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Chapter III

The big train moved smoothly. Martie, her arm laid against the window, felt it thrill her to her heart. She smiled steadily as she watched the group on the platform, and Sally, Joe, and all the others who had come to say good-bye smiled steadily back. Sometimes they shouted messages; but they all were secretly anxious for the train to move, and Martie, for all her smiling and nodding, was in a fever to be gone.

They vanished; all the faces she knew. The big train slid through Monroe. Martie had a last glimpse of Mason and White's--of the bridge--of the winery with its pyramids of sweet-smelling purple refuse. Outlying ranches, familiar from Sunday walks and drives, slipped by. Down near the old Archer ranch, Henry Prout was driving his mother into town. The surrey and the rusty white horse were smothered in sulphurous dust. It seemed odd to Martie that Henny was driving Mrs. Prout into town with an air of actual importance; Henny was clean, and the old lady had on cotton gloves and a stiff gray percale. Yet they were only going to hot little Monroe. Martie was going to New York!

All her life she remembered the novelty and delight of the trip. Wallace was at his best; the new hat had its share in the happy recollection. The dining car, the berths, the unchanging routine of the day--all charmed her.

She watched her first thunder storm in Chicago with awed pleasure. The hour came, when, a little jaded, feeling dirty and tumbled, feeling excited and headachy and nervous, Martie saw her neighbours in the car begin to straighten garments and gather small possessions. They were arriving!

She was silent, as first impressions jumbled themselves together in her tired brain. Wallace, at her elbow, was eager with information.

"Look, Mart--this is the Grand Central. They're going to tear all this down! Look--that's the subway--those hoods, where the people are going down! See over that way--this is Forty-Second Street, one of the biggest cross-streets there is--and over that way is Broadway! We can't take the subway, I wish we could--you wait until you see the expresses! But I'll tell you what we'll do, we'll go over and take a 'bus, on the Avenue--see, here's a Childs'--see, there's the new Library! Climb right up on the 'bus, if you get a chance, because then we can see the Park!"

Bewildered, dirty, tired, she stumbled along at his side, her eyes moving rapidly over the strange crowds, the strange buildings, the strange streets and crossings. That must be an elevated train banging along; here was a park, with men packed on the benches, and newspapers blowing lazily on the paths. And shops in all the basements--why had no one ever told her that there were shops in all the basements? And a placid church facade breaking this array of trimmed windows and crowded little enterprises! It was hot: she felt her forehead wet, her clothes seemed heavy and sticky, and her head ached dully.

"Howd' you like it?" Wallace asked enthusiastically.

"I love it, sweetheart!"

Wallace, frankly embarrassed for money, took her at once to Mrs. Curley's big boarding-house in East Seventieth Street, where the Cluetts had stayed.

Mabel had told Martie that "Grandma Curley" was a "character." She was a plain, shrewd, kindly old woman, who lived in an old brownstone house that had been acquired after his death, Martie learned, for a bad debt of her husband's making. She liked everybody and believed in nobody; smiling a deep, mysterious smile when her table or her management was praised. She eyed Martie's fresh beauty appraisingly, immediately suspected her condition, was given the young wife's unreserved confidence, and, with a few brief pieces of advice, left her new boarders entirely to their own devices. Wallace's daring compliments fell upon unhearing ears; she would not lower her prices for anybody, she said. They could have the big room for eighteen, or the little one for fourteen dollars a week.

"Sixteen for the big one! You know you like our looks," said Wallace.

"I'd be losing money on it, Mr. Bannister. You can take it or leave it, just as you like."

He was a little daunted by her firmness, but in the end he told Martie that eighteen was cheap enough, and as she scattered her belongings about, his wife gave a happy assent. It was fun to be married and be boarding in New York.

She was too confused, too excited, to eat her dinner. They were both in wild spirits; and went out after dinner to take an experimental ride on the elevated train. That evening the trunk came, and Martie, feeling still in a whirl of new impressions, unpacked in the big bare bedroom; as pleased as a child to arrange her belongings in the empty bureau or hang them in the shallow closet. She had been looking forward, for five hot days, to the pleasure of a bath and a quiet bed. The bath was not to be had; neither faucet in the bathroom ran hot; but the bed was deliciously comfortable, and Martie tumbled into it with only one thought in her head:

"Anyway, whatever happens now--I'm here in New York!"

The first few days of exploration were somewhat affected by the fact that Wallace had almost no money; yet they were glorious days, filled with laughter and joy. The heat of summer had no terrors for Martie as yet, she was all enthusiasm and eagerness. They ate butter cakes and baked apples at Child's, they bought fruit and ice cream bricks and walked along eating them. All New York was eating, and panting, and gasping in the heat. They went to Liberty Island, and climbed the statue, and descended into the smothering subway to be rushed to the Bronx Zoo.

And swiftly the city claimed Martie's heart and mind and body, swiftly she partook of its freedom, of its thousand little pleasures for the poor, of its romance and pathos and ugliness and beauty. Even to the seasoned New Yorkers she met, she seemed to hold some key to what was strange and significant.

Italian women, musing bareheaded and overburdened in the cars, Rabbis with their patriarchal beards, slim saleswomen who wore masses of marcelled curls and real Irish lace, she watched them all. She drank in the music of the Park concerts, she dreamed in the libraries, she eagerly caught the first brassy mutter of the thunder storms.

"If five million other people can make a living here, can't we?" she amused Wallace by asking with spirit.

"There's something in that!" he assured her.

A day came when Wallace shaved and dressed with unusual care, and went to see Dawson. Hovering about him anxiously at his toilet, his wife had reminded him bravely that if Dawson failed, there were other managers; Dawson was not the only one! The great thing was that he was here, ready for them.

Dawson, however, did not fail him. Wallace came back buoyantly with the contract. He had been less than a week in New York, and look at it! Seventy-five dollars a week in a new play. Rehearsals were to start at once.

The joy that she had always felt awaited her in New York was Martie's now! She told Wallace that she had known that New York meant success. She went to his rehearsals, feeling herself a proud part of the whole enterprise, keenly appreciative of the theatre atmosphere. When he went away with his company in late August, Martie saw him off cheerfully, moved to a smaller room, and began to plan for his return, and for the baby. She was in love with life-- she wrote Sally.

"You're lucky our climate don't affect you no more than it does," observed Mrs. Curley comfortably. "I suffer considerable from the heat, myself; but then, to tell you the honest truth, I'm fleshy."

"I like it!" Martie answered buoyantly. "The thunder storms are delicious! Why, at home the gardens are as dry as bones, now, and look at Central Park--as green as ever. And I love the hurdy-gurdies and the awnings and the elevated trains and the street markets!"

"I like the city," said the old woman, with a New Yorker's approval of this view. "My daughter wants me to go down and open a house in Asbury; she has a little summer place there, with a garage and all. But I tell her there's almost nobody in the house now, and we get a good draf' through the rooms. It's not so bad!"

"It's better for me," said the young wife, "because of the uncertainty of Mr. Bannister's plans."

"They're all uncertain--men," submitted Mrs. Curley thoughtfully. "That is, the nice ones are," she added. "You show me a man whose wife isn't always worrying about him and I'll show you a fool!"

"Which was Mr. Curley?" Martie asked, twinkling. For she and his relict were the only women in the big boarding-house during the hot months, and they had become intimate.

"Curley," said his widow solemnly, "was one of God's own. A better father seven children never had, nor a better neighbour any man! He'd be at his place in church on a Sunday be the weather what it might, and that strong in his opinions that the boys would ask him this and that like the priest himself! I'm not saying, mind you, that he wouldn't take a drop too much, now and then, and act very harshly when the drink was on him, but he'd come out of it like a little child---"

She fell into a reverie, repeating dreamily to herself the words "a- -little--child---" and Martie, dreaming, too, was silent.

The two women were in one of the cool back bedrooms. For hot still blocks all about the houses were just the same; some changed into untidy flats, some empty, some with little shops or agencies in their basements, and some, like this one, second-class boarding- houses. On Second and Third avenues, under the elevated trains, were miles of shops; all small shops, crowded upon each other. Every block had its two or three saloons, its meat market, its delicacy store, its tiny establishments where drygoods and milk and shoes and tobacco and fruit and paints and drugs and candies and hats were sold, and the women who drifted up and down all morning shopping usually patronized the nearest store. In the basements were smaller stores where ice and coal and firewood and window-glass and tinware might be had, and along the street supplementary carts of fruit and vegetables were usually aligned, so that, especially to inexperienced eyes like Martie's, the whole presented a delightfully distracting scene.

She accepted the fact that Wallace must come and go as best suited his engagements. Her delight in every novel phase of life in the big city fired his own enthusiasm, and it was with great satisfaction that he observed her growing friendship with Mrs. Curley.

There were four or five men in the boarding-house, but they usually disappeared after an early breakfast and did not come back until supper, so that the two women had a long, idle day to themselves. Henny, the coloured maid, droned and laughed with friends of her own in the kitchen. Mrs. Curley, mighty, deep-voiced, with oily, graying hair and spotted clothes, spent most of the day in a large chair by the open window, and Martie, thinly dressed, wandered about aimlessly. She never tired of the old woman's pungent reminiscences, browsing at intervals on the old magazines and books that were scattered over the house, even going into the kitchen to convulse the appreciative Henny, and make a cake or pudding for dinner.

Summer smouldered in the city. The sun seemed to have been shining hot and merciless for hours when Martie rose at six, to stand yawning at her window. At nine families began to stream by, to the Park; perspiring mothers pushing the baby carriages, small children, already eating, staggering before and behind. By ten the streets were deserted, baked, silent, glaring. Martie and Mrs. Curley would establish themselves in a cool back room, as to-day, with a pitcher of iced tea near at hand.

Somehow the hot, empty hours dragged by. At four o'clock the two, with perhaps a friend or two who had come in, would begin to gasp that this was the worst yet. This was awful. The heat had a positive and brassy quality, there was no air stirring. The children in the Park would drag home in the hot sunset light, tired, dirty, whining, and a breathless evening follow the burning day. Then Martie and Mrs. Curley and mild little Mr. Bull and bellicose Mr. Snow would perhaps sit on the steps until eleven o'clock, exchanging pleasantries with various neighbours, wilted like themselves in the furnace of the day.

Martie liked the sense of extremes, as they all did. In a few months they would be shaking their heads over a blizzard with the same solemn enjoyment. She liked the suddenly darkening sky, the ominous rattle of thunder; "like boxes being smashed," she wrote Sally. She fairly sang when the rain began to stream down, washing, cooling, cleansing.

From the window of the back bedroom she looked down to-day upon a stretch of bare, fenced backyards. Here and there a cat slept in the shade, or moved silently from shadow to shadow. From some of the opposite windows strings of washed garments depended, and upon one fire-escape two girls were curled, talking and reading.

Her hostess was the source of much affectionate amusement to Martie, and as the old lady liked nothing so much as an appreciative listener, they got on splendidly. Martie laughed at the older woman's accounts of quarrels, births, and law-suits, thrilled over the details of sudden deaths, murders, and mysteries, and drank in with a genuine dramatic appreciation the vision of a younger, simpler city. No subway, no telephones, no motor cars, no elevated roads--what had New York been like when Mrs. Curley was a bride? Booth and Parepa Rosa and Adelina Patti walked the boards again; the terrible Civil War was fought; the draft riots raged in the streets; the great President was murdered. There was no old family in the city of whose antecedents Mrs. Curley did not know something. "The airs of them!" she would say, musing over a newspaper list of "among those present." "I could tell them something!"

Martie did not understand how any woman could really be content with this dark old house, this business, these empty days, but she realized that Mrs. Curley was free to adopt some other mode of living had she pleased. Gradually Martie pieced the old woman's history together; there had been plenty of change, prosperity, and excitement in her life. She had had seven children, only three of whom were living: Mary, a prosperous, big matron whose husband, Joe Cunningham, had some exalted position on the Brooklyn police force; Ralph, who was a priest in California; and George, the youngest, a handsome ne'er-do-well of about twenty-five, who was a "heart scald." George floated about his own and neighbouring cities, only coming to see his mother when no other refuge offered.

The four children who had died were quite as much in their mother's thoughts and conversation, and probably more in her prayers, than the living ones. Of "Curley," too, Martie heard much. She was able to picture a cheerful, noisy home, full of shouting, dark, untidy- headed children, with an untidy-headed servant, a scatter-brained mother, and an unexacting father in charge. "Curley" usually went to sleep on the sofa after dinner, and Mrs. Curley's sister, Mrs. Royce, with her children, or her sister-in-law, "Mrs. Dan," with hers, came over to pick up the Curleys on the way to a Mission sermon, a church concert, or a meeting of the Women's Auxiliary of the Saint Vincent de Paul.

"... Or else maybe the priest would step in," said Mrs. Curley, remembering these stirring days, "or often I'd take Mollie or Katie- -God rest her!--and go over to see the Sisters. But many a night there'd be sickness in the house--Curley had two cousins and an aunt that died on us--and then I'd be there sitting up with the medicines, and talking with this one and that. I was never one to run away from sickness, nor death either for that matter. I'm a great hand with death in the house; there's no sole to my foot when I'm needed! I'll never forget the day that I went over to poor Aggie Lemmon's house--she was a lovely woman who lived round the corner from me. Well, I hadn't been thinking she looked very well for several weeks, do you see?--and I passed the remark to my brother Thomas's wife--God rest her---"

A reminiscence would follow. Martie never tired of them. Whether she was held, just now, in the peaceful, unquestioning mood that precedes a serious strain on mind and body, or whether her old hostess really had had an unusually interesting experience, she did not then or ever decide. She only knew that she liked to sit playing solitaire in the hot evenings, under a restricted cone of light, with Mrs. Curley sitting in the darkness by the window, watching the lively street, fanning herself comfortably, and pouring forth the history of the time Curley gave poor Ralph a "crule" beating, or of the day Alicia Curley died in convulsions at the age of three.

Martie had hoped to be in her own little home when the baby came, but this was swiftly proven impossible. Wallace's play failed after the wonderful salary had been paid for only eight weeks. He idled about with his wife for a few happy weeks, and then got another engagement with a small comic opera troupe, and philosophically and confidently went on the road. Presently he was home again and in funds, but this time it was only a few days before the next parting.

The golden Indian Summer came, and the city blazed in glorious colour. Homecoming began; the big houses on the Avenue were opened. Martie never saw the burning leaves of September in later years without a memory of the poignant uneasiness with which she first had walked beneath them, worrying about money, about Wallace's prospects, about herself and her child. Many of her walks were filled with imaginary conversations with her husband, in which she argued, protested, reproached. She was lonely, she was still strange to the city, and she was approaching her ordeal.

Even when he was with her, she missed the old loverlike attitude. She was wistful, gentle, dependent now, and she knew her wistfulness and gentleness and dependence vaguely irritated. But she could not help it; she wanted to touch him, to cling to him, to have him praise and encourage her, and tell her how much he loved her.

Her hour came near, and she went bravely to meet it. Wallace was in Baltimore, playing juvenile roles in a stock company. Martie went alone to the big hospital, and put herself into the hands of a capable but indifferent young nurse, who candidly explained that she had more patients than she could care for without the newcomer. Martie, frightened by the businesslike preparations and the clean, ether-scented rooms, submitted and obeyed with a sick heart. Through the dull quiet of a dark November day the first snow of the season, the first Martie had ever seen, began to flutter. Moving restlessly about her little room, she stopped at the window to look out upon it through a haze of pain.

Heat and hot lights, strange halls, a strange doctor, and early evening in a great operating-room; she had only a dazed impression of them all. Life roared and crackled about her. She leaped into the offered oblivion with no thought of what it might entail....

After a long while she awakened, in a peaceful dawning, to hear nurses cheerfully chatting, and the boy warmly fussing and grunting in his basket. The little room was flooded with sunlight, sunlight bright on a snowy world, and the young women who had been so casually indifferent to another woman's agony were proudly awake to the charms of the baby. The cocoon was lifted; Martie in a tremor of love and tenderness looked down at the scowling, wrinkled little face.

Instantly terror for his safety, for his health, for his immortal soul possessed her. She looked uneasily at Miss Everett, when that nurse bore him away. Did the woman realize what motherhood meant? Did she dream the value of that flannel bundle she was so jauntily carrying?

Kathleen Norris

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