"Wait till I light the gas," she breathed.
There was nothing furtive about their silence; it was the wonder, the magic of being together again, that made them steal forward like awed children.
Into an ugly, dingy, cramped, cold little room, with a rickety dresser and a lumpy bed and a grimy window, rattling fiercely in the gusts of wind that went whipping down the street.... Into a palace of enchantment.
She left the gas turned low, took off her hat and ulster, pulled down the blind over the window and shut the door, hung up a garment that had been left flung over her trunk and dumped a bundle of laundry that had not been put away, into a bureau drawer. All the time he'd been watching her hungrily, without a word.
She turned and looked into his face, her eyes searching it as his were searching hers, luminously and with a swiftly kindling fire. Her lips parted a little, trembling. There was a sort of bloom on her skin that became more visible as the blood, wave on wave, came flushing in behind it. His vision of her swam suddenly away in a blur as his own eyes filled up with tears.
And then, with that little sob in her throat, she came to him. "Oh, Roddy ... Roddy!" was all she said. With her own lithe arms she strained his embrace the tighter.
So far as the superstructures of their two lives were concerned,—the part of them that floated above the level of consciousness, the whole fabric of their thoughts and theories and ideals, that made them to their friends and to each other, and very largely to themselves, Rose and Rodney,—they were as far apart as on the day she had left his house. There hadn't been, since then, a word between them of argument or compromise. The great impasse was still unforced. He hadn't, as yet, shown that he could give her the friendship she demanded. She'd had no chance to tell him of any of the small triumphs and disciplines of her new life that she hoped would win it from him.
And as for Rodney, he was the same man who, an hour ago, in the theater, had raged and writhed under what he felt to be an invasion of his proprietary rights in her.
He wouldn't have defined it that way, to be sure, in a talk with Barry Lake. Would have denied, indeed, with the best of them, that a husband had any proprietary rights in his wife. But the intolerable sense of having become an object of derision, or contemptuous pity, of being disgraced and of her being degraded, through the appearance on the stage of a public theater, of a woman who was his wife; and through her exhibition, for pay, of charms he had always supposed would be kept for him, couldn't derive from anything else but just that. He'd waited there in the alley, full of bitter thoughts that were ready to leap forth in denunciations. He'd waited there, ready, he thought, to use actual physical force on her, in the unthinkable event of its becoming necessary, to drag her out of this pit where he had found her, back to his side again.
But somehow, when he had heard her speak his name, he'd begun to tremble. And when he had felt her trembling, too, the bitter phrases had died on his tongue and the thoughts that propelled them were smothered like fire under sand. And as he'd stood confronting her in her mean little room, his eyes searching her face, all he had been looking for was a sign of the hunger—the ages-old hunger—that was devouring him. And when he'd found it, that was enough for him. The great issue that was to be fought out between them remained intact, but the hunger had to be satisfied first.
It was hours later, in the very dead of the night, as he sat on the edge of the bed, with his back to her, that the old sense of outrage and degradation, almost as suddenly as it had left him, came back. And came back in a way that made it more intolerable than ever. For the clear flame of it had lost its clarity; the confidence that had fanned it was gone—the sense of his own rightness. The irresistible surge of passion that had carried him off, had destroyed that. The flame smoked and smoldered.
"Have you anything here," he asked her dully, "besides what will go in your trunk?"
It was the surliness of his tone, rather than the words themselves, that startled her.
"No," she said puzzled. "Of course not."
"Then let's throw them into it quickly," he said, "and we'll lock the thing up. Do you owe any rent?"
"Roddy!" she said. He heard her moving behind him. She struck a match and lighted the gas. Then came around in front of him and stared at him in frowning incredulity. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we're going to get out of this abominable place now—to-night. We're going home. We can leave an address for the trunk. If it never comes, so much the better."
Again all she could do was to ask him, with a bewildered stammer, what he meant. "Because," she added, "I can't go home yet. I've—only started."
"Started!" he echoed. "Do you think I'm going to let this beastly farce go any further?"
And with that the smoldering fire licked up into flame again. He told her what had happened in his office this afternoon; told her of the attitude of his friends, how they'd all known about it—undoubtedly had come to see for themselves, and, out of pity or contempt, hadn't told him. He told her how he'd felt, sitting there in the theater; why he'd waited at the stage door for her. He accused her, as with its self-engendered heat his wrath burned brighter, of having selected the thing to do that would hurt him worst, of having borne a grudge against him and avenged it.
It was the ignoblest moment of his life, and he knew it. The accusations he was making against her were nothing to those that were storing up in his mind against himself. The sense of rightness that would have made him gentle, had been carried away by the passion he'd shared with her, and he couldn't get it back.
He didn't look at her as he talked, and she didn't interrupt; said no word of denial or defense. The big outburst spent itself. He lapsed into an uneasy silence, got himself together again, and went on trying to restate his grievance—this time more reasonably, retracting a little. But under her continued silence, he grew weakly irritated again.
When at last she spoke, he turned his eyes toward her and saw a sort of frozen look in her dull white face that he had never seen in it before. Her intonation was monotonous, her voice scarcely audible.
"I guess I understand," she said. "I don't know whether I wish I was dead or not. If I'd died when the babies were born ... But I'm glad I came away when I did. And I'm glad,"—she gave a faint shudder there at the alternative—"I'm glad I've got a job and that I can pay back that hundred dollars I owe you. I've had it quite a while. But I've kept it, hoping you might find out where I was and come to me, as you did, and that we might have a chance to talk. I thought I'd tell you how I'd earned it, and that you'd be a little—proud with me about it, proud that I could pay it back so soon."
She smiled a little over that, a smile he had to turn away from. But this tortured smile shriveled in the flame of passion with which she went on. "If I couldn't pay it back to-night, after this, I'd feel like killing myself, or like—going out and earning it in the streets. Because that's what you've made me to-night!"
He cried out her name at that, but she went on as if she hadn't heard; only calm again—or so one might have thought from the sound of her voice.
"I went away, you see, because I couldn't bear to have the love part of your life without a sort of friendly partnership in the rest of it. But I didn't know then that you could love me while you hated me, while you felt that I'd unspeakably degraded myself and disgraced you. So that while you loved me and had me in your arms, you felt degraded for doing it. I didn't know that till now.
"I suppose I'll be glad some day that it all happened; that I met you and loved you and had the babies, even though it's all had to end," she shuddered again, "like this."
It wasn't till he tried to speak that her apparent calm was broken. Then, with a sudden frantic terror in her eyes, she begged him, not to—begged him to go away, if he had any mercy for her at all, quickly and without a word. In a sort of daze he obeyed her.
The tardy winter morning, looking through her grimy window, found her sitting there, huddled in a big bath-robe, just as she'd been when he closed the door.
"I'M ALL ALONE"
The same grizzly dawn that looked in on Rose through the dim window of her room on Clark Street, saw Rodney letting himself in his own front door with a latch-key after hours of aimless tramping through deserted, unrecognized streets. He was in a welter of emotions he could no more have given names to than to the streets whose dreary lengths he had plodded.
The one thing that isolated itself from the rest, climbed up into his mind and there kept goading him into a weak helpless fury, was a jingling tune and a set of silly words that Rose and her sisters in the sextette had sung the night before: "You're all alone, I'm all alone; come on, let's be lonesome together." And then a line he couldn't remember exactly, containing, for the sake of the rhyme, some total irrelevancy about the weather, and a sickening bit of false rhyming to end up with, about loving forever and ever. The jingle of that tune had kept time to his steps, and the silly words had sung themselves over and over endlessly in his brain until the mockery of it had become absolutely excruciating. Except for that damnable tune, there was nothing in his mind at all. Everything else was synthesized into a dull ache, a hollow, gnawing, physical ache. But he'd endure that, he thought, if he could get rid of the diabolical malice of that tune. Perhaps if he stopped walking and just sat still it would go away.
That's why he went home, let himself in with his latch-key and made his way furtively to the library, where the embers of last night's fire were still warm. He had an hour at least before the servants would be stirring. He was terribly cold and pretty well exhausted, and the comfort of his big chair and the glow of the fire carried him off irresistibly into a doze—a doze that was troubled by fantastic dreams.
With the first early morning stirrings in the house, the sounds of opening doors here and there, the penetrating cry of one of the babies—muffled, to be sure, and a long way off, but still audible—he came broad awake again, but sat for a while staring about the room; at the wonderful ornate perfection of the Italian marble chimney-piece that framed the dying fire; at the tall carved chairs, the simple grandeur of the three-hundred-year-old table and the subdued richness, in the half light, of the tapestries that hung on the walls.
It was Florence McCrea's masterpiece, this room. But this morning its perfections mocked him with the ferocious irony of the contrast they presented to that other room—that unspeakably horrible room where he had left Rose. Details of its hideousness, that he hadn't been conscious of observing during the hours he had spent in it, came back to him, bitten out with acid clearness;—the varnished top of the bureau mottled with water stains, the worn splintered floor, the horrible hard blue of the iron bed, the florid pattern on the hand-painted slop-jar.
And that abominable room was where Rose was now! She was sitting, perhaps, just as he'd left her, with that look of frozen, dumb agony still in her face, while he sat here ...
He sprang up in a sort of frenzy. The parlor maid would be in here any minute now, on her morning rounds, and would wish him a respectful good morning, and ask him what he wanted for breakfast. And then, with automatic perfection, would appear his coffee, his grapefruit, and the rest of it—all exactly right, the result of a perfect precalculation of his wishes. While Rose ...
He put on his outdoor things and left the house, motivated now, for the first time in many hours, with a clear purpose. He'd go back to that room and get Rose out of it. He was incapable of planning how it should be done, but somehow—anyhow, it should be; that was all he knew!
But this purpose was frustrated the moment he reached Clark Street, by the realization that he hadn't an idea within half a mile at least, where the room was. Neither when he went into it with Rose, nor when he left it, had he picked up any sort of landmark. There was a passage, he remembered, leading back between two buildings, which projected to the sidewalk. But there were a dozen of these in every block.
A miserable little lunch-room caught his eye, displaying in its dingy windows, pies, oranges, big shallow pans of pork and beans. This was the sort of place Rose would have to come to, he reflected, for her breakfast. And with that thought—hardly the conscious hope that she would actually come to this place this morning—he turned in, sat down at a cloth spotted with coffee and catsup stains, and ordered his breakfast of a yawning waiter. He even forced himself, when it was brought in, to eat it. If it was good enough for Rose, wasn't it good enough for him?
And all the while he kept his eye on the street door, in the irrepressible, unacknowledged hope that the gods would be kind enough to bring her there.
But it was a mocking hope, he knew, and he didn't linger after he'd finished. He walked down-town to his office. It was still pretty early—not yet eight o'clock. Even his office boy wouldn't be down for three-quarters of an hour. He was safe, he found himself saying, for so long, anyway.
He sat down at his desk and stared bewildered at the stack of letters that lay there awaiting his signature. They were the very letters Miss Beach had been typing when he had told her to telephone to the club and get him a seat for The Girl Up-stairs, by way of passing a pleasant evening;—and had laughed at her when she protested. Oh, God!
He felt like a sort of inverted Rip Van Winkle—like a man who had been away twenty years—in hell twenty years!—and coming back found everything exactly as he had left it. As if, in reality, his absence had lasted only overnight.
He pulled himself together and began to read the letters, but interrupted himself before he'd gone far, to laugh aloud. The laugh startled him a little. He hadn't expected to do more than smile. But certainly it was worth a laugh, the solemn importance with which he'd dictated those letters; the notion that it mattered what he said, how he advised his clients in their bloodless, parchment-like affairs; that anything in all the files behind the black door of that vault represented more than the empty victories and defeats of a childish game. The dead smug orderliness of the place, with the infallible Miss Beach as its presiding genius, infuriated him. Clearly he couldn't stay here till he was better in hand than this.
He signed his letters without reading them, and scribbled a note to Craig that he'd been called out of town for a day or two on a matter of urgent personal business. He hadn't thought of actually going out of town until the note was written. But once he saw the statement in black and white, the notion of making it true, invited him. He'd run off to some small city where no curious eyes, animated by the knowledge that he was Rodney Aldrich whose wife had left him to become a chorus-girl, could steal glances at him. Where he needn't speak to any one from morning till night. Where he could really get himself together and think.
He added in a postscript to the note to Craig, instructions to call up his house and tell them he was out of town.
The thought cropped up in one of the more automatic sections of his brain, that for traveling he ought to have a bag, night things, fresh underclothes, and so on, and the routine method of supplying that need suggested itself to him; namely, to telephone to the house, have one of the maids pack his bag for him and send it down-town in the car. But just as he had rejected the notion of breakfasting at home, and had gone out to that miserable Clark Street lunch-room instead, so he rejected this. All the small civilized refinements of his way of life went utterly against his grain. They'd continue to be intolerable to him, he thought, as long as he had to go on envisaging Rose in that ghastly environment of hers.
He left his office and turned into one of the big department stores that backs up on Dearborn Street, where he bought himself a cheap bag and furnished it with a few necessaries. Then, leaving the store, simply kept on going to the first railway station that lay in his way. He chose a destination quite at random. The train announcer, with a megaphone, was calling off a list of towns which a train, on the point of departure, would stop at. Rodney picked one that he had never visited, bought a ticket, walked down the platform past the Pullmans, and found himself a seat in a coach.
He found a measure of relief in all this. It gave him the illusion, at least, of doing something. Or, more accurately, of getting ready to do something, while it liberated him from the immediate necessity of doing it. He'd go to a hotel in that town whose name was printed on his ticket, and hire a room; lock himself up in it, and then begin to think. Once he could get the engine of his mind to going, he'd be all right. There must be some right thing to do. Or if not that, at least something that was better to do than anything else. And when his mind should have discovered what that thing was, he'd have, he felt, resolution enough to go on and do it. Until he should find it, he was like a man shamed—naked, unable to encounter the most casual glance of any of the persons in his world who knew his shame. Once he was safe in that hotel room, the process of thinking could begin. He wouldn't have to hurry about it. He could take all the time he liked.
For the present, he was getting a queer sort of comfort out of what would ordinarily be labeled the discomforts of his surroundings: the fierce dry heat of the car, the smells—that of oranges was perhaps the strongest of these—the raucous persistence of the train butcher hawking his wares; and, most of all, in the very density of the crowd.
This is one of the comforts that many a member of the favored, chauffeur-driven, servant-attended class lives his life in ignorance of, the nervous relief that comes from ceasing, for a while, to be an isolated, sharply bounded, perfectly visible entity, and subsiding, indistinguishably, into a mere mass of humanity; in being nobody for a while. It was a want which, in the old days before his marriage, Rodney had often, unconsciously, felt and gratified. He had enjoyed being herded about, riding in crowded street-cars, working his way through the press in the down-town streets during the noon hour.
He was no more conscious of it now, but it was distinctly pleasant to him to be identified for the conductor merely by a bit of blue pasteboard with punch marks in it, stuck in his hat-band.
The pleasant torpor didn't last long, because presently, the rhythmic thud of the wheels began singing to him the same damned tune that had dogged his footsteps earlier that morning: "I'm all alone, you're all alone; come on, let's be lonesome together."
This was intolerable! To break it up, he bought a magazine from the train-boy and tried to read. But the story he lighted on concerned itself with a ravishingly beautiful young woman and an incredibly meritorious young man, and worked itself out, cleverly enough to be sure—which made it worse—upon the assumption that all that was needed for their supreme and permanent happiness was to get into each other's arms, which eventually they did.
Rose had been in his arms last night!
So the scorching treadmill round began again. But at last sheer physical exhaustion intervened and he fell heavily asleep. He didn't waken until the conductor took up his bit of pasteboard again, shook him by the shoulder, and told him that he'd be at his destination in five minutes.
Presently, in the hotel, he locked his door, opened the window and sat down to think.
Two days later, at half past eight in the morning, he walked in on Frederica at breakfast with her two eldest children. He had been able to count on this because the Whitneys had a certain pride in preserving some of the customs of the generation before them; at least Martin had, and Frederica's good-natured, rueful acquiescence gave her at once something to laugh at him a little about and a handy leverage for the extraction of miscellaneous concessions. It wasn't exactly a misdemeanor to be late to breakfast—it began promptly at eight o'clock—but it was distinctly meritorious not to be. Martin never was and he always left the house for his office at exactly eight-twenty. His chauffeur was trained to take just ten minutes trundling the big car down-town, and eight-thirty found him at his desk as invariably as it had found his father before him. It was all perfectly ritualistic, of course. There wasn't the slightest need for any of it.
A knowledge of the ritual, though, stood Rodney in good stead this morning. He liked Martin well enough—had really a traditional and vicarious affection for him. But he was about the last man he wanted to see to-day.
The children were a boy of ten, Martin, junior, and a girl, Ellen, of eight. There was a three-year-old baby, too, but his nurse looked after him. They had finished breakfast, but Frederica had a way of keeping them at the table for a little while every morning, chatting with her—oh, about anything they pleased. If it was a design for their improvement, they didn't suspect it. The talk broke off short when the three of them, almost simultaneously, looked up and saw Rodney in the doorway.
"Hello!" Frederica said, holding out a hand to him, but not rising. "Just in time for breakfast."
"Don't ring," he said quickly. "I've had all I want. My train got in an hour ago and I had a try at the station restaurant."
"Well, sit down anyway," said Frederica.
"Take this chair, Uncle Rod," said the boy in a voice of brusk indifference. "Excuse me, mother?" He barely waited for her nod and blundered out of the room.
The girl came round to Rodney's chair to offer him her hand and drop her curtsy; took a carnation from a bowl on the table and tucked it into his button-hole, slid her arm around his neck and kissed his cheek.
Both the children, Frederica was aware, had remarked something troubled and serious about their uncle's manner and each had acted on this observation in his own way. The boy, distressed and only afraid of showing it, had bolted from the room with a panicky assumption of indifference. The girl, though two years younger, was quite at ease in expressing her sympathy, and conscious of how decoratively she did it. (This was Frederica's analysis, anyhow. As is the wont of mothers, she liked the boy better.)
"I think Miss Norris is waiting for you, my dear."
"Oui, maman," said Ellen dutifully.
She was supposed to talk French all the morning, but somehow this particular observance of the regime irritated her mother a little and she rather visibly waited while Ellen quite adequately made her farewells to her uncle and gracefully left the room.
The tenseness of her attitude relaxed suddenly when the child was gone. She reached out a cool soft hand and laid it on one of Rodney's that rested limply on the table. There was rather a long silence—ten seconds perhaps. Then:
"How did you find out about it?" Rodney asked.
They were both too well accustomed to these telepathic short-cuts to take any note of this one. She'd seen that he knew, just with her first glance at him there in the doorway; and something a little tenderer and gentler than most of her caresses about this one, told him that she did. What it was they knew, went of course without saying.
"Harriet's back," she said. "She got in day before yesterday. Constance said something to her about it, thinking she knew. They've thought all along that you and I knew, too. Harriet was quick enough and clever enough to pretend she did and yet find out about it, all at the same time. So that's so much to the good. That's better than having them find out we didn't know. Of course Harriet came straight to me. I'm glad it was Harriet Constance spoke to about it and not me. I'd probably have given it away. But Harriet never batted an eye."
"No," said Rodney, "Harriet wouldn't."
It was a certain dryness in his intonation rather than the words themselves Frederica answered.
"She'd do anything in the world for you, Roddy," she said, with a vaguely troubled intensity.
This time his mind didn't follow hers. For an instant he misunderstood her pronoun, then he saw what she meant.
"Harriet?—Oh, yes, Harriet's all right," he said absently.
She left his preoccupation alone for a minute or two, but at last broke in on it with a question. "How did you find out about it, Roddy? Who told you?"
"No one," he said in a voice unnaturally level and dry. "I went to see the show on the recommendation of a country client, and there she was on the stage."
"Oh!" cried Frederica—a muffled, barely audible cry of passionate sympathy. Then:
"Roddy," she demanded, "are you sure it's true? Are you absolutely sure that it's really Rose? Or if it is, that she's in her right mind—that she hasn't just wandered off as people do sometimes without knowing who they are?"
"There's nothing in that notion," he said. "It's Rose all right, and she knows what she's doing."
"You mean you've seen her off the stage—talked with her?"
She pulled in a long sigh of anticipatory relief.
"Well, then," she demanded, "what did she say? How did she explain how she could have done such a thing as that?"
"I didn't ask her to explain," said Rodney. "I asked her to come home, and she wouldn't."
"Oh, it's wicked!" she cried. "It's the most abominably selfish thing I ever heard of!"
He made a gesture of protest, but it didn't stop her.
"Oh, I suppose," she flashed, "she didn't mean any harm—wasn't just trying to do the cruelest thing she could to you. But it would be a little less infuriating if she had."
"Pull up, Freddy!" he said. Rather gently though, for him. "There's no good going on like that. And besides ... You were saying Harriet would do anything in the world for me. Well, there's something you can do. You're the only person I know who can."
Her answer was to come around behind his chair, put her cheek down beside his, and reach for his hands.
"Let's get away from this miserable breakfast table," she said. "Come up to where I live, where we can be safely by ourselves; then tell me about it."
In front of her boudoir fire, looking down on her as she sat in her flowered wing chair, an enormously distended rug-covered pillow beside her knees waiting for him to drop down on when he felt like it, he began rather cautiously to tell her what he wanted.
"I'll tell you the reason why I've come to you," he began, "and then you'll see. Do you remember nearly two years ago, the night I got wet coming down here to dinner—the night you were going to marry me off to Hermione Woodruff? We had a long talk afterward, and you said, speaking of the chances people took getting married, that it wasn't me you worried about, but the girl, whoever she might be, who married me."
The little gesture she made admitted the recollection, but denied its relevancy. She'd have said something to that effect, but he prevented her.
"No," he insisted, "it wasn't just talk. There was something to it. Afterward, when we were engaged, two or three times, you gave me tips about things. And since we've been married ... Well, somehow, I've had the feeling that you were on her side; that you saw things her way—things that I didn't see."
"Little things," she protested; "little tiny things that couldn't possibly matter—things that any woman would be on another woman's—side, as you say, about."
But she contradicted this statement at once. "Oh, I did love her!" she said fiercely. "Not just because she loved you, but because I thought she was altogether adorable. I couldn't help it. And of course that's what makes me so perfectly furious now—that she should have done a thing like this to you."
"All right," he said. "Never mind about that. This is what I want you to do. I want you to go to see her, and I want you to ask her, in the first place, to try to forgive me."
"What for?" Frederica demanded.
"I want you to tell her," he went on, "that it's impossible that she should be more horrified at the thing I did than I am myself. I want you to ask her, whatever she thinks my deserts are, to do just one thing for me, and that is to let me take her out of that perfectly hideous place. I don't ask anything else but that. She can make any terms she likes. She can live where or how she likes. Only—not like that. Maybe it's a deserved punishment, but I can't stand it!"
There was the crystallization of what little thinking he had managed to do in the two purgatorial days he'd spent in that down-state hotel—in the intervals of fighting off the torturing jingle of that tune, and the memory of the dull frozen agony he'd seen in Rose's face as he left her. No great result, truly. The mountain had labored and brought forth a mouse.
But reflect for a moment what Rodney's life had been; how gently, for all his buoyant theories about the acceptance of discipline, the world, in its material aspect at any rate, had dealt with him. How completely that boyish arrogance of his had been allowed to grow unbruised by circumstance. He'd always been rich, in the sense that his means had always been sufficient to his wants. He'd never in his life had an experience that even resembled Portia's with that old unpaid grocery bill. He'd enjoyed wearing shabby clothes, but he'd never worn them because he could afford no better. He'd always been democratic in the narrower social sense, but he'd never realized how easy that sort of democracy is and how little it means to a man never associated with persons who assert a social superiority over him. He'd always made a point of despising luxuries, to be sure. But it hadn't been brought to his attention at how high a level he drew the line between luxuries and mere decent necessities.
He wasn't then, near so much of a Spartan as he thought. His long association with the Lakes and their friends might, you'd think, have brought him the consolatory reflection that a woman who earned even a successful chorus-girl's wages, needn't be pitied too lamentably on the score of poverty; that Rose could, no doubt, have afforded a better room than that, if she'd wanted to. And that even a three-dollar room, a whole room that you hadn't to share with anybody, would—if the rent of it left you money enough to send out your clothes to the laundry and to buy adequate meals in restaurants—represent luxury—well, to more people than one likes to think about.
Rodney knew that well enough, of course. He'd read the Sage Foundation reports on housing; he was familiar with the results of the Pittsburgh Survey. But the person in question now, wasn't the Working Girl. It was his Rose!
Out of all the chaos of thought and feeling that had been boiling within him since the night he had gone with Rose to her room, there emerged, then, two outstanding ideas. One was that he had outraged her; the other that she simply couldn't be allowed to go on living as he had found her.
Frederica, naturally, was mystified. "That's absurd, of course, Roddy," she said gently. "You haven't done anything to Rose to be forgiven for."
"You'll just have to take my word for it," he said shortly. "I'm not exaggerating."
"But, Roddy!" she persisted. "You must be sensible. Oh, it's no wonder! You're all worn out. You look as if you hadn't slept for nights. I wish you'd sit down and be a little bit comfortable. But I know you're wrong about that!
"I went out to California with the idea that you might have been—well, awfully stupid about something and hurt Rose dreadfully without knowing it. I was perfectly ready to be—on her side, as you say. I thought we'd have a good talk and I'd find out what it was all about, and then come home and pack you out there yourself.
"Well, of course I didn't see Rose, and Portia wasn't very communicative. She'd always been a little stiff with me. I never managed to get her altogether. But she was clear enough about it at any rate, that Rose was more in love with you than ever and she didn't blame you for a thing. The thing that she seemed most anxious about was that her mother shouldn't blame you. Of course that took the wind out of my sails and I had to come back. So it's absurd for you to be talking as if she had a real reason for—detesting you."
"She hadn't, then," said Rodney, and he walked uneasily away to the window.
"Well, if you mean the other night, the only time you've seen her since, then it's all the more ridiculous. What if you were angry and lost your temper and hurt her feelings? Heavens! Weren't you entitled to, after what she'd done? And when she'd left you to find it out like that?"
"I tell you you don't know the first thing about it."
"I don't suppose you—beat her, did you?" It was too infuriating, having him meek like this!
His reply was barely audible. "I might better have done it."
Frederica sprang to her feet. "Well, then, I'll tell you!" she said. "I won't go to her. I'll go if you'll give me a free hand. If you'll let me tell her what I think of what she's done and the way she's done it—not letting you know—not giving you a chance. But go and beg her to forgive you, I won't.
"All right," he said dully. "You're within your rights, of course."
The miserable scene dragged on a little longer. Frederica cried and pleaded and stormed, without moving him at all. He seemed distressed at her grief, urged her to treat his request as if he hadn't made it; but he explained nothing, answered none of her questions.
It was an enormous relief to her, and, she fancied, to him, for that matter, when, after a premonitory knock at the door, Harriet walked in on them.
The situation didn't need much explaining, but Frederica summed it up while the others exchanged their coolly friendly greetings, with the statement:
"Rod's been trying to get me to go to Rose and say that it was all his fault, and I won't."
"Why not?" said Harriet. "What earthly thing does it matter whose fault it is? He can have it his fault if he likes."
"You know it isn't," Frederica muttered rebelliously.
Harriet seated herself delicately and deliberately in one of the curving ends of a little Victorian sofa, and stretched her slim legs out in front of her.
"Certainly I don't care whose fault it is," she said. "You never get anywhere by trying to decide a question like that. What I'm interested in is what can be done about it. It's not a very nice situation. Nobody likes it—at least I should think Rose would be pretty sick of it by now. She may have been crazy for a stage career, but she's probably seen that the chorus of a third-rate musical comedy won't take her anywhere.
"The thing's simply a mess, and the only thing to do, is to clear it up as quickly and as decently as we can—and it can be cleared up, if we go at it right. Only, for the love of Heaven, Freddy, before you let Rod go out of the house, give him a dose of veronal and pack him off to a quiet room up-stairs to sleep around the clock! The way he looks now, he's a proclamation of calamity across the street!"
She wasn't at all disturbed by the outburst this provoked from Rodney. Indeed, Frederica, from a glimpse she got of her face as she sat listening to his blistering denunciation of this apparently whole-hearted concern for appearances, and his passionate denial that they meant anything at all to him, suspected that her sister's words had been calculated to produce just this result. When it had subsided, Harriet's first words proved it.
"All right," she observed. "I knew you'd want to say that. Now, it's off your mind. Appearances do matter to Freddy and me, and of course they matter to you too, though you don't like to think so. They matter to all our kind of people. We're supposed to have been trained to take our medicine without making faces. If we've got cuts and sores and bruises, we cover them. We don't parade them as a bid for sympathy. We leave howling about rights and wrongs and soul-mates and affinities and 'ideals,' to the shabby sort of people who like to do that shabby sort of thing. According to our traditions, the decent thing to do is to shut up and keep your face and make it possible for other people to keep theirs. You're as strong for that as I am, really, Rod, and that's why I want you to back me up in the line I took with Constance. Pretend you've known all about what Rose was doing, and that you aren't ashamed of it. It would have been easier, of course, if she'd played fair with us at the start ..."
"She did play fair," he interrupted. "She offered to tell me what she was going to do. I wouldn't let her."
Harriet's only commentary on this was a faint shrug.
"Anyhow," she went on, "the point is that once we begin pretending, everybody else will have to pretend to believe us. Of course the thing to do is to get her out of that horrible place as soon as we can. And I suppose the best way of doing it, will be to get her into something else—take her down to New York and work her into a small part in some good company. Almost anything, if it came to that, as long as it wasn't music. Oh, and have her use her own name, and let us make as much of it as we can. Face it out. Pretend we like it. I don't say it's ideal, but it's better than this."
"Her own name!" he echoed blankly. "Do you mean she made one up?"
Harriet nodded. "Constance mentioned it," she said, "but that was before I knew what she was talking about. And of course I couldn't go back and ask. Daphne something, I think. It sounded exactly like a chorus name, anyhow." And then: "Well, how about it? Will you play the game?"
"Oh, yes," he said with a docility that surprised Frederica. "I'll play it. It comes to exactly the same thing, what we both want done, and our reasons for doing it are important to nobody but ourselves."
She turned to Frederica.
"You too, Freddy?" she asked. "Will you give your moral principles a vacation and take Rod's message to Rose, even though you may think it's Quixotic nonsense?"
"I'll see Rose myself," said Rodney quietly.
It struck Frederica that if not his natural self, he had gone a long way at least, to recovering his natural manner. Telling Martin all about it that night, as she always told him about everything (because Martin was Frederica's discovery and her secret. No one else suspected, not even Martin himself, how intelligent and understanding he was, nor how luminous his simple remarks about complex situations could sometimes be), she adverted to a paradox which had often puzzled her in the past. Rodney was twice as fond of her as he was of Harriet, just as she was twice as fond of him as Harriet was. And yet, again and again, where her own love and sympathy had failed dismally to effect anything, Harriet's dry astringent cynicism would come along and produce highly desirable results.
"It seems as if it oughtn't to work out that way," she concluded. "You'd think that loving a person and feeling his troubles the way he feels them himself, ought to enable you to help him rather than just irritate. However, as long as it doesn't work that way with you ..."
He reached out, took her by the chin, tilted her face back and kissed her expertly on the mouth. A rather horrifyingly familiar thing to do, one might think, to the Venus of Milo, or Frederica, or any one as simply and grandly beautiful as that. But she seemed to like it.
"No chance for the experiment," said Martin. "I shall never have any troubles while you're around."
THE MIRY WAY
Rodney's docility didn't go to the length of the dose of veronal Harriet had recommended, but it did assent to a program that occupied the greater part of the day, including a Turkish bath, a good sleep, fresh clothes and the first decently cooked meal he had had since he'd dined at the club three days ago. When he turned into his office, about five o'clock, he was his own man again, perfectly capable of a greeting to Craig and Miss Beach which consigned the last scene between them here in the office to oblivion.
His fortitude was put to the test, too, during the first five minutes. In the stack of correspondence on his desk, to which Miss Beach directed his attention, was an unopened envelope addressed to him in Rose's handwriting. He couldn't restrain, of course, a momentary wild hope that she had written to tell him he was forgiven, or at least to offer him the chance of asking her forgiveness. But he paused to steel himself against this hope before looking to see what the thing contained.
It was well he did so, because there was nothing in it but a postal money-order for a hundred dollars; not an explanatory line of any sort. Of course the message it carried didn't need writing. It smarted like a slap across the face. Yet, down underneath the smart, he felt something that glowed more deeply, a feeling he couldn't have named or recognized, of pride in her courage.
He was badly in need of something to be proud of, too, for the next two days were full of humiliations. When he told Harriet and Frederica that he would see Rose himself, he hadn't any program for carrying out this intention. He didn't want to wait for her again at the stage door. There mustn't be anything about their next talk together to remind her of their last one, and it would be better if she could be assured in advance that she had nothing to fear from him. So the first thing to do was to write her a letter that would show her how he felt and how little he meant to ask. But before he could write the letter, he must learn her name.
He thought of Jimmy Wallace as a person who'd be able to help him out, here, but in the circumstances Jimmy was the last person he wanted to go to. There was no telling how much Jimmy might know about the situation already. The intolerable thought occurred to him that Rose might even have talked with Jimmy about going on the stage before she left his house. No, the person to see was the manager of the theater. He'd describe Rose to him and ask him who she was.
His attempt to carry out this part of his plan was disastrously unsuccessful. Theatrical managers no doubt cherish an ideal of courteous behavior. But, since ninety-nine out of a hundred of the strangers who ask for them at the box-office window, are actuated by a desire to get into their theaters without paying for their seats, they develop, protectively, a manner of undisguised suspicion toward all people who don't know them, and toward about three-quarters of those who pretend they do. It wasn't a manner Rodney was accustomed to, and it irritated him. Then, until he had got his request half stated, it didn't occur to him in what light the manager would be amply justified in regarding it. That notion, which he interpreted from a look in the manager's face, confused and angered him, and he stumbled and stammered, which angered him still more.
"We don't do that sort of thing in this theater," the manager said loudly (the conversation had taken place in the lobby of the theater, too) and turned away.
The grotesque improbability of the true explanation that the woman whose name he was inquiring about was his wife, silenced him and turned him away. It was fortunate for Rodney it did so. The thing would have made a wonderful story for the press agent, if he hadn't stopped just where he did.
He spent the rest of that evening, and a good part of the next day, trying to think of some alternative to waiting again at the stage door. But, except for the still inadmissible one of going to Jimmy Wallace, he couldn't think of one. So, at a quarter past seven that night, he stationed himself once more in the miserable alley, to wait for Rose. Seeing her before the show would, he thought, be an improvement on waiting till after it. The mere fact that they wouldn't have very long to talk, ought to reassure her that he didn't mean to take any advantages. He could show her how contrite he was, how little he meant to ask, and then leave it to her to select a place, at her own leisure and convenience, to talk over the terms of their treaty.
He waited from a quarter after seven to half past eight, but Rose didn't come. The thought that perhaps he hadn't taken his station early enough sent him back to another vigil at half past ten. At a quarter to twelve, his patience exhausted, he opened the stage door and told the doorman he was waiting for one of the girls in the sextette. The doorman informed him they had all gone home.
There was, unfortunately, no matinee the next day, and it was only by the exercise of all the will power he had, that he stayed in his office and did his work and waited for the hour of the evening performance. Then he went to the theater and bought a ticket. When the sextette made its first appearance on the stage, he saw that another girl than Rose was taking her part. He went out into the lobby, and once more sought the manager. But this time with a different air.
"Haven't you an office somewhere where we can talk?" he demanded. "This is important."
Evidently the manager saw it was, because he conducted him to a small room with a desk in it, half-way up the balcony stairs, and nodded him to a chair.
"There was a young woman in your company," Rodney said, "in the sextette. She isn't playing to-night. I want to know what her stage name is, and where she can be found. I assure you that it's of the first importance to her that I should find her."
The manager's manner was different, too. He looked perplexed and rather unhappy. But he didn't tell Rodney what he wanted to know.
"She's left the company," he said, "permanently. That's all I can tell you."
"Is she ill?" Rodney demanded.
The manager said not that he knew of, but this was all that was to be got out of him.
The thing that finally silenced Rodney and sent him away, was the reflection that the man might be withholding information about her, on Rose's own request.
He went away, sore, angry, discouraged. Jimmy Wallace seemed about the only hope there was. But he'd be damned if he'd go to Jimmy. Not yet, anyway. And then he thought of Portia!
She'd tell him. She'd have to tell him. Why hadn't he thought of her before? He'd write to her the message to Rose he'd tried to get Frederica to carry. No, he wouldn't do that! He'd go to her. And there was a chance ... Why, there was the best kind of chance! Why hadn't he thought of it before? Why had he been such an idiot as to waste all these days!
It seemed almost certain he'd find Rose there with her. She'd felt—she couldn't have helped feeling after the things he'd said to her that ghastly night in the little North Clark Street room—that she couldn't go on. And stripped of her job like that, with nothing else to turn to, where should she go but home to her mother and sister? To the only friends and comforters she had in the world.
He'd send no word in advance of his coming. He'd just come up to the door of the little bungalow and ring the bell. And there was a chance that the person who'd come to answer it would be Rose herself.
The idea came to him all in a flash as he walked away from the theater, and his impulse from it was to jump into a taxicab and catch a ten-thirty train to the coast, that he had just time for. He denied the impulse as part of the discipline he'd been imposing on himself since his talk with Harriet, and went home instead. From now on he was going to act like a reasonable man, not like a distracted one.
He had his bag packed and his tickets bought the next morning, went to the office and put things in train to accommodate a week's absence, wrote a note to Frederica telling her of his discovery that Rose had left the company of The Girl Up-stairs, and of his hope of finding her in California with her mother and Portia; and when he settled himself in his compartment for the three-day ride he even had two or three books in his bag to pass the time with, as if it had been an ordinary journey. He didn't make much of them, it's true, but his honest attempt to, gave him the glimmering dawn of a discovery.
The cardinal principle of his life, if such a thing could be stated in a phrase, was self-expression through self-discipline. Well, his discovery was (it didn't come to much more than a surmise, it is true, but it was a beginning) that in his relations to Rose he'd never disciplined himself at all. The network of his instincts, passions, desires, that had involved her, had been allowed to grow unchecked, unscrutinized. He didn't begin to scrutinize them now. He was in no mind for the task. How could he undertake it until the fearful hope that he was actually on the way to her now should have been answered one way or the other!
It proved a vain hope. The person who answered his ring at the door of the little bungalow, on that wonderful sun-bathed, rose-scented morning (false auguries that mocked his disappointment and made it almost intolerable) was Portia.
She flushed at sight of him, then almost as quickly went pale. She stepped outside the door and closed it behind her before she spoke.
"I'm afraid I mustn't let mother know you're here," she said. "She's not been well these last days and she mustn't be excited. I don't want to let her suspect that things have changed or in any way gone wrong with Rose. I told her I was going out for a walk. Will you come with me?"
He nodded and did not even speak until they'd got safely away from the house. Then:
"I came out here," he said, "almost sure that I should find her. Isn't she here?"
"No," said Portia. Then she added with a sort of gasp, as if she'd tried to check her words in their very utterance, "Don't you know her better than that?"
"Do you know where she is?"
This question she didn't answer at all. They walked on a dozen paces in silence.
"Portia," he demanded, "is she ill? You'll have to tell me that."
Even this question she didn't answer immediately. "No," she said at last. "She's not ill. I'll take the responsibility of telling you that."
"You mean that's all you will tell me?" he persisted. "Why? On her instructions?"
"I think we'll have to sit down somewhere," said Portia. "Beside the road over there where it's shady."
"I got a letter from Rose yesterday," she said, after they'd been seated for a while. "She asked me in it not to go on writing you the little—bulletins that I'd been sending every week; not to tell you anything at all. So you see I've gone rather beyond her instructions in saying even as much as I have."
"And you," he asked quickly; "you mean to comply with a request like that?"
"I must," said Portia. "I can't do anything else."
He made no comment in words, but she interpreted his uncontrollable gesture of angry protest, and answered it.
"It's not a question of conscientious scruples; keeping my word, not betraying a confidence; anything like that. A year ago if she'd made such a request I'd have paid no attention to it. I'd have taken the responsibility of acting against her wishes, for her own good, if I happened to see it that way, without any hesitation at all. But Rose has shown herself so much bigger and stronger a person than I, and she's done a thing that would have been so splendidly beyond my courage to do that there's no question of my interfering. She's entitled to make her own decisions. So," she went on with a little difficulty, "I shan't betray her confidence nor disregard her instructions. But there's one thing I can do, one thing I can tell you, because it's my confidence, not hers."
The very obvious fact that her confidences were not of great moment to him, the way he sat there beside her in a glum abstraction through the rather long silence that followed her preface, made it easier for her to go on.
"You see," she said at last, "I'd always regarded Rose as a spoiled child. I'd loved her a lot, of course; but I'd despised her a little. At least I'd tried to, because I was jealous of her; of the big simple easy way she had—of making people love her. All the hard things came to me, I felt, and all the easy ones to her. And on the day I came to tell her about mother, and how we had to move out here—well, I was feeling sorrier for myself than usual. If you'll remember when that was and what her condition was (I didn't know about it then and neither did she) you'll understand my having found her terribly blue and unhappy. She talked discontentedly about her—failure with you and how she seemed to be nothing to you except ... Well, she said she envied me. And that, as I was feeling just then, was too much for me. I lashed out at her; told her a lot of things she'd never known—about how we'd lived, and so on; things I'd done for her. I said she'd got my life to live as well as her own, and that if she failed with it I'd never forgive her. She made me a promise that she wouldn't, no matter how hard she had to fight for it."
"She spoke to me once of a promise," Rodney said dully, "but of course I didn't know what she meant."
Portia got to her feet. "I can't leave mother for very long," she said, "and I've some little errands at the shops before I can go back. So ..."
"I see," he said. "I mustn't detain you any longer. I don't know, anyhow, that there's anything more to say."
"I'm sorry I can't—help you. You're entitled to—hate me, I think. Because it all goes back to that. I've been glad of a chance to tell you. And that makes me all the sorrier that I can't in any way make it up to you. But you see—don't you—how it is?"
"Yes," he said. "I see. I suppose, if it came to hating, that you're entitled to hate me. But there'll be no great satisfaction in that, I guess, for either of us." He held out his hand to her and with a painful sort of shy stiffness, she grasped it. "If Rose changes her instructions, or if you change your mind as to your duty under them, you'll let me know?"
She nodded. "Good-by," she said.
Rodney walked back to the railway station where he had checked his bag. In two hours he was on a train bound back to Chicago.
Various things occurred to him during the journey eastward that he might have said to Portia. He hadn't asked, for instance, whether Rose's embargo on news of herself to him had been made effective also in the other direction. Had she cut herself off from Portia's bulletins about himself and the babies? Could Portia have transmitted a message from him to Rose—the one Frederica had declined to take? But he felt in a way rather glad that he hadn't asked any more questions, nor offered any messages. He wasn't looking now for an intermediary between Rose and himself. He wanted Rose, and he meant to find her. His whole mind, by now, had crystallized into that hard-faceted, sharp-edged determination. The sore masculine vanity that had kept him from appealing to the man most likely to be able to help him was almost incredible now.
From the railway station in Chicago, the moment he got in, he telephoned Jimmy Wallace at his newspaper office. It was then about half past four in the afternoon. Jimmy couldn't leave for another hour, it seemed. It was his afternoon at home to press agents, and he always gave them till five-thirty to drop in. But he didn't think there were likely to be any more to-day, and if Rodney would come over ...
Rodney got into a taxi and came, and found the critic at his shabby old desk under a green-shaded electric light, in the midst of a vast solitude, the editorial offices of an evening newspaper at that hour being about the loneliest place in the world. There was a rusty look about this particular local room, too, that made you wonder that any real news ever could emanate from it. Yet only this afternoon they had beaten the city in the announcement of the failure of the Mortimore-Milligan string of banks.
"I've come," said Rodney, finding a sort of fierce satisfaction in grasping the nettle as tightly as possible, "to see if you can tell me anything about my wife."
Jimmy may have felt a bit flushed and flustered, but the fact didn't show, and an imaginative insight he was in the habit of denying the possession of led him to draw most of the sting out of the situation with the first words he said.
"I'll tell you all I know, of course, but it isn't much. Because I haven't had a word with her since the last time I dined at your house, way back last September, I think it was. I saw her on the stage at the Globe, the opening night of The Girl Up-stairs, and I saw that she recognized me. That's how I knew it was really she. And—well, I want you to know this! I haven't told anybody that she was there."
"You needn't tell me that," said Rodney. "I'm sure of it. But I'm glad you did tell me the other thing. But here's the situation: she's left that company; left it, I believe, as a result of a talk I had with her after I found her there, and I don't know where she is. The one thing I have got to do just now is to find her. I've asked at the theater, and they won't tell me. I imagine they're acting on her instructions. And as I don't even know the name she goes by I've found it pretty hard to get anywhere. I want you to help me."
"Her name there at the Globe was Doris Dane," said Jimmy, "and I imagine that unless she's left the show business altogether she'll have kept it; because it would be, in a small way, an asset. And, as she'll be easier to find if she has stayed in the business than if she hasn't, why, that's the presumption to begin on."
He lighted his pipe and lapsed into a thoughtful silence. "There are two things she may have done," he went on after a while. "She may have gone to New York, and in that case she's likely to have applied to the man who put on The Girl out here; that's John Galbraith. He took quite an interest in her, I understand; believed she had a future. But the other thing she may have done strikes me as a little more likely. How long ago was it you talked to her?"
"It's the better part of two weeks," said Rodney.
"Well," said Jimmy, "they sent out a Number Two company of The Girl Up-Stairs a week ago last Sunday night. If she had any reason for wanting to leave Chicago she might, I should think, have gone to them and asked them to let her go out on the road with that. They wouldn't have done it, of course, unless she'd convinced them that she was going to quit the Chicago company anyway. But if she had convinced them of that they'd have done it right enough. On the whole, that seems to me the likeliest place to look."
"Yes," said Rodney, "I think it is. Well, have you any way of finding out where the Number Two company is playing?"
Jimmy was rummaging in the litter of magazines on the top of his desk. He pulled one out and searched among the back pages of it for a moment.
"Here we are!" he said. "The Girl Up-stairs," and he began reading off the route. "They're playing to-night," he said, "at Cedar Rapids; to-morrow night in Dubuque."
"All right," said Rodney. "The next thing to find out is whether she's with the company. Who is there we can telephone to out there?"
"Why," said Jimmy, "I suppose we might raise the manager of the opera-house. They're at Cedar Rapids to-night, and we might get a good enough wire so that a proper name would be understood." He glanced at his watch. "But there's a quicker and surer and cheaper way, and that's to ask Alec McEwen. He's the press agent of the company here, and he'd be sure to know."
"He'd know," Rodney demurred, "but would he tell?"
"He'd tell me," said Jimmy.
"Can you find him?" Rodney wanted to know. "Where would he be at this time of day—at his office or his house?"
He hadn't any office nor any house, Jimmy said. "But since he's undoubtedly cleaned up the newspaper offices by now, on his weekly round," he concluded, "we can find him easily enough. I'll guarantee to locate him—within three bars. There'll be no one in to see me after this," he went on, slamming down the roll-top to his desk, getting up and reaching for his overcoat, "so we may as well go straight at it."
They walked down to the street entrance in silence. There Jimmy, with a nonchalance that rang a little flat on his own ear, pulled up and said:
"Look here! There's no need your trailing around on this job. Tell me where you will be in an hour and I'll call you up."
"Oh, I've nothing else to do," said Rodney, "and I'll be glad to go along."
They were at cross-purposes here. Jimmy didn't want him along. He had a hunch that Rodney wouldn't find little Alec very satisfactory, but he didn't know just how to say so. Rodney, on his part, strongly disrelished the notion of trailing the press agent from bar to bar. But he attributed the same distaste to Jimmy and felt it wouldn't be fair not to share it with him. There was, besides, a certain satisfaction in making his pride do penance.
Jimmy hadn't overestimated his knowledge of little Alec McEwen's orbit. They walked together to the corner of Clark and Randolph Streets and, working radially from there, in the third bar they found him.
Even before this, however, Rodney regretted that he hadn't let Jimmy do the job alone. He was not an habitue of the sumptuous bars of the Loop, and the voices of the men he found in them, the sort of men they were, and the sort of things they talked about found raw nerves all over him. On another errand, he realized, he wouldn't have minded. But it seemed as if Rose herself were somehow soiled by the necessity of visiting places like this in search of information about her.
The feeling he had come back with from that down-state town to which he had fled, that she was in a miry pit from which, at any cost, she must be saved, had been a good deal weakened during the ten days that had intervened since then. Her having sent back that hundred dollars; what Portia had said about her courage; Harriet's notion that a stage career, if properly managed, was something one could at least pretend not to be ashamed of; and, most lately, what Jimmy Wallace had said about the New York director who thought she had a future—all these things had contributed to the result.
But this pursuit, from one drinking bar to another, of the only man who could tell him where she was, was bringing the old feeling back in waves.
"Here we are," said Jimmy, as they entered the third place. It was a cramped cluttered room, thick with highly varnished, carved woodwork and upholstered leather. Its principal ornament was a nude Bouguereau in a red-draped alcove, heavily overlighted and fearfully framed; the sort of picture any one would have yawned at in a gallery, it acquired here, from the hard-working indecency of its intent, a weak salaciousness.
Rodney found himself being led up to a group in the far corner of the bar, and guessed rightly that the young man with the high voice and the seemingly permanent smile, who greeted Jimmy with a determined facetiousness, "Hello, old Top! Drunk again?" was the man they sought.
"Not yet," said Jimmy, "but I'm willing to help you along. What'll it be?" Then to Rodney: "This is Mr. Alexander McEwen, the leading liar among our local press agents." He added quickly: "You didn't come around this afternoon, so I suppose there's nothing stirring. How's business over at the Globe?"
"Immense," said Alec. "Sold out three times last week."
"Do you hear anything," Jimmy asked, "about the road company, what they're doing?"
"Rotten," said Alec. "But that don't worry Goldsmith and Block. They sold out their road rights to Block's brother-in-law."
"By the way," said Jimmy, "who's the girl in the sextette that's quit?"
"Doris Dane?" said little Alec. "Say no more. So you were on that lay, too, you old fox!" his smile widened as he looked round at Rodney, and his voice turned to a crow. "Trust this solemn old bird not to miss a bet. She was some lady, all right! Why," he went on to Jimmy, "she has some sort of a row with her lover; big brute that used to lie in wait for her in the alley. You ought to hear the ponies go on about it. So she gets scared and goes to Goldsmith and gets herself sent out with the Number Two. And Goldsmith—believe me—crazy! He had his eye on it, too."
Jimmy finished his drink with a jerk. "Come along," he said to Rodney. "I don't like this place. Let's get out."
Rodney has never managed to forget little Alec McEwen. For weeks after that bar-room encounter he was haunted by the vision of the small bright prying eyes, the fatuously cynical smile, and by the sound of the high crowing voice. Little Alec became monstrous to him; impersonal, a symbol of the way the world looked at Rose, and he dreamed sometimes, half-waking dreams, of choking the life out of him. Not out of little Alec personally. He, obviously, wasn't worth it; but out of all the weakly venomous slander that he typified.
He managed a nod that seemed unconcerned enough, in response to Jimmy's suggestion, and followed him out to the sidewalk. The sort of florid rococo chivalry that would have "vindicated his wife's honor" by knocking little Alec down was an inconceivable thing to him. But the thing cut deep. He felt bemired. He wouldn't have minded that, of course, except that the miry way he'd trodden since he'd first gone to the stage door for Rose was the way she's taken ahead of him. He must overtake her and bring her back!
"I'm a thousand times obliged," he said in an even enough tone to Jimmy. "I'll find her at Dubuque, then, to-morrow."
"That's Wednesday," said Jimmy. "They may be playing a matinee, you know. She'll be there, right enough."
Then, to make the separation they both wanted come a little easier, he invented an errand over on State Street and nodded Rodney farewell. For the next half-hour he cursed himself with vicious heartfelt fluency for a fool. Mightn't he have known what little Alec McEwen would say?
Analyzing what little Alec McEwen actually said, disregarding the tone of his voice and the look in his eye; disregarding, indeed, the meaning he attached to his own words, and sticking simply to the words themselves, it would be difficult to bring home against him the charge of untruthfulness, or even of exaggeration.
Because it was in a simple panic that Rose, on the morning after Rodney's visit, had gone to Goldsmith and demanded to be transferred to the second company, which had started rehearsing as soon as a month of capacity business had demonstrated that the piece was a success.
Goldsmith was disgusted. Little Alec had been right about that, too. The unnaturalness of the request—for indeed it flew straight in the face of all traditions that a girl who might stay in Chicago if she liked, taking it easy and having a lot of fun, and rejoicing in the possession of a job that was going to last for months, should deliberately swap this highly desirable position for the hazards and discomforts of a second-rate road company, playing one-night stands over the kerosene circuit—was one too many for him. He demanded explanations without getting any. And as Jimmy Wallace had guessed, it was not until she'd convinced him that in no circumstances would she stay on in the Chicago company that he assented to the transfer. He didn't abandon his attempts to dissuade her until the very last moment. But neither his pictures of the discomforts of the road, nor his carefully veiled promises of further advancement if she stayed in Chicago, had the slightest effect on her. All that she wanted was to get away, and as quickly as she could!
The collapse of her courage was not quite the sudden thing it seemed. Forces she was vaguely aware had been at work, but didn't realize the seriousness of, had been undermining it steadily since the opening night when she recognized Jimmy Wallace in the audience, and when later she parted from Galbraith with his promise of a New York job as soon as he could get his own affairs ready for her.
Chief of these forces was the simple reaction of fatigue. Strong as she was, she had abused her strength somewhat during the last weeks of rehearsal; had taken on and triumphantly accomplished more than any one has a right to accomplish without calculating on replacing his depleted capital of energy afterward. It was her first experience with this sort of exhaustion, and she hadn't learned (indeed it is a lesson she never did fully learn) to accept the phase with philosophic calm as the inevitable alternate to the high-tension effective one.
She missed Galbraith horribly. She had, as she'd told him, personified the show as a mere projection of himself; he was it and it was he. Everything she said and did on the stage had continued, as it had begun in her very first rehearsal by being, just the expression of his will through her instrumentality. It was amazing to her that, with the core of it drawn out, the fabric should still stand; that the piece should go on repeating itself night after night, automatically, awakening the delighted applause of that queer foolish monster, the audience, just with its galvanic simulation of the life he had once imparted to it.
She was doing her own part, she felt at all events, in a manner utterly lifeless and mechanical. It was a stifling existence!
The most discouraging thing about it was that the others in the company seemed not to feel it in the same way. Anabel Astor for example: night after night she seemed to be born anew into her part with the rise of the first curtain; she fought and conquered and cajoled, and luxuriated in the approbation of every new audience, just as she had in the case of the first, and came off all aglow with her triumph, as if the thing had never happened to her before. And with the others, in varying degrees, even with the chorus people, the effect seemed to be the same.
But it was actually in the air, Rose believed, not merely in her own fancy, that she was failing to justify the promise she had given at rehearsal. Not alarmingly, to be sure. She was still plenty good enough to hold down her job. But the notion, prevalent, it appeared, before the opening, that she was one of those persons who can't be kept down in the chorus, but project themselves irresistibly into the ranks of the principals, was coming to be considered a mistake.
Galbraith, as was evident from his last talk with her, hadn't made that mistake. She remembered his having said she never could be an actress. That was all right of course. She didn't want to be. In a way, it was just because she didn't want to be that she couldn't be. But having it come home to her as it was doing now, in her own experience, made her all the more impatient to get out of the profession that wasn't hers and into the one that had beckoned her so alluringly.
It was just here that her disappointment was sharpest. The light that for a few weeks had flared up so brightly, showing a clear path of success that would lead her back to Rodney, had, suddenly, just when she needed it most, gone out and left her wondering whether, after all, it had been a true beacon or only fool's fire.
A resolution she came to within twenty-four hours after Galbraith left was that she would not wait passively for his letter summoning her to New York. She'd go straight to work (and fill in the disconcerting emptiness of her days at the same time) preparing herself for the profession of stage costume designing. She wasn't entirely clear in her mind as to just what steps this preparation should consist in, but the fact that Galbraith had once asked to see her sketches and had seemed amazed to learn that she hadn't any, gave her the hint that she might do well to learn to draw. She knew, of course, that she couldn't learn very much in the fortnight or so she supposed would elapse before Galbraith's letter came in, but she could learn a little. And anything to do that went in the right direction was better than blankly doing nothing.
Her first adventure in this direction was downright ludicrous, as she was aware without being able to summon the mood to appreciate it. The girls she'd known, back in the Edgewater days, who had ambitions to learn to draw went to the Art Institute. So Rose, summoning her courage for a sortie across the avenue, want there too, and felt, as she climbed the steps between the lions, a little the way Christian did in similar circumstances. After waiting a while she was shown into the office of an affable young man, with efficient looking eye-glasses and a keen sort of voice, and told him with admirable brevity that she wanted to learn to draw, as a preliminary to designing costumes.
He approved this ambition cordially enough and made it evident that the resources of the institute were entirely adequate to her needs. But then, just about simultaneously, she made the discovery that the course he was talking about was one of from three to five years' duration, and he, that the time immediately at her disposal amounted to something like a fortnight. They were mutually too completely disconcerted to do anything, for a moment, but stare at each other. When he found his breath he told her that he was afraid they couldn't do anything for her.
"There are places, of course, here in town (there's one right down the street) where they'll take you on for a month, or a week, or a day, if you like; let you begin working in oil in the life class the vary first morning, if you've a notion to. But we don't believe in that get-rich-quick sort of business. We believe in laying the foundation first."
His manner in describing the other sort of place had been so annihilating, his purpose in citing this horrible example was so plain, that he was justifiably taken aback when she asked him, very politely, to be sure, "Would you mind telling me where that other place is; the one down the street?"
He did mind exceedingly, and it is likely he wouldn't have done it if she'd been less extraordinarily good to look at and if there hadn't been, in her very expressive blue eyes, a gleam that suggested she was capable of laughing at him for having trapped himself like that. She wasn't laughing at him now, be it understood; had made her request with a quite adorable seriousness. Only ...
He gave her the address of an art academy on Madison Street and thither at once she made her way, faintly cheered by the note on which her encounter with the young man had ended, but on the whole rather depressed by the thought of the five years he'd talked about.
They were more tactful at the new place. Ars Longa est was not a motto they paraded. They were not shocked at all at the notion of a young woman's learning as much as she could about drawing in two weeks. There was a portrait sketch class every morning; twenty minute poses. You put down as much as you could of how the model looked to you in that space of time, and then began again on something else. All the equipment Rose would need was a big apron, a stick of charcoal and a block of drawing paper; all of which were obtainable on the premises. She could begin this minute if she liked. It was almost as simple as getting on a pay-as-you-enter street-car.
This jumped with Rose's mood exactly, and she promptly fell to, with a momentary flare-up of the zest with which she had gone to work for Galbraith. But it was only momentary. She hadn't a natural aptitude for drawing, and her attempts to make the black lines she desperately dug and smudged into the white paper represent, recognizably, the object she was looking at failed so lamentably as to discourage her almost from the start.
She kept at it for the two weeks she'd contracted for, but at the end of that time she gave it up. She hadn't made any visible progress, and besides, she might be hearing from Galbraith almost any day now.
And when, four or five days later, her intolerable restlessness over waiting for a letter that didn't come, making up reasons why it hadn't come, one minute, and deciding that it never would, the next, drove her to do something once more, she set out on a new tack. If the ability to make fancy little water-colors of impossible-looking girls in only less impossible costumes were really an essential part of the business of designing the latter, then she'd have to set about learning, in a systematic way, to paint them; find out the proper way to begin, and take her time about it. Her two weeks at the academy had proved that it wasn't a knack that she could pick up casually. But there were books on costumes, she knew; histories of clothes, that went as far back as any sort of histories, with marvelous colored plates which gave you all the details. Bertie Willis had told her all about that when they were getting up their group for the Charity Ball. There were shelves of them, she knew, over at the Newberry Library. A knowledge of their contents would be sure to be valuable to her when Galbraith should set her to designing more costumes for him—if ever he did.
This misgiving, that she might never hear from him, that his plans had changed since their talk, so that he wasn't going to need any assistant, or that he had found some one in New York better qualified for the work, was, really, a little artificial. She encouraged it as a defense against another which was, in its insidious way, much more terrifying.
Would she ever be capable, again, of producing another idea in case it should be wanted? That one little flash of inspiration she'd had, that had resulted in the twelve costumes for the sextette—where had it come from? How had she happened on it? Wasn't it, perhaps, just a fluke that never could be repeated? During those wonderful days she had had antennae out everywhere, bringing her impressions, suggestions from the unlikeliest objects. Now they were all drawn in and the part of her mind that had responded to them felt numb.
She ignored this sensation, or rather this absence of sensation, as well as she could; just as one might ignore the creeping approach of paralysis. She had an unacknowledged reason for going to the library and beginning that historic study of costumes. Certainly the sight of those quaint old plates ought to set her imagination racing again.
But it didn't work that way. She found herself poring over them, yawning herself blind over the French legends that accompanied them. (They were nearly all in French, these books, and though Rose had done two years' work in this language at the university and passed all her examinations, she found these technical descriptions of costumes frightfully hard to understand.) She stuck at it, though, for a long while, until one morning a comparison occurred to her that made her shut the folio with a slam. It had been in just this way, with just this dogged, blind, hopeless persistence, that, ages ago, in that former incarnation, she'd tried to study law!
This was too much for her. She walked out of the library with the best appearance of unconcern that she could muster,—it had been a near thing that she didn't break down and cry—and she did not go back. Probably it was just as well that Galbraith hadn't sent for her. She'd only have made a ghastly failure of it, if he had.
The background, of course, to all these endeavors and discouragements, or, to describe it more justly, the indivisible, all-permeating ether they floated about in, was, just as it had been in the time of her success—Rodney. The occupations, routine and otherwise, that she gave her mind to, might seem, in a way, to crowd him out of it, although not one of them was undertaken without some reference to him; the success of this, the failure of that, brought him nearer, put him farther away, like the children's game of Warm and Cold.
When she ran out of occupations that could absorb the conscious part of her mind, she did not even try to resist direct thoughts about him. She'd spent uncounted hours since that opening night, wondering if he knew where she was, inventing reasons why, knowing, he didn't come to her; explanations of the possibility of his still remaining in ignorance. She'd gone over and over again, the probable things that he would say, the things that she would say in reply, when he did come.
She was prepared for his anger. He was, she felt, entitled to be angry. But she felt sure she could get him to listen while she told him just why and how she had done it, and what she had done, and she had a sort of tremulous confidence that when the story was told, entire, his anger would be found to have abated, if not altogether to have disappeared. And afterward, when the shock had worn off, and he had had time to adjust himself to things, he'd begin to feel a little proud of her. They could commence—being friends. She'd constructed and let her mind dwell on almost every conceivable combination of circumstances, except the one thing that happened.
Only, as the active actual half of her life grew more discouraging, harder to steer toward any object that seemed worth attaining, her imaginary life with Rodney lost its grip on fact and reason; became roseate, romantic, a thinner and more iridescent bubble, readier to burst and disappear altogether at an ungentle touch.
So you will understand, I think, that the Rose, who incredulously heard him ask in that dull sullen tone, if she had anything besides what would go into her trunk; the Rose who got up and turned on the light for a look at him in the hope that the evidence of her eyes would belie that of her ears; the Rose he left shuddering at the window in that quilted dressing-gown, was not the Rose who had left him three months before and rented that three-dollar room and wrung a job out of Galbraith!
Dimly she was aware of this herself. At her best she wouldn't have lost her head, wouldn't have flown to pieces like that. If she'd kept any sort of grip on the situation, she might at least have averted a total shipwreck. She understood even on that gray morning, that the terrible things he'd said to her had been a mere outcry; the expression of a mood she had encountered before, though this was an extreme example of it.
But it was a long time before she went any further than that. The memory of the whole episode from the moment when he came up to her there in the alley and took her by the shoulders, until he closed her door upon himself four hours or so later, was so exquisitely painful that any reasoned analysis of it, any construction of potential alternatives to the thing that had happened, was simply impossible. The misgiving that with a little more courage and patience on her part, it might have terminated differently, only added to her misery.
She felt like a coward when she went to Goldsmith and demanded to be sent out on the road, and she experienced for a while, the utter demoralization of cowardice. The logic of the situation told her to stay where she was. If it were true, as she had fiercely told him that night, that their life together was ended, the whole fabric that they had woven for themselves rent clean across, then the only thing for her to do was to begin living now, as she had made an effort to do before, quite without reference to him, ordering her own existence as if he had ceased to exist; stick to whatever offered herself, Doris Dane, the best chance for success and advancement. She was, of course, seriously injuring Doris Dane's chances by going out on the road.
And, even with reference to Rodney, it was hard to see how her flight could help the situation. If what she'd done had really disgraced him in his own eyes and in those of his world, the disgrace was already complete. Acquiescing in that point of view, as by her flight she did, couldn't lighten it.
But all the power these considerations had, was to make her flight seem more ignominious. They were utterly incapable of preventing it.
A disinterested friend, had she boasted such a possession just then, might have pointed out for her comfort, that her rout was not complete. It was a retreat, but not a surrender. She hadn't become Rose Stanton again and gone back to Portia and her mother. Doris Dane, though badly battered, was still intact!
The first ten days of her life on the road had, on the whole, a distinctly restorative effect. I have never heard of a physician's recommending a course of one-night stands as a rest cure to nervously exhausted patients, but I am inclined to think the idea has its merits, for all that. Certainly the regime was, for a while, beneficial to Rose. The merit of it was that it offered some sort of occupation for practically all her time.
A typical day consisted in getting up in the morning at an hour determined for you either by the call posted on the bulletin board in the theater the night before, telling you what time you were to be at the railway station, or by the last moment at which you could get into the dining-room in the hotel. You ate all you could manage at breakfast, because lunch was likely to consist of a sandwich and an orange bought from the train butcher; with perhaps the lucky addition of a cup of coffee at some junction point where you changed trains. You lugged your suit-case down to the station, and had your arrival there noted by the manager, who, of course, bought all the tickets for the company. You needn't even bother to know where you were going, except out of idle curiosity. The train came along and you got a seat by yourself on the shady side, if you could; though the men being more agile, generally got there first.
The convention of giving precedence to the ladies, Rose promptly discovered, and with a sort of satisfaction, did not apply. Indeed, all the automatic small courtesies and services which, in any life she'd known, men had been expected to show to women, were here completely barred. A girl could let a man come up to her on a platform where they were all gathered waiting for the train, and casually slide an arm around her, without any one's paying the slightest attention to the act. But if, when the train came along, she permitted him to pick up her suit-case, carry it into the train and find a seat for her, there would be nods and glances.
Well, you got into the train and dozed and read a magazine (or both) and by and by, when everybody else did, you got up and got out. Perhaps you waited on a triangular railway platform for another train, or perhaps you trailed along in a procession, to a hotel. In the latter case, you got a meal and found out where the opera-house was.
There were various minor occupations that you slipped into the interstices of a day like this whenever they happened to come. You combed out and brushed your hair (a hundred strokes) which you were too tired to do at night after the performance and seldom waked up in time for in the morning. And, if you were wise, as Rose was, thanks to a tip from Anabel, and had emancipated yourself from the horror of overnight laundries by providing yourself with crepe underclothes and dark little silk blouses, you got all the hot water you could beg of the chambermaid, and did the family wash in the bowl in your room, on an afternoon when you had a short jump and there was no matinee.
It was a life, of course, that abounded in what pass for hardships. There is no desolation to surpass that of the second-best hotel (rates two dollars a day), in a small middle western city, except the same kind of hotel in the same sort of city in the South. Bad air, bad beds and bad food are their staples and what passes for service seems especially calculated to encourage the victim to dispense with it as far as possible. The stages and dressing-rooms in the theaters were almost always dirty and were frequently overrun with rats. It was always cold and drafty back there, except when it happened to be suffocating. Also, the day's work by no means invariably concluded with even a half a bed in a two-dollar-a-day hotel. If there happened to be a train coming along at two o'clock in the morning, and also happened to be a chance to play a matinee in the town you were jumping to, you took your suit-case to the theater, lugged it from there after the performance, to the station, and spent an indefinite number of hours thereafter, in an air-tight waiting-room. Waiting, be it observed, for a chance to curl up in a seat in the day-coach, when the train came along.
But Rose didn't mind this very much. The rooms assigned to her and her roommate were fully as comfortable as the one she had lived in on Clark Street, and the meals, as a whole, were rather better than those her habitual lunch-room had provided. As for riding on the train: it gave you the sense of doing something and getting somewhere, without imposing the necessity either for judgment or for resolution. The real discomforts to Rose were not the material ones.
The piece had been, as she discovered during the one rehearsal she had attended in Chicago, deliberately cheapened and vulgarized for the road. The only one of the principals who had a shred of professional reputation, was a comedian named Max Webber, who played the part of the cosmetic king. He'd come up in vaudeville and his methods reeked of it. He was featured in the billing and he arrogated all the privileges of a real star. He was intensely and destructively jealous of any approbation he didn't himself arouse, even if it was manifested when he was not on the stage. He distended his part out of all reasonable semblance, and to the practical annihilation of the plot, by the injection into it of musty vaudeville specialties of his, which he assured the weak-kneed management were knock-outs. And his clowning and mugging made it impossible to play a legitimate scene with him, with any shadow of professional self-respect.
The result of this was that the girl who had rehearsed Patricia Devereux's part, an ambitious, well-equipped young woman who would have added much-needed strength to the cast, delivered an ultimatum during the last rehearsal but one, and on having her very reasonable demands rejected, walked out. Olga Larson, who had understudied Patricia ever since the Chicago opening, was given the part. The rest of the principals were either pathetic failures with lamentable stories of better days, or promising youngsters, like Olga herself, with no adequate training.
The chorus was similarly constituted. There were fifteen girls in it, including the sextette, now a trio, part of them worn-out veterans (one of these was the duchess—do you remember her?—who had applied to Galbraith for a job the day that Rose got hers) and the others green young girls, not more than sixteen or seventeen, some of them, who had never been on the stage before. It was one of these, a tiny, slim, black-haired little thing, who gave her name as Dolly Darling, but hadn't memorized it yet herself, obviously a runaway in quest of romantic adventure, whom Rose adopted as a permanent roommate.
Her doing so opened up the breach between herself and Olga Larson. It had existed, beneath the surface, ever since the night she had gone to supper with Galbraith. It wasn't that Olga believed Rose had taken Galbraith as a lover. She hadn't believed that even when she hurled the accusation against her. The wounding thing was that Rose seemed not to care whether she believed it or not; had met her tempestuous pleas for forgiveness and her offers of unlimited love and faith "whatever Rose might do and however things might look," with a cold distaste that hardly differed from the feeling she had shown in response to the tempest of angry accusation. She told Olga, to be sure, that everything was all right; that the thing for both of them to do, was to treat the quarrel as if it hadn't occurred.
This wasn't what Olga wanted at all. She wanted Rose as an emotional objective, to love passionately and be jealous of, and, for a moment now and then, hate, as a preliminary to another passionate reconciliation.
Rose had divined that this was so. Indeed, she understood it far better than Olga did, having had to evade one or two "crushes" of a similar sort while she was at the university. It was a sort of thing that went utterly against her instincts, and she was secretly glad that the quarrel on the opening night had given her a method of resisting this one that need not seem too utterly heartless.
Since the quarrel, Olga had been distant and dignified. She had a grievance (that Rose, pretending to forgive her confessed mistake, had really not done so) but she was bearing it bravely. Rose, when she could manage the manner, was good-humored and casual, and completely blind to the existence of the grievance Olga so nobly concealed. But Olga's wonderful good fortune, coming quite unheralded as it did, an advancement she had played with in her day-dreams, and never thought of as a realizable possibility, swept her out of her pose and carried her with a rush into Rose's arms.
This happened not a quarter of an hour after Rose had secured Goldsmith's consent to her own transfer to the Number Two company, and the first thing that registered on her mind was that she, who had taught Olga to talk, saved her her job, prevailed on Galbraith to dress her properly, and won her a chance for the space of that one song refrain, to make her individual appeal to the audience—Rose, who had done all this, was now going out as a chorus-girl in the company of which Olga was the leading woman. She didn't regret Olga's promotion, but she did wish, for herself, that she might have been spared just now, this ironic little cackle of laughter on the part of the malicious Goddess of Chance.
She was ashamed of the feeling—was she getting as small as that?—and, in consequence, she congratulated Olga a good deal more warmly than otherwise she would have done. But this warmer manner of hers opened Olga's flood-gates so wide, swamped her in such a torrent of sentiment, that Rose simply took to flight.
There was an element of real maternal pity in Rose's adoption of little Dolly Darling as her chum. Dolly was obviously as fragile and ephemeral as a transparent sand-fly. She had nothing that you could call a mind or a character, even of the most rudimentary sort. She knew nothing, except how to dance, and she knew that exactly as a kitten knows how to play with a ball of string; she dreamed of diamonds and wonderful restaurants and a sardonic hero nine feet tall with a straight nose and a long chin, who would clutch her passionately in his arms (there was no more real passion in her than there is in a soap-bubble) and murmur vows of eternal adoration in her ears.
She was a soap-bubble; that's the figure for her; just an iridescent reflection, wondrously distorted, of the tawdry life about her—a reflection, and then nothing!
But just the thin empty frailness of her, her gaiety in the face of perfectly inevitable destruction, appealed to Rose. She had Dolly in her pocket in five minutes, and before the end of the rehearsal, their treaty was signed and sealed. They were to be chums, bosom friends! The notion of it gave Rose the most spontaneous smile she'd had in days; the first one that hadn't had a bitter quirk in it.
When, down at the union station on Sunday morning, as they were leaving, Olga unfolded her plan that she and Rose should room together, Rose owned up to herself that there had been another element than maternal pity in her adoption of Dolly. She'd suspected that Olga would propose something of this sort, and she had fortified herself against it.