Chapter 5




ALICE.


Several nights later Howard came upon Alice at the front door, where a young man was detaining her in a lingering good-bye. Another night as he was passing her room he saw her stretched upon the floor, her head supported by her elbows and an open book in front of her. She looked so childlike that Howard paused and said: "What is it--a fairy story?"

"No, it's a love story," she replied, just glancing at him with a faint smile and showing that she did not wish to be interrupted. The same night as he was going to bed he heard the angry voices of the two girls. A week later, toward the end of July, he found Alice sitting on the front stoop, when he came from dinner. She was obviously in the depths of the "blues." Her eyes, the droop of the corners of her mouth, even the colour of her skin indicated anxiety and depression. She looked so forlorn that he said gently: "Wouldn't you like to walk in the Square?"

She rose at once. "Yes, I guess so." They crossed to the green. She was wearing the pale-blue gown and it fitted her well. Neither in the gown nor in the big hat with its coquettish flowers nodding over the brim was there much of fashion. But there was a certain distinction in her walk and her manner of wearing her clothes; and to a pretty face and a graceful form was added the charm of youth, magnetic youth.

"Do you want to walk?" she asked, lassitude in her voice.

"No, let us sit," he said, and they went to a bench near the arch. It was twilight. The children were still romping and shouting. Many fat elderly women--mothers and grandmothers--were solemnly marching about, talking in fat, elderly voices.

"You have the blues?" asked Howard, thinking it might make her feel better to talk of her troubles. "If I were your doctor, I should prescribe a series of good cries."

"I don't cry," said the girl. "Sometimes I wish I could. Nellie cries and gets over things. I feel awful inside and sick and my eyes burn. But I can't cry."

"You're too young for that."

"Oh, in some ways I'm young; again, I'm not. I hate everybody this evening."

"What's the matter? Has Nellie deserted you?"

"She? Not much. I had to tell her to go"--this with a joyless little laugh--"she quit work and wouldn't behave herself. So now I'm going on alone." "And you won't go home?"

"Never in the world," she said with almost fierce energy; then some thought made her laugh in the same way as before. Howard decided that she had not told him everything about her home life, even though she had rattled on as if there were nothing to conceal. He sat watching her, she looking straight before her, her small bare hands clasped in her lap. He was pitying her keenly--this child, at once stunted and abnormally developed, this stray from one of the classes that keeps their women sheltered; and here she was adrift, without any of those resources of experience which assist the girls of the tenements.

Her features were small, sensitive, regular. Her eyes were brown with lines of reddish gold raying from the pupils. Her chin and mouth were firm enough, yet suggested weakness through the passions. Her clear skin had the glow of youth and health upon its smooth surface. She was certainly beautiful and she certainly had magnetism.

"What do you think is going to become of you?" he asked.

"I don't know," she said, after a deep sigh. "A girl doesn't have a fair chance. I don't seem to be able to have any fun without getting into trouble. I don't know what to think. It's all so black. I wish I was dead."

Her dreary tone put the deepest pathos into her words. Howard had seen despondency in youth before--had felt it himself. But there had always been a certain lightness in it. Here was a mere child who evidently thought, and thought with reason, that there was no hope for her; and her despair was not a passing cloud or storm, but a settled conviction.

"There doesn't seem to be any chance for a young girl," she repeated as if that phrase summed up all that was weighing upon her. And Howard feared that she, was right. Even the readiest of all commodities, advice, failed him. "What can she do?" he thought. "If she has no home, worth speaking of"--then he went on aloud:

"Haven't you friends?"

She laughed again with that slight moving of the lips and with eyes mirthless. "Who wants me for a friend? Nobody'd think I was respectable. And I guess I'm not so very. There's Nellie and her--friends. Oh, the girls join in with the men to drag other girls down. But I won't do that. I don't care what becomes of me--except that."

"Why?" he asked, curious for her explanation of this aversion.

"I don't know why," she replied. "There doesn't seem to be any good reason. I've thought I would several times. And then--well, I just couldn't."

Howard turned the subject and tried to draw her out of this mood. They sat there for several hours and became well acquainted. He found that she had an intelligent way of looking at things, that she observed closely, and that she appreciated and understood far more than he had expected.

It was the beginning of a series of evenings spent together. He took her with him on many of his assignments and they often dined together at "Le Chat Noir" or the "Restaurant de Paris," or "The Manhattan" over in Second Avenue. Late in June she bought a new gown--a pale-grey with ribbons and hat to match. Howard was amused at the anxious expression in her gold-brown eyes as she waited for his opinion. And when he said: "Well, well, I never saw you look so pretty," she looked much prettier with a slight colour rising to tint the usual pallor of her cheeks.

One Sunday he came home in the afternoon and found her helping the maid at straightening his rooms. As he lay on the lounge smoking he watched her lazily. She handled his books with a great deal of awe. She opened one of them and sat on the floor in the childlike way she often had. She read several sentences aloud. It was a tangle of technical words on the subject of political economy.

"What do you have such stupid things around for?" she said, smiling and rising. She began to arrange the books and papers on the table. He was looking at her but thinking of something else when he became conscious that she had got suddenly white to the lips. He jumped to his feet.

"What's the matter?" he asked, "are you going to faint?"

Her eyes were shining as with fever out of a ghostly face. Her lips trembled as she answered: "Oh it's nothing. I do this often." She went slowly into the back room where the maid was. In a few minutes she returned, apparently as usual. She flitted about uneasily, taking up now one thing, now another in a purposeless, nervous way.

"I never was in here before," she said. "You've got lots of pretty things. Whose picture is this?"

"That? Oh, my sister-in-law out in Chicago."

Howard did not then understand why she became so gay, why her eyes danced with happiness, why as soon as she went into the hall she began to sing and kept it up in her own room, quieting down only to burst forth again. He did not even especially note the swift change, the, for her, extraordinary mood of high spirits. It was about this time that their relations began to change.

Howard had thought of her, or had thought that he thought of her, only as a lonely and desolate child, to be taught so far as he was capable of teaching and she of learning. He was conscious of her extreme youth and of the impassable gulf of thought and taste between them. He did not take her feelings into account at all. It never occurred to him that this part of friend and patron which he was playing was not safe for him, not just and right toward her.

One night he took her to a ball at the Terrace Garden--a respectable, amusing affair "under the auspices of the Young-German-American- Shooting-Society." The next day a reporter for the Sun whom he knew slightly said to him with a grin he did not like: "Mighty pretty little girl you're taking about with you, Howard. Where'd you pick her up?"

Howard reddened, angry with himself for reddening, angry with the Sun man for his impudence, ashamed that he had put himself and Alice in such a position. But the incident brought the matter of his relation with her sharply and clearly before his mind and conscience.

"This must stop," he said to himself; "it must stop at once. It is unjust to her. And it is dragging me into an entanglement."

But the mischief had been done. She loved him. And with the confidence of youth and inexperience, she was disregarding all the obstacles, was giving herself up to the dream that he would presently love her in return, with the end as in the story books. Indeed love stories became her constant companions. Where she once read them for amusement, she now read them as a Christian reads his Bible--for instruction, inspiration, faith, hope and courage.

One evening in July--it was in the week of Independence Day--Howard's windows and door were thrown wide to get the full benefit of whatever stir there might be in the air. He was sprawled upon the lounge, the table drawn close and upon it a lamp shedding a dim light through the room but enough near by to let him read. He had dropped his book and was thinking whether a stroll in the Square in the moonlight would repay the trouble of moving. There were steps in the hall and then, peeping round the door-frame was the face of his young neighbour.

"Hello," he said, "I thought you were out somewhere. Come in."

"No, I'm going to bed," she answered, nevertheless gradually edging into the room. She was wearing a loose wrapper of flowered silk, somewhat worn and never very fine. Her black hair hung in a long thick braid to her waist and she looked even younger than usual.

"Where have you been all evening?" asked Howard.

"Oh, I've been up to see a friend. She lives in Harlem, and she wants me to come and live with her."

"Are you going?" Howard inquired, noting that he was interested and not pleased. "The house wouldn't seem natural without you."

She gave him a quick, gratified glance and, advancing further into the room, sat upon the arm of the big rocking-chair. "She gave me a good talking to," she went on with a smile. "She told me I ought not to live alone at my age. She said I ought to live with her and meet some friends of hers. She said maybe I'd find a nice fellow to marry."

Howard thought over this as he smoked and at last said in an ostentatiously judicial tone: "Well, I think she's right. I don't see what else there is to do. You can't live on down here alone always. What's become of Nellie?"

"Nellie's got to be a bad girl," said Alice with a blush and a dropping of the eyes. "She's in Fourteenth Street every night. She says she doesn't care what happens to her. I saw her last night and she wanted me to come with her. She says it's of no use for me to put on airs. She says I've got no friends and I might as well join her sooner as later."

"Well?" Howard was keeping his eyes carefully away from hers.

"Oh, I sha'n't go with her. As long as a girl has got anything at all to live for, she doesn't want that. Besides I'd rather go to the East River."

"Drowning's a serious matter," said Howard with a smile and with banter in his tone.

"Yes, it is," said the girl seriously, "I've thought of it. And I don't believe I could."

"Then you'd better go with your friend and get married."

"I don't want to get married," she replied, shaking her head slowly from side to side.

"That's what all the girls say," laughed Howard. "But of course you will. It's the only thing to do."

"Then why don't you get married?" asked Alice, tracing one of the flowers in her wrapper with her slim, brown forefinger.

"I couldn't if I would and I wouldn't if I could."

"Oh, you could get a nice girl to marry you, I'm sure," she said, the colour rising faintly toward her long, downcast lashes.

"But who would get the money? It takes money to keep a nice girl."

"Oh, not much," said Alice earnestly, yet with a queer hesitation in her voice. "You oughtn't to marry those extravagant girls. I've read about them and I think they don't make very good wives, real wives to save money and--and care."

"You seem to know a good deal about these things for your age," said Howard, much amused and showing it.

"I don't care," she persisted, "you ought to get married."

Howard felt that this was the time to clear the girl's mind of any "notions" she might have got. He would be very clever, very adroit. He would not let her suspect that he had any idea of her thoughts. Indeed he was not perfectly certain that he had. But he would gently and frankly tell her the truth.

"I shall never get married," he said, sitting up and talking as one who is discussing a case which he understands thoroughly yet has no personal interest in. "I haven't the money and I haven't the desire. I am what they would call a confirmed bachelor. I wouldn't marry any girl who had not been brought up as I have been. We should be unhappy together unsuited each to the other. She would soon hate me. Besides, I wish to be free. I care more for freedom than I ever shall for any human being. As I am now, so I shall always be, a wandering fellow without ties. It is not a pleasant prospect for old age. But I have made up my mind to it and I shall never marry."

The girl's hands had dropped limp into her lap; her face was down so that he could barely see the burning blush which overspread it.

"You don't mean that," she said in a voice that was queer and choked.

"Oh yes, I do, little girl," he answered, intending to smile when she should look up.

When she did lift her eyes, his smile could not come. For her face was grey and her lips bloodless and from her eyes looked despair. Howard glanced away instantly. With rude hand he had suddenly toppled into the dust this child's dream-castle of love and happiness which he had himself helped her build. He felt like a criminal. But partly from a sense of duty, chiefly from the cowardice of self-preservation, he made no effort to lighten her suffering.

"I should only prolong it," he thought, "only make matters worse. To-morrow--perhaps."

If she had been worldly wise, even if she had not been so completely absorbed in her worship of him that her woman-instincts were dormant, she would herself have found hope. But she had not a suspicion that these strong words of apparent finality were spoken to give himself courage, to keep him from obeying the impulse to respond to the appeal of her youth to his, her aloneness to his, her passion to his. She believed him literally.

There was a long silence. He heard her move, heard a suppressed cry and glanced toward her again. She was darting from the room. A second later her door crashed. He started up and after her, hesitated, returned to his book--but not to his reading.

Toward noon the next day, he passed her room on his way out. The door was wide open; none of her belongings was in sight; the maid was sweeping energetically. She paused when she saw him.

"Miss Alice left this morning," she said, "and the room's been let to another party."




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