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SHE now spent a large part of every day in wandering, like a derelict, drifting aimlessly this way or that, up into the Park or along Fifth Avenue. She gazed intently into shop windows, apparently inspecting carefully all the articles on display; but she passed on, unconscious of having seen anything. If she sat at home with a book she rarely turned a page, though her gaze was fastened upon the print as if she were absorbingly interested.
What was she feeling? The coarse contacts of street life and tenement life--the choice between monstrous defilements from human beings and monstrous defilements from filth and vermin. What was she seeing? The old women of the slums--the forlorn, aloof figures of shattered health and looks--creeping along the gutters, dancing in the barrel houses, sleeping on the floor in some vile hole in the wall--sleeping the sleep from which one awakes bitten by mice and bugs, and swarming with lice.
She had entire confidence in Brent's judgment. Brent must have discovered that she was without talent for the stage--for if he had thought she had the least talent, would he not in his kindness have arranged or offered some sort of place in some theater or other? Since she had no stage talent--then--what should she do? What could she do? And so her mind wandered as aimlessly as her wandering steps. And never before had the sweet melancholy of her eyes been so moving.
But, though she did not realize it, there was a highly significant difference between this mood of profound discouragement and all the other similar moods that had accompanied and accelerated her downward plunges. Every time theretofore, she had been cowed by the crushing mandate of destiny--had made no struggle against it beyond the futile threshings about of aimless youth. This time she lost neither strength nor courage. She was no longer a child; she was no longer mere human flotsam and jetsam. She did not know which way to turn; but she did know, with all the certainty of a dauntless will, that she would turn some way--and that it would not be a way leading back to the marshes and caves of the underworld. She wandered--she wandered aimlessly; but not for an instant did she cease to keep watch for the right direction--the direction that would be the best available in the circumstances. She did not know or greatly care which way it led, so long as it did not lead back whence she had come.
In all her excursions she had--not consciously but by instinct--kept away from her old beat. Indeed, except in the company of Spenser or Sperry she had never ventured into the neighborhood of Long Acre. But one day she was deflected by chance at the Forty-second Street corner of Fifth Avenue and drifted westward, pausing at each book stall to stare at the titles of the bargain offerings in literature. As she stood at one of these stalls near Sixth Avenue, she became conscious that two men were pressing against her, one on either side. She moved back and started on her way. One of the men was standing before her. She lifted her eyes, was looking into the cruel smiling eyes of a man with a big black mustache and the jaws of a prizefighter. His smile broadened.
"I thought it was you, Queenie," said he. "Delighted to see you."
She recognized him as a fly cop who had been one of Freddie Palmer's handy men. She fell back a step and the other man--she knew him instantly as also a policeman--lined up beside him of the black mustache. Both men were laughing.
"We've been on the lookout for you a long time, Queenie," said the other. "There's a friend of yours that wants to see you mighty bad."
Susan glanced from one to the other, her face pale but calm, in contrast to her heart where was all the fear and horror of the police which long and savage experience had bred. She turned away without speaking and started toward Sixth Avenue.
"Now, what d'ye think of that?" said Black Mustache to his "side kick." "I thought she was too much of a lady to cut an old friend. Guess we'd better run her in, Pete."
"That's right," assented Pete. "Then we can keep her safe till F. P. can get the hooks on her."
Black Mustache laughed, laid his hand on her arm. "You'll come along quietly," said he. "You don't want to make a scene. You always was a perfect lady."
She drew her arm away. "I am a married woman--living with my husband."
Black Mustache laughed. "Think of that, Pete! And she soliciting us. That'll be good news for your loving husband. Come along, Queenie. Your record's against you. Everybody'll know you've dropped back to your old ways."
"I am going to my husband," said she quietly. "You had better not annoy me."
Pete looked uneasy, but Black Mustache's sinister face became more resolute. "If you wanted to live respectable, why did you solicit us two? Come along--or do you want me and Pete to take you by the arms?"
"Very well," said she. "I'll go." She knew the police, knew that Palmer's lieutenant would act as he said--and she also knew what her "record" would do toward carrying through the plot.
She walked in the direction of the station house, the two plain clothes men dropping a few feet behind and rejoining her only when they reached the steps between the two green lamps. In this way they avoided collecting a crowd at their heels. As she advanced to the desk, the sergeant yawning over the blotter glanced up.
"Bless my soul!" cried he, all interest at once. "If it ain't F. P.'s Queenie!"
"And up to her old tricks, sergeant," said Black Mustache. "She solicited me and Pete."
Susan was looking the sergeant straight in the eyes. "I am a married woman," said she. "I live with my husband. I was looking at some books in Forty-second Street when these two came up and arrested me."
The sergeant quailed, glanced at Pete who was guiltily hanging his head--glanced at Black Mustache. There he got the support he was seeking. "What's your husband's name?" demanded Black Mustache roughly. "What's your address?"
And Rod's play coming on the next night but one! She shrank, collected herself. "I am not going to drag him into this, if I can help it," said she. "I give you a chance to keep yourselves out of trouble." She was gazing calmly at the sergeant again. "You know these men are not telling the truth. You know they've brought me here because of Freddie Palmer. My husband knows all about my past. He will stand by me. But I wish to spare him."
The sergeant's uncertain manner alarmed Black Mustache. "She's putting up a good, bluff" scoffed he. "The truth is she ain't got no husband. She'd not have solicited us if she was living decent."
"You hear what the officer says," said the sergeant, taking the tone of great kindness. "You'll have to give your name and address--and I'll leave it to the judge to decide between you and the officers." He took up his pen. "What's your name?"
Susan, weak and trembling, was clutching the iron rail before the desk--the rail worn smooth by the nervous hands of ten thousand of the social system's sick or crippled victims.
"Come--what's your name?" jeered Black Mustache.
Susan did not answer.
"Put her down Queenie Brown," cried he, triumphantly.
The sergeant wrote. Then he said: "Age?"
No answer from Susan. Black Mustache answered for her: "About twenty-two now."
"She don't look it," said the sergeant, almost at ease once more. "But brunettes stands the racket better'n blondes. Native parents?"
"Native. You don't look Irish or Dutch or Dago--though you might have a dash of the Spinnitch or the Frog-eaters. Ever arrested before?"
No answer from the girl, standing rigid at the bar. Black Mustache said:
"At least oncet, to my knowledge. I run her in myself."
"Oh, she's got a record?" exclaimed the sergeant, now wholly at ease. "Why the hell didn't you say so?"
"I thought you remembered. You took her pedigree."
"I do recollect now," said the sergeant. "Take my advice, Queenie, and drop that bluff about the officers lying. Swallow your medicine--plead guilty--and you'll get off with a fine. If you lie about the police, the judge'll soak it to you. It happens to be a good judge--a friend of Freddie's." Then to the policemen: "Take her along to court, boys, and get back here as soon as you can."
"I want her locked up," objected Black Mustache. "I want F. P. to see her. I've got to hunt for him."
"Can't do it," said the sergeant. "If she makes a yell about police oppression, our holding on to her would look bad. No, put her through."
Susan now straightened herself and spoke. "I shan't make any complaint," said she. "Anything rather than court. I can't stand that. Keep me here."
"Not on your life!" cried the sergeant. "That's a trick. She'd have a good case against us."
"F. P.'ll raise the devil if----" began Black Mustache.
"Then hunt him up right away. To court she's got to go. I don't want to get broke."
The two men fell afoul each other with curse and abuse. They were in no way embarrassed by the presence of Susan. Her "record" made her of no account either as a woman or as a witness. Soon each was so well pleased with the verbal wounds he had dealt the other that their anger evaporated. The upshot of the hideous controversy was that Black Mustache said:
"You take her to court, Pete. I'll hunt up F. P. Keep her till the last."
In after days she could recall starting for the street car with the officer, Pete; then memory was a blank until she was sitting in a stuffy room with a prison odor--the anteroom to the court. She and Pete were alone. He was walking nervously up and down pulling his little fair mustache. It must have been that she had retained throughout the impassive features which, however stormy it was within, gave her an air of strength and calm. Otherwise Pete would not presently have halted before her to say in a low, agitated voice:
"If you can make trouble for us, don't do it. I've got a wife, and three babies--one come only last week--and my old mother paralyzed. You know how it is with us fellows--that we've got to do what them higher up says or be broke."
Susan made no reply.
"And F. P.--he's right up next the big fellows nowadays. What he says goes. You can see for yourself how much chance against him there'd be for a common low-down cop."
She was still silent, not through anger as he imagined but because she had no sense of the reality of what was happening. The officer, who had lost his nerve, looked at her a moment, in his animal eyes a humble pleading look; then he gave a groan and turned away. "Oh, hell!" he muttered.
Again her memory ceased to record until--the door swung open; she shivered, thinking it was the summons to court. Instead, there stood Freddie Palmer. The instant she looked into his face she became as calm and strong as her impassive expression had been falsely making her seem. Behind him was Black Mustache, his face ghastly, sullen, cowed. Palmer made a jerky motion of head and arm. Pete went; and the door closed and she was alone with him.
"I've seen the Judge and you're free," said Freddie.
She stood and began to adjust her hat and veil.
"I'll have those filthy curs kicked off the force."
She was looking tranquilly at him.
"You don't believe me? You think I ordered it done?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "No matter," she said. "It's undone now. I'm much obliged. It's more than I expected."
"You don't believe me--and I don't blame you. You think I'm making some sort of grandstand play."
"You haven't changed--at least not much."
"I'll admit, when you left I was wild and did tell 'em to take you in as soon as they found you. But that was a long time ago. And I never meant them to disturb a woman who was living respectably with her husband. There may have been--yes, there was a time when I'd have done that--and worse. But not any more. You say I haven't changed. Well, you're wrong. In some ways I have. I'm climbing up, as I always told you I would--and as a man gets up he sees things differently. At least, he acts differently. I don't do that kind of dirty work, any more."
"I'm glad to hear it," murmured Susan for lack of anything else to say.
He was as handsome as ever, she saw--had the same charm of manner--a charm owing not a little of its potency to the impression he made of the man who would dare as far as any man, and then go on to dare a step farther--the step from which all but the rare, utterly unafraid man shrinks. His look at her could not but appeal to her vanity as woman, and to her woman's craving for being loved; at the same time it agitated her with specters of the days of her slavery to him. He said:
"You've changed--a lot. And all to the good. The only sign is rouge on your lips and that isn't really a sign nowadays. But then you never did look the professional--and you weren't."
His eyes were appealingly tender as he gazed at her sweet, pensive face, with its violet-gray eyes full of mystery and sorrow and longing. And the clear pallor of her skin, and the slender yet voluptuous lines of her form suggested a pale, beautiful rose, most delicate of flowers yet about the hardiest.
"So--you've married and settled down?"
"No," replied Susan. "Neither the one nor the other."
"Why, you told----"
"I'm supposed to be a married woman."
"Why didn't you give your name and address at the police station?" said he. "They'd have let you go at once."
"Yes, I know," replied she. "But the newspapers would probably have published it. So--I couldn't. As it is I've been worrying for fear I'd be recognized, and the man would get a write-up."
"That was square," said he. "Yes, it'd have been a dirty trick to drag him in."
It was the matter-of-course to both of them that she should have protected her "friend." She had simply obeyed about the most stringent and least often violated article in the moral code of the world of outcasts. If Freddie's worst enemy in that world had murdered him, Freddie would have used his last breath in shielding him from the common foe, the law.
"If you're not married to him, you're free," said Freddie with a sudden new kind of interest in her.
"I told you I should always be free."
They remained facing each other a moment. When she moved to go, he said:
"I see you've still got your taste in dress--only more so."
She smiled faintly, glanced at his clothing. He was dressed with real fashion. He looked Fifth Avenue at its best, and his expression bore out the appearance of the well-bred man of fortune. "I can return the compliment," said she. "And you too have improved."
At a glance all the old fear of him had gone beyond the possibility of return. For she instantly realized that, like all those who give up war upon society and come in and surrender, he was enormously agitated about his new status, was impressed by the conventionalities to a degree that made him almost weak and mildly absurd. He was saying:
"I don't think of anything else but improving--in every way. And the higher I get the higher I want to go. . . . That was a dreadful thing I did to you. I wasn't to blame. It was part of the system. A man's got to do at every stage whatever's necessary. But I don't expect you to appreciate that. I know you'll never forgive me."
"I'm used to men doing dreadful things."
"You don't do them."
"Oh, I was brought up badly--badly for the game, I mean. But I'm doing better, and I shall do still better. I can't abolish the system. I can't stand out against it--and live. So, I'm yielding--in my own foolish fashion."
"You don't lay up against me the--the--you know what I mean?"
The question surprised her, so far as it aroused any emotion. She answered indifferently:
"I don't lay anything up against anybody. What's the use? I guess we all do the best we can--the best the system'll let us."
And she was speaking the exact truth. She did not reason out the causes of a state of mind so alien to the experiences of the comfortable classes that they could not understand it, would therefore see in it hardness of heart. In fact, the heart has nothing to do with this attitude in those who are exposed to the full force of the cruel buffetings of the storms that incessantly sweep the wild and wintry sea of active life. They lose the sense of the personal. Where they yield to anger and revenge upon the instrument the blow fate has used it to inflict, the resentment is momentary. The mood of personal vengeance is characteristic of stupid people leading uneventful lives--of comfortable classes, of remote rural districts. She again moved to go, this time putting out her hand with a smile. He said, with an awkwardness most significant in one so supple of mind and manner:
"I want to talk to you. I've got something to propose--something that'll interest you. Will you give me--say, about an hour?"
She debated, then smiled. "You will have me arrested if I refuse?"
He flushed scarlet. "You're giving me what's coming to me," said he. "The reason--one reason--I've got on so well is that I've never been a liar."
"No--you never were that."
"You, too. It's always a sign of bravery, and bravery's the one thing I respect. Yes, what I said I'd do always I did. That's the only way to get on in politics--and the crookeder the politics the more careful a man has to be about acting on the level. I can borrow a hundred thousand dollars without signing a paper--and that's more than the crooks in Wall Street can do--the biggest and best of them. So, when I told you how things were with me about you, I was on the level."
"I know it," said Susan. "Where shall we go? I can't ask you to come home with me."
"We might go to tea somewhere----"
Susan laughed outright. Tea! Freddie Palmer proposing tea! What a changed hooligan--how ridiculously changed! The other Freddie Palmer--the real one--the fascinating repelling mixture of all the barbaric virtues and vices must still be there. But how carefully hidden--and what strong provocation would be needed to bring that savage to the surface again. The Italian in him, that was carrying him so far so cleverly, enabled him instantly to understand her amusement. He echoed her laugh. Said he:
"You've no idea the kind of people I'm traveling with--not political swells, but the real thing. What do you say to the Brevoort?"
"You needn't be worried about being seen with me, no matter how high you're flying," he hastened to say. "I always did keep myself in good condition for the rise. Nothing's known about me or ever will be."
The girl was smiling at him again. "I wasn't thinking of those things," said she. "I've never been to the Brevoort."
"It's quiet and respectable."
Susan's eyes twinkled. "I'm glad it's respectable," said she. "Are you quite sure you can afford to be seen with me? It's true they don't make the fuss about right and wrong side of the line that they did a few years ago. They've gotten a metropolitan morality. Still--I'm not respectable and never shall be."
"Don't be too hasty about that," protested he, gravely. "But wait till you hear my proposition."
As they walked through West Ninth Street she noted that there was more of a physical change in him than she had seen at first glance. He was less athletic, heavier of form and his face was fuller. "You don't keep in as good training as you used," said she.
"It's those infernal automobiles," cried he. "They're death to figure--to health, for that matter. But I've got the habit, and I don't suppose I'll ever break myself of it. I've taken on twenty pounds in the past year, and I've got myself so upset that the doctor has ordered me abroad to take a cure. Then there's champagne. I can't let that alone, either, though I know it's plain poison."
And when they were in the restaurant of the Brevoort he insisted on ordering champagne--and left her for a moment to telephone for his automobile. It amused her to see a man so masterful thus pettily enslaved. She laughed at him, and he again denounced himself as a weak fool. "Money and luxury are too much for me. They are for everybody. I'm not as strong willed as I used to be," he said. "And it makes me uneasy. That's another reason for my proposition."
"Well--let's hear it," said she. "I happen to be in a position where I'm fond of hearing propositions--even if I have no intention of accepting."
She was watching him narrowly. The Freddie Palmer he was showing to her was a surprising but perfectly logical development of a side of his character with which she had been familiar in the old days; she was watching for that other side--the sinister and cruel side. "But first," he went on, "I must tell you a little about myself. I think I told you once about my mother and father?"
"I remember," said Susan.
"Well, honestly, do you wonder that I was what I used to be?"
"No," she answered. "I wonder that you are what you seem to be."
"What I come pretty near being," cried he. "The part that's more or less put on today is going to be the real thing tomorrow. That's the way it is with life--you put on a thing, and gradually learn to wear it. And--I want you to help me."
There fell silence between them, he gazing at his glass of champagne, turning it round and round between his long white fingers and watching the bubbles throng riotously up from the bottom. "Yes," he said thoughtfully, "I want you to help me. I've been waiting for you. I knew you'd turn up again." He laughed. "I've been true to you in a way--a man's way. I've hunted the town for women who suggested you--a poor sort of makeshift--but--I had to do something."
"What were you going to tell me?"
Her tone was business-like. He did not resent it, but straightway acquiesced. "I'll plunge right in. I've been, as you know, a bad one--bad all my life. I was born bad. You know about my mother and father. One of my sisters died in a disreputable resort. The other--well, the last I heard of her, she was doing time in an English pen. I've got a brother--he's a degenerate. Well!--not to linger over rotten smells, I was the only one of the family that had brains. I soon saw that everybody who gets on in the world is bad--which simply means doing disturbing things of one kind and another. And I saw that the ordinary crooks let their badness run their brains, while the get-on kind of people let their brains run their badness. You can be rotten--and sink lower and lower every day. Or you can gratify your natural taste for rottenness and at the same time get up in the world. I made up my mind to do the rotten things that get a man money and power."
"Respectability," said Susan.
"Respectability exactly. So I set out to improve my brains. I went to night school and read and studied. And I didn't stay a private in the gang of toughs. I had the brains to be leader, but the leader's got to be a fighter too. I took up boxing and made good in the ring. I got to be leader. Then I pushed my way up where I thought out the dirty work for the others to do, and I stayed under cover and made 'em bring the big share of the profits to me. And they did it because I had the brains to think out jobs that paid well and that could be pulled off without getting pinched--at least, not always getting pinched."
Palmer sipped his champagne, looked at her to see if she was appreciative. "I thought you'd understand," said he. "I needn't go into details. You remember about the women?"
"Yes, I remember," said Susan. "That was one step in the ladder up?"
"It got me the money to make my first play for respectability. I couldn't have got it any other way. I had extravagant tastes--and the leader has to be always giving up to help this fellow and that out of the hole. And I never did have luck with the cards and the horses."
"Why did you want to be respectable?" she asked.
"Because that's the best graft," explained he. "It means the most money, and the most influence. The coyotes that raid the sheep fold don't get the big share--though they may get a good deal. No, it's the shepherds and the owners that pull off the most. I've been leader of coyotes. I'm graduating into shepherd and proprietor."
"I see," said Susan. "You make it beautifully clear."
He bowed and smiled. "Thank you, kindly. Then, I'll go on. I'm deep in the contracting business now. I've got a pot of money put away. I've cut out the cards--except a little gentlemen's game now and then, to help me on with the right kind of people. Horses, the same way. I've got my political pull copper-riveted. It's as good with the Republicans as with Democrats, and as good with the reform crowd as with either. My next move is to cut loose from the gang. I've put a lot of lieutenants between me and them, instead of dealing with them direct. I'm putting in several more fellows I'm not ashamed to be seen with in Delmonico's."
"What's become of Jim?" asked Susan.
"Dead--a kike shot him all to pieces in a joint in Seventh Avenue about a month ago. As I was saying, how do these big multi-millionaires do the trick? They don't tell somebody to go steal what they happen to want. They tell somebody they want it, and that somebody else tells somebody else to get it, and that somebody else passes the word along until it reaches the poor devils who must steal it or lose their jobs. I studied it all out, and I've framed up my game the same way. Nowadays, every dollar that comes to me has been thoroughly cleaned long before it drops into my pocket. But you're wondering where you come in."
"Women are only interested in what's coming to them," said Susan.
"Sensible men are the same way. The men who aren't--they work for wages and salaries. If you're going to live off of other people, as women and the rich do, you've got to stand steady, day and night, for Number One. And now, here's where you come in. You've no objection to being respectable?"
"I've no objection to not being disreputable."
"That's the right way to put it," he promptly agreed. "Respectable, you know, doesn't mean anything but appearances. People who are really respectable, who let it strike in, instead of keeping it on the outside where it belongs--they soon get poor and drop down and out."
Palmer's revelation of himself and of a philosophy which life as it had revealed itself to her was incessantly urging her to adopt so grappled her attention that she altogether forgot herself. A man on his way to the scaffold who suddenly sees and feels a cataclysm rocking the world about him forgets his own plight. Unconsciously he was epitomizing, unconsciously she was learning, the whole story of the progress of the race upward from beast toward intellect--the brutal and bloody building of the highway from the caves of darkness toward the peaks of light. The source from which springs, and ever has sprung, the cruelty of man toward man is the struggle of the ambition of the few who see and insist upon better conditions, with the inertia and incompetence of the many who have little sight and less imagination. Ambition must use the inert mass--must persuade it, if possible, must compel it by trick or force if persuasion fails. But Palmer and Susan Lenox were, naturally, not seeing the thing in the broad but only as it applied to themselves.
"I've read a whole lot of history and biography," Freddie went on, "and I've thought about what I read and about what's going on around me. I tell you the world's full of cant. The people who get there don't act on what is always preached. The preaching isn't all lies--at least, I think not. But it doesn't fit the facts a man or a woman has got to meet."
"I realized that long ago," said Susan.
"There's a saying that you can't touch pitch without being defiled. Well--you can't build without touching pitch--at least not in a world where money's king and where those with brains have to live off of those without brains by making 'em work and showing 'em what to work at. It's a hell of a world, but I didn't get it up."
"And we've got to live in it," said she, "and get out of it the things we want and need."
"That's the talk!" cried Palmer. "I see you're 'on.' Now--to make a long story short--you and I can get what we want. We can help each other. You were better born than I am--you've had a better training in manners and dress and all the classy sort of things. I've got the money--and brains enough to learn with--and I can help you in various ways. So--I propose that we go up together."
"We've got--pasts," said Susan.
"Who hasn't that amounts to anything? Mighty few. No one that's made his own pile, I'll bet you. I'm in a position to do favors for people--the people we'd need. And I'll get in a position to do more and more. As long as they can make something out of us--or hope to--do you suppose they'll nose into our pasts and root things up that'd injure them as much as us?"
"It would be an interesting game, wouldn't it?" said Susan.
She was reflectively observing the handsome, earnest face before her--an incarnation of intelligent ambition, a Freddie Palmer who was somehow divesting himself of himself--was growing up--away from the rotten soil that had nourished him--up into the air--was growing strongly--yes, splendidly!
"And we've got everything to gain and nothing to lose," pursued he. "We'd not be adventurers, you see. Adventurers are people who haven't any money and are looking round to try to steal it. We'd have money. So, we'd be building solid, right on the rock." The handsome young man--the strongest, the most intelligent, the most purposeful she had ever met, except possibly Brent--looked at her with an admiring tenderness that moved her, the forlorn derelict adrift on the vast, lonely, treacherous sea. "The reason I've waited for you to invite you in on this scheme is that I tried you out and I found that you belong to the mighty few people who do what they say they'll do, good bargain or bad. It'd never occur to you to shuffle out of trying to keep your word."
"It hasn't--so far," said Susan.
"Well--that's the only sort of thing worth talking about as morality. Believe me, for I've been through the whole game from chimney pots to cellar floor."
"There's another thing, too," said the girl.
"Not to injure anyone else."
Palmer shook his head positively. "It's believing that and acting on it that has kept you down in spite of your brains and looks."
"That I shall never do," said the girl. "It may be weakness--I guess it is weakness. But--I draw the line there."
"But I'm not proposing that you injure anyone--or proposing to do it myself. As I said, I've got up where I can afford to be good and kind and all that. And I'm willing to jump you up over the stretch of the climb that can't be crossed without being--well, anything but good and kind."
She was reflecting.
"You'll never get over that stretch by yourself. It'll always turn you back."
"Just what do you propose?" she asked.
It gave her pleasure to see the keen delight her question, with its implication of hope, aroused in him. Said he:
"That we go to Europe together and stay over there several years--as long as you like as long as it's necessary. Stay till our pasts have disappeared--work ourselves in with the right sort of people. You say you're not married?"
"Not to the man I'm with."
"To somebody else?"
"I don't know. I was."
"Well--that'll be looked into and straightened out. And then we'll quietly marry."
Susan laughed. "You're too fast," said she. "I'll admit I'm interested. I've been looking for a road--one that doesn't lead toward where we've come from. And this is the first road that has offered. But I haven't agreed to go in with you yet--haven't even begun to think it over. And if I did agree--which I probably won't--why, still I'd not be willing to marry. That's a serious matter. I'd want to be very, very sure I was satisfied."
Palmer nodded, with a return of the look of admiration. "I understand. You don't promise until you intend to stick, and once you've promised all hell couldn't change you."
"Another thing--very unfortunate, too. It looks to me as if I'd be dependent on you for money."
Freddie's eyes wavered. "Oh, we'd never quarrel about that," said he with an attempt at careless confidence.
"No," replied she quietly. "For the best of reasons. I'd not consider going into any arrangement where I'd be dependent on a man for money. I've had my experience. I've learned my lesson. If I lived with you several years in the sort of style you've suggested--no, not several years but a few months--you'd have me absolutely at your mercy. You'd thought of that, hadn't you?"
His smile was confession.
"I'd develop tastes for luxuries and they'd become necessities." Susan shook her head. "No--that would be foolish--very foolish."
He was watching her so keenly that his expression was covert suspicion. "What do you suggest?" he asked.
"Not what you suspect," replied she, amused. "I'm not making a play for a gift of a fortune. I haven't anything to suggest."
There was a long silence, he turning his glass slowly and from time to time taking a little of the champagne thoughtfully. She observed him with a quizzical expression. It was apparent to her that he was debating whether he would be making a fool of himself if he offered her an independence outright. Finally she said:
"Don't worry, Freddie. I'd not take it, even if you screwed yourself up to the point of offering it."
He glanced up quickly and guiltily. "Why not?" he said. "You'd be practically my wife. I can trust you. You've had experience, so you can't blame me for hesitating. Money puts the devil in anybody who gets it--man or woman. But I'll trust you----" he laughed--"since I've got to."
"No. The most I'd take would be a salary. I'd be a sort of companion."
"Anything you like," cried he. This last suspicion born of a life of intimate dealings with his fellow-beings took flight. "It'd have to be a big salary because you'd have to dress and act the part. What do you say? Is it a go?"
"Oh, I can't decide now."
She reflected. "I can tell you in a week."
He hesitated, said, "All right--a week."
She rose to go. "I've warned you the chances are against my accepting."
"That's because you haven't looked the ground over," replied he, rising. Then, after a nervous moment, "Is the--is the----" He stopped short.
"Go on," said she. "We must be frank with each other."
"If the idea of living with me is--is disagreeable----" And again he stopped, greatly embarrassed--an amazing indication of the state of mind of such a man as he--of the depth of his infatuation, of his respect, of his new-sprung awe of conventionality.
"I hadn't given it a thought," replied she. "Women are not especially sensitive about that sort of thing."
"They're supposed to be. And I rather thought you were."
She laughed mockingly. "No more than other women," said she. "Look how they marry for a home--or money--or social position--and such men! And look how they live with men year after year, hating them. Men never could do that."
"Don't you believe it," replied he. "They can, and they do. The kept man--in and out of marriage--is quite a feature of life in our chaste little village."
Susan looked amused. "Well--why not?" said she. "Everybody's simply got to have money nowadays."
"And working for it is slow and mighty uncertain."
Her face clouded. She was seeing the sad wretched past from filthy tenement to foul workshop. She said:
"Where shall I send you word?"
"I've an apartment at Sherry's now."
"Then--a week from today."
She put out her hand. He took it, and she marveled as she felt a tremor in that steady hand of his. But his voice was resolutely careless as he said, "So long. Don't forget how much I want or need you. And if you do forget that, think of the advantages--seeing the world with plenty of money--and all the rest of it. Where'll you get such another chance? You'll not be fool enough to refuse."
She smiled, said as she went, "You may remember I used to be something of a fool."
"But that was some time ago. You've learned a lot since then--surely."
"We'll see. I've become--I think--a good deal of a--of a New Yorker."
"That means frank about doing what the rest of the world does under a stack of lies. It's a lovely world, isn't it?"
"If I had made it," laughed Susan, "I'd not own up to the fact."
She laughed; but she was seeing the old women of the slums--was seeing them as one sees in the magic mirror the vision of one's future self. And on the way home she said to herself, "It was a good thing that I was arrested today. It reminded me. It warned me. But for it, I might have gone on to make a fool of myself." And she recalled how it had been one of Burlingham's favorite maxims that everything is for the best, for those who know how to use it.
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