She was secretly ashamed of her professional debut in a role that would not have survived the ridicule of even Flora Bankhead's easy standards. Many a time, together at matinees, they had giggled and munched chocolates over acts that hardly rivaled hers for sentimental appeal of about one dimension. Plenty of length and no depth.
To a series of colored views thrown upon the screen, Lilly sang from a dark stage into the warm musk and stale linen-smelling theater, a ballad as slow and sweet as taffy in the pulling.
"Dressed up in her gingham gown, Just to come with me to town. How the sun was shining down! It seemed to bless our lit-tul wedding day."
"Darling Sue—e dear, How I miss your laughing! Seems to me I hear it in the same old way. Darling Sue dear, don't believe I'm chaffing. Bless your heart! I love you in the same old way."
Lights! Revealing Lilly in the pink mull and dangling sunbonnet beside the blank white screen. They liked her, invariably demanding encore, this time the words and score of the chorus thrown upon the screen and, to Lilly's importunings and pretty encouragement, the house joining in.
By arrangement with the publishing house, this exploitation of song hits cost the Visigoth brothers nothing. In fact the little novelty soon came to supplement one of the eight acts on the program, thus eliminating a number.
Each week a new song score bordered in hearts and flowers was thrown upon that darkness, the audience eager to find a hum in it.
Lilly's second song, "Mamma, Why Are You So Sad To-night?" went even better than the first, and it so pleased Robert Visigoth, who in those years had his ears to the ground of the daily audience, to hear them filing out, whistling and carrying it on little tra-la-las, that he called Lilly into his office the first day of the second week, to announce a five-dollar raise in salary.
She had been in the habit of oozing past him rather hurriedly in and out the dark passages, conscious that his touch was ever ready to slide down her length of arm, or his knee to find out hers and press it if he sat down beside her as she waited in the wings.
It was before the realty aspect, the buying, leasing, and selling, of theater property had engulfed him, and his presence around the theater, often shirt-sleeved, was hardly a matter of moment.
However favorably he differed in aspect from Lilly's preconception of the managerial genius, her inhibitions concerning him were strong. She always sat on the edge of her chair in his presence. To accept so much as a slip of paper from him meant that his touch would trail to the last long-drawn second. His eyes had a habit of focusing, seeming to move in a bit toward the tip of his nose and grill intimately into her being. And then his wetted lips, as if his mouth were watering.
"You need to be waked up," he said once to her. "You're like a great big sleepy cat."
She jerked away from his touch and his reference, hurrying from the theater, as always, immediately after her act, which came first on the afternoon and evening bill. Secretly she was thoroughly ashamed of what she was doing, putting each performance quickly behind her.
Six hundred and twenty-two dollars still lay in the chamois bag against her bosom, but the additional five dollars a week on to her salary was a saving prop against the not infrequent sag of her spirit.
She was listed at half a dozen agencies, but nothing presented itself. Her first hotel bill, twenty-eight dollars, sent her scurrying, against further and deeper inroads into the chamois bag, to an immediately adjoining side street of brownstone fronts as without identity as a row of soldiers, all of them proclaiming the furnished room to that great sandstorm of New York transients who blow in and out of them in nameless whirl.
Their dreariness flowed over her in cold, soupy odors, that left a feeling of a coating of grease over the surface of her. The poor filbert of gaslight burning into floor after floor of slits of hallway. The climb after a whole processional of spotty landladies whose shortness of breath contributed to the odor-laden air.
The room which she finally obtained at three dollars a week was a third-floor front, shaped like a shoe box, with an aisle of walking space between the cot and washstand, and as dank to her and as shiver-inducing as a damp bathing suit donned at dawn.
But the matting on the floor smelled scrubbed, the bathroom at the head of the stairs contained a porcelain tub instead of the usual horror in painted tin, and except for June bugs that bumbled all night against her ceiling, attracted by the incandescence from the theater sign across the street, was free from those scavengers of bed slats and woodwork which, often as she inspected from room to room, to her agonized flush, had crawled across a landlady's very denial of them.
Robert Visigoth had a habit of appraising this ready blush of hers. It never rushed hotly to her face but what he noted it in persiflage.
"Look at her blush!" he cried, one afternoon as they both stooped to recover her dropped hand bag, their heads bumping so that they sprang apart in laughter.
"The idea, Mr. Visigoth! I'm not blushing!" she cried, stinging with her inability to control the too ready red.
He ran his hand over the smooth glaze of her hair.
"Let's see if it will muss. I'll wager it's painted on."
"It grows that way," she said, levelly.
"I like it! Clean as a whistle. Interesting. In fact, you're a mighty interesting young woman, if you want to know it, Miss Luella Parlow."
"What is the song for next week, Mr. Visigoth?"
"'My Pretty, My Pretty,'" he said, his intimate eyes watching her wriggle, with a sense of being ridiculous, on the hook of his glance.
"I never know how to take you," she flared, infuriated, and rushed toward the door.
"Take me—with you."
"Really now—this—this is too absurd."
"Where are you going?"
"Home, of course. I have all this time to myself between now and the evening performance. Why waste it sitting around with the dog and trapeze acts?"
"Where do you live?"
"West Forty-fourth Street, near Eighth."
"West Forty-fourth Street."
"Hm-m-m!" he said, with a new easiness of manner that alarmed her.
"Selfish little girl. All this time to yourself."
"You would be surprised how it flies."
"What do you do?"
"Oh, no end of odds and ends. Wash out things. Read. Sew. Practice. Write."
"What do you write? Letters to suitors? Lucky chaps."
"Nonsense!" she said, coloring.
"A girl like you must have a string of them after her."
"No! I write—you see, I've always sort of wanted to write fiction. Magazine stories. I like to scribble in my spare time."
"Story writing? You can't serve two masters in this profession."
"Oh, and then I practice." It was here she had shown him the letter addressed, "To Whom It May Concern." "I haven't a piano, but you would be surprised how helpful it is just to memorize the role from the score."
"I know four. Michaela is my last. I haven't memorized all of her aria yet, but half the time I'm singing her with my mind, if you know what I mean. I once had twelve lessons on Marguerite. With study, Mr. Visigoth, and perhaps some more lessons with one of the big teachers here, do you think I have the slightest chance for opera or—concert? You can be frank with me. Do you?"
He patted her.
"Too much ambition will make that satiny head of yours ache."
"Let it ache."
"What you need more than lessons is some one to wake you up. That will do more for you than all the training money can buy. You need a rousing-good love affair. Love, that's the secret!"
She walked past him now, swinging open the stage door.
"You can be so nice, Mr. Visigoth, and so—horrid."
He followed, laughing.
"I'll walk a ways. Which way you going?"
They strolled into the syrupy warmth of a late Indian-summer afternoon. At each crossing he took her arm, closing gently into the flesh.
"Yes, my little lady, that's what you need."
"To be waked up."
"Oh, there you go again! Is there no limit to sex self-consciousness? I want to be a person in my work. An individual. Not first and foremost a woman!"
"Why, my dear girl, you talk like a child! Sex is the very soul of art. The greatest songs have been sung and the greatest pictures painted because men and women have loved. Don't tell me a great big handsome creature like you doesn't realize that!"
"Well, just the same," with feminine subjectiveness, "I mean to make my way as an individual first and a woman second. I give nothing to you men and I ask nothing except a fighting chance. I don't believe in all this pay-the-price business. I don't recognize you as the arbiters of my destiny. I'll pay my price with my ability, and if I can't pay up that way then I deserve to fail. Women can fight back at the world with something besides their sex. I intend to prove it."
He closed tighter over her arm.
"I like you when you tilt at windmills, Miss Don Quixote, and I like the way your eyes turn black."
"There you are at it again."
"Certainly; it's the law of life."
"You mean it's the law of men! Why should you set the price of our success? We women are going to batter down the monopoly."
"You're a regular little holy terror for woman's rights. Come in here for a drink and tell me about it."
They were approaching the rapids of Broadway, the quickened torrent of the pleasure zone that leaps high in folly even under sunlight. Sidewalk humanity quickened and had a shove to it. Street cars and cabs plunged in seemingly impassable directions. Frivolity was showing her naked shoulder on lithograph roof garden and matinee stage. The Times Building stood like a colossus, breakwater to the tide. Rector's invited.
"Come in for a drink," he repeated.
She threw him a northwest glance with what for her amounted to quite an adventure in coquetry.
"Aha!" in the key of burlesque. "Either I sully these fair lips with alcohol or to-morrow I awake jobless."
He was visibly annoyed, dropping her arm and hurrying past the mirrored entrance.
"You flatter yourself."
She bit into her lips, again with a sense of her ridiculousness, confessing, in her stress and against the old inhibition, to a state of being unwell.
"It isn't that, and you know it! I'm done up these last few days. Feeling seedy. It must be this Indian-summerish heat."
"Poor pussy!" he said, again good-humored.
It was true that a recurring sense of dizziness would sweep like a sudden wave over her, in street cars, even in bed before she rose mornings, and that very afternoon as she sang into the murky darkness a terrifying sense of it had threatened her.
In the little restaurant in Union Square which she frequented, her healthy young appetite would prompt her to order foods that when they arrived she would suddenly reject. She tried to guard against these nervous recurrences by resolutely permitting no thought of her yesterdays to crop into her to-days. Except, daily, she visited the Public Library, reading over St. Louis newspapers of last week's vintage, and never failing to glance at the death notices. For one week an advertisement under PERSONAL appeared, which every time she encountered it was sure to blur over her vision with quick tears:
Lilly, come home. All is forgiven.
She attributed some of her nervousness to the condition of mind this little paragraph invariably induced. To bear out this conviction she even omitted the visits to the Library for three or four days, but still the flashes of discomfort persisted.
They had stopped at the stoop of her lean-looking rooming house.
"So this is where you live," he said, half a smile out and his lids well down.
"Yes," she said, unconsciously defiant, "and for my purpose it's fine."
"Clean, quiet, and reasonable."
"I see," he said through the same smile that was somehow hateful to her, and after a moment of apparent indecision raised his hat and walked off.
The following evening, without waiting for the second refrain of chorus or the lights to flash up, and creating some confusion down in the orchestra, Lilly left the stage rather hurriedly, her hand groping ahead of her as if to ward off muzziness, and her very first step into the wings crumpled up quietly in a faint.
She awoke in her little damp dungeon of a dressing room, a trick bicycle rider in sateen knickerbockers fanning her with a spangled jockey cap and immediately rushing off for her act, Robert Visigoth standing and looking down at her.
Embarrassment flooded her. She insisted upon standing immediately, smoothing herself down and brushing at the wet spots where the water had trickled away from her lips.
"Why," she said, through a gasp of apology, "of all things! Why, I have never done such a thing in my life! It was the heat. Oh, how silly of me! How unutterably silly!"
He pressed her down into a chair.
"You had better sit quiet there, my young miss, and get yourself together. One eighth of an inch nearer that bicycle trapeze in the wings and that smooth head of yours might not be so smooth right now."
"I'm so ashamed."
"I'll call a cab and take you home."
"I'd rather you didn't trouble."
"But I'd rather I did."
She smiled through an impulse to dig her nails into her palms and weep her sense of ignominy.
While he procured the cab she hurriedly changed from the pink into the coffee-colored linen, and, frightened at her pallor with the rouge removed, tried to pinch her cheeks back to pinkness.
In the hansom and behind the wooden apron his hand crept over to hers, soothing it.
"Poor little sick girl!" he said.
She tried to withdraw, but the black spots were swimming before her, and to save herself from their engulfing her, as the shields and bracelets must have buried Tarpeia, sat suddenly erect, blinking and shaking her head.
"Oh, I say now!"
"Why, I—I'm all right—"
His one arm was at her waist and with the other he was poking open the little trap door.
"Stop at the corner."
She closed her eyes, and almost immediately they drew up at a corner drug store adjoining a long row of brownstone fronts deep in brown studies. He helped her down, reading up at one of them. Dr. Barney Lee. "He leaves his name at the box office once in a while. Suppose you stop in here instead of the drug store. Don't like the idea of soda-fountain cures. You've a little sunstroke, I think."
"No, no, Mr. Visigoth. Why, I've hardly ever had a doctor in my life! The—drug store will—"
"One, two, three—march!"
"March! Got money? Good! I'll have a smoke in the cab. If he's not in, then I'll drive you around to our house doctor."
He was in. But for ten minutes she sat in a leather-and-oak waiting room, beneath a fly-specked Rembrandt's "Night-Watch," a clock ticking spang into the gaslighted silence and the very chairs seeming to meditate as they stood.
Then a pair of black-walnut doors slid back, and on a puff of iodoform Lilly passed between them and they clicked shut again.
When she emerged Robert Visigoth's cigar was smoked two thirds its length and he was slumped down, with one knee hooked comfortably about the other.
He sprang out to help her in.
Her smile was drawn across her face almost like a gash.
"Tired waiting?" she said, holding her lips lifted.
"Fix you up?"
"You were right. A little sunstroke. A good night's rest will fix me up."
"You've been playing 'possum."
"That's it," she said, with the plating of hired gayety over her tones, but her nails printing little half moons into her palms.
"Just for punishment, I'm going to drive you around the Park."
"No, no, no! I don't feel quite up to it. He said rest—a good night's rest."
He regarded her unmistakable pallor.
"Oh, all right," sulkily, "you tantalizing enigma, you! Gad! you—you'd drive a man crazy! There's something over your face. A veil. I'd like to tear it off—"
"You—you're talking like a Third Avenue melodrama."
"I suppose I am," he said, subsiding and regarding the hooked top of his cane the remaining ten minutes of the drive. "I suppose I am."
He dismissed the cab at her curb. To escape his arm she even ran up the steps, and to prove how complete recovery called down over one shoulder:
"You've been kind and I'm grateful. Good night."
"Prove it," he said, up and after her, his arm at her waist.
"What?" she said, his meaning flashing as she spoke. She was crowding away from his nearness against one of the storm doors which folded back against the entrance, sooty light filtering over them through a frosted door panel.
His face twisted out of repose, flooded darker and darker with red.
"You devil," he said, "you knew you'd get me."
"You go!" she cried, her lips pulled with the degradation of the moment.
He grasped her so that the breath jumped out of her.
"Oh," she cried, wrenching herself free, "don't you dare put your foot in this house—"
"Then the Gramatan, Lilly. It's quiet and first class there—we can have a talk. I'll call a cab—the Gramatan. Or my place—I live alone."
"If you do I—I'll bite! I'll bite, you hear?"
"Do it," he said, his face the color that was Iago's, grasping her then in the shadow of the storm door, and kissing her so on the open lips that to evade him she had to wriggle down to her knees and out of his clasp.
The shamefulness of the scene not to be endured, she held her hand with the key in it behind her back; then suddenly let it fly up for her hatpin.
"If you come near me—"
He stood back from her upflung arm, his refinement of feature incongruous under the rush of ox-blood red, his teeth showing whiter as he darkened.
"What the devil do you want, then? You devil! Who are you? There's only one woman in a thousand I'd follow to a joint like this. I'm afraid of them. Now I've had enough of this baby talk from you. It doesn't match this house! What's your game? Let me up."
"What do you expect, with an address like this? There's two kinds of women. You can't be the kind you pretend to be and live here. What is the comedy? I like you, Lilly. Let me up. Come, put that little arm down. God damn it! what do you want?"
With a wrench that threw him backward, a frenzied instant of struggle for the lock, and she was in, slamming the door behind her, and up the two flights with such a sense of pursuit that her breath turned to moans in her throat.
Once within her room, locking her door on its very slam, and her hat sliding down on her unpinned hair, she dropped down on her bed edge so that the springs coughed, seeming to bleed her tears, so roundly and full of agony they came.
The white light from the electric sign opposite created a pallor in the room that enveloped her like a veil. She rocked herself as she sat. She pressed her palms into her eyes until the terrible kind of darkness they induced was sprinkled with red. She clapped her hands to her mouth to keep down the rise of shrieks. She burrowed her head down into her pillow, beating into the surrounding area of bed, chewing at the sheet end, twisting it until it became rigid. She slid to the floor as if for relief of its hardness; sat looking into the white kind of darkness with the rims of her eyes stretched until her gaze seemed to sleep. She fell to rocking herself again and twisting the sheet in an outrageous abandonment of despair that was abashing because it was so naked. Her hands wound each other in a dry wash. She sobbed in long coughs drawn through a resisting throat. Pounded the matting. Dragged her palms down over her face, pulling the hair with it.
Half the night through she paced the narrow aisle of the room, repeating and repeating until the darkness seemed filled with the rushing of a million frantic little wings:
"O God! O God! Help me, God! Make it a lie! Tell me that the doctor lied! God, I need you! Where are you? Save me! Where are you? Help me, God! Help me!"
Thus did Lilly Penny greet the coming of her child.
There was no egress for Lilly's state of panic. It hurled itself into this and that cul-de-sac, only to dash into a black, a colossal wall of ignorance builded on the sands of false and revolting modesty, and which, as it tottered, threatened to crush her.
Her mind ran hither and thither, panic and anger plunging into storm waves of sobs. Around and around spun her terror in its trap. Each pore of her body might have been a mouth screaming. Distaste for her physical awareness mounted upon her old peculiar aversion. The maternal did not even lift its head. She could have beaten her own head, and did, for the relief of pain. One alternative after another flickered into her consciousness, only to die out again into blackness. Home! But by the merest flash of the incongruous, not to say absurd, vision of Albert Penny's wilted collar on the chiffonier, or his shirt sleeves that were held back with pink rubber garters, bending over the recalcitrant bed caster, knew how impossible that!
Forceps sensitive enough to lay hold of an antenna could not capture the vagariousness of all of this, but none the less it was just that ridiculous and irrelevant flash across her vision that eliminated the almost unbearable tugging of nostalgia at her heart strings.
There were long hours of dizzying and fascinated contemplation down into the cypress-sided vale of self-destruction; that ravine which gets its glance from most and even the best of us. It seemed to her that she could not even think for the rush of its dark waters pressing against her reason; but love of life was strongest of all in Lilly. It was the sweep of her own vitality which she felt pressing.
She tried to desire what had befallen her, to think in terms of beauty; to feel the miracle of her state and the age-old throbs that make maternity sublime. The sense of her aversion debased while it immersed her. She reasoned how valiantly whole eternities of women had gone down to meet motherhood and how proudly those eternities of women had worn the moment. Her mother. Mrs. Kemble. The concept awed her, but then memory came scourging out of that long night of her childhood:
MRS. KEMBLE: "Kill me, God! Put me out of it! Please! I can't suffer any more! Kill me, God!"
She buried her head into her pillow; tried to think in terms of God; to intimidate her rebellion. Finally she did cool to a sort of leaden despair through which slow determination began to percolate.
At nine o'clock the following morning, a Sunday that wrapped the city windily in the first cold gray of autumn, without having undressed the night through, she ventured as far as Times Square for a newspaper, the dark halls of the house and the rows of closed doors suddenly sinister. The wind caught at her flimsy skirts, blowing them forward, and she was forced to clutch the wide brim of her hat. Summer was gone.
But more than that, it seemed to Lilly that a black gauze lay across her eyes, the very complexion of the streets had darkened, the hurried wind-blown clouds stamping the whole aspect of things with turbulence. She could not keep the run out of her steps, and her palms were full of the half moons impressed there by her finger nails. The city, as joyous as Chloe, had suddenly turned a frightening grimace upon her.
She bought a Sunday paper, letting the prankish gale around Times Square scurry the bulk of it through the streets while she stood in the shelter of the news stand, unfolding the Furnished Room section. Wind puffed the sheets up into her face, and finally she crossed to a white-tiled lunch room, ordering coffee and rolls more for the temporary shelter than for appetite. Scanning column after column, occasionally she poked a toothpick through the page, and once tore out a little segment, dropping it into her hand bag. It read:
Neatly Furnished Room near Columbia University and Kroeg School of Music. Three dollars and a half a week and breakfasts if desired. Ideal for refined young lady. Inquire at 9000 Amsterdam Avenue.
She paid her check, inquired direction of the cashier, and, hurrying out, boarded a north-bound Amsterdam Avenue car, riding for half an hour through streets lined in petty shops and presenting the peculiar swept look of Sunday.
She had cooled to apathy, a drowsiness descending that made her reluctant to leave the car; could have ridden on and on in this eased and half-narcotized state, but people had a habit of remembering her. A truckman had followed her only the day before through half a block of snarled traffic to see that she turned properly to the right. New York, mad as a March hare, was eager to direct her. The conductor now walked up the aisle of car to tap her on the shoulder.
"Your corner, miss."
Nine thousand Amsterdam Avenue was a drug store sidled in between a bakeshop that six days a week poured forth sweet hot breath, and an undertaking establishment with a white-satin infant's coffin de luxe tilted in the window. The sight of it caught Lilly like a pain. That peculiar power of an obsessed mind to see in everything its own state reflected had set in. Queer that this infant's coffin should tilt at her. A bouncing youngster leaned out of its perambulator to dance its arms.
She hurried into the drug store. Isaac Neugass, Chemist.
It was the older-style pharmacy, with a gilt mortar and pestle for a sign; and as she entered, a bell attached by a pulley rang somewhere in a thin, tattling voice. The soda fountain, fountain pen, the picture postcard, the umbrella, and the face-powder demonstrator had not yet invaded here. Isaac Neugass, Chemist—was just that. His walls were lined in labeled jars of panacea. The pungency of valerianate of ammonia smote the entrant. He pummeled his own pills, percolated his own paregoric, prescribed for neighborhood miseries from an invariable bottle that was slow, sluggish, and malodorous in the pouring, anointed the neighborhood bruises, and extracted, always gratis, neighborhood cinders from neighborhood eyes.
A Madison Avenue physician, erstwhile of Amsterdam Avenue, and more recently of two honorary degrees, his own private hospital, two outer waiting rooms, three assistants, and four-figure operations, still diverted quite a runnel of his clientele to the impeccable pharmaceutics of the little Amsterdam Avenue shop, so that the motor car and the carriage not infrequently sidled up to its curb.
At Lilly's entrance, Isaac Neugass came shuffling around the ground-glass prescription partition, his hands at their perpetual dry washing of each other. There was something of a dressed-up wishbone about him, in the way his clothing scarcely suggested the thin body within them. They had scarcely a point of contact, even with his angles. He was a mere inner tubing to what he wore. A skull cap hid his baldness, a fringe of gray below it suggesting what was not beneath it. His little eyes were like steel, humorously glinting gimlets in the process of boring, the old face wrinkling up around them as pliantly as a dough eraser. In fact, when he laughed his little chin with the tip of beard did curl up like one of those rubber-toy faces where chin kicks brow.
"Well," he said, with a great dip of nose down into his smile, "whad can I do for you?" He reminded Lilly of a great auk, something alcidine in the thin cheeks with the mouth cutting so widely toward the ears.
She had not realized it, but suddenly the terrible, the impersonal detachment of the past weeks smote her. There had been voiceless days and days when the sound of herself asking direction or ordering from a bill of fare had an element of surprise in it, and the toneless voice of public service was the only one directed to her: "Step lively." "Two blocks east." "Don't mention it." "No more rice pudding left, ma'am."
When Isaac Neugass said, "Well, whad can I do for you?" something within her thawed so that she could have cried.
"I'm looking for this furnished room," she said, and held out the slip toward him.
"You wand my wife," he said, waving her the direction. "Go right outside to the next stoop and ring the bell over Neugass."
"Oh, thank you!" she said, suiting her action to his word.
"It's a nize room. I could wish it to an early bird to catch it."
"That's what I want, a nice, quiet room."
"Then you got it," he cried. "It's a room for a needle," his thumb and forefinger indicating an infinitesibly fine point.
"So it could hear itself fall."
In his own way Mr. Neugass was a jokester, insisting upon the laugh, sitting back upon his figurative haunches, waiting.
"Then it is just what I want," said Lilly, giving him his smile, "only I hope it isn't too—"
He took to waggling his head, his little kindly eyes illuminated with a sunburst of wrinkles and his voice a festooned chant of rising and falling inflections.
"Sa-y, if you can't pay three-fifty, she'll make it three. You doan' need to tell her I told you, but for such a young lady like you, sa-y, the brice in the newspaper doan' always got to be the brice in the hand, ain't it?"
She laughed, the irises that had crowded out the gray in her eyes suddenly smaller and back to normal.
In the little entrance adjoining, with its line-up of door bells, she pressed the button as directed. A clicking answered her ring, and she had to learn from a child who entered with a dangling pail of milk, that she was to speak upward through a tube above the bell.
"About the room?" Yes, she was to come up.
She climbed two flights of dark, clean-smelling stairs, and Mrs. Neugass herself opened the door.
Mary, Rispah, Cornelia, Monica, Martha Washington, Mrs. Whistler, Margaret Ogilvy, and Mrs. Neugass, blessed be their tribe, must all have had about the same look about the eyes. Masha Neugass was sixty, and looked it. A blue-gingham apron held her in at the waist so that she bulged softly and fatly above and below it.
Thirty minutes and one hundred years removed from Millionaires' Row, the apartment was just another of those paradoxes which the city can shake from its spangled sleeve. Built like a coach, each room opening off a strip of hallway, it was a scoured chromo of Victoria's age of horrors. The brilliantly flower-splashed wall paper and carpeting. A front room that smelled and pricked of horsehair. The little patch of dining room brightened by a red tablecloth, two canaries, and a window-sill array of turnips sprouting in bottles. The rush of bead portieres as you walked through them. Hassocks. A freshly washed-and-ironed ribbon bow on a chair back. Pillow shams. Nottingham-lace curtains with sham drapes woven into them. A pair of bisque pugs.
The room to let was the size of a freight elevator and crammed with a fine old walnut bed when there was scarcely room for a cot. Also an overflow of curlicue divan, and a washstand. It was clean to coolness, as if the very air were washed, but, entering it, Mrs. Neugass flecked an imaginary dust particle from the divan with her apron, then wrapping it muff fashion about her hands.
"It ain't big, but it's gumfortable."
"Indeed it is!" said Lilly, sniffing in appreciatively.
"We doan' got to rent this room, miss. It's our first time. My husband, if he had his way, wouldn't. But I say it's a shame for the waste, since our youngest daughter ain't in it no more...."
"You see out there between those two chimneys? That's Columbia University. You're from the college? Yes? We brefer it should be a student."
"I—I'm a high-school graduate, but not exactly a college student. I mean—I'm a music student. Voice."
"You doan' tell me! Now ain't that a coinstidance! For why you think I should have this room empty if not my own baby daughter is in Europe with her voice! For three years already, with her gone, miss, and my husband's daughter down to her bookkeeping all day, as I tell him, it's like my heart will burst from the silence."
"There is something I had better explain—"
"I want a young girl in the house again, I tell him."
Standing there, the words pressing for utterance against her very teeth, Lilly swallowed them back again.
"I see," she said, smiling her misery. "Then I'm afraid—I—"
"We're used to a young girl. You read maybe of our daughter only in last Sunday's papers. Millie du Gass, with the Milan Opera?"
Lilly had. "Millie du Gass—your daughter!"
"We got more only last night from her in 'Traviata.' They pulled her carriage after the opera. Felix Auchinloss went special from Vienna to conduct her. That's her picture there and there and there. Say, ain't that a coinstidance you should be a voice!"
Lilly stood regarding one of the framed photographs. A lifted young profile, ever so slightly of the father's aquilinity, a vocal-looking swell to the bosom, and a chin that locked up prettily to the protuberant upper lip.
Regarding her, such a nausea of bitterness flowed over Lilly that her lips were too wry to speak and she could have sobbed out her plight to the simple soul there, with her hands in the muff of her apron, and her gaze soft to tears upon the photograph.
"That ain't so good of her, miss, as some her papa keeps down in the store. In Milan they call her the American Beauty. Auchinloss won't conduct 'Faust' without our Millie's Marguerite. How she used to practice it, miss, righd on that piano you seen in the front room. It's worth all the sacrifices we made for such a success like hers. I doan' know who you study with, but if you come to us here, I wand once you should let her old teacher, Ballman, hear you. He's the man that can find your voice if you got it."
"Oh, I do want to come here, Mrs. Neugass. I—If only—. Will you—will you let me talk to you as I would to my own mother? I—somehow—I—I think you will understand—"
Then Mrs. Neugass came closer, a little whisper of garlic in her breath and her eyes screwed to conniving.
"Sa-y, miss, you doan' need to worry. Doan' tell it to my husband that the reduction came from me, but if three dollars is all you can pay, since it's for some one who will use the piano and liven up things a little, it's worth the difference to me in pleasure."
"Oh, Mrs. Neugass, if you knew what a place like this would mean to me—now! If only you—"
"All righd, then, for a few cents we doan' dicker. Say we make it three dollars, and on rainy mornings coffee and rolls so you doan' get your feet wet."
"We're blain beoble, miss, but we got a respegtable standing in the neighborhood for fifteen years. My husband's daughter by his first marriage is sixteen years bookkeeper down by Aaron Schmoll Paper Box Company in Green Street. We doan' got to rent, miss, unless it should be to the righd person. A nice young lady like you—"
"But what if I were to tell you, Mrs. Neugass, that I'm a mar—"
"You got references? It ain't I don't trust, but business is business, ain't it?"
"I'm afraid I haven't. You see, I'm a stranger. Here from—the West to study. I don't quite like it where I am. In fact, I want to get out to-day."
"Say, doan' I know how things can happen? For two months after she arrived in Munich, where she went first, my Millie used to write home, 'Mamma, I can't get myself settled righd.' In one place bugs and in another they complained of her practicing. I got sympathy for a girl trying to get settled. You can come righd away up into a room of mine, miss. There's no extra cleaning to be done."
"Oh, Mrs. Neugass, if I may! I've only my valise and suitcase."
A complete shrugging of Mrs. Neugass took place, her voice, brow, and manner lifting.
"Valise and suitcase. Is that a baggage?"
"I'm sending West for my trunks later, Mrs. Neugass."
"You'm Goyem, not?"
"You're Gentiles, ain't it? Well, with Goyem such things ain't so important. I'll show you sometimes the way my Millie left home, complete even to hand-crocheted washrags. Three of us had to sit on her trunk. You'm Goyem, not?"
"I was reared in the Unitarian Church, if that's what you mean, until—well, I guess until I sort of figured out my own religion for myself."
"We're Jews, you know, miss, in case you should have any richas."
"Prejudices against us, like some. My husband has one of the finest cantor voices of any temple in the city."
"No, no, Mrs. Neugass. I just love Jewish people. Some of the nicest folks we knew in St. Lo—I ever knew—have been Jews," cried Lilly, with the colossal, the unconscious patronage of race consciousness.
It left no welt, however, across the sensibilities of Mrs. Neugass. The centuries had seen to that. She was craven and she was superb in her heritage.
"I always say, thank God for whad I am, but it doan' matter to me whad anybody else is, just so she is that with the best she has in her."
"Exactly. There—there is something I ought to say to you, Mrs. Neugass. You've made it so difficult, with your kindness, but I—well, I—There are certain conditions I want you to know about. I—Not a—I could only take the room for a few months, Mrs. Neugass, because I—"
"Say, doan' I know how it is with students?"
"They go home when it comes summer. You doan' got to worry. It ain't like we need it to pay rent with. You got my word it's all righd, Miss—The name, blease—Miss what?"
"Par—Parlow. Lilly Parlow."
"All righd, Miss Parlow; that makes everything fine."
She opened her purse, unfolding a bill.
"I'll pay now," she said, calm with sudden decision.
"Sa-y, I would have trusted you. But you're like me, I always say money speaks louder than words."
"I'll be right back, Mrs. Neugass."
"That's good. I'll have out fresh towels. That's one thing I doan' expect from nobody is to stint on towels."
And so it came about that at the moment Robert Visigoth was confronted with a sudden gap in his program, Lilly Penny, with almost the week's lodging still to her credit, was tiptoeing through the moldy halls of the house in Forty-fourth Street, her luggage hitting against wall and banisters and a palpitating fear fuddling her haste.
At the second flight down she experienced her first and by no means fragrant encounter in these hallways. A door flew open with a rush and, her thin body wrapped in something ornate and flowing that was like a quick sheaf of flame around her, a woman dragged suddenly out to the head of the stairs, by the actual scruff of the neck, the ridiculous figure of a male, his collar—the necktie streaming from it—in his hand.
She spat then a bombardment of screaming profanity that sickened Lilly as she stood unseen and flattened against the wall. A further shove sent him sprawling down the remaining stairs, and from the open doorway a flung waistcoat and coat draped him ludicrously as they struck.
"Cheap skate! Piker! Skinflint!"
Then a slamming, reverberating door, and, while she stood trembling and waiting, the creature on the stairs, a hulk of Swede with short, square teeth and a corner of lip that snarled back to bare them, scrambled into his coat, stumbling out the front door, collar still in his clutch.
Then Lilly wound her weak-kneed way down the flight after him, softly, to save the creak, her luggage held out before her.
The air outside seemed cleansing as water to her. She could not breathe deeply enough of it. For a long and indeterminate period she stood at the corner, Amsterdam Avenue car after car rumbling past, her luggage on the sidewalk and inclosing her in a little island.
Indecision buffeted her. Even Mrs. Neugass and her apartment had suddenly become abhorrent; Broadway as barren as any granite gully and somehow terrifying. She strolled a block toward the station, yet it is doubtful whether in the back of her head Lilly did not know the impulse of home to be a mock one.
The tremendous trifles began their running fire.
Her mother pulling her corsets in so that they bottled her up more and more into the shape of an hourglass. That caster for the brass bed. Those interminable discussions over that caster for the brass bed!
She boarded an Amsterdam Avenue car.
The following months of her life always seemed to Lilly to have hung suspended without any forward march to them, and entirely surrounded with a colorless fluid which distorted reality, as a hand seen through a fish bowl of water is distorted. There descended upon her whole rows of days that were swollen with inertia. Her little window looked out upon an ocean of roofs, and across her distant horizon was a strident picture in electricity of an old woman in a Dutch cap beating a tub of proclaimed soap flakes into an incandescent froth.
She would sit with her cheek crumpled against her hand, looking out over this, her mind hardly stirring. There still lay three one-hundred-dollar bills, crisply warm, against her bosom, and during the long arid spell that followed her first stroke of good fortune they were to her like a sedative touch, pressing down a more and more frequently recurring rise of fear.
Two or three mornings a week she ventured in among the agencies, occasionally an address handed out to her which she followed up, always vainly.
There was something gone from Lilly, these months, as if a line of resiliency within her had snapped like a rubber band. It showed most in her slowed step and her head not quite so flung up.
One Saturday night she did earn twenty dollars, singing, a red-white-and-blue paper cap on her head, the "Star-spangled Banner" and the "Marsellaise" on the up-and-down-stream excursion of the Annual Convention of Commercial Photographers.
During their clambake and dance at Grody's Grove, just beyond Coney Island, she remained on the boat, lying back in a deck chair, facing a night brilliantly pointed with stars. The machinery of her mind might have ceased with the chugging of the boat. She lay the five hours of her wait, floating in a state of the complete disembodiment of which she was peculiarly capable.
At one o'clock the convention, highly inflamed, came trooping back on board, the boat nosing downstream, brilliant and terrible with orgy.
Twice she was grasped by revelers who were little more than bashing bulls, and before she could fight them off, her face and neck, through the sheerness of her blouse, were covered with hot, wet, and beery kisses. The third time she fought off with her hatpin, inflicting a deep red scratch across a too loose jowl. She took refuge, finally, finding out by desperate instinct the only other woman on board. A cook down in the reeking kitchen of the one-screw steamer, who had grown old so horribly that her only remaining tooth was a tusk that hung deeply beneath her lower lip. But she found out a bench rug for Lilly, so that the trip home she lay there in the stench of strong foods and hot machinery, stupefied with misery.
And yet, withal, a certain exultation had hold of her these strangely unreal weeks, her terror of the life about to be subdued somewhere underneath her consciousness, and each to-morrow reassuringly remote.
The long unfettered days. Her own latchkey to come and go at will. The lay of those three crisp bills against her heart. Her little economies, however, grew against a day which she hardly contemplated and for which she certainly did not plan. Very often she ate in her own room, a sandwich and a bottle of milk from a corner delicatessen. She had already learned those small private economies of the petty and penny wise. The mirror-pasted handkerchief. The gas-jet-brewed egg. The hand-fluted ruching. Once, in her absence, Mrs. Neugass had pressed out her dark-brown-cloth coat suit, wrinkled from weeks in her suitcase, and which she had left hanging before the open window.
The print of these kindly people was like an indelible rubber stamp into the premises. Mr. Neugass had already presented her with a jar of Millie face cream and a preparation for cleaning kid gloves. Sundays she was invariably importuned to dine with the family, and of occasional evenings, Alma Neugass, angular and full of the knobs of protruding neckbones, elbows, and shoulder blades, and with little sacs under her eyes as if she had wept down into them that life could be so tasteless, would knock at her door, and for an hour or two, and sometimes up to midnight, sit on the edge of Lilly's bed, the drone of their conversation surviving repeated rappings from the parental bedroom, adjoining.
There was something about Alma of an old glove just about ready to breathe out and flatten from the print of a recent hand. Fifteen years of debit and credit and days which swung with pendulum fidelity within the arc of routine had creased and dried her of sap.
The whiteness of Lilly and the swift, shining, backward rush of her hair were a source of wistful and vicarious delight to her. "Whoever named you Lilly was right," she said upon one of these midnight confabs so immemoriably dear to women, when hairpins can be removed and the dig of skirt bands unhooked. "You're so snowy, and soft, too; you feel like a kitten's ear. And that shining head of yours!"
"But all my life I've wanted to be blond. Sun people I call them."
"Millie is a blonde," said Miss Neugass, glancing toward one of the photographs that graced even Lilly's wall. "There's a girl was born in the sun!"
"You've been part of her sun, Miss Neugass. Your parents have told me how for eight years half of your earnings went toward her education."
"Life is a beehive, Miss Parlow," said Alma, her rather grandiloquent and apiarian simile highly inaccurate, "some of us are the drones, some the workers, and some the queens. Millie happened to be a queen."
"How can you say that? Happened! What if Napoleon had never left Corsica, or Lincoln the backwoods, or Jeanne d'Arc her village, just because they decided environment had placed them there."
"Quite right, but it is their being queens, drones, or workers determines their action."
"Well, whether or not I was born for it, I aspire to be a queen."
"Fine. Only be sure your arm is long enough to reach what you want."
"But how can I tell if I don't stretch and stretch?"
"You can't. Most of us never know when we've used up the last inch of reach, and keep on straining to touch what God or circumstance, or call it what you will, has placed beyond us."
"Yes, but it is not knowing makes us capable of hoping and striving."
"To me that is one of the tragedies of living. The hearts that pass by the jobs they are fitted for, to eat themselves out struggling to do what they think they're fitted for."
"You're a fatalist."
"Not at all. The way to know the reach of your arm is to sprain it. I sprained mine, and it wasn't until the ligaments began to pull that I had the courage to face the fact that I was made out of bookkeeper instead of concert-pianist stuff."
"You, Miss Neugass, a pianist!"
"Sounds queer to you, doesn't it?"
"My own realization. One night before he moved from the neighborhood Doctor Feldman sent pa a pair of seats for De Pachman. I was seventeen then, and Millie seven. Ma stayed in the store and pa and I went. I remember as if it were yesterday. The concert was at Beethoven Hall and it snowed so that when we arrived I made pa slip off his shoes under the chair, for his socks to dry. I had been studying for eight years then and my teacher was arranging a recital. Strangest thing, but De Pachman played every single thing of Chopin's that I had on my own little repertoire, only under his touch it was real lace played into perfect design. I think pa must have lived through everything with me that night. He's got the finest musical instinct in the family, Millie included. We didn't say a word all the way home, but next day when I told him that I was going to business college on the money we were going to put into the recital, he didn't say a word, either. Just patted my hand. He knew! It wasn't so much a matter of technique, only when I played Nocturne in D flat a hammer inside the piano case hit a wire; when De Pachman touched those same keys a nerve kissed a heartbeat."
"Alma—Neugass! You poor—you splendid girl!"
Curled up there on the narrow bed, her bony profile against the wall and her knees hugged up to her after the manner of the excessively thin, a smile had come out on Miss Neugass's face as if the taste of renunciation were anything but bitter.
"I don't know what kind of a pianist I might have made, but I do know I've made a good bookkeeper and that a little talent took a chance on stepping aside for a bigger."
"You mean your sister?"
"There's a talent for you! Millie has a voice like one of those revolving barber poles, as round at the bottom as it is at the top, and it goes up and up seemingly without end. There never was any doubt about Millie."
"Oh, Miss Neugass, you frighten me! What if my arm is too short? Your sister's teacher, Ballman, to whom your mother sent me, says so little."
"Ballman is a great voice builder, but he doesn't concern himself with the future of his pupils. He's a dear old fogy with a single-track mind."
"What did he used to say of your sister?"
"Nothing much except that he used to call her his wonder-child and shut up like a clam when we tried to discuss her future with him. What you need now, if you're ever really going to get anywhere, is an audition."
"One of the big opera directors to hear you. It's not easy to arrange at the Metropolitan. Ballman has no pull. It takes a man like Auchinloss or Trieste or one of the big guns."
"If only I could get started, Miss Neugass, on the right track!"
"I'll tell you what I'll do. When Auchinloss comes this winter I'll have him hear you. That may pave the way to something. He's the prince of them all. His judgment never fails. He's only stamped his approval on five or six, but he's never missed. They say he heard Paula Anchutz singing her baby to sleep one night as he happened to pass her cottage, and he rang her door bell."
"Auchinloss discovered Paula Anchutz!"
"He decided her greatness after a few bars. Some day I'll read you Millie's letter home about her audition in Vienna. After about six bars of the 'Jewel Song' he leaped up over the footlights, screamed at her, kissed her, drew up a chair, and began to plan out the entire campaign of her future, so rapidly that the poor child said everything was swinging in circles before her."
Her eyes two flaming orbits, Lilly sat staring, her lips slightly open.
"And that was the beginning."
"Yes, that was the beginning of—everything," said Miss Neugass, with a twist on her lips.
"Oh, I—Even to hear it thrills me so that I—Thrills me so! But what, Miss Neugass—what if he hadn't—"
"That is where you must make up your mind to take your medicine. There's an article about him in this month's Musical Gazette. If he thinks you've the stuff great singers are made of, it's a repetition of his scene with Millie every time. But this article goes on to say, if he rubs his hands together and says, 'Very nice,' and walks off, that means he thinks you will probably make a better bookkeeper or baby dandler than you will a prima donna. Millie used to write that around the opera house in Vienna, when Auchinloss started rubbing his hands together after an audition, everybody used to have the smelling salts ready."
"Miss Neugass—you've heard me practice. Tell me the truth! Do you think my ambition is bigger than my voice? Tell me as you would your sister."
The veil of a pause hung between them, Miss Neugass unfolding her legs and letting them hang over the side of the bed, as if she would flee the moment.
"Why, I'm no critic, Miss Parlow. All I inherit is some of my father's natural musical instinct."
"You're evading me, like Ballman does! Tell me! You may save me as you saved yourself. Am I chasing a phantom?"
"I swear to you I don't know. I like your voice. I think it has a beautiful rich quality. I agree with Ballman, it has fine timbre."
"Timbre—I'm tired hearing that—"
"That counts in voice almost as much as range."
"No, no, don't evade. You think it lacks range?"
"I don't know. It lacks something—as if—well, if you'll pardon my saying it, as if it didn't reach as far as your temperament could fling it."
"That's it exactly! I feel that about myself in everything—almost as if—as if it would take another generation of me to complete me—if—if you get what I mean."
"There is something in that."
"I know what you think in your heart. I'm a vaudeville product with a grand-opera aspiration."
"I'm not capable of judging."
"You judged your sister."
"Ah, but Millie's voice there was no mistaking. Her talent needed hardly to be developed. It opened naturally, like a rose. Nine voices out of ten have to be drilled for like precious ore. Just you study on. I'll have Auchinloss hear you when he comes over."
"You're sure, Miss Neugass, they're coming?"
"That's what the papers keep saying. She's to sing three operas in January, with Auchinloss conducting. We're expecting daily to hear from my sister, verifying it."
"You don't know—exactly?"
"If only—You don't think it will be this side of January? You see, after January my—my plans may be uncertain."
"I understand. He's to conduct his own symphony in December, to be played the first time in this country, somewhere around Christmas in Boston, I think."
"Will you be wanting this room then?"
Miss Neugass swung her face with its considerable dip of nose toward Lilly.
"You don't think this place will hold Millie any more? You don't think, for instance, the great Du Gass could receive the reporters—here!"
"But, after all, it's her home."
A levelness of expression came down over the face of Miss Neugass, as if a shade had been lowered across it, her voice, too, leveled of any inflection.
"Of course," she said, "you know about my sister and—Auchinloss."
"Oh, I realize everybody knows—that is, everybody except my parents."
"That's because you don't belong yet! Wait until you've worked your way in a bit. I've known it long enough. Two years."
"She was a baby when she left, Miss Parlow. Even if there had been the money to send me along with her, we wouldn't have felt the need of it. I could have staked my life on that child. Not that I'm blaming her, only I—God! I could have staked my life."
"Already married. She wrote me the whole story two years ago. It's an old one. So old it's got barnacles. I sometimes wonder it came to me with the terrible shock it did. She was so young—too young to get ahead so quickly even with her gifts. He has a son almost her age. He's forty and she's twenty. The wife in an insane asylum somewhere outside of Paris. Our Millie! I don't think I even realize it yet. Beauty and the Beast they call them in Milan."
"That baby. The whole world before her. It was all with her or nothing, she wrote, and she chose all. She sang six leading roles that first year. It made her. I—I don't blame her, somehow—that baby. It's him I hate. Sometimes I wonder how I'm going to hold back, when I lay hands on him, from—killing. But I won't. I'll grin and bear it just as if her beautiful little white self were no more to me than an alabaster vase after it's cracked."
"And your parents?"
"That's all she writes of, now that she thinks she is coming, to keep it from them! I wake up nights in a cold sweat over it. Wringing wet with the fear of my job."
"Your mother and sweet little old father!"
"That's it; they're like two babes in the woods morally. They don't know any gradation except black and white. Virtue and sin. A woman is good or a woman is rotten bad. She falls or she doesn't."
"Oh, I know the relentlessness of that single-track code of right and wrong."
"My stepmother, good soul that she is, would take the last stitch off her back for what she calls honest need, but I've seen her slam the door in the face of one of our neighbor girls in trouble who's come to my father begging for help—medicine. That's what I'm up against, Miss Parlow, keeping from those two old people what their daughter—is."
"Oh, my dear, my dear!"
"I don't know why I'm airing my troubles here. God knows you are bottled up enough about yours, if you have any, but I thought surely you knew. Everyone does. Is it any wonder that my sister's home-coming is a nightmare to me? She doesn't want to come; I can read between the lines of her letter she's fighting it. But you see, Auchinloss is a great man. He's been invited to conduct his own symphony at its American premiere and naturally has taken this opportunity to bring about her American debut. You can imagine my parents' pride."
"I can see it. Why, your father can't keep his face straight—he's always sort of smiling, slyly, to himself."
"Their daughter, Millie du Gass, coming home with an opera triumph back of her in every European city, the great Auchinloss himself coming to conduct for her American debut. That is the kind of homecoming they're looking forward to and the kind I must make possible for them. My mother, who screams out every girl in trouble who dares to come into the drug store for help!"
When Lilly bade Alma Neugass good night, they kissed, a dark bony hand lingering on each of Lilly's shoulders.
"You've your decision before you yet, Miss Parlow, and you're young and pretty, too. Much as I love that little sister of mine, and can't find it in my heart to blame her, I know that somewhere there are women big enough not to have to pay the price. You—there's something about you—something so, if you'll permit me to say it, so boyish—so clean—so wholesome. You should be big enough not to have to pay the price."
"If only I felt that your sister—cared. That is so horrible—the beauty-and-the-beast part. To place personal ambition above her body—the body that holds her soul! Ugh!"
"She sent his picture. He's hairy like an ape. My. little white sister—he's—hairy, I tell you, like an ape."
"I think I would have to want something—love something—enough to tear out my very heart for it before I could pay her price. Nothing on earth, Miss Neugass, can be so hideous—as that! I—I imagine it's flying in the face of the first law of nature—nothing so hideous as giving of self to—in—in—payment—"
Tears were racking the worn form of Miss Neugass, Lilly wrapping her in arms that soothed.
"You musn't," she said; "you've your big job ahead of you."
Through the left wall came a sharp trilogy of raps.
"All right, ma. Coming!" cried Miss Neugass, starting up instantly, her voice lifted and absolutely without tremor.
That night Lilly dreamed the whole of her marriage. Her father with his face distorted by lather before his shaving mirror. The Leffingwell Rock Church. Little Evelyn Kemble placing the white-satin cushion. Herself and Albert finally locking the door of their new little home that wedding night.
It was then she awoke with a scream.
About a week later an advertisement in a morning paper caught Lilly's eye.
WANTED:—Refined young woman of good appearance and soprano voice, to sing in music store. Must be able to accompany self. Apply between twelve and six. Broadway Melody Shop, 1432 Broadway.
A recurring and dragging sense of lassitude was over her these mornings, so that it was all she could do to drag herself through two hours of practice in the parlor, scrupulously given over by Mrs. Neugass, who moved constantly and audibly about the kitchen.
Her lessons, one every Tuesday morning, with Leopold Ballman, were tiresome unmusical periods of diaphragm exercises and an entire tearing down and reconstruction process of the previous methods taught her. It was tedious, standing before the long gold-and-black pier glass in the front parlor, watching the tendinous rise and fall of her lower thorax when her forbidden arias were on top of the piano and a cabinet of Millie du Gass's sheet music bulged there at her disposal.
The old disturbing ache would climb up to the back of her neck, and her half-baked power of concentration falter at the arid monotony of, breathe-in; breathe-out.
There were about five months between Lilly and the hour of her supreme travail. They might have been five years, while she paused suspended, as it were, in this state of abeyance that hung between the hot August day of her leave-taking of home and that chimeric hour ahead which depended like a stalactite, stabbing space.
Her most tangible concern was a money one. The breaking of another one-hundred-dollar bill was imminent and it frightened her. She reduced her vocal lessons, at three dollars the hour, to one every other week, finally discontinuing entirely, and took to haunting the agencies daily, leaving her address where no initial charges were required and scanning incessantly the want advertisements under Amusements.
She applied one Monday morning at the Broadway Melody Shop, a mere aisle wedged between a theater and a rotisserie, a megaphone inserted through a hole cut in the plate-glass frontage that was violently plastered over with furiously colored copies of what purported to be the latest song hits: "If I Could Be Molasses to Your Griddle Cakes." "Snuggle Up, Snookums." "Honey, Does You Love Me?" "Cakin' the Walk." "It's Twilight on the Tiber." "Tu-Lips for Mine!"
A sort of managerial salesman in a number-thirteen-and-a-half collar and a part that ran through his varnished-looking hair bisecting the back of his head like a poodle's, and a soft, pimply jowl that had never borne beard, stuck up a random sheet of music on the piano, so placed that its tones carried straight through the megaphone to the sidewalk.
She played and sang it off easily, her tones jaunty and staccato and her desire to please quivering through them. He stood beside her, the angle of his body so that the sharp bone of his hip pressed against her.
"Rag up," he said once, insinuating the movement with a slight wriggle that ran through his apparently rigid body. She quickened her speed, leaning forward to read more surely:
"Uh-uh! my ba-a-aaby, You drive me cra-azy, Uh-uh! quit shovin', I'm only lov—in'."
The words running along to a stuttering syncopation that filled her with self-disgust as she sang them. But she finished with quite a flourish, swinging around on the stool to face him.
"You need ragging up, kiddo. You've the speed of a funeral march."
"A little practice is what I need," she said, half hoping to obtain.
"I'll try you at fifteen a week. Eleven to six Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. The other evenings we close at eleven; fifty cents extra for supper money. You on?"
"Slick, ain't you? Who peeled you to-day, Miss Bermuda Onion? Aw, touchy! No harm meant. You're too big to suit me; I like 'em squab size. Rag up a bit between now and to-morrow, Miss Onion."
For five weeks in the little slit of store that was foul with tired and devitalized air, and concealed behind a screen that shut off the megaphone device, Lilly sang through an eight and sometimes a twelve-hour day, her voice drifting out to the sidewalk with a remote calling quality.
To her relief she quickly learned that Mr. Alphonse Rook—"Phonzie"—spent the greater part of his time at the office of the Manhattan Music Publishing Company, under which auspices the Broadway Melody Shop operated.
He was replaced by a salesgirl of such superlative dress and manner that her long jet earrings were like exclamations at the audacity of her personality. An habitual counter line-up of Broadway mental brevities in the form of young men with bamboo sticks and eyes with perpetual ogles in them, would while away the syncopated hours with her, occasionally Lilly emerging from behind her screen to "come up for air," as Miss Gertrude Kirk put it.
She was "Gert" to the boys, and from the propinquity of that sliver of store and the natural loquacity of Miss Kirk, which would have overflowed a much more generous area, Lilly was to learn much of life as it is lived on that bias which is cut against the warp and woof of society. Miss Kirk had twice been up in night court. Her mother alternated under three aliases and was best known on the night boat that plied between New York and Albany. Occasionally this mother visited upon her daughter, her laughter hitting through the store like cymbals. She had the sagging flesh of an old fowl and cheeks that had not been cleansed of rouge long enough for the pores to breathe in and keep the flesh alive. To Lilly she was as terrible as a plucked hen on a butcher's block, with her head dyed to a vicious cock's-comb red and the wattles of loose skin beneath her chin.
In fact, she was familiarly known around the shop as "old bird," and on one occasion had invited Lilly for a Sunday excursion "up to Albany."
"Lay off, ma," said her daughter. "Fer Gossake, can't you take a tumble?"
Miss Kirk's tongue was as nimble as her fingers. She used them both lightly. Would tear the flounce off her too lacy petticoat to bind up a messenger boy's cut finger, and no scarf-pin that came within three feet of her was immune from her quick touch. The only hour that ever struck for her was sex o'clock. The unmentionable lay mentioned in her discourse so frequently that to Lilly the Broadway Melody Shop became a slimy-sided vat, horrible with small-necked young men with flexible canes and Gertrude Kirk's slit-eyed stare of calculation.
"I don't know what you're trying to put over, Lilly-of-the-valley; you're one too many for me. But I'd stake my life on one thing."
"You got a caul over your face."
"Caul. Sort of veil some get born with. I know a girl carried hers around in a little wooden box for luck. Well, you got that white-veil kind of look that would blacklist you for the Vestal Virgin Sextet. I can pick 'em every time. You look to me like—say, I got a little mud puddle of my own to play in without wetting my feet in yours."
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about," said Lilly, crashing out the opening bars of "Oh, Willie, I love you when you're silly."
"No?" said Miss Kirk, the slit-eyed stare of terrible sophistication narrowing down to two blade edges.
That night Lilly eyed herself in all the plate-glass windows as she walked to the car. She was straight as a lance, but before she went to bed she readjusted the gathers of her skirt band, pushing them forward.
One evening, because she saw it in the window of one of the Amsterdam Avenue petty shops, she bought, furtively, a baby dress with a little nursery legend embroidered on the yoke. She stole home with the package up under her coat, like a thief. Once in her room, she laid it out on the bed. It was as tiny as the French apron of the French maid who opens the play, and as sheer. She wanted suddenly to finger it, and did, laying her cheek to it with a rushing sense of sweetness, and then suddenly, on wild lashing tears of her resentment and terror, her hands tightening into and wringing it. Dragging the suitcase out from beneath her bed, she crammed in the little garment, and finally, strapping down the lid again, laid her head against it, silently screaming her despair.
Strangely enough, that very night, long after the street noises had thinned and she had heard Isaac Neugass, creeping up from the drug store, drag the bolt across the apartment door, Lilly sat suddenly up in bed out of a hot tossing period of light doze. She was often crying unconsciously into her sleep these nights, so that her eyes were tear-bitten and dilated into the darkness. The night bell that connected from the drug store was gouging the silence with a long-sustained grilling. Soft-soled feet were already padding down the hallway past her door, a bolt withdrawn, then voices.
The grunty tones of Mr. Neugass and a woman's fast soprano that rose and rent the silence like the tear of silk. More feet down the hallway; sobs that were filled with coughing; Mrs. Neugass, pitched high in the key of termagency; the faint, expostulatory voice of Alma Neugass; and finally one throat-torn sob that grated like a buzz saw against the night and the banging, reverberating slam of a door.
Barefooted, trembling in the chill, Lilly peered out into the hallway, the grotesque procession returning down its length. Mr. Neugass bent to his tired angle, nightshirt striking him midships as it were, the two dim white women creeping after.
"What has happened?"
"It's nodding, Miss Parlow. It's a shame for decent beoble they should have to listen. Wash your ears out of it, Alma, and go back to bed."
But instead, to Lilly's importuning arm, Miss Neugass slid into her room, closing the door softly behind her, standing there shivering in the blue kind of darkness.
"It's the old story," she said—"some girl in a fix and trying to get pa to help her. It makes me sick, positively sick."
"Every once in a while some poor creature comes begging pa to break the law and help her. It gets him wild. Any girl who doesn't want her child is a monster and every girl in trouble a vicious sinner. This poor little thing didn't look seventeen; I couldn't quite understand her. A Pole, I think. Something about the beach at Coney Island. A man she'd never seen before or since. My mother in her righteousness! Her terrible, untempted righteousness. Her easy righteousness. The law in its righteousness. It can be just as wrong and horrible to have children as it can be sublime. What right has that little underbred girl to bring an illegitimate life into the world? The law doesn't provide for the illegitimate child. Why should it provide for its birth? What right had my father to withhold his help? ... There are worse crimes than taking human life; one of them is to give life under such conditions."
"You mean, Alma, there's a way not to—a way out?"
"Why, you poor baby! Of course there is if you see to it in time. That is, during the first few weeks."
"Oh, five or six at the outside. Go back to bed, girl; you'll catch your death. O Lordy! such is life!" And went out.
For the third time in her life, Lilly fainted that night, standing shivering in her nightdress for a second after Miss Neugass had left. In a room barely wide enough to contain her length she dropped softly against the bed, and, her fall broken, slid the remaining distance to the floor.
After a while the chill air from the open window revived her and she crept shudderingly into bed.
Two weeks before Christmas such a gale of house-cleaning swept through the Neugass apartment that the scoured smell of pine-wood floors and the scrubbed taste of damp matting lurked at the very threshold.
Then one Sunday morning Mlle. Millie du Gass and maid, also Felix G. Auchinloss, were registered at the Waldorf.
All that day there wound into Lilly's room the aroma of fowl simmering in their juices, the quick hither and thither of feet down the hallway, and later the whirring of an ice-cream freezer and the quick fork-and-china click of egg whites in the beating. For days she had hardly glimpsed the family, except as they passed her on excited little comings and goings, and always package-laden. A strip of new hall carpet appeared, Miss Neugass nailing it down one night, calling out short, excited orders through a mouthful of tacks. The piano had been tuned.
A sense of delicacy kept Lilly to her room that bright cold Sunday. She did her breathing exercises; washed out some handkerchiefs and stockings; tightened the buttons on a pretty new brown coat with a touch of modish stone-martin fur at the collar which she had purchased, not without qualms, for twenty-seven dollars and a half, at an advertised sale.
Then for two long immobile hours she sat with her cheeks crumpled into her palms, staring out across the sun-washed roofs and roofs.
At noon she took in a bottle of milk from the window sill, thawed it, slid a hatpin along the wrapping of a new tin of biscuit. She alternated between bites and sips, sitting on the bed edge, her gaze into the design of the wall paper.
At home they must be sitting down to dinner, her father adjusting his napkin by the patent fasteners and tilting back his head for the invariable preamble of throwing the contents of his water tumbler down at a gulp. Her mother in the hebdomadal polka-dotted foulard, her bangs frizzed. Albert gnawing close to the drumstick, jaws working.
As a matter of fact, just that scene was at just that moment in its enactment, and in all the fullness of her intuition she now knew it as unerringly as if it had flowed in replica to her through time and space, etching itself in dry point into her consciousness.
How often and with uncanny fidelity to fact her retroactive state of mind had guided her step by step over the site of the domestic disaster.
Her parents' home, reaching around like an amoeba, inclosing Albert in living walls. The slow readjustment, dumfounded rage, and despair simmering gradually to bitterness and hardening finally to despair. The soft, sensitive ground of their sorrow constantly spongy with the wellsprings of grief beneath, but the surface bubbles showing less and less, and ultimately a hard dryness setting in. Her heart would hurt as tangibly as if the surface of her body were red with a wound from it, yet, sitting there at her milk and biscuit, her gaze into the monotonous repetition of wall-paper design, the thought of that Sunday dinner out there, with its invariable roast chicken, bread stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, and lemon-meringue pie; the Sunday-afternoon lethargy; the hypothenuse of her father asleep in his chair, the newspaper over his face; Albert, the celluloid toothpick moving along his lips, puttering around at favorite locks and bells; the mere visualization was such a fillip to her present that she lay back on the bed, stretching her arms and legs like a great, luxurious cat, her lips curved to a smile.
At five o'clock, as she lazed there, Alma Neugass burst in without the usual scrupulously observed preamble of a knock. There were two round spots of color out on her long cheeks, and her white cotton shirt waist, always bearing the imprint of sleeve protectors, was replaced by a dark-blue silk of candy-stripe plaid, with a standing collar of lace that fell in a jabot down the front, held there by an ivory hand of a brooch. There was something of the mausoleum about poor Alma, the grim skeleton of her everyday personality finding but icy warmth beneath the ivory, lace, and the seldom-warn black broadcloth skirt that was pinned over two inches at the waistline to hold it up.
"Did you think I'd forgotten you? I haven't—but it's been such a rush."
She sat down on a chair edge, pressing a bony hand to her brow.
"You poor thing, you're dead tired."
"They're here, you know. Docked this morning, almost twenty-four hours ahead of schedule. They—they would have come up immediately, but customs detained them three hours. They are at the hotel now and won't be up until supper. It's all so confusing. The reporters and photographers on their trail. He won't let anyone at her until she's rested. I talked to him over the telephone. His voice is—hairy."
"I've never seen you look so nice, Miss Neugass."
"If I stop to think, I'll scream."
"Then you mustn't stop, dear."
"You should see my father; he can't sit still. I never realized how little and—old he's getting until I put his black suit on him. He's so full of pride he—Oh, what a mockery—for him to dare to come here—home—with her."
"Miss Neugass—this is not the time. Not now."
A cocaine sort of courage seemed to lock her face back into its rather nondescript immobility.
"You're right," she said. "I'm acting like a fool," and rose. "What I came in to say, get into that little pink dress of yours about nine-thirty and I may be able to manage it for you to-night. Two minutes of his time may mean everything to you and nothing to him."
Lilly flashed to her feet.
"Keep your head. Sing the 'Jewel Song.' It's always a good, showy standby. Let go—the way I heard you practice the other Sunday morning—and forget that it's Auchinloss or anyone else listening to you."
"No, no, not to-night, Miss Neugass. I—I'm not prepared. It's too sudden."
"It's as good as any other time. Besides, to-night we have him here, and there is no telling when we will again. This isn't what you would call the ideal headquarters for a pair of celebrities. I suppose, if the truth is known, Millie dreads bringing him here at all. Besides, they leave to-morrow for Boston, and with the line-up of entertainments the newspapers say are planned for them, there is no telling when we will get him alone again."
"I'm not in voice these days. It's all roughened up since I'm singing downtown. I—oh, I'm not ready to-night, Miss Neugass."
"Nonsense! Don't ask Opportunity to wait outside when he knocks. He may move on and not return."
"I—I'm so frightened. I've such—such odds against me—right now. What if he only rubs his hands and says, 'very nice'? What if—"
"That's where you'll have to swallow your medicine. After all, even the great Auchinloss represents only one man's opinion."
"But his judgment has proved itself—time and time again."
"That's why you have the chance to-night that comes once in a lifetime. Take it."
It was just before midnight, after a four-hour period of waiting in the pink mull dress, when came the summons which brought Lilly into the presence of Felix Auchinloss.
Cramped from the long period of taut waiting, she was so dry of throat that in spite of constantly sipped water she could only gulp her reply to Miss Neugass's knock and eagerly inserted head.
"Quick! He'll hear you now before they leave." She followed her, without a word, down the hallway and into a front parlor brilliant with the full-flare gas jets, a bisque angel in the attitude of swinging dangling from the chandelier, and, swimming in the dance, a circle of faces.
"Miss Parlow, this is my sister, Millie du Gass."
A Greek chorus could have swayed to the epiphany in Millie's voice.
With her short bush of curls, little aquiline profile true to her father's, tilted upward, as if sniffing the aerial scent, her slender figure Parisienne to outlandishness, the stream of Millie's ancestry flowed through the tropics of her very exotic personality. She was the magnolia on the family tree, the bloom on a century plant that was heavy with its first bud. Even at this time, slightly before her internationalism as a song bird was to carry her name to the remote places of the earth, a little patina of sophistication had set in, glazing her over and her speech, which carried the whir of three acquired languages.
"And this is Doctor Auchinloss. I've told him about you and your eagerness for a foothold. He's going to give you a little home-made audition. Will you hear Miss Parlow now, Doctor Auchinloss?"
The face of Felix Auchinloss, also to become familiar through subsequent years of American dictatorship, seemed by the hirsute vagary of a black beard joining up via sideburns with a Pompadour of sooty black, to peer through a porthole. It did just that. A face in window looking out with very quick perceptions which ruffled it not at all, upon a world that came to him chiefly through two channels, his supernaturally attuned hearing and his palate.
He could detect a slurred note of the sixteenth violin in the crash of a ninety-piece ensemble of orchestration, and one-eighth-of-a-second miscalculation of his two-minute egg could embroil a breakfast table. A creature of elbows and knees, such as a chimpanzee is, the backs of his hands were hairy, but the eye seldom strayed from his face. It knew its Huxley, that face, its Hegel and its Kant. It loved the smoothness of young girls' bodies. It was attuned to the music of the spheres. It could hold in leash the outrageous temperaments that responded to his baton and look with impassivity, even cruelty, upon torture. Mostly the torture of women. Also it could brighten out of its imperturbability at the steaming sight of a dish of sauerbraten.
There had been no sauerbraten on Mrs. Neugass's festive board, rather fowl, in a white glue of gravy and great creamy dumplings, and under three helpings and the steady pour of an extra lager the great Auchinloss had expanded and expounded.
His glance, still warmed, took in Lilly at a sweep finding resting place at the swell of her bosom.
There was something about Lilly as she stood thereof the winglike smoothness of a little wild duck, wet from a skim across water. A slick and pale kind of beauty which ordinarily held little appeal for him except that her bosom was very white. Very, very white, he thought.
"Zoprano?" he asked, his gaze still beneath her chin.
"Om-m-m-m!" After the manner of having his doubts.
"You accompany her, Felix," said Miss du Gass, not unkindly and actually with an intensive kind of eagerness, as if for the diverting of his interest.
He seated himself at the piano, his great knees at a wide stride, hands riding down the keyboard in an avalanche of improvised octaves.
In black silk that stood away from her, Mrs. Neugass sat by, not releasing hold of Millie's hand, her eyes as if they could never finish their feast of her. Her timidity forbade her much that she would say, and so she sat smilingly silent and held the little ring-littered hand, stroked it and lay it to her cheek. To Lilly, who had never seen her out of the cotton-stuff uniform of housewife, it seemed to her that something of her Old Testament beauty had died beneath the bunchy jetted taffeta that brought out in her the look of peasant—her husband in camphoric broadcloth suffering the same demotion.
"Now doan' get egcited," said Mr. Neugass, himself shaken of voice. "Remember it is home folks."
"She's all right, pa, if you don't make her nervous," said Miss Neugass, seating herself stiffly on a stiff chair, her face, as the evening wore on, cold of its flush, and tired rings coming out beneath her eyes.
"What do you prefer to sing?" asked Millie du Gass, again, kindly.
"The 'Jewel Song.'"
On her words the opening bars crashed out, and, to Lilly's consternation, far too rapidly, so that she ran with her breath, as it were, for the opening notes, lifting to it nicely, however, and, by miracle, quite at her truest.
The state of her invariable vocal exultation began to mount, her consciousness of scene to recede, and, anticipating her coloratura climax, she started to climb, building for warble. Her blood was pounding and her voice in flight. Up went her chin. It was then Felix Auchinloss swung on the stool, snipping off the song like a thread, his face in its window, full of a new impassivity, and this time his eyes off somewhere behind Lilly's left ear.
"That is verra nize," he said, moving restlessly about the room as if to throw off an irksome moment, and then winding his hands and winding them, "a pretty voice as far as it goes, and verra, verra nize."
There was a silence that seemed to wait, and Millie du Gass, her laugh like glass beads falling from a snapped chain:
"You must come down to the hotel, dear, some day, where I've a concert grand. This darling old tin pan! You should have seen, Felix, the way pops used to make me practice on it, rapping me over the knuckles. You old darling pops!"
"Papa's baby-la," he said, pinching her cheek.
"If you will excuse me now, please, I—won't, intrude any longer."
"Good night, dear; it was just lovely. Good night," joined in everybody, too kindly.
Walking out of that room, Lilly was conscious suddenly of passing through a prolonged stare, especially from Mrs. Neugass, who leaned forward slightly in her chair—a stare that prompted her somehow to quicken her departure almost to a run.
* * * * *
Out of a night that had flowed around her in a bitter sort of blackness that fairly threatened to drown her, she floated up toward morning to an exhausted doze, her face tear-lashed and her breathing sucked in sobbily as she slept.
It was out of this that she awoke suddenly to a bombardment of knocks at her door.
"Come!" she cried, sitting up rather alarmedly in bed, and holding the blanket over her chest. She was lovely and disheveled with sleep, her whiteness whiter because of the most delicately darkened oyster shells beneath her eyes.
It was Mrs. Neugass. She was pleasantly shapeless again in cotton stuff, her bosom bulging down and over the jerked-in apron strings.
"Wait, I'll get up and close the window, Mrs. Neugass!"
"You doan' need to," she said, slamming down the window herself, opening the floor register, and seating herself rigidly on the chair that faced the bed. "I want a little talk with you, blease."
"Why, yes, Mrs. Neugass!" A wave of memory and a sense of physical misery swept over Lilly so that it was difficult for her to force the smile. But she did, sitting up in bed and hugging her knees with bare shining arms.
With nervousness patent in every move, Mrs. Neugass sat forward, pleating and unpleating a little section of her apron.
"I guess you know it, Miss Lilly, that with all the honors we got by our daughter, we're still blain, respegtable beoble."
"For fifteen years in one business in one neighborhood we've such a standing that from three blocks around they come to my husband he should keep their savings. My girls—I can say it on a bible—more than anything around them was always respegtability."
"If I'm mistaken, Miss Luella, and blease God I should be, then excuse me for a foolish old woman, but is—is everything all right with you, Miss Luella?"
"Mrs. Neugass, I—What do you mean?"
"I took you in for a student, a girl alone from her home town, but not once since you're with us—I can't help it I got eyes—so much as a postal card. All right, I said time and time again to my husband, she don't have friends to come and call on her, because she's a stranger in New York. Neither did my Millie have so many friends, I guess, the first few weeks in Munich. But no letters—not a line! I know goys ain't so strong on family ties, but once in a while a letter—"
"I don't quite see where the matter of my correspondence can be of interest to you, Mrs. Neugass."
"No, but it is of interest to me if everything is all right with you. If everything is over and above-board, as the saying is, Miss Luella!"
There was a throb to the silence, as she sat upright there in bed, that seemed to shape itself about her, like a trap. She buried her face suddenly into her hands.
Then Mrs. Neugass rose, edging around the back of her chair as if to get clear of even propinquity.
"I'm right?" she cried, hoarsely and rather coarsely. "I'm right, then? I took into my home a bad girl?"
Out of bed, her feet hastily into slippers and fumbling into her kimono so that the flow of her hair went down inside it, Lilly approached Mrs. Neugass, her gesture toward her and entreating.
"Mrs. Neugass, you're horribly wrong in what you suspect. You must listen to me—"
"You can exblain nothing to me except to get your clothes packed. How it goes to show you never can tell beoble from looks. Even my husband, who never gets deceived in human nature, 'She's a refined, intelligent girl to have around,' he says. My stepdaughter! A girl I am as careful with as if she was still eighteen, should go out of her way to get you before Auchinloss! No wonder he says it you are limited and that you fall just short of fine talent. You don't deserve it no better. Ain't you ashamed? You bad girl, you! I'm only sorry for the mother you say you got—your poor mother!"
"Mrs. Neugass, this is outrageous! You haven't the right to speak to me like this! It was wrong, I admit, to—to deceive you. But I had my reasons—you wouldn't have taken me in. I'm not what—what you think I am!"
"I don't care what you are and what you ain't. I only want you to pack your bags and go."
"I won't go until you've heard me out!"
"We're respegtable beoble!"
"Oh, I know, Mrs. Neugass, your kind of respectability. I was reared on it. It's the cruelest respectability in the world. It has no outlook except through the narrow little bars of the small decencies you have erected about yourselves."
"That fine talk don't save a girl's skin when she's in such a fix like you!"
"I've more claims to your precious kind of respectability than you—than you think!"
"I don't think no more. I know! I don't say it's the nicest thing I should have looked once through your things. Even then I must have felt it in my bones. That little dress with the nursery rhyme on the yoke—how it was I didn't get suspicious then? All of a sudden last night, though—even while you was singing, it come over me, all these weeks I must have been blind."
"I tell you I'm a married woman. I was married last July in the Leffingwell Rock Church in St.—in a city I don't care to name. I suppose that constitutes me a moral woman in your world of cautious morality. But in my eyes I'm a moral leper. Not because I did not marry, but because I did. Married for every reason in the world except love. No marriage ceremony in the world can condone the immorality of that! Society may, but God doesn't. From your point of view, then, I'm a respectable woman. From mine, I'm rotten."
"I don't know what it is you're talking aboud. If you are what you say you are, what does it mean living around in decent beoble's houses in a condition like yours? It's an insult to my daughters you should be here. The right kind of a married woman don't live around New York in such a way like you. There is something very crooked in the woodpile."
"If that is what bothers you, won't you please, dear Mrs. Neugass, sit down and let me tell you the whole story? I need you—"
"The whole story, Miss—Mrs. Parlow—or whatever it is you call yourself—ain't what bothers me. All I want is you should go while my husband is down in his store and my daughter in her position. I am ashamed they should know. I'm lucky yet I saved myself from having a disgrace in the house a few weeks from now."
"Oh, Mrs. Neugass, be careful! You may have cause some day to—"
"A singer she wants to be! Is it any wonder, miss, you got no luck? A girl like you don't deserve it. I'm sorry enough for your poor mother. Married or no married, I want you should leave here. Quick, you bad girl, you! I'll wait outside till you go."
So Lilly was subjected to the bitter, the unspeakably vulgar humiliation of gathering her belongings like any culprit servant girl, cramming them, blind with tears and frenzy, into the suitcase and valise, tears scalding down and rolling over her hands as she dressed.
As she staggered finally down the hallway, the two bags grating the walls and her hat awry from haste, Mrs. Neugass stood at the door, holding it open.
"Here," she said, "is your rent back for four days—"
"Don't you dare, Mrs. Neugass, to offer me that! Only let me out, please, from this outrageous predicament."
"You got righd. It is a outrageous predicament. Ach! shame on you! Such a fine, clean-looking girl like you. Indeed, you don't got to ask to be let out twice."
Thirty minutes later, and because her wildly beating brain could figure out no alternative, Lilly sat on a bench in the waiting room of the Grand Central Station, bags at her feet, trying to subdue her state of trembling.
Eleven o'clock moved around largely on the station clock. She was due at the Broadway Melody Shop. Still she sat on, the palpitating surface of her gradually slowing its throb. The reverberating terminal, then at the excavating state of its gigantic reconstruction, rang to the crash of steel with the fantastic echo of tunnel and of blasting. Its constant conglomerate of footfalls reduced to the common denominator of a gigantic shuffle, it swelled toward the noonday schedule, with more and more rapid comings and goings. A light snow was announcing itself in little white powderings across overcoat shoulders and in the crevices of derbys.
The new brown coat enveloped her warmly enough, but she shivered as she sat, at the same time committing the paradox of unbuttoning and flinging its double-breastedness away from the beating of her very being. After a while she gave over her bags to the obliging eye of a shawled Polish girl on the bench beside her and crossed to the Information Bureau. A clerk gave her precedence over two men.
Yes, there was a St. Louis train out at two-five. Another at six.
She returned and sat in the midst of a third bustling hour. A young woman with an infant, and a whole archipelago of luggage surrounding her, finally replaced the Polish girl. She was as fadely and straggily pretty as a doll that has been left lying on the lawn throughout a night of heavy dews. Every so often the tiny head would spring back from the soft fount of her breasts, a cry rising thin and spiral as smoke.
"Sh-h-h, baby! He won't eat," she said, plaintively. "It's just terrible; we've tried everything and he won't eat."
Lilly put out her hand toward the small ball of head, but withdrew it.
"Poor little baby!"
"My sister's gone to the matron to get him some barley water before he gets on the train. There is a grand matron here at the station. I left him with her all morning while we shopped, and he never whimpered. The barley water was her idea. He won't eat. It's terrible. He 'ain't gained in six weeks. The doctor says we've just got to keep trying until we hit a formula that agrees with him."
"Formula? How funny! Sounds like chemistry."
The young mother cast a commiserating eye.
"I'd hate to tell you what it sounds like about two P.X. I've been on a visit to my mother in Brooklyn, but he yelled so of nights the whole flat was kicking. You ain't, by any chance, taking the two-five St. Louis Limited, are you? Brazil, Indiana, is mine."
"Ever been there?"
"I've passed through."
"Some dump, believe me. I keep saying to him, 'Keep me out here much longer, Fred, and you'll have to ship me home in a wooden kimono.'"
"Coffin. Get me?"
"Then Brazil isn't your home?"
"By transplanting, yes. I never married out there, believe me. We was both born and raised right here on the little long and narrow island, till he got a better job out there with the telephone company. Believe me, I'll take my little old fifteen a week in New York to thirty a week out there, bungalow setting thrown in. Bunk-a-low, I call it."