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Titel: Alice Adams
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Alle Rechte vorbehalten.
The patient, an old-fashioned man, thought the nurse made a mistake in keeping both of the windows open, and her sprightly disregard of his protests added something to his hatred of her. Every evening he told her that anybody with ordinary gumption ought to realize that night air was bad for the human frame. "The human frame won't stand everything, Miss Perry," he warned her, resentfully. "Even a child, if it had just ordinary gumption, ought to know enough not to let the night air blow on sick people yes, nor well people, either! 'Keep out of the night air, no matter how well you feel.' That's what my mother used to tell me when I was a boy. 'Keep out of the night air, Virgil,' she'd say. 'Keep out of the night air.'"
"I expect probably her mother told her the same thing," the nurse suggested.
"Of course she did. My grandmother——"
"Oh, I guess your GRANDmother thought so, Mr. Adams! That was when all this flat central country was swampish and hadn't been drained off yet. I guess the truth must been the swamp mosquitoes bit people and gave 'em malaria, especially before they began to put screens in their windows. Well, we got screens in these windows, and no mosquitoes are goin' to bite us; so just you be a good boy and rest your mind and go to sleep like you need to."
"Sleep?" he said. "Likely!"
He thought the night air worst of all in April; he hadn't a doubt it would kill him, he declared. "It's miraculous what the human frame WILL survive," he admitted on the last evening of that month. "But you and the doctor ought to both be taught it won't stand too dang much! You poison a man and poison and poison him with this April night air——"
"Can't poison you with much more of it," Miss Perry interrupted him, indulgently. "To-morrow it'll be May night air, and I expect that'll be a lot better for you, don't you? Now let's just sober down and be a good boy and get some nice sound sleep."
She gave him his medicine, and, having set the glass upon the center table, returned to her cot, where, after a still interval, she snored faintly. Upon this, his expression became that of a man goaded out of overpowering weariness into irony.
"Sleep? Oh, CERTAINLY, thank you!"
However, he did sleep intermittently, drowsed between times, and even dreamed; but, forgetting his dreams before he opened his eyes, and having some part of him all the while aware of his discomfort, he believed, as usual, that he lay awake the whole night long. He was conscious of the city as of some single great creature resting fitfully in the dark outside his windows. It lay all round about, in the damp cover of its night cloud of smoke, and tried to keep quiet for a few hours after midnight, but was too powerful a growing thing ever to lie altogether still. Even while it strove to sleep it muttered with digestions of the day before, and these already merged with rumblings of the morrow. "Owl" cars, bringing in last passengers over distant trolley-lines, now and then howled on a curve; faraway metallic stirrings could be heard from factories in the sooty suburbs on the plain outside the city; east, west, and south, switch-engines chugged and snorted on sidings; and everywhere in the air there seemed to be a faint, voluminous hum as of innumerable wires trembling overhead to vibration of machinery underground.
In his youth Adams might have been less resentful of sounds such as these when they interfered with his night's sleep: even during an illness he might have taken some pride in them as proof of his citizenship in a "live town"; but at fifty-five he merely hated them because they kept him awake. They "pressed on his nerves," as he put it; and so did almost everything else, for that matter.
He heard the milk-wagon drive into the cross-street beneath his windows and stop at each house. The milkman carried his jars round to the "back porch," while the horse moved slowly ahead to the gate of the next customer and waited there. "He's gone into Pollocks'," Adams thought, following this progress. "I hope it'll sour on 'em before breakfast. Delivered the Andersons'. Now he's getting out ours. Listen to the darn brute! What's HE care who wants to sleep!" His complaint was of the horse, who casually shifted weight with a clink of steel shoes on the worn brick pavement of the street, and then heartily shook himself in his harness, perhaps to dislodge a fly far ahead of its season. Light had just filmed the windows; and with that the first sparrow woke, chirped instantly, and roused neighbours in the trees of the small yard, including a loud-voiced robin. Vociferations began irregularly, but were soon unanimous.
"Sleep? Dang likely now, ain't it!"
Night sounds were becoming day sounds; the far-away hooting of freight-engines seemed brisker than an hour ago in the dark. A cheerful whistler passed the house, even more careless of sleepers than the milkman's horse had been; then a group of coloured workmen came by, and although it was impossible to be sure whether they were homeward bound from night-work or on their way to day-work, at least it was certain that they were jocose. Loose, aboriginal laughter preceded them afar, and beat on the air long after they had gone by.
The sick-room night-light, shielded from his eyes by a newspaper propped against a water-pitcher, still showed a thin glimmering that had grown offensive to Adams. In his wandering and enfeebled thoughts, which were much more often imaginings than reasonings, the attempt of the night-light to resist the dawn reminded him of something unpleasant, though he could not discover just what the unpleasant thing was. Here was a puzzle that irritated him the more because he could not solve it, yet always seemed just on the point of a solution. However, he may have lost nothing cheerful by remaining in the dark upon the matter; for if he had been a little sharper in this introspection he might have concluded that the squalor of the night-light, in its seeming effort to show against the forerunning of the sun itself, had stimulated some half-buried perception within him to sketch the painful little synopsis of an autobiography.
In spite of noises without, he drowsed again, not knowing that he did; and when he opened his eyes the nurse was just rising from her cot. He took no pleasure in the sight, it may be said. She exhibited to him a face mismodelled by sleep, and set like a clay face left on its cheek in a hot and dry studio. She was still only in part awake, however, and by the time she had extinguished the night-light and given her patient his tonic, she had recovered enough plasticity. "Well, isn't that grand! We've had another good night," she said as she departed to dress in the bathroom.
"Yes, you had another!" he retorted, though not until after she had closed the door.
Presently he heard his daughter moving about in her room across the narrow hall, and so knew that she had risen. He hoped she would come in to see him soon, for she was the one thing that didn't press on his nerves, he felt; though the thought of her hurt him, as, indeed, every thought hurt him. But it was his wife who came first.
She wore a lank cotton wrapper, and a crescent of gray hair escaped to one temple from beneath the handkerchief she had worn upon her head for the night and still retained; but she did everything possible to make her expression cheering.
"Oh, you're better again! I can see that, as soon as I look at you," she said. "Miss Perry tells me you've had another splendid night."
He made a sound of irony, which seemed to dispose unfavourably of Miss Perry, and then, in order to be more certainly intelligible, he added, "She slept well, as usual!"
But his wife's smile persisted. "It's a good sign to be cross; it means you're practically convalescent right now."
"Oh, I am, am I?"
"No doubt in the world!" she exclaimed. "Why, you're practically a well man, Virgil—all except getting your strength back, of course, and that isn't going to take long. You'll be right on your feet in a couple of weeks from now."
"Oh, I will?"
"Of course you will!" She laughed briskly, and, going to the table in the center of the room, moved his glass of medicine an inch or two, turned a book over so that it lay upon its other side, and for a few moments occupied herself with similar futilities, having taken on the air of a person who makes things neat, though she produced no such actual effect upon them. "Of course you will," she repeated, absently. "You'll be as strong as you ever were; maybe stronger." She paused for a moment, not looking at him, then added, cheerfully, "So that you can fly around and find something really good to get into."
Something important between them came near the surface here, for though she spoke with what seemed but a casual cheerfulness, there was a little betraying break in her voice, a trembling just perceptible in the utterance of the final word. And she still kept up the affectation of being helpfully preoccupied with the table, and did not look at her husband—perhaps because they had been married so many years that without looking she knew just what his expression would be, and preferred to avoid the actual sight of it as long as possible. Meanwhile, he stared hard at her, his lips beginning to move with little distortions not lacking in the pathos of a sick man's agitation.
"So that's it," he said. "That's what you're hinting at."
"'Hinting?'" Mrs. Adams looked surprised and indulgent. "Why, I'm not doing any hinting, Virgil."
"What did you say about my finding 'something good to get into?'" he asked, sharply. "Don't you call that hinting?"
Mrs. Adams turned toward him now; she came to the bedside and would have taken his hand, but he quickly moved it away from her.
"You mustn't let yourself get nervous," she said. "But of course when you get well there's only one thing to do. You mustn't go back to that old hole again."
"'Old hole?' That's what you call it, is it?" In spite of his weakness, anger made his voice strident, and upon this stimulation she spoke more urgently.
"You just mustn't go back to it, Virgil. It's not fair to any of us, and you know it isn't."
"Don't tell me what I know, please!"
She clasped her hands, suddenly carrying her urgency to plaintive entreaty. "Virgil, you WON'T go back to that hole?"
"That's a nice word to use to me!" he said. "Call a man's business a hole!"
"Virgil, if you don't owe it to me to look for something different, don't you owe it to your children? Don't tell me you won't do what we all want you to, and what you know in your heart you ought to! And if you HAVE got into one of your stubborn fits and are bound to go back there for no other reason except to have your own way, don't tell me so, for I can't bear it!"
He looked up at her fiercely. "You've got a fine way to cure a sick man!" he said; but she had concluded her appeal—for that time—and instead of making any more words in the matter, let him see that there were tears in her eyes, shook her head, and left the room.
Alone, he lay breathing rapidly, his emaciated chest proving itself equal to the demands his emotion put upon it. "Fine!" he repeated, with husky indignation. "Fine way to cure a sick man! Fine!" Then, after a silence, he gave forth whispering sounds as of laughter, his expression the while remaining sore and far from humour.
"And give us our daily bread!" he added, meaning that his wife's little performance was no novelty.
In fact, the agitation of Mrs. Adams was genuine, but so well under her control that its traces vanished during the three short steps she took to cross the narrow hall between her husband's door and the one opposite. Her expression was matter-of-course, rather than pathetic, as she entered the pretty room where her daughter, half dressed, sat before a dressing-table and played with the reflections of a three-leafed mirror framed in blue enamel. That is, just before the moment of her mother's entrance, Alice had been playing with the mirror's reflections—posturing her arms and her expressions, clasping her hands behind her neck, and tilting back her head to foreshorten the face in a tableau conceived to represent sauciness, then one of smiling weariness, then one of scornful toleration, and all very piquant; but as the door opened she hurriedly resumed the practical, and occupied her hands in the arrangement of her plentiful brownish hair.
They were pretty hands, of a shapeliness delicate and fine. "The best things she's got!" a cold-blooded girl friend said of them, and meant to include Alice's mind and character in the implied list of possessions surpassed by the notable hands. However that may have been, the rest of her was well enough. She was often called "a right pretty girl"—temperate praise meaning a girl rather pretty than otherwise, and this she deserved, to say the least. Even in repose she deserved it, though repose was anything but her habit, being seldom seen upon her except at home. On exhibition she led a life of gestures, the unkind said to make her lovely hands more memorable; but all of her usually accompanied the gestures of the hands, the shoulders ever giving them their impulses first, and even her feet being called upon, at the same time, for eloquence.
So much liveliness took proper place as only accessory to that of the face, where her vivacity reached its climax; and it was unfortunate that an ungifted young man, new in the town, should have attempted to define the effect upon him of all this generosity of emphasis. He said that "the way she used her cute hazel eyes and the wonderful glow of her facial expression gave her a mighty spiritual quality." His actual rendition of the word was "spirichul"; but it was not his pronunciation that embalmed this outburst in the perennial laughter of Alice's girl friends; they made the misfortune far less his than hers.
Her mother comforted her too heartily, insisting that Alice had "plenty enough spiritual qualities," certainly more than possessed by the other girls who flung the phrase at her, wooden things, jealous of everything they were incapable of themselves; and then Alice, getting more championship than she sought, grew uneasy lest Mrs. Adams should repeat such defenses "outside the family"; and Mrs. Adams ended by weeping because the daughter so distrusted her intelligence. Alice frequently thought it necessary to instruct her mother.
Her morning greeting was an instruction to-day; or, rather, it was an admonition in the style of an entreaty, the more petulant as Alice thought that Mrs. Adams might have had a glimpse of the posturings to the mirror. This was a needless worry; the mother had caught a thousand such glimpses, with Alice unaware, and she thought nothing of the one just flitted.
"For heaven's sake, mama, come clear inside the room and shut the door! PLEASE don't leave it open for everybody to look at me!"
"There isn't anybody to see you," Mrs. Adams explained, obeying. "Miss Perry's gone downstairs, and——"
"Mama, I heard you in papa's room," Alice said, not dropping the note of complaint. "I could hear both of you, and I don't think you ought to get poor old papa so upset—not in his present condition, anyhow."
Mrs. Adams seated herself on the edge of the bed. "He's better all the time," she said, not disturbed. "He's almost well. The doctor says so and Miss Perry says so; and if we don't get him into the right frame of mind now we never will. The first day he's outdoors he'll go back to that old hole—you'll see! And if he once does that, he'll settle down there and it'll be too late and we'll never get him out."
"Well, anyhow, I think you could use a little more tact with him."
"I do try to," the mother sighed. "It never was much use with him. I don't think you understand him as well as I do, Alice."
"There's one thing I don't understand about either of you," Alice returned, crisply. "Before people get married they can do anything they want to with each other. Why can't they do the same thing after they're married? When you and papa were young people and engaged, he'd have done anything you wanted him to. That must have been because you knew how to manage him then. Why can't you go at him the same way now?"
Mrs. Adams sighed again, and laughed a little, making no other response; but Alice persisted. "Well, WHY can't you? Why can't you ask him to do things the way you used to ask him when you were just in love with each other? Why don't you anyhow try it, mama, instead of ding-donging at him?"
"'Ding-donging at him,' Alice?" Mrs. Adams said, with a pathos somewhat emphasized. "Is that how my trying to do what I can for you strikes you?"
"Never mind that; it's nothing to hurt your feelings." Alice disposed of the pathos briskly. "Why don't you answer my question? What's the matter with using a little more tact on papa? Why can't you treat him the way you probably did when you were young people, before you were married? I never have understood why people can't do that."
"Perhaps you WILL understand some day," her mother said, gently. "Maybe you will when you've been married twenty-five years."
"You keep evading. Why don't you answer my question right straight out?"
"There are questions you can't answer to young people, Alice."
"You mean because we're too young to understand the answer? I don't see that at all. At twenty-two a girl's supposed to have some intelligence, isn't she? And intelligence is the ability to understand, isn't it? Why do I have to wait till I've lived with a man twenty-five years to understand why you can't be tactful with papa?"
"You may understand some things before that," Mrs. Adams said, tremulously. "You may understand how you hurt me sometimes. Youth can't know everything by being intelligent, and by the time you could understand the answer you're asking for you'd know it, and wouldn't need to ask. You don't understand your father, Alice; you don't know what it takes to change him when he's made up his mind to be stubborn."
Alice rose and began to get herself into a skirt. "Well, I don't think making scenes ever changes anybody," she grumbled. "I think a little jolly persuasion goes twice as far, myself."
"'A little jolly persuasion!'" Her mother turned the echo of this phrase into an ironic lament. "Yes, there was a time when I thought that, too! It didn't work; that's all."
"Perhaps you left the 'jolly' part of it out, mama."
For the second time that morning—it was now a little after seven o'clock—tears seemed about to offer their solace to Mrs. Adams. "I might have expected you to say that, Alice; you never do miss a chance," she said, gently. "It seems queer you don't some time miss just ONE chance!"
But Alice, progressing with her toilet, appeared to be little concerned. "Oh, well, I think there are better ways of managing a man than just hammering at him."
Mrs. Adams uttered a little cry of pain. "'Hammering,' Alice?"
"If you'd left it entirely to me," her daughter went on, briskly, "I believe papa'd already be willing to do anything we want him to."
"That's it; tell me I spoil everything. Well, I won't interfere from now on, you can be sure of it."
"Please don't talk like that," Alice said, quickly. "I'm old enough to realize that papa may need pressure of all sorts; I only think it makes him more obstinate to get him cross. You probably do understand him better, but that's one thing I've found out and you haven't. There!" She gave her mother a friendly tap on the shoulder and went to the door. "I'll hop in and say hello to him now."
As she went, she continued the fastening of her blouse, and appeared in her father's room with one hand still thus engaged, but she patted his forehead with the other.
"Poor old papa-daddy!" she said, gaily. "Every time he's better somebody talks him into getting so mad he has a relapse. It's a shame!"
Her father's eyes, beneath their melancholy brows, looked up at her wistfully. "I suppose you heard your mother going for me," he said.
"I heard you going for her, too!" Alice laughed. "What was it all about?"
"Oh, the same danged old story!"
"You mean she wants you to try something new when you get well?" Alice asked, with cheerful innocence. "So we could all have a lot more money?"
At this his sorrowful forehead was more sorrowful than ever. The deep horizontal lines moved upward to a pattern of suffering so familiar to his daughter that it meant nothing to her; but he spoke quietly. "Yes; so we wouldn't have any money at all, most likely."
"Oh, no!" she laughed, and, finishing with her blouse, patted his cheeks with both hands. "Just think how many grand openings there must be for a man that knows as much as you do! I always did believe you could get rich if you only cared to, papa."
But upon his forehead the painful pattern still deepened. "Don't you think we've always had enough, the way things are, Alice?"
"Not the way things ARE!" She patted his cheeks again; laughed again. "It used to be enough, maybe anyway we did skimp along on it—but the way things are now I expect mama's really pretty practical in her ideas, though, I think it's a shame for her to bother you about it while you're so weak. Don't you worry about it, though; just think about other things till you get strong."
"You know," he said; "you know it isn't exactly the easiest thing in the world for a man of my age to find these grand openings you speak of. And when you've passed half-way from fifty to sixty you're apt to see some risk in giving up what you know how to do and trying something new."
"My, what a frown!" she cried, blithely. "Didn't I tell you to stop thinking about it till you get ALL well?" She bent over him, giving him a gay little kiss on the bridge of his nose. "There! I must run to breakfast. Cheer up now! Au 'voir!" And with her pretty hand she waved further encouragement from the closing door as she departed.
Lightsomely descending the narrow stairway, she whistled as she went, her fingers drumming time on the rail; and, still whistling, she came into the dining-room, where her mother and her brother were already at the table. The brother, a thin and sallow boy of twenty, greeted her without much approval as she took her place.
"Nothing seems to trouble you!" he said.
"No; nothing much," she made airy response. "What's troubling yourself, Walter?"
"Don't let that worry you!" he returned, seeming to consider this to be repartee of an effective sort; for he furnished a short laugh to go with it, and turned to his coffee with the manner of one who has satisfactorily closed an episode.
"Walter always seems to have so many secrets!" Alice said, studying him shrewdly, but with a friendly enough amusement in her scrutiny. "Everything he does or says seems to be acted for the benefit of some mysterious audience inside himself, and he always gets its applause. Take what he said just now: he seems to think it means something, but if it does, why, that's just another secret between him and the secret audience inside of him! We don't really know anything about Walter at all, do we, mama?"
Walter laughed again, in a manner that sustained her theory well enough; then after finishing his coffee, he took from his pocket a flattened packet in glazed blue paper; extracted with stained fingers a bent and wrinkled little cigarette, lighted it, hitched up his belted trousers with the air of a person who turns from trifles to things better worth his attention, and left the room.
Alice laughed as the door closed. "He's ALL secrets," she said. "Don't you think you really ought to know more about him, mama?"
"I'm sure he's a good boy," Mrs. Adams returned, thoughtfully. "He's been very brave about not being able to have the advantages that are enjoyed by the boys he's grown up with. I've never heard a word of complaint from him."
"About his not being sent to college?" Alice cried. "I should think you wouldn't! He didn't even have enough ambition to finish high school!"
Mrs. Adams sighed. "It seemed to me Walter lost his ambition when nearly all the boys he'd grown up with went to Eastern schools to prepare for college, and we couldn't afford to send him. If only your father would have listened——"
Alice interrupted: "What nonsense! Walter hated books and studying, and athletics, too, for that matter. He doesn't care for anything nice that I ever heard of. What do you suppose he does like, mama? He must like something or other somewhere, but what do you suppose it is? What does he do with his time?"
"Why, the poor boy's at Lamb and Company's all day. He doesn't get through until five in the afternoon; he doesn't HAVE much time."
"Well, we never have dinner until about seven, and he's always late for dinner, and goes out, heaven knows where, right afterward!" Alice shook her head. "He used to go with our friends' boys, but I don't think he does now."
"Why, how could he?" Mrs. Adams protested. "That isn't his fault, poor child! The boys he knew when he was younger are nearly all away at college."
"Yes, but he doesn't see anything of 'em when they're here at holiday-time or vacation. None of 'em come to the house any more."
"I suppose he's made other friends. It's natural for him to want companions, at his age."
"Yes," Alice said, with disapproving emphasis. "But who are they? I've got an idea he plays pool at some rough place down-town."
"Oh, no; I'm sure he's a steady boy," Mrs. Adams protested, but her tone was not that of thoroughgoing conviction, and she added, "Life might be a very different thing for him if only your father can be brought to see——"
"Never mind, mama! It isn't me that has to be convinced, you know; and we can do a lot more with papa if we just let him alone about it for a day or two. Promise me you won't say any more to him until—well, until he's able to come downstairs to table. Will you?"
Mrs. Adams bit her lip, which had begun to tremble. "I think you can trust me to know a FEW things, Alice," she said. "I'm a little older than you, you know."
"That's a good girl!" Alice jumped up, laughing. "Don't forget it's the same as a promise, and do just cheer him up a little. I'll say good-bye to him before I go out."
"Where are you going?"
"Oh, I've got lots to do. I thought I'd run out to Mildred's to see what she's going to wear to-night, and then I want to go down and buy a yard of chiffon and some narrow ribbon to make new bows for my slippers—you'll have to give me some money——"
"If he'll give it to me!" her mother lamented, as they went toward the front stairs together; but an hour later she came into Alice's room with a bill in her hand.
"He has some money in his bureau drawer," she said. "He finally told me where it was."
There were traces of emotion in her voice, and Alice, looking shrewdly at her, saw moisture in her eyes.
"Mama!" she cried. "You didn't do what you promised me you wouldn't, did you—NOT before Miss Perry!"
"Miss Perry's getting him some broth," Mrs. Adams returned, calmly. "Besides, you're mistaken in saying I promised you anything; I said I thought you could trust me to know what is right."
"So you did bring it up again!" And Alice swung away from her, strode to her father's door, flung it open, went to him, and put a light hand soothingly over his unrelaxed forehead.
"Poor old papa!" she said. "It's a shame how everybody wants to trouble him. He shan't be bothered any more at all! He doesn't need to have everybody telling him how to get away from that old hole he's worked in so long and begin to make us all nice and rich. HE knows how!"
Thereupon she kissed him a consoling good-bye, and made another gay departure, the charming hand again fluttering like a white butterfly in the shadow of the closing door.
Mrs. Adams had remained in Alice's room, but her mood seemed to have changed, during her daughter's little more than momentary absence.
"What did he SAY?" she asked, quickly, and her tone was hopeful.
"'Say?'" Alice repeated, impatiently. "Why, nothing. I didn't let him. Really, mama, I think the best thing for you to do would be to just keep out of his room, because I don't believe you can go in there and not talk to him about it, and if you do talk we'll never get him to do the right thing. Never!"
The mother's response was a grieving silence; she turned from her daughter and walked to the door.
"Now, for goodness' sake!" Alice cried. "Don't go making tragedy out of my offering you a little practical advice!"
"I'm not," Mrs. Adams gulped, halting. "I'm just—just going to dust the downstairs, Alice." And with her face still averted, she went out into the little hallway, closing the door behind her. A moment later she could be heard descending the stairs, the sound of her footsteps carrying somehow an effect of resignation.
Alice listened, sighed, and, breathing the words, "Oh, murder!" turned to cheerier matters. She put on a little apple-green turban with a dim gold band round it, and then, having shrouded the turban in a white veil, which she kept pushed up above her forehead, she got herself into a tan coat of soft cloth fashioned with rakish severity. After that, having studied herself gravely in a long glass, she took from one of the drawers of her dressing-table a black leather card-case cornered in silver filigree, but found it empty.
She opened another drawer wherein were two white pasteboard boxes of cards, the one set showing simply "Miss Adams," the other engraved in Gothic characters, "Miss Alys Tuttle Adams." The latter belonged to Alice's "Alys" period—most girls go through it; and Alice must have felt that she had graduated, for, after frowning thoughtfully at the exhibit this morning, she took the box with its contents, and let the white shower fall from her fingers into the waste-basket beside her small desk. She replenished the card-case from the "Miss Adams" box; then, having found a pair of fresh white gloves, she tucked an ivory-topped Malacca walking-stick under her arm and set forth.
She went down the stairs, buttoning her gloves and still wearing the frown with which she had put "Alys" finally out of her life. She descended slowly, and paused on the lowest step, looking about her with an expression that needed but a slight deepening to betoken bitterness. Its connection with her dropping "Alys" forever was slight, however.
The small frame house, about fifteen years old, was already inclining to become a new Colonial relic. The Adamses had built it, moving into it from the "Queen Anne" house they had rented until they took this step in fashion. But fifteen years is a long time to stand still in the midland country, even for a house, and this one was lightly made, though the Adamses had not realized how flimsily until they had lived in it for some time. "Solid, compact, and convenient" were the instructions to the architect, and he had made it compact successfully. Alice, pausing at the foot of the stairway, was at the same time fairly in the "living-room," for the only separation between the "living room" and the hall was a demarcation suggested to willing imaginations by a pair of wooden columns painted white. These columns, pine under the paint, were bruised and chipped at the base; one of them showed a crack that threatened to become a split; the "hard-wood" floor had become uneven; and in a corner the walls apparently failed of solidity, where the wall-paper had declined to accompany some staggerings of the plaster beneath it.
The furniture was in great part an accumulation begun with the wedding gifts; though some of it was older, two large patent rocking-chairs and a footstool having belonged to Mrs. Adams's mother in the days of hard brown plush and veneer. For decoration there were pictures and vases. Mrs. Adams had always been fond of vases, she said, and every year her husband's Christmas present to her was a vase of one sort or another—whatever the clerk showed him, marked at about twelve or fourteen dollars. The pictures were some of them etchings framed in gilt: Rheims, Canterbury, schooners grouped against a wharf; and Alice could remember how, in her childhood, her father sometimes pointed out the watery reflections in this last as very fine. But it was a long time since he had shown interest in such things—"or in anything much," as she thought.
Other pictures were two water-colours in baroque frames; one being the Amalfi monk on a pergola wall, while the second was a yard-wide display of iris blossoms, painted by Alice herself at fourteen, as a birthday gift to her mother. Alice's glance paused upon it now with no great pride, but showed more approval of an enormous photograph of the Colosseum. This she thought of as "the only good thing in the room"; it possessed and bestowed distinction, she felt; and she did not regret having won her struggle to get it hung in its conspicuous place of honour over the mantelpiece. Formerly that place had been held for years by a steel-engraving, an accurate representation of the Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls. It was almost as large as its successor, the "Colosseum," and it had been presented to Mr. Adams by colleagues in his department at Lamb and Company's. Adams had shown some feeling when Alice began to urge its removal to obscurity in the "upstairs hall"; he even resisted for several days after she had the "Colosseum" charged to him, framed in oak, and sent to the house. She cheered him up, of course, when he gave way; and her heart never misgave her that there might be a doubt which of the two pictures was the more dismaying.
Over the pictures, the vases, the old brown plush rocking-chairs and the stool, over the three gilt chairs, over the new chintz-covered easy chair and the gray velure sofa—over everything everywhere, was the familiar coating of smoke grime. It had worked into every fibre of the lace curtains, dingying them to an unpleasant gray; it lay on the window-sills and it dimmed the glass panes; it covered the walls, covered the ceiling, and was smeared darker and thicker in all corners. Yet here was no fault of housewifery; the curse could not be lifted, as the ingrained smudges permanent on the once white woodwork proved. The grime was perpetually renewed; scrubbing only ground it in.
This particular ugliness was small part of Alice's discontent, for though the coating grew a little deeper each year she was used to it. Moreover, she knew that she was not likely to find anything better in a thousand miles, so long as she kept to cities, and that none of her friends, however opulent, had any advantage of her here. Indeed, throughout all the great soft-coal country, people who consider themselves comparatively poor may find this consolation: cleanliness has been added to the virtues and beatitudes that money can not buy.
Alice brightened a little as she went forward to the front door, and she brightened more when the spring breeze met her there. Then all depression left her as she walked down the short brick path to the sidewalk, looked up and down the street, and saw how bravely the maple shade-trees, in spite of the black powder they breathed, were flinging out their thousands of young green particles overhead.
She turned north, treading the new little shadows on the pavement briskly, and, having finished buttoning her gloves, swung down her Malacca stick from under her arm to let it tap a more leisurely accompaniment to her quick, short step. She had to step quickly if she was to get anywhere; for the closeness of her skirt, in spite of its little length, permitted no natural stride; but she was pleased to be impeded, these brevities forming part of her show of fashion.
Other pedestrians found them not without charm, though approval may have been lacking here and there, and at the first crossing Alice suffered what she might have accounted an actual injury, had she allowed herself to be so sensitive. An elderly woman in fussy black silk stood there, waiting for a streetcar; she was all of a globular modelling, with a face patterned like a frost-bitten peach; and that the approaching gracefulness was uncongenial she naively made too evident. Her round, wan eyes seemed roused to bitter life as they rose from the curved high heels of the buckled slippers to the tight little skirt, and thence with startled ferocity to the Malacca cane, which plainly appeared to her as a decoration not more astounding than it was insulting.
Perceiving that the girl was bowing to her, the globular lady hurriedly made shift to alter her injurious expression. "Good morning, Mrs. Dowling," Alice said, gravely. Mrs. Dowling returned the salutation with a smile as convincingly benevolent as the ghastly smile upon a Santa Claus face; and then, while Alice passed on, exploded toward her a single compacted breath through tightened lips.
The sound was eloquently audible, though Mrs. Dowling remained unaware that in this or any manner whatever she had shed a light upon her thoughts; for it was her lifelong innocent conviction that other people saw her only as she wished to be seen, and heard from her only what she intended to be heard. At home it was always her husband who pulled down the shades of their bedroom window.
Alice looked serious for a few moments after the little encounter, then found some consolation in the behaviour of a gentleman of forty or so who was coming toward her. Like Mrs. Dowling, he had begun to show consciousness of Alice's approach while she was yet afar off; but his tokens were of a kind pleasanter to her. He was like Mrs. Dowling again, however, in his conception that Alice would not realize the significance of what he did. He passed his hand over his neck-scarf to see that it lay neatly to his collar, smoothed a lapel of his coat, and adjusted his hat, seeming to be preoccupied the while with problems that kept his eyes to the pavement; then, as he came within a few feet of her, he looked up, as in a surprised recognition almost dramatic, smiled winningly, lifted his hat decisively, and carried it to the full arm's length.
Alice's response was all he could have asked. The cane in her right hand stopped short in its swing, while her left hand moved in a pretty gesture as if an impulse carried it toward the heart; and she smiled, with her under lip caught suddenly between her teeth. Months ago she had seen an actress use this smile in a play, and it came perfectly to Alice now, without conscious direction, it had been so well acquired; but the pretty hand's little impulse toward the heart was an original bit all her own, on the spur of the moment.
The gentleman went on, passing from her forward vision as he replaced his hat. Of himself he was nothing to Alice, except for the gracious circumstance that he had shown strong consciousness of a pretty girl. He was middle-aged, substantial, a family man, securely married; and Alice had with him one of those long acquaintances that never become emphasized by so much as five minutes of talk; yet for this inconsequent meeting she had enacted a little part like a fragment in a pantomime of Spanish wooing.
It was not for him—not even to impress him, except as a messenger. Alice was herself almost unaware of her thought, which was one of the running thousands of her thoughts that took no deliberate form in words. Nevertheless, she had it, and it was the impulse of all her pretty bits of pantomime when she met other acquaintances who made their appreciation visible, as this substantial gentleman did. In Alice's unworded thought, he was to be thus encouraged as in some measure a champion to speak well of her to the world; but more than this: he was to tell some magnificent unknown bachelor how wonderful, how mysterious, she was.
She hastened on gravely, a little stirred reciprocally with the supposed stirrings in the breast of that shadowy ducal mate, who must be somewhere "waiting," or perhaps already seeking her; for she more often thought of herself as "waiting" while he sought her; and sometimes this view of things became so definite that it shaped into a murmur on her lips. "Waiting. Just waiting." And she might add, "For him!" Then, being twenty-two, she was apt to conclude the mystic interview by laughing at herself, though not without a continued wistfulness.
She came to a group of small coloured children playing waywardly in a puddle at the mouth of a muddy alley; and at sight of her they gave over their pastime in order to stare. She smiled brilliantly upon them, but they were too struck with wonder to comprehend that the manifestation was friendly; and as Alice picked her way in a little detour to keep from the mud, she heard one of them say, "Lady got cane! Jeez'!"
She knew that many coloured children use impieties familiarly, and she was not startled. She was disturbed, however, by an unfavourable hint in the speaker's tone. He was six, probably, but the sting of a criticism is not necessarily allayed by knowledge of its ignoble source, and Alice had already begun to feel a slight uneasiness about her cane. Mrs. Dowling's stare had been strikingly projected at it; other women more than merely glanced, their brows and lips contracting impulsively; and Alice was aware that one or two of them frankly halted as soon as she had passed.
She had seen in several magazines pictures of ladies with canes, and on that account she had bought this one, never questioning that fashion is recognized, even in the provinces, as soon as beheld. On the contrary, these staring women obviously failed to realize that what they were being shown was not an eccentric outburst, but the bright harbinger of an illustrious mode. Alice had applied a bit of artificial pigment to her lips and cheeks before she set forth this morning; she did not need it, having a ready colour of her own, which now mounted high with annoyance.
Then a splendidly shining closed black automobile, with windows of polished glass, came silently down the street toward her. Within it, as in a luxurious little apartment, three comely ladies in mourning sat and gossiped; but when they saw Alice they clutched one another. They instantly recovered, bowing to her solemnly as they were borne by, yet were not gone from her sight so swiftly but the edge of her side glance caught a flash of teeth in mouths suddenly opened, and the dark glisten of black gloves again clutching to share mirth.
The colour that outdid the rouge on Alice's cheek extended its area and grew warmer as she realized how all too cordial had been her nod and smile to these humorous ladies. But in their identity lay a significance causing her a sharper smart, for they were of the family of that Lamb, chief of Lamb and Company, who had employed her father since before she was born.
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