Olga was furious, of course, when she learned what Rose had done, and accused her, with a measure of justice, of having done it to be rid of her. If Rose didn't want to remain under this imputation, she could break with Dolly. When Rose refused to do this, Olga cut her off utterly; damned her, disowned her. They were the first pair in the company to begin not to speak.
As I said, the chief discomforts for Rose in those first ten days on the road, were not the material ones. Olga's absurd way of ignoring her, the fact that she attributed their quarrel, for the benefit of the company, to Rose's jealousy of her success; worst of all, the fact that Rose couldn't be sure she wasn't jealous of Olga's success, didn't feel at least, contemplating their reversed positions, more like a failure than she would have felt had the original girl kept the leading part,—all this contributed to a discomfort that did matter, that tormented, abraded, rankled.
It became the core of a sensation that she had turned cheap and shabby; that the distinction, which with her first entrance into this life, she had built up between herself and most of her colleagues, was breaking down; that her fiber was coarsening, her fine sensitiveness becoming calloused. It troubled her that she should feel so languid an indifference over the vulgarity of the piece, a vulgarity which, under Webber's infection, grew more blatant every day.
It was obvious to her that this quality was destroying whatever slim chance for success they had. The lines, with the new ugly twist that had been imparted to them, might draw a half dozen rude guffaws from different parts of the audience, but the chill disfavor with which they were received by the rest of the house, must, she felt, have been apparent to everybody. There seemed, though, to be a superstition that a laugh was a sacred thing; something to be fed carefully with more of the same thing that had originally produced it. This treatment was persisted in, despite the fact that the audiences shrank and shriveled and the box-office receipts, she gathered from the gossip of the company, hung just about at the minimum required to keep them going.
What troubled her was her own apathetic acceptance of it all. Just as her ear seemed to have grown dull to the offenses that nightly were committed against it on the stage, and to the leering response, which was all they ever got from across the footlights, so her spirit submitted tamely to the prospect of failure. She hardly seemed to herself the same person who had set to work in a blaze of eager enthusiasm, on the part she played so mechanically now.
She tried to reassure herself with the reflection that the tour meant nothing to her, except as it fell in with an ulterior purpose, and that it was actually serving that purpose well enough. She'd deliberately turned aside from the main channel of her new life to give mind and soul a rest they needed. When she'd got that rest and rallied her courage, she'd take a fresh start. She had, lying safely in the bank in Chicago, where Galbraith had taken her, something over two hundred dollars; for she'd lived thriftily during the Chicago engagement and had added a little every week to her nest-egg of profit from the costuming business. So she had enough to get her to New York and see her through the process of finding a new job. What sort of job it would be, she was still too tired to think, but she was sure she could find something.
Meantime, out there on the road, she was making no effort to save. She indulged in whatever small ameliorations to their daily discomforts her weekly wage would run to.
It was thus that matters stood with her, when, with the rest of the company, she arrived in Dubuque on a Wednesday morning, with an hour or so to spare before the matinee.
It was a beastly day. A gusty rain, whipping up from the south, by way of answer to the challenge of a heavy snowfall the day before, inflicted a combination of the rigors of winter, with a debilitating, disquieting hint of spring. The train, for which they had been routed out that morning at seven o'clock, had been blistering hot and the necessarily open windows had let in choking clouds of smoke.
The hotel was hot, too. Rose and Dolly, as soon as they had registered, went up to their room and washed off the stains of travel, as well as they could in translucent water that was the color of weak coffee. Then Rose, in a kimono, stretched out on the bed to make up some of the rest their early departure from Cedar Rapids had deprived her of. She did this methodically whenever opportunity offered, but without any great conviction.
Dolly, though she looked a bit hollow-eyed and much more in need of rest than Rose (for she hadn't any stamina at all. She was an under-nourished, and probably anemic little thing, and was always train-sick when their jumps began too early in the morning), went straight ahead with her toilet, tried to correct her pallor with a little too much rouge, and with the glaring falsehood that it was clearing up, put on the pathetic little fifteen-dollar suit that she religiously guarded for occasions.
She was very fidgety, a little bit furtive, and elaborately over-casual about all this; a fact to which Rose was, also a little artificially, oblivious.
Their partnership had not proved, from Dolly's point of view, at any rate, an unqualified success. They'd not been on the road three days before she'd begun to wonder whether she hadn't been hasty in the selection of her chum. Doris Dane was a very magnificent person, of course. She made the rest of the company, including the principals, look (this was a phrase Dolly had unguardedly used the day Rose first appeared at rehearsal) like a bunch of rummies. And of course it was an immense compliment to be singled out by an awe-inspiring person like that, for her particular chum. Only, once the compliment had been paid, its value as an abiding possession became a little doubtful. Awe is not a very comfortable sort of emotion to eat breakfast with.
Evidently the rest of the company felt that way about it, for Dane was not popular. She gave no handle for an active grievance, to be sure. She wasn't superior in the sense in which Dolly used the word. She didn't look haughty nor say withering things to people, nor tell passionately-believed stories designed to convince her hearers that her rightful place in the world was immensely higher than the one she now occupied. One didn't hear her exclaiming under some bit of managerial tyranny, that never, in the course of her whole life, had she been subjected to such an affront. But she had a blank, rather tired way of keeping silence when other people told stories like that, or made protests like that, which was subtly infuriating. The very fact that she never tried to impress the company, was presumptive evidence that the company didn't very greatly impress her. If their common feeling about her had ever crystallized into a phrase, its effect would have been, that all their affairs, personal and professional, past, present and to come, even those she shared with them, were not of sufficient importance to her ever to get quite the whole of her attention. It was a notion that irritated the women and frightened off the men. Probably nothing else could have kept a young woman of Rose's physical attractions from being, on a tour like that, with that sort of company, the object of, at least, experiments.
Men may consider these experiments worth trying in the face of a determined hostility on the part of the subject of them. The most rigorous primness of behavior does not daunt them, nor the assertion of an icily virtuous intangibility. But the sort of good-humored preoccupation that doesn't see them at all, that sees the pattern in the wall-paper behind their backs, that tries, half-heartedly, to be adequately courteous, is too much for them. And the more experienced they are in conquests, and the higher, on the basis of their own experience, they rate the irresistibility of their powers, the less of his particular sort of treatment they can stand. The mere sight of her, after the first day or two, was enough to give a professional "killer" like Max Webber, the creeps.
But Rose's manner not only kept the men away from herself. It kept them away from Dolly. Poor Dolly didn't know what the matter was, at first.
She had been told terrible stories by her mother and her elder brother, about the perils that beset young girls who ran away from good respectable homes. She had been told them with the misguided purpose of keeping her from running away from her own home, which was no doubt respectable, but was also deadly dull. She had run away and it was perils she was looking for. She didn't mean to succumb to them. None of the heroines of the only literature she knew—of the movies, that is to say—succumbed to perils. They were beset by the most terrific perils. It was over perils that they climbed to soul-entrancing heights of romance. It was because they were the almost certain victims of diabolical machinations, that wonderful heroes, with long eyelashes and curly hair, came to their rescue and clasped them in their arms and looked unutterable things into their eyes, just as the picture faded out.
Dolly had joined the chorus of a musical comedy, because that profession offered more alluring wares in the way of perils than any other that was open to her. And then she discovered that her calculations had gone awry. The impalpable shield her formidable friend carried with her, turned the perils aside. The little group of half-grown boys one sometimes found waiting at the stage door, never even spoke to Rose, and Dolly, in her company, partook of this unwelcomed immunity. As for the men in the company, Dolly found them letting her entirely alone.
She was bitterly unhappy at first about this, taking it as an indication of the insufficiency of her charms. But once she got the clue, she set about righting matters. She began taking tentative little strolls about the hotel lobbies by herself, and on her train journeys, when the motion and the odor of the men's pipes didn't make her too sick, she'd kneel upon a seat and look over the back of it into one of the perpetual poker-games they used to pass the time. It was astonishing how quickly she got results.
She wandered over to the cigar-stand at one of their hotels, one afternoon, a week before the arrival in Dubuque, to look at a rack of picture postcards. One of the chorus-men came over to buy some cigarettes. She felt him look at her, and she felt herself flush a little. And then he came a step closer to look at the postcards for himself, and sighed and said he wished he had somebody to send postcards to. He supposed she sent him one every day. Whereupon Dolly said she wasn't going to send him one to-day, anyway. They strolled across the lobby together and sat down in two of the wide-armed unsatisfactory chairs they have at such places; chairs that kept them so far apart they had to shout at each other. So, after a few minutes, it being a fine day, he suggested they go out for a walk. She had on her outdoor wraps and his overcoat lay across a chair.
She had already nodded acquiescence to his proposal, when she saw Rose coming in through the door.
"Wait," she whispered to him. "Don't come out with me. I'll wait outside." And with that she walked up to Rose and told her she was going out to get some cold cream.
Five per cent., perhaps, of the motive that prompted this maneuver, was what it pretended to be, a fear of Rose's disapprobation and a wish to avoid it. The other ninety-five per cent. of it was just instinctive love of intrigue.
The chorus-boy waited, blankly wooden enough to have attracted the suspicion of any eye less preoccupied than Rose's, until she had got around the curve of the stair. Then, joining Dolly on the pavement, he demanded to be told what it was all about.
Dolly, making up her little mystery as she went along, and making herself more interesting at every step, told him. They took a long walk, and by the time they got back to the hotel, they were in love. But they were separated by the malign influence of Dolly's friend. They developed a code of signals for circumventing her watchful eye. They slipped unsigned notes to each other.
So Dolly, on this blustering morning in Dubuque, fidgeting about the room, thinking up a perfectly unnecessary excuse for going out, to give to Rose, answered a knock at the door very promptly and took the folded bit of paper the bell-boy handed her, without listening to what he said, if indeed he said anything at all to her.
She carried it over to the window, turned her back to Rose, unfolded the bit of paper and read it; read it again, frowned in a puzzled way, and said:
"I didn't know there was anybody in the company named Rodney."
"What's his last name?" asked Rose. There was nothing in her tone that challenged Dolly's attention, though the quality of it would have caught a finer ear. And even if Dolly had looked up, she'd have seen nothing. Rose lay there just as she had been lying a moment ago. It would have needed a better observer than Dolly to see that she had stopped breathing.
"There ain't any last name," said Dolly. "He seems to think I'll know him by the first one." It pleased Dolly to make a parade of frankness about this note. She couldn't be sure Rose had been as oblivious as she seemed, to those the chorus-man had been sending her. This, to her rudimentary mind, seemed a good opportunity to allay Dane's suspicions. "See if you can make anything out of it," she said, and handed it over to Rose.
Rose got up off the bed and carried the note to the window. She stood there with it a long time.
"What's the matter?" said Dolly. "Can't you read his writing?"
"Yes," said Rose. "I know who he is. It's meant for me."
The tone, though barely audible, was automatic. It brushed Dolly away as if she had been a buzzing fly, and she felt distinctly aggrieved by it. That Dane, with all her loftily assumed indifference to men, even to a star like Max Webber, should get a note like that, and should have the nerve to betray no confusion over having her pretense thus confounded! Dolly had read the note thoroughly, and it had struck her as cryptic and suggestive in the extreme.
"I want to sec you very much," it said, "and shall wait in the lobby unless you say impossible. I'll submit to any conditions you wish to make. No bad news."
It sounded like a code to Dolly.
Rose stood there a long time. When she turned around, Dolly saw she was pale. She'd crumpled the note tight in one palm, and her hands were trembling. Then, with great swiftness, she began to dress. But though her haste was evident, she didn't ask Dolly to help her; didn't seem to know, indeed, that she was in the room. It was no way for a friend to act!
The thing that had moved Rose to an extent that terrified her was that last phrase. The desire it showed to play fair with her; the unwillingness to take advantage of a fear his coming like that might have inspired her with. And then the way he had made it possible for her, with a single word, to send him away! And the restraint of that "I want to see you very much!" It wasn't like any Rodney she knew, to be humble like that. His humility stripped her of her armor. If he'd been imperious, exigeant, she could have gone down to meet him with her head up. Suppose she found him broken, aged, with a dumb need for her crying out in his eyes, what would she do? What could she trust herself not to do? But just in human mercy to him she mustn't let him see she was wavering.
The Rose he was waiting for, there in the lobby, the only Rose he had been able to picture to himself for more than a fortnight of distressful days, was the Rose he'd last seen in that North Clark Street room; the Rose with a look of dumb frozen agony in her face. The one idea he'd clung to since starting for Dubuque, had been that he mustn't frighten her. She must see, with her first glance at him, that she had nothing to fear from a repetition of his former behavior. She must see that the brute in him—that was the way he put it to himself—was completely tamed.
Their meeting was a shock to both of them; an incredible mocking sort of anti-climax.
He was standing near the foot of the stairs when she came down, with a raincoat on, and a newspaper twisted up in his hands, and at sight of her, he took off his soft wet hat, and crunched it up along with the newspaper. He moved over toward her, but stopped two or three feet away. "It's very good of you to come," he said, his voice lacking a little of the ridiculous stiffness of his words, not much. "Is there some place where we can talk a little more—privately than here? I shan't keep you long."
"There's a room here somewhere," she said. "I noticed it this morning when we came in. Oh, yes! It's over there."
The room she led him to, was an appropriately preposterous setting for the altogether preposterous talk that ensued between them. It had a mosaic floor with a red plush carpet on it, two stained glass windows in yellow and green, flanking an oak mantel, which framed an enormous expanse of mottled purple tile, with a diminutive gas log in the middle. A glassy looking oak table occupied most of the room, and the chairs that were crowded in around it were upholstered in highly polished coffee-colored horse-hide, with very ornate nails. A Moorish archway with a spindling grill across the top, gave access to it. The room served, doubtless, to gratify the proprietor's passion for beauty. The flagrant impossibility of its serving any other purpose, had preserved it in its pristine splendor. One might imagine that no one had ever been in there, barring an occasional awed maid with a dust cloth, until Rodney and Rose descended on it.
"It's dreadfully hot in here," Rose said. "You'd better take off your coat." She squeezed in between the table and one of the chairs, and seated herself.
Rodney threw down his wet hat, his newspaper, and then his raincoat, on the table, and slid into a chair opposite her.
If only one of them could have laughed! But the situation was much too tragic for that.
"I want to tell you first," Rodney said, and his manner was that of a schoolboy reciting to his teacher an apology that has been rehearsed at home under the sanction of paternal authority, "I want to tell you how deeply sorry I am for ... I want to say that you can't be any more horrified over what I did—that night than I am."
He had his newspaper in his hands again and was twisting it up. His eyes didn't once seek her face. But they might have done so in perfect safety, because her own were fixed on his hands and the newspaper they crumpled.
He didn't presume to ask her forgiveness, he told her. He couldn't expect that; at least not at present. He went on lamely, in broken sentences, repeating what he'd said, in still more inadequate words. He was unable to stop talking until she should say something, it hardly mattered what. And she was unable to say anything. There was a reason for this:
The thing that had amazed her by crowding up into her mind, demanding to be said, was that she forgave him utterly—if indeed she had anything more to forgive than he. She'd never thought it before. Now she realized that it was true. He was as guiltless of premeditation on that night as she. If he had yielded to a rush of passion, even while his other instincts felt outraged by the things she had done, hadn't she yielded too, without ever having tried to tell him certain material facts that might change his feeling? They'd both been victims, if one cared to put it like that, of an accident; had ventured, incautiously, into the rim of a whirlpool whose irresistible force they both knew.
She fought the realization down with a frantic repression. It wasn't—it couldn't be true! Why hadn't she seen it was true before? Why must the reflection have come at a moment like this, while he sat there, across the table from her in a public room, laboriously apologizing?
The formality of his phrases got stiffer and finally congealed into a blank silence.
Finally she said, with a gasp: "I have something to ask you to—forgive me for. That's for leaving you to find out—where I was, the way you did. You see, I thought at first that no one would know me, made up and all. And when I found out I would be recognizable, it was too late to stop—or at least it seemed so. Besides, I thought you knew. I saw Jimmy Wallace out there the opening night, and saw he recognized me, and—I thought he'd tell you. And then I kept seeing other people out in front after that, people we knew, who'd come to see for themselves, and I thought, of course, you knew. And—I suppose I was a coward—I waited for you to come. I wasn't, as you thought, trying to hurt you. But I can see how it must have looked like that."
He said quickly: "You're not to blame at all. I remember how you offered to tell me what you intended to do before you went away, and that I wouldn't let you."
Silence froze down on them again.
"I can't forgive myself," he said at last, "for having driven you out—as I'm sure I did—from your position in the Chicago company. I went back to the theater to try and find you, three days after—after that night, but you were gone. I've been trying to find you ever since. I've wanted to take back the things I said that night—about being disgraced and all. I was angry over not having known when the other people did. It wasn't your being on the stage. We're not so bigoted as that.
"I've come to ask a favor of you, though, and that is that you'll let me—let us all, help you. I can't—bear having you live like this, knocking about like this, where all sorts of things can happen to you. And going under an assumed name. I've no right to ask a favor, I know, but I do. I ask you to take your own name again, Rose Aldrich. And I want you to let us help you to get a better position than this; that is, if you haven't changed your mind about being on the stage; a position that will have more hope and promise in it. I want you to feel that we're—with you."
"Who are 'we'?" She accompanied that question with a straight look into his eyes; the first since they had sat down across this table.
"Why," he said, "the only two people I've talked with about it—Frederica and Harriet. I thought you'd be glad to know that they felt as I did."
The first flash of genuine feeling she had shown, was the one that broke through on her repetition of the name "Harriet!"
"Yes," he said, and he had, for about ten seconds, the misguided sense of dialectical triumph. "I know a little how you feel toward her, and maybe she's justified it. But not in this case. Because it was Harriet who made me see that there wasn't anything—disgraceful about your going on the stage. It was her own idea that you ought to use your own name and give us a chance to help you. She'll be only too glad to help. And she knows some people in New York who have influence in such matters."
During the short while she let elapse before she spoke, his confidence in the conviction-carrying power of this statement ebbed somewhat, though he hadn't seen yet what was wrong with it.
"Yes," she said at last, "I think I can see Harriet's view of it. As long as Rose had run away and joined a fifth-rate musical comedy in order to be on the stage, and as long as everybody knew it, the only thing to do was to get her into something respectable so that you could all pretend you liked it. It was all pretty shabby, of course, for the Aldriches, and in a way, what you deserved for marrying a person like that. Still, that was no reason for not putting the best face on it you could.—And that's why you came to find me!"
"No, it isn't," he said furiously. His elaborately assumed manner had broken down, anyway. "I came because I couldn't help coming. I've been sick—sick ever since that night over the way you were living, over the sort of life I'd—driven you to. I've felt I couldn't stand it. I wanted you to know that I'd assent to anything, any sort of terms that you wanted to make that didn't involve—this. If it's the stage, all right.—Or if you'd come home—to the babies. I wouldn't ask anything for myself. You could be as independent of me as you are here...."
He'd have gone on elaborating this program rather further but the look of blank incredulity in her face stopped him.
"I say things wrong," he concluded with a sudden humility that quenched the spark of anger in her eyes. "I was a fool to quote Harriet, and I haven't done much better in speaking for myself. I can't make you see."
"Oh, I can see plainly enough, Roddy," she said, with a tired little grimace that was a sorry reminder of her old smile. "I guess I see too well. I'm sorry to have hurt you and made you miserable. I knew I was going to do that, of course, when I went away, but I hoped that after a while, you'd come to see my side of it. You can't at all. You couldn't believe that I was happy in that little room up on Clark Street; that I thought I was doing something worth doing; something that was making me more nearly a person you could respect and be friends with. And, from what you've said just now, it seems as if you couldn't believe even that I was a person with any decent self-respect. The notion that I could blackmail your family into lending me their name and social position to get me a better job on the stage than I could earn! Or the notion that I could come back to your house and pretend to be your wife without even ...!"
The old possibility of frank talk between them was gone. She couldn't complete the sentence.
"So I guess," she concluded after a silence, "that the only thing for you to do is to go home and forget about me as well as you can and be as little miserable about me as possible. I'll tell you this, that may make it a little easier: you're not to think of me as starving or miserable, or even uncomfortable for want of money. I'm earning plenty to live on, and I've got over two hundred dollars in the bank. So, on that score at least, you needn't worry."
There was a long silence while he sat there twisting the newspaper in his hands, his eyes downcast, his face dull with the look of defeat that had settled over it.
In the security of his averted gaze, she took a long look at him. Then, with a wrench, she looked away.
"You will let me go now, won't you?" she asked. "This is—hard for us both, and it isn't getting us anywhere. And—and I've got to ask you not to come back. Because it's impossible, I guess, for you to see the thing my way. You've done your best to, I can see that."
He got up out of his chair, heavily, tiredly; put on his raincoat and stood, for a moment, crumpling his soft hat in his hands, looking down at her. She hadn't risen. She'd gone limp all at once, and was leaning over the table.
"Good-by," he said at last.
She said, "Good-by, Roddy," and watched him walking across the lobby and out into the rain. He'd left his newspaper. She took it, gripped it in both hands, just as he'd done, then, with an effort, got up and mounted the stairs to her room. Dolly, fortunately, had gone out.
The violent struggle she had had to make during the last few moments in her effort to retain her self-control, had pretty well exhausted her. Only, had it been self-control, after all? That question shook her. Had she meant to be merciless to him like that; to send him away utterly discouraged in his sad humility, when the touch of an outreached hand would have changed the whole face of the world for him? Had she really been as noble as she felt while she was defending the impregnable righteousness of her position and so completely demolishing his?
She remembered a day when he had been beaten in a law-suit, and she had waited for him to come to her in his discouragement for help and comfort. It was thus he had come to her to-day. How helpless he was! What a boy he was!
Her memory flashed back over their not quite two years of life together and she realized that he had always been like that whenever his emotions toward her came into play. All his finely trained, formidable intelligence had always deserted him here. She remembered his having told her, the night he'd turned her out of his office, that his mind had to run cold. She hadn't really known what he meant. She saw now that her own mind didn't run cold, that it never really aroused itself except under the spur of strong emotion. So that just where he was most helpless, she was at her strongest. A victory over him in those circumstances, was about as much to feel triumphant over as one over a small child would be.
She realized now, more fully than before, what a crucifixion of his boyish pride it must have been to see her on the stage. It was no answer to say that with his intellectual concept of the ideal relations between men and women, he shouldn't have felt like that. Shouldn't have felt! The phrase was self-contradictory. Feelings weren't decorative abstractions which you selected according to your best moral and esthetic judgment out of an unlimited stock, and ordered wrapped and sent home. They were things that happened to you. In this case, two violently opposed feelings of terrible intensity had happened to him at once; had torn each other, and, in their struggle, had torn him. Justified or not, it was her act in leaving him, that had turned those feelings loose upon him. It was through her that he had suffered; that was plain enough. It must have been terribly plain to him.
And yet, despite the suffering she had caused him, he had crucified his pride again and come to find her; not with reproaches, with utter contrition and humility. The measures he'd suggested for easing their strained situation were, to be sure, maddeningly beside the mark. The fact that he'd offered them betrayed his complete failure to understand the situation. But it had cost him, evidently, as much pain to work them out and bring them to her, as if they had been the real solvents he took them for. And she had contemptuously torn them to shreds, and sent him away feeling like an unpardoned criminal. She hadn't drawn the sting from one of the barbs she'd planted in him, in her anger, before he'd left her in that North Clark Street room.
She didn't blame herself for the anger, nor for the panic of revulsion that had excited it. That was a feeling that had happened to her. What she did blame herself for was that, seeing them both now, as the victims of a regrettable accident (did she really regret it? Were it in her power to obliterate the memory of it altogether, as a child with a wet sponge can obliterate a misspelled word from a slate, would she do it? She dismissed that question unanswered.), she had allowed him to go away with his burden of guilt unlightened. She had done that, she told herself, out of sheer cowardice. She had been afraid of impairing the luster of her virtuously superior position.
Yet now, she protested, she was being as unfair to herself as she had been to him. What sort of situation would they have found themselves in, had she confessed her true new feelings about the love-storm that had swept over them, that night of the February gale? What good would protestations of love and sympathy for him do, if she had to go on denying him the tangible evidence and guarantee of these feelings?
She must deny them. Could she go home to him now, a repentant prodigal? Or even if, after hearing her story, he denied she was a prodigal; professed to see in it a reason for taking her fully into his life as his friend and partner? They might have a wonderful week together, living up to their new standard, professing all sorts of new understandings. But the thing wasn't to be for a week. It was for the rest of their lives. She'd never be able to feel that, in the bottom of his heart, he wasn't ashamed of her, as his world would say he ought to be. What satisfying guarantee could he ever give her that he wasn't ashamed? She couldn't think of any.
Oh, it was all hopeless! It didn't matter what you did. You didn't do things, anyway. They got done for you—and to you, by a blind force that masqueraded as your own will. The things she and Rodney had been saying to each other hadn't been the things they'd wanted to say. They'd been things wrung out between the rollers of a situation they hadn't produced and couldn't control.
What were they, the pair of them, but chips floating down the current; thrown together by one casual eddy, and parted by another! Half an hour ago, longing for each other unspeakably, they had been within hand's reach. Now, thanks to a few meaningless words, arguments, ideas—what was the good of ideas and words? Why couldn't they be like animals?—they were parted and she was clutching as a sole tangible memento of him, a rolled-up newspaper that she loved because she'd seen his strong lean hands gripping it.
She unrolled it and pressed it against her face, then laid it on her knee and smoothed out its rumpled folds and stroked it.
When Dolly came in a half-hour later, or so, to put on her other suit preparatory to the matinee, Rose opened up the paper and pretended to read. She was glad of the protection of it. As she felt just now, she didn't think she could stand Dolly's chatter without the intervention of some excuse for monosyllabic replies. She didn't notice that Dolly wasn't chattering. Mechanically she read the head-lines: Mortimore Banks Crash! She knew who Mortimore was. Once a powerful boss, now a discredited politician. He'd owned a whole string of banks, it appeared—along with the hitherto unheard of Milligan—whose solvency seemed to have evaporated along with the decay of his prestige.
She read without interest, but just because it was printed in black-faced type, a list of the banks in Chicago that the examiner had closed. But presently she turned back with a look a little more thoughtful, and read it again. The names of banks were so absurdly alike one never could tell. Presently she went over to her suit-case, rummaged in it, and produced a little bank-book. Then she dropped the book and the newspaper together into her bag and shut it.
She smiled a little cynically. Would she have refused Rodney's offer of help, she wondered, if she had known an hour ago, that the two hundred dollars she'd relied on so confidently to pull her out of this rut and give her a fresh start whenever she was ready to attempt it, were gone into the pockets of that fat-faced politician?
THE END OF THE TOUR
From Dubuque the company made a circuit northward into Wisconsin and Minnesota, swung around a loop and worked their way south again. Disaster stalked behind them all the way, casting its lengthening shadow before for them to walk in. On the very first salary day after Rodney's newspaper had informed Rose of her true financial situation, the manager doled out a little money on account to the more exigent members of the company, and remunerated the others with thanks, a nervous smile, and the rock-ribbed assurance that they'd get it all next week. The long jump they'd just taken, and a couple of bad houses (they were all bad, but the two he spoke of couldn't be called audiences at all, except by courtesy) had caused a temporary stringency.
Rose saw what the more experienced members of the company were doing, and knew that she ought to follow their example; keep after the manager for her money, hound him, appeal to him, invent fictitious needs, and then not spend a cent except what was absolutely wrung out of her by necessity, so that when the crash came, she wouldn't be left penniless. But she lacked the energy to do it. She was going through a passing phase of that same melancholy acquiescence in the decrees of Fate, which had been Olga Larson's permanent characteristic until Rose's own fire and a turn in the tide of fortune had roused her.
One little sequence of events springing directly from Rodney's visit to Dubuque, contributed largely to this result. The principal actor in it was Dolly.
Dolly's manner toward her had altered that very morning in Dubuque, though Rose, in her preoccupation, didn't mark the change for a day or two afterward. Then she saw that her frail little roommate had stopped chattering; that she no longer made nervous little excuses for leaving her, nor invented transparent little fibs to account for absences. She became, in her absurdly ineffectual little way, surly and defiant. She took to going about openly with her chorus-man, sharing his seat with him on the train, letting him carry her bag for her on the way to the hotel; and her manner toward Rose, when any of these manifestations fell beneath her eye, was one of uneasy challenge. Let Rose just try to remonstrate with her if she dared! She no longer came back to the hotel with Rose after the performances, took to turning up at their room at hours that grew steadily later and more outrageous, and while at first she stole in very quietly, undressed in the dark and tried to creep into bed without awakening her, she grew rapidly more brazen about it; turned on the light and undressed before the mirror, talked elaborately about nothing and laughed her high nervous little laugh without occasion.
It was not a lack of daring that kept Rose from asking the questions that were so patently waiting to be answered, or from making the remonstrances that Dolly's behavior so definitely invited. She knew she ought to stir herself up and do something. She had assumed, she knew, a measure of moral responsibility for the fluffy helpless little thing she had conquered so easily at first and taken for her chum. Of course remonstrances, moral lectures, scoldings, wouldn't accomplish anything. What the situation called for was a second conquest; a reassertion of her moral dominance over the girl. She would have to reconstruct the relation which, since the first week of their tour, she had, in her apathy, allowed to lapse. But that apathy had become too strong to break. She couldn't rouse herself from it. And, failing that, she kept silent; let Dolly go her ways.
But a fortnight after Dubuque, an incident occurred that even her acquiescent passivity couldn't ignore. There came a fine bright afternoon with no matinee and no washing or mending that needed to be done, when she suggested to Dolly that they go out for a good walk. Dolly didn't assent to the proposal, though the suggestion seemed to interest her.
"Where is there to walk to?" she asked. "These towns are all alike."
"I don't mean just a stroll around the town," Rose said. "Look here! I'll show you." She pointed from the window. "Across that bridge (they were playing one of the Mississippi River towns) and up to the top of that hill on the other side."
"Gee!" said Dolly. "That's miles."
"Do you good," said Rose.
"Are you going there anyway?" asked Dolly.
Rose nodded. "You'd better come along," she said. By turning on her full powers of persuasion, she might, she felt, have pulled Dolly along with her; swept her off and begun the reconquest she knew she ought to make. But somehow her will failed her. Dolly could come if she liked.
Dolly didn't refuse very decisively, but she watched Rose's preparations for departure without making any of her own. It wasn't until Rose, at the door, turned back to renew the invitation for the last time, that she said impatiently: "Oh, go along! I'll take a nap, I guess."
So Rose set out by herself.
The day proved colder than it looked; a fact that Rose tried to correct by walking more briskly. But when she got out on the bridge where the sharp wind got a full sweep at her, she saw it wasn't going to do. She'd be chilled to the bones long before she reached that hill and it would be colder coming back. She must go back for her ulster.
Fifteen minutes later, she tried the door of her room and found it locked. There was a moment of dead silence. But the realization that it hadn't been quite so silent the moment before, caused her to knock again. Then she heard the creak of the bed and the thud of Dolly's unshod feet on the floor, and then her steps coming toward the door.
"W—what—what is it?" Rose heard her ask.
"Let me in," said Rose. "Sorry I disturbed your nap, but I had to come back for my ulster."
Dolly was standing just at the other side of the door, she knew, but there was no sound of drawing the bolt. Only a long silence and then a sob.
"What's the matter?" Rose demanded. "Let me in."
"You can't come in!" said Dolly, and panic couldn't have spoken plainer than in her voice. "Oh, go away! What did you come back for? You said you were going to be gone hours. Go away!"
Out of a frozen throat Rose answered:
"All right. I'll go away." The situation was too miserably clear.
She went down to the lobby and a sudden giddiness caused her to drop down into the first chair she saw. She sat there for an hour, then went to the desk and told the clerk she wanted a room for that night by herself. She'd pay the extra price of it now.
The clerk took the money and selected a key from the rack. The look he saw in Rose's face silenced any comment, jocular or otherwise, that he might have made.
Rose went to her new room, took off her hat and jacket, and washed her face. When she heard the supper bell ringing down-stairs, she went back to her old room and knocked.
"Come in," said Dolly, and Rose entering, found her standing at the window looking out.
She had tried, while she sat down there in the lobby, and later in her own room, to think out what she'd say to Dolly when they next met. She hadn't been able to think of anything to say. She could think of nothing now. So, in silence, she began putting her smaller belongings into her half unpacked suit-case and laying the clothes that hung in the closet across a chair.
"So you're going to walk out on me are you?" said Dolly. Rose was aware that she'd been watching these proceedings.
"I'm going to have a room by myself for to-night," said Rose.
Dolly amazed her by flying into a sudden rage.
"Oh, you!" she said. "You make me sick. You're a hypocrite, that's what you are. Pretending to be so haughty and innocent, and then come spying back here, on purpose, and acting so shocked! You don't think I'm fit to live with, do you. Just because I've got a friend. You thought you was fit to live with me, all right, when you had two of them and wasn't straight with either."
Rose straightened up and looked at her. "What do you mean?" she demanded.
"That's right, go on with the bluff," said Dolly furiously. "But you can't bluff me. Larson put me wise to you that day in Dubuque, when that big guy—'Rodney'—came up to see you. He was one of them, and the fellow who put on the show in Chicago—what's his name?—Galbraith, was the other. You tried to play them both and got left."
"That's what Olga Larson told you?" asked Rose.
"You bet it's what she told me," said Dolly. "It's about half what she told me. And now you try to pull your high-and-mighty airs on me, just because Charlie and I are in love and ain't married yet. We're going to be. We're going into vaudeville as soon as this tour ends. He says the managers don't object to vaudeville teams being married. But we've got to wait till then, because theatrical managers won't have it. And yet you're walking out on me because you're too superior...."
"I don't feel superior," said Rose. "I'm sorry, that's all."
"Yes, you hypocrite!" said Dolly. "Go on and walk out on me. I'm glad of it."
Rose picked up her suit-case and the heap of clothes and left the room without another word.
She tried to be more astonished and indignant over Olga Larson's part in this affair than she really felt. It seemed so horribly cynical not to be surprised. But it was not cynicism; just an unconscious understanding of the fundamental processes of Olga's mind.
There was no malice in the story she had told Dolly, just after the two of them, looking through the Moorish archway in the hotel there in Dubuque, had seen Rose and Rodney deep in confidential talk. Olga had shown surprise and then, elaborately, tried to conceal it. She knew the man, all right, but hadn't expected him to follow Dane out here. Dolly told her about the note, and Olga's jealousy, which had been smoldering ever since the tour began, flared up again. Even in the days of their closest friendship—this was the way it looked to her distorted vision—Rose had never been frank with her. She had never mentioned a man named Rodney, nor even shown her a photograph. The only person Olga had known to be jealous of, was Galbraith. Her unacknowledged reason for inventing the calumny she recited so glibly for Dolly, was the hope that Dolly would go straight to Rose with it.
That couldn't fail, she thought, to break down Rose's attitude of icy indifference and precipitate a quarrel; and a quarrel was what she wanted. Because quarrels led to reconciliations. She wanted Rose to be angry with her and then forgive her, although the latter part of her hope was quite unconscious.
As I say, Rose understood. She didn't work the thing out in detail; didn't want to. But she knew that if she sought Olga out and demanded an explanation of the detestable things she'd said about her, the scene would terminate in a torrent of self-reproach from Olga, protestations of undying love, fondlings ...
So Rose shuddered and said nothing. The only thing to do about the whole unspeakable business was, as far as possible, to disregard it.
It wasn't possible to disregard it utterly, because the story was evidently spread. She became conscious of a touch of contemptuous hostility on the part of everybody. Not on account of her moral derelictions, but because of her hypocrisy in pretending to a set of standards of breeding and behavior superior to those held by the rest of them.
Altogether it made complete and irresistible, a whole-souled loathing of the life. Her attempt to find a way to a career along this filthy stage-door alley must be confessed a total failure. She could never, she knew, nerve herself to look for another job in a musical-comedy chorus.
At the next overnight stop they made, Dolly went in to room with the duchess, and the duchess' former roommate, a fattish blonde girl with a permanent cold in the head, came in with her.
Somehow the days dragged along until the pursuing and long visible disaster finally overtook the company in Centropolis, Illinois (this is not the real name of the city, but it is no more flagrant a misnomer than the one it boasts). They played a matinee here and an evening performance, to two almost empty houses; that gave them the coup de grace.
There was no call posted on the bulletin board that night, and the next day, after a brisk exchange of telegrams with Chicago, the manager called the company together in one of the sample-rooms of the hotel and announced that the tour was off. He also announced, with a magnanimity that put far into the background the fact that he owed them all at least two weeks' salary, that everybody in the company would be provided with a first-class ticket for Chicago. There was nothing, except his scrupulous sense of honor, he managed to imply without saying it in so many words, to prevent his going off to Chicago all by himself and leaving them stranded here. But, though this might be good business, he was incapable of it. If they would all come down to the station at eleven o'clock, and sign a receipt discharging him from further obligations, he would see that their transportation was arranged for.
It was just after this that Rose caught a glimpse of Dolly shivering in a corner, weeping into a soiled pocket-handkerchief. The fat girl with a cold supplied her with the explanation.
Dolly's chorus-man, it seemed, had already departed on an earlier train to St. Louis, where he lived, without taking any leave of her at all.
Rose wanted to go over and try to comfort the child, but somehow she couldn't manage to. Sentimentalizing over her grief and disillusionment wouldn't do any good. The grief probably wasn't more than an inch deep anyway, and the illusions had been too tawdry to regret. As for doing anything, what was there one could do?
There wasn't much that Rose could do at any rate. Because after weeks of drifting, she'd come to a resolution.
She didn't go to the railway station to sign her receipt and get her ticket to Chicago. What was there in Chicago for her? She meant to stay, for the present, at any rate, in Centropolis. She checked her suit-case in the coat-room and, with a sensation of relief, watched the mournful company file away.
She had three dollars and some small change, and the day before her.
THE CONQUEST OF CENTROPOLIS
Centropolis wasn't a very big town, but it had a wide, well paved street lined with stores, and a pleasant variety of gravel roads winding round hills that had neat and fairly prosperous-looking houses scattered over them. A rather dignified old court-house among the big trees of the Square proclaimed the place a county seat. It was a warm April day; the grass was green and the little leaves already were bursting out on the shrubbery.
Rose's idea was to stroll about a little and get her bearings first, and then go into one store after another on Main Street until she should find a job. She had no serious misgiving that she wouldn't get one eventually; before night, this was to say.
Her confidence sprang from two sources: one, that though inexperienced she knew she was intelligent, willing and attractive. People, she found, were apt to be disposed in her favor. The other source of her confidence was that she wasn't looking for much. She would take, for the present, anything that offered. Because any sort of work, even menial work, would be a relief after that nightmare tour. The weeks since she had left Chicago, especially the last two or three of them, seemed unreal, and the incidents of them as if they couldn't have happened. Anything that didn't involve associations with that detestable company, and the unspeakable piece they had played, would seem—well, almost heavenly. If she couldn't get a job in a store, she'd go and be a waitress at the hotel. She could make a pretty good waitress, she thought.
But her confidence was short-lived. She cut short her ramble about the streets because of the stares she attracted, and the remarks about herself that she couldn't ignore. Young men shouted at each other directing attention to her with a brutality of epithet that brought the blood to her cheeks. During all the time she had had that room on Clark Street in Chicago, through their rehearsals and that month of performances, she'd gone alone about the streets at all sort of hours, both in the theatrical part of the loop and in the district where she lived, without any molestation whatever. The small towns that she had visited with the company had been different of course. She'd been stared at in the streets and not infrequently addressed. She'd forgiven that because she was a member of the company. It was natural enough for people to stare at a girl they'd paid to see on the stage the night before, or were going to see to-night.
Now she discovered that the company had been an immense protection to her; had accounted for her, caused her to be taken, to a certain extent, for granted. The wild beast that comes to town with the circus, though an object of legitimate curiosity, does not excite the hostile and fearful speculation that he would if he were left behind after the circus had gone.
People got together in groups and nodded at her, pointed at her. A few of them leered, but more of them scowled. There seemed to be a sense of outrage that she hadn't left the town when the rest did.
There was a dry-goods store on the principal corner of the street, which she'd selected as she walked along as the place to begin her quest. She made a detour around two or three blocks in order to avoid retracing her steps down Main Street and slipped into the door of this establishment as unostentatiously as she could.
She was saved inquiring for the proprietor by the conviction that the rather dapper-looking gray-haired man who came blinking toward her in a near-sighted way as she paused in the main aisle, was he. He had a good deal of manner and was evidently proud of it. But he looked neither weak nor foolish.
"My name's Rose Stanton," she said as he came up. "I've come to see if I can get employment in your store."
His manner changed instantly. He came a step closer and stared at her with a surprise he didn't try to conceal.
"I haven't had any experience as a saleswoman," she went on, "and I know there's a lot to learn. But I'd work hard and learn as fast as ..."
"Excuse me," he said, "but aren't you a member of that theatrical company that was here last night?"
The intensity with which he was staring at her made her look away and her eyes rested on a young man whose strong family likeness to the proprietor identified him for her as his son; he had come up and was waiting for a word with his father. At this question he stared at her too.
The older man whipped around on his son. "Clear out, Jim," he said sharply. And then to Rose: "You haven't answered my question."
"I was a member of that company," she said. "But ..."
"We have no vacancy at present," he said sharply. "Good day."
She flinched a little but stood her ground. "I said I wasn't experienced as a saleswoman," she said, "but there are some things I know a good deal about—clothes and hats...."
He hadn't stayed to listen; had walked straight to the door and opened it. Reluctantly she followed him.
"There's no place," he said, "in this store, or I trust in the town either, for young women of your sort. Good day!"
Rose made five more applications for work on Main Street, all with the same result. Some of those who refused her were panicky about it; one threatened to have her put in jail. One looked knowing and after he had expressed in jocular though emphatic terms, his sense of her impossibility as a publicly acknowledged employee, intimated a desire to prosecute a personal acquaintance with her further.
She had left the first store incredulous rather than angry, under the impression that she had encountered a chance fanatic. It seemed impossible that anybody with a well-balanced mind, could treat her as if she carried contamination, merely because she had earned a living for a while in the chorus of a musical comedy. It was fortunate for her that her first applications were met by anger, rude discourtesy, and openly avowed suspicion, because this treatment roused in her, for the first time in months, a strong surge of indignation. Her blood came up after these encounters, nearer and nearer the boiling point. The man who smiled at her like a satyr, was shriveled by the blaze of her blue eyes, and was left, red-faced, blustering weakly after her.
When she walked back to the hotel along Main Street the lassitude that had so long held her half-paralyzed was gone. She was the old Rose again; the Rose whom Galbraith would have recognized.
She didn't know it. She was conscious of nothing but a hot determination that had not, as yet, even expressed itself in terms. It was just a newly kindled fire that warmed her shivering spirit; that made her fearless; in a quite unreasoning way, confident.
The only touch of self-conscious thought about her was a vague wonder at her long submission. What had she been doing all that while, drifting like that, letting herself be beaten like that, consenting to live amid the shabby degradations of the life that had surrounded her ever since the company had gone on the road? The sense of the unreality of those past weeks grew stronger. She felt like a person just waking out of a long troubled dream.
She mode her way among the loungers in the lobby of the hotel, not unmindful of their stares, but magnificently impervious to them; came up to the desk and told the clerk she wanted to see the proprietor.
"Nothing doing," said the clerk.
Then as he got the straight look of her eyes, he amended his speech a little.
"It won't do you any good to see him," he said sulkily.
"I'll see him, if you please," said Rose. "Will you have him called?"
The clerk hesitated. Stranded "actresses" weren't in the habit of talking like that. They always wanted to see the proprietor, they were always on the point of receiving an ample remittance from some generally distant place. They were often very queenly, incredibly outraged that their solvency should be questioned. But their voices never had the cool confident ring that this girl's voice had, nor the look in their eyes, the purposeful thrust.
He hesitated uncomfortably. Then his difficulty was solved for him.
"There he goes now," he said. "You can talk to him if you like."
The proprietor was sixty years old, perhaps; gray, stooped, stringy of neck. He had a short-cropped mustache, one corner of which he was always caressing with a protruding under-lip. He had a good shrewd pair of eyes, not altogether unkindly. Rose had seen him before, but hadn't known who he was.
He was making, just now, for a little office he had, that opened into the railed-off space behind the desk, and, by another door, into the corridor. He had another man with him, but it was evident that their business wasn't going to take long. The door into the corridor was left open behind them, and there Rose waited. When the other man came out, she stepped inside.
There was nothing kindly about the look the proprietor's eyes directed at her when he saw who she was. He looked up at her with a frown of resignation.
"So you didn't go to Chicago with the rest of the troupe?" he said. "That's where you made a mistake, I guess."
"I didn't want to go to Chicago," she said.
"I suppose," he drawled ironically, "you've written or telegraphed to some friends for money, and that it's surely coming, and that you want to stay here in my hotel on credit till it does. Well, there's not a chance in the world. The clerk could have told you that. I suppose he did."
"I haven't sent for money," said Rose. "There's no one I could send to. I've got to earn it for myself and I thought there was as good a chance to earn it here as in Chicago."
"Well, by God!" said the proprietor. "You've got your nerve with you at any rate. But I'll tell you, young woman, the town of Centropolis don't take kindly to the efforts of young women of your sort to make a living nor to the way they make it."
"You're wrong," said Rose, dangerously quiet, "if you think I mean to make a living in any other than a decent honest way. I have already asked for work in five places on Main Street and I have been refused as if I were the—sort of person you've just called me. I'm going to keep on until I find somebody in this town who's clean enough minded to recognize decency when he sees it. There are people like that, of course, even in Centropolis. I didn't come in here to borrow money of you, nor to ask for credit. I came to ask for a job as a waitress."
The proprietor stared at her. "Well," he said, "you are a new one on John Culver. I never got up against your game before."
"I haven't any game," said Rose. "I've told you the exact truth."
Culver twisted around uneasily in his chair and began biting thoughtfully on the end of a lead-pencil.
"Well," he said at last, "I'll take a chance. I'll tell you about a job I think you can get. Only it won't do you any good to use my name. If the man you go to comes to me, I can't tell him anything about you but what I know. His name's Albert Zeider and he's got a picture house three doors down the street. He's just put in a glass cage out in front, and he wants a pretty girl to sit in it and sell tickets. He hasn't been able to get anybody yet that filled the bill. So maybe he'd take a chance on you. Only, mind, don't tell him I recommended you."
"I won't," said Rose. "I won't go to him at all. I've walked the length of Main Street and back this morning, and I won't sit in Mr. Zeider's glass cage. I'll wash dishes or scrub floors, but I won't do that."
The proprietor flung out his hands with the air of a man of whom nothing more could be expected.
"Well, then," he said, "if you won't take a decent job that's offered to you ..."
"It's not a decent job," said Rose. "Not for me; not for a girl who's looked on in this town as I am. I want work! Don't you understand?" Then, after a pause, "Won't you give it to me?"
"Well, I should say not," said John Culver. "Look here! What's the use? Suppose you are what you say ..."
"You know I am," interrupted Rose.
"Well, I say, suppose it's true. What's the use? Do you think any decent store-keeper on Main Street would risk his reputation by giving a job to a stranded actress that had come here with a rotten show like the one you was with; or that I could have you in my dining-room? This is a respectable hotel, I tell you."
He broke off to wave his hand genially to a man who was walking slowly by the door on his way down to the dining-room.
"There!" he went on to Rose. "That's what I mean! That's Judge Granger of the Supreme Court of this state. He's come here regularly for meals, when he ain't in Springfield, for the last fifteen years. He's the biggest man in this county. Do you suppose he'd stand for it, if I asked him to give his order to a busted actress?"
"Would you stand for it if he did?" demanded Rose. "If he told you that I was all right and asked you to give me a job, would you do it?"
The proprietor laughed impatiently. "What's the good of talking nonsense?" he demanded. "Yes, I would, if that'll satisfy you. But you'd better take the next train for Chicago. And if ..." He hesitated, stroked his mustache again with his under-lip, and went on,—"Oh, I suppose I'm a damned fool, but if a couple of dollars will help you out ..."
"No, thank you," said Rose. "I'm going to see the judge." And she cut off John Culver's exclamation of protest by walking out of the office.
Rose went back to the desk, told the clerk she wanted dinner, and forestalled the objection she saw him preparing to make, by laying a dollar bill on the counter. He even hesitated a little over that, but he took it and gave her a quarter in change.
"That'll be all right," he said, and she went the way the judge had gone, down the corridor to the dining-room. A glance showed her where he sat, and without waiting for the assistance of the head waitress, she chose a chair near the door, facing it, and with her back to the judge.
Those were rather audacious tactics. Seventy-five cents, in the present state of her finances, was a good deal to squander on a meal. And the fact that she was openly stalking the judge might lead John Culver to give his honored patron a word of warning. But Rose didn't care. No tactics but the simplest and most direct appealed to her. When the judge finished his dinner, she would follow him to his office, wherever it might be, walk in with him, and demand a hearing. If he were forewarned, she would find some other way of getting access to him.
But, whether the proprietor was really ignorant of her plan, or whether the little scene with her in his office had shaken him so that he didn't care to try conclusions with her again, the judge was left to his fate. Rose followed him, unmolested, down the corridor and out into the street, across the road and up a flight of outside steps, to the second story of a brick building opposite.
He was fitting his key into the lock when she came up. And though he drew his eyebrows down into a frown as he looked at her, it seemed to be rather in the effort to make out who she was, than from any feeling of hostility. He asked her with a dry and rather affected judicial courtesy, what he could do for her.
"You can do me a service," said Rose, "that I don't think you will mind. Will you let me come in for about a minute and tell you what it is?"
His manner chilled a little, but his curt nod gave her permission to precede him into his office.
The outer room was bleak enough, furnished with three or four hard chairs, a table and an old black walnut desk with a typewriter on it. His secretary or stenographer was evidently still at dinner, because the room was empty.
The judge walked straight into an inner room and Rose followed him.
It was a big, rather fine-looking room, or so it looked to Rose after the places she had been seeing lately; evidently, from a beam across the middle of the ceiling, cut out of two. There was a fireplace with a fire in it, a big oak table and a number of easy chairs. There were two or three good rugs on the floor, and the walls were completely lined with books; the familiar buckram and leather-bound, red-labeled law-books that gave her memory a pang.
In these surroundings, the judge took on an added impressiveness, and he was not an unimpressive-looking man. He was not large. Nose, mouth and chin were small and rather fine, and he had the shape of head that is described as a scholar's. One might not have remarked it in the hotel dining-room, but in these surroundings, he looked altogether a judge.
But the effect of this on Rose was only to heighten her confidence. She hadn't used the dinner hour to think out what she'd say to him. She'd been thinking of Rodney again. Somehow, just the rebirth of a sense of power in her, had brought the image of him back. She was throbbing with that sense now, and her thoughts of Rodney had given her an exhilarating idea. This man that she was about to confront was one whom Rodney had often confronted. It was before this man, on the bench of the Supreme Court, up at Springfield, that Rodney had made uncounted arguments. She would try to do as well as he did.
The judge was staring at her in growing perplexity. Who in the world could she be. What did she want? His very greatness in this little town made him accessible. It was so unthinkable a thing that any one should intrude upon his time frivolously. But this girl! She didn't belong in the town. Hadn't he seen her about the hotel yesterday, with that shabby theatrical troupe?
"You will please be brief," he said. "My time is limited."
"I'll be as brief as I can," said Rose.
He sat down in his desk chair, but she did not avail herself of the permission his half-hearted nod toward another chair accorded her; remained standing across the table from him.
"I came to Centropolis day before yesterday," said Rose, "with a theatrical company that failed. They went away this morning unpaid, with nothing but tickets to Chicago. I decided to stay here and try to get work. I applied for it at five places on Main Street this morning, and then went to Mr. Culver at the hotel. I asked him for a position as a waitress."
Already the judge was tapping his pencil.
"This doesn't concern me in the least," he said. "I have no possible employment for you. I can do nothing for you. Good day!"
"Employment isn't what I want from you," said Rose. "I'll come to what I do want in a minute."
It is safe to say that the judge hadn't been caught up with a round turn like that in years. He stared at her now in perfectly blank amazement.
"Mr. Culver," she went on, "told me why I hadn't been successful. He accused me of being the sort of person no decent employer would give work to, of being a person of bad character. I convinced him, I think, that I was not. Then he said that even though I were a perfectly honest, decent woman, he wouldn't dare put me in his dining-room. He cited you as the reason."
At that the judge suddenly went purple.
"Me!" he shouted.
The tension of Rose's body relaxed a little. A smile flickered just instantaneously over her mouth.
"He used you as an example," she explained. "He said that you were the most important person in the county; that your opinion counted for the most. He said that you were a regular patron of his hotel, and that you'd object seriously to giving your order, as he said, to a 'busted actress.'"
"That's perfectly unwarranted," fumed the judge. "Culver had no right to use my name like that. It's outrageous!"
"I hoped you'd feel that way," said Rose.
The judge pounded on the desk. "That's not what I mean. He had no right to drag me into it at all; into a miserable business like that."
"It is a miserable business," Rose assented. "It's a thoroughly contemptible business. But Mr. Culver didn't drag you into it deliberately. You were passing the door as we stood talking, and he used you for an illustration. But afterward he said that if you told him it was all right to give me a job, he would do it. That's what I have come up to ask you to do."
"That," said the judge, setting his teeth and breathing hard, "is the most monstrous piece of impudence I have ever heard of. On his part as well as yours. What have I to do with John Culver's waitresses?"
He wasn't expecting an answer to this question, but Rose had one ready for him.
"You've given him the idea, without meaning to most likely, that you wouldn't tolerate a girl among them who'd been earning her living on the stage. If that's just a stupid mistake of his, I'm asking you to tell him so."
"Well, I won't," said the judge. "The thing's preposterous. You're asking me for what amounts to a guarantee. In the first place, I don't know that you're not—after all—what you say you convinced Culver that you were not."
"I think you do," said Rose thoughtfully, with a steady look he angrily turned away from. "I think you knew, without any reason at all, just from your instinct and your experience in judging people. And if you don't know it that way, I think you can prove it to yourself by common sense. Do you think it likely that if a girl of my—appearance and—manners, had a mind to practise the—profession you've talked about, she would be here in Centropolis, fighting desperately like this, going through humiliations like this, for a chance to be a waitress in Mr. Culver's dining-room?"
She stopped there and took a good deep breath and waited. There was a solid minute of silence. The judge got up out of his chair and began pacing the room with short impatient steps. He stopped with a jerk two or three times, as if he were about to demolish her with speech, but always gave up the attempt before a word was spoken.
"Oh, I admit it's a hard case," he said at last. "You've apparently been a victim of circumstance. The people down in this part of the country are perhaps narrow. In the main it's a good sort of narrowness. It's better than the broadness of your cities. But in an isolated case it may work an injustice." Then he wheeled on her. "But I can't do anything for you. Can't you see that I can't do anything for you?"
"I don't see," said Rose, "why you can't do what I ask."
"Have it known," shouted the judge, "in this town and all over the county, and all over the Supreme Court district, as it would be in another week, that I had gone to John Culver and got a job in his hotel—the hotel where I go myself, three times a day—for a girl who got left behind by a stranded comic-opera company? Now can't you see? I'm coming up for re-election in two years."
Rose drew in a long sigh and for a moment drooped a little.
"Yes, I see," she said with a rueful little smile. They were afraid of him, and he was afraid of them.
"I'm sorry about it," said the judge. "If there's anything else I can do ..." He put his hand tentatively in his pocket.
"No," Rose said, "that isn't what I want. Mr. Culver offered me two dollars to go away. I suppose you might offer me ten. But I'm not going. There is somebody in this town who isn't afraid of anybody, if I can only find out who that somebody is."
For a moment the judge looked annoyed; tried to collect his scattered dignity. But presently a twinkle lighted up in his eye. Then he smiled. "You might try Miss Gibbons," he said.
"Who is she?" Rose asked.
By now the judge was smiling broadly. Apparently there was something exquisitely humorous in the notion of an encounter between Rose and this lady he'd mentioned.
"She's lived," he said, "and practised gossip and millinery, for the last thirty years, up over the drug-store on the next corner. It's quite true that there's nobody in this tier of counties that she's afraid of. But I don't recommend her seriously. You will get small comfort out of her."
"All right," said Rose, "we'll see."
She walked straight from the judge's office to the stairs beside the drug-store on the next corner, which led up to Miss Gibbons' atelier. She walked fast, conserving as a precious thing that might ebb away from her, the warm feeling of indignant contempt her talk with the judge had inspired her with. He was the biggest man in this part of the state, was he! Why, he was a hollow man! A fabric of lath and plaster with no structural pillars inside! Well, if the rest of the town was afraid of him, she certainly wasn't afraid of the rest of the town.
She hadn't any thought of conciliating Miss Gibbons, of asking Miss Gibbons to give her a chance. She was going to give Miss Gibbons a chance to prove whether she was lath and plaster like the judge, or a real person with something besides her facade to hold her up.
So it wasn't at all in the manner of a disheartened applicant for work that she pushed open the glass door with "Gibbons. Modes." painted on it, and stepped inside.
A bell had rung somewhere in the distance as she opened the door, and there was no one in the room as she entered it. But she hadn't much time to look around—only long enough to get the impression that the place was somehow overflowing with hats—when another door opened, and a thin, gray-haired, tight little woman (she had a tight dress and tight hair, and her joints, when she moved, seemed to be tight, too) confronted her. She was unmistakably Miss Gibbons and in that first glance, Rose liked her. Her features were rather too big for her small face—a big nose not finely made, a wide thin-lipped mouth, and a long chin—and her eyes, looking very straight out through gold-rimmed spectacles, had a penetrating brightness about them that was a little formidable. It was not what one would call a good-natured face. But good-natured sentimentality was the last thing Rose was looking for.
"What can I do for you?" she asked. Her voice was as tight and brisk as the rest of her.
"I'm looking for a job," said Rose.
Miss Gibbons came a step closer and her bright look pierced a little more deeply.
"So!" she said. "You're the actress, are you?"
Rose smiled at that. "I'm not a real actress," she said, "but I'm who you mean. I was a chorus-girl with that company that broke down here."
"Why didn't you go away when the rest of them did?" the milliner demanded.
"I decided I didn't want to go on being a chorus-girl," said Rose, "and I thought there was as good a chance of getting other work here as in Chicago."
"That was a sort of fool idea, I guess, wasn't it?" Miss Gibbons suggested.
"It seems so, up to now," said Rose. "I spent the morning on Main Street without having any luck. I went to five places ..."
"Five?" questioned Miss Gibbons. "I knew about Arthur Perkins and Sim Laidlaw and Tabby Parkes. Who were the other two?"
Rose couldn't enlighten her. She'd forgotten their names.
"I've had work offered to me," she went on, "or at least suggested. Mr. Culver at the hotel told me of a moving-picture place ..."
"Where you could sit in that glass cage of Al Zeider's and sell tickets?" Miss Gibbons broke in. "Why didn't you take it?"
"I told Mr. Culver," said Rose, "that I'd already walked the length of Main Street and back, and that was enough for me."
"How did John Culver happen to say anything about that? How come it you were talking to him?"
"I'd asked him to hire me as a waitress," said Rose.
"And I reckon," said Miss Gibbons, "that he told you he kept a respectable hotel. He may have put some frills on it, but that's close enough to go on, isn't it?"
Rose nodded. In her relief at finding her situation so well understood, she was turning a little limp.
"Why did you come to me?" Miss Gibbons demanded. "He never would have thought of sending you here."
Rose braced up once more and told about her conversation with Judge Granger.
This time the milliner heard her through.
"And so the judge sent you to me," she said, when Rose had finished. "I suppose that was his fool idea of being funny. He thought it was a chance to get me poison mad."
Rose nodded a little wearily.
"Yes," she said, "I suppose that was it."
The milliner shot out a sharp glance at her. "Sit down," she said bruskly, and nodded to a chair.
Rose didn't much want to. Her instinct was to stay on her feet until she'd won her battle, and her fatigue only heightened it. But Miss Gibbons had given her an order rather than an invitation, and she obeyed it.
The older woman didn't sit down.
"Harvey Granger," she said thoughtfully, "will never forgive me as long as he lives, for not thinking he's a great man. That's just ridiculous, of course, because I know Harve. Years ago, you see,—so long ago that everybody's forgotten it—my father was the big man down in this part of the state. He was a circuit judge, when circuit judges amounted to something, and he was one of the best of them. But he was a fool about money and he got mixed up in things—and died. I was twenty-five years old then, and I took to hats.
"Well, Harve Granger was my father's law-clerk before father was elected judge. I used to see him night and morning. And, as I say, I know him all the way through. He knows I know him, and that's what he can't get over."
There was a little silence when she finished; a silence Rose's instinct told her not to break. Presently the little woman wheeled around on her.
"Well," she said, "you came to me anyway, though you saw the judge meant it for a joke. Why did you do that?"
"I don't know," said Rose. "I thought I would."
"And you haven't told me yet," said Miss Gibbons, "that you're really straight and respectable. What have you got to say about that?"
"Nothing much," said Rose. "I am straight and respectable. But I suppose a woman who wasn't would pretend to be. So you will have to decide about that for yourself."
"Hmph!" grunted Miss Gibbons. "I don't know why I asked a fool question like that, unless it's because, like the rest of them, I live in Centropolis. I know what you are, as well as you do yourself."
The words were brusk, and the inflection of them not much gentler, but they fell on Rose's heart like rain; like an unexpected warm little shower out of a brazen sky. She caught her breath, and, to her consternation, felt her eyes flushing up with tears. She hadn't realized the tension she had been under, until it was relaxed. She gave a shaky half-suppressed sob and then made a desperate effort to pull herself together.
"Now, look here!" said Miss Gibbons, in a tone harder and dryer than ever. "I'm not going to take you in and pay you wages just because you're a cat in a strange garret and don't know where to turn. I'm not even going to do it to spite Harve Granger. But, if you've got any sort of gumption about hats, I am going to do it, and the rest of this fool town can say what it likes and do what it pleases. So the thing for you to do is to quiet down sensibly and show me whether you can trim a hat."
It took Rose a few minutes to carry out the first part of this injunction. The rush of relief and gratitude and happiness shook her. Given carte blanche to design a special angel from Heaven to come down and give her just the comfort and encouragement she wanted, she couldn't have imagined one so good as Miss Gibbons,—with those keen straight-looking eyes that had observed her fellow citizens of Centropolis for the last half-century or so, not in vain; with her courageous common sense, and with that dry, cool, astringent manner, which lay with a pleasant healing sting on the lacerations of Rose's soul.
For a while she just sat still and tried to get the catch out of her breathing. At last, when she thought she could trust her voice not to break absurdly, she smiled and said:
"What sort of hat do you want me to trim? I mean, for what sort of person?"
"What sort of person!" echoed Miss Gibbons and gave Rose a rather keen look. "Why," she said, after hesitating a moment, "there's a silly old maid in this town. She ain't more than ten years younger than I am, but her hair's stayed sort of fluffy and yellow, and she's kept part of her looks, though not near as much of them as she thinks. She was a beautiful girl at twenty, I'll say that for her. None of these girls now compares with her. But she was a little too sure of herself and took too long deciding among the young men of this town, until all at once, she found that nobody wanted her. She's been trying ever since to show she doesn't care; and she pesters the life out of me twice a year trying to fit her out with a hat. I won't let her go around the streets looking like a giddy young fool, and that's what she's determined to do. So, if you can suit her and me, you will be doing pretty well."
The description made a picture for Rose. She saw the faded pathetic prettiness of the woman who'd looked too long and had been trying to pretend for the last fifteen years or so that she didn't care. And the picture in her mind's eye was surmounted by a hat; a hat that conceded some of the years Miss Gibbons had insisted on, and that her client was unwilling to acknowledge, and yet retained a sort of jauntiness.
She didn't know whether she could execute the thing she saw or not, out of the stock of materials at her disposal. But it hadn't cost her a thought or an effort to see the hat.
"All right," she said after a bit. "I'll see what I can do. If you'll show me where the things are ..."
It was a much humbler sort of job, of course, designing a hat for a middle-aged village spinster, than making those dozen gowns for Goldsmith and Block had been. But this consideration never occurred to her. She found, and was not even amazed to find, the same thrill of exhilaration in conquering the small problem, that she had found in the larger one. She worked with the same swift unconscious economy of labor and materials.
At the end of two hours, she presented the result of her labors for the milliner's approval.
Miss Gibbons surveyed it with a smile of ironic appreciation.
"It isn't what I'd call a real finished job," she commented after a minute inspection of some of the details of Rose's sewing. "I wouldn't trust it in a high wind not to scatter all the way from here to the Presbyterian church. But it will certainly suit Agatha Stebbins."
She looked at it a while longer. "And I don't know," she concluded a little reluctantly, "as it'll look so all-mighty foolish on her, either. Will ten dollars a week suit you to begin on?"
"Yes," said Rose, "that will suit me very well indeed."
"All right," said Miss Gibbons. "That's settled. There's one more thing to settle now, and that's where you're going to live."
Rose contemplated this question a little blankly for a moment.
"Do you suppose," she said, "there's any place in this town where I can live; where they'd take a person like me? Or would it be all right, if you asked them?"
"Oh, I guess," said Miss Gibbons, "we could most likely find somebody. I'll think about it."
She gave Rose some work to do and didn't refer to the matter again till nearly six o'clock.
"I've been thinking," she said then, "that I've got room for a boarder myself. There's a little room back here that I don't use; there's a black girl does me out and cooks my dinner and supper, and I get my own breakfast. The girl could cook for two as well as one, and I guess I could feed you for two dollars a week. If that ain't satisfactory, you can just say so."
"Satisfactory!" said Rose, and once more her voice broke.
"All right," said Miss Gibbons hastily, "we'll say no more about it. That's settled. I'll send the girl to the hotel to get your bags."
John Galbraith's letter asking Rose to report to him July first in New York, reached her via Portia, during the last week in June, and made an abrupt conclusion to her life at Centropolis.
Those weeks with Miss Gibbons in the millinery parlor, when she looked back on them afterward, set in as they were between that purgatorial winter and the first breathless months while she was establishing herself in New York, had a quality of happiness and peace, which she was wont to describe as heavenly.
She'd probably have taken to Miss Gibbons in any circumstance. But, coming into her life just when she did, the little woman was the shadow of a great rock to her. She was in a state, when she settled down in the milliner's spare back room over the drug-store, where all the warmer emotions seemed terrible to her. It was Rodney's love for her and hers for him, that had bruised and lacerated her; that had made the winter months a long torment, unmitigated during the last of them, by any form of adequate self-expression. The two parodies on love which had been thrust into her face just at the end, Olga Larson's inverted form of it toward herself, and Dolly's shabby little romance, had given her an absolute loathing for it. To her, in that condition, any expression of friendship that was warm and soft, and in the least sentimental, would have been almost unendurable to her. Miss Gibbons, in that acrid antiseptic way of hers, simply washed her soul in cold water and clothed it again in the garments of self-respect.
Her manner to Rose, even as their friendship ripened and grew more confident, never changed. Nor did the manner Rose adopted toward her. Their endless talks resulted in a good deal of self-revelation, but this was never direct. Miss Gibbons never again came as near to a confidential account of her life, as she did on that first afternoon, when she explained the thoroughness of her acquaintance with Judge Granger. And Rose never explained how it had happened that she was left at the mercy of the town of Centropolis by the failure of The Girl Up-stairs company. But she poured out for her friend a wealth of illustrative reminiscences, drawn from her childhood, her days at the university, her life on the stage; and though she was a good deal more reticent about it, she even touched on her married life with Rodney; at least, on the collateral incidents of it.
Miss Gibbons listened to all this with a hunger she didn't conceal, and this eagerness gave Rose a pretty vivid picture of the inner life the little woman had lived here in Centropolis.
If she'd been born a boy instead of a girl, she'd probably have equaled, or outstripped, Rose thought, her father's eminence. With her courage, her vitality, her fine penetrating intelligence, she'd have managed to win her way out of this stagnant little back-water of life. But, having been born a girl, brought up helpless, as became the daughter of the circuit judge, and then having had this support wrenched from under her at the critical moment, there had been nothing for her but—hats.
She'd never gone sour, at that; never, apparently, wasted any hours in repining. She'd made, after a fashion, a career of hats; had risen on them, to a position of acknowledged social consequence. There must have been disquieting echoes in her, rhythms that answered to the pulsation of an ampler life. She never could hope to get out into it, she undoubtedly knew, but she took every opportunity she could get for a glimpse at it. Rose's incursion into her life must have been a godsend to her.
She probably pieced together a pretty good picture of Rose, too. But she did this piecing in silence and kept her surmises to herself.
In a material way, her adoption of Rose was an immense success. Centropolis, when it learned the news, was thunder-struck. For a matter of hours, one might say, the town held its breath. Then it began to talk. The women began asking questions: What did the actress look like? The men offered lame descriptions. Rose had been seen, apparently, that morning on Main Street, by the entire male population, but their descriptions weren't satisfactory. Curiosity must be assuaged! But Rose never went into the stores on Main Street; never patronized the picture-show, and even had these glimpses been afforded, they'd have been pretty unsatisfactory. There was only one real way of discovering what the creature was like; discovering for yourself, that is—and hearsay evidence is notoriously unreliable; that was to buy a hat of Lizzie Gibbons.
The first daring adventurer was Agatha Stebbins. Agatha found, you will remember, the hat Rose had already designed for her. And, as Miss Gibbons caustically disclaimed the authorship of it ("I'd never have made you up a thing like that, you can believe!") and as Miss Stebbins, after a moment's hesitation, decided she adored it, another inducement, though perhaps a superfluous one, was offered for visits to the atelier.
"Of course she isn't what you could call genteel," Miss Stebbins explained, parading her acquisition, "and she's never had any advantages. And as to her moral character, I suppose the less said the better. Lizzie Gibbons can settle that question with her own conscience. But when it comes to hats she's got more gimp in her little finger than Lizzie's got in both hands. Dear, no! She's not what I call pretty. Not with a mouth like that. Of course the men ..."
So Miss Gibbons' spring business was distended to unrecognizable proportions. Rose fitted on hats in the show-room during business hours and took a mischievous delight in the assumption of the intangible manner of a perfect shop-assistant; in saying "Yes, madam," and "No, madam," and "Will you try this, madam?" with a perfection of politeness that baffled the most determined curiosity. Miss Gibbons got as much fun out of it as she did.
The hours in the workroom were pleasant ones, too, with their perpetual reminder that the creative power that had deserted her last January, had come back. The little problems were ludicrously easy, of course but they stimulated a pleasant sense of reserve power.
She couldn't, of course, have stayed in Centropolis indefinitely. In time, that feeling of mounting energy would have driven her out in search of something that would test it.
But, when Galbraith's letter came, it took her a little aback. Miss Gibbons had brought it in; because Rose, even then, didn't go to the post-office. Miss Gibbons watched her tear open the big envelope addressed to Rose in the handwriting that always went with the California post-mark, and saw her take another unopened letter out of it. She saw the girl's face set itself in a sudden gravity; watched her with a hungry misgiving, while she read the enclosure, and felt the misgiving mount to an unhappy certainty, when Rose put it away without comment.
But Rose wasn't certain, or she felt that night when she went to bed that she was not. Galbraith's letter frightened her a little. It was a dictated letter, very stiff, wholly businesslike. It offered to make her his personal assistant at a salary of fifty dollars a week. He summarized in rather formidable terms, what her duties would be. He wished her to report to him promptly, July first, and to telegraph him at her earliest convenience, whether she accepted his offer. There was no explanation of his long delay in sending for her.