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Norris described The Pit as a fictitious narrative of a "deal" in the Chicago wheat pit, which is the nickname of the trading floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, where commodities are traded like stocks and bonds. One man tries to corner the market on wheat to make a fortune. More than a business story, the novel deals with love and the lack of love in a relationship, selfishness, power, greed, the financial power of men and lack of their power to control events that are shaped by nature. Quote:“Think of it, the food of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people just at the mercy of a few men down there on the Board of Trade. They make the price. They say just how much the peasant shall pay for his loaf of bread. If he can’t pay the price, he simply starves.”These poor people’s lives are completely out of their hands. In contrast, Norris suggests that ultimately the men down in the Pit don’t have power over them either, nor over their own lives, because above all, nature rules.
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Dedicated to My Brother Charles Tolman Norris
Principal Characters in the Novel
CURTIS JADWIN, capitalist and speculator. SHELDON CORTHELL, an artist. LANDRY COURT, broker's clerk. SAMUEL GRETRY, a broker. CHARLES CRESSLER, a dealer in grain. MRS. CRESSLER, his wife. LAURA DEARBORN, protege of Mrs. Cressler. PAGE DEARBORN, her sister. MRS. EMILY WESSELS, aunt of Laura and Page.
The Trilogy of The Epic of the Wheat includes the following novels:
THE OCTOPUS, a Story of California. THE PIT, a Story of Chicago. THE WOLF, a Story of Europe.
These novels, while forming a series, will be in no way connected with each other save only in their relation to (1) the production, (2) the distribution, (3) the consumption of American wheat. When complete, they will form the story of a crop of wheat from the time of its sowing as seed in California to the time of its consumption as bread in a village of Western Europe.
The first novel, "The Octopus," deals with the war between the wheat grower and the Railroad Trust; the second, "The Pit," is the fictitious narrative of a "deal" in the Chicago wheat pit; while the third, "The Wolf," will probably have for its pivotal episode the relieving of a famine in an Old World community.
The author's most sincere thanks for assistance rendered in the preparation of the following novel are due to Mr. G. D. Moulson of New York, whose unwearied patience and untiring kindness helped him to the better understanding of the technical difficulties of a Very complicated subject. And more especially he herewith acknowledges his unmeasured obligation and gratitude to Her Who Helped the Most of All.
F. N. NEW YORK
At eight o'clock in the inner vestibule of the Auditorium Theatre by the window of the box office, Laura Dearborn, her younger sister Page, and their aunt—Aunt Wess'—were still waiting for the rest of the theatre-party to appear. A great, slow-moving press of men and women in evening dress filled the vestibule from one wall to another. A confused murmur of talk and the shuffling of many feet arose on all sides, while from time to time, when the outside and inside doors of the entrance chanced to be open simultaneously, a sudden draught of air gushed in, damp, glacial, and edged with the penetrating keenness of a Chicago evening at the end of February.
The Italian Grand Opera Company gave one of the most popular pieces of its repertoire on that particular night, and the Cresslers had invited the two sisters and their aunt to share their box with them. It had been arranged that the party should assemble in the Auditorium vestibule at a quarter of eight; but by now the quarter was gone and the Cresslers still failed to arrive.
"I don't see," murmured Laura anxiously for the last time, "what can be keeping them. Are you sure Page that Mrs. Cressler meant here—inside?"
She was a tall young girl of about twenty-two or three, holding herself erect and with fine dignity. Even beneath the opera cloak it was easy to infer that her neck and shoulders were beautiful. Her almost extreme slenderness was, however, her characteristic; the curves of her figure, the contour of her shoulders, the swell of hip and breast were all low; from head to foot one could discover no pronounced salience. Yet there was no trace, no suggestion of angularity. She was slender as a willow shoot is slender—and equally graceful, equally erect.
Next to this charming tenuity, perhaps her paleness was her most noticeable trait. But it was not a paleness of lack of colour. Laura Dearborn's pallour was in itself a colour. It was a tint rather than a shade, like ivory; a warm white, blending into an exquisite, delicate brownness towards the throat. Set in the middle of this paleness of brow and cheek, her deep brown eyes glowed lambent and intense. They were not large, but in some indefinable way they were important. It was very natural to speak of her eyes, and in speaking to her, her friends always found that they must look squarely into their pupils. And all this beauty of pallid face and brown eyes was crowned by, and sharply contrasted with, the intense blackness of her hair, abundant, thick, extremely heavy, continually coruscating with sombre, murky reflections, tragic, in a sense vaguely portentous,—the coiffure of a heroine of romance, doomed to dark crises.
On this occasion at the side of the topmost coil, a white aigrette scintillated and trembled with her every movement. She was unquestionably beautiful. Her mouth was a little large, the lips firm set, and one would not have expected that she would smile easily; in fact, the general expression of her face was rather serious.
"Perhaps," continued Laura, "they would look for us outside." But Page shook her head. She was five years younger than Laura, just turned seventeen. Her hair, dressed high for the first time this night, was brown. But Page's beauty was no less marked than her sister's. The seriousness of her expression, however, was more noticeable. At times it amounted to undeniable gravity. She was straight, and her figure, all immature as yet, exhibited hardly any softer outlines than that of a boy.
"No, no," she said, in answer to Laura's question. "They would come in here; they wouldn't wait outside—not on such a cold night as this. Don't you think so, Aunt Wess'?"
But Mrs. Wessels, a lean, middle-aged little lady, with a flat, pointed nose, had no suggestions to offer. She disengaged herself from any responsibility in the situation and, while waiting, found a vague amusement in counting the number of people who filtered in single file through the wicket where the tickets were presented. A great, stout gentleman in evening dress, perspiring, his cravatte limp, stood here, tearing the checks from the tickets, and without ceasing, maintaining a continuous outcry that dominated the murmur of the throng:
"Have your tickets ready, please! Have your tickets ready."
"Such a crowd," murmured Page. "Did you ever see—and every one you ever knew or heard of. And such toilettes!"
With every instant the number of people increased; progress became impossible, except an inch at a time. The women were, almost without exception, in light-coloured gowns, white, pale blue, Nile green, and pink, while over these costumes were thrown opera cloaks and capes of astonishing complexity and elaborateness. Nearly all were bare-headed, and nearly all wore aigrettes; a score of these, a hundred of them, nodded and vibrated with an incessant agitation over the heads of the crowd and flashed like mica flakes as the wearers moved. Everywhere the eye was arrested by the luxury of stuffs, the brilliance and delicacy of fabrics, laces as white and soft as froth, crisp, shining silks, suave satins, heavy gleaming velvets, and brocades and plushes, nearly all of them white—violently so—dazzling and splendid under the blaze of the electrics. The gentlemen, in long, black overcoats, and satin mufflers, and opera hats; their hands under the elbows of their women-folk, urged or guided them forward, distressed, preoccupied, adjuring their parties to keep together; in their white-gloved fingers they held their tickets ready. For all the icy blasts that burst occasionally through the storm doors, the vestibule was uncomfortably warm, and into this steam-heated atmosphere a multitude of heavy odours exhaled—the scent of crushed flowers, of perfume, of sachet, and even—occasionally—the strong smell of damp seal-skin.
Outside it was bitterly cold. All day a freezing wind had blown from off the Lake, and since five in the afternoon a fine powder of snow had been falling. The coachmen on the boxes of the carriages that succeeded one another in an interminable line before the entrance of the theatre, were swathed to the eyes in furs. The spume and froth froze on the bits of the horses, and the carriage wheels crunching through the dry, frozen snow gave off a shrill staccato whine. Yet for all this, a crowd had collected about the awning on the sidewalk, and even upon the opposite side of the street, peeping and peering from behind the broad shoulders of policemen—a crowd of miserables, shivering in rags and tattered comforters, who found, nevertheless, an unexplainable satisfaction in watching this prolonged defile of millionaires.
So great was the concourse of teams, that two blocks distant from the theatre they were obliged to fall into line, advancing only at intervals, and from door to door of the carriages thus immobilised ran a score of young men, their arms encumbered with pamphlets, shouting: "Score books, score books and librettos; score books with photographs of all the artists."
However, in the vestibule the press was thinning out. It was understood that the overture had begun. Other people who were waiting like Laura and her sister had been joined by their friends and had gone inside. Laura, for whom this opera night had been an event, a thing desired and anticipated with all the eagerness of a girl who had lived for twenty-two years in a second-class town of central Massachusetts, was in great distress. She had never seen Grand Opera, she would not have missed a note, and now she was in a fair way to lose the whole overture.
"Oh, dear," she cried. "Isn't it too bad. I can't imagine why they don't come."
Page, more metropolitan, her keenness of appreciation a little lost by two years of city life and fashionable schooling, tried to reassure her.
"You won't lose much," she said. "The air of the overture is repeated in the first act—I've heard it once before."
"If we even see the first act," mourned Laura. She scanned the faces of the late comers anxiously. Nobody seemed to mind being late. Even some of the other people who were waiting, chatted calmly among themselves. Directly behind them two men, their faces close together, elaborated an interminable conversation, of which from time to time they could overhear a phrase or two.
"—and I guess he'll do well if he settles for thirty cents on the dollar. I tell you, dear boy, it was a smash!"
"Never should have tried to swing a corner. The short interest was too small and the visible supply was too great."
Page nudged her sister and whispered: "That's the Helmick failure they're talking about, those men. Landry Court told me all about it. Mr. Helmick had a corner in corn, and he failed to-day, or will fail soon, or something."
But Laura, preoccupied with looking for the Cresslers, hardly listened. Aunt Wess', whose count was confused by all these figures murmured just behind her, began over again, her lips silently forming the words, "sixty-one, sixty-two, and two is sixty-four." Behind them the voice continued:
"They say Porteous will peg the market at twenty-six."
"Well he ought to. Corn is worth that."
"Never saw such a call for margins in my life. Some of the houses called eight cents."
Page turned to Mrs. Wessels: "By the way, Aunt Wess'; look at that man there by the box office window, the one with his back towards us, the one with his hands in his overcoat pockets. Isn't that Mr. Jadwin? The gentleman we are going to meet to-night. See who I mean?"
"Who? Mr. Jadwin? I don't know. I don't know, child. I never saw him, you know."
"Well I think it is he," continued Page. "He was to be with our party to-night. I heard Mrs. Cressler say she would ask him. That's Mr. Jadwin, I'm sure. He's waiting for them, too."
"Oh, then ask him about it, Page," exclaimed Laura. "We're missing everything."
But Page shook her head:
"I only met him once, ages ago; he wouldn't know me. It was at the Cresslers, and we just said 'How do you do.' And then maybe it isn't Mr. Jadwin."
"Oh, I wouldn't bother, girls," said Mrs. Wessels. "It's all right. They'll be here in a minute. I don't believe the curtain has gone up yet."
But the man of whom they spoke turned around at the moment and cast a glance about the vestibule. They saw a gentleman of an indeterminate age—judged by his face he might as well have been forty as thirty-five. A heavy mustache touched with grey covered his lips. The eyes were twinkling and good-tempered. Between his teeth he held an unlighted cigar.
"It is Mr. Jadwin," murmured Page, looking quickly away. "But he don't recognise me."
Laura also averted her eyes.
"Well, why not go right up to him and introduce ourself, or recall yourself to him?" she hazarded.
"Oh, Laura, I couldn't," gasped Page. "I wouldn't for worlds."
"Couldn't she, Aunt Wess'?" appealed Laura. "Wouldn't it be all right?"
But Mrs. Wessels, ignoring forms and customs, was helpless. Again she withdrew from any responsibility in the matter.
"I don't know anything about it," she answered. "But Page oughtn't to be bold."
"Oh, bother; it isn't that," protested Page. "But it's just because—I don't know, I don't want to—Laura, I should just die," she exclaimed with abrupt irrelevance, "and besides, how would that help any?" she added.
"Well, we're just going to miss it all," declared Laura decisively. There were actual tears in her eyes. "And I had looked forward to it so."
"Well," hazarded Aunt Wess', "you girls can do just as you please. Only I wouldn't be bold."
"Well, would it be bold if Page, or if—if I were to speak to him? We're going to meet him anyways in just a few minutes."
"Better wait, hadn't you, Laura," said Aunt Wess', "and see. Maybe he'll come up and speak to us."
"Oh, as if!" contradicted Laura. "He don't know us,—just as Page says. And if he did, he wouldn't. He wouldn't think it polite."
"Then I guess, girlie, it wouldn't be polite for you."
"I think it would," she answered. "I think it would be a woman's place. If he's a gentleman, he would feel that he just couldn't speak first. I'm going to do it," she announced suddenly.
"Just as you think best, Laura," said her aunt.
But nevertheless Laura did not move, and another five minutes went by.
Page took advantage of the interval to tell Laura about Jadwin. He was very rich, but a bachelor, and had made his money in Chicago real estate. Some of his holdings in the business quarter of the city were enormous; Landry Court had told her about him. Jadwin, unlike Mr. Cressler, was not opposed to speculation. Though not a member of the Board of Trade, he nevertheless at very long intervals took part in a "deal" in wheat, or corn, or provisions. He believed that all corners were doomed to failure, however, and had predicted Helmick's collapse six months ago. He had influence, was well known to all Chicago people, what he said carried weight, financiers consulted him, promoters sought his friendship, his name on the board of directors of a company was an all-sufficing endorsement; in a word, a "strong" man.
"I can't understand," exclaimed Laura distrait, referring to the delay on the part of the Cresslers. "This was the night, and this was the place, and it is long past the time. We could telephone to the house, you know," she said, struck with an idea, "and see if they've started, or what has happened."
"I don't know—I don't know," murmured Mrs. Wessels vaguely. No one seemed ready to act upon Laura's suggestion, and again the minutes passed.
"I'm going," declared Laura again, looking at the other two, as if to demand what they had to say against the idea.
"I just couldn't," declared Page flatly.
"Well," continued Laura, "I'll wait just three minutes more, and then if the Cresslers are not here I will speak to him. It seems to me to be perfectly natural, and not at all bold."
She waited three minutes, and the Cresslers still failing to appear, temporised yet further, for the twentieth time repeating:
"I don't see—I can't understand."
Then, abruptly drawing her cape about her, she crossed the vestibule and came up to Jadwin.
As she approached she saw him catch her eye. Then, as he appeared to understand that this young woman was about to speak to him, she noticed an expression of suspicion, almost of distrust, come into his face. No doubt he knew nothing of this other party who were to join the Cresslers in the vestibule. Why should this girl speak to him? Something had gone wrong, and the instinct of the man, no longer very young, to keep out of strange young women's troubles betrayed itself in the uneasy glance that he shot at her from under his heavy eyebrows. But the look faded as quickly as it had come. Laura guessed that he had decided that in such a place as this he need have no suspicions. He took the cigar from his mouth, and she, immensely relieved, realised that she had to do with a man who was a gentleman. Full of trepidation as she had been in crossing the vestibule, she was quite mistress of herself when the instant came for her to speak, and it was in a steady voice and without embarrassment that she said:
"I beg your pardon, but I believe this is Mr. Jadwin."
He took off his hat, evidently a little nonplussed that she should know his name, and by now she was ready even to browbeat him a little should it be necessary.
"Yes, yes," he answered, now much more confused than she, "my name is Jadwin."
"I believe," continued Laura steadily, "we were all to be in the same party to-night with the Cresslers. But they don't seem to come, and we—my sister and my aunt and I—don't know what to do."
She saw that he was embarrassed, convinced, and the knowledge that she controlled the little situation, that she could command him, restored her all her equanimity.
"My name is Miss Dearborn," she continued. "I believe you know my sister Page."
By some trick of manner she managed to convey to him the impression that if he did not know her sister Page, that if for one instant he should deem her to be bold, he would offer a mortal affront. She had not yet forgiven him that stare of suspicion when first their eyes had met; he should pay her for that yet.
"Miss Page,—your sister,—Miss Page Dearborn? Certainly I know her," he answered. "And you have been waiting, too? What a pity!" And he permitted himself the awkwardness of adding: "I did not know that you were to be of our party."
"No," returned Laura upon the instant, "I did not know you were to be one of us to-night—until Page told me." She accented the pronouns a little, but it was enough for him to know that he had been rebuked. How, he could not just say; and for what it was impossible for him at the moment to determine; and she could see that he began to experience a certain distress, was beating a retreat, was ceding place to her. Who was she, then, this tall and pretty young woman, with the serious, unsmiling face, who was so perfectly at ease, and who hustled him about and made him feel as though he were to blame for the Cresslers' non-appearance; as though it was his fault that she must wait in the draughty vestibule. She had a great air with her; how had he offended her? If he had introduced himself to her, had forced himself upon her, she could not be more lofty, more reserved.
"I thought perhaps you might telephone," she observed.
"They haven't a telephone, unfortunately," he answered.
This was quite the last slight, the Cresslers had not a telephone! He was to blame for that, too, it seemed. At his wits' end, he entertained for an instant the notion of dashing out into the street in a search for a messenger boy, who would take a note to Cressler and set him right again; and his agitation was not allayed when Laura, in frigid tones, declared:
"It seems to me that something might be done."
"I don't know," he replied helplessly. "I guess there's nothing to be done but just wait. They are sure to be along."
In the background, Page and Mrs. Wessels had watched the interview, and had guessed that Laura was none too gracious. Always anxious that her sister should make a good impression, the little girl was now in great distress.
"Laura is putting on her 'grand manner,'" she lamented. "I just know how she's talking. The man will hate the very sound of her name all the rest of his life." Then all at once she uttered a joyful exclamation: "At last, at last," she cried, "and about time, too!"
The Cresslers and the rest of the party—two young men—had appeared, and Page and her aunt came up just in time to hear Mrs. Cressler—a fine old lady, in a wonderful ermine-trimmed cape, whose hair was powdered—exclaim at the top of her voice, as if the mere declaration of fact was final, absolutely the last word upon the subject, "The bridge was turned!"
The Cresslers lived on the North Side. The incident seemed to be closed with the abruptness of a slammed door.
Page and Aunt Wess' were introduced to Jadwin, who was particular to announce that he remembered the young girl perfectly. The two young men were already acquainted with the Dearborn sisters and Mrs. Wessels. Page and Laura knew one of them well enough to address him familiarly by his Christian name.
This was Landry Court, a young fellow just turned twenty-three, who was "connected with" the staff of the great brokerage firm of Gretry, Converse and Co. He was astonishingly good-looking, small-made, wiry, alert, nervous, debonair, with blond hair and dark eyes that snapped like a terrier's. He made friends almost at first sight, and was one of those fortunate few who were favoured equally of men and women. The healthiness of his eye and skin persuaded to a belief in the healthiness of his mind; and, in fact, Landry was as clean without as within. He was frank, open-hearted, full of fine sentiments and exaltations and enthusiasms. Until he was eighteen he had cherished an ambition to become the President of the United States.
"Yes, yes," he said to Laura, "the bridge was turned. It was an imposition. We had to wait while they let three tows through. I think two at a time is as much as is legal. And we had to wait for three. Yes, sir; three, think of that! I shall look into that to-morrow. Yes, sir; don't you be afraid of that. I'll look into it." He nodded his head with profound seriousness.
"Well," announced Mr. Cressler, marshalling the party, "shall we go in? I'm afraid, Laura, we've missed the overture."
Smiling, she shrugged her shoulders, while they moved to the wicket, as if to say that it could not be helped now.
Cressler, tall, lean, bearded, and stoop-shouldered, belonging to the same physical type that includes Lincoln—the type of the Middle West—was almost a second father to the parentless Dearborn girls. In Massachusetts, thirty years before this time, he had been a farmer, and the miller Dearborn used to grind his grain regularly. The two had been boys together, and had always remained fast friends, almost brothers. Then, in the years just before the War, had come the great movement westward, and Cressler had been one of those to leave an "abandoned" New England farm behind him, and with his family emigrate toward the Mississippi. He had come to Sangamon County in Illinois. For a time he tried wheat-raising, until the War, which skied the prices of all food-stuffs, had made him—for those days—a rich man. Giving up farming, he came to live in Chicago, bought a seat on the Board of Trade, and in a few years was a millionaire. At the time of the Turco-Russian War he and two Milwaukee men had succeeded in cornering all the visible supply of spring wheat. At the end of the thirtieth day of the corner the clique figured out its profits at close upon a million; a week later it looked like a million and a half. Then the three lost their heads; they held the corner just a fraction of a month too long, and when the time came that the three were forced to take profits, they found that they were unable to close out their immense holdings without breaking the price. In two days wheat that they had held at a dollar and ten cents collapsed to sixty. The two Milwaukee men were ruined, and two-thirds of Cressler's immense fortune vanished like a whiff of smoke.
But he had learned his lesson. Never since then had he speculated. Though keeping his seat on the Board, he had confined himself to commission trading, uninfluenced by fluctuations in the market. And he was never wearied of protesting against the evil and the danger of trading in margins. Speculation he abhorred as the small-pox, believing it to be impossible to corner grain by any means or under any circumstances. He was accustomed to say: "It can't be done; first, for the reason that there is a great harvest of wheat somewhere in the world for every month in the year; and, second, because the smart man who runs the corner has every other smart man in the world against him. And, besides, it's wrong; the world's food should not be at the mercy of the Chicago wheat pit."
As the party filed in through the wicket, the other young man who had come with Landry Court managed to place himself next to Laura. Meeting her eyes, he murmured:
"Ah, you did not wear them after all. My poor little flowers."
But she showed him a single American Beauty, pinned to the shoulder of her gown beneath her cape.
"Yes, Mr. Corthell," she answered, "one. I tried to select the prettiest, and I think I succeeded—don't you? It was hard to choose."
"Since you have worn it, it is the prettiest," he answered.
He was a slightly built man of about twenty-eight or thirty; dark, wearing a small, pointed beard, and a mustache that he brushed away from his lips like a Frenchman. By profession he was an artist, devoting himself more especially to the designing of stained windows. In this, his talent was indisputable. But he was by no means dependent upon his profession for a living, his parents—long since dead—having left him to the enjoyment of a very considerable fortune. He had a beautiful studio in the Fine Arts Building, where he held receptions once every two months, or whenever he had a fine piece of glass to expose. He had travelled, read, studied, occasionally written, and in matters pertaining to the colouring and fusing of glass was cited as an authority. He was one of the directors of the new Art Gallery that had taken the place of the old Exposition Building on the Lake Front.
Laura had known him for some little time. On the occasion of her two previous visits to Page he had found means to see her two or three times each week. Once, even, he had asked her to marry him, but she, deep in her studies at the time, consumed with vague ambitions to be a great actress of Shakespearian roles, had told him she could care for nothing but her art. He had smiled and said that he could wait, and, strangely enough, their relations had resumed again upon the former footing. Even after she had gone away they had corresponded regularly, and he had made and sent her a tiny window—a veritable jewel—illustrative of a scene from "Twelfth Night."
In the foyer, as the gentlemen were checking their coats, Laura overheard Jadwin say to Mr. Cressler:
"Well, how about Helmick?"
The other made an impatient movement of his shoulders.
"Ask me, what was the fool thinking of—a corner! Pshaw!"
There were one or two other men about, making their overcoats and opera hats into neat bundles preparatory to checking them; and instantly there was a flash of a half-dozen eyes in the direction of the two men. Evidently the collapse of the Helmick deal was in the air. All the city seemed interested.
But from behind the heavy curtains that draped the entrance to the theatre proper, came a muffled burst of music, followed by a long salvo of applause. Laura's cheeks flamed with impatience, she hurried after Mrs. Cressler; Corthell drew the curtains for her to pass, and she entered.
Inside it was dark, and a prolonged puff of hot air, thick with the mingled odours of flowers, perfume, upholstery, and gas, enveloped her upon the instant. It was the unmistakable, unforgettable, entrancing aroma of the theatre, that she had known only too seldom, but that in a second set her heart galloping.
Every available space seemed to be occupied. Men, even women, were standing up, compacted into a suffocating pressure, and for the moment everybody was applauding vigorously. On all sides Laura heard:
"Very well done!"
Between the peoples' heads and below the low dip of the overhanging balcony—a brilliant glare in the surrounding darkness—she caught a glimpse of the stage. It was set for a garden; at the back and in the distance a chateau; on the left a bower, and on the right a pavilion. Before the footlights, a famous contralto, dressed as a boy, was bowing to the audience, her arms full of flowers.
"Too bad," whispered Corthell to Laura, as they followed the others down the side-aisle to the box. "Too bad, this is the second act already; you've missed the whole first act—and this song. She'll sing it over again, though, just for you, if I have to lead the applause myself. I particularly wanted you to hear that."
Once in the box, the party found itself a little crowded, and Jadwin and Cressler were obliged to stand, in order to see the stage. Although they all spoke in whispers, their arrival was the signal for certain murmurs of "Sh! Sh!" Mrs. Cressler made Laura occupy the front seat. Jadwin took her cloak from her, and she settled herself in her chair and looked about her. She could see but little of the house or audience. All the lights were lowered; only through the gloom the swaying of a multitude of fans, pale coloured, like night-moths balancing in the twilight, defined itself.
But soon she turned towards the stage. The applause died away, and the contralto once more sang the aria. The melody was simple, the tempo easily followed; it was not a very high order of music. But to Laura it was nothing short of a revelation.
She sat spell-bound, her hands clasped tight, her every faculty of attention at its highest pitch. It was wonderful, such music as that; wonderful, such a voice; wonderful, such orchestration; wonderful, such exaltation inspired by mere beauty of sound. Never, never was this night to be forgotten, this her first night of Grand Opera. All this excitement, this world of perfume, of flowers, of exquisite costumes, of beautiful women, of fine, brave men. She looked back with immense pity to the narrow little life of her native town she had just left forever, the restricted horizon, the petty round of petty duties, the rare and barren pleasures—the library, the festival, the few concerts, the trivial plays. How easy it was to be good and noble when music such as this had become a part of one's life; how desirable was wealth when it could make possible such exquisite happiness as hers of the moment. Nobility, purity, courage, sacrifice seemed much more worth while now than a few moments ago. All things not positively unworthy became heroic, all things and all men. Landry Court was a young chevalier, pure as Galahad. Corthell was a beautiful artist-priest of the early Renaissance. Even Jadwin was a merchant prince, a great financial captain. And she herself—ah, she did not know; she dreamed of another Laura, a better, gentler, more beautiful Laura, whom everybody, everybody loved dearly and tenderly, and who loved everybody, and who should die beautifully, gently, in some garden far away—die because of a great love—beautifully, gently in the midst of flowers, die of a broken heart, and all the world should be sorry for her, and would weep over her when they found her dead and beautiful in her garden, amid the flowers and the birds, in some far-off place, where it was always early morning and where there was soft music. And she was so sorry for herself, and so hurt with the sheer strength of her longing to be good and true, and noble and womanly, that as she sat in the front of the Cresslers' box on that marvellous evening, the tears ran down her cheeks again and again, and dropped upon her tight-shut, white-gloved fingers.
But the contralto had disappeared, and in her place the tenor held the stage—a stout, short young man in red plush doublet and grey silk tights. His chin advanced, an arm extended, one hand pressed to his breast, he apostrophised the pavilion, that now and then swayed a little in the draught from the wings.
The aria was received with furor; thrice he was obliged to repeat it. Even Corthell, who was critical to extremes, approved, nodding his head. Laura and Page clapped their hands till the very last. But Landry Court, to create an impression, assumed a certain disaffection.
"He's not in voice to-night. Too bad. You should have heard him Friday in 'Aida.'"
The opera continued. The great soprano, the prima donna, appeared and delivered herself of a song for which she was famous with astonishing eclat. Then in a little while the stage grew dark, the orchestration lapsed to a murmur, and the tenor and the soprano reentered. He clasped her in his arms and sang a half-dozen bars, then holding her hand, one arm still about her waist, withdrew from her gradually, till she occupied the front-centre of the stage. He assumed an attitude of adoration and wonderment, his eyes uplifted as if entranced, and she, very softly, to the accompaniment of the sustained, dreamy chords of the orchestra, began her solo.
Laura shut her eyes. Never had she felt so soothed, so cradled and lulled and languid. Ah, to love like that! To love and be loved. There was no such love as that to-day. She wished that she could loose her clasp upon the sordid, material modern life that, perforce, she must hold to, she knew not why, and drift, drift off into the past, far away, through rose-coloured mists and diaphanous veils, or resign herself, reclining in a silver skiff drawn by swans, to the gentle current of some smooth-flowing river that ran on forever and forever.
But a discordant element developed. Close by—the lights were so low she could not tell where—a conversation, kept up in low whispers, began by degrees to intrude itself upon her attention. Try as she would, she could not shut it out, and now, as the music died away fainter and fainter, till voice and orchestra blended together in a single, barely audible murmur, vibrating with emotion, with romance, and with sentiment, she heard, in a hoarse, masculine whisper, the words:
"The shortage is a million bushels at the very least. Two hundred carloads were to arrive from Milwaukee last night."
She made a little gesture of despair, turning her head for an instant, searching the gloom about her. But she could see no one not interested in the stage. Why could not men leave their business outside, why must the jar of commerce spoil all the harmony of this moment.
However, all sounds were drowned suddenly in a long burst of applause. The tenor and soprano bowed and smiled across the footlights. The soprano vanished, only to reappear on the balcony of the pavilion, and while she declared that the stars and the night-bird together sang "He loves thee," the voices close at hand continued:
"—one hundred and six carloads—"
"—paralysed the bulls—"
"—fifty thousand dollars—"
Then all at once the lights went up. The act was over.
Laura seemed only to come to herself some five minutes later. She and Corthell were out in the foyer behind the boxes. Everybody was promenading. The air was filled with the staccato chatter of a multitude of women. But she herself seemed far away—she and Sheldon Corthell. His face, dark, romantic, with the silky beard and eloquent eyes, appeared to be all she cared to see, while his low voice, that spoke close to her ear, was in a way a mere continuation of the melody of the duet just finished.
Instinctively she knew what he was about to say, for what he was trying to prepare her. She felt, too, that he had not expected to talk thus to her to-night. She knew that he loved her, that inevitably, sooner or later, they must return to a subject that for long had been excluded from their conversations, but it was to have been when they were alone, remote, secluded, not in the midst of a crowd, brilliant electrics dazzling their eyes, the humming of the talk of hundreds assaulting their ears. But it seemed as if these important things came of themselves, independent of time and place, like birth and death. There was nothing to do but to accept the situation, and it was without surprise that at last, from out the murmur of Corthell's talk, she was suddenly conscious of the words:
"So that it is hardly necessary, is it, to tell you once more that I love you?"
She drew a long breath.
"I know. I know you love me."
They had sat down on a divan, at one end of the promenade; and Corthell, skilful enough in the little arts of the drawing-room, made it appear as though they talked of commonplaces; as for Laura, exalted, all but hypnotised with this marvellous evening, she hardly cared; she would not even stoop to maintain appearances.
"Yes, yes," she said; "I know you love me."
"And is that all you can say?" he urged. "Does it mean nothing to you that you are everything to me?"
She was coming a little to herself again. Love was, after all, sweeter in the actual—even in this crowded foyer, in this atmosphere of silk and jewels, in this show-place of a great city's society—than in a mystic garden of some romantic dreamland. She felt herself a woman again, modern, vital, and no longer a maiden of a legend of chivalry.
"Nothing to me?" she answered. "I don't know. I should rather have you love me than—not."
"Let me love you then for always," he went on. "You know what I mean. We have understood each other from the very first. Plainly, and very simply, I love you with all my heart. You know now that I speak the truth, you know that you can trust me. I shall not ask you to share your life with mine. I ask you for the great happiness"—he raised his head sharply, suddenly proud—"the great honour of the opportunity of giving you all that I have of good. God give me humility, but that is much since I have known you. If I were a better man because of myself, I would not presume to speak of it, but if I am in anything less selfish, if I am more loyal, if I am stronger, or braver, it is only something of you that has become a part of me, and made me to be born again. So when I offer myself to you, I am only bringing back to you the gift you gave me for a little while. I have tried to keep it for you, to keep it bright and sacred and un-spotted. It is yours again now if you will have it."
There was a long pause; a group of men in opera hats and white gloves came up the stairway close at hand. The tide of promenaders set towards the entrances of the theatre. A little electric bell shrilled a note of warning.
Laura looked up at length, and as their glances met, he saw that there were tears in her eyes. This declaration of his love for her was the last touch to the greatest exhilaration of happiness she had ever known. Ah yes, she was loved, just as that young girl of the opera had been loved. For this one evening, at least, the beauty of life was unmarred, and no cruel word of hers should spoil it. The world was beautiful. All people were good and noble and true. To-morrow, with the material round of duties and petty responsibilities and cold, calm reason, was far, far away.
Suddenly she turned to him, surrendering to the impulse, forgetful of consequences.
"Oh, I am glad, glad," she cried, "glad that you love me!"
But before Corthell could say anything more Landry Court and Page came up.
"We've been looking for you," said the young girl quietly. Page was displeased. She took herself and her sister—in fact, the whole scheme of existence—with extraordinary seriousness. She had no sense of humour. She was not tolerant; her ideas of propriety and the amenities were as immutable as the fixed stars. A fine way for Laura to act, getting off into corners with Sheldon Corthell. It would take less than that to make talk. If she had no sense of her obligations to Mrs. Cressler, at least she ought to think of the looks of things.
"They're beginning again," she said solemnly. "I should think you'd feel as though you had missed about enough of this opera."
They returned to the box. The rest of the party were reassembling.
"Well, Laura," said Mrs. Cressler, when they had sat down, "do you like it?"
"I don't want to leave it—ever," she answered. "I could stay here always."
"I like the young man best," observed Aunt Wess'. "The one who seems to be the friend of the tall fellow with a cloak. But why does he seem so sorry? Why don't he marry the young lady? Let's see, I don't remember his name."
"Beastly voice," declared Landry Court. "He almost broke there once. Too bad. He's not what he used to be. It seems he's terribly dissipated—drinks. Yes, sir, like a fish. He had delirium tremens once behind the scenes in Philadelphia, and stabbed a scene shifter with his stage dagger. A bad lot, to say the least."
"Now, Landry," protested Mrs. Cressler, "you're making it up as you go along." And in the laugh that followed Landry himself joined.
"After all," said Corthell, "this music seems to be just the right medium between the naive melody of the Italian school and the elaborate complexity of Wagner. I can't help but be carried away with it at times—in spite of my better judgment."
Jadwin, who had been smoking a cigar in the vestibule during the entr'acte, rubbed his chin reflectively.
"Well," he said, "it's all very fine. I've no doubt of that, but I give you my word I would rather hear my old governor take his guitar and sing 'Father, oh father, come home with me now,' than all the fiddle-faddle, tweedle-deedle opera business in the whole world."
But the orchestra was returning, the musicians crawling out one by one from a little door beneath the stage hardly bigger than the entrance of a rabbit hutch. They settled themselves in front of their racks, adjusting their coat-tails, fingering their sheet music. Soon they began to tune up, and a vague bourdon of many sounds—the subdued snarl of the cornets, the dull mutter of the bass viols, the liquid gurgling of the flageolets and wood-wind instruments, now and then pierced by the strident chirps and cries of the violins, rose into the air dominating the incessant clamour of conversation that came from all parts of the theatre.
Then suddenly the house lights sank and the footlights rose. From all over the theatre came energetic whispers of "Sh! Sh!" Three strokes, as of a great mallet, sepulchral, grave, came from behind the wings; the leader of the orchestra raised his baton, then brought it slowly down, and while from all the instruments at once issued a prolonged minor chord, emphasised by a muffled roll of the kettle-drum, the curtain rose upon a mediaeval public square. The soprano was seated languidly upon a bench. Her grande scene occurred in this act. Her hair was un-bound; she wore a loose robe of cream white, with flowing sleeves, which left the arms bare to the shoulder. At the waist it was caught in by a girdle of silk rope.
"This is the great act," whispered Mrs. Cressler, leaning over Laura's shoulder. "She is superb later on. Superb."
"I wish those men would stop talking," murmured Laura, searching the darkness distressfully, for between the strains of the music she had heard the words:
"—Clearing House balance of three thousand dollars."
Meanwhile the prima donna, rising to her feet, delivered herself of a lengthy recitative, her chin upon her breast, her eyes looking out from under her brows, an arm stretched out over the footlights. The baritone entered, striding to the left of the footlights, apostrophising the prima donna in a rage. She clasped her hands imploringly, supplicating him to leave her, exclaiming from time to time:
"Va via, va via—Vel chieco per pieta."
Then all at once, while the orchestra blared, they fell into each other's arms.
"Why do they do that?" murmured Aunt Wess' perplexed. "I thought the gentleman with the beard didn't like her at all."
"Why, that's the duke, don't you see, Aunt Wess'?" said Laura trying to explain. "And he forgives her. I don't know exactly. Look at your libretto."
"—a conspiracy of the Bears … seventy cents … and naturally he busted."
The mezzo-soprano, the confidante of the prima donna, entered, and a trio developed that had but a mediocre success. At the end the baritone abruptly drew his sword, and the prima donna fell to her knees, chanting:
"Io tremo, ahimé!"
"And now he's mad again," whispered Aunt Wess', consulting her libretto, all at sea once more. "I can't understand. She says—the opera book says she says, 'I tremble.' I don't see why."
"Look now," said Page, "here comes the tenor. Now they're going to have it out."
The tenor, hatless, debouched suddenly upon the scene, and furious, addressed himself to the baritone, leaning forward, his hands upon his chest. Though the others sang in Italian, the tenor, a Parisian, used the French book continually, and now villified the baritone, crying out:
"O traitre infâmeO lache et coupable"
"I don't see why he don't marry the young lady and be done with it," commented Aunt Wess'.
The act drew to its close. The prima donna went through her "great scene," wherein her voice climbed to C in alt, holding the note so long that Aunt Wess' became uneasy. As she finished, the house rocked with applause, and the soprano, who had gone out supported by her confidante, was recalled three times. A duel followed between the baritone and tenor, and the latter, mortally wounded, fell into the arms of his friends uttering broken, vehement notes. The chorus—made up of the city watch and town's people—crowded in upon the back of the stage. The soprano and her confidante returned. The basso, a black-bearded, bull necked man, sombre, mysterious, parted the chorus to right and left, and advanced to the footlights. The contralto, dressed as a boy, appeared. The soprano took stage, and abruptly the closing scene of the act developed.
The violins raged and wailed in unison, all the bows moving together like parts of a well-regulated machine. The kettle-drums, marking the cadences, rolled at exact intervals. The director beat time furiously, as though dragging up the notes and chords with the end of his baton, while the horns and cornets blared, the bass viols growled, and the flageolets and piccolos lost themselves in an amazing complication of liquid gurgles and modulated roulades.
On the stage every one was singing. The soprano in the centre, vocalised in her highest register, bringing out the notes with vigorous twists of her entire body, and tossing them off into the air with sharp flirts of her head. On the right, the basso, scowling, could be heard in the intervals of the music repeating
"Il perfido, l'ingrato"
while to the left of the soprano, the baritone intoned indistinguishable, sonorous phrases, striking his breast and pointing to the fallen tenor with his sword. At the extreme left of the stage the contralto, in tights and plush doublet, turned to the audience, extending her hands, or flinging back her arms. She raised her eyebrows with each high note, and sunk her chin into her ruff when her voice descended. At certain intervals her notes blended with those of the soprano's while she sang:
"Addio, felicita del ciel!"
The tenor, raised upon one hand, his shoulders supported by his friends, sustained the theme which the soprano led with the words:
"Je me meursAh malheurAh je souffreMon ame s'envole."
The chorus formed a semi-circle just behind him. The women on one side, the men on the other. They left much to be desired; apparently scraped hastily together from heaven knew what sources, after the manner of a management suddenly become economical. The women were fat, elderly, and painfully homely; the men lean, osseous, and distressed, in misfitting hose. But they had been conscientiously drilled. They made all their gestures together, moved in masses simultaneously, and, without ceasing, chanted over and over again:
"O terror, O blasfema."
The finale commenced. Everybody on the stage took a step forward, beginning all over again upon a higher key. The soprano's voice thrilled to the very chandelier. The orchestra redoubled its efforts, the director beating time with hands, head, and body.
"Il perfido, l'ingrato"
thundered the basso.
answered the baritone, striking his breast and pointing with his sword; while all at once the soprano's voice, thrilling out again, ran up an astonishing crescendo that evoked veritable gasps from all parts of the audience, then jumped once more to her famous C in alt, and held it long enough for the chorus to repeat
"O terror, O blasfema"
Then the director's baton descended with the violence of a blow. There was a prolonged crash of harmony, a final enormous chord, to which every voice and every instrument contributed. The singers struck tableau attitudes, the tenor fell back with a last wail:
"Je me meurs,"
and the soprano fainted into the arms of her confidante. The curtain fell.
The house roared with applause. The scene was recalled again and again. The tenor, scrambling to his feet, joined hands with the baritone, soprano, and other artists, and all bowed repeatedly. Then the curtain fell for the last time, the lights of the great chandelier clicked and blazed up, and from every quarter of the house came the cries of the programme sellers:
"Opera books. Books of the opera. Words and music of the opera."
During this, the last entr'acte, Laura remained in the box with Mrs. Cressler, Corthell, and Jadwin. The others went out to look down upon the foyer from a certain balcony.
In the box the conversation turned upon stage management, and Corthell told how, in "L'Africaine," at the Opera, in Paris, the entire superstructure of the stage—wings, drops, and backs—turned when Vasco da Gama put the ship about. Jadwin having criticised the effect because none of the actors turned with it, was voted a Philistine by Mrs. Cressler and Corthell. But as he was about to answer, Mrs. Cressler turned to the artist, passing him her opera glasses, and asking:
"Who are those people down there in the third row of the parquet—see, on the middle aisle—the woman is in red. Aren't those the Gretrys?"
This left Jadwin and Laura out of the conversation, and the capitalist was quick to seize the chance of talking to her. Soon she was surprised to notice that he was trying hard to be agreeable, and before they had exchanged a dozen sentences, he had turned an awkward compliment. She guessed by his manner that paying attention to young girls was for him a thing altogether unusual. Intuitively she divined that she, on this, the very first night of their acquaintance, had suddenly interested him.
She had had neither opportunity nor inclination to observe him closely during their interview in the vestibule, but now, as she sat and listened to him talk, she could not help being a little attracted. He was a heavy-built man, would have made two of Corthell, and his hands were large and broad, the hands of a man of affairs, who knew how to grip, and, above all, how to hang on. Those broad, strong hands, and keen, calm eyes would enfold and envelop a Purpose with tremendous strength, and they would persist and persist and persist, unswerving, unwavering, untiring, till the Purpose was driven home. And the two long, lean, fibrous arms of him; what a reach they could attain, and how wide and huge and even formidable would be their embrace of affairs. One of those great manoeuvres of a fellow money-captain had that very day been concluded, the Helmick failure, and between the chords and bars of a famous opera men talked in excited whispers, and one great leader lay at that very moment, broken and spent, fighting with his last breath for bare existence. Jadwin had seen it all. Uninvolved in the crash, he had none the less been close to it, watching it, in touch with it, foreseeing each successive collapse by which it reeled fatally to the final catastrophe. The voices of the two men that had so annoyed her in the early part of the evening were suddenly raised again:
"—It was terrific, there on the floor of the Board this morning. By the Lord! they fought each other when the Bears began throwing the grain at 'em—in carload lots."
And abruptly, midway between two phases of that music-drama, of passion and romance, there came to Laura the swift and vivid impression of that other drama that simultaneously—even at that very moment—was working itself out close at hand, equally picturesque, equally romantic, equally passionate; but more than that, real, actual, modern, a thing in the very heart of the very life in which she moved. And here he sat, this Jadwin, quiet, in evening dress, listening good-naturedly to this beautiful music, for which he did not care, to this rant and fustian, watching quietly all this posing and attitudinising. How small and petty it must all seem to him!
Laura found time to be astonished. What! She had first met this man haughtily, in all the panoply of her "grand manner," and had promised herself that she would humble him, and pay him for that first mistrustful stare at her. And now, behold, she was studying him, and finding the study interesting. Out of harmony though she knew him to be with those fine emotions of hers of the early part of the evening, she nevertheless found much in him to admire. It was always just like that. She told herself that she was forever doing the unexpected thing, the inconsistent thing. Women were queer creatures, mysterious even to themselves.
"I am so pleased that you are enjoying it all," said Corthell's voice at her shoulder. "I knew you would. There is nothing like music such as this to appeal to the emotions, the heart—and with your temperament."
Straightway he made her feel her sex. Now she was just a woman again, with all a woman's limitations, and her relations with Corthell could never be—so she realised—any other than sex-relations. With Jadwin somehow it had been different. She had felt his manhood more than her womanhood, her sex side. And between them it was more a give-and-take affair, more equality, more companionship. Corthell spoke only of her heart and to her heart. But Jadwin made her feel—or rather she made herself feel when he talked to her—that she had a head as well as a heart.
And the last act of the opera did not wholly absorb her attention. The artists came and went, the orchestra wailed and boomed, the audience applauded, and in the end the tenor, fired by a sudden sense of duty and of stern obligation, tore himself from the arms of the soprano, and calling out upon remorseless fate and upon heaven, and declaiming about the vanity of glory, and his heart that broke yet disdained tears, allowed himself to be dragged off the scene by his friend the basso. For the fifth time during the piece the soprano fainted into the arms of her long-suffering confidante. The audience, suddenly remembering hats and wraps, bestirred itself, and many parties were already upon their feet and filing out at the time the curtain fell.
The Cresslers and their friends were among the last to regain the vestibule. But as they came out from the foyer, where the first draughts of outside air began to make themselves felt, there were exclamations:
"Why, it's raining right down."
It was true. Abruptly the weather had moderated, and the fine, dry snow that had been falling since early evening had changed to a lugubrious drizzle. A wave of consternation invaded the vestibule for those who had not come in carriages, or whose carriages had not arrived. Tempers were lost; women, cloaked to the ears, their heads protected only by fichus or mantillas, quarrelled with husbands or cousins or brothers over the question of umbrellas. The vestibules were crowded to suffocation, and the aigrettes nodded and swayed again in alternate gusts, now of moist, chill atmosphere from without, and now of stale, hot air that exhaled in long puffs from the inside doors of the theatre itself. Here and there in the press, footmen, their top hats in rubber cases, their hands full of umbrellas, searched anxiously for their masters.
Outside upon the sidewalks and by the curbs, an apparently inextricable confusion prevailed; policemen with drawn clubs laboured and objurgated: anxious, preoccupied young men, their opera hats and gloves beaded with rain, hurried to and fro, searching for their carriages. At the edge of the awning, the caller, a gigantic fellow in gold-faced uniform, shouted the numbers in a roaring, sing-song that dominated every other sound. Coachmen, their wet rubber coats reflecting the lamplight, called back and forth, furious quarrels broke out between hansom drivers and the police officers, steaming horses with jingling bits, their backs covered with dark green cloths, plunged and pranced, carriage doors banged, and the roll of wheels upon the pavement was as the reverberation of artillery caissons.
"Get your carriage, sir?" cried a ragged, half-grown arab at Cressler's elbow.
"Hurry up, then," said Cressler. Then, raising his voice, for the clamour was increasing with every second: "What's your number, Laura? You girls first. Ninety-three? Get that, boy? Ninety-three. Quick now."
The carriage appeared. Hastily they said good-by; hastily Laura expressed to Mrs. Cressler her appreciation and enjoyment. Corthell saw them to the carriage, and getting in after them shut the door behind him. They departed.
Laura sank back in the cool gloom of the carriage's interior redolent of damp leather and upholstery.
"What an evening! What an evening!" she murmured.
On the way home both she and Page appealed to the artist, who knew the opera well, to hum or whistle for them the arias that had pleased them most. Each time they were enthusiastic. Yes, yes, that was the air. Wasn't it pretty, wasn't it beautiful?
But Aunt Wess' was still unsatisfied.
"I don't see yet," she complained, "why the young man, the one with the pointed beard, didn't marry that lady and be done with it. Just as soon as they'd seem to have it all settled, he'd begin to take on again, and strike his breast and go away. I declare, I think it was all kind of foolish."
"Why, the duke—don't you see. The one who sang bass—" Page laboured to explain.
"Oh, I didn't like him at all," said Aunt Wess'. "He stamped around so." But the audience itself had interested her, and the decollete gowns had been particularly impressing.
"I never saw such dressing in all my life," she declared. "And that woman in the box next ours. Well! did you notice that!" She raised her eyebrows and set her lips together. "Well, I don't want to say anything."
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