"If my eyes are to be opened," he had doggedly declared, "I propose to have some diamonds in the scenery, and a little cheery ragtime, too. You've got a good heart, Deborah Gale, but your head is full of tenements."
To-night to divert Bruce's thoughts from his wife, Baird started him talking of his work. In six weeks Bruce had crammed his mind with the details of skyscraper building, and his talk was bewildering now, bristling with technical terms, permeated through and through with the feeling of strain and fierce competition. As Roger listened he had again that sharp and oppressive sensation of a savage modern town unrelentingly pressing, pressing in. Restlessly he glanced at Baird who sat listening quietly. And Roger thought of the likeness between their two professions. For Bruce, too, was a surgeon. His patients were the husbands in their distracting offices. Baird's were the wives and mothers in their equally distracting homes. Which were more tense, the husbands or wives? And, good Lord, what was it all about, this feverish strain of getting and spending? What were they spending? Their very life's blood. And what were they getting? Happiness? What did most of them know of real happiness? How little they knew, how blind they were, and yet how they laughed and chattered along, how engrossed in their little games. What children, oh, what children!
"And am I any better than the rest? Do I know what I'm after—what I'm about?"
He left them soon, for he felt very tired. He went to his daughter to say good-night. And in her room the talk he had heard became to him suddenly remote, that restless world of small account. For in Edith, in the one brief hour since her father had seen her last, there had come a great transformation, into her face an eager light. She was slipping down into a weird small world which for a brief but fearful season was to be utterly her own, with agony and bloody sweat, and joy and a deep mystery. Clumsily he took her hand. It was moist and he felt it clutch his own. He heard her breathing rapidly.
"Good-night," he said in a husky tone. "I'll be so glad, my dear, so glad."
For answer she gave him a hurried smile, a glance from her bright restless eyes. Then he went heavily from the room.
* * * * *
At home he found Deborah sitting alone, with a pile of school papers in her lap. As he entered she slowly turned her head.
"How is Edith?" she asked him. Roger told of his visit uptown, and spoke of Edith's anxiety over getting the children up to the farm.
"I'll take them myself," said Deborah.
"But how can you get away from school?"
"Oh, I think I can manage it. We'll leave on Friday morning and I can be back by Sunday night. I'll love it," Deborah answered.
"It'll be a great relief to her," said Roger, lighting a cigar. Deborah resumed her work, and there was silence for a time.
"I let George sit up with me till an hour after his bedtime," she told her father presently. "We started talking about white rats—you see it's still white rats with George—and that started us wondering about God. George wonders if God really knows about rats. 'Has he ever stuck his face right down and had a good close look at one? Has God ever watched a rat stand up and brush his whiskers with both paws? Has he ever really laughed at rats? And that's another thing, Aunt Deborah—does God ever laugh at all? Does he know how to take a joke? If he don't, we might as well quit right now!'"
Roger laughed with relish, and his daughter smiled at him:
"Then the talk turned from rats and God to a big dam out in the Rockies. George has been reading about it, he's thinking of being an engineer. And there was so much he wanted to know that he was soon upon the verge of discovering my ignorance—when all of a sudden a dreamy look, oh, a very dreamy look, came into his eyes—and he asked me this." And over her bright expressive face came a scowl of boyish intensity: "Suppose I was an engineer—and I was working on a dam, or may be a bridge, in the Rockies. And say it was pretty far down south—say around the Grand Canyon. I should think they'd need a dam down there, or anyhow a bridge,' said George. And he eyed me in a cautious way which said as plain as the nose on your face, 'Good Lord, she's only a woman, and she won't understand.' But I showed him I was serious, and he asked me huskily, 'Suppose it was winter, Aunt Deborah, and the Giants were in Texas. Do you think I could get a few days off?' And then before he could tell me the Giants were a baseball nine, I said I was sure he could manage it. You should have seen his face light up. And he added very fervently, 'Gee, it must be wonderful to be an engineer out there!'"
Roger chuckled delightedly and Deborah went on with her work. "How good she is with young uns," he thought. "What a knack she has of drawing 'em out. What a pity she hasn't some of her own."
He slept until late the next morning, and awoke to find Deborah by his bed.
"It's another boy," she told him. Roger sat up excitedly. "Bruce has just telephoned the news. The children and I have breakfasted, and they're going out with their nurse. Suppose you and I go up and see Bruce and settle this trip to the mountains."
About an hour later, arriving at Edith's apartment, they found Bruce downstairs with Allan Baird who was just taking his departure. Bruce's dark eyes shone with relief, but his hand was hot and nervous. Allan, on the contrary, held out to Edith's father a hand as steady and relaxed as was the bantering tone of his voice.
"Bruce," he said, "has for once in his life decided to do something sensible. He's going to drop his wretched job and take a week off with his children."
"And worry every minute he's gone," Deborah retorted, "and come back and work day and night to catch up. But he isn't going to do it. I've decided to take the children myself."
"You have?" cried Bruce delightedly.
"You'll do no such thing," said Allan, indignant.
"Oh, you go to thunder," Bruce put in. "Haven't you any delicacy? Can't you see this is no business of yours?"
"It isn't, eh," Allan sternly rejoined. And of Deborah he demanded, "Didn't you say you'd go with me to 'Pinafore' this Saturday night?"
"Ah," sneered Bruce. "So that's your game. And for one little night of your pleasure you'd do me out of a week of my life!"
"Like that," said Baird, with a snap of his fingers.
"I'm going, though," said Deborah.
"Quite right, little woman," Bruce admonished her earnestly. "Don't let him rob you of your happiness."
"Come here," growled Baird to Deborah. She followed him into the living room, and Roger went upstairs with Bruce.
"If he ever hopes to marry that girl," said Bruce, with an anxious backward glance, "he's got to learn to treat her with a little consideration."
"Quit your quarreling," Roger said. "What's a week in the mountains to you? Hasn't your wife just risked her life?"
"Sure she has," said Bruce feelingly. "And I propose to stick by her, too."
"Can I see her?"
"No, you can't—another of Baird's fool notions."
"Then where's the baby?"
"Right in here."
Silently in front of the cradle Bruce and Roger stood looking down with the content which comes to men on such occasions when there is no woman by their side expecting them to say things.
"I made it a rule in my family," Roger spoke up presently, "to have my first look at each child alone."
"Same here," said Bruce. And they continued their silent communion. A few moments later, as they were leaving, Deborah came into the room and went softly to the cradle. Downstairs they found that Allan had gone, and when Deborah rejoined them she said she was going to stick to her plan. It was soon arranged that she and the youngsters should start on their journey the following day.
Back at home she threw herself into the packing and was busy till late that night. At daybreak she was up again, for they were to make an early start. Bruce came with his new automobile, the children were all bundled in, together with Deborah and their nurse, and a half hour later at the train Bruce and Roger left them—Deborah flushed and happy, surrounded by luggage, wraps, small boys, an ice box, toys and picture books. The small red hat upon her head had already been jerked in a scrimmage, far down over one of her ears.
"Don't worry about us, Bruce," she said. "We're going to have the time of our lives!" Bruce fairly beamed his gratitude.
"If she don't marry," he declared, as he watched the train move slowly out, "there'll be a great mother wasted."
In the weeks which followed, Roger found the peace of his home so interrupted and disturbed by wedding preparations that often retreating into his den he earnestly told himself he was through, that a man with three grown daughters was a fool to show any sympathy with the utter folly of their lives. Yield an inch and they took a mile! It began one night when Deborah said,
"Now, dearie, I think you had better make up your mind to give Laura just the kind of wedding she likes."
And Roger weakly agreed to this, but as time wore on he discovered that the kind of wedding Laura liked was a thing that made his blood run cold. There seemed to be no end whatever to the young bride's blithe demands. The trousseau part of it he didn't mind. To the gowns and hats and gloves and shoes and trunks and jaunty travelling bags which came pouring into the house, he made no objection. All that, he considered, was fair play. But what got on Roger's nerves was this frantic fuss and change! The faded hall carpet had to come up, his favorite lounge was whisked away, the piano was re-tuned while he was trying to take a nap, rugs were beaten, crates and barrels filled the halls, and one whole bedroom stripped and bare was transformed into a shop where the wedding presents were displayed. In the shuffle his box of cigars disappeared. In short, there was the devil to pay!
And Deborah, was as bad as the bride. At times it appeared to Roger as though her fingers fairly itched to jab and tug at his poor old house, which wore an air of mute reproach. She revealed a part of her nature that he viewed with dark amazement. Every hour she could spare from school, she was changing something or other at home—with an eager glitter in her eyes. Doing it all for Laura, she said. Fiddlesticks and rubbish! She did it because she liked it!
In gloomy wrath one afternoon he went up to see Edith and quiet down. She was well on the way to recovery, but instead of receiving solace here he only found fresh troubles. For sitting up in her old-fashioned bed, with an old-fashioned cap of lace upon her shapely little head, Edith made her father feel she had washed her hands of the whole affair.
"I'm sorry," she said in an injured tone, "that Laura doesn't care enough about her oldest sister to put off the wedding two or three weeks so I could be there. It seems rather undignified, I think, for a girl to hurry her wedding so. I should have loved to make it the dear simple kind of wedding which mother would have wanted. But so long as she doesn't care for that—and in fact has only found ten minutes—once—to run in and see the baby—"
In dismay her father found himself defending the very daughter of whom he had come to complain. It was not such a short engagement, he said, he had learned they had been engaged some time before they told him.
"Do you approve of that?" she rejoined. "When I was engaged, I made Bruce go to you before I even let him—" here Edith broke off primly. "Of course that was some time ago. An engagement, Laura tells me, is 'a mere experiment' nowadays. They 'experiment' till they feel quite sure—then notify their parents and get married in a week."
"She is rushing it, I admit," Roger soothingly replied. "But she has her mind set on Paris in June."
"Paris in June," said Edith, "sums up in three words Laura's whole conception of marriage. You really ought to talk to her, father. It's your duty, it seems to me."
"What do you mean?"
"I'd rather not tell you." Edith's glance went sternly to the cradle by her bed. "Laura pities me," she said, "for having had five children."
"Oh, now, my dear girl!"
"She does, though—she said as much. When she dropped in the other day and I tried to be sympathetic and give her a little sound advice, she said I had had the wedding I liked and the kind of married life I liked, and she was going to have hers. And she made it quite plain that her kind is to include no children. It's to be simply an effort to find by 'experiment' whether or not she loves Hal Sloane. If she doesn't—" Edith gave a slight but emphatic wave of dismissal.
"Do you mean to say Laura told you that?" her father asked with an angry frown.
"I mean she made me feel it—as plainly as I'm telling it! What I can't understand," his daughter went on, "is Deborah's attitude in the affair."
"What's the matter with Deborah?" inquired Roger dismally.
"Oh, nothing's the matter with Deborah. She's quite self-sufficient. She at least can play with modern ideas and keep her head while she's doing it. But when poor Laura—a mere child with the mind of a chicken—catches vaguely at such ideas, applies them to her own little self and risks her whole future happiness, it seems to me perfectly criminal for Deborah not to interfere! Not even a word of warning!"
"Deborah believes," said her father, "in everyone's leading his own life."
"That's rot," was Edith's curt reply. "Do I lead my own life? Does Bruce? Do you?"
"No," growled Roger feelingly.
"Do my children?" Edith demanded. "I know Deborah would like them to. That's her latest and most modern fad, to run a school where every child shall sit with a rat in its lap or a goat, and do just what he pleases—follow his natural bent, she says. I hope she won't come up to the mountains and practice on my children. I should hate to break with Deborah," Edith ended thoughtfully.
Roger rose and walked the room. The comforting idea entered his mind that when the wedding was over he would take out his collection of rings and carefully polish every one. But even this hope did not stay with him long.
"With Laura at home," he heard Edith continue, "you at least had a daughter to run your house. If Deborah tries to move you out—"
"She won't!" cried Roger in alarm.
"If she does," persisted Edith, "or if she begins any talk of the kind—you come to me and I'll talk to her!"
Her father walked in silence, his head down, frowning at the floor.
"It seems funny," Edith continued, "that women like me who give children their lives, and men like Bruce who are building New York—actually doing it all the time—have so little to say in these modern ideas. I suppose it's because we're a little too real."
"To come back to the wedding," Roger suggested.
"To come back to the wedding, father dear," his daughter said compassionately. "I'm afraid it's going to be a 'mere form' which will make you rather wretched. When you get so you can't endure it, come in and see me and the baby."
As he started for home, her words of warning recurred to his mind. Yes, here was the thing that disturbed him most, the ghost lurking under all this confusion, the part which had to do with himself. It was bad enough to know that his daughter, his own flesh and blood, was about to settle her fate at one throw. But to be moved out of his house bag and baggage! Roger strode wrathfully up the street.
"It's your duty to talk to her," Edith had said. And he meditated darkly on this: "Maybe I will and maybe I won't. I know my duties without being told. How does Edith know what her mother liked? We had our own likings, her mother and I, and our own ideas, long after she was tucked into bed. And yet she's always harping on 'what mother would have wanted.' What I should like to know—right now—is what Judith would want if she were here!"
With a pang of utter loneliness amid these vexing problems, Roger felt it crowding in, this city of his children's lives. As he strode on down Broadway, an old hag selling papers thrust one in his face and he caught a glimpse of a headline. Some bigwig woman re-divorced. How about Laura's "experiment"? A mob of street urchins nearly upset him. How about Deborah? How about children? How about schools, education, the country? How about God? Was anyone thinking? Had anyone time? What a racket it made, slam-banging along. The taxis and motor trucks thundered and brayed, dark masses of people swept endlessly by, as though their very souls depended on their dinners or their jobs, their movies, roaring farces, thrills, their harum scarum dances, clothes. A plump little fool of a woman, her skirt so tight she could barely walk, tripped by on high-heeled slippers. That was it, he told himself, the whole city was high-heeled! No solid footing anywhere! And, good Lord, how they chattered!
He turned into a less noisy street. What would Judith want if she were here? It became disturbingly clear to him that she would undoubtedly wish him to have a talk with Laura now, find out if she'd really made up her mind not to have any children, and if so to tell her plainly that she was not only going against her God but risking her own happiness. For though Judith had been liberal about any number of smaller things, she had been decidedly clear on this. Yes, he must talk to Laura.
"And she'll tell me," he reflected, "that Edith put me up to it!"
If only his oldest daughter would leave the other girls alone! Here she was planning a row with Deborah over whether poor young George should be allowed to play with rats! It was all so silly!... Yes, his three children were drifting apart, each one of them going her separate way. And he rather took comfort in the thought, for at least it would stop their wrangling. But again he pulled himself up with a jerk. No, certainly Judith would not have liked this. If she'd ever stood for anything, it was for keeping the family together. It had been the heart and center of their last talks before she died.
His face relaxed as he walked on, but in his eyes was a deeper pain. If only Judith could be here. Before he reached home he had made up his mind to talk with Laura that very night. He drew out his latchkey, opened his door, shut it firmly and strode into his house. In the hall they were putting down the new carpet. Cautiously picking his way upstairs, he inquired for Laura and was told she was dressing for dinner. He knocked at her door.
"Yes?" came her voice.
"It's I," he said, "your father."
"Oh, hello, dad," came the answer gaily, in that high sweet voice of hers. "I'm frightfully rushed. It's a dinner dance to-night for the bridesmaids and the ushers." Roger felt a glow of relief. "Come in a moment, won't you?"
What a resplendent young creature she was, seated at her dresser. Behind her the maid with needle and thread was swiftly mending a little tear in the fluffy blue tulle she was wearing. The shaded light just over her head brought a shimmer of red in her sleek brown hair. What lips she had, what a bosom. She drew a deep breath and smiled at him.
"What are you doing to-morrow night?" her father asked her.
"Oh, dad, my love, we have every evening filled and crammed right up to the wedding," she replied. "No—the last evening I'll be here. Hal's giving his ushers a dinner that night."
"Good. I want to talk to you, my dear." He felt his voice solemn, a great mistake. He saw the quick glance from her luminous eyes.
"All right, father—whenever you like."
Much embarrassed Roger left the room.
The few days which remained were a crowding confusion of dressmakers, gowns and chattering friends and gifts arriving at all hours. As a part of his resolve to do what he could for his daughter, Roger stayed home from his office that week. But all he could do was to unpack boxes, take out presents and keep the cards, and say, "Yes, my dear, it's very nice. Where shall I put this one?" As the array of presents grew, from time to time unconsciously he glanced at the engagement ring upon Laura's finger. And all the presents seemed like that. They would suit her apartment beautifully. He'd be glad when they were out of the house.
The only gift that appealed to his fancy was a brooch, neither rich nor new, a genuine bit of old jewelry. But rather to his annoyance he learned that it had been sent to Laura by the old Galician Jew in the shop around the corner. It recalled to his mind the curious friendship which had existed for so long between the old man and his daughter. And as she turned the brooch to the light Roger thought he saw in her eyes anticipations which made him uneasy. Yes, she was a child of his. "June in Paris—" other Junes—"experiments"—no children. Again he felt he must have that talk. But, good Lord, how he dreaded it.
The house was almost ready now, dismantled and made new and strange. It was the night before the wedding. Laura was taking her supper in bed. What was he going to say to her? He ate his dinner silently. At last he rose with grim resolution.
"I think I'll go up and see her," he said. Deborah quickly glanced at him.
"What for?" she asked.
"Oh, I just want to talk to her—"
"Don't stay long," she admonished him. "I've a masseuse coming at nine o'clock to get the child in condition to rest. Her nerves are rather tense, you know."
"How about mine?" he said to himself as he started upstairs. "Never mind, I've got to tackle it."
Laura saw what he meant to say the moment that he entered the room, and the tightening of her features made it all the harder for Roger to think clearly, to remember the grave, kind, fatherly things which he had intended to tell her.
"I don't want to talk of the wedding, child, but of what's coming after that—between you and this man—all your life." He stopped short, with his heart in his mouth, for although he did not look at her he had a quick sensation as though he had struck her in the face.
"Isn't this rather late to speak about that? Just now? When I'm nervous enough as it is?"
"I know, I know." He spoke hurriedly, humbly. "I should have talked to you long ago, I should have known you better, child. I've been slack and selfish. But it's better late than never."
"But you needn't!" the girl exclaimed. "You needn't tell me anything! I know more than you think—I know enough!" Roger looked at her, then at the wall. She went on in a voice rather breathless: "I know what I'm doing—exactly—just what I'm getting into. It's not as it was when you were young—it's different—we talk of these things. Harold and I have talked it all out." In the brief and dangerous pause which followed Roger kept looking at the wall.
"Have you talked—about having children?"
"Yes," came the answer sharply, and then he felt the hot clutch of her hand. "Hadn't you better go now, dad?" He hesitated.
"No," he said. His voice was low. "Do you mean to have children, Laura?"
"I don't know."
"I think you do know. Do you mean to have children?" Her big black eyes, dilating, were fixed defiantly on his own.
"Well then, no, I don't!" she replied. He made a desperate effort to think what he could say to her. Good God, how he was bungling! Where were all his arguments?
"How about your religion?" he blurted out.
"I haven't any—which makes me do that—I've a right to be happy!"
"You haven't!" His voice had suddenly changed. In accent and in quality it was like a voice from the heart of New England where he had been born and bred. "I mean you won't be happy—not unless you have a child! It's what you need—it'll fill your life! It'll settle you—deepen you—tone you down!"
"Suppose I don't want to be toned down!" The girl was almost hysterical. "I'm no Puritan—I want to live! I tell you we are different now! We're not all like Edith—and we're not like our mothers! We want to live! And we have a right to! Why don't you go? Can't you see I'm nearly crazy? It's my last night, my very last! I don't want to talk to you—I don't even know what I'm saying! And you come and try to frighten me!" Her voice caught and broke into sobs. "You know nothing about me! You never did! Leave me alone, can't you—leave me alone!"
"Father?" He heard Deborah's voice, abrupt and stern, outside the door.
"I'm sorry," he said hoarsely. He went in blind fashion out of the room and down to his study. He lit a cigar and smoked wretchedly there. When presently Deborah appeared he saw that her face was set and hard; but as she caught the baffled look, the angry tortured light in his eyes, her own expression softened.
"Poor father," she said, in a pitying way. "If Edith had only let you alone."
"I certainly didn't do much good."
"Of course you didn't—you did harm—oh, so much more harm than you know." Into the quiet voice of his daughter crept a note of keen regret. "I wanted to make her last days in this house a time she could look back on, so that she'd want to come home for help if ever she's in trouble. She has so little—don't you see?—of what a woman needs these days. She has grown up so badly. Oh, if you'd only let her alone. It was such a bad, bad time to choose." She went to her father and kissed him. "Well, it's over now," she said, "and we'll make the best we can of it. I'll tell her you're sorry and quiet her down. And to-morrow we'll try to forget it has happened."
* * * * *
For Roger the morrow went by in a whirl. The wedding, a large church affair, was to take place at twelve o'clock. He arose early, put on his Prince Albert, went down and ate his breakfast alone. The waitress was flustered, the coffee was burnt. He finished and anxiously wandered about. The maids were bustling in and out, with Deborah giving orders pellmell. The caterers came trooping in. The bridesmaids were arriving and hurrying up to Roger's room. That place was soon a chaos of voices, giggles, peals of laughter. Laura's trunks were brought downstairs, and Roger tagged them for the ship, one for the cabin and three for the hold, and saw them into the wagon. Then he strode distractedly everywhere, till at last he was hustled by Deborah into a taxi waiting outside.
"It's all going so smoothly," Deborah said, and a faint sardonic glimmer came into her father's hunted eyes. Deborah was funny!
Soon he found himself in the church. He heard whispers, eager voices, heard one usher say to another, "God, what a terrible head I've got!" And Roger glared at him for that. Plainly these youngsters, all mere boys, had been up with the groom a good part of the night.... But here was Laura, pale and tense. She smiled at him and squeezed his hand. There was silence, then the organ, and now he was taking her up the aisle. Strange faces stared. His jaw set hard. At last they reached the altar. An usher quickly touched his arm and he stepped back where he belonged. He listened but understood nothing. Just words, words and motions.
"If any man can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let him now speak or else hereafter forever hold his peace."
"No," thought Roger, "I won't speak."
Just then he caught sight of Deborah's face, and at the look in her steady gray eyes all at once he could feel the hot tears in his own.
At the wedding breakfast he was gay to a boisterous degree. He talked to strange women and brought them food, took punch with men he had never laid eyes on, went off on a feverish hunt for cigars, came back distractedly, joked with young girls and even started some of them dancing. The whole affair was over in no time. The bride and the groom came rushing downstairs; and as they escaped from the shower of rice, Roger ran after them down the steps. He gripped Sloane's hand.
"Remember, boy, it's her whole life!" entreated Roger hoarsely.
"Yes, sir! I'll look out! No fear!"
"God bless you, dear!"
They were speeding away. And with the best man, who looked weary and spent, Roger went slowly back up the steps. It was an effort now to talk. Thank Heaven these people soon were gone. Last of all went the ponderous aunt of the groom. How the taxi groaned as he helped her inside and started her off to Bridgeport. Back in his study he found his cigars and smoked one dismally with Bruce. Bruce was a decent sort of chap. He knew when to be silent.
"Well," he spoke finally, rising, "I guess I'll have to get back to the office." He smiled a little and put his hand on Roger's weary shoulder. "We're glad it's over—eh?" he asked.
"Bruce," said Roger heavily, "you've got a girl of your own growing up. Don't let her grow to feel you're old. Live on with her. She'll need you." His massive blunt face darkened. "The world's so damnably new," he muttered, "so choked up with fool ideas." Bruce still smiled affectionately.
"Go up and see Edith," he said, "and forget 'em. She never lets one into the flat. She said you were to be sure to come and tell her about the wedding."
"All right, I'll go," said Roger. He hunted about for his hat and coat. What a devilish mess they had made of the house. A half hour later he was with Edith; but there, despite his efforts to answer all her questions, he grew heavier and heavier, till at last he barely spoke. He sat watching Edith's baby.
"Did you talk to Laura?" he heard her ask.
"Yes," he replied. "It did no good." He knew that Edith was waiting for more, but he kept doggedly silent.
"Well, dear," she said presently, "at least you did what you could for her."
"I've never done what I could," he rejoined. "Not with any one of you." He glanced at her with a twinge of pain. "I don't know as it would have helped much if I had. This town is running away with itself. I want a rest now, Edith, I want things quiet for a while." He felt her anxious, pitying look.
"Where's Deborah?" she asked him. "Gone back to school already?"
"I don't know where she is," he replied. And then he rose forlornly. "I guess I'll be going back home," he said.
On his way, as his thoughts slowly cleared, the old uneasiness rose in his mind. Would Deborah want to keep the house? Suppose she suggested moving to some titty-tatty little flat. No, he would not stand in her way. But, Lord, what an end to make of his life.
His home was almost dark inside, but he noticed rather to his surprise that the rooms had already been put in order. He sank down on the living room sofa and lay motionless for a while. How tired he was. From time to time he drearily sighed. Yes, Deborah would find him old and life here dull and lonely. Where was she to-night, he wondered. Couldn't she quit her zoo school for one single afternoon? At last, when the room had grown pitch dark, he heard the maid lighting the gas in the hall. Roger loudly cleared his throat, and at the sound the startled girl ejaculated, "Oh, my Gawd!"
"It's I," said Roger sternly. "Did Miss Deborah say when she'd be back?"
"She didn't go out, sir. She's up in her room."
Roger went up and found her there. All afternoon with both the maids she had been setting the house to rights, and now she ached in every limb. She was lying on her bed, and she looked as though she had been crying.
"Where have you been?" she inquired.
"At Edith's," her father answered. She reached up and took his hand, and held it slowly tighter.
"You aren't going to find it too lonely here, with Laura gone?" she asked him. And the wistfulness in her deep sweet voice made something thrill in Roger.
"Why should I?" he retorted. Deborah gave a queer little laugh.
"Oh, I'm just silly, that's all," she said. "I've been having a fit of blues. I've been feeling so old this afternoon—a regular old woman. I wanted you, dearie, and I was afraid that you—" she broke off.
"Look here," said Roger sharply. "Do you really want to keep this house?"
"Keep this house? Why, father!"
"You think you can stand it here alone, just the two of us?" he demanded.
"I can," cried Deborah happily. Her father walked to the window. There as he looked blindly out, his eyes were assaulted by the lights of all those titty-tatty flats. And a look of vicious triumph appeared for a moment on his face.
"Very well," he said quietly, turning back. "Then we're both suited." He went to the door. "I'll go and wash up for supper," he said.
It was a relief to him to find how smoothly he and Deborah dropped back into their old relations. It was good to get home those evenings; for in this new stage of its existence, with its family of two, the house appeared to have filled itself with a deep reposeful feeling. Laura had gone out of its life. He glanced into her room one night, and it looked like a guest room now. The sight of it brought him a pang of regret. But the big ship which was bearing her swiftly away to "Paris in June" seemed bearing off Roger's uneasiness too. He could smile at his former fears, for Laura was safely married and wildly in love with her husband. Time, he thought, would take care of the rest. Occasionally he missed her here—her voice, high-pitched but musical, chatting and laughing at the 'phone, her bustle of dressing to go out, glimpses of her extravagances, of her smart suits and evening gowns, of all the joyous color and dash that she had given to his home. But these regrets soon died away. The old house shed them easily, as though glad to enter this long rest.
For the story of his family, from Roger's point of view at least, was a long uneven narrative, with prolonged periods of peace and again with events piling one on the other. And now there came one of those peaceful times, and Roger liked the quiet. The old routine was re-established—his dinner, his paper, his cigar and then his book for the evening, some good old-fashioned novel or some pleasant book of travel which he and Judith had read aloud when they were planning out their lives. They had meant to go abroad so often when the children had grown up. And he liked to read about it still. Life was so quiet over the sea, things were so old and mellow there. He resumed, too, his horseback rides, and on the way home he would stop in for a visit with Edith and her baby. The wee boy grew funnier every day, with his sudden kicks and sneezes, his waving fists and mighty yawns. And Roger felt drawn to his daughter here, for in these grateful seasons of rest that followed the birth of each of her children, Edith loved to lie very still and make new plans for her small brood.
Only once she spoke of Laura, and then it was to suggest to him that he gather together all the bills his daughter had doubtless left behind.
"If you don't settle them," Edith said, "they'll go to her husband. And you wouldn't like that, would you?"
Roger said he would see to it, and one evening after dinner he started in on Laura's bills. It was rather an appalling time. He looked into his bank account and found that Laura's wedding would take about all his surplus. But this did not dismay him much, for money matters never did. It simply meant more work in the office.
The next day he rose early and was in his office by nine o'clock. He had not been so prompt in months, and many of his employees came in late that morning. But nobody seemed very much perturbed, for Roger was an easy employer. Still, he sternly told himself, he had been letting things get altogether too slack. He had been neglecting his business again. The work had become so cut and dried, there was nothing creative left to do. It had not been so in years gone by. Those years had fairly bristled with ideas and hopes and schemes. But even those old memories were no longer here to hearten him. They had all been swept away when Bruce had made him move out of his office in a dark creaky edifice down close under Brooklyn Bridge, and come up to this new building, this steel-ribbed caravansary for all kinds of business ventures, this place of varnished woodwork, floods of daylight, concrete floors, this building fireproof throughout. That expressed it exactly, Roger thought. Nothing could take fire here, not even a man's imagination, even though he did not feel old. Now and then in the elevator, as some youngster with eager eyes pushed nervously against him, Roger would frown and wonder, "What are you so excited about?"
But again the business was running down, and this time he must jerk it back before it got beyond him. He set himself doggedly to the task, calling in his assistants one by one, going through the work in those outer rooms, where at tables long rows of busy young girls, with colored pencils, scissors and paste, were demolishing enormous piles of newspapers and magazines. And vaguely, little by little, he came to a realization of how while he had slumbered the life of the country had swept on. For as he studied the lists and the letters of his patrons, Roger felt confusedly that a new America was here.
Clippings, clippings, clippings. Business men and business firms, gigantic corporations, kept sending here for clippings, news of themselves or their rivals, keeping keen watch on each other's affairs for signs of strength or weakness. How savage was the fight these days. Here was news of mines and mills and factories all over the land, clippings sent each morning by special messengers downtown to reach the brokers' offices before the market opened. One broker wrote, "Please quote your terms for the following. From nine to two o'clock each day our messenger will call at your office every hour for clippings giving information of the companies named below."
The long list appended carried Roger's fancy out all over the continent. And then came this injunction: "Remember that our messenger must leave your office every hour. In information of this kind every minute counts."
Clippings, clippings, clippings. As Roger turned over his morning mail, in spite of himself he grew absorbed. What a change in the world of literature. What a host of names of scribblers, not authors but just writers, not only men but women too, novelists and dramatists, poets and muckrakers all jumbled in together, each one of them straining for a place. And the actors and the actresses, the musicians and the lecturers, each with his press agent and avid for publicity, "fame!" And here were society women, from New York and other cities, all eager for press notices of social affairs they had given or managed, charity work they had conducted, suffrage speeches they had made. Half the women in the land were fairly talking their heads off, it seemed. Some had been on his lists for years. They married and wanted to hear what was said in the papers about their weddings, they quarreled and got divorces and still sent here for clippings, they died and still their relatives wrote in for the funeral notices. And even death was commercialized. A maker of monuments wanted news "of all people of large means, dead or dangerously ill, in the State of Pennsylvania." Here were demands from charity bodies, hospitals and colleges, from clergymen with an anxious eye on the Monday morning papers. And here was an anarchist millionaire! And here was an insane asylum wanting to see itself in print!
With a grim smile on his heavy visage, Roger stared out of his window. Slowly the smile faded, a wistful look came on his face.
"Who'll take my business when I'm gone?"
If his small son had only lived, with what new zest and vigor it might have been made to grow and expand. If only his son had been here by his side....
DEBORAH needed rest, he thought, for the bright attractive face of his daughter was looking rather pale of late, and the birthmark on her forehead showed a faint thin line of red. One night at dinner, watching her, he wondered what was on her mind. She had come in late, and though several times she had made an effort to keep up the conversation, her cheeks were almost colorless and more than once in her deepset eyes came a flash of pain that startled him.
"Look here. What's the matter with you?" he asked. Deborah looked up quickly.
"I'd rather not talk about it, dad—"
"Very well," he answered. And with a slight hesitation, "But I think I know the trouble," he said. "And perhaps some other time—when you do feel like talking—" He stopped, for on her wide sensitive lips he saw a twitch of amusement.
"What do you think is the trouble?" she asked. And Roger looked at her squarely.
"Loneliness," he answered.
"Why?" she asked him.
"Well, there's Edith's baby—and Laura getting married—"
"I see—and so I'm lonely for a family of my own. But you're forgetting my school," she said.
"Yes, yes, I know," he retorted. "But that's not at all the same. Interesting work, no doubt, but—well, it isn't personal."
"Oh, isn't it?" she answered, and she drew a quivering breath. Rising from the table she went into the living room, and there a few moments later he found her walking up and down. "I think I will tell you now," she said. "I'm afraid of being alone to-night, of keeping this matter to myself." He looked at her apprehensively.
"Very well, my dear," he said.
"This is the trouble," she began. "Down in my school we've a family of about three thousand children. A few I get to know so well I try to follow them when they leave. And one of these, an Italian boy—his name is Joe Bolini—was one of the best I ever had, and one of the most appealing. But Joe took to drinking and got in with a gang of boys who blackmailed small shopkeepers. He used to come to me at times in occasional moods of repentance. He was a splendid physical type and he'd been a leader in our athletics, so I took him back into the school to manage our teams in basket-ball. He left the gang and stopped drinking, and we had long talks together about his great ambition. He wanted to enter the Fire Department as soon as he was twenty-one. And I promised to use my influence." She stopped, still frowning slightly.
"What happened?" Roger asked her.
"His girl took up with another man, and Joe has hot Italian blood. He got drunk one night and—shot them both." There was another silence. "I did what I could," she said harshly, "but he had a bad record behind him, and the young assistant district attorney had his own record to think of, too. So Joe got a death sentence. We appealed the case but it did no good. He was sent up the river and is in the death house now—and he sent for me to come to-day. His letter hinted he was scared, he wrote that his priest was no good to him. So I went up this afternoon. Joe goes to the chair to-morrow at six."
Deborah went to the sofa and sat down inertly. Roger remained motionless, and a dull chill crept over him.
"So you see my work is personal," he heard her mutter presently. All at once she seemed so far away, such a stranger to him in this life of hers.
"By George, it's horrible!" he said. "I'm sorry you went to see the boy!"
"I'm glad," was his daughter's quick retort. "I've been getting much too sure of myself—of my school, I mean, and what it can do. I needed this to bring me back to the kind of world we live in!"
"What do you mean?" he roughly asked.
"I mean there are schools and prisons! And gallows and electric chairs! And I'm for schools! They've tried their jails and gallows for whole black hideous centuries! What good have they done? If they'd given Joe back to the school and me, I'd have had him a fireman in a year! I know, because I studied him hard! He'd have grown fighting fires, he would have saved lives!"
Again she stopped, with a catch of her breath. In suspense he watched her angry struggle to regain control of herself. She sat bolt upright, rigid; her birthmark showed a fiery red. In a few moments he saw her relax.
"But of course," she added wearily, "it's much more complex than that. A school is nothing nowadays—just by itself alone, I mean—it's only a part of a city's life—which for most tenement children is either very dull and hard, or cheap and false and overexciting. And behind all that lie the reasons for that. And there are so many reasons." She stared straight past her father as though at something far away. Then she seemed to recall herself: "But I'm talking too much of my family."
Roger carefully lit a cigar:
"I don't think you are, my dear. I'd like to hear more about it." She smiled:
"To keep my mind off Joe, you mean."
"And mine, too," he answered.
They had a long talk that evening about her hope of making her school what Roger visaged confusedly as a kind of mammoth home, the center of a neighborhood, of one prodigious family. At times when the clock on the mantle struck the hour loud and clear, there would fall a sudden silence, as both thought of what was to happen at dawn. But quickly Roger would question again and Deborah would talk steadily on. It was after midnight when she stopped.
"You've been good to me to-night, dearie," she said. "Let's go to bed now, shall we?"
"Very well," he answered. He looked at his daughter anxiously. She no longer seemed to him mature. He could feel what heavy discouragements, what problems she was facing in the dark mysterious tenement world which she had chosen to make her own. And compared to these she seemed a mere girl, a child groping its way, just making a start. And so he added wistfully, "I wish I could be of more help to you." She looked up at him for a moment.
"Do you know why you are such a help?" she said. "It's because you have never grown old—because you've never allowed yourself to grow absolutely certain about anything in life." A smile half sad and half perplexed came on her father's heavy face.
"You consider that a strong point?" he asked.
"I do," she replied, "compared to being a bundle of creeds and prejudices."
"Oh, I've got prejudices enough."
"Yes," she said. "And so have I. But we're not even sure of them, these days."
"The world has a habit of crowding in," her father muttered vaguely.
* * * * *
Roger did not sleep that night. He could not keep his thoughts away from what was going to happen at dawn. Yes, the city was crowding in upon this quiet house of his. Dimly he could recollect, in the genial years of long ago, just glancing casually now and then at some small and unobtrusive notice in his evening paper: "Execution at Sing Sing." It had been so remote to him. But here it was smashing into his house, through the life his own daughter was leading day and night among the poor! Each time he thought of that lad in a cell, again a chill crept over him! But savagely he shook it off, and by a strong effort of his will he turned his thoughts to the things she had told him about her school. Yes, in her main idea she was right. He had no use for wild reforms, but here was something solid, a good education for every child. More than once, while she had talked, something very deep in Roger had leaped up in swift response.
For Deborah, too, was a part of himself. He, too, had had his feeling for humanity in the large. For years he had run a boys' club at a little mission school in which his wife had been interested, and on Christmas Eve he had formed the habit of gathering up a dozen small urchins right off the street and taking them 'round and fitting them out with good warm winter clothing, after which he had gone home to help Judith trim the Christmas tree and fill their children's stockings. And later, when she had gone to bed, invariably he had taken "The Christmas Carol" from its shelf and had settled down with a glow of almost luxurious brotherhood. There was sentiment in Roger Gale, and as he read of "Tiny Tim" his deepset eyes would glisten with tears.
And now here was Deborah fulfilling a part of him in herself. "You will live on in our children's lives." But this was going much too far! She was letting herself be swallowed up completely by this work of hers! It was all very well for the past ten years, but she was getting on in age! High time to marry and settle down!
Again angrily he shook off the thought of that boy Joe alone in a cell, eyes fixed in animal terror upon the steel door which would open so soon.
The day was slowly breaking. It was the early part of June. How fresh and lovely it must be up there in the big mountains with Edith's happy little lads. Here it was raw and garish, weird. Some sparrows began quarreling just outside his window. Roger rose and walked the room. Restlessly he went into the hall. The old house appeared so strange in this light—as though stripped bare—there was something gone. Softly he came to Deborah's door. It was open wide, for the night had been warm, and she lay awake upon her bed with her gaze fixed on the ceiling. She turned her head and saw him there. He came in and sat down by her window. For a long time neither made a sound. Then the great clock on the distant tower, which had been silent through the night, resumed its deep and measured boom. It struck six times. There was silence again. More and more taut grew his muscles, and suddenly it felt to him as though Deborah's fierce agony were pounding into his very soul. The slow, slow minutes throbbed away. At last he rose and left her. There was a cold sweat on his brow.
"I'll go down and make her some coffee," he thought.
Down in the kitchen it was a relief to bang about hunting for the utensils. On picnics up in the mountains his coffee had been famous. He made some now and boiled some eggs, and they breakfasted in Deborah's room. She seemed almost herself again. Later, while he was dressing, he saw her in the doorway. She was looking at her father with bright and grateful, affectionate eyes.
"Will you come to school with me to-day? I'd like you to see it," Deborah said.
"Very well," he answered gruffly.
Out of the subway they emerged into a noisy tenement street. Roger had known such streets as this, but only in the night-time, as picturesque and adventurous ways in an underground world he had explored in search of strange old glittering rings. It was different now. Gone were the Rembrandt shadows, the leaping flare of torches, the dark surging masses of weird uncouth humanity. Here in garish daylight were poverty and ugliness, here were heaps of refuse and heavy smells and clamor. It disgusted and repelled him, and he was tempted to turn back. But glancing at Deborah by his side he thought of the night she had been through. No, he decided, he would go on and see what she was up to here.
They turned into a narrower street between tall dirty tenements, and in a twinkling all was changed. For the street, as far as he could see, was gay with flaunting colors, torrents of bobbing hats and ribbons, frocks and blouses, shirts and breeches, vivid reds and yellows and blues. It was deafening with joyous cries, a shrill incessant chatter, chatter, piercing yells and shrieks of laughter. Children, swarms of children, children of all sizes passed him, clean and dirty, smiling, scowling, hurrying, running, pummeling, grabbing, whirling each other 'round and 'round—till the very air seemed quivering with wild spirits and new life!
He heard Deborah laughing. Five hilarious small boys had hold of her hands and were marching in triumph waving their caps. "Heigh there—heigh there! Heigh—heigh—heigh!"
The school was close in front of them. An enormous building of brick and tile wedged into a disordered mass of tenements, shops and factories, it had been built around a court shut out from the street by a high steel fence. They squeezed into the gateway, through which a shouting punching mob of urchins were now pushing in; and soon from a balcony above Roger looked down into the court, where out of a wild chaos order was appearing. Boys to the right and girls to the left were forming in long sinuous lines, and three thousand faces were turned toward the building. In front appeared the Stars and Stripes. Then suddenly he heard a crash from underneath the balcony, and looking down he saw a band made up of some thirty or forty boys. Their leader, a dark Italian lad, made a flourish, a pass with his baton, and the band broke into a blaring storm, an uproarious, booming march. The mob below fell into step, and line after line in single file the children marched into their school.
"Look up! Look all around you!" He heard Deborah's eager voice in his ear. And as he looked up from the court below he gave a low cry of amazement. In hundreds of windows all around, of sweatshops, tenements, factories, on tier upon tier of fire escapes and even upon the roofs above, silent watchers had appeared. For this one moment in the day the whole congested neighborhood had stopped its feverish labor and become an amphitheater with all eyes upon the school. And the thought flashed into Roger's mind: "Deborah's big family!"
He had a strange confusing time. In her office, in a daze, he sat and heard his daughter with her two assistant principals, her clerk and her stenographer, plunge into the routine work of the day. What kind of school teacher was this? She seemed more like the manager of some buzzing factory. Messages kept coming constantly from class-rooms, children came for punishment, and on each small human problem she was passing judgment quickly. Meanwhile a score of mothers, most of them Italians with colored shawls upon their heads, had straggled in and taken seats, and one by one they came to her desk. For these women who had been children in peasant huts in Italy now had children of their own in the great city of New York, and they found it very baffling. How to keep them in at night? How to make them go to the priest? How to feed and clothe them? How to live in these tenement homes, in this wild din and chaos? They wanted help and they wanted advice. Deborah spoke in Italian, but turning to her father she would translate from time to time.
A tired scowling woman said, "My boy won't obey me. His father is dead. When I slap him he only jumps away. I lock him in and he steals the key, he keeps it in his pocket. He steals the money that I earn. He says I'm from the country." And a flabby anxious woman said, "My girl runs out to dance halls. Sometimes she comes back at two in the morning. She is fifteen and she ought to get married. But what can I do? A nice steady man who never dances comes sometimes to see her—but she makes faces and calls him a fatty, she dances before him and pushes him out and slams the door. What can I do?"
"Please come and see our janitor and make him fix our kitchen sink!" an angry little woman cried. "When I try to wash the dishes the water spouts all over me!" And then a plump rosy mother said in a soft coaxing voice, "I have eight little children, all nice and clean. When you tell them to do anything they always do it quickly. They smile at you, they are like saints. So could the kind beautiful teacher fix it up with a newspaper to send them to the country—this summer when it is so hot? The newspaper could send a man and he could take our pictures."
"Most of us girls used to be in this school," said a bright looking Jewess of eighteen. "And you taught us how we should live nice. But how can we live nice when our shop is so rotten? Our boss is trying to kiss the girls, he is trying to hug them on the stairs. And what he pays us is a joke, and we must work till nine o'clock. So will you help us, teacher, and give us a room for our meetings here? We want to have a union."
A truant officer brought in two ragged, frightened little chaps. Found on the street during school hours, they had to give an account of themselves. Sullenly one of them gave an address far up in the Bronx, ten miles away. They had not been home for a week, he said. Was he lying? What was to be done? Somewhere in the city their homes must be discovered. And the talk of the truant officer made Roger feel ramifications here which wound out through the police and the courts to reformatories, distant cells. He thought of that electric chair, and suddenly he felt oppressed by the heavy complexity of it all.
And this was part and parcel of his daughter's daily work in school! Still dazed, disturbed but curious, he sat and watched and listened, while the bewildering demands of Deborah's big family kept crowding in upon her. He went to a few of the class-rooms and found that reading and writing, arithmetic and spelling were being taught in ways which he had never dreamed of. He found a kindergarten class, a carpenter shop and a printing shop, a sewing class and a cooking class in a large model kitchen. He watched the nurse in her hospital room, he went into the dental clinic where a squad of fifty urchins were having their teeth examined, and out upon a small side roof he found a score of small invalids in steamer chairs, all fast asleep. It was a strange astounding school! He heard Deborah speak of a mothers' club and a neighborhood association; and he learned of other ventures here, the school doctor, the nurse and the visitor endlessly making experiments, delving into the neighborhood for ways to meet its problems. And by the way Deborah talked to them he felt she had gone before, that years ago by day and night she had been over the ground alone. And she'd done all this while she lived in his house!
Scattered memories out of the past, mere fragments she had told him, here flashed back into his mind: humorous little incidents of daily battles she had waged in rotten old tenement buildings with rags and filth and garbage, with vermin, darkness and disease. Mingled with these had been accounts of dances, weddings and christenings and of curious funeral rites. And struggling with such dim memories of Deborah in her twenties, called forth in his mind by the picture of the woman of thirty here, Roger grew still more confused. What was to be the end of it? She was still but a pioneer in a jungle, endlessly groping and trying new things.
"How many children are there in the public schools?" he asked.
"About eight hundred thousand," Deborah said.
"Good Lord!" he groaned, and he felt within him a glow of indignation rise against these immigrant women for breeding so inconsiderately. With the mad city growing so fast, and the people of the tenements breeding, breeding, breeding, and packing the schools to bursting, what could any teacher be but a mere cog in a machine, ponderous, impersonal, blind, grinding out future New Yorkers?
He reached home limp and battered from the storm of new impressions coming on top of his sleepless night. He had thought of a school as a simple place, filled with little children, mischievous at times perhaps and some with dirty faces, but still with minds and spirits clean, unsoiled as yet by contact with the grim spirit of the town. He had thought of childhood as something intimate and pure, inside his home, his family. Instead of that, in Deborah's school he had been disturbed and thrilled by the presence all around him of something wild, barbaric, dark, compounded of the city streets, of surging crowds, of rushing feet, of turmoil, filth, disease and death, of poverty and vice and crime. But Roger could still hear that band. And behind its blaring crash and din he had felt the vital throbbing of a tremendous joyousness, of gaiety, fresh hopes and dreams, of leaping young emotions like deep buried bubbling springs bursting up resistlessly to renew the fevered life of the town! Deborah's big family! Everybody's children!
"You will live on in our children's lives." The vision hidden in those words now opened wide before his eyes.
She told him the next morning her night school closed for the summer that week.
"I think I should like to see it," her father said determinedly. She gave him an affectionate smile:
"Oh, dearie. Haven't you had enough?"
"I guess I can stand it if you can," was his gruff rejoinder, "though if I ran a school like yours I think by night I'd have schooled enough. Do most principals run night schools too?"
"A good many of them do."
"Isn't it taxing your strength?" he asked.
"Don't you have to tax your strength," his daughter replied good humoredly, "to really accomplish anything? Don't you have to risk yourself in order to really live these days? Suppose you come down to-morrow night. We won't go to the school, for I doubt if the clubs and classes would interest you very much. I'll take you through the neighborhood."
* * * * *
They went down the following evening. The night was warm and humid, and through the narrow tenement streets there poured a teeming mass of life. People by the thousands passed, bareheaded, men in shirt sleeves, their faces glistening with sweat. Animal odors filled the air. The torches on the pushcarts threw flaring lights and shadows, the peddlers shouted hoarsely, the tradesmen in the booths and stalls joined in with cries, shrill peals of mirth. The mass swept onward, talking, talking, and its voice was a guttural roar. Small boys and girls with piercing yells kept darting under elbows, old women dozed on doorsteps, babies screamed on every side. Mothers leaned out of windows, and by their faces you could see that they were screaming angrily for children to come up to bed. But you could not hear their cries. Here around a hurdy gurdy gravely danced some little girls. A tense young Jew, dark faced and thin, was shouting from a wagon that all men and women must be free and own the factories and mills. A mob of small boys, clustered 'round a "camp fire" they had made on the street, were leaping wildly through the flames. It was a mammoth cauldron here, seething, bubbling over with a million foreign lives. Deborah's big family.
She turned into a doorway, went down a long dark passage and came into a court-yard enclosed by greasy tenement walls that reared to a spot of dark blue sky where a few quiet stars were twinkling down. With a feeling of repugnance Roger followed his daughter into a tall rear building and up a rickety flight of stairs. On the fourth landing she knocked at a door, and presently it was opened by a stout young Irish woman with flushed haggard features and disheveled hair.
"Oh. Good evening, Mrs. Berry."
"Good evening. Come in," was the curt reply. They entered a small stifling room where were a stove, two kitchen chairs and three frowzled beds in corners. On one of the beds lay a baby asleep, on another two small restless boys sat up and watched the visitors. A sick man lay upon the third. And a cripple boy, a boarder here, stood on his crutches watching them. Roger was struck at once by his face. Over the broad cheek bones the sallow skin was tightly drawn, but there was a determined set to the jaws that matched the boy's shrewd grayish eyes, and his face lit up in a wonderful smile.
"Hello, Miss Deborah," he said. His voice had a cheery quality.
"Hello, Johnny. How are you?"
"Fine, thank you."
"That's good. I've brought my father with me."
"Howdado, sir, glad to meet you."
"It's some time since you've been to see me, John," Deborah continued.
"I know it is," he answered. And then with a quick jerk of his head, "He's been pretty bad," he said. Roger looked at the man on the bed. With his thin waxen features drawn, the man was gasping for each breath.
"What's the matter?" Roger whispered.
"Lungs," said the young woman harshly. "You needn't bother to speak so low. He can't hear you anyhow. He's dying. He's been dying weeks."
"Why didn't you let me know of this?" Deborah asked gently.
"Because I knew what you'd want to do—take him off to a hospital! And I ain't going to have it! I promised him he could die at home!"
"I'm sorry," Deborah answered. There was a moment's silence, and the baby whimpered in its sleep. One child had gone to his father's bed and was frowning at his agony as though it were a tiresome sight.
"Are any of them coughing?" Deborah inquired.
"No," said the woman sharply.
"Yes, they are, two of 'em," John cheerfully corrected her.
"You shut up!" she said to him, and she turned back to Deborah. "It's my home, I guess, and my family, too. So what do you think that you can do?" Deborah looked at her steadily.
"Yes, it's your family," she agreed. "And it's none of my business, I know—except that John is one of my boys—and if things are to go on like this I can't let him board here any more. If he had let me know before I'd have taken him from you sooner. You'll miss the four dollars a week he pays."
The woman swallowed fiercely. The flush on her face had deepened. She scowled to keep back the tears.
"We can all die for all I care! I've about got to the end of my rope!"
"I see you have." Deborah's voice was low. "You've made a hard plucky fight, Mrs. Berry. Are there any empty rooms left in this building?"
"Yes, two upstairs. What do you want to know for?"
"I'm going to rent them for you. I'll arrange it to-night with the janitor, on condition that you promise to move your children to-morrow upstairs and keep them there until this is over. Will you?"
"That's sensible. And I'll have one of the visiting nurses here within an hour."
"And later on we'll have a talk."
"Good-night, Mrs. Berry."
"Good-night, Miss Gale, I'm much obliged.... Say, wait a minute! Will you?" The wife had followed them out on the landing and she was clutching Deborah's arm. "Why can't the nurse give him something," she whispered, "to put him to sleep for good and all? It ain't right to let a man suffer like that! I can't stand it! I'm—I'm—" she broke off with a sob. Deborah put one arm around her and held her steadily for a moment.
"The nurse will see that he sleeps," she said. "Now, John," she added, presently, when the woman had gone into the room, "I want you to get your things together. I'll have the janitor move them upstairs. You sleep there to-night, and to-morrow morning come to see me at the school."
"All right, Miss Deborah, much obliged. I'll be all right. Good-night, sir—"
"Good-night, my boy," said Roger, and suddenly he cleared his throat. He followed his daughter down the stairs. A few minutes she talked with the janitor, then joined her father in the court.
"I'm sorry I took you up there," she said. "I didn't know the man was sick."
"Who are they?" he asked.
"Poor people," she said. And Roger flinched.
"Who is this boy?"
"A neighbor of theirs. His mother, who was a widow, died about two years ago. He was left alone and scared to death lest he should be 'put away' in some big institution. He got Mrs. Berry to take him in, and to earn his board he began selling papers instead of coming to our school. So our school visitor looked him up. Since then I have been paying his board from a fund I have from friends uptown, and so he has finished his schooling. He's to graduate next week. He means to be a stenographer."
"How old is he?"
"Seventeen," she replied.
"How was he crippled? Born that way?"
"No. When he was a baby his mother dropped him one Saturday night when she was drunk. He has never been able to sit down. He can lie down or he can stand. He's always in pain, it never stops. I learned that from the doctor I took him to see. But whenever you ask him how he feels you get the same answer always: 'Fine, thank you.' He's a fighter, is John."
"He looks it. I'd like to help that boy—"
"All right—you can help him," Deborah said. "You'll find him quite a tonic."
"A tonic," she repeated. And with a sudden tightening of her wide and sensitive mouth, Deborah added slowly, "Because, though I've known many hungry boys, Johnny Geer is the hungriest of them all—hungry to get on in life, to grow and learn and get good things, get friends, love, happiness, everything!" As she spoke of this child in her family, over her strong quiet face there swept a fierce, intent expression which struck Roger rather cold. What a fight she was making, this daughter of his, against what overwhelming odds. But all he said to her was this:
"Now let's look at something more cheerful, my dear."
"Very well," she answered with a smile. "We'll go and see Isadore Freedom."
"Isadore Freedom," said Deborah, "is the beginning of something tremendous. He came from Russian Poland—and the first American word he learned over there was 'freedom.' So in New York he changed his name to that—very solemnly, by due process of law. It cost him seven dollars. He had nine dollars at the time. Isadore is a flame, a kind of a torch in the wilderness."
"How does the flame earn his living?"
"At first in a sweatshop," she replied. "But he came to my school five nights a week, and at ten o'clock when school was out he went to a little basement cafe, where he sat at a corner table, drank one glass of Russian tea and studied till they closed at one. Then he went to his room, he told me, and used to read himself to sleep. He slept as a rule four hours. He said he felt he needed it. Now he's a librarian earning fifteen dollars a week, and having all the money he needs he has put the thought of it out of his life and is living for education—education in freedom. For Isadore has studied his name until he thinks he knows what it means."
They found him in a small public library on an ill-smelling ghetto street. The place had been packed with people, but the clock had just struck ten and the readers were leaving reluctantly, many with books under their arms. At sight of Deborah and her father, Isadore leaped up from his desk and came quickly to meet them with outstretched hands.
"Oh, this is splendid! Good evening!" he cried. Hardly more than a boy, perhaps twenty-one, he was short of frame but large of limb. He had wide stooping shoulders and reddish hollows in his dark cheeks. Yet there was a springiness in his step, vigor and warmth in the grip of his hand, in the very curl of his thick black hair, in his voice, in his enormous smile.
"Come," he said to Roger, when the greetings were over. "You shall see my library, sir. But I want that you shall not see it alone. While you look you must close for me your eyes and see other libraries, many, many, all over the world. You must see them in big cities and in very little towns to-night. You must see people, millions there, hungry, hungry people. Now I shall show you their food and their drink." As he spoke he was leading them proudly around. In the stacks along the walls he pointed out fiction, poetry, history, books of all the sciences.
"They read all, all!" cried Isadore. "Look at this Darwin on my desk. In a year so many have read this book it is a case for the board of health. And look at this shelf of economics. I place it next to astronomy. And I say to these people, 'Yes, read about jobs and your hours and wages. Yes, you must strike, you must have better lives. But you must read also about the stars—and about the big spaces—silent—not one single little sound for many, many million years. To be free you must grow as big as that—inside of your head, inside of your soul. It is not enough to be free of a czar, a kaiser or a sweatshop boss. What will you do when they are gone? My fine people, how will you run the world? You are deaf and blind, you must be free to open your own ears and eyes, to look into the books and see what is there—great thoughts and feelings, great ideas! And when you have seen, then you must think—you must think it all out every time! That is freedom!'" He stopped abruptly. Again on his dark features came a huge and winning smile, and with an apologetic shrug, "But I talk too much of my books," he said. "Come. Shall we go to my cafe?"
On a neighboring street, a few minutes later, down a flight of steep wooden stairs they descended into a little cafe, shaped like a tunnel, the ceiling low, the bare walls soiled by rubbing elbows, dirty hands, the air blue and hot with smoke. Young men and girls packed in at small tables bent over tall glasses of Russian tea, and gesturing with their cigarettes declaimed and argued excitedly. Quick joyous cries of greeting met Isadore from every side.
"You see?" he said gaily. "This is my club. Here we are like a family." He ordered tea of a waiter who seemed more like a bosom friend. And leaning eagerly forward, he began to speak in glowing terms of the men and girls from sweatshops who spent their nights in these feasts of the soul, talking, listening, grappling, "for the power to think with minds as clear as the sun when it rises," he ardently cried. "There is not a night in this city, not one, when hundreds do not talk like this until the breaking of the day! And then they sleep! A little joke! For at six o'clock they must rise to their work! And that is a force," he added, "not only for those people but a force for you and me. Do you see? When you feel tired, when all your hopes are sinking low, you think of those people and you say, 'I will go to their places.' And you go. You listen and you watch their faces, and such fire makes you burn! You go home, you are happy, you have a new life!
"And perhaps at last you will have a religion," he continued, in fervent tones. "You see, with us Jews—and with Christians, too—the old religion, it is gone. And in its place there is nothing strong. And so the young people go all to pieces. They dance and they drink. If you go to those dance halls you say, 'They are crazy!' For dancing alone is not enough. And you say, 'These people must have a religion.' You ask, 'Where can I find a new God?' And you reply, 'There is no God.' And then you must be very sad. You know how it is? You feel too free. And you feel scared and lonely. You look up at the stars. There are millions. You are only a speck of dust—on one.
"But then you come to my library. And you see those hungry people—more hungry than men have ever been. And you see those books upon the shelves. And you know when they come together at last, when that power to think as clear as the sun comes into the souls of those people so hungry, then we shall have a new god for the world. For there is no end to what they shall do," Isadore ended huskily.
Roger felt a lump in his throat. He glanced into his daughter's eyes and saw a suspicious brightness there. Isadore looked at her happily.
"You see?" he said to Roger. "When she came here to-night she was tired, half sick. But now she is all filled with life!"
* * * * *
Later, on the street outside when Isadore had left them, Deborah turned to her father:
"Before we go home, there's one place more."
And they went to a building not far away, a new structure twelve floors high which rose out of the neighboring tenements. It had been built, she told him, by a socialist daily paper. A dull night watchman half asleep took them in the elevator up to the top floor of the building, where in a bustling, clanking loft the paper was just going to press. Deborah seemed to know one of the foremen. He smiled and nodded and led the way through the noise and bustle to a large glass door at one end. This she opened and stepped out upon a fire escape so broad it was more like a balcony. And with the noise of the presses subdued, from their high perch they looked silently down.
All around them for miles, it seemed, stretched dark uneven fields of roofs, with the narrow East River winding its way through the midst of them to the harbor below, silvery, dim and cool and serene, opening to the distant sea. From the bridges rearing high over the river, lights by thousands sparkled down. But directly below the spot where they stood was only a dull hazy glow, rising out of dark tenement streets where dimly they could just make out numberless moving shadowy forms, restless crowds too hot to sleep. The roofs were covered everywhere with men and women and children—families, families, families, all merged together in the dark. And from them rose into the night a ceaseless murmur of voices, laughing and joking, quarreling, loving and hating, demanding, complaining, and fighting and slaving and scheming for bread and the means of stark existence. But among these struggling multitudes confusedly did Roger feel the brighter presence here and there of more aspiring figures, small groups in glaring, stilling rooms down there beneath the murky dark, young people fiercely arguing, groping blindly for new gods. And all these voices, to his ears, merged into one deep thrilling hum, these lights into one quivering glow, that went up toward the silent stars.
And there came to him a feeling which he had often had before in many different places—that he himself was a part of all this, the great, blind, wistful soul of mankind, which had been here before he was born and would be here when he was dead—still groping, yearning, struggling upward, on and on—to something distant as the sun. And still would he be a part of it all, through the eager lives of his children. He turned and looked at Deborah and caught the light that was in her eyes.
Roger awoke the next morning feeling sore and weary, and later in his office it was hard to keep his mind on his work. He thought of young Isadore Freedom. He was glad he had met that boy, and so he felt toward Deborah's whole terrific family. Confused and deafening as it was, there was something inspiring in it all. But God save him from many such evenings! For half his life Roger had been a collector, not only of rings but of people, too, of curious personalities. These human bits, these memories, he had picked up as he lived along and had taken them with him and made them his own, had trimmed and polished every one until its rough unpleasant edges were all nicely smoothed away and it glittered and shone like the gem that it was. For Roger was an idealist. And so he would have liked to do here. What a gem could be made of Isadore with a little careful polishing.
But Deborah's way was different. She stayed in life, lived in it close, with its sharp edges bristling. In this there was something splendid, but there was something tragic, too. It was all very well for that young Jew to burn himself up with his talk about freedom, his feverish searching for new gods. "In five years," Roger told himself, "Mr. Isadore Freedom will either tone down or go stark mad."
But quite probably he would tone down, for he was only a youngster, these were Isadore's wild oats. But this was no longer Deborah's youth, she had been at this job ten years. And she hadn't gone mad, she had kept herself sane, she had many sides her father knew. He knew her in the mountains, or bustling about at home getting ready for Laura's wedding, or packing Edith's children off for their summer up at the farm. But did that make it any easier? No. To let yourself go was easy, but to keep hold of yourself was hard. It meant wear and tear on a woman, this constant straining effort to keep her balance and see life whole.
"Well, it will break her down, that's all, and I don't propose to allow it," he thought. "She's got to rest this summer and go easier next fall."
But how could he accomplish it? As he thought about her school, with its long and generous arms reaching upon every side out into the tenements, the prospect was bewildering. He searched for something definite. What could he do to prove to his daughter his real interest in her work? Presently he remembered Johnny Geer, the cripple boy whom he had liked, and at once he began to feel himself back again upon known ground. Instead of millions here was one, one plucky lad who needed help. All right, by George, he should have it! And Roger told his daughter he would be glad to pay the expense of sending John away for the summer, and that in the autumn perhaps he would take the lad into his office.
"That's good of you, dearie," Deborah said. It was her only comment, but from the look she gave him Roger felt he was getting on.
* * * * *
One evening not long afterwards, as they sat together at dinner, she rose unsteadily to her feet and said in a breathless voice,
"It's rather close in here, isn't it? I think I'll go outside for a while." Roger jumped up.
"Look here, my child, you're faint!" he cried.
"No, no, it's nothing! Just the heat!" She swayed and reeled, pitched suddenly forward. "Father! Quick!" And Roger caught her in his arms. He called to the maid, and with her help he carried Deborah up to her bed. There she shuddered violently and beads of sweat broke out on her brow. Her breath came hard through chattering teeth.
"It's so silly!" she said fiercely.
But as moments passed the chill grew worse. Her whole body seemed to be shaking, and as Roger was rubbing one of her arms she said something to him sharply, in a voice so thick he could not understand.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I can't feel anything."
"What do you mean?"
"In my arm where you're rubbing—I can't feel your hand."
"You'd better have a doctor!"
"Telephone Allan—Allan Baird. He knows about this," she muttered. And Roger ran down to the telephone. He was thoroughly frightened.
"All right, Mr. Gale," came Baird's gruff bass, steady and slow, "I think I know what the trouble is—and I wouldn't worry if I were you. I'll be there in about ten minutes." And it was hardly more than that when he came into Deborah's room. A moment he looked down at her.
"Again?" he said. She glanced up at him and nodded, and smiled quickly through set teeth. Baird carefully examined her and then turned to Roger: "Now I guess you'd better go out. You stay," he added to Sarah, the maid. "I may need you here awhile."
About an hour later he came down to Roger's study.
"She's safe enough now, I guess," he said. "I've telephoned for a nurse for her, and she'll have to stay in bed a few days."
"What's the trouble?"
"You don't say!" exclaimed Roger brightly, with a rush of deep relief. Baird gave him a dry quizzical smile.
"People have died of that," he remarked, "in less than an hour. We caught your daughter just in time. May I stay a few moments?"
"Glad to have you! Smoke a cigar!"
"Thanks—I will." As Baird reached out for the proffered cigar, Roger suddenly noticed his hand. Long and muscular, finely shaped, it seemed to speak of strength and skill and an immense vitality. Baird settled himself in his chair. "I want to talk about her," he said. "This little attack is only a symptom—it comes from nerves. She's just about ready for a smash. She's had slighter attacks of this kind before."
"I never knew it," Roger said.
"No—I don't suppose you did. Your daughter has a habit of keeping things like this to herself. She came to me and I warned her, but she wanted to finish out her year. Do you know anything about her school work?"
"Yes, I was with her there this week."
"What did she show you?" Baird inquired. Roger tried to tell him. "No, that's not what I'm after," he said. "That's just one of her usual evenings." For a moment he smoked in silence. "I'm hunting now for something else, for some unusual nervous shock which she appears to me to have had."
"She has!" And Roger told him of her visit up to Sing Sing. Baird's lean muscular right hand slowly tightened on his chair.
"That's a tough family of hers," he remarked.
"Yes," said Roger determinedly, "and she's got to give it up."
"You mean she ought to. But she won't."
"She's got to be made to," Roger growled. "This summer at least." Baird shook his head.
"You forget her fresh air work," he replied. "She has three thousand children on her mind. The city will be like a furnace, of course, and the children must be sent to camps. If you don't see the necessity, go and talk to her, and then you will."
"But you can forbid it, can't you?"
"No. Can you?"
"I can try," snapped Roger.
"Let's try what's possible," said Baird. "Let's try to keep her in bed three days."
"Sounds modest," Roger grunted. And a glimmer of amusement came into Baird's impassive eyes.
"Try it," he drawled. "By to-morrow night she'll ask for her stenographer. She'll make you think she is out of the woods. But she won't be, please remember that. A few years more," he added, "and she'll have used up her vitality. She'll be an old woman at thirty-five."
"It's got to be stopped!" cried Roger.
"But how?" came the low sharp retort. "You've got to know her trouble first. And her trouble is deep, it's motherhood—on a scale which has never been tried before—for thousands of children, all of whom are living in a kind of hell. I know your daughter pretty well. Don't make the mistake of mixing her up with the old-fashioned teacher. It isn't what those children learn, it's how they live that interests her, and how they are all growing up. I say she's a mother—in spirit—but her body has never borne a child. And that makes it worse—because it makes her more intense. It isn't natural, you see."
A little later he rose to go.
"By the way," he said, at the door, "there's something I meant to tell her upstairs—about a poor devil she has on her mind. A chap named Berry—dying—lungs. She asked me to go and see him."
"I found it was only a matter of days." The tragic pity in Baird's quiet voice was so deep as barely to be heard.
"So I shot him full of morphine. He won't wake up. Please tell her that."
Tall, ungainly, motionless, he loomed there in the doorway. With a little shrug and a smile he turned and went slowly out of the house.
Deborah's recovery was rapid and determined. The next night she was sitting up and making light of her illness. On the third day she dismissed her nurse, and when her father came home from his office he found gathered about her bed not only her stenographer but both her assistant principals. He frowned severely and went to his room, and a few minutes later he heard them leave. Presently she called to him, and he came to her bedside. She was lying back on the pillow with rather a guilty expression.
"Up to your old antics, eh?" he remarked.
"Exactly. It couldn't be helped, you see. It's the last week of our school year, and there are so many little things that have to be attended to. It's simply now or never."
"Humph!" was Roger's comment. "It's now or never with you," he thought. He went down to his dinner, and when he came back he found her exhausted. In the dim soft light of her room her face looked flushed and feverish, and vaguely he felt she was in a mood where she might listen to reason. He felt her hot dry hand on his. Her eyes were closed, she was smiling.
"Tell me the news from the mountains," she said. And he gave her the gossip of the farm in a letter he had had from George. It told of a picnic supper, the first one of the season. They had had it in the usual place, down by the dam on the river, "with a bonfire—a perfect peach—down by the big yellow rock—the one you call the Elephant." As Roger read the letter he could feel his daughter listening, vividly picturing to herself the great dark boulders by the creek, the shadowy firs, the stars above and the cool fresh tang of the mountain night.