Daffodils were selling at two bits a dozen in the flower stand beside the New Era Drug Store. Therefore Peter Stevenson knew that winter was over, and that the weather would probably "settle." There would be the spring fogs, of course—and fog did not agree with Helen May since that last spell of grippe. Peter decided that he would stop and see the doctor again, and ask him what he thought of a bungalow out against the hills behind Hollywood; something cheap, of course—and within the five-cent limit on the street cars; something with a sleeping porch that opened upon a pleasanter outlook than your neighbor's back yard. If Helen May would then form the habit of riding to and from town on the open end of the cars, that would help considerably; in fact, the longer the ride the better it would be for Helen May. The air was sweet and clean out there toward the hills. It would be better for Vic, too. It would break up that daily habit of going out to see "the boys" as soon as he had swallowed his dinner.
Peter finished refilling the prescription on which he was working, and went out to see if he were needed in front. He sold a lip-stick to a pert miss who from sheer instinct made eyes at him, and he wished that Helen May had such plump cheeks—though he thanked God she had not the girl's sophisticated eyes. (Yes, a bungalow out there against the hills ought to do a lot for Helen May.) He glanced up at the great clock and unconsciously compared his cheap watch with it, saw that in ten minutes he would be free for the day, and bethought him to telephone the doctor and make sure of the appointment. He knew that Helen May had seen the doctor at noon, since she had given Peter her word that she would go, and since she never broke a promise. He would find out just what the doctor thought.
When he returned from the 'phone, a fat woman wanted peroxide, and she was quite sure the bottle he offered was smaller than the last two-bit bottle she had bought. Peter very kindly and patiently discussed the matter with her, and smiled and bowed politely when she finally decided to try another place. His kidneys were hurting him again. He wondered if Helen May would remember that he must not eat heavy meats, and would get something else for their dinner.
He glanced again at the clock. He had four minutes yet to serve. He wondered why the doctor had seemed so eager to see him. He had a vague feeling of uneasiness, though the doctor had not spoken more than a dozen words. At six he went behind the mirrored partition and got his topcoat and hat; said good night to such clerks as came in his way, and went out and bought a dozen daffodils from the Greek flower-vendor. All day he had been arguing with himself because of this small extravagance which tempted him, but now that it was settled and the flowers were in his hand, he was glad that he had bought them. Helen May loved all growing things. He set off briskly in spite of his aching back, thinking how Helen May would hover over the flowers rapturously even while she scolded him for his extravagance.
Half an hour later, when he turned to leave the doctor's office, he left the daffodils lying forgotten on a chair until the doctor called him back and gave them to him with a keen glance that had in it a good deal of sympathy.
"You're almost as bad off yourself, old man," he said bluntly. "I want to watch those kidneys of yours. Come in to-morrow or next day and let me look you over. Or Sunday will do, if you aren't working then. I don't like your color. Here, wait a minute. I'll give you a prescription. You'd better stop and fill it before you go home. Take the first dose before you eat—and come in Sunday. Man, you don't want to neglect yourself. You—"
"Then you don't think Hollywood—?" Peter took the daffodils and began absently crumpling the waxed paper around them. His eyes, when he looked into the doctor's face, were very wistful and very, very tired.
"Hollywood!" The doctor snorted. "One lung's already badly affected, I tell you. What she's got to have is high, dry air—like Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado. And right out in the open—live like an Injun for a year or two. Radical change of climate—change of living. Another year of office work will kill her." He stopped and eyed Peter pityingly. "Predisposition—and then the grippe—her mother went that way, didn't she?"
"Yes," Peter replied, flat-toned and patient. "Yes, she went—that way."
"Well, you know what it means. Get her out of here just as quick as possible, and you'll probably save her. Helen May's a girl worth saving."
"Yes," Peter replied flatly, as before. "Yes—she's worth saving."
"You bet! Well, you do that. And don't put off coming here Sunday. And don't forget to fill that prescription and take it till I see you again."
Peter smiled politely, and went down the hall to the elevator, and laid his finger on the bell, and waited until the steel cage paused to let him in. He walked out and up Third Street and waited on the corner of Hill until the car he wanted stopped on the corner to let a few more passengers squeeze on. Peter found a foothold on the back platform and something to hang to, and adapted himself to the press of people around him, protecting as best he could the daffodils with the fine, green stuff that went with them and that straggled out and away from the paper. Whenever human eyes met his with a light of recognition, Peter would smile and bow, and the eyes would smile back. But he never knew who owned the eyes, or even that he was performing one of the little courtesies of life.
All he knew was that Helen May was going the way her mother had gone, and that the only way to prevent her going that way was to take her to New Mexico or Colorado or Arizona; and she was worth saving—even the doctor had been struck with her worth; and a bungalow out against the hills wouldn't do at all, not even with a sleeping porch and the open-air ride back and forth every day. Radical change she must have. Arizona or New Mexico or—the moon, which seemed not much more remote or inaccessible.
When his street was called he edged out to the steps and climbed down, wondering how the doctor expected a man with Peter's salary to act upon his advice. "You do that!" said the doctor, and left Peter to discover, if he could, how it was to be done without money; in other words, had blandly required Peter to perform a modern miracle.
Helen May was listlessly setting the table when he arrived. He went up to her for the customary little peck on the cheek which passes for a kiss among relatives, and Helen May waved him off with a half smile that was unlike her customary cheerfulness.
"I've quit kissing," she said. "It's unsanitary."
"What did the doctor tell you, Babe? You went to see him, didn't you?" Peter managed a smile—business policy had made smiling a habit—while he unwound the paper from around the daffodils.
"Dad, I've told you and told you not to buy flowers! Oh, golly, aren't they beautiful! But you mustn't. I'm going to get my salary cut, on the first. They say business doesn't warrant my present plutocratic income. Five a week less, Bob said it would be. That'll pull the company back to a profit-sharing basis, of course!"
"Lots of folks are losing their jobs altogether," Peter reminded her apathetically. "What did the doctor say about your cough, Babe?"
"Oh, he told me to quit working. Why is it doctors never have any brains about such things? Charge a person two dollars or so for telling him to do what's impossible. What does he think I am—a movie queen?"
She turned away from his faded, anxious eyes that hurt her with their realization of his helplessness. There was a red spot on either cheek—the rose of dread which her father had watched heart-sinkingly. "I know what he thinks is the matter," she added defiantly. "But that doesn't make it so. It's just the grippe hanging on. I've felt a lot better since the weather cleared up. It's those raw winds—and half the time they haven't had the steam on at all in the mornings, and the office is like an ice-box till the sun warms it."
"Vic home yet?" Peter abandoned the subject for one not much more cheerful. Vic, fifteen and fully absorbed in his own activities, was more and more becoming a sore subject between the two.
"No. I called up Ed's mother just before you came, but he hadn't been there. She thought Ed was over here with Vic. I don't know where else to ask."
"Did you try the gym?"
"No. He won't go there any more. They got after him for something he did—broke a window somehow. There's no use fussing, dad. He'll come when he's hungry enough. He's broke, so he can't eat down town."
Peter sighed and went away to brush his thin, graying hair carefully over his bald spot, while Helen May brewed the tea and made final preparations for dinner. The daffodils she arranged with little caressing pulls and pats in a tall, slim vase of plain glass, and placed the vase in the center of the table, just as Peter knew she would do.
"Oh, but you're sweet!" she said, and stooped with her face close above them. "I wish I could lie down in a whole big patch of you and just look at the sky and at you nodding and perking all around me—and not do a living thing all day but just lie there and soak in blue and gold and sweet smells and silence."
Peter, coming to the open doorway, turned and tiptoed back as though he had intruded upon some secret, and stood irresolutely smoothing his hair down with the flat of his hand until she called him to come and eat. She was cheerful as ever while she served him scrupulously. She smiled at him now and then, tilting her head because the daffodils stood between them. She said no more about the doctor's advice, or the problem of poverty. She did not cough, and the movements of her thin, well-shaped hands were sure and swift. More than once she made a pause while she pulled a daffodil toward her and gazed adoringly into its yellow cup.
Peter might have been reassured, were it not for the telltale flush on her cheeks and the unnatural shine in her eyes. As it was, every fascinating little whimsy of hers stabbed him afresh with the pain of her need and of his helplessness. Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado, the doctor had said; and Peter knew that it must be so. And he with his druggist's salary and his pitiful two hundred dollars in the savings bank! And with the druggist's salary stopping automatically the moment he stopped reporting for duty! Peter was neither an atheist nor a socialist, yet he was close to cursing his God and his country whenever Helen May smiled at him around the dozen daffodils.
"Your insurance is due the tenth, dad," she remarked irrelevantly when they had reached the dessert stage of cream puffs from the delicatessen nearest Helen May's work. "Why don't you cut it down? It's sinful, the amount of money we've paid out for insurance. You need a new suit this spring. And the difference—"
"I don't see what's wrong with this suit," Peter objected, throwing out his scrawny chest and glancing down his front with a prejudiced eye, refusing to see any shabbiness. "A little cleaning and pressing, maybe—"
"A little suit of that new gray everybody's wearing these days, you mean," she amended relentlessly. "Don't argue, dad. You've got to have a suit. And that old insurance—"
"Jitneys are getting thicker every day," Peter contended in feeble jest. "A man needs to be well insured in this town. There's Vic—if anything happened, he's got to be educated just the same. And by the endowment plan, in twelve years more I'll have a nice little lump. It's—on account of the endowment, Babe. I don't want to sell drugs all my life."
"Just the same, you're going to have a new suit." Helen May retrenched herself behind the declaration. "And it's going to be gray. And a gray hat with a dove-colored band and the bow in the back. And tan shoes," she added implacably, daintily lifting the roof off her cream puff to see how generous had been the filling.
"Who? Me?" Vic launched himself in among them and slid spinelessly into his chair as only a lanky boy can slide. "Happy thought! Only I'll have bottle green for mine. A fellow stepped on my roof this afternoon, so—"
"You'll wear a cap then—or go bareheaded and claim it's to make your hair grow." Helen May regarded him coldly. "Lots of fellows do. You don't get a single new dud before the fourth, Vic Stevenson."
"Oh, don't I?" Vic drawled with much sarcasm, and pulled two dollars from his trousers pocket, displaying them with lofty triumph. "I get a new hat to-morrow, Miss Stingy."
"Vic, where did you get that money?" Helen May's eyes flamed to the battle. "Have you been staying out of school and hanging around those picture studios?"
"Yup—at two dollars per hang," Vic mouthed, spearing a stuffed green pepper dexterously. "Fifty rehearsals for two one-minute scenes of honorable college gangs honorably hailing the hee-ro. Waugh! Where'd you get these things—or did the cat bring it in? Stuffed with laundry soap, if you ask me. Why don't you try that new place on Spring?"
"Vic Stevenson!" Helen May began in true sisterly disapprobation. "Is that getting you anywhere in your studies? A few more days out of school, and—"
Peter's thoughts turned inward. He did not even hear the half playful, half angry dispute between these two. Vic was a heady youth, much given to rebelling against the authority of Helen May who bullied or wheedled as her mood and the emergency might impel, as sisters do the world over. Peter was thinking of his two hundred dollars saved against disaster; and a third of that to go for life insurance on the tenth, which was just one row down on the calendar; and Helen May going the way her mother had gone—unless she lived out of doors "like an Indian" in Arizona or—Peter's mind refused to name again the remote, inaccessible places where Helen May might evade the penalty of being the child of her mother and of poverty.
Gray hat for Peter or bottle-green hat for Vic—what did it matter if neither of them ever again owned a hat, if Helen May must stay here in the city and face the doom that had been pronounced upon her? What did anything matter, if Babe died and left him plodding along alone? Vic did not occur to him consolingly. Vic was a responsibility; a comfort he was not. Like many men, Peter could not seem to understand his son half as well as he understood his daughter. He could not see why Vic should frivol away his time; why he should have all those funny little conceits and airs of youth; why he should lord it over Helen May who was every day proving her efficiency and her strength of character anew. If Helen May went the way her mother had gone, Peter felt that he would be alone, and that life would be quite bare and bleak and empty of every incentive toward bearing the little daily burdens of existence.
He got up with his hand going instinctively to his back to ease the ache there, and went out upon the porch and stood looking drearily down upon the asphalted street, where the white paths of speeding automobiles slashed the dusk like runaway sunbeams on a frolic. Then the street lights winked and sputtered and began to glow with white brilliance.
Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado! Peter knew what the doctor had in mind. Vast plains, unpeopled, pure, immutable in their calm; stars that came down at night and hung just over your head, making the darkness alive with their bright presence; a little cottage hunched against a hill, a candle winking cheerily through the window at the stars; the cries of night birds, the drone of insects, the distant howling of a coyote; far away on the boundary of your possessions, a fence of barbed wire stretching through a hollow and up over a hill; distance and quiet and calm, be it day or night. And Helen May coming through the sunlight, riding a gentle-eyed pony; Helen May with her deep-gold hair tousled in the wind, and with health dancing in her eyes that were the color of a ripe chestnut, odd contrast to her hair; Helen May with the little red spots gone from her cheek bones, and with tanned skin and freckles on her nose and a laugh on her lips, coming up at a gallop with the sun behind her, and something more; with sickness behind her and the drudgery of eight hours in an office, and poverty and unhappiness. And Vic—yes, Vic in overalls and a straw hat, growing up to be the strong man he never would be in the city.
Like many another commonplace man of the towns, for all his colorless ways and his thinning hair and his struggle against poverty, Peter was something of a dreamer. And like all the rest of us who build our dreams out of wishes and hopes and maybes, Peter had not a single fact to use in his foundation. Arizona, New Mexico or Colorado—to Peter they were but symbols of all those dear unattainable things he longed for. And that he longed for them, not for himself but for another who was very dear to him, only made the longing keener and more tragic.