From that hour Martie knew the joy of living. She emerged from the hard school in which she had been stumbling and blundering so long; she was a person, an individuality, she was alive and she loved life.
Her heart fairly sang as she paid for Teddy's supper, the lovely brown hills of California slipping past the windows of the dining car. The waiter was solicitous; would the lady have just a salad? No, said the lady, she did not feel hungry. She and Teddy went out to breathe the glorious air of the mountains from the observation car, and to flash and clatter through the snow sheds.
And what a delight it was to be young and free and to have this splendid child all for her own, thought Martie, her heart swelling with a wonderful peace. Everybody liked Teddy, and Teddy's touching happiness at being alone with his adored mother opened her eyes to the feeling that had been hidden under a child's inarticulateness all these months.
The two hundred dollars between her and destitution might have been two million; she was rich. She could treat the troubled, pale little mother and the two children from the next section to lemonades every afternoon, and when they reached Chicago, hot and sunshiny at last, she and Teddy spent the day loitering through a big department store. Here Teddy was given a Boy Scout suit, and Martie bought herself a cake of perfumed soap whose odour, whenever she caught it in after times, brought back the enchanting emotion of these first days of independence.
Tired, dirty, they were sitting together late in the afternoon of the fifth day, when she felt a sudden tug at her heart. Outside the car window, slipping steadily by, were smoke-stained brick factories, and little canals and backwaters soiled with oil and soot, and heaps of slag and scrap iron and clinkers. Then villages swept by--flat, orderly villages with fences enclosing summer gardens. Then factories again--villages--factories--no more of the flat, bare fields: the fields were all of the West.
But suddenly above this monotonous scene Martie noticed a dull glow that grew rosier and steadier as the early evening deepened. Up against the first early stars the lights of New York climbed in a wide bar of pink and gold, flung a quivering bar of red.
She was back again! Back in the great city. She belonged once more to the seething crowds in the Ghetto, to the cool arcades between the great office buildings, to Broadway with its pushing crowds of shoppers, to the Bronx teeming with tiny shops and swung with the signs of a thousand apartments to let. The hotels, with their uniformed starters, the middle Forties, with their theatrical boarding-houses, the tiny experimental art shops and tea shops and gift shops that continually appear and disappear among the basements of old brown-stone houses--she was back among them all!
Tears of joy and excitement came to her eyes. She pressed her face eagerly beside the child's face at the window.
"Look down, Ted, that's the East Side, dear, with all the children playing; do you remember? And see all the darling awnings flapping!"
"I shouldn't wonder if we should have an electric storm!" said Teddy, finding the old phrase easily, his warm little cheek against hers.
"We're back in New York, Teddy! We're home again!" She was gathering her things together. A thought smote her, and she paused with suddenly colouring cheeks. This might so easily have been her wedding-trip; she and Clifford might have been together now.
Poor Clifford, with his stiffly moving brain and his platitudes! She hoped he would marry some more grateful woman some day. What a Paradise opening for Lydia if he could ever fancy her again! Martie spent a moment in wonder as to what the story given Monroe would be. She had mailed a letter to Lydia, and one to Clifford, during that last, quiet, foggy morning--letters written after the packing had been done on that last night. She had suggested that Monroe be given a hint that business had taken Mrs. Bannister suddenly eastward. It would be a nine days' wonder; in six months Monroe would only vaguely remember it. Gossips might suspect the truth: they would never know it. Clifford himself, in another year, would be placidly implying that there never had been anything in the rumour of an engagement. Rose would dimple and shake her head; Martie was always just a little odd. Lydia would confide to Sally that she was just sick for fear that Dryden man--and Sally, sternly inspecting Jimmy's little back for signs of measles, would quote Joe. Joe always thought Martie would make good, and Joe wasn't one bit sorry she had done as she had. Dr. Ben would defend her, too, for on that sudden impulsive call she had let her full heart thank him for all his fatherly goodness to her beloved Sally, and had told him what she was doing.
"Mark ye, if you was engaged to me, ye wouldn't jump the traces like this!" the old man had assured her.
"Dr. Ben, I wouldn't want to!" she had answered gaily. "You're older than Cliff; I know that. But you're broad, Dr. Ben, and you're simple, and you aren't narrow! You've grown older the way I want to, just smiling and listening. And you know more in your little finger than--than some people know in their whole bodies!" And she put her arms about his neck, and gave him a daughter's laughing kiss.
"Looky here," said the old man, warming, "a man's got to be dead before he can stand for a thing like this! You haven't got a waiting-list, I suppose, Miss Martie?"
"No, sir!" she answered positively. "But if ever I do I'll let you know!"
She and Teddy ate their first meal at Childs'. Little signs bearing the single word "strawberries" were pasted on the window; Martie felt a real thrill of affection for the place as she went in. After a while "Old Southern Corn Cakes" would take the place of the strawberries, and then grape-fruit "In Season Now."
"After a while we'll be too rich to come here, Ted!" she said as they went out.
"Wull we?" Teddy asked regretfully. They went into the pushing and crowding of the streets; heard the shrill trill of the crossing policeman's whistle again; caught a glimpse of Broadway's lights, fanning lower and higher, and as the big signs rippled up and down.
Martie drank it in eagerly, no faintest shadow of apprehension fell upon this evening. She and Teddy walked to their little hotel; to- morrow she would see her editor, and they would search for cheaper quarters. She would get the half-promised position or another; it mattered not which. She would board economically, or find diminutive quarters for housekeeping; be comfortable either way. If they kept house, some kindly old woman would be found to give Teddy bread and butter when he came in from school. And on hot summer Sundays she and Teddy would pack their lunch, and make an early start for the beach; theoretically, it would be an odd life for the child, but actually--how much richer and more sympathetic she would make it than her own had been! Children are natural gypsies, and Teddy would never complain because his mother kept him up later than was quite conventional in the evening, and sometimes took him to her office, to draw pictures or look at books for a quiet hour.
And she would have friends: women who were working like herself, and men, too. She was as little afraid of the other as of the one now. There would be visits to country cottages; there would be winter dinners, down on the Square. And some day, perhaps, she would have the studio with the bare floors and the dark rugs. Over and over again she said the words to herself: she was free; she was free.
Dependence on Pa's whim, on Wallace's whim, was over. She stood alone, now; she could make for herself that life that every man was always free to make; that every woman should be offered, too. She had suffered bitterly; she might live to be an old, old woman, but she knew that the sight of a fluffy-headed girl baby must always stab her with unendurable pain. She had been shabby, hungry, ashamed, penniless, humiliated. She had been ill, physically handicapped for weary weeks upon weeks.
And she had emerged, armed for the fight. The world needed her now, Cliff and Pa needed her, even Dr. Ben and Sally and Len would have been proud to offer her a home. Miss Fanny was missing her now; a dozen persons idling into the Library in sleepy little Monroe's summer fog, to-morrow morning, would wish that Miss David was not so slow, would wish that Mrs. Bannister was back.
The editor himself was out of town; but his assistant was as encouraging as a somewhat dazzled young man could be.
"She's a corker," said the assistant later. "She's pretty and she talks fast and she's full of fun; but it's not that. She's got a sort of push to her; you'll like her. I bet she'll be just the person. I told her that you'd be here this morning, and she said she'd call again."
"I hope she does!" the editor said. Her card was handed him a moment later.
In came the tall, severely gowned woman with the flashing smile and blue eyes, and magnificent bronze hair. She radiated confidence and power. He had hoped for something like this from her letters; she was better than his hopes. She wanted a position. She hoped, she said innocently, that it was a good time for positions.
It was always a good time for certain people, the editor reflected. They talked for half an hour, irrelevant talk, Martie thought it, for it was principally of her personal history and his own. Then a stenographer interrupted; the little boy was afraid that his mother had gone away through some other door!
The little boy came in, and shook hands with Mr. Trowbridge, and subsided into his mother's lap. Then the three had another half- hour's talk. Mr. Trowbridge had boys, too, but they were up in the country now.
He himself escorted them over the office, through large spaces filled with desks, past closed doors, through a lunch-room and a library. Respectful greetings met them on all sides. Martie was glad she had on her wedding suit, and the new hat that had been in a department store on Sixth Avenue yesterday afternoon. Mr. Trowbridge called Mrs. Bannister's attention to a certain desk. When they went back to the privacy of his own office, he asked her if she would like to come to use that desk, say on Monday?
"There's a bunch of confidential letters there now, for you to answer," he said. "Then there are always articles to change, or cut, or adapt. Also our Miss Briggs, in the 'My Own Money Club,' needs help. We may ask you sometimes to take home a bunch of stories to read; we may ask you to do something else!"
"I'll address envelopes or stoke the furnace!" said Martie, bright tears in her smiling eyes. "I don't know whether I'm worth all that money," she added, "for it doesn't seem to me that anybody in the world really earns as much as twenty dollars a week, but I'll try to be! I'm twenty-eight years old, and I've been waiting all my life for this chance!"
"Well, even at that age, you may have a year or two of usefulness left, if your health is spared you." the editor said. They parted laughing, and Martie went out into the wonderful, sunny, hospitable city as gay as Teddy was. Oh, how she would work, how she would work! She would get down to the office first of all; she would wear the trimmest suits; she would never be cross, never be tired, never rebel at the most flagrant imposition! She would take the cold baths and wear the winter underwear that kept tonsilitis at bay; she would hire a typewriter, and keep on with her articles. If ever a woman in the world kept a position, then Martie would keep hers!
And, of course, women did. There was that pretty, capable woman who came into Mr. Trowbridge's office, and was introduced as the assistant editor. Coolly dressed, dainty and calm, she had not suggested that the struggle was too hard. She had smilingly greeted Martie, offered a low-voiced suggestion, and vanished unruffled and at peace.
"Why, that's what this world is," Martie reflected. "Workers needing jobs, and jobs needing workers." And suddenly she hit upon the keynote to her new philosophy. "Men don't worry and fidget about keeping their jobs, and I'M not going to. I'm just as necessary and just as capable as if I were--say, Len. If Len came on here for a job I wouldn't worry myself sick about his ever getting it!"
What honeymoon would have been half so thrilling, she reflected, as this business of getting herself and Teddy suitably established? Her choice, not made until Sunday afternoon, fell upon a quiet boarding- house on West Sixty-first Street. It was kept by a kindly Irishwoman who had children younger and older than Teddy, and well-disposed toward Teddy, and it was only half a block from the Park. At first Mrs. Gilfogle said she would charge nothing at all for the child; a final price for the two was placed at fifteen dollars a week. Martie suspected that the young Gilfogles would accompany Teddy and herself on their jaunts occasionally, and would help him scatter his stone blocks all over her floor on winter nights. But the luncheon for which they stayed was exceptionally good, and she was delighted with her big back room.
"I'm alone wid the two of thim to raise," said Mrs. Gilfogle. "I know what it is. He died on me just as I got three hundred dollars' worth of furniture in, God rest him. I didn't know would I ever pay for it at all, with Joe here at the breast, and Annie only walking. But I've had good luck these seven years! You'll not find elegance, but at that you'll never go hungry here. And you lost the child, too?--that was hard."
"My girl would be three," Martie said wistfully. And suddenly reminded, she thought that she would take Teddy and go to see the old Doctor and Mrs. Converse.
That they welcomed her almost with tears of joy, and that her improved appearance and spirits gave them genuine parental delight was only a part of her new experience. Mrs. Converse wanted her to settle down with Teddy in her old room. Martie would not do that; she must be near the subway, she said, but she promised them many a Sunday dinner-hour.
"And that Mrs. Dryden got divorced, but she never married again," marvelled the old lady mildly.
"Oh, she didn't marry her doctor, then?"
"No, I think somebody told Doctor that she couldn't. Wasn't she just the kind of woman who could spoil the lives of two good men? Somebody told Doctor that the doctor was reconciled to his wife, and they went away from New York, but I don't know."
Martie wondered. She thought that she would look up the doctor's name in the telephone book, anyway, and perhaps chance an anonymous telephone call. Suppose she asked for Mrs. Cooper, and Adele answered?
But before she did so, she met Adele. She had held her new position for six weeks then, and Indian Summer was giving way to the delicious coolness of the fall. Martie was in a department store, Teddy beside her, when a woman came smiling up to her, and laid a hand on her arm. She recognized a changed Adele. The beauty was not gone, but it seemed to have faded and shrunk upon itself; Adele's bright eyes were ringed with lead, the old coquetry of manner was almost shocking.
"Martie," said Adele, "this is my sister, Mrs. Baker."
Mrs. Baker, a big wholesome woman, who looked, Martie thought, as if she might have a delicate daughter, married young, and a husband prominent in the Eastern Star, and be herself a clever bridge player, and a most successful hostess and guest at women's hilarious lunch-eons, looked at the stranger truculently. She was a tightly corseted woman, with prominent teeth, and a good-natured smile. Martie felt sure that she always had good clothes, and wore white shoes in summer, and could be generous without any glimmering of a sense of justice. She was close to fifty.
"How do, Mrs. Bannister," she said heartily. "I've heard Adele mention your name. How do you think she looks? I think she looks like death. How do, dear?" she added to Teddy. "Are you mama's boy? I don't live in New York like you do; I live in Browning, Indiana. Don't you think that's a funny place to live? But it's a real pretty place just the same."
"Have you had your lunch?" Adele was asking. "We haven't. I was kept by the girl at the milliner's--"
It was one o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. Martie was free to lunch where she pleased. She was free even to sit down with a woman whose name was under a cloud. They all crowded into an express elevator, and sat down at a table in the restaurant on the twelfth floor.
Presently the unreality of it faded from Martie's uppermost consciousness and she began to enjoy herself. To sit with the wife of a Mystic Shriner, and the woman who had done what Adele had done, and whose husband incidentally was deeply devoted to herself, was not according to Monroe. But she was in New York!
"I guess I was a silly girl, misled by a man of the world," Adele was saying in her old, complaining, complacent voice. "I know I was a fool, Martie, but don't men do that sort of thing all the time, and get over it? Why should us women pay all the time? You know as well as I do that John Dryden was just as queer as Dick's hatband; I was hungering, as a girl will, for pleasure and excitement--"
"It was a dirty crime, the way that doctor acted," Mrs. Baker contributed, her tone much pleasanter than her words. "He must have been a skunk, if you ask me. Adele here was wrong, Mrs. Bannister; you and I won't quarrel about that. But Adele wasn't nothing but a child at heart--"
"I believed anything he told me!" Adele drawled, playing with her knife and fork, her lashes dropped.
"Dryden," the loyal sister continued majestically, "threw her over the second he got a chance; that's what she got for putting up with him for all those years! And then, if you please, this other feller discovers that he can't get rid of his wife. I came on then," she said warmly as Martie murmured her sympathy, "and I says to Adele, throw the whole crowd of them down. Billy Baker and I have plenty, and my daughter--Ruby, she's a lovely girl and she's married an elegant feller whose people own about all the lumber interests in our part of the country--she doesn't need anything from us. But if you ask me, it's just about killed Adele," she went on frankly, glancing at her sister, "she looks like a sick girl to me. We came on two or three days ago, to see a specialist about her, and I declare I'll be glad to get her back."
"What has become of Dr. Cooper?" Martie felt justified in asking.
"He lost all the practice he ever had, they say," Mrs. Baker said viciously. "And good enough for him, too! His wife won't even see him, and he lives at some boarding-house; and serve him right!"
"And Jack's book such a success!" Adele said, widening her eyes at Martie. "Do you ever see him?"
"He's got a great friend in Dean Silver, the novelist," Martie answered composedly. "I believe they're abroad."
"The idea!" Adele said lifelessly. She was playing with her bracelets now, and looked about her in an aimless way.
"Well, if this little girl has any sense she'll let the past be the past," remarked the optimistic Mrs. Baker. "There's a fellow out our way, Joe Chase; he's got a cattle ranch. You never heard of him? He's a di'mond in the rough, if you ask me, but he's been crazy about Adele ever since she first visited me. He'd give her anything in God's world."
"But I think I'd die of loneliness winters!" Adele said, with the smile of a petted child.
So there was a third man eager to sacrifice his life to her, Martie marvelled. Adele would consider herself a martyr if she succumbed to the wiles of the rough diamond; she would puzzle and distress him in his ranch-house; she would Fret and exact and complain. Probably one of the Swedish farmers thereabout could give him a daughter who would make him an infinitely better wife, and bear him children, and worship him blindly. But no; he must yearn for this neurotic, abnormal little creature, with her ugly history and her barren brain and body.
"Isn't it funny how unlucky I am, Martie?" Adele asked at parting. "If you'll tell me why one woman has to have so much bad luck, and others just sail along on the top of the wave, I'll be obliged to you!" She came close to Martie, her faded, bitter little face flushing suddenly. "Now this Mrs. Cooper," she said in a low tone, "her father was a shoe manufacturer, and left her half a million dollars. Of course, it's a snap for her to say she'll do this, and say she'll do that! She says it's for the children she refuses the divorce, but the real reason is she wants him back. She can live in New York--"
Adele's voice trailed off disconsolately. Martie felt a genuine pang of sympathy for the unhappy little creature whose one claim had been of sex, and who had made her claim so badly.
"Write me now and then!" she said warmly.
"Oh, I will!" Adele stretched up to kiss the taller woman, and Mrs. Baker kissed her, too. Martie went away smiling; over all its waste and suffering life was amusing, after all.
Would John, with his irregular smile and his sea-blue eyes and his reedy voice, also come back into her life some day? She could not say. The threads of human intercourse were tangled enough to make living a blind business at best, and she had deliberately tangled the web that held them even more deeply than life had done. Before he himself was back from long wandering, before he learned that she was in the city, and that there had been no second marriage, months, perhaps years, must go by.
Martie accepted the possibility serenely. She asked nothing better than work and companionship, youth and health, and Teddy. Every day was a separate adventure in happiness; she had never been happy before.
And suppose this was only the beginning, she wondered. Suppose real achievement and real success lay ahead? Suppose she was one of the women to whom California would some day point with pride? Deep in her singing heart she suspected that it was true. How it was to come about she could only guess. By her pen, of course. By some short story suddenly inspired, or by one of her flashing articles on the women's problems of the day. She was not a Shakespeare, not a George Eliot, but she had something for which the world would pay.
Nine years since the September when Rodney Parker had flashed into her world; a long nine years. Sitting under her green-shaded reading lamp, Martie reviewed them, for herself, and for Sally. She and Sally had thought of Dr. Ben as only an amiable theorist then, but there had been nothing theoretical about the help he had given Sally and Joe with their problem.
Martie had solved her own alone. Rodney, Pa, Wallace, and John had all entered into it, but no one of them had helped her. It was in spite of them rather than because of them that she was sitting here poised, established, needed at last. She saw her life to-night as a long road, climbing steadily up from the fields and valleys, mounting, sometimes in storm, and sometimes in fog, but always mounting toward the mountains. Rose and Adele and Lydia were content with the lowlands, the quiet, sunny plains below. She must have the heights.
There were other women seeking that rising road; perhaps she might help them. Love and wifehood and motherhood she had known, now she would know the joy of perfected expression, the fulfillment of the height. She dedicated herself solemnly, joyfully, to the claim of the years ahead. Ten years ago she might have said that at twenty- eight the best of a woman's life was over. Now she knew that she had only begun to live.