The Vertical City
Part 3 out of 5
whistles, oaths, barterings, women, strife, life. On her very
own ceiling the whisper of footsteps--of restless comings and
goings--stealthy comings and goings--and then after an hour,
suddenly and ever so softly, the ball-of-a-foot--squeak!
Marylin knew that step.
And yet she sat, quiet. A star had come out. Looking up at the napkin of
sky let in through the walls of the vertical city, Marylin had learned
to greet it almost every clear evening. It did something for her. It
was a little voice. A little kiss. A little upside down pool of light
without a spill. A little of herself up there in that beyond--that
little napkin of beyond that her eyes had the lift to see.
* * * * *
Who are you, whose neck has never ached from nine hours a day, six days
a week, of bending over the blue-denim pleat that goes down the front
of men's shirts, to quiver a supersensitive, supercilious, and superior
nose over what, I grant you, may appear on the surface to be the omelet
of vulgarities fried up for you on the gladdest, maddest strip of
carnival in the world?
But it is simpler to take on the cold glaze of sophistication than to
remain simple. When the eyelids become weary, it is as if little
red dancing shoes were being wrapped away forever, or a very tight
heartstring had suddenly sagged, and when plucked at could no longer
To Marylin, whose neck very often ached clear down into her shoulder
blade and up into a bandeau around her brow, and to whom city walls
were sometimes like slaps confronting her whichever way she turned, her
enjoyment of Coney Island was as uncomplex as A B C. Untortured by any
awarenesses of relative values, too simple to strive to keep simple,
unself-conscious, and with a hungry heart, she was not a spectator, half
ashamed of being amused. She _was_ Coney Island! Her heart a shoot the
chutes for sheer swoops of joy, her eyes full of confetti points, the
surf creaming no higher than her vitality.
And it was so the evening following, as she came dancing down the
kicked-up sand of the beach, in a little bright-blue frock, mercerized
silk, if you please, with very brief sleeves that ended right up in the
jolliest part of her arm, with a half moon of vaccination winking out
roguishly beneath a finish of ribbon bow, and a white-canvas sport hat
with a jockey rosette to cap the little climax of her, and by no means
least, a metal coin purse, with springy insides designed to hold exactly
fifty cents in nickels.
Once on the sand, which ran away, tickling each step she took, her
spirits, it must be admitted, went just a little crazily off. The
window, you see, where Marylin sewed her buttonholes six days the week,
faced a brick wall that peeled with an old scrofula of white paint.
Coney Island faced a world of sky. So that when she pinched Getaway's
nose in between the lips of her coin purse and he, turning a double
somersault right in his checked suit, landed seated in a sprawl of mock
daze, off she went into peals of laughter only too ready to be released.
He bought her a wooden whirring machine, an instrument of noise that,
because it was not utilitarian, became a toy of delicious sound.
They rode imitation ocean waves at five cents a voyage, their only _mal
de mer_, regret when it was over. He bought her salt-water taffy, and
when the little red cave of her mouth became too ludicrously full of the
pully stuff he tried to kiss its state of candy paralysis, and instantly
she became sober and would have no more of his nonsense.
"Getaway," she cried, snapping fingers of inspiration, "let's go in
"I'll say we will!"
No sooner said than done. In rented bathing suits, unfastidious, if you
will, but, pshaw! with the ocean for wash day, who minded! Hers a little
blue wrinkly one that hit her far too far, below the knees, but her head
flowered up in a polka-dotted turban, that well enough she knew bound
her up prettily, and her arms were so round with that indescribable
softiness of youth! Getaway, whose eyes could focus a bit when he looked
at them, set up a leggy dance at sight of her. He shocked her a bit in
his cheap cotton trunks--woman's very old shock to the knobby knees and
hairy arms of the beach. But they immediately ran, hand in hand, down
the sand and fizz! into the grin of a breaker.
Marylin with her face wet and a fringe of hair, like a streak of
seaweed, down her cheek! Getaway, shivery and knobbier than ever,
pushing great palms of water at her and she back at him, only less
skillfully her five fingers spread and inefficient. Once in the water,
he caught and held her close, and yet, for the wonder of it, almost
reverentially close, as if what he would claim for himself he must keep
"Marry me, Marylin," he said, with all the hubbub of the ocean about
She reached for some foam that hissed out before she could touch it.
"That's you," he said. "Now you are there, and now you aren't."
"I wish," she said--"oh, Getaway, there's so much I wish!"
"What do you wish?"
She looked off toward the immensity of sea and sky. "I--Oh, I don't
know! Being here makes me wish--Something as beautiful as out there is
what I wish."
"I don't see--"
And then, because neither of them could swim, he began chasing her
through shallow water, and in the kicked-up spray of their own merriment
they emerged finally, dripping and slinky, the hairs of his forearms
lashed flat, and a little drip of salt water running off the tip of her
Until long after the sun went down they lay drying on the sand, her
hair spread in a lovely amber flare, and, stretched full length on his
stomach beside her, he built a little grave of sand for her feet. And
the crowd thinned, and even before the sun dipped a faint young moon,
almost as if wearing a veil, came up against the blue. They were quiet
now with pleasant fatigue, and, propped up on his elbows, he spilled
little rills of sand from one fist into the other.
"Gee! you're pretty, Marylin!"
"Are I, Getaway?"
"You know you are. You wasn't born with one eye shut and the other
"Honest, I don't know. Sometimes I look in the mirror and hope so."
"You've had enough fellows tell you so."
"Yes, but--but not the kind of fellows that mean by pretty what _I_ mean
"Well, this here guy means what you mean by pretty."
"What do you mean by pretty, Getaway?"
"Pep. Peaches. Cream. Teeth. Yellow hair. Arms. Le--those little holes
in your cheeks. Dimples. What do I mean by pretty? I mean you by pretty.
Ain't that what you want me to mean by pretty?"
"Well, what the--"
"It's all right, Getaway. It's fine to be pretty, but--not
enough--somehow. I--I can't explain it to you--to anybody. I guess
pretty isn't the word. It's beauty I mean."
"All right, then, anything your little heart desires--beauty."
"The ocean beauty out there, I mean. Something that makes you hurt
and want to hurt more and more. Beauty, Getaway. It's something you
understand or something you don't. It can't be talked. It sounds silly."
"Well, then, whistle it!"
"It has to be _felt_."
"Peel me," he said, laying her arm to his bare bicep. "Some little
gladiator, eh? Knock the stuffings out of any guy that tried to take you
away from me."
She turned her head on its flare of drying hair away from him. The beach
was all but quiet and the haze of the end of day in the air, almost in
her eyes, too.
"Oh, Getaway!" she said, on a sigh, and again, "Getaway!"
His reserve with her, at which he himself was the first to marvel,
went down a little then and he seized her bare arm, kissing it, almost
sinking his teeth. The curve of her chin down into her throat, as she
turned her head, had maddened him.
"Quit," she said.
"Never you mind. You'll wear diamonds," he said, in his sole phraseology
of promise. "Will you get sore if I ask you something, Fairylin?"
"Want one now?"
"No," she said. "When I'm out here I quit wanting things like that."
"Fine chance a fellow has to warm up to you!"
"What did you do last night, after you walked home with me?"
"You know when."
"Why, bless your heart, I went home, Fairylin!"
"You were up in Monkey's room last night about eleven. Now think,
"Nobody can fool me on your step. You tiptoed for all you were worth,
but I knew it! The-ball-of your-foot--squeak! The-ball-of-your
"Sure enough, now you mention it, maybe for a minute around eleven, but
only for a minute--"
"Please, Getaway, don't lie. It was for nearly all night. Comings and
goings on my ceiling until I couldn't sleep, not because they were so
noisy, but because they were so soft. Like ugly whispers. Is Monkey the
friend you got the deal on with, Getaway?"
"We just sat up there talking old times--"
"And Muggs, about eleven o'clock, sneaking up through the halls, dressed
like the messenger boy again. I saw him when I peeked out of the door to
see who it was tiptoeing. Getaway, for God's sake--"
He closed over her wrist then, his face extremely pointed. It was a bony
face, so narrow that the eyes and the cheek bones had to be pitched
close, and his black hair, usually so shiny, was down in a bang now,
because it was damp, and to Marylin there was something sinister in that
dip of bang which frightened her.
"What you don't know don't hurt you. You hear that? Didn't I tell you
that after a few days this business deal--_business_, get that?--will be
over. Then I'm going to hold down any old job your heart desires. But
first I'm going to have money in my pockets! That's the only way to make
this old world sit up and take notice. Spondulicks! Then I'm going to
carry you off and get spliced. See? Real money. Diamonds. If you weren't
so touchy, maybe you'd have diamonds sooner than you think. Want one
"Getaway, I know you're up to something. You and Monkey and Muggs are
tied up with those Wall Street bond getaways."
"For the luvagod, cut that talk here! First thing I know you'll have me
in a brainstorm too."
"Those fake messenger boys that get themselves hired and, instead of
delivering the bonds from one office to another--disappear with them.
Muggs isn't wearing that messenger's uniform for nothing. You and Monkey
are working with him under cover on something. You can't pass a cop any
more without tightening up. I can feel it when I have your arm. You've
got that old over-your-shoulder look to you, Getaway. My father--had it.
"By gad! you can't beat a woman!"
"You don't deny it."
"Oh, Getaway, I'm glad then, glad!"
"Over-the-shoulder look. Why, if I'd meet a plain-clothes this minute
I'd go up and kiss him--with my teeth in his ear. That's how much I got
to be afraid of."
"Oh, Getaway, I'm so glad!"
"Well, then, lay off--"
"Getaway, you jumped then! Like somebody had hit you, and it was only a
kid popping a paper bag."
"You get on my nerves. You'd make a cat nervous, with your suspecting!
The more a fellow tries to do for a girl like you the less--Look here
now, you got to get the hell out of my business."
She did not reply, but lay to the accompaniment of his violent
nervousness and pinchings into the sand, with her face still away from
him, while the dusk deepened and the ocean quieted.
After a while: "Now, Marylin, don't be sore. I may be a rotten egg some
ways, but when it comes to you, I'm there."
"I'm not sore, Getaway," she said, with her voice still away from him.
"Only I--Let's not talk for a minute. It's so quiet out here--so full of
He sat, plainly troubled, leaning back on the palms of his hands and
dredging his toes into the sand. In the violet light the tender line of
her chin to her throat still teased him.
Down farther along the now deserted beach a youth in a bathing suit was
playing a harmonica, his knees hunched under his chin, his mouth and
hand sliding at cross purposes along the harp. That was the silhouette
of him against a clean sky, almost Panlike, as if his feet might be
What he played, if it had any key at all, was rather in the mood of
Chopin's Nocturne in D flat major. A little sigh for the death of a day,
a sob for the beauty of that death, and a hope and ecstasy for the new
day yet unborn--all of that on a little throbbing mouth organ.
"Getaway," cried Marylin, and sat up, spilling sand, "that's it! That's
what I meant a while ago. Hear? It can't be talked. That's it on the
"It! Yes, like I said. Somebody has to feel it inside of him, just like
I do, before he can understand. Can't you feel it? Please! Listen."
"Aw, that's an old jew's-harp. I'll buy you one. How's that?"
"All right, I guess," she said, starting off suddenly toward the
He was relieved that she had thrown off the silence.
"Ain't mad any more, are you, Marylin?"
"No, Getaway--not mad."
"Mustn't get fussy that way with me, Marylin. It scares me off. I've had
something to show you all day, but you keep scaring me off."
"What is it?" she said, tiptoe.
His mouth drew up to an oblique. "You know."
"No, I don't."
"Maybe I'll tell you and maybe I won't," he cried, scooping up a handful
of sand and spraying her. "What'll you give me if I tell?"
"Want to know?"
But at the narrowing something in his eyes she sidestepped him, stooping
down at the door of her bathhouse for a last scoop of sand at him.
"No," she cried, her hair blown like spray and the same breeze carrying
her laughter, guiltless of mood, out to sea.
On the way home, though, for the merest second, there recurred the
puzzling quirk in her thoughtlessness.
In the crush of the electric train, packed tightly into the heart of
the most yammering and petulant crowd in the world--home-going pleasure
seekers--a youth rose to give her his seat. A big, beach-tanned fellow
with a cowlick of hair, when he tipped her his hat, standing up off his
right brow like a little apostrophe to him, and blue eyes so very wide
apart, and so clear, that they ran back into his head like aisles with
little lakes shining at the ends of them.
"Thank you," said Marylin, the infinitesimal second while his hat and
cowlick lifted, her own gaze seeming to run down those avenues of his
eyes for a look into the pools at the back.
"That was it, too, Getaway! The thing that fellow looked--that I
couldn't say. He said it--with his eyes."
"That fellow who gave me this seat."
"I'll break his face if he goo-goos you," said Getaway, who by this time
had a headache and whose feet had fitted reluctantly back into patent
But inexplicably, even to herself, that night, in the shadow of the
stoop of her witch of a rooming house, she let him kiss her lips. His
first of her--her first to any man. It may have been that suddenly she
was so extremely tired--tired of the lay of the week ahead, suggested by
the smells and the noises and the consciousness of that front box pleat.
The little surrender, even though she drew back immediately, was wine to
him and as truly an intoxicant.
"Marylin," he cried, wild for her lips again, "I can't be held off much
longer. I'm straight with you, but I'm human, too."
"Don't, Getaway, not here! To-morrow--maybe."
"I'm crazy for you!"
"Go home now, Getaway."
"Yes--but just one more--"
"Promise me you'll go straight home from here--to bed."
"I promise. Marylin, one more. One little more. Your lips--"
"No, no--not now. Go--"
Suddenly, by a quirk in the dark, there was a flash of something down
Marylin's bare third finger, so hurriedly and so rashly that it scraped
"That's for you! I've been afraid all day. Touchy! Didn't I tell you?
Diamonds! Now will you kiss me? Now will you?"
In the shadow of where she stood, looking down, it was as if she gazed
into a pool of fire that was reaching in flame clear up about her head,
and everywhere in the conflagration Getaway's triumphant "Now will you!
Now will you!"
"Getaway," she cried, flecking her hand as if it burned, "where did you
"It's for you, Fairylin, and more like it coming. It weighs a carat and
a half. That stone's worth more than a sealskin jacket. You're going to
have one of those, too. Real seal! Now are you sore at me any more? Now
you've a swell kick coming, haven't you? Now! Now!"
"Getaway," she cried behind her lit hand, because her palm was to her
mouth and above it her eyes showing the terror in their whites, "where
did you get this?"
"There!" he said, and kissed her hotly and squarely on the lips.
Somehow, with the ring off her finger and in a little pool of its light
as it lay at his feet, where he stood dazed on the sidewalk, Marylin
was up the stoop, through the door, up two flights, and through her
own door, slamming it, locking it, and into her room, rubbing and half
crying over her left third finger where the flash had been.
She was frightened, because for all of an hour she sat on the end of the
cot in her little room trembling and with her palms pressed into her
eyes so tightly that the darkness spun. There was quick connection in
Marylin between what was emotional and what was merely sensory. She
knew, from the sickness at the very pit of her, how sick were her heart
and her soul--and how afraid.
She undressed in the dark--a pale darkness relieved by a lighted window
across the areaway. The blue mercerized dress she slid over a hanger,
covering it with one of her cotton nightgowns and putting it into
careful place behind the cretonne curtain that served her as clothes
closet. Her petticoat, white, with a rill of lace, she folded away. And
then, in her bare feet and a pink-cotton nightgown with a blue bird
machine-stitched on the yoke, stood cocked to the hurry of indistinct
footsteps across her ceiling, and in the narrow slit of hallway
outside her door, where the stairs led up still another flight,
the-ball-of-a-foot--squeak! The sharp crack of a voice. Running.
"Getaway!" cried Marylin's heart, almost suffocating her with a dreadful
spasm of intuition.
It was all so quick. In the flash of her flung-open door, as her head
in its amber cloud leaned out, Getaway, bending almost double over
the upper banister, his lips in his narrow face back to show a white
terribleness of strain that lingered in the memory, hurled out an arm
suddenly toward two men mounting the steps of the flight below him.
There was a shot then, and on the lower flight one of the men, with
an immediate red mouth opening slowly in his neck, slid downstairs
backward, face up.
Suddenly, from a crouching position beside her door, the second
figure shot forward now, with ready and perfect aim at the
already-beginning-to-be-nerveless figure of Getaway hanging over the
banister with the smoking pistol.
By the reaching out of her right hand Marylin could have deflected that
perfect aim. In fact, her arm sprang toward just that reflex act, then
stayed itself with the jerk of one solid body avoiding collision with
So much quicker than it takes in the telling there marched across
Marylin's sickened eyes this frieze: Her father trailing dead from the
underslinging of a freight car. That moment when a uniform had stepped
in from the fire escape across the bolt of Brussels lace; her
mother's scream, like a plunge into the heart of a rapier.
Uniforms--contemplating. On street corners. Opposite houses. Those four
fingers peeping over each of her father's shoulders in the courtroom.
Getaway! His foxlike face leaner. Meaner. Black mask. Electric chair.
Volts. Ugh--volts! God--you know--best--help--
When the shot came that sent Getaway pitching forward down the
third-floor flight she was on her own room floor in a long and merciful
faint. Marylin had not reached out.
* * * * *
Time passed. Whole rows of days of buttonholes down pleats that were
often groped at through tears. Heavy tears like magnifying glasses. And
then, with that gorgeous and unassailable resiliency of youth, lighter
tears. Fewer tears. Few tears. No tears.
Under the cretonne curtain, though, the blue mercerized frock hung
unworn, and in its dark drawer remained the petticoat with its rill of
lace. But one night, with a little catch in her throat (it was the last
of her sobs), she took out the sport hat, and for no definite reason
began to turn the jockey rosette to the side where the sun had not faded
These were quiet evenings in her small room. All the ceiling agitation
had long ago ceased since the shame of the raided room above, and Muggs,
in his absurd messenger's suit, and Monkey marching down the three
flights to the clanking of steel at the wrists.
There were new footsteps now. Steps that she had also learned to know,
but pleasantly. They marched out so regularly of mornings, invariably
just as she was about to hook her skirtband or pull on her stockings.
They came home so patly again at seven, about as she sat herself down to
a bit of sewing or washing-out. They went to bed so pleasantly. Thud,
on the floor, and then, after the expectant interval of unlacing, thud
again. They were companionable, those footsteps, almost like reverential
marching on the grave of her heart.
Marylin reversed the rosette, and as the light began to go sat down
beside her window, idly, looking up. There was the star point in her
patch of sky, eating its way right through the purple like a diamond,
and her ache over it was so tangible that it seemed to her she could
almost lift the hurt out of her heart, as if it were a little imprisoned
bird. And as it grew darker there came two stars, and three, and nine,
and finally the sixty hundred.
Then from the zig of the fire escape above, before it twisted down into
the zag of hers, there came to Marylin, through the medley of city
silences and the tears in her heart, this melody, on a jew's-harp:
If it had any key at all, it was in the mood of Chopin's Nocturne in D
flat major. A little sigh for the death of a day, a sob for the beauty
of that death, and the throb of an ecstasy for the new day not yet born.
Looking up against the sheer wall of the vertical city, on the ledge of
fire escape above hers, and in the yellow patch of light thrown out from
the room behind, a youth, with his knees hunched up under his chin, and
his mouth and hand moving at cross purposes, was playing the harmonica.
Wide apart were his eyes, and blue, so that while she gazed up, smiling,
as he gazed down, smiling, it was almost as if she ran up the fire
escape through the long clear lanes of those eyes, for a dip into the
little twin lakes at the back of them.
And--why, didn't you know?--there was a lift of cowlick to the right
side of his front hair, as he sat there playing in the twilight, that
was exactly the shape of an apostrophe!
In the bleak little graveyard of Hattie Bertch's dead hopes, dead loves,
and dead ecstasies, more than one headstone had long since begun to sag
and the wreaths of bleeding heart to shrivel.
That was good, because the grave that is kept bubbly with tears is a
tender, quivering thing, almost like an amputated bit of self that still
aches with threads of life.
Even over the mound of her dead ambitions, which grave she had dug with
the fingers of her heart, Hattie could walk now with unsensitive feet.
It had become dry clay with cracks in it like sardonic smiles.
Smiles. That was the dreadful part, because the laugh where there
have been tears is not a nice laugh, and Hattie could sit among the
headstones of her dead dreams now and laugh. But not horridly. Just
There was one grave, Heart's Desire, that was still a little moist. But
it, too, of late years, had begun to sink in, like an old mouth with
receding gums, as if the very teeth of a smiling dream had rotted. They
Hattie, whose heart's desire had once been to play Juliet, played maids
now. Buxom negro ones, with pale palms, white eyes, and the beat of
kettledrums somewhere close to the cuticle of the balls of her feet.
She was irrevocably down on managers' and agents' lists as "comedy
black." Countless the premiers she had opened to the fleck of a duster!
Hattie came high, as maids go. One hundred and fifty dollars a week and
no road engagements. She dressed alone. Her part in "Love Me Long" had
been especially written in for the sake of the peculiar kind of comedy
relief she could bring to it. A light roar of recognition swept the
audience at her entrance. Once in a while, a handclap. So Hattie, whose
heart's desire had once been to play Juliet, played maids now. Buxomly.
And this same Hattie, whose heart's desire had once been to kiss Love,
but whose lips were still a little twisted with the taste of clay, could
kiss only Love's offspring now. But not bitterly. Thanksgivingly.
Love's offspring was Marcia. Sixteen and the color and odor of an ivory
fan that has lain in frangipani. And Hattie could sometimes poke her
tongue into her cheek over this bit of whimsy:
It was her well-paid effort in the burnt cork that made possible, for
instance, the frill of real lace that lay to the low little neck of
Marcia's first party dress, as if blown there in sea spume.
Out of the profits of Hattie's justly famous Brown Cold
Cream--Guaranteed Color-fast--Mulatto, Medium, Chocolate, had come
Marcia's ermine muff and tippet; the enamel toilet set; the Steinway
grand piano; the yearly and by no means light tuition toll at Miss
Harperly's Select Day School for Girls.
You get the whimsy of it? For everything fair that was Marcia, Hattie
had brownly paid for. Liltingly, and with the rill of the song of
thanksgiving in her heart.
That was how Hattie moved through her time. Hugging this melody of
Marcia. Through the knife-edged nervous evenings in the theater.
Bawlings. Purple lips with loose muscles crawling under the rouge.
Fetidness of scent on stale bodies. Round faces that could hook into the
look of vultures when the smell of success became as the smell of red
meat. All the petty soiled vanities, like the disordered boudoir of a
cocotte. The perpetual stink of perfume. Powder on the air and caking
the breathing. Open dressing-room doors that should have been closed.
The smelling geometry of the make-up box. Curls. Corsets. Cosmetics. Men
in undershirts, grease-painting. "Gawdalmighty, Tottie, them's my teddy
bears you're puttin' on." Raw nerves. Raw emotions. Ego, the actor's
overtone, abroad everywhere and full of strut. "Overture!" The wait in
the wings. Dizziness at the pit of the stomach. Audiences with lean jaws
etched into darkness. Jaws that can smile or crack your bones and eat
you. Faces swimming in the stage ozone and wolfish for cue. The purple
Almost like a frieze stuck on to the border of each day was Hattie's
life in the theater. Passementerie.
That was how Hattie treated it. Especially during those placid years of
the phenomenal New York run of "Love Me Long." The outer edge of her
reality. The heart of her reality? Why, the heart of it was the long
morning hours in her own fragrant kitchen over doughnuts boiled in oil
and snowed under in powdered sugar! Cookies that bit with a snap. Filet
of sole boned with fingers deft at it and served with a merest fluff of
tartar sauce. Marcia ate like that. Preciously. Pecksniffily. An egg at
breakfast a gag to the sensibilities! So Hattie ate hers in the kitchen,
standing, and tucked the shell out of sight, wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
Beefsteak, for instance, sickened Marcia, because there was blood in the
ooze of its juices. But Hattie had a sly way of camouflage. Filet
mignon (so strengthening, you see) crushed under a little millinery of
mushrooms and served under glass. Then when Marcia's neat little row of
neat little teeth bit in and the munch began behind clean and careful
lips, Hattie's heart, a regular old bandit for cunning, beat hoppity,
Those were her realities. Home. The new sandwich cutters. Heart shape.
Diamond shape. Spade. The strip of hall carpet newly discovered to scour
like new with brush and soap and warm water. Epstein's meat market
throws in free suet. The lamp with the opal-silk shade for Marcia's
piano. White oilcloth is cleaner than shelf paper. Dotted Swiss
curtains, the ones in Marcia's room looped back with pink bows. Old
sashes, pressed out and fringed at the edges.
And if you think that Hattie's six rooms and bath and sunny, full-sized
kitchen, on Morningside Heights, were trumped-up ones of the press agent
for the Sunday Supplement, look in.
Any afternoon. Tuesday, say, and Marcia just home from school. On
Tuesday afternoon of every other week Hattie made her cream, in a large
copper pot that hung under the sink. Six dozen half-pint jars waiting
to be filled with Brown Cold Cream. One hundred and forty-four jars
a month. Guaranteed Color-fast. Mulatto, Medium, Chocolate. Labeled.
Sealed. Sold. And demand exceeding the supply. An ingratiating, expert
cream, known the black-faced world over. It slid into the skin, not
sootily, but illuminating it to winking, African copper. For instance,
Hattie's make-up cream for Linda in "Love Me Long" was labeled
"Chocolate." But it worked in even a truer brown, as if it had come out
of the pigment instead of gone into the pores.
Four hours of stirring it took, adding with exact minutiae the
mysteriously proper proportions of spermacetti, oil of sweet almonds,
white wax--But never mind. Hattie's dark secret was her own.
Fourteen years of her black art as Broadway's maid _de luxe_ had been
her laboratory. It was almost her boast now--remember the sunken
headstones--that she had handled spotlessly every fair young star of the
theaters' last ten years.
It was as mysterious as pigment, her cream, and as true, and netted
her, with occasional extra batches, an average of two hundred dollars a
month. She enjoyed making it. Singing as she stirred or rather stirring
as she sang, the plenitude of her figure enveloped in a blue-and-white
bungalow apron with rickrack trimming.
Often Marcia, home from day school, watched. Propped up in the window
frame with her pet cat, a Persian, with eyes like swimming pools with
painted green bottoms, seated in a perfect circle in her quiet lap,
for all the world in the attitude of a sardel except for the toothpick
Sometimes it almost seemed as if Marcia did the purring. She could sit
like that, motionless, her very stare seeming to sleep. To Hattie that
stare was beautiful, and in a way it was. As if two blue little suns
were having their high noon.
Sometimes Marcia offered to help, because toward the end, Hattie's back
could ache at this process, terribly, the pain knotting itself into her
face when the rotary movement of her stirring arm began to yank at her
"Momie, I'll stir for a while."
Marcia's voice was day-schooled. As clipped, as boxed, and as precise
as a hedge. Neat, too, as neat as the way her clear lips met, and her
teeth, which had a little mannerism of coming down after each word,
biting them off like threads. They were appealing teeth that had never
grown big or square. Very young corn. To Hattie there was something
about them that reminded her of a tiny set of Marcia's doll dishes that
she had saved. Little innocences.
"I don't mind stirring, dear. I'm not tired."
"But your face is all twisted."
Hattie's twisted face could induce in Marcia the same gagged pallor that
the egg in the morning or the red in the beefsteak juices brought there.
"Go in and play the piano awhile, Marcy, I'll be finished soon."
"Sh-h-h! No. Pussy-kitty's asleep."
As the cream grew heavier and its swirl in the pot slower, Hattie could
keep the twist out of her face only by biting her tongue. She did, and a
little arch of sweat came out in a mustache.
The brown mud of the cream began to fluff. Hattie rubbed a fleck of it
into her freckled forearm. Yes, Hattie's arm was freckled, and so was
the bridge of her nose, in a little saddle. Once there had been a
prettiness to the freckles because they whitened the skin they sprinkled
and were little stars to the moon reddiness of Hattie's hair. But the
red of the moon had set coldly in Hattie's hair now, and the stars were
just freckles, and there was the dreaded ridge of flesh showing above
the ridge of her corsets, and when she leaned forward to stir her cheeks
hung forward like a spaniel's, not of fat, but heaviness. Hattie's arms
and thighs were granite to the touch and to the scales. Kindly freckled
granite. She weighed almost twice what she looked. Marcia, whose hips
were like lyres, hated the ridge above the corset line and massaged it.
Mab smacking the Himalayas.
After a while, there in the window frame, Marcia closed her eyes. There
was still the illusion of a purr about her. Probably because, as her
kitten warmed in its circle, its coziness began to whir mountingly.
The September afternoon was full of drone. The roofs of the city from
Hattie's kitchen window, which overlooked Morningside Heights, lay flat
as slaps. Tranced, indoor quiet. Presently Hattie began to tiptoe. The
seventy-two jars were untopped now, in a row on a board over the built-in
washtub. Seventy-two yawning for content. Squnch! Her enormous spoon
into the copper kettle and flop, gurgle, gooze, softly into the jars.
One--two--three--At the sixty-eighth, Marcia, without stirring or
lifting her lids, spoke into the sucky silence.
"You'll be glad."
Hattie, pausing at the sixty-eighth, "Why, dear?"
"I came home in Nonie Grosbeck's automobile. I'm invited to a dinner
dance October the seventeenth. At their house in Gramercy Park."
The words must have gone to Hattie's knees, because, dropping a spat of
mulatto cold cream on the linoleum, she sat down weakly on the kitchen
chair that she had painted blue and white to match the china cereal set
on the shelf above it.
"And she likes me better than any girl in school, momie, and I'm to
be her chum from to-day on, and not another girl in school is invited
except Edwina Nelson, because her father's on nearly all the same boards
of directors with Mr. Grosbeck, and--"
"Marcia! Marcia! and you came home from school just as if nothing had
happened! Child, sometimes I think you're made of ice."
"Why, I'm glad, momie."
But that's what there were, little ice glints of congealed satisfaction
in Marcia's eyes.
"Glad," said Hattie, the word full of tears. "Why, honey, you don't
realize it, but this is the beginning! This is the meaning of my
struggle to get you into Miss Harperly's school. It wasn't easy. I've
never told you the--strings I had to pull. Conservative people, you see.
That's what the Grosbecks are, too. Home people. The kind who can afford
to wear dowdy hats and who have lived in the same house for thirty
"Nome's mother was born in the house they live in."
"Substantial people, who half-sole their shoes and endow colleges.
Taxpayers. Policyholders. Church members. Oh, Marcia, those are the safe
"There's a Grosbeck memorial window in the Rock Church."
"I used to be so afraid for you, Marcy. Afraid you would take to the
make-believe folks. The play people. The theater. I used to fear for
you! The Pullman car. The furnished room. That going to the hotel
room, alone, nights after the show. You laugh at me sometimes for just
throwing a veil over my face and coming home black-face. It's because
I'm too tired, Marcy. Too lonesome for home. On the road I always used
to think of all the families in the audience. The husbands and wives.
Brides and grooms. Sweethearts. After the performance they all went to
homes. To brownstone fronts like the Grosbecks'. To cottages. To flats.
With a snack to eat in the refrigerator or laid out on the dining-room
table. Lamps burning and waiting. Nighties laid out and bedcovers turned
back. And then--me. Second-rate hotels. That walk through the dark
downtown streets. Passing men who address you through closed lips. The
dingy lobby. There's no applause lasts long enough, Marcia, to reach
over that moment when you unlock your hotel room and the smell of
disinfectant and unturned mattress comes out to you."
"Oh, keep to the safe people, Marcia! The unexciting people, maybe, but
the safe home-building ones with old ideals and old hearthstones."
"Nonie says they have one in their library that comes from Italy."
"Hitch your ideal to a hearthstone like that, Marcia."
"Nonie goes to riding academy."
"So shall you."
"It's six dollars an hour."
"I don't care."
"Her father's retired except for being director in banks. And,
momie--they don't mind, dear--about us. Nonie knows that my--father
is--is separated and never lived at home with us. She's broad-minded.
She says just so there's no scandal, a divorce, or anything like that.
She said it's vulgar to cultivate only rich friends. She says she'd go
with me even if she's forbidden to."
"Why, Marcy darling, why should she be forbidden?"
"Oh, Nonie's broadminded. She says if two people are unsuited they
should separate, quietly, like you and my father. She knows we're one of
the first old Southern families on my father's side. I--I'm not trying
to make you talk about it, dear, but--but we are--aren't we?"
"He--he was just--irresponsible. That's not being--not nice people, is
"Nonie's not forbidden. She just meant in case, momie. You see, with
some old families like hers--the stage--but Nonie says her father
couldn't even say anything to that if he wanted to. His own sister went
on the stage once, and they had to hush it up in the papers."
"Did you explain to her, Marcy, that stage life at its best can be full
of fine ideals and truth? Did you make her see how regular your own
little life has been? How little you know about--my work? How away I've
kept you? How I won't even play out-of-town engagements so we can always
be together in our little home? You must explain all those things to
your friends at Miss Harperly's. It helps--with steady people."
"I have, momie, and she's going to bring me home every afternoon in
their automobile after we've called for her brother Archie at Columbia
"Marcy! the Grosbeck automobile bringing you home every day!"
"And it's going to call for me the night of the party. Nonie's getting a
"I'll get you ivory, with a bit of real lace!"
"Oh, momie, momie, I can scarcely wait!"
"What did she say, Marcy, when she asked--invited you?"
"Why--she--didn't invite me, momie."
"But you just said--"
"It was her brother Archie invited me. We called for him at Columbia Law
School, you see. It was he invited me. Of course Nonie wants me and said
'Yes' right after him--but it's he--who wants Nonie and me to be chums.
Suddenly Marcia's eyes, almost with the perpendicular slits of her
kitten's in them, seemed to swish together like portieres, shutting
Hattie behind them with her.
"Oh--my Marcy!" said Hattie, dimly, after a while, as if from their
depths. "Marcy, dearest!"
"At--at Harperly's, momie, almost all the popular upper-class girls
wear--a--a boy's fraternity pin."
"It's the--the beginning of being engaged."
"Archie's a Pi Phi!"
"A Pi Phi."
* * * * *
On October 17th "Love Me Long" celebrated its two-hundredth performance.
Souvenir programs. A few appropriate words by the management.
A flashlight of the cast. A round of wine passed in the
after-the-performance gloom of the wings. Aqueous figures fading off in
the orderly back-stage fashion of a well-established success.
Hattie kissed the star. They liked each other with the unenvy of their
divergent roles. Miss Robinson even humored some of Hattie's laughs. She
liked to feel the flame of her own fairness as she stood there waiting
for the audience to guffaw its fill of Hattie's drolleries; a narcissus
swaying reedily beside a black crocodile.
She was a new star and her beauty the color of cloth of gold, and Hattie
in her lowly comedian way not an undistinguished veteran. So they could
kiss in the key of a cat cannot unseat a king.
But, just the same, Miss Robinson's hand flew up automatically against
the dark of Hattie's lips.
"I don't fade off, dearie. Your own natural skin is no more color-fast.
I handled Elaine Doremus in 'The Snowdrop' for three seasons. Never so
much as a speck or a spot on her. My cream don't fade."
"Of course not, dear! How silly of me! Kiss me again."
That was kind enough of her. Oh yes, they got on. But sometimes Hattie,
seated among her sagging headstones, would ache with the dry sob of the
black crocodile who yearned toward the narcissus....
Quite without precedent, there was a man waiting for her in the wings.
The gloom of back-stage was as high as trees and Hattie had not seen
him in sixteen years. But she knew. With the stunned consciousness of a
stabbed person that glinting instant before the blood begins to flow.
It was Morton Sebree--Marcia's father.
"Come up to my dressing room," she said, as matter-of-factly as if her
brain were a clock ticking off the words.
They walked up an iron staircase of unreality. Fantastic stairs. Wisps
of gloom. Singing pains in her climbing legs like a piano key hit very
hard and held down with a pressing forefinger. She could listen to her
pain. That was her thought as she climbed. How the irrelevant little
ideas would slide about in her sudden chaos. She must concentrate now.
Terribly. Morton was back.
His hand, a smooth glabrous one full of clutch, riding up the banister.
It could have been picked off, finger by finger. It was that kind of a
hand. But after each lift, another finger would have curled back again.
Morton's hand, ascending the dark like a soul on a string in a burlesque
Face to face. The electric bulb in her dressing room was incased in a
wire like a baseball mask. A burning prison of light. Fat sticks of
grease paint with the grain of Hattie's flesh printed on the daub end.
Furiously brown cheesecloth. An open jar of cream (chocolate) with the
gesture of the gouge in it. A woolly black wig on a shelf, its kinks
seeming to crawl. There was a rim of Hattie _au natural_ left around her
lips. It made of her mouth a comedy blubber, her own rather firm lips
sliding about somewhere in the lightish swamp. That was all of Hattie
that looked out. Except her eyes. They were good gray eyes with popping
whites now, because of a trick of blackening the lids. But the irises
were in their pools, inviolate.
"Well, Hattie, I reckon I'd have known you even under black."
"I thought you were in Rio."
"Got to hankering after the States, Hattie."
"I read of a Morris Sebree died in Brazil. Sometimes I used to think
maybe it might have been a misprint--and--that--you--were--the--one."
"No, no. 'Live and kickin'. Been up around here a good while."
"Home. N'Orleans. M' mother died, Hattie, God rest her bones. Know it?"
It was a peculiar silence. A terrible word like that was almost slowly
soluble in it. Gurgling down.
"Sort of gives a fellow the shivers, Hattie, seeing you kinda hidin'
behind yourself like this. But I saw you come in the theater to-night.
You looked right natural. Little heavier."
"What do you want?"
"Why, I guess a good many things in general and nothing in particular,
as the sayin' goes. You don't seem right glad to see me, honey."
"Glad!" said Hattie, and laughed as if her mirth were a dice shaking in
a box of echoes.
"Your hair's right red yet. Looked mighty natural walkin' into the
theater to-night. Take off those kinks, honey."
She reached for her cleansing cream, then stopped, her eyes full of the
foment of torture.
"What's my looks to you?"
"You've filled out."
"You haven't," she said, putting down the cold-cream jar. "You haven't
aged an hour. Your kind lies on life like it was a wall in the sun. A
wall that somebody else has built for you stone by stone."
"I reckon you're right in some ways, Hattie. There's been a meanderin'
streak in me somewheres. You and m' mother, God rest her bones, had a
different way of scoldin' me for the same thing. Lot o' Huck Finn in
"Don't use bad-boy words for vicious, bad-man deeds!"
"But you liked me. Both of you liked me, honey. Only two women I ever
really cared for, too. You and m' mother."
Her face might have been burning paper, curling her scorn for him.
"Don't try that, Morton. It won't work any more. What used to infatuate
me only disgusts me now. The things I thought I--loved--in you, I loathe
now. The kind of cancer that killed your mother is the kind that eats
out the heart. I never knew her, never even saw her except from a
distance, but I know, just as well as if I'd lived in that fine big
house with her all those years in New Orleans, that you were the
sickness that ailed her--lying, squandering, gambling, no-'count son! If
she and I are the only women you ever cared for, thank God that there
aren't any more of us to suffer from you. Morton, when I read that a
Morris Sebree had died in Brazil, I hoped it was you! You're no good!
You're no good!"
She was thumping now with the sobs she kept under her voice.
"Why, Hattie," he said, his drawl not quickened, "you don't mean that!"
"I do! You're a ruiner of lives! Her life! Mine! You're a rotten apple
that can speck every one it touches."
"That's hard, Hattie, but I reckon you're not all wrong."
"Oh, that softy Southern talk won't get us anywhere, Morton. The very
sound of it sickens me now. You're like a terrible sickness I once had.
I'm cured now. I don't know what you want here, but whatever it is you
might as well go. I'm cured!"
He sat forward in his chair, still twirling the soft brown hat. He was
dressed like that. Softly. Good-quality loosely woven stuffs. There was
still a tan down of persistent youth on the back of his neck. But his
hands were old, the veins twisted wiring, and his third finger yellowly
stained, like meerschaum darkening.
"Grantin' everything you say, Hattie--and I'm holdin' no brief for
myself--_I've_ been the sick one, not you. Twenty years I've been down
sick with hookworm."
"No, Hattie. It's the government's diagnosis. Hookworm. Been a sick man
all my life with it. Funny thing, though, all those years in Rio knocked
it out of me."
"I'm a new man since I'm well of it."
"Hookworm! That's an easy word for ingrained no-'countness, deviltry,
and deceit. It wasn't hookworm came into the New Orleans stock company
where I was understudying leads and getting my chance to play big
things. It wasn't hookworm put me in a position where I had to take
anything I could get! So that instead of finding me playing leads
you find me here--black-face! It was a devil! A liar! A spendthrift,
no-'count son out of a family that deserved better. I've cried more
tears over you than I ever thought any woman ever had it in her to cry.
Those months in that boarding house in Peach Tree Street down in New
Orleans! Peach Tree Street! I remember how beautiful even the name of
it was when you took me there--lying--and how horrible it became to me.
Those months when I used to see your mother's carriage drive by the
house twice a day and me crying my eyes out behind the curtains. That's
what I've never forgiven myself for. She was a woman who stood for
fine things in New Orleans. A good woman whom the whole town pitied! A
no-'count son squandering her fortune and dragging down the family name.
If only I had known all that then! She would have helped me if I had
appealed to her. She wouldn't have let things turn out secretly--the way
they did. She would have helped me. I--You--Why have you come here
to jerk knives out of my heart after it's got healed with the points
sticking in? You're nothing to me. You're skulking for a reason. You've
been hanging around, getting pointers about me. My life is my own! You
"The girl. She well?"
It was a quiet question, spoken in the key of being casual, and Hattie,
whose heart skipped a beat, tried to corral the fear in her eyes to take
it casually, except that her eyelids seemed to grow old even as they
drooped. Squeezed grape skins.
"You get out, Morton," she said. "You've got to get out."
He made a cigarette in an old, indolent way he had of wetting it with
his smile. He was handsome enough after his fashion, for those who like
the rather tropical combination of dark-ivory skin, and hair a lighter
shade of tan. It did a curious thing to his eyes. Behind their allotment
of tan lashes they became neutralized. Straw colored.
"She's about sixteen now. Little over, I reckon."
"What's that to you?"
"Blood, Hattie. Thick."
"What thickened it, Morton--after sixteen years?"
"Used to be an artist chap down in Rio. On his uppers. One night,
according to my description of what I imagined she looked like, he drew
her. Yellow hair, I reckoned, and sure enough--"
"You're not worthy of the resemblance. It wouldn't be there if I had the
"You haven't," he said, suddenly, his teeth snapping together as if
biting off a thread.
"Nor you!" something that was the whiteness of fear lightening behind
her mask. She rose then, lifting her chair out of the path toward the
door and flinging her arm out toward it, very much after the manner of
Miss Robinson in Act II.
"You get out, Morton," she said, "before I have you put out. They're
closing the theater now. Get out!"
"Hattie," his calm enormous, "don't be hasty. A man that has come to his
senses has come back to you humble and sincere. A man that's been sick.
Take me back, Hattie, and see if--"
"Back!" she said, lifting her lips scornfully away from touching the
word. "You remember that night in that little room on Peach Tree Street
when I prayed on my knees and kissed--your--shoes and crawled for your
mercy to stay for Marcia to be born? Well, if you were to lie on this
floor and kiss my shoes and crawl for my mercy I'd walk out on you the
way you walked out on me. If you don't go, I'll call a stage hand and
make you go. There's one coming down the corridor now and locking the
house. You go--or I'll call!"
His eyes, with their peculiar trick of solubility in his color scheme,
seemed all tan.
"I'll go," he said, looking slim and Southern, his imperturbability ever
so slightly unfrocked--"I'll go, but you're making a mistake, Hattie."
Fear kept clanging in her. Fire bells of it.
"Oh, but that's like you, Morton! Threats! But, thank God, nothing you
can do can harm me any more."
"I reckon she's considerable over sixteen now. Let's see--"
Fire bells. Fire bells.
"Come out with what you want, Morton, like a man! You're feeling
for something. Money? Now that your mother is dead and her fortune
squandered, you've come to harass me? That's it! I know you, like a
person who has been disfigured for life by burns knows fire. Well, I
"Pay? Why, Hattie--I want you--back--"
She could have cried because, as she sat there blackly, she was sick
with his lie.
"I'd save a dog from you."
"Then save--her--from me."
The terrible had happened so quietly. Morton had not raised his voice;
scarcely his lips.
She closed the door then and sat down once more, but that which had
crouched out of their talk was unleashed now.
"That's just exactly what I intend to do."
"By saving her sight or sound of you."
"You can't, Hattie."
"I've come back." There was a curve to his words that hooked into her
heart like forceps about a block of ice. But she outstared him, holding
her lips in the center of the comedy rim so that he could see how firm
"Not to me."
"To her, then."
"Even you wouldn't be low enough to let her know--"
"You mean she doesn't know?"
"Know! Know you for what you are and for what you made of me? I've
kept it something decent for her. Just the separation of husband and
wife--who couldn't agree. Incompatibility. I have not told her--" And
suddenly could have rammed her teeth into the tongue that had betrayed
her. Simultaneously with the leap of light into his eyes came the leap
of her error into her consciousness.
"Oh," he said, and smiled, a slow smile that widened as leisurely as
sorghum in the pouring.
"You made me tell you that! You came here for that. To find out!"
"Nothin' the sort, Hattie. You only verified what I kinda suspected.
Naturally, you've kept it from her. Admire you for it."
"But I lied! See! I know your tricks. She does know you for what you are
and what you made of me. She knows everything. Now what are you going
to do? She knows! I lied! I--" then stopped, at the curve his lips were
taking and at consciousness of the pitiableness of her device.
"Morton," she said, her hands opening into her lap into pads of great
pink helplessness, "you wouldn't tell her--on me! You're not that low!"
"Wouldn't tell what?"
He was rattling her, and so she fought him with her gaze, trying to
fasten and fathom under the flicker of his lids. But there were no eyes
there. Only the neutral, tricky tan.
"You see, Morton, she's just sixteen. The age when it's more important
than anything else in the world to a young girl that's been reared like
her to--to have her life _regular_! Like all her other little school
friends. She's like that, Morton. Sensitive! Don't touch her, Morton.
For God's sake, don't! Some day when she's past having to care so
terribly--when she's older--you can rake it up if you must torture. I'll
tell her then. But for God's sake, Morton, let us live--now!"
"Hattie, you meet me to-morrow morning and take a little journey to one
of these little towns around here in Jersey or Connecticut, and your lie
to her won't be a lie any more."
"Morton--I--I don't understand. Why?"
"I'll marry you."
"You fool!" she said, almost meditatively. "So you've heard we've gotten
on a bit. You must even have heard of this"--placing her hand over the
jar of the Brown Cold Cream. "You want to be in at the feast. You're so
easy to read that I can tell you what you're after before you can get
the coward words out. Marry you! You fool!"
It was as if she could not flip the word off scornfully enough, sucking
back her lower lip, then hurling.
"Well, Hattie," he said, unbunching his soft hat, "I reckon that's
"I reckon it is, Morton."
"All right. Everybody to his own notion of carryin' a grudge to the
grave. But it's all right, honey. No hard feelin's. It's something to
know I was willin' to do the right thing. There's a fruit steamer out of
here for N'Orleans in the mawnin'. Reckon I'll catch it."
"I'd advise you to."
"No objection to me droppin' around to see the girl first? Entitled to a
little natural curiosity. Come, I'll take you up home this evenin'. The
girl. No harm."
"You're not serious, Morton. You wouldn't upset things. You wouldn't
"Why, not in a thousand years, honey, unless you forced me to it. Well,
you've forced me. Come, Hattie, I'm seein' you home this evenin'."
"You can't put your foot--"
"Come now. You're too clever a woman to try to prevent me. Course
there's a way to keep me from goin' up home with you this evenin'. I
wouldn't use it, if I were you. You know I'll get to see her. I even
know where she goes to school. Mighty nice selection you made, Hattie,
"You can't frighten me," she said, trying to moisten her lips with her
tongue. But it was dry as a parrot's. It was hard to close her lips.
They were oval and suddenly immobile as a picture frame. What if she
could not swallow. There was nothing to swallow! Dry tongue. O God!
That was the fleeting form her panic took, but almost immediately she
could manage her lips again. Her lips, you see, they counted so! She
must keep them firm in the slippery shine of the comedy black.
"Come," he said, "get your make-up off. I'll take you up in a cab."
"How do you know it's--up?"
"Why, I don't know as I do know exactly. Just came kind of natural to
put it that way. Morningside Heights is about right, I calculate."
"So--you _have_--been watching."
"Well, I don't know as I'd put it thataway. Naturally, when I got to
town--first thing I did--most natural thing in the world. That's a
mighty fine car with a mighty fine-looking boy and a girl brings
your--our girl home every afternoon about four. We used to have a family
of Grosbeaks down home. Another branch, I reckon."
"O--God!" A malaprop of a tear, too heavy to wink in, came rolling
suddenly down Hattie's cheek. "Morton--let--us--live--for God's sake!
He regarded the clean descent of the tear down Hattie's color-fast cheek
and its clear drop into the bosom of her black-taffeta housemaid's
"By Jove! The stuff _is_ color-fast! You've a fortune in that cream if
you handle it right, honey."
"My way is the right way for me."
"But it's a woman's way. Incorporate. Manufacture it. Get a man on the
job. Promote it!"
"Ah, that sounds familiar. The way you promoted away every cent of your
mother's fortune until the bed she died in was mortgaged. One of your
wildcat schemes again! Oh, I watched you before I lost track of you in
South America--just the way you're watching--us--now! I know the way you
squandered your mother's fortune. The rice plantation in Georgia. The
alfalfa ranch. The solid-rubber-tire venture in Atlanta. You don't get
your hands on my affairs. My way suits me!"
The tumult in her was so high and her panic so like a squirrel in the
circular frenzy of its cage that she scarcely noted the bang on the door
and the hairy voice that came through.
"Yes," she said, without knowing it.
"You're losing a fortune, Hattie. Shame on a fine, strapping woman like
you, black-facing herself up like this when you've hit on something with
a fortune in it if you work it properly. You ought to have more regard
for the girl. Black-face!"
"What has her--father's regard done for her? It's my black-face has kept
her like a lily!"
"Admitting all that you say about me is right. Well, I'm here eating
humble pie now. If that little girl doesn't know, bless my heart,
I'm willin' she shouldn't ever know. I'll take you out to Greenwich
to-morrow and marry you. Then what you've told her all these years is
the truth. I've just come back, that's all. We've patched up. It's done
every day. Right promoting and a few hundred dollars in that there cream
She laughed. November rain running off a broken spout. Yellow leaves
scuttling ahead of wind.
"The picture puzzle is now complete, Morton. Your whole scheme, piece
by piece. You're about as subtle as corn bread. Well, my answer to you
again is, 'Get out!'"
"All right. All right. But we'll both get out, Hattie. Come, I'm a-goin'
to call on you-all up home a little while this evenin'!"
"No. It's late. She's--"
"Come, Hattie, you know I'm a-goin' to see that girl one way or another.
If you want me to catch that fruit steamer to-morrow, if I were you I'd
let me see her my way. You know I'm not much on raisin' my voice, but if
I were you, Hattie, I wouldn't fight me."
"Morton--Morton, listen! If you'll take that fruit steamer without
trying to see her--would you? You're on your uppers. I understand. Would
a hundred--two hundred--"
"I used to light my cigarette with that much down on my rice swamps--"
"You see, Morton, she's such a little thing. A little thing with big
eyes. All her life those eyes have looked right down into me, believing
everything I ever told her. About you too, Morton. Good things. Not that
I'm ashamed of anything I ever told her. My only wrong was ignorance.
And innocence. Innocence of the kind of lesson I was to learn from you."
"Nothin' was ever righted by harping on it, Hattie."
"But I want you to understand--O God, make him understand--she's such a
sensitive little thing. And as things stand now--glad I'm her mother.
Yes, glad--black-face and all! Why, many's the time I've gone home from
the theater, too tired to take off my make-up until I got into my own
rocker with my ankles soaking in warm water. They swell so terribly
sometimes. Rheumatism, I guess. Well, many a time when I kissed her in
her sleep she's opened her eyes on me--black-face and all. Her arms up
and around me. I was there underneath the black! She knows that! And
that's what she'll always know about me, no matter what you tell her.
I'm there--her mother--underneath the black! You hear, Morton! That's
why you must let us--live--"
"My proposition is the mighty decent one of a gentleman."
"She's only a little baby, Morton. And just at that age where being
like all the other boys and girls is the whole of her little life. It's
killing--all her airiness and fads and fancies. Such a proper little
young lady. You know, the way they clip and trim them at finishing
school. Sweet-sixteen nonsense that she'll outgrow. To-night, Morton,
she's at a party. A boy's. Her first. That fine-looking yellow-haired
young fellow and his sister that bring her home every afternoon. At
their house. Gramercy Park. A fine young fellow--Phi Pi--"
"Looka here, Hattie, are you talking against time?"
"She's home asleep by now. I told her she had to be in bed by eleven.
She minds me, Morton. I wouldn't--couldn't--wake her. Morton, Morton,
she's yours as much as mine. That's God's law, no matter how much man's
law may have let you shirk your responsibility. Don't hurt your own
flesh and blood by coming back to us--now. I remember once when you cut
your hand it made you ill. Blood! Blood is warm. Red. Sacred stuff.
She's your blood, Morton. You let us alone when we needed you. Leave us
alone, now that we don't!"
"But you do, Hattie girl. That's just it. You're running things a
woman's way. Why, a man with the right promoting ideas--"
There was a fusillade of bangs on the door now, and a shout as if the
hair on the voice were rising in anger.
"All out or the doors 'll be locked on yuh! Fine doings!"
She grasped her light wrap from its hook, and her hat with its whirl of
dark veil, fitting it down with difficulty over the fizz of wig.
"Come, Morton," she said, suddenly. "I'm ready. You're right, now or
"No time now. Later--at home! She'll know that I'm there--under the
"So do I, Hattie. That's why I--"
"I'm not one of the ready-made heroines you read about. That's not my
idea of sacrifice! I'd let my child hang her head of my shame sooner
than stand up and marry you to save her from it. Marcia wouldn't want me
to! She's got your face--but my character! She'll fight! She'll glory
that I had the courage to let you tell her the--truth! Yes, she will,"
she cried, her voice pleading for the truth of what her words exclaimed.
"She'll glory in having saved me--from you! You can come! Now, too,
while I have the strength that loathing you can give me. I don't want
you skulking about. I don't want you hanging over my head--or hers! You
can tell her to-night--but in my presence! Come!"
"Yes, sir," he repeated, doggedly and still more doggedly. "Yes, siree!"
Following her, trying to be grim, but his lips too soft to click.
They drove up silently through a lusterless midnight with a threat of
rain in it, hitting loosely against each other in a shiver-my-timbers
taxicab. Her pallor showing through the brown of her face did something
horrid to her.
It was as if the skull of her, set in torment, were looking through a
transparent black mask, but, because there were not lips, forced to
And yet, do you know that while she rode with him Hattie's heart was
high? So high that when she left him finally, seated in her little
lamplit living room, it was he whose unease began to develop.
"I--If she's asleep, Hattie--"
Her head looked so sure. Thrust back and sunk a little between the
"If she's asleep, I'll wake her. It's better this way. I'm glad, now. I
want her to see me save myself. She would want me to. You banked on mock
heroics from me, Morton. You lost."
Marcia was asleep, in her narrow, pretty bed with little bowknots
painted on the pale wood. About the room all the tired and happy muss of
after-the-party. A white-taffeta dress with a whisper of real lace at
the neck, almost stiffishly seated, as if with Marcia's trimness, on
a chair. A steam of white tulle on the dressing table. A buttonhole
gardenia in a tumbler of water. One long white-kid glove on the table
beside the night light. A naked cherub in a high hat, holding a pink
umbrella for the lamp shade.
"Dear me! Dear me!" screamed Hattie to herself, fighting to keep her
mind on the plane of casual things. "She's lost a glove again. Dear me!
Dear me! I hope it's a left one to match up with the right one she saved
from the last pair. Dear me!"
She picked up a white film of stocking, turning and exploring with
spread fingers in the foot part for holes. There was one! Marcia's big
toe had danced right through. "Dear me!"
Marcia sleeping. Very quietly and very deeply. She slept like that.
Whitely and straightly and with the covers scarcely raised for the ridge
of her slim body.
Sometimes Marcia asleep could frighten Hattie. There was something about
her white stilliness. Lilies are too fair and so must live briefly.
That thought could clutch so that she would kiss Marcia awake. Kiss her
soundly because Marcia's sleep could be so terrifyingly deep.
"Marcia," said Hattie, and stood over her bed. Then again, "Mar-cia!" On
more voice than she thought her dry throat could yield her.
There was the merest flip of black on the lacy bosom of Marcia's
nightgown, and Hattie leaned down to fleck it. No. It was a pin--a small
black-enameled pin edged in pearls. Automatically Hattie knew.
"Marcia," cried Hattie, and shook her a little. She hated so to waken
her. Always had. Especially for school on rainy days. Sometimes didn't.
Couldn't. Marcia came up out of sleep so reluctantly. A little dazed. A
little secretive. As if a white bull in a dream had galloped off with
her like Persephone's.
Only Hattie did not know of Persephone. She only knew that Marcia slept
beautifully and almost breathlessly. Sweet and low. It seemed silly,
sleeping beautifully. But just the same, Marcia did.
Then Hattie, not faltering, mind you, waited. It was better that Marcia
should know. Now, too, while her heart was so high.
Sometimes it took as many as three kisses to awaken Marcia. Hattie bent
for the first one, a sound one on the tip of her lip.
"Marcia!" she cried. "Marcy, wake up!" and drew back.
Something had happened! Darkly. A smudge the size of a quarter and
the color of Hattie's guaranteed-not-to-fade cheek, lay incredibly on
Hattie had smudged Marcia! _Hattie Had Smudged Marcia!_
There it lay on her beautiful, helpless whiteness. Hattie's smudge.
* * * * *
It is doubtful, from the way he waited with his soft hat dangling
from soft fingers, if Morton had ever really expected anything else.
Momentary unease gone, he was quiet and Southern and even indolent about
"We'll go to Greenwich first thing in the morning and be married," he
"Sh-h-h!" she whispered to his quietness. "Don't wake Marcia."
"Hattie--" he said, and started to touch her.
"Don't!" she sort of cried under her whisper, but not without noting
that his hand was ready enough to withdraw. "Please--go--now--"
"To-morrow at the station, then. Eleven. There's a train every hour for
He was all tan to her now, standing there like a blur.
"Yes, Morton, I'll be there. If--please--you'll go now."
"Of course," he said. "Late. Only I--Well, paying the taxi--strapped
me--temporarily. A ten spot--old Hat--would help."
She gave him her purse, a tiny leather one with a patent clasp. Somehow
her fingers were not flexible enough to open it.
There were a few hours of darkness left, and she sat them out, exactly
as he had left her, on the piano stool, looking at the silence.
Toward morning quite an equinoctial storm swept the city, banging
shutters and signs, and a steeple on 122d Street was struck by
And so it was that Hattie's wedding day came up like thunder.
To the swift hiss of rain down soot-greasy window panes and through a
medley of the smells of steam off wet overcoats and a pale stench
of fish, a judge turned rather tired Friday-afternoon eyes upon the
prisoner at the bar, a smallish man in a decent-enough salt-and-pepper
suit and more salt than pepper in his hair and mustache.
"You have heard the charge against you," intoned the judge in the holy
and righteous key of justice about to be administered. "Do you plead
guilty or not guilty?"
"I--I plead guilty of not having told her facts that would have helped
her to struggle against the--the thing--her inheritance."
"You must answer the Court directly. Do you--"
"You see, Your Honor--my little girl--so little--my promise. Yes, yes,
I--I plead guilty of keeping her in ignorance of what she should have
known, but you see, Your Honor, my little gi--"
"Order! Answer to the point. Do you," began the judge again, "plead
guilty or not guilty?" his tongue chiming the repetition into the
waiting silence like a clapper into a bell.
The prisoner at the bar thumbed his derby hat after the immemorial
dry-fingered fashion of the hunted meek, his mouth like an open wound
puckering to close.
"Guilty or not guilty, my man? Out with it."
Actually it was not more than a minute or two before the prisoner found
reply, but it was long enough for his tortured eye to flash inward and
backward with terrible focus....
* * * * *
On its long cross-town block, Mrs. Plush's boarding house repeated
itself no less than thirty-odd times. Every front hall of them smelled
like cold boiled potato, and the gilt chair in the parlor like banana.
At dinner hour thirty-odd basement dining rooms reverberated, not
uncheerfully, to the ironstone clatter of the canary-bird bathtub of
succotash, the three stewed prunes, or the redolent boiled potato, and
on Saturday mornings, almost to the thirty-odd of them, wasp-waisted,
oiled-haired young negro girls in white-cotton stockings and cut-down
high shoes enormously and rather horribly run down of heel, tilted pints
of water over steep stone stoops and scratched at the trickle with old
If Mrs. Plush's house broke rank at all, it did so by praiseworthy
omission. In that row of the fly-by-night and the van-by-day, the moving
or the express wagon seldom backed up before No. 28, except immediately
preceding a wedding or following a funeral. And never, in twenty-two
years of respectable tenancy, had the furtive lodger oozed, under
darkness, through the Plush front door by night, or a huddle of
sidewalk trunks and trappings staged the drab domestic tragedy of the
The Kellers (second-story back) had eaten their satisfied way through
fourteen years of the breakfasts of apple sauce or cereal; choice of ham
and eggs any style or country sausage and buckwheat cakes.
Jeanette Peopping, born in the back parlor, was married out of the
On the night that marked the seventeenth anniversary of the Dangs into
the third-floor alcove room there was frozen pudding with hot fudge
sauce for dessert, and a red-paper bell ringing silently from the
For the eight years of their placid connubiality Mr. and Mrs. Henry Jett
had occupied the second-story front.
Stability, that was the word. Why, Mrs. Plush had dealt with her corner
butcher for so long that on crowded Saturday mornings it was her custom
to step without challenge into the icy zone of the huge refrigerator,
herself pinching and tearing back the cold-storage-bitten wings of
fowls, weighing them with a fidelity to the ounce, except for a few
extra giblets (Mr. Keller loved them), hers, anyhow, most of the time,
for the asking.
Even the nearest drug store, wary of that row of the transient
hat-on-the-peg, off-the-peg, would deliver to No. 28 a mustard plaster
or a deck of cards and charge without question.
To the Jett Fish Company, "Steamers, Hotels, and Restaurants
Supplied--If It Swims We Have It," Mrs. Plush paid her bill quarterly
only, then Mr. Jett deducting the sum delicately from his board.
So it may be seen that Mrs. Plush's boarding house offered scanty palate
to the dauber in local color.
On each of the three floors was a bathroom, spotlessly clean, with a
neat hand-lettered sign over each tin tub:
DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU
PLEASE WASH OUT THE TUB AFTER YOU
Upon the outstanding occasion of the fly in the soup and Mr. Keller's
subsequent deathly illness, the regrettable immersion had been directly
traceable, not to the kitchen, but to the dining-room ceiling. It was
November, a season of heavy dipterous mortality. Besides, Mrs. Peopping
had seen it fall.
Nor entered here the dirge of the soggy towel; Mrs. Plush placed fluffy
stacks of them outside each door each morning. Nor groggy coffee; Mrs.
Plush was famous for hers. Drip coffee, boiled up to an angry sea and
half an eggshell dropped in like a fairy barque, to settle it.
The Jetts, with whom we have really to do, drank two cups apiece at
breakfast. Mrs. Jett, to the slight aid and abetment of one of her two
rolls, stopped right there; Mr. Jett plunging on into choice-of--
The second roll Mrs. Jett usually carried away with her from the table.
Along about ten o'clock she was apt to feel faint rather than hungry.
"Gone," she called it. "Feeling a little gone."
Not that there was a suggestion of frailty about Mrs. Jett. Anything but
that. On the contrary, in all the eight years in the boarding house,
she held the clean record of not a day in bed, and although her history
previous to that time showed as many as fifteen hours a day on duty in
the little fancy-goods store of her own proprietorship, those years
showed her guilty of only two incapacitated days, and then because she
ran an embroidery needle under her finger nail and suffered a slight
Yet there was something about Emma Jett--eight years of married life
had not dissipated it--that was not eupeptic; something of the sear and
yellow leaf of perpetual spinsterhood. She was a wintry little body
whose wide marriage band always hung loosely on her finger with an air
of not belonging; wore an invariable knitted shawl iced with beads
across her round shoulders, and frizzed her graying bangs, which,
although fruit of her scalp, had a set-on look. Even the softness to her
kind gray eyes was cozy rather than warm.
She could look out tabbily from above a lap of handiwork, but in her
boudoir wrapper of gray flannelette scalloped in black she was scrawny,
almost rangy, like a horse whose ribs show.
"I can no more imagine those two courting," Mrs. Keller, a proud twin
herself and proud mother of twins, remarked one afternoon to a euchre
group. "They must have sat company by correspondence. Why, they won't
even kiss when he comes home if there's anybody in the room!"
"They kiss, all right," volunteered Mrs. Dang of the bay-window alcove
room, "and she waves him good-by every morning clear down the block."
"You can't tell about anybody nowadays," vouchsafed some one,
But in the end the consensus of opinion, unanimous to the vote, was:
Lovely woman, Mrs. Jett.
Nice couple; so unassuming. The goodness looks out of her face; and so
But it was this aura of reserve that kept Mrs. Jett, not without a bit
of secret heartache about it, as remote from the little world about her
as the yolk of an egg is remote from the white. Surrounded, yet no part
of those surroundings. No osmosis took place.
Almost daily, in some one or another's room, over Honiton lace or the
making of steel-bead chatelaine bags, then so much in vogue, those
immediate, plushy-voiced gatherings of the members of the plain gold
circle took place. Delicious hours of confidence, confab, and the
exchanges of the connubially loquacious.
The supreme _lese majeste_ of the married woman who wears her state of
wedlock like a crown of blessed thorns; bleeds ecstatically and swaps
afternoon-long intimacies, made nasty by the plush in her voice, with
her sisters of the matrimonial dynasty.
Mrs. Jett was also bidden, by her divine right, to those conclaves of
the wives, and faithfully she attended, but on the rim, as it were.
Bitterly silent she sat to the swap of:
"That's nothing. After Jeanette was born my hair began to fall out just
as if I had had typhoid"; or, "Both of mine, I am proud to say, were
bottle babies"; and once, as she listened, her heart might have been a
persimmon, puckering: "The idea for a woman of forty-five to have her
first! It's not fair to the child."
They could not, of course, articulate it, but the fact of the matter was
not alone that Mrs. Jett was childless (so was Mrs. Dang, who somehow
belonged), it was that they sensed, with all the antennae of their busy
little intuitions, the ascetic odor of spinsterhood which clung to Mrs.
Jett. She was a little "too nice." Would flush at some of the innuendoes
of the _contes intimes_, tales of no luster and dulled by soot, but in
spite of an inner shrinkage would loop up her mouth to smile, because
not to do so was to linger even more remotely outside the privileged rim
of the wedding band.
Evenings, after these gatherings, Mrs. Jett was invariably even a bit
gentler than her wont in her greetings to Mr. Jett.
Of course, they kissed upon his arrival home, comment to the contrary
notwithstanding, in a taken-for-granted fashion, perhaps, but there was
something sweet about their utter unexcitement; and had the afternoon
session twisted her heart more than usual, Mrs. Jett was apt to place a
second kiss lightly upon the black and ever so slightly white mustache,
or lay her cheek momentarily to his, as if to atone by thus yearning
over him for the one aching and silent void between them.
But in the main Henry Jett was a contented and happy man.
His wife, whom he had met at a church social and wooed in the front of
the embroidery and fancy-goods store, fitted him like the proverbial
glove--a suede one. In the eight years since, his fish business had
almost doubled, and his expenses, if anything, decreased, because more
and more it became pleasanter to join in the evening game of no-stakes
euchre down in the front parlor or to remain quietly upstairs, a
gas lamp on the table between them, Mr. Jett in a dressing gown of
hand-embroidered Persian design and a newspaper which he read from first
to last; Mrs. Jett at her tranquil process of fine needlework.
Their room abounded in specimens of it. Centerpieces of rose design.
Mounds of cushions stamped in bulldog's head and pipe and appropriately
etched in colored floss. A poker hand, upheld by realistic five fingers
embroidered to the life, and the cuff button denoted by a blue-glass
jewel. Across their bed, making it a dais of incongruous splendor, was
flung a great counterpane of embroidered linen, in design as narrative
as a battle-surging tapestry and every thread in it woven out of these
long, quiet evenings by the lamp side.
He was exceedingly proud of her cunning with a needle, so fine that its
stab through the cloth was too slight to be seen, and would lose no
occasion to show off the many evidences of her delicate workmanship that
were everywhere about the room.
"It's like being able to create a book or a piece of music, Em, to say
all that on a piece of cloth with nothing but a needle."
"It's a good thing I am able to create something, Henry," placing her
thimbled hand on his shoulder and smiling down. She was slightly the
It was remarkable how quick and how tender his intuitions could be.
An innuendo from her, faint as the brush of a wing, and he would
immediately cluck with his tongue and throw out quite a bravado of
"You're all right, Em. You suit me."
"And you suit me, Henry," stroking his hand.
This he withdrew. It was apt to smell of fish and he thought that once
or twice he had noticed her draw back from it, and, anyway, he was
exceedingly delicate about the cling of the rottenly pungent fish odor
of his workadays.
Not that he minded personally. He had long ago ceased to have any
consciousness of the vapors that poured from the bins and the incoming
catches into his little partitioned-off office. But occasionally he
noticed that in street cars noses would begin to crinkle around him,
and every once in a while, even in a crowded conveyance he would find
himself the center of a little oasis of vacant seats which he had
created around himself.
Immediately upon his arrival home, although his hands seldom touched the
fish, he would wash them in a solution of warm water and carbolic
acid, and most of the time he changed his suit before dinner, from a
salt-and-pepper to a pepper-and-salt, the only sartorial variety in
which he ever indulged.
His wife was invariably touched by this little nicety of his, and
sometimes bravely forced his hand to her cheek to prove her lack of
Boarding-house lore had it correctly. They were an exceedingly nice
couple, the Jetts.
One day in autumn, with the sky the color and heaviness of a Lynnhaven
oyster, Mrs. Jett sat quite unusually forward on her chair at one of
the afternoon congresses of the wives, convened in Mrs. Peopping's back
parlor, Jeanette Peopping, aged four, sweet and blond, whom the Jetts
loved to borrow Sunday mornings, while she was still in her little
nightdress, playing paper dolls in the background.
Her embroidery hoop, with a large shaded pink rose in the working, had,
contrary to her custom, fallen from idle hands, and instead of following
the dart of the infinitesimal needle, Mrs. Jett's eyes were burningly
upon Mrs. Peopping, following, with almost lip-reading intensity, that
worthy lady's somewhat voluptuous mouthings.
She was a large, light person with protuberant blue eyes that looked as
if at some time they had been two-thirds choked from their sockets and
a characteristic of opening every sentence with her mouth shaped to an
explosive O, which she filled with as much breath as it would hold.
It had been a long tale of obstetrical fact and fancy, told plushily,
of course, against the dangerous little ears of Jeanette, and at its
conclusion Mrs. Peopping's steel-bead bag, half finished, lay in a
huddle at her feet, her pink and flabby face turned reminiscently toward
"--and for three days six doctors gave me up. Why, I didn't see Jeanette
until the fourteenth day, when most women are up and out. The crisis,
you know. My night nurse, an awful sweet girl--I send her a Christmas
present to this day--said if I had been six years younger it wouldn't
have gone so hard with me. I always say if the men knew what we women go
through--Maybe if some of them had to endure the real pain themselves
they would have something to do besides walk up and down the hall and
turn pale at the smell of ether coming through the keyhole. Ah me! I've
been a great sufferer in my day."
"Thu, thu, thu," and, "I could tell tales," and, "I've been through my
share"--from various points of vantage around the speaker.
It was then that Mrs. Jett sat forward on the edge of the straight
chair, and put her question.
There was a pause after it had fallen into the silence, as if an
intruder had poked her head in through the door, and it brought only the
most negligible answer from Mrs. Peopping.
Almost immediately Mrs. Dang caught at the pause for a case in point
that had been trembling on her lips all during Mrs. Peopping's recital.
"A doctor once told a second cousin of my sister-in-law's--" and so on
_ad infinitum, ad lib._, and _ad nauseaum_.
That night Mrs. Jett did an unprecedented thing. She crept into the
crevice of her husband's arm from behind as he stood in his waistcoat,
washing his hands in the carbolic solution at the bowl and washstand.
He turned, surprised, unconsciously placing himself between her and the
"Henry," she said, rubbing up against the alpaca back to his vest like
an ingratiating Maltese tabby, "Hen-ery."
"In a minute, Em," he said, rather puzzled and wishing she would wait.
Suddenly, swinging herself back from him by his waistcoat lapel, easily,
because of his tenseness to keep her clear of the bowl of water, she
directed her eyes straight into his.
"Hen-ery--Hen-ery," each pronouncement of his name surging higher in her
"Hen-ery, I haven't words sweet enough to tell you."
"Em, tell what?" And stopped. He could see suddenly that her eyes were
full of new pins of light and his lightening intuition performed a
miracle of understanding.
"Emmy!" he cried, jerking her so that her breath jumped, and at the
sudden drench of tears down her face sat her down, supporting her
roundish back with his wet hands, although he himself felt weak.
"I--can't say--what I feel, Henry--only--God is good and--I'm not
He held her to his shoulder and let her tears rain down into his watch
pocket, so shaken that he found himself mouthing silent words.
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