isn't—a beauty, even in that portrait of her by Sargent, with her two black-haired, stunning-looking boys, one on either side. But she was one of those gorgeously healthy women whose very presence energizes those with whom she comes in contact. And then there was about her a certain bounteousness. There's no other word for it, really. She reminded you of those gracious figures you see posed for pictures entitled "Autumn Harvest."
While she was studying she had a little apartment with a middle-aged woman to look after her, and she must have been a handful. A born cook, she was, and Hahn and Wallie used to go there to dinner whenever she would let them. She cooked it herself. Hahn would give up any engagement for a dinner at Mizzi's. When he entered her little sitting room his cares seemed to drop from him. She never got over cutting bread as the peasant women do it—the loaf held firmly against her breast, the knife cutting toward her. Hahn used to watch her and laugh. Sometimes she would put on the little black head-shawl of her Budapest days and sing the street-song about the hundred geese in a row. A delightful, impudent figure.
With the very first English she learned she told Hahn and Wallie that some day they were going to spread a fine red carpet for her to tread upon and that all the world would gaze on her with envy. It was in her mind a symbol typifying all that there was of earthly glory.
"It'll be a long time before they do any red carpeting for you, my girl," Sid Hahn had said.
She turned on him fiercely. "I will not rest—I will not eat—I will not sleep—I will not love—until I have it."
Which was, of course, an exaggerated absurdity.
"Oh, what rot!" Wallie Ascher had said, angrily, and then he had thought of his own symbol of success, and his own resolve. And his face had hardened. Sid Hahn looked at the two of them; very young, both of them, very gifted, very electric. Very much in love with each other, though neither would admit it even in their own minds. Both their stern young faces set toward the goal which they thought meant happiness.
Now, Sid Hahn had never dabbled in this new stuff—you know—complexes and fixed ideas and images. But he was a very wise man, and he did know to what an extent these two were possessed by ambition for that which they considered desirable.
He must have thought it over for weeks. He was in love with Mizzi, remember. And his fondness for Wallie was a thing almost paternal. He watched these two for a long, long time, a queer, grim little smile on his gargoyle face. And then his mind was made up. He had always had his own way. He must have had a certain terrible enjoyment in depriving himself of the one thing he wanted most in the world—the one thing he wanted more than he had ever wanted anything.
He decided that Destiny—a ponderous, slow-moving creature at best—needed a little prodding from him. His plans were simple, as all effective plans are.
Mizzi had been in America just a year and a half. Her development was amazing, but she was far from being the finished product that she became in later years. Hahn decided to chance it. Mizzi had no fear of audiences. He had tried her out on that. An audience stimulated her. She took it to her breast. She romped with it.
He found a play at last. A comedy, with music. It was frankly built for Mizzi. He called Wallie Ascher into his office.
"I wouldn't try her out here for a million. New York's too fly. Some little thing might be wrong—you know how they are. And all the rest would go for nothing. The kindest audience in the world—when they like you. And the cruelest when they don't. We'll go on the road for two weeks. Then we'll open at the Blackstone in Chicago. I think this girl has got more real genius than any woman since—since Bernhardt in her prime. Five years from now she won't be singing. She'll be acting. And it'll be acting."
"Aren't you forcing things just a little?" asked Wallie, coolly.
"Oh, no. No. Anyway, it's just a try-out. By the way, Wallie, I'll probably be gone almost a month. If things go pretty well in Chicago I'll run over to French Lick for eight or ten days and see if I can't get a little of this stiffness out of my old bones. Will you do something for me?"
"Pack a few clothes and go up to my place and live there, will you? The Jap stays on, anyway. The last time I left it alone things went wrong. You'll be doing me a favour. Take it and play the piano, and have your friends in, and boss the Jap around. He's stuck on you, anyway. Says he likes to hear you play."
He stayed away six weeks. And any one who knows him knows what hardship that was. He loved New York, and his own place, and his comfort, and his books; and hotel food gave him hideous indigestion.
Mizzi's first appearance was a moderate success. It was nothing like the sensation of her later efforts. She wasn't ready, and Hahn knew it. Mizzi and her middle-aged woman companion were installed at the Blackstone Hotel, which is just next door to the Blackstone Theatre, as any one is aware who knows Chicago. She was advertised as the Polish comedienne, Mizzi Markis, and the announcements hinted at her royal though remote ancestry. And on the night the play opened, as Mizzi stepped from the entrance of her hotel on her way to the stage door, just forty or fifty feet away, there she saw stretched on the pavement a scarlet path of soft-grained carpet for her feet to tread. From the steps of the hotel to the stage door of the theatre, there it lay, a rosy line of splendour.
The newspapers played it up as a publicity stunt. Every night, while the play lasted, the carpet was there. It was rolled up when the stage door closed upon her. It was unrolled and spread again when she came out after the performance. Hahn never forgot her face when she first saw it, and realized its significance. The look was there on the second night, and on the third, but after that it faded, vanished, and never came again. Mizzi had tasted of the golden fruit and found it dry and profitless, without nourishment or sweetness.
The show closed in the midst of a fairly good run. It closed abruptly, without warning. Together they came back to New York. Just outside New York Hahn knocked at the door of Mizzi's drawing room and stuck his round, ugly face in at the opening.
"Let's surprise Wallie," he said.
"Yes," said Mizzi, listlessly.
"He doesn't know the show's closed. We'll take a chance on his being home for dinner. Unless you're too tired."
"I'm not tired."
The Jap admitted them, and Hahn cut off his staccato exclamations with a quick and smothering hand. They tiptoed into the big, gracious, lamp-lighted room.
Wallie was seated at the piano. He had on a silk dressing gown with a purple cord. One of those dressing gowns you see in the haberdashers' windows, and wonder who buys them. He looked very tall in it, and rather distinguished, but not quite happy. He was playing as they came in. They said, "Boo!" or something idiotic like that. He stood up. And his face!
"Why, hello!" he said, and came forward, swiftly. "Hello! Hello!"
"Hello!" Hahn answered; "Not to say hello-hello."
Wallie looked at the girl. "Hello, Mizzi."
"Hello," said Mizzi.
"For God's sake stop saying 'hello!'" roared Hahn.
They both looked at him absently, and then at each other again.
Hahn flung his coat and hat at the Jap and rubbed his palms briskly together. "Well, how did you like it?" he said, and slapped Wallie on the back. "How'd you like it—the place I mean, and the Jap boy and all? H'm?"
"Very much," Wallie answered, formally. "Very nice."
"You'll be having one of your own some day, soon. That's sure."
"I suppose so," said Wallie, indifferently.
"I would like to go home," said Mizzi, suddenly, in her precise English.
At that Wallie leaped out of his lounging coat. "I'll take you! I'll—I'll be glad to take you."
Hahn smiled a little, ruefully. "We were going to have dinner here, the three of us. But if you're tired, Mizzi. I'm not so chipper myself when it comes to that." He looked about the room, gratefully. "It's good to be home."
Wallie, hat in hand, was waiting in the doorway, Mizzi, turning to go, suddenly felt two hands on her shoulders. She was whirled around. Hahn—he had to stand on tiptoe to do it—kissed her once on the mouth, hard. Then he gave her a little shove toward the door. "Tell Wallie about the red carpet," he said.
"I will not," Mizzi replied, very distinctly. "I hate red carpets."
Then they were gone. Hahn hardly seemed to notice that they had left. There were, I suppose, the proper number of Good-byes, and See-you-to-morrows, and Thank yous.
Sid Hahn stood there a moment in the middle of the room, very small, very squat, rather gnomelike, but not at all funny. He went over to the piano and seated himself, his shoulders hunched, his short legs clearing the floor. With the forefinger of his right hand he began to pick out a little tune. Not a sad little tune. A Hungarian street song. He did it atrociously. The stubby forefinger came down painstakingly on the white keys. Suddenly the little Jap servant stood in the doorway. Hahn looked up. His cheeks were wet with tears.
"God! I wish I could play!" he said.
Chet Ball was painting a wooden chicken yellow. The wooden chicken was mounted on a six-by-twelve board. The board was mounted on four tiny wheels. The whole would eventually be pulled on a string guided by the plump, moist hand of some blissful six-year-old.
You got the incongruity of it the instant your eye fell upon Chet Ball. Chet's shoulders alone would have loomed large in contrast with any wooden toy ever devised, including the Trojan horse. Everything about him, from the big, blunt-fingered hands that held the ridiculous chick to the great muscular pillar of his neck, was in direct opposition to his task, his surroundings, and his attitude.
Chet's proper milieu was Chicago, Illinois (the West Side); his job that of lineman for the Gas, Light and Power Company; his normal working position astride the top of a telegraph pole supported in his perilous perch by a lineman's leather belt and the kindly fates, both of which are likely to trick you in an emergency.
Yet now he lolled back among his pillows, dabbling complacently at the absurd yellow toy. A description of his surroundings would sound like Pages 3 to 17 of a novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward. The place was all greensward, and terraces, and sun dials, and beeches, and even those rhododendrons without which no English novel or country estate is complete. The presence of Chet Ball among his pillows and some hundreds similarly disposed revealed to you at once the fact that this particular English estate was now transformed into Reconstruction Hospital No. 9.
The painting of the chicken quite finished (including two beady black paint eyes) Chet was momentarily at a loss. Miss Kate had not told him to stop painting when the chicken was completed. Miss Kate was at the other end of the sunny garden walk, bending over a wheel-chair. So Chet went on painting, placidly. One by one, with meticulous nicety, he painted all his finger nails a bright and cheery yellow. Then he did the whole of his left thumb, and was starting on the second joint of the index finger when Miss Kate came up behind him and took the brush gently from his strong hands.
"You shouldn't have painted your fingers," she said.
Chet surveyed them with pride. "They look swell."
Miss Kate did not argue the point. She put the freshly painted wooden chicken on the table to dry in the sun. Her eyes fell upon a letter bearing an American postmark and addressed to Sergeant Chester Ball, with a lot of cryptic figures and letters strung out after it, such as A.E.F. and Co. 11.
"Here's a letter for you!" She infused a lot of Glad into her voice. But Chet only cast a languid eye upon it and said, "Yeh?"
"I'll read it to you, shall I? It's a nice fat One."
Chet sat back, indifferent, negatively acquiescent. And Miss Kate began to read in her clear young voice, there in the sunshine and scent of the centuries-old English garden.
It marked an epoch in Chet's life—that letter. But before we can appreciate it we'll have to know Chester Ball in his Chicago days.
Your true lineman has a daredevil way with the women, as have all men whose calling is a hazardous one. Chet was a crack workman. He could shinny up a pole, strap his emergency belt, open his tool kit, wield his pliers with expert deftness, and climb down again in record time. It was his pleasure—and seemingly the pleasure and privilege of all lineman's gangs the world over—to whistle blithely and to call impudently to any passing petticoat that caught his fancy.
Perched three feet from the top of the high pole he would cling, protected, seemingly, by some force working in direct defiance of the law of gravity. And now and then, by way of brightening the tedium of their job he and his gang would call to a girl passing in the street below, "Hoo-Hoo! Hello, sweetheart!"
There was nothing vicious in it, Chet would have come to the aid of beauty in distress as quickly as Don Quixote. Any man with a blue shirt as clean, and a shave as smooth, and a haircut as round as Chet Ball's has no meanness in him. A certain dare-deviltry went hand in hand with his work—a calling in which a careless load dispatcher, a cut wire, or a faulty strap may mean instant death. Usually the girls laughed and called back to them or went on more quickly, the colour in their cheeks a little higher.
But not Anastasia Rourke. Early the first morning of a two-weeks' job on the new plant of the Western Castings Company Chet Ball, glancing down from his dizzy perch atop an electric light pole, espied Miss Anastasia Rourke going to work. He didn't know her name nor anything about her, except that she was pretty. You could see that from a distance even more remote than Chet's. But you couldn't know that Stasia was a lady not to be trifled with. We know her name was Rourke, but he didn't.
So then: "Hoo-Hoo!" he had called. "Hello, sweetheart! Wait for me and I'll be down."
Stasia Rourke had lifted her face to where he perched so high above the streets. Her cheeks were five shades pinker than was their wont, which would make them border on the red.
"You big coward, you!" she called, in her clear, crisp voice. "If you had your foot on the ground you wouldn't dast call to a decent girl like that. If you were down here I'd slap the face of you. You know you're safe up there."
The words were scarcely out of her mouth before Chet Ball's sturdy legs were twinkling down the pole. His spurred heels dug into the soft pine of the pole with little ripe, tearing sounds. He walked up to Stasia and stood squarely in front of her, six feet of brawn and brazen nerve. One ruddy cheek he presented to her astonished gaze. "Hello, sweetheart," he said. And waited. The Rourke girl hesitated just a second. All the Irish heart in her was melting at the boyish impudence of the man before her. Then she lifted one hand and slapped his smooth cheek. It was a ringing slap. You saw the four marks of her fingers upon his face. Chet straightened, his blue eyes bluer. Stasia looked up at him, her eyes wide. Then down at her own hand, as if it belonged to somebody else. Her hand came up to her own face. She burst into tears, turned, and ran. And as she ran, and as she wept, she saw that Chet was still standing there, looking after her.
Next morning, when Stasia Rourke went by to work, Chet Ball was standing at the foot of the pole, waiting.
They were to have been married that next June. But that next June Chet Ball, perched perilously on the branch of a tree in a small woodsy spot somewhere in France, was one reason why the American artillery in that same woodsy spot was getting such a deadly range on the enemy. Chet's costume was so devised that even through field glasses (made in Germany) you couldn't tell where tree left off and Chet began.