IN THE EDGE OF BOHEMIA.
Howard lived in Washington Square, South. He had gone to a "furnished-room house" there because it was cheap. He staid because he was comfortable and was without a motive for moving.
It was the centre of the most varied life in New York. To the north lay fashion and wealth, to the east and west, respectability and moderate means; to the south, poverty and squalor, vice and crime. All could be seen and heard from the windows of his sitting room. In the evenings toward spring he looked out upon a panorama of the human race such as is presented by no other city in the world and by no other part of that city. Within view were Americans of all kinds, French and Germans, Italians and Austrians, Spaniards and Moors, Scandinavians and negroes, born New Yorkers and born citizens of most of the capitals of civilisation and semi-barbarism. There were actresses, dancers, shop girls, cocottes; touts, thieves, confidence-men, mission workers; artists and students from the musty University building, tramps and drunkards from the "barrel-houses" and "stale-beer shops;" and, across the square to the north, representatives of New York's oldest and most noted families. To the west were apartment houses whence stiff, prim bookkeepers, floor-walkers, clerks and small shop-keepers issued with their families on Sundays, bound for church. There were other apartment houses--the most of them to the south--whence in the midnight hours came slattern servants and reckless looking girls in loose wrappers and high-heeled slippers, pitcher in hand, bound for the nearest saloon.
After dusk from early spring until late fall a multitude of interesting sounds mingled with the roar of the elevated trains to the west and south and the rumble of carriages in "the Avenue" to the north. Howard, reading or writing at his window on his leisure days, heard the young men and young women laughing and shouting and making love under the trees where the Washington Arch glistened in the twilight. Later came the songs--"I want you, my honey, yes I do," or "Lu, Lu, how I love my Lu!", or some other of the current concert-hall jingles. Many figures could be seen flitting about in the shadows. Usually these figures were in pairs; usually one was in white; usually at her waist-line there was a black belt that continued on until it was lost in the other and darker figure.
Scraps of a score of languages--curses, jests, terms of endearment--would float up to him. Then came the hours of comparative silence, with the city breathing softly and regularly, with the moon hanging low and the pale arch rising above the dark trees like a giant ghost. There would be an occasional drunken shout or shriek; a riotous roar of song from some staggering reveller making company for himself on the journey home; the heavy step of the policeman. Or perhaps the only sound to disturb the city's sleep would be that soft tread, timid as a mouse's, stealthy as a jackal's--the tread of a lonely woman with draggled silk skirt and painted cheeks and eyes burning into the darkness, and a heart as bitter and as sad as no money, no home, no friends, no hope can make it.
Once he threw a silver dollar from his window to the sidewalk well in front of her. She did not see it flash downward but she heard it ring upon the walk. She rushed forward and twice kicked it away from her in her frenzy to get it. When her bare hand--or was it a claw?--at last closed upon it, she gave a low scream, looked slyly and fearfully about, then ran as if death were at her heels.
Soon after Howard was put "on space" he took the best suite of rooms in the house. It was a strange company which Mrs. Sands had gathered under her roof. Except Howard there was no one, not even Mrs. Sands herself, who did not have so much past that there was little left for future. Indeed, perhaps none of these storm-tossed or wrecked human craft had had more of a past than Mrs. Sands. There was no mistaking the significance of those deep furrows filled with powder and plastered with paint, those few hairs tinted and frizzed. But like all persons with real pasts Mrs. Sands and her lodgers kept the veil tightly drawn. They confessed to no yesterdays and they did not dare think of to-morrow. They were incuriously awaiting the impulse which was sure to come, sure to thrust them on downward.
A new lodger at Mrs. Sand's usually took the best rooms that were to be had. Then, sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly, came the retreat upward until a cubby-hole under the eaves was reached. Finally came precipitate and baggageless departure, often with a week or two of lodging unpaid. The next pause, if pause there was, would be still nearer the river-bed or the Morgue.
One morning when he had been living in Washington Square, South, about--three years, Howard was dressing hurriedly, the door of his sitting-room accidentally ajar. Through the crack he saw some one stooping over the serving tray which he had himself put outside his door when he had finished breakfast. He looked more closely. It was "the clergyman" from up under the eaves--an unfrocked priest, thin to emaciation, misery written upon his face even more deeply than weakness. He hastily bundled the bones of two chops and a bit of bread into a stained and torn handkerchief, and sprang away up the stairs toward his little hole at the roof.
Howard was in a hurry and so put off for the time action upon the natural impulse. When he came back at midnight, there was soon a knock at his door. He opened it and invited in the man at the threshold--a tall, strongly built, erect German, with a dissipated handsome face, heavily scarred from university duels.
"Pardon me for disturbing you," said the German. His speech, his tone, his manner, left no doubt as to his breeding though they raised the gravest doubts as to his being willing to give a true account of why he had become a tenant in that lodging house.
"Will you have a cigarette and some whiskey?" inquired Howard.
The German's glance lit and lingered upon the bottle of Scotch on the table. "Concentrated, double-distilled friendship," said he as he poured out his drink.
"But a friend that drives all others away," smiled Howard.
"I have found it of a very jealous disposition," replied the German with a careless shrug of the shoulders and a lifting of the eyebrows. "But at least this friend has the grace to stay after it has driven the others away."
"To stay until the last piece of silver is gone."
"But what more does one expect of a friend? Besides, we are overlooking one friend--the one who helped our clerical fellow-lodger of the attic out of his troubles to-day."
"His luck has turned?"
"Permanently. He shot himself this afternoon."
"And only this morning I made up my mind to try to help him," said Howard regretfully.
"You could not have hoped to succeed so well. His case needed something more than temporary expedient. But, to come to the point, I had a slight acquaintance with him. He left a note for me--mailed it just before he shot himself. In it he asked that I insert a personal in the Herald. Unfortunately I have not the money. I thought that you as a journalist might be able to suggest something."
The German held out a slip of cheap writing paper on which was written: "Helen--when you see this it will be over--L."
"A good story," was Howard's first thought, his news-instinct alert. And then he remembered that it was not for him to tell. "I will attend to this for you to-morrow."
"Thank you," said the German, helping himself to the whiskey. "Have you seen the new lodgers?"
"Those in the room behind me? Yes. I saw them at the front door as I came in."
"They're a queer pair--the youngest I've seen in this house. I've been wondering what tempest wrecked them on this forlorn coast so early in the voyage."
"My dear sir, we are all--except you--wrecks here, all unseaworthy at least."
"One of them was quite pretty, I thought," said Howard, "the slender one with the black hair."
"They are not mates. The other girl is of a different sort. She's more used to this kind of life, at least to poverty. I fancy Miss Black-Hair looks on it as a lark. But she'll find out the truth by the time she has mounted another story."
"Here, to go up means to go down," Howard said, weary of the conversation and wishing that the German would leave.
"They say that they're sisters," the German went on, again helping himself to the whiskey; "They say they have run away from home because of a stepmother and that they are going to earn their own living. But they won't. They spend the nights racing about with a gang of the young wretches of this neighbourhood. They won't be able to stand getting up early for work. And then----"
The German blew out a huge cloud of cigarette smoke, shrugged his shoulders and added: "Miss Black-Hair may get on up town presently. But I doubt it. The Tenderloin rarely recruits from down here."
The bottle was empty and the German bowed himself out. As the night was hot, Howard opened the door a few moments afterward. At the other end of the short hall light was streaming through the open door of the room the two girls had taken. Before he could turn, there was a shadow and "Miss Black-Hair" was standing in her doorway:
"Oh," she began, "I thought----"
Howard paused, looking at her. She was above the medium height--tall for a woman--and slender. Her loose wrapper, a little open at her round throat, clung to her, attracting attention to all the lines of her form. Her hair was indeed black, jet black, waving back from her forehead in a line of curving and beautiful irregularity. Her skin was clear and dark. There were deep circles under her eyes, making them look unnaturally large, pathetically weary. In repose her face was childish and sadly serious. When she smiled she looked older and pert, but no happier.
"I thought," she continued with the pert, self-confident smile, "that you were my sister Nellie. I'm waiting for her."
"You're in early tonight," said Howard, the circles under her eyes reminding him of what the German had told him.
"I haven't slept much for a week," the girl replied, "I'm nearly dead. But I won't go to bed till Nellie comes."
Howard was about to turn when she went on: "We agreed always to stay together. She broke it tonight. My fellow got too fresh, so I came home. She said she'd come too. That was an hour ago and she isn't here yet."
"Isn't she rather young to be out alone at this time?"
Howard could hardly have told why he continued the conversation. He certainly would not, had she been less beautiful or less lonely and childish. At his remark about her sister's youth she laughed with an expression of cunning at once amusing and pitiful.
"She's a year older than me," she said, "and I guess I can take care of myself. Still she hasn't much sense. She'll get into trouble yet. She doesn't understand how to manage the boys when they're too fresh."
"But you do, I suppose?" suggested Howard.
"Indeed I do," with a quick nod of her small graceful head, "I know what I'm about. My mother taught me a few things."
"Didn't she teach your sister also?"
"Miss Black-Hair" dropped her eyes and flushed a little, looking like a child caught in a lie. "Of course," she said after a pause.
"How long have you been without your mother?"
"I've been away from home four months. But I saw her in the street yesterday. She didn't see me though."
"Then you've got a step-father?"
"No, I haven't. Nellie told that to Mrs. Sands. But it's not so. You know Nellie's not my sister?"
"I fancied not from what you said a moment ago."
"No, she used to be nurse girl in our family. We just say we're sisters. I wish she'd come. I'm tired of standing. Won't you come in?"
She went into her room, her manner a frank and simple invitation. Howard hesitated, then went just inside the door and half sat, half leaned upon the high roll of the lounge. The room was cheaply furnished, the lounge and a closed folding bed almost filling it. Upon the mantel, the bureau and the little table were a few odds and ends that stamped it a woman's room. A street gown of thin pale-blue cloth was thrown over a rocking chair. As the girl leaned back in this chair with her face framed in the pale-blue of the gown, she looked tired and sad and beautiful and very young.
"If Nellie doesn't look out, I'll go away and live alone," she said, and the accompanying unconscious look of loneliness touched Howard.
"You might go back home."
"You don't know my home or you wouldn't say that. You don't know my father." She had got upon the subject of herself, and, once in that road she kept it with no thought of turning out. "He can't treat me as he treats mother. Why, he goes away and stays for days. Then he comes home and quarrels with her all the time. They never both sit through a meal. One or the other flares up and leaves. He generally whipped me when he got very mad--just for spite."
"But there's your mother."
"Yes. She doesn't like my going away. But I can't stand it. Papa wouldn't let me go anywhere or let anybody come to see me. He says everybody's bad. I guess he's about right. Only he doesn't include himself."
"You seem to have a poor opinion of people."
"Well, you can't blame me." She put on her wise look of experience and craft. "I've been away, living with Nellie for four months and I've seen no good to speak of. A girl doesn't get a fair chance."
"But you've got work?"
"Oh, yes. We both stayed down in a restaurant, Nellie's got a place as waiter. That's the best she could do. The man said I was good-looking and would catch trade. So he made me cashier. I get six dollars a week to Nellie's three. But it's a bad place. The men are always slipping notes in my hand when they give me their checks. Then the boss, he's always bothering around."
"But you don't have to work hard?"
"From nine till four. We get our lunch free. I pay three dollars on the room and Nellie pays one."
If Howard had not seen many such problems in economics before, he would have been astonished at any one even hoping to be able to get two meals a day, clothing and carfare out of two or three dollars a week. As it was, he only wondered how long a girl who had been used at least to comfort would endure this. "It's easy for the other girl," he thought, "because she's used to it. But this one--" and he decided that the "trouble" would begin as soon as her clothing was worn out.
He noticed that she was pulling at the third finger of her right hand where she would have worn rings if she had had any. "You've had to pawn your rings?" he ventured.
She looked at him startled. "Did Nellie tell you?" she asked.
"No," he replied, "I saw that you were missing your rings and suspected the rest."
"Yes; that's so. I've pawned all my jewelry except a bracelet. Nellie can't get along on her three dollars. She eats too much."
"I should think you'd rather be at home."
"As I told you before," she said impatiently, "anything's better than home. Besides, I'm pretty well off. I go where I please, stay out as late as I please and have all the company I want. At home I'd have to be in bed at ten o'clock."
There was a sound at the front door down in the darkness. The girl started from the chair, listened, then exclaimed: "There she comes now. And it's two o'clock!"
Howard took the hint, smiled and said: "Well, good-night. I'll see you again."
"Good-night," the girl answered absently.
From his room Howard heard Nellie coming up the stairs. "You're a nice one!" came in "Miss Black-Hair's" indignant voice, "Where have you been? Where did you and Jack go?"
The answer came in a sob--"Oh, Alice, you'll never forgive me!"
Their door closed upon the two girls but Howard could still hear Nellie's voice tearful, pleading. There was the sound of some one falling heavily upon the lounge, then sobs and cries of "Oh! Oh!" As Howard went into his bedroom, he could hear the voices still more plainly through the thin wall. He caught the words only once. "Miss Black-Hair," her voice shaking with anger, exclaimed: "Nellie Baker, you are a wicked girl, I shall go away."
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