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Edition 2017 by David De Angelis - all rights reserved
November 29. At half-past one to-day—half-past one exactly—I began my "career."
Mrs. Carteret said she would call for me at five minutes to one. But it was ten minutes after when she appeared, away down at the corner of I Street. Jim was walking up and down the drawing-room; I was at the window, watching that corner of I Street. "There she blows!" I cried, my voice brave, but my heart like a big lump of something soggy and sad.
Jim hurried up and stood behind me, staring glumly over my shoulder. He has proposed to me in so many words more than twenty times in the last three years, and has looked it every time we've met—we meet almost every day. I could feel that he was getting ready to propose again, but I hadn't the slightest fear that he'd touch me. He's in the army, and his "pull" has kept him snug and safe at Washington and has promoted him steadily until now he's a Colonel at thirty-five. But he was brought up in a formal, old-fashioned way, and he'd think it a deadly insult to a woman he respected enough to ask her to be his wife if he should touch her without her permission. I admire Jim's self-restraint, but—I couldn't bear being married to a man who worshiped me, even if I only liked him. If I loved him, I'd be utterly miserable. I've been trying hard to love Jim for the past four months, or ever since I've really realized how desperate my affairs are. But I can't. And the most exasperating part of my obstinacy is that I can't find a good reason or excuse for it.
As I was saying—or, rather, writing—Jim stood behind me and said in a husky sort of voice: "You ain't goin' to do it, are you, Gus?"
I didn't answer. If I had said anything, it would have been a feeble, miserable "No"—which would have meant that I was accepting the alternative—him. All my courage had gone and I felt contemptibly feminine and dependent.
I looked at him—I did like the expression of his eyes and the strength and manliness of him from head to foot. What a fine sort of man a "pull" and a private income have spoiled in Jim Lafollette! He went on: "Surely, I'm not more repellent to you than—than what that auto is coming to take you away to."
"Shame on you, Jim Lafollette!" I said angrily—most of the anger so that he wouldn't understand and take advantage of the tears in my eyes and voice. "But how like you! How brave!"
He reddened at that—partly because he felt guilty toward me, partly because he is ashamed of the laziness that has made him shirk for thirteen years. "I don't care a hang whether it's brave or not, or what it is," he said sullenly. "I want you. And it seems to me I've got to do something—use force, if necessary—to keep you from—from that. You ain't fit for it, Gus—not in any way. Why, it's worse than being a servant. And you—brought up as you've been—"
I laughed—a pretty successful effort. "I've been educating for it all my life, without knowing it. And it's honest and independent. If you had the right sort of ideas of self-respect, you'd be ashamed of me if you thought I'd be low enough to marry a man I couldn't give my heart to—for a living."
"Don't talk rubbish," he retorted. "Thousands of women do it. Besides, if I don't mind, why should you? God knows you've made it plain enough that you don't love me. Gus, why can't you marry me and let me save you from this just as a brother might save a sister?"
"Because I may love somebody some day, Jim," said I. I wanted to hurt him—for his own sake, and also because I didn't want him to tempt me.
The auto was at the curb. He didn't move until I was almost at the drawing-room door. Then he rushed at me and his look frightened me a little. He caught me by the arm. "It's the last chance, Augusta!" he exclaimed. "Won't you?"
I drew away and hurried out. "Then you don't intend to have anything to do with me after I've crossed the line and become a toiler?" I called back over my shoulder. I couldn't resist the temptation to be thoroughly feminine and leave the matter open by putting him in the wrong with my "woman's last word." I was so low in my mind that I reasoned that my adventure might be as appalling as I feared, in which case it would be well to have an alternative. I wonder if the awful thoughts we sometimes have are our real selves or if they just give us the chance to measure the gap between what we might be as shown by them and what we are as shown by our acts. I hope the latter, for surely I can't be as poor a creature as I so often have impulses to make myself.
Mrs. Carteret was waiting for the servant to open the door. I hurried her back toward the auto, being a little afraid that Jim would be desperate enough to come out and beg her to help him—and I knew she would do it if she were asked. In the first place, Jessie always does what she's asked to do—if it helps her to spend time and breath. In the second place, she'd never let up on me if she thought I had so good a chance to marry. For she knows that Washington is the hardest place in the world for a woman to find a husband unless she's got something that appeals to the ambition of men. Besides, she thinks, as do many of my friends, that I am indifferent to men and discourage them. As if any woman was indifferent to men! The only point is that women's ideas of what constitutes a man differ, and my six years in this cosmopolis have made me somewhat discriminating.
But to return to Jessie, she was full of apologies for being late. "I've thought of nothing but you, dear, for two days and nights. And I thought that for once in my life I'd be on time. Yet here I am, fifteen minutes late, unless that clock's wrong." She was looking at the beautiful little clock set in the dashboard of the auto.
"Only fifteen minutes!" I said. "And you never before were known to be less than half an hour late. You even kept the President waiting twenty minutes."
"Isn't it stupid, this fussing about being on time?" she replied. "I don't believe any but dull people and those who want to get something from one are ever on time. For those who really live, life is so full that punctuality is impossible. But I should have been on time, if I hadn't been down seeing the Secretary of War about Willie Catesby—poor Willie! He has been so handicapped by nature!"
"Did you get it for him?" I asked.
"I think so—third secretary at St. Petersburg. The secretary said: 'But Willie is almost an imbecile, Mrs. Carteret. If we don't send him abroad, his family'll have to put him away.' And I said: 'That's true, Mr. Secretary. But if we don't send that sort of people to foreign courts, how are we to repay the insults they send us in the form of imbecile attachés?' And then I handed him six letters from senators—every one of them a man whose vote he needs for his fight on that nomination. They were real letters. So presently he said, 'Very well, Mrs. Carteret, I'll do what I can to resent the Czar's last insult by exporting Willie to him."
I waited a moment, then burst out with what I was full of. "You think she'll take me?" I said.
Jessie reproached me with tragedy in her always intensely serious gray eyes. "Take you?" she exclaimed. "Take a Talltowers when there's a chance to get one? Why, as soon as I explained who you were, she fairly quivered with eagerness."
"You had to explain who a Talltowers is?" I said with mock amazement. It's delightful to poke fun at Jessie; she always appreciates a jest by taking it more seriously than an ordinary statement of fact.
"But, dear, you mustn't be offended. You know Mrs. Burke is very common and ignorant. She doesn't know the first thing about the world. She said to me the other day that she had often heard there were such things as class distinctions, but had never believed it until she came to Washington—she had thought it was like the fairy stories. She never was farther east than Chicago until this fall. She went there to the Fair. You must get her to tell you how she and three other women who belong to the same Chautauqua Circle went on together and slept in the same room and walked from dawn till dark every day, catalogue in hand, for eleven days. It's too pathetic. She said, 'My! but my feet were sore. I thought I was a cripple for life.'"
"That sounds nice and friendly," said I, suspicious that Jessie's quaint sense of humor had not permitted her to appreciate Mrs. Burke. "I'm so dreadfully afraid I'll fall into the clutches of people that'll try to—to humiliate me."
Tears sprang to Jessie's eyes. "Please don't, Gus!" she pleaded. "They'll be only too deferential. And you must keep them so. I suspect that Mrs. Burke chums with her servants."
We were stopping before the house—the big, splendid Ralston Castle, as they call it; one of the very finest of the houses that have been building since rich men began to buy into the Senate and Cabinet and aspire for diplomatic places, and so have attracted other rich families to Washington. What a changed Washington it is, and what a fight the old simplicity is making against the new ostentation! The sight of the Ralston Castle in my present circumstances depressed me horribly. I went to my second ball there, and it was given for me by Mrs. Ralston. And only a little more than a year ago I danced in the quadrille of honor with the French Ambassador—and the next week the Ralstons went smash and hurried abroad to hide, all except the old man who is hanging round Wall Street, they say, trying to get on his feet with the aid of his friends. Friends! How that word must burn into him every time he thinks of it. When he got into a tight place his "friends" took advantage of their knowledge of his affairs to grab his best securities, they say. No doubt he was disagreeable in a way, but still those who turned on him the most savagely had been intimate with him and had accepted his hospitality.
"You'll be mistress here," Jessie was saying. She had put on her prophetic look and pose—she really believes she has second sight at certain times. "And you'll marry the son, if you manage it right. I counted him in when I was going over the advantages and disadvantages of the place before proposing it to you. He looks like a mild, nice young man—though I must say I don't fancy cowlicks right in the part of the hair. I saw only his picture."
A tall footman with an insolent face opened the door and ushered us into the small drawing-room to the left: "Mrs. Carteret! Miss Talltowers!" he shouted—far louder than is customary or courteous. I saw the impudent grin in his eyes—no proper man-servant ever permits any one to see his eyes. And he almost dropped the curtain in our faces, in such haste was he to get back to his lounging-place below stairs.
His roar had lifted to her feet an elderly woman with her hair so badly dyed that it made her features look haggard and harsh and even dissipated. She made a nervous bow. She was of the figure called stout by the charitable and sumptuous by the crude. She was richly-dressed, over-dressed, dressed-up—shiny figured satin with a great deal of beads and lace that added to her width and subtracted from her height. She stood miserable, jammed and crammed into a tight corset. Her hands—very nice hands, I noticed—were folded upon her stomach. As soon as I got used to that revolting hair-dye, I saw that she had in fact a large-featured, sweet face with fine brown eyes. Even with the dye she was the kind of looking woman that it sounds perfectly natural to hear her husband call "mother."
Jessie went up to her as she stood wretched in her pitiful attempt at youth and her grandeur of clothes and surroundings. Mrs. Burke looked down kindly, with a sudden quizzical smile that reminded me of my suspicions as to the Chicago Fair story. Jessie was looking up like a plump, pretty, tame robin, head on one side. "Dear Mrs. Burke," she said. "This is Miss Talltowers, and I'm sure you'll love each other."
Mrs. Burke looked at me—I thought, with a determined attempt to be suspicious and cautious. I'm afraid Jessie's reputation for tireless effort to do something for everybody has finally "queered" her recommendations. However, whatever warning Mrs. Burke had received went for nothing. She was no match for Jessie—Jessie from whom his Majesty at the White House hides when he knows she's coming for an impossible favor—she was no match for Jessie and she knew it. She wiped the sweat from her face and stammered: "I hope we'll suit each other, Miss—" In her embarrassment she had forgotten my name.
"Talltowers," whispered Jessie with a side-splitting look of tragic apology to me. Just then the clock in the corner struck out the half-hour from its cathedral bell—the sound echoed and reëchoed through me, for it marked the beginning of my "career." Jessie went on more loudly: "And now that our business is settled, can't we have some lunch, Mrs. Burke? I'm starved."
Mrs. Burke brightened. "The Senator won't be here to-day," she drawled, in a tone which always suggests to me that, after all, life is a smooth, leisurely matter with plenty of time for everything except work. "As he was leaving for the Capitol this morning, he says to me, says he: 'You women had better fight it out alone.'"
"The dear Senator!" said Jessie. "He's so clever?"
"Yes, he is mighty clever with those he likes," replied Mrs. Burke—Jessie looking at me to make sure I would note Mrs. Burke's "provincial" way of using the word clever.
Jessie saved the luncheon—or, at least, thought she was saving it. Mrs. Burke and I had only to listen and eat. I caught her looking at me several times, and then I saw shrewdness in her eyes—good-natured, but none the less penetrating for that. And I knew I should like her, and should get on with her. At last our eyes met and we both smiled. After that she somehow seemed less crowded and foreign in her tight, fine clothes. I saw she was impatient for Jessie to go the moment luncheon was over, but it was nearly three o'clock before we were left alone together. There fell an embarrassed silence—for both of us were painfully conscious that nothing had really been settled.
"When do you wish me to come—if you do wish it at all?" I asked, by way of making a beginning.
"When do you think you could come?" she inquired nervously.
"Then you do wish to give me a trial? I hope you won't feel that Mrs. Carteret's precipitate way binds you."
She gave me a shrewd, good-natured look. "I want you to come," she said. "I wanted it from what I'd heard of you—I and Mr. Burke. I want it more than ever, now that I've seen you. When can you come?"
"Come as early as you like. The salary is—is satisfactory?"
"Mrs. Carteret said—but I'm sure—you can judge better—whatever—" I stuttered, red as fire.
Mrs. Burke laughed. "I can see you ain't a great hand at business. The salary is two thousand a year, with a three months' vacation in the time we're not at Washington. Always have a plain understanding in money matters—it saves a lot of mean feelings and quarrels."
"Very well—whatever you think. I don't believe I'm worth much of anything until I've had a chance to show what I can do."
"Well, Tom—Mr. Burke—said two thousand would be about right at the set-off," she drawled in her calming tone. "So we'll consider that settled."