Rain was falling in such sweeping sheets that the windows actually shook under the onslaught; all day long a high wind had raged about the house. Above the noise of the November storm in the warm basement bedroom rose the steady click and purr of the sewing- machine and the chattering of a child's voice, and from outside, on the pavement, was a furious rushing of coal. The big van had been backed up against the curb, and the cascading black torrent interrupted the passers-by.
"Heavens! Was there ever such an uproar!" exclaimed Martie, ceasing her operations at the machine and leaning back in her chair with a long sigh. The lengths of flimsy white curtaining she had been hemming slipped to the floor; she put her hands behind her head, and yawned luxuriously. The room was close, and even at four o'clock there was need of lights; its other occupants were only two, the child who played with the small gray and red stone blocks upon the floor, and the old woman who was peering through her glasses at the curtaining that lay across her lap, and manipulating it with knotted hands. Mrs. Curley was "Nana" to little Teddy Bannister now, and this shabby room overlooking a cemented area, and with its windows safeguarded by curved ornamental iron bars from attack from the street, would be his first memory of life.
But it was a comfortable room; once the dining room, it had been changed and papered and carpeted for its present tenants when Martie, as housekeeper of the boarding-house, had decided to move the dining room into the big, useless rear parlour upstairs. She and Teddy had privacy here; they had plenty of room, and the feet that crisped by on the sidewalk, the noises from the kitchen behind her, and the squeaking of rats about the basement entrance at night annoyed her not at all. She had her own telephone here, her own fireplace, and she was comfortably accessible for the maids--there were two maids now--for the butcher and ice-man. Between her and the kitchen was a small dark space, named by herself the "Cold Lairs," where she had a wash-stand and a small bath-tub. A bead of gas burned here night and day, but if Teddy ever became really naughty he was to be placed in here as punishment and the gas turned out entirely. Teddy had never deserved this terrible fate, but he did not like the Cold Lairs, where his little crash wash-rag and his tiny toothbrush glimmered at him in the half-light, and where he always smelled the raw smell of the lemon his mother kept to whiten her hands.
He idolized his mother; they had a separate game for every hour and every undertaking of his happy day. He climbed out of his crib, in his little faded blue pajamas, for uproarious tumbling and pillow- fighting every morning. Then it was seven o'clock, and she told him a story while she dressed, and recited poems and answered his questions. There was a game about getting all the tangles out of his hair, the father and mother tangles, and the various children, and even the dog and cat. Then for months it was a game to have her go on washing Teddy's face as long as he cried, and stop short when he stopped, so that after a while he did not cry at all. But by that time he could spell "Hot" and "Cold" from the faucets, and could clean out the wash-stand with great soaping and scrubbing all by himself.
Then he and Mother went into the big dark kitchen, where Henny and Aurora were yawning over the boarders' breakfasts, Henny perhaps cutting out flat little biscuit, and Aurora spooning out prunes from a big stone jar with her slender brown thumb getting covered with juice. His mother stirred the oatmeal, and, if it were summer, sometimes quickly and suspiciously tasted the milk that was going into all the little pitchers. Then they went upstairs.
The boarders had their meals at little separate tables now, and the "family," which was Mother and Nana, and Aunt Adele and Uncle John, were together at the largest table at the back where the serving and carving were done, and where the big shiny percolator stood. Teddy knew all the boarders--old Colonel and Mrs. Fox from the big upstairs bedroom, and Miss Peet and her sister, the school-teachers, from the hall-room on that floor, and the Winchells, mother and daughter and son, in the two front rooms on the third floor, and the two clerks in the back room. Uncle John and Aunt Adele had the pleasant big back room on the middle floor, and Nana existed darkly in the small room that finished that floor. The persons who filled his world, if they went away to the country at all in summer, went only for a fortnight, and this gave Mother only the time she needed to have their blankets washed and their rooms papered and the woodwork cleaned before their return.
Of them all, of course he liked Uncle John and Aunt Adele best, as Mother did. He had seen Aunt Adele kiss his mother, and often she and Uncle John would get into such gales of laughter at dinner that even Nana, even Teddy, in his high-chair, would laugh violently in sympathy. All the boarders were kind to Teddy, but Uncle John was much more than kind. He brought Teddy toys from Broadway, sombreros and moccasins and pails. He was never too tired when he came home at night to take Teddy into his lap, and murmur long tales of giants and fairies. And on long, wet Sundays he had been known to propose trips to the Zoo and the Aquarium.
Flanking his own picture on his mother's bureau was a photograph of a magnificent person in velvet knickerbockers and a frilled shirt with a cocked hat under his arm. This was Daddy, Teddy's mother told him; he must remember Daddy! But Teddy could not remember him.
"Darling--don't you remember Muddy taking you down to a train, and don't you remember the big man that carried you and bought you a sand-machine?"
"Where is my sand-machine, Moth'?" the little boy would demand interestedly.
"But Teddy, my heart, you were a big boy then, you were long past two. Can't you remember?"
No use. When Wallace came back he must make the acquaintance of his son all over again. Martie would sigh, half-vexed, half-amused.
"Aren't they the queer little things, Adele? He remembers his sand- machine and doesn't remember his father!"
"Oh, I don't know, Martie. That was just after we came, you know. And I remember thinking that Teddy was a mere baby then!"
"Well, Wallace may be back any day now." Martie always sighed deeply over the courageous phrase. Wallace had followed a devious course in these years of the child's babyhood. Short engagements, failures, weeks on the road, some work in stock companies in the lesser cities--it was a curious history. He had seen his wife at long intervals, sometimes with a little money, once or twice really prosperous and hopeful, once--a dreadful memory--discouraged and idle and drinking. This was the last time but one, more than a year ago. Then had come the visit when she had met him, and he had given Teddy the sand toy. Martie had clung to her husband then; he had not looked well; he would never make anything of this wretched profession, she had pleaded. She was doing well at the boarding- house; he could stay there while he looked about him for regular work.
But Wallace was "working up" a new part, and it was going to be a great hit, he said. Every one was crazy about it. He would not go to the boardinghouse; he said that his wife's work there was the "limit." For his three days in town he lived with a fellow-actor at a downtown hotel, and Martie had a curious sense that he did not belong to her at all. There was about him the heavy aspect and manner of a man who has been drinking, but he told her that he was "all to the wagon." His associate, a heavy, square-jawed man with a dramatic manner, praised Wallace's professional and personal character highly. Martie, deeply distressed, saw him go away to try the new play and went back to her own life.
This was in a bitter January. Now Teddy, building houses on the floor, had passed his third enchanting birthday, and winter was upon the big city again. Martie awaited it philosophically. Her coal was in, anyway, or would be in, in another hour, and if the coal- drivers' strike came to pass she might sleep in the comfortable consciousness that no one under her roof would suffer. Her clean curtains would go up this week; it had been an endless job; it was finished.
"And the next thing on the programme is Thanksgiving!" she said between two yawns
"Most of them goes out for that," said Mrs. Curley. "But the Colonel and her will stay. Nice to be them that never had to ask the price of turkey-meat this ten years!"
"Oh, well--we don't have it but twice a year!" Martie was folding the new curtains; presently she gave the neat pile a brisk, condensing slap with the flat of her hand. "There now, look what your smart Nana and Mother did, Ted!" she boasted. "And come here and give hims mother seventeen kisses and hugs, you darling, adorable, fat, soft, little old monkey!" The last words were smothered in the fine, silky strands under Teddy's dark, thick mop, on his soft little neck. He submitted to the tumbling and hugging, trying meanwhile to keep one eye upon the ship he had been building from an upturned chair.
Breathless, Martie looked up from the embrace to see a pretty smiling woman standing in the doorway, a wet raincoat over one arm, and a wet hat balanced on her hand.
"Hello, people!" said the newcomer. "I'm drenched. I don't believe this can keep up, it's frightful."
"Hello, Adele!" Martie said, setting Teddy on his feet. "Come in, and spread those things on the heater. Sit there where your skirts will get the heat. How was the matinee?"
"It was killing," said Mrs. Dryden, establishing herself comfortably by the radiator. She was a slender, bright-eyed woman of perhaps thirty, whose colouring ran to cool browns: clear brown eyes, brown hair prettily dressed, a pale brown skin under which a trace of red only occasionally appeared. To-day her tailor-made suit was brown, and about her throat was a narrow boa of some brown fur. "Here, Teddy, take these to your mother," she added, extending a crushed box half full of chocolates. "The place was packed," she went on, crunching. "And, my dear!--coming out we were right close to Doris Beresford, in the most divine coat I ever laid eyes on! I suppose they all like to have an idea of what's going on at the other theatres. I don't believe she uses one bit of make-up; wonderful skin! There was such a mob in the car it was something terrible. A man crushed up against Ethel; she said she thought he'd break her arm! I got a seat; I don't know how it is, but I always do. We'd been running, and I suppose my colour was high, and a man got up immediately. Nice--I always thank them. I think that's the least you can do. Ethel said he sat and stared at me all the way up to Fifty- ninth, where he got off. He was an awfully nice-looking fellow; I'll tell you what he looked like: a young doctor. Don't you know those awfully clean-looking men---"
Martie, now changing Teddy's little suit for dinner, let the stream run on unchecked. Mrs. Curley, who did not particularly fancy Mrs. Dryden, had gone upstairs, but Martie really liked to listen to Adele. Presently she turned on the lights, and led Teddy into the Cold Lairs, to have his face washed. Adele reached for the evening paper, and began to peruse it idly. When Martie came out of the bath-room, it was to hear a knock at the door.
"It's John!" predicted Adele. A moment later her husband came into the room. Like his wife, he was cold and wet and rosy from the street, but he had evidently been upstairs, for he wore his old house-coat and dry slippers, and had brushed his hair. He was younger than Adele by three or four years, but he looked like a boy of twenty; squarely built, not tall, but giving an impression of physical power nevertheless. Martie had first thought his face odd, then interesting; now she found it strangely attractive. His eyes, between sandy lashes and under thick sandy brows, were of a sea-blue in colour, his head was covered with a cap of thick, lustreless, sand-coloured hair. Something odd, elfin, whimsical, in his crooked smile lent an actual charm to his face, for Martie at least. She told him he looked like Pan.
Early in their acquaintance she had asked him if he were not a Dane, not a Norwegian, if he had not viking blood? She said that he suggested sagas and berserkers and fjords--"not that I am sure what any of those words mean!" His answering laugh had been as wild as a delighted child's. No; he was American-born, of an English father and an Irish mother, he said. He had never been abroad, never been to college, never had any family that he remembered, except Adele. He had meant to be a "merchant sailor"--a term he seemed to like, although it conveyed only a vague impression to Martie--but his lungs hadn't been strong. So he went to Arizona and loafed. And there he met Adele; her mother kept the boarding-house in which he lived, in fact, and there they were married. Adele had a glorious voice and she wanted to come to New York to cultivate it. And then Adele had been ill.
His voice fell reverently when he spoke of this illness. Adele had nearly died. What the hope that had also really died at this time meant to him, Martie could only suspect when she saw him with Teddy. Adele herself told her that she was never strong enough for new hopes.
"We couldn't afford it, of course; so perhaps it was just as well," said Adele one day when she and Martie had come to be good friends, and were confidential. "I felt terribly for a while, because I have a wonderful way with children; I know that myself. They always come to me--funniest thing! Dr. Poole was saying the other day that I had a remarkable magnetism. I said, 'I don't know about that,'--and I don't, Martie! I don't think I'm so magnetic, do you--'but,' I said, 'I really do seem to have a hold on children!' Jack loves children, too, but he spoils them. I don't believe in letting children run a house; it isn't good for them, and it isn't good for you. Let them have their own toys and treat them as kindly as possible, but---"
John Dryden was a salesman in a furniture house; perhaps the city's finest furniture house. Martie suspected that his pleasant, half- shy, yet definite manner, made him an excellent salesman. He talked to her about his associates, whom he took upon their own valuations, and deeply admired. This one was a "wizard" at figures, and that one had "a deuce of a manner with women." John chuckled over their achievements, but she knew that he himself must be the secret wonder of the place. He might be more or less, but he was certainly not a typical furniture salesman. Sometimes the manager took him to lunch; Martie wondered if he quoted the queer books he read, and made the staid echoes of the club to which they went awake to his pagan laughter.
His extraordinarily happy temperament knew sudden despairs, but they were usually because he had made a "rotten mistake," or because he was "such a fool" about something. He never complained of the stupid daily round; perhaps it was not stupid to him, who always had a book under his arm, and to whom the first snow and the first green leaves were miracles of delight every year. He treated Adele exactly as if she had been an engaging five-year-old, and she had charming childish mannerisms for him alone. He pacified her when she fretted and complained, and was eagerly grateful when her mood was serene. Her prettiness and her little spoiled airs, Martie realized surprisedly, were full of appeal for him.
"You don't mean that--you don't mean that!" he would say to her when she sputtered and raged. He listened absently to her long dissertation upon the persons--and for Adele the world was full of them--who tried to cheat her, or who were insolent to her, and to whom she was triumphantly insolent in return. She found Martie much more sympathetic as a listener.
Toward Martie, too, John soon began to display a peculiar sensitiveness. At first it was merely that she spurred his sense of humour; he began to test the day's events by her laughter. After that her more general opinions impressed him; he watched her at dinner and accepted eagerly her verdict upon political affairs or the books and plays of the hour. She noticed, and was a little touched to notice, that he quoted her weeks after she had expressed herself. He brought her books and they disagreed and argued about them. In summer, with Adele languid under her parasol, and Teddy enchanting in white, they went to the park concerts, or to the various museums, and wrangled about the new Strauss and Debussy, and commented upon the Hals canvases and the art of Meissonier and Detaille.
This evening he had a book for her from the Public Library; he had been dipping into it on the elevated train.
"Which ticket is this on, John?"
"Well, then, you paid my dues on the other! How much?"
She showed him the six coppers on her white palm.
"You were an angel to do it. Listen; do you want to read this when I'm through?"
"Well, if you think so."
"Think so?--Carlyle's 'Revolution'? Of course you ought to! Adele, isn't he ignorant?"
"I read that in High School," smiled Adele. "It's awfully good."
"Mis' Ban'ster," Aurora was at the door, "Hainy was cuttin' open the chickens f' t'morrer, and she says one of 'em give an awful queer sort of pop--!"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake!" Martie started kitchenward. John Dryden gave a laugh of purest joy; Aurora was one of his delights. "We always say we're going to read aloud in the evenings," she called back. "Now here's a chance--a wet evening, and Adele and I with oceans of sewing!"
She went from the kitchen upstairs, finding the various boarders quietly congregating in the hall and parlour, awaiting the opening of the dining-room door. Adele had gone up to her room, but Teddy and John were roaming about. Rain still slashed and swished out of doors. The winter was upon them.
"Seems to be such a smell of paint," said the younger Miss Peet.
"Well, that's just trying out the radiators," Martie said hearteningly. "It won't last. Did you get caught?"
"Sister did; I got home just before it started. It seems to me we're having rain early this year--"
"We had had two inches at this time last year," said old Colonel Fox. Martie knew that this unpromising avenue would lead him immediately to Chickamauga; she slipped into the dining room and began to carve. Aurora was rushing about with butter-plates, her cousin Lyola, engaged merely for the dinner-hour, was filling glasses. A moment later the entire household assembled for the meal. Mrs. Fox, a gentle, bony old lady, with clean, cool hands, and with a dowdy little yoke of good lace in the neck of her old silk, smiled about her sadly. Mrs. Winchell was a plump little woman who always burst out laughing as a preliminary to speech. Her daughter was eye- glassed, pretty, capable, a woman who realized perfectly, at twenty- six, that she had no charm whatever for men. She realized, too, that Mrs. Bannister, with her bronze hair and quick speech, was full of it, and envied the younger woman in a bloodless sort of way. Her brother, known as "Win," had already had a definite repulse from Mrs. Bannister, and nothing was too bad for the snubbed suitor to intimate about her in consequence. Win had never seen "this husband of hers"; Win thought she looked "a little gay, all right." He had a much more successful friendship with Adele, who slapped his hand and told him he was the "limit."
To-night one of the clerks from the top floor, shaking out his napkin, called gaily to Mrs. Bannister that this was his birthday. It was characteristic of her kindly relationship that she came immediately to his table. Now why hadn't he told her yesterday? He should have had a cake, and chicken-pie, because he had once said chicken was his favourite "insect." He was twenty-eight? He seemed such a boy!
She went back to her place, determining that she would set out a little supper of cake and crackers and cheese for him to find when his room-mate and he came in tired and wet from their theatre that night. She looked at Teddy; would he keep a birthday in a boarding- house some day with only the housekeeper to mother him?
"We're betting that you're younger than I am, Mrs. Bannister!"
"You win." She smiled at him frankly. "I'm not yet twenty-four!" Martie was conscious of a little pang as she met his surprised almost pitying look.
"I think that talk about ages was just a little undignified," said Edna Winchell later that night.
"Yes, I do, too!" her mother answered quickly.
"There's something about that girl we don't understand, you bet," contributed the son. "When I went down for a match she was just getting a special delivery letter, and she looked as if she was going to drop. You mark my words--it had something to do with that mysterious husband of hers!"
For the boarding-house had never seen Wallace, who held the whole place in bitter scorn. He resented the fact of Martie's position there; the fact of her having made herself useful to old Mrs. Curley represented a difference in their point of view. When, in Teddy's first year, regular letters and a regular remittance from Wallace ceased to appear, Martie had gone through an absolute agony of worry. Her husband was then on the road, and she was not even sure that her letters reached him.
Alone except for the baby, in the freezing, silent cold of the city, she had pondered, planned, and fretted for day after weary day. The one or two acquaintances she had made in Wallace's profession would have advised her not to worry, nobody ever was turned out for board in these days. But Martie was too proud to appeal to them for counsel, and for other but even stronger reasons she could not confide in Mrs. Curley. So passed the first Christmas alone, doubly sad because it reminded her of the Christmas a year before, when they had been so happy and so prosperous in San Francisco.
In snowy February, however, Mrs. Curley herself had unconsciously offered a solution. She wanted to go to her daughter in Brooklyn for a fortnight. "Run the house for me, that's the good girl," she said to Martie. "You can do it as good as I can, any day of the world! Aurora knows what the menus for the week are and all you've got to do is to do the ordering and show the rooms to folks that come looking for them."
Martie had been feeling a little more comfortable about her overdue board, because Wallace, playing in stock in Los Angeles, had sent her one hundred dollars early in the year. It was not enough, but it sufficed to pay a comfortable installment on her bill, and to keep her in money for another week or two. But she was sick of waiting and worrying, and she seized the opportunity to be helpful. Chance favoured her, for during the old woman's visit the daughter in Brooklyn fell ill, and it was mid-March before the mother came home again. By that time the trembling Martie had weathered several storms, had rented the long-vacant front room, and was more brisk and happy than she had been for months, than she had ever been perhaps. So the arrangement drifted along. There was no talk of a salary then, but in time Martie came to ask for such money as she needed--for Teddy's rompers, for gingham dresses for summer, for stationery and stamps--and it was always generously accorded.
"Get good things while you're about it," Mrs. Curley would say. "You buy for the ragman when you buy trash. This lad here," she would indicate the splendid Teddy, with his loose dark curls and his creamy skin, "he wants to look elegant, so that the girls will run after him!"
Martie felt more free to obey her because the business was in a steadily improving condition. This fancy for keeping a few "paying guests" had become a sort of expensive luxury for the solitary woman, whose children no longer needed her, and who would not live with any of them. Mrs. Curley was not entirely dependent upon her boarding-house, but she had never been reconciled to the actual loss of money in the business. She liked to have other persons about, she having no definite interests of her own, and the new arrangement suited her perfectly: an attractive young woman to help her, a baby to lend a familiar air to the table, and money enough to pay all bills and have something left over.
Amazingly, the money flowed in. Martie told them one night at dinner that she had always fancied a boarding-house was a place where a slap-heeled woman climbed bleak stairs to tell starving geniuses that their rent was overdue. Mrs. Curley had laughed comfortably at the picture.
"You can always make money feeding people," she had asserted. John had given Martie a serious look after his laugh.
"Geniuses don't have to starve," he had submitted thoughtfully.
"There's always plenty of work in the world, if people will do it!" Adele had added. "Dear me, I often wonder if the people who talk charity--charity--charity--realize that it's all two thirds laziness and dirt. I don't care how poor I was, I know that I would keep my little house nice; you don't have to have money to do that! But you'll always hear this talk of the unemployed--when any employer will tell you the hard thing is to get trustworthy men! The other day Ethel was asking me to join some society or other--take tickets for an actors' benefit, I think it was--and I begged to be excused. I told her we didn't have any money to spare for that sort of thing! Genius, indeed! Why don't they get jobs?"
"Jobs in a furniture store, eh, John?" Martie smiled. The man answered her smile sturdily.
"It isn't so rotten!" he said.
Her letters to-night, for there were two in the special delivery stamped envelope, were from Lydia and Sally. Sally had written often to her sister during the years, and Martie was fairly in touch with Monroe events: the young Hawkeses had three babies now, and Grace had twins. Rose had been ill, and had lost her hopes a second time, but she was well now, and she and Rodney had been to New York. People said that the Parkers were coining money, and Rose had absolutely everything she wanted. Colonel Frost was dead. Miss Frost looked like death--Martie had smiled at the old phrase--and Grandma Kelly was dead; Father Martin was quoted as saying that she was a saint if ever there was one. George Patterson had been sued by a girl in Berkeley, and Monroe was of the opinion that the Pattersons never would hold up their heads again. Pa and Len were in some real estate venture together, Len had talked Pa into it at last. And finally, Sally and the children were well, and Joe wrote her every day.
This last sentence had puzzled Martie; where was Joe Hawkes then, that he must write every day to his wife? She had intended to write Sally in the old affectionate, confidential strain, and ask all the questions that rose now and then in her thoughts of Monroe. But she had not written for months, and now--now this.
She grasped the news in the tear-stained sheets at a first glance. Her mother was dead. Martie repeated the words to herself with a stupid realization that she could not grasp their meaning. The old dark house in the sunken square would know that slender, gentle presence no more. She had never felt the parting final; a chill wind from some forgotten country smote her. Her mother was dead, her child was growing up, her husband had failed her.
Sally's letter was brief, restrained, and tender. Martie could read Sally's development in the motherly lines. But Lydia had written in a sort of orgy of grief. Ma had "seemed like herself all Wednesday," and had gone with Lydia to see old Mrs. Mussoo, and had eaten her dinner that night, and the next day, Thursday, she had come down as usual to breakfast, and so on and on for ten long days, every hour of which was treasured now in Lydia's heart. "And poor Pa," wrote the older sister, "I must be all in all to him now; I never can marry now. And oh, Martie, I couldn't help wishing, for your sake, that you could feel that you had never, even as a thoughtless girl, caused our dear angel an hour of grief and pain! You must say to yourself that she forgave you and loved you through it all ..."
Martie made a wry mouth over the letter. But into the small hours of the morning she lay awake, thinking of her mother and of the old days. Odd little memories came to her: the saucer pies that she and Sally used to have for their tea-parties, out under the lilac trees, and a day when she, Martie, had been passionately concerned for the fate of a sick cat, and had appealed to her mother for help. Mrs. Monroe had been filling lamps, and her thin dark hands were oily and streaked with soot, but she had been sympathetic about the kitten, and on her advice the invalid had been wrapped in a clean cloth, and laid tenderly on the heaps of soft, sweet, dying grass that had been raked to one side of the lawn. Here kindly death had found the kitten a little later, and Martie, cat and all, had climbed into her mother's lap and cried. But she was not a little girl any longer-- she would never feel her mother's arms about her again.
The next day she received a box of roses, not remarkable roses, inasmuch as they were rather small, of a solid red, and wired heavily from the end of their sterns to the very flower. But the enclosed note in which John Dryden said that he knew how hard it was for her, and was as sorry as he could be, touched Martie. A far more beautiful gift would not have gone to her heart quite so deeply as did this cheap box and the damp card with its message smudged and blurred.
Through the long icy winter she began to feel, with a sense of vague pain, that life was passing, that if she and Wallace were ever to have that big, shadowy studio, that long-awaited time of informal hospitality and financial ease, it must come soon. Her marriage was already measured by years; yet she was still a child in Wallace's hands. He could leave her thus bound and thus free; she was helpless, and she began to chafe against the injustice of it. One day she found, and rewrote her old article, filled with her own resentful theories of a girl's need of commercial fitness. She sent it to a magazine; it was almost immediately returned.
But the episode bore fruit, none the less. For, discussing it with John, as she discussed everything with John, she was led to accept his advice as to the appearance of the closely written sheets. It would have a much better chance if it were typewritten, he assured her. He carried it off to his stenographer.
This was in April, and as, with characteristic forgetfulness, he failed to bring it back, Martie, chancing to pass his office one day, determined to go in and get it for herself. She had never been in John's place of business before. She went from the spring warmth and dazzle of the street into the pleasant dimness of the big store that smelled pleasantly of reedy things, wickerwork and carpets.
Three or four salesmen "swam out like trout" from the shadows to meet her, she told John presently, evoking one of his bursts of laughter. One of them called him, and Martie had a sensation of real affection as he came down, his eager, faunlike face one radiant smile. She spoke of the manuscript, but he hardly heard her. Where could they talk?--he said concernedly. He glanced about; his face brightened.
"I know! There's a set of five rooms just finished by our decorator on the fourth floor; we'll go there!"
"But, John--truly I haven't but a minute!" Martie protested.
He did not hear her. He touched the elevator bell, and they went upstairs.
The furnished suite was unbelievably lovely to Martie's unaccustomed eyes. She wanted to exclaim over the rugs and chairs; John wanted to talk. They wandered through the perfect rooms, laughing like happy children.
"I came down to get some things for to-morrow--Teddy needs a straw hat, if we're really going to Coney"--Martie found his steady look a little confusing. "You like my pongee, and my four-dollar hat?" she said.
"I think you're perfectly--gorgeous!" he answered intensely. "To have you come in here like this!--I had no idea of it! Brewer simply came and said 'a lady'--I thought it was that woman from the hotel. I'll never forget the instant my eyes fell upon you, standing there by old Pitcher. It--honestly, Martie, it seemed to me like a burst of sunshine!"
"Why--you goose!" she said, a little shaken. The circumstance of their being here, in this exquisite semblance of domestic comfort, the sweet summer day, the new flowery hat and cool pongee gown, combined to stir her blood. She forgot everything but that she was young, and that it was strangely thrilling to have this man, so ardent and so forceful, standing close beside her.
It was almost with a sense of relief, a second later, that she realized that other groups were drifting through the little apartment, that she and John were not alone. She remembered, with a strange, poignant contraction of her heart, the expression in his eyes as they met, the authoritative finger with which he had touched the elevator bell.
John spoke appreciatively of her visit that night at the table; Adele said that Martie had told her of it.
"I was going down town with her," said Adele, playing idly with knife and fork. "But I got started on that disgusting centrepiece again, and Ethel came in, and we just sewed. I'm so sick of the thing now I told Miriam I was going to give it to her and let her finish it herself--I'll have to go down town Monday and match the silk anyway; it's too maddening, for there's just that one leaf to do, but I might as well keep at it, and get rid of it! If we go to Coney to-morrow I believe I'll take it along, and go on with it; I suppose it would look funny, but I don't know why not. Ethel went to Coney last week with the Youngers in their auto; she said it was a perfect scream all the way; Tom would pass everything on the road, and she said it was a scream! She says Mrs. Younger talks about herself and her house and her servants all the time, and she wouldn't get out of the car, so it wasn't much fun. I asked her why she wouldn't get out of the car, and she said her complexion. I didn't see anything so remarkable about it myself; anyway, if you rub plenty of cream in--I'm going to do that to-morrow, Martie, and you ought to!--and then wear a veil, I don't mean too heavy a veil, but just to keep your hat tight, why, you don't burn!"
"Both you girls come down town Monday, and I'll show you a rug worth fifty thousand dollars," suggested John.
"Oh, thank you, dear!" Adele said in bright protest. "But if you knew what I've got to do Monday! I'm going to have my linen fitted, and I'm going in to see the doctor about that funny, giddy feeling I've had twice. And Miriam wants me to look at hats with her. I'll be simply dead. Miriam and I will get a bite somewhere; we're dying to try the fifty-cent lunch at Shaftner's; they say it isn't so bad. It'll be an awful day, to say nothing of being all tired out from Coney. But I suppose I'll have to get through it."
She smiled resignedly at Martie. But Martie had fallen suddenly into absent thought. She was thinking of the odd look on John's face as he came forward in the pleasant dimness and coolness of the big store.
The next day they went duly to Coney Island; their last trip together, as it chanced, and one of the most successful of their many days in the parks or on the beaches. John, Martie, and Teddy were equally filled with childish enthusiasm for the prospect, and perhaps Adele liked as well her role of amused elder.
It was part of the pleasure for Martie to get up early, to slip off to church in the soft, cool morning. The dreaming city, awaiting the heat of the day, was already astir, churchgoers and holiday-makers were at every crossing. Freshly washed sidewalks were drying, enormous Sunday newspapers and bottles of cream waited in the doorways. Fasting women, with contented faces, chatted in the bakery and the dairy, and in the push-cart at the curb ice melted under a carpet cover. It was going to be a scorcher--said the eager boys and girls, starting off in holiday wear, coatless, gloveless, frantic to be away. Little families were engineered to the surface cars, clean small boys in scalloped blue wash suits, mother straining with the lunch-basket, father carrying the white-coated baby and the newspaper and the children's cheap coats.
Martie, kissing Teddy as a preliminary to her delayed breakfast, came home to discuss the order of events. The route and the time were primarily important: Teddy's bucket, John's camera, her own watch, must not be forgotten. There were last words for Henny and Aurora, good-byes for Grandma; then they were out in the Sunday streets, and the day was before them!
John took charge of the child; Adele and Martie talked and laughed together all the long trip. The extraordinary costumes of the boys and girls about them, the sights that filled the streets, these and a thousand other things were of fresh interest. Adele's costume was discussed.
"My gloves washed so beautifully; he said they would, but I didn't believe him! My skirt doesn't look a bit too short, does it, Martie? I put this old veil on, and then if we have dinner any place decent, I'll change to the other. I wore these shoes, because I'll tell you why: they only last one summer, anyway, and you might as well get your wear out of them. Listen, does any powder show? I simply put it on thick, because it does save you so. It's that dead white. I told her I didn't have colour enough for it; she said I had a beautiful colour--absurd, but I suppose they have to say those things!"
And Adele, her clear brown eyes looking anxiously from her slender brown face, leaned toward Martie for inspection. Martie was always reassuring. Adele looked lovely; she had her hat on just right.
At Coney Teddy played bare-legged in the warm sand. Adele had a beach chair near by. She put on her glasses, and began her sewing; later they would all read parts of the paper, changing and exchanging constantly. Martie and John, beaming upon all the world, joined the long lines that straggled into the bath-houses, got their bundled suits and their gray towels, and followed the attendant along the aisles that were echoing with the sound of human voices, and running with the water from wet bathing-suits. Fifteen minutes later they met again, still beaming, to cross under the damp, icy shadow of the boardwalk, and come out, fairly dancing with high spirits, upon the long, hot curve of the beach. The delicious touch of warm sand under her stockinged feet, the sunlight beating upon her glittering hair, Martie would run down the shore to the first wheeling shallows of the Atlantic.
"Nothing I have ever done in my life is so wonderful as this!" she shouted as the waves caught them, and carried them off their feet. John swam well; Martie a little; neither could get enough of the tumbling blue water.
Breathless, they presently joined Adele; Martie spreading her glittering web of hair to dry, as she sat in the sand by the other woman's chair; John stretched in the hot sand for a nap; Teddy staggering to and fro with a dripping pail. They liked to keep a little away from the crowd; a hundred feet away the footmarked sand was littered with newspapers, cigarette-butts, gum-wrappers, and empty paper-bags, the drowsing men and women were packed so close that laughing girls and boys, going by in their bathing-suits, had to weave a curving path up and down the beach.
Presently they had a hearty meal: soft-shell crabs fried brown, with lemon and parsley, coffee ready-mixed with milk and sugar, sliced tomatoes with raw onions, all served in cheap little bare rooms, at scarred little bare tables, a hundred feet from the sea. Later came the amusements: railways and flying-swings enjoyed simultaneously with hot sausages and ice-cream cones.
Adele liked none of this so much as she liked to go up toward the big hotels at about five o'clock, to find a table near the boardwalk, and sit twirling her parasol, and watching the people stream by. The costumes and the types were tirelessly entertaining. At six they ordered sandwiches and beer, and Teddy had milk and toast. The uniformed band, coming out into its pagoda, burst into a brassy uproar, the sun sank, the tired crowd in its brilliant colours surged slowly to and fro. Beyond all, the sea softly came and went, waves broke and spread and formed again unendingly.
Martie felt that she would like to sit so forever, with her son's soft, relaxed little body in her arms. To-night she did not analyze the new emotion that John's glances, John's voice, John's quiet solicitude for her comfort, had lent the day. Of course he liked her; of course he admired her; that was a fact long recognized with maternal amusement by Adele and herself. Of course he laughed at her, but every one laughed at Martie when she chose to be humorous. Let it go at that!
Sandy, sore, sleepy, and sunburned, they were presently in the returning cars, all wilted New York returning with them. Teddy slept soundly, sometimes in his mother's arms, sometimes in John's. It was John who carried him up the steps of the Seventieth Street house at ten o'clock.
A gentleman waiting to see Mrs. Bannister? Goodness, Aurora, why didn't you ask Mrs. Curley to see him? Martie surrendered her loose coat and hat to the maid, put a hand to her disordered hair. Apologetic, smiling, she went into the parlour.
Wallace Bannister was waiting for her; she was in her husband's arms.
"But, Wallace--Wallace--Wallace, what does it matter, dear? You don't have to tell me all about it, all the sickness and failure and bad luck! You're home again, now, and you've gotten back into your own line, and that's all that matters!"
Thus Martie, laughing with lashes still wet. She understood, she forgave; what else was a wife for? All that mattered was that he was here, and was deep in new plans, he had a new part to work up, he was to begin rehearsing next week, and the past was all a troubled dream. Ah, this was worth while; this made up for it all!
Not quite a dream, for he seemed much older; the boyish bravado was gone. He was stout, settled, curiously deliberate in manner. But then she was older, too.
He answered her generous concession only with compliments. She had grown handsome, by George, she had a stunning figure, she had a stunning air! Martie laughed; she knew it was true.
He felt his old hatred for her employment at the boarding-house, and she was as eager as he to launch into real housekeeping at last. After the lonely years, it was wonderful to have a husband again! He bought whatever she wanted, took her proudly about. She went with him to his first rehearsals, finding the old stage atmosphere strangely exhilarating. Adele was frankly jealous of this new development, Martie saw and heard her as little as she noticed John's silence and seriousness, and Mrs. Curley's dubious cooperation.
A friend of Wallace proposed to sub-let them a furnished apartment in East Twenty-sixth Street. Martie inspected it briefly, with eyes too dazzled with dreams to see it truly.
She was not trained to business responsibility: she merely laughed because her old employer was annoyed to have her housekeeper desert her. After all, could there be a better reason for any move than that one's husband wished it? Swiftly and gaily she snapped the ties that bound her to the boarding-house.
There seemed to be plenty of money for teas and dinners: she stared about the brightly lighted restaurants like an excited child. Wallace was boisterously fond of his son, but he was too busy to be much with Teddy, and he wanted his wife all day and every day. So Martie engaged a housekeeper to take her place in the house, and a little coloured girl to take care of Teddy, and devoted herself to Wallace.