The Vertical City
Part 4 out of 5
"God is good, Henry, isn't He?"
"Yes, Emmy, yes. Oh, my Emmy!"
"It must have been our prayers, Henry."
"Well," sheepishly, "not exactly mine, Emmy; you're the saint of this
family. But I--I've wished."
"Henry. I'm so happy--Mrs. Peopping had Jeanette at forty-three. Three
years older than me. I'm not afraid."
It was then he looked down at her graying head there, prone against his
chest, and a dart of fear smote him.
"Emmy," he cried, dragging her tear-happy face up to his, "if you're
afraid--not for anything in the world! You're _first_, Em."
She looked at him with her eyes two lamps.
"Afraid? That's the beautiful _part_, Henry. I'm not. Only happy. Why
afraid, Henry--if others dare it at--forty-three--You mean because it
was her second?"
He faced her with a scorch of embarrassment in his face.
"You--We--Well, we're not spring chickens any more, Em. If you are sure
it's not too--"
She hugged him, laughing her tears.
"I'm all right, Henry--we've been too happy not to--to--perpetuate--it."
This time he did not answer. His cheek was against the crochet of her
yoke and she could hear his sobs with her heart.
* * * * *
Miraculously, like an amoeba reaching out to inclose unto itself, the
circle opened with a gasp of astonishment that filled Mrs. Peopping's O
to its final stretch and took unto its innermost Emma Jett.
Nor did she wear her initiation lightly. There was a new tint out in her
long cheeks, and now her chair, a rocker, was but one removed from Mrs.
Oh, the long, sweet afternoons over garments that made needlework
sublime. No longer the padded rose on the centerpiece or the futile
doily, but absurd little dresses with sleeves that she measured to the
length of her hand, and yokes cut out to the pattern of a playing card,
and all fretted over with feather-stitching that was frailer than
maidenhair fern and must have cost many an eye-ache, which, because of
its source, was easy to bear.
And there happened to Mrs. Jett that queer juvenescence that sometimes
comes to men and women in middle life. She who had enjoyed no particular
youth (her father had died in a ferryboat crash two weeks before her
birth, and her mother three years after) came suddenly to acquire
comeliness which her youth had never boasted.
The round-shouldered, long-cheeked girl had matured gingerly to rather
sparse womanhood that now at forty relented back to a fulsome thirty.
Perhaps it was the tint of light out in her face, perhaps the splendor
of the vision; but at any rate, in those precious months to come, Mrs.
Jett came to look herself as she should have looked ten years back.
They were timid and really very beautiful together, she and Henry Jett.
He came to regard her as a vase of porcelain, and, in his ignorance,
regarded the doctor's mandates harsh; would not permit her to walk, but
ordered a hansom cab every day from three to four, Mrs. Jett alternating
punctiliously with each of the boarding-house ladies for driving
Every noon, for her delectation at luncheon, he sent a boy from the
store with a carton of her special favorites--Blue Point oysters. She
suddenly liked them small because, as she put it, they went down easier,
and he thought that charming. Lynnhavens for mortals of tougher growth.
Long evenings they spent at names, exercising their pre-determination
as to sex. "Ann" was her choice, and he was all for canceling his
preference for "Elizabeth," until one morning she awakened to the white
light of inspiration.
"I have it! Why not Ann Elizabeth?"
"Great!" And whistled so through his shaving that his mouth was rayed
with a dark sunburst of beard where the razor had not found surface.
They talked of housekeeping, reluctantly, it is true, because Mrs. Plush
herself was fitting up, of hard-to-spare evenings, a basinette of pink
and white. They even talked of schools.
Then came the inevitable time when Mrs. Jett lost interest. Quite out of
a clear sky even the Blue Points were taboo, and instead of joining this
or that card or sewing circle, there were long afternoons of stitching
away alone, sometimes the smile out on her face, sometimes not.
"Em, is it all right with you?" Henry asked her once or twice,
"Of course it is! If I weren't this way--now--it wouldn't be natural.
You don't understand."
He didn't, so could only be vaguely and futilely sorry.
Then one day something quite horrible, in a small way, happened to Mrs.
Jett. Sitting sewing, suddenly it seemed to her that through the very
fluid of her eyeballs, as it were, floated a school of fish. Small
ones--young smelts, perhaps--with oval lips, fillips to their tails, and
sides that glisted.
She laid down her bit of linen lawn, fingers to her lids as if to
squeeze out their tiredness. She was trembling from the unpleasantness,
and for a frightened moment could not swallow. Then she rose, shook out
her skirts, and to be rid of the moment carried her sewing up to
Mrs. Dang's, where a euchre game was in session, and by a few adroit
questions in between deals gained the reassurance that a nervous state
in her "condition" was highly normal.
She felt easier, but there was the same horrid recurrence three times
that week. Once during an evening of lotto down in the front parlor she
pushed back from the table suddenly, hand flashing up to her throat.
"Em!" said Mr. Jett, who was calling the numbers.
"It's nothing," she faltered, and then, regaining herself more fully,
"nothing," she repeated, the roundness out in her voice this time.
The women exchanged knowing glances.
"She's all right," said Mrs. Peopping, omnipotently. "Those things
Going upstairs that evening, alone in the hallway, they flung an arm
each across the other's shoulder, crowding playfully up the narrow
"Emmy," he said, "poor Em, everything will be all right."
She restrained an impulse to cry. "Poor nothing," she said.
But neither the next evening, which was Friday, nor for Fridays
thereafter, would she venture down for fish dinner, dining cozily up
in her room off milk toast and a fluffy meringue dessert prepared
especially by Mrs. Plush. It was floating-island night downstairs.
Henry puzzled a bit over the Fridays. It was his heaviest day at the
business, and it was upsetting to come home tired and feel her place
beside him at the basement dinner table vacant.
But the women's nods were more knowing than ever, the reassuring
insinuations more and more delicate.
But one night, out of one of those stilly cisterns of darkness that
between two and four are deepest with sleep, Henry was awakened on the
crest of such a blow and yell that he swam up to consciousness in a
ready-made armor of high-napped gooseflesh.
A regrettable thing had happened. Awakened, too, on the high tide of
what must have been a disturbing dream, Mrs. Jett flung out her arm as
if to ward off something. That arm encountered Henry, snoring lightly in
his sleep at her side. But, unfortunately, to that frightened fling of
her arm Henry did not translate himself to her as Henry.
That was a fish lying there beside her! A man-sized fish with its mouth
jerked open to the shape of a gasp and the fillip still through its
enormous body, as if its flanks were uncomfortably dry. A fish!
With a shriek that tore a jagged rent through the darkness Mrs. Jett
began pounding at the slippery flanks, her hands sliding off its
"Out! Out! Henry, where are you? Help me! O God, don't let him get me.
Take him away, Henry! Where are you? My hands--slippery! Where are
Stunned, feeling for her in the darkness, he wanted to take her
shuddering form into his arms and waken her out of this horror, but with
each groping move of his her hurtling shrieks came faster, and finally,
dragging the bedclothing with her, she was down on the floor at the
bedside, blobbering. That is the only word for it--blobbering.
He found a light, and by this time there were already other lights
flashing up in the startled household. When he saw her there in the ague
of a huddle on the floor beside the bed, a cold sweat broke out over him
so that he could almost feel each little explosion from the pores.
"Why, Emmy--Emmy--my Emmy--my Emmy--"
She saw him now and knew him, and tried in her poor and already
burningly ashamed way to force her chattering jaws together.
He drew her up to the side of the bed, covering her shivering knees as
she sat there, and throwing a blanket across her shoulders. Fortunately
he was aware that the soothing note in his voice helped, and so he sat
down beside her, stroking her hand, stroking, almost as if to hypnotize
her into quiet.
"Henry," she said, closing her fingers into his wrists, "I must have
dreamed--a horrible dream. Get back to bed, dear. I--I don't know what
ails me, waking up like that. That--fish! O God! Henry, hold me, hold
He did, lulling her with a thousand repetitions of his limited store of
endearments, and he could feel the jerk of sobs in her breathing subside
and she seemed almost to doze, sitting there with her far hand across
her body and up against his cheek.
Then came knocks at the door, and hurried explanations through the slit
that he opened, and Mrs. Peopping's eye close to the crack.
"Everything is all right.... Just a little bad dream the missus had....
All right now.... To be expected, of course.... No, nothing anyone can
do.... Good night. Sorry.... No, thank you. Everything is all right."
The remainder of the night the Jetts kept a small light burning, after a
while Henry dropping off into exhausted and heavy sleep. For hours Mrs.
Jett lay staring at the small bud of light, no larger than a human eye.
It seemed to stare back at her, warning, Now don't you go dropping off
to sleep and misbehave again.
And holding herself tense against a growing drowsiness, she didn't--for
* * * * *
The morning broke clear, and for Mrs. Jett full of small reassurances.
It was good to hear the clatter of milk deliveries, and the first bar
of sunshine came in through the hand-embroidered window curtains like a
smile, and she could smile back. Later she ventured down shamefacedly
for the two cups of coffee, which she drank bravely, facing the
inevitable potpourri of comment from this one and that one.
"That was a fine scare you gave us last night, Mrs. Jett."
"I woke up stiff with fright. Didn't I, Will? Gracious! That first yell
was a curdler!"
"Just before Jeanette was born I used to have bad dreams, too, but
nothing like that. My!"
"My mother had a friend whose sister-in-law walked in her sleep right
out of a third-story window and was dashed to--"
"It's natural, Mrs. Jett. Don't you worry."
She really tried not to, and after some subsequent and private
reassurance from Mrs. Peopping and Mrs. Keller, went for her hansom ride
with a pleasant anticipation of the Park in red leaf, Mrs. Plush, in a
brocade cape with ball fringe, sitting erect beside her.
One day, in the presence of Mrs. Peopping, Mrs. Jett jumped to her feet
with a violent shaking of her right hand, as if to dash off something
that had crawled across its back.
"Ugh!" she cried. "It flopped right on my hand. A minnow! Ugh!"
"A what?" cried Mrs. Peopping, jumping to her feet and her flesh seeming
to crawl up.
"A minnow. I mean a bug--a June bug. It was a bug, Mrs. Peopping."
There ensued a mock search for the thing, the two women, on all-fours,
peering beneath the chairs. In that position they met levelly, eye to
eye. Then without more ado rose, brushing their knees and reseating
"Maybe if you would read books you would feel better," said Mrs.
Peopping, scooping up a needleful of steel beads. "I know a woman who
made it her business to read all the poetry books she could lay hands
on, and went to all the bandstand concerts in the Park the whole time,
and now her daughter sings in the choir out in Saginaw, Michigan."
"I know some believe in that," said Mrs. Jett, trying to force a smile
through her pallor. "I must try it."
But the infinitesimal stitching kept her so busy.
* * * * *
It was inevitable, though, that in time Henry should begin to shoulder
more than a normal share of unease.
One evening she leaned across the little lamplit table between them as
he sat reading in the Persian-design dressing gown and said, as rapidly
as her lips could form the dreadful repetition, "The fish, the fish, the
fish, the fish." And then, almost impudently for her, disclaimed having
He urged her to visit her doctor and she would not, and so, secretly, he
did, and came away better satisfied, and with directions for keeping her
diverted, which punctiliously he tried to observe.
He began by committing sly acts of discretion on his own accord. Was
careful not to handle the fish. Changed his suit now before coming
home, behind a screen in his office, and, feeling foolish, went out and
purchased a bottle of violet eau de Cologne, which he rubbed into his
palms and for some inexplicable reason on his half-bald spot.
Of course that was futile, because the indescribably and faintly rotten
smell of the sea came through, none the less, and to Henry he was
himself heinous with scent.
One Sunday morning, as was his wont, Mr. Jett climbed into his dressing
gown and padded downstairs for the loan of little Jeanette Peopping,
with whom he returned, the delicious nub of her goldilocks head showing
just above the blanket which enveloped her, eyes and all.
He deposited her in bed beside Mrs. Jett, the little pink feet peeping
out from her nightdress and her baby teeth showing in a smile that Mr.
Jett loved to pinch together with thumb and forefinger.
"Cover her up quick, Em, it's chilly this morning."
Quite without precedent, Jeanette puckered up to cry, holding herself
rigidly to Mr. Jett's dressing gown.
"Why, Jeanette baby, don't you want to go to Aunty Em?"
"No! No! No!" Trying to ingratiate herself back into Mr. Jett's arms.
"Baby, you'll take cold. Come under covers with Aunty Em?"
"No! No! No! Take me back."
"Oh, Jeanette, that isn't nice! What ails the child? She's always so
eager to come to me. Shame on Jeanette! Come, baby, to Aunty Em?"
"No! No! No! My mamma says you're crazy. Take me back--take me."
For a frozen moment Henry regarded his wife above the glittering fluff
of little-girl curls. It seemed to him he could almost see her face
become smaller, like a bit of ice under sun.
"Naughty little Jeanette," he said, shouldering her and carrying her
down the stairs; "naughty little girl."
When he returned his wife was sitting locked in the attitude in which he
had left her.
"Henry!" she whispered, reaching out and closing her hand over his so
that the nails bit in. "Not that, Henry! Tell me not that!"
"Why, Em," he said, sitting down and trembling, "I'm surprised at you,
listening to baby talk! Why, Em, I'm surprised at you!"
She leaned over, shaking him by the shoulder.
"I know. They're saying it about me. I'm not that, Henry. I swear I'm
not that! Always protect me against their saying that, Henry. Not
crazy--not that! It's natural for me to feel queer at times--now.
Every woman in this house who says--that--about me has had her nervous
feelings. It's not quite so easy for me, as if I were a bit younger.
That's all. The doctor said that. But nothing to worry about. Mrs.
Peopping had Jeanette--Oh, Henry promise me you'll always protect me
against their saying that! I'm not that--I swear to you, Henry--not
"I know you're not, Emmy. It's too horrible and too ridiculous to talk
"You do know I'm not, don't you? Tell me again you do know."
"I do. Do."
"And you'll always protect me against anyone saying it? They'll believe
you, Henry, not me. Promise me to protect me against them, Henry.
Promise to protect me against our little Ann Elizabeth ever thinking
that of--of her mother."
"Why, Emmy!" he said. "Why, Emmy! I just promise a thousand times--" and
could not go on, working his mouth rather foolishly as if he had not
teeth and were rubbing empty gums together.
But through her hot gaze of tears she saw and understood and, satisfied,
rubbed her cheek against his arm.
The rest is cataclysmic.
Returning home one evening in a nice glow from a January out-of-doors,
his mustache glistening with little frozen drops and his hands (he never
wore gloves) unbending of cold, Mrs. Jett rose at her husband's entrance
from her low chair beside the lamp.
"Well, well!" he said, exhaling heartily, the scent of violet denying
the pungency of fish and the pungency of fish denying the scent of
violet. "How's the busy bee this evening?"
For answer Mrs. Jett met him with the crescendo yell of a gale sweeping
around a chimney.
"Ya-a-ah! Keep out--you! Fish! Fish!" she cried, springing toward him;
and in the struggle that ensued the tubing wrenched off the gas lamp and
plunged them into darkness. "Fish! I'll fix you! Ya-a-ah!"
"Emmy! For God's sake, it's Henry! Em!"
"Ya-a-ah! I'll fix you! Fish! Fish!"
* * * * *
Two days later Ann Elizabeth was born, beautiful, but premature by two
Emma Jett died holding her tight against her newly rich breasts, for a
few of the most precious and most fleeting moments of her life.
All her absurd fears washed away, her free hand could lie without spasm
in Henry's, and it was as if she found in her last words a secret
euphony that delighted her.
"Ann-Elizabeth. Sweet-beautiful. Ann-Elizabeth. Sweet-beautiful."
Later in his bewildered and almost ludicrous widowerhood tears would
sometimes galumph down on his daughter's face as Henry rocked her of
evenings and Sunday mornings.
"Sweet-beautiful," came so absurdly from under his swiftly graying
mustache, but often, when sure he was quite alone, he would say it over
and over again.
"Sweet-beautiful. Ann-Elizabeth. Sweet-beautiful. Ann-Elizabeth."
* * * * *
Of course the years puttied in and healed and softened, until for Henry
almost a Turner haze hung between him and some of the stark facts of
Emma Jett's death, turping out horror, which is always the first to fade
from memory, and leaving a dear sepia outline of the woman who had been
At seventeen, Ann Elizabeth was the sun, the sky, the west wind, and the
shimmer of spring--all gone into the making of her a rosebud off the
stock of his being.
His way of putting it was, "You're my all, Annie, closer to me than I am
She hated the voweling of her name, and because she was so nimble with
youth could dance away from these moods of his rather than plumb them.
"I won't be 'Annie.' Please, daddy, I'm your Ann Elizabeth."
"Ann Elizabeth, then. My Ann Elizabeth," an inner rhythm in him echoing:
There was actually something of the lark about her. She awoke with a
song, sometimes kneeling up in bed, with her pretty brown hair tousling
down over her shoulders and chirruping softly to herself into the little
bird's-eye-maple dressing-table mirror, before she flung her feet over
the side of the bed.
And then, innate little housekeeper that she was, it was to the
preparing of breakfast with a song, her early morning full of antics.
Tiptoeing in to awaken her father to the tickle of a broom straw.
Spreading his breakfast piping hot, and then concealing herself behind a
screen, that he might marvel at the magic of it. And once she put salt
in his coffee, a fresh cup concealed behind the toast rack, and knee to
knee they rocked in merriment at his grimace.
She loved thus to tease him, probably because he was so stolid that each
new adventure came to him with something of a shock. He was forever
being taken unawares, as if he could never become entirely accustomed to
the wonder of her, and that delighted her. Even the obviousness of his
slippers stuffed out with carrots could catch him napping. To her dance
of glee behind him, he kept poking and poking to get into them, only
the peck of her kiss upon his neck finally initiating him into the
There was a little apartment of five rooms, twenty minutes removed by
Subway from the fish store; her bedroom, all pink and yellow maple; his;
a kitchen, parlor, and dining room worked out happily in white-muslin
curtains, spindle-legged parlor chairs, Henry's newfangled chifferobe
and bed with a fine depth of mattress, and a kitchen with eight shining
pots above the sink and a border of geese, cut out to the snip of Ann's
own scissors, waddling across the wall.
It was two and a half years since Mrs. Plush had died, and the boarders,
as if spilled from an ark on rough seas, had struck out for diverse
shores. The marvel to them now was that they had delayed so long.
"A home of our own, Ann. Pretty sweet, isn't it?"
"Oh, daddy, it is!"
"You mustn't overdo, though, baby. Sometimes we're not so strong as we
think we are. A little hired girl would be best." The fish business had
more than held its own.
"But I love doing it alone, dad. It--it's the next best thing to a home
He looked startled into her dreaming eyes.
"Your own? Why, Annie, isn't this--your own?"
She laid fingers against his eyes so that he could not see the pinkiness
"You know what I mean, daddy--my--very--own."
At that timid phrasing of hers Henry felt that his heart was actually
strangling, as if some one were holding it back on its systolic swing,
like a caught pendulum.
"Why, Annie," he said, "I never thought--"
But inevitably and of course it had happened.
The young man's name was Willis--Fred E. Willis--already credit man in
a large wholesale grocery firm and two feet well on the road to
advancement. A square-faced, clean-faced fellow, with a clean love of
life and of Ann Elizabeth in his heart.
Henry liked him.
Ann Elizabeth loved him.
And yet, what must have been a long-smoldering flame of fear shot up
through the very core of Henry's being, excoriating.
"Why, Ann Elizabeth," he kept repeating, in his slow and always
inarticulate manner, "I--You--Mine--I just never thought."
She wound the softest of arms about his neck.
"I know, daddy-darlums, and I'll never leave you. Never. Fred has
promised we will always be together. We'll live right here with you, or
you with us."
"Annie," he cried, "you mustn't ever--marry. I mean, leave daddy--that
way--anyway. You hear me? You're daddy's own. Just his by himself.
Nobody is good enough for my girl."
"But, daddy," clouding up for tears, "I thought you liked Fred so much!"
"I do, but it's you I'm talking about. Nobody can have you."
"But I love him, daddy. This is terrible. I love him."
"Oh, Ann, Ann! daddy hasn't done right, perhaps, but he meant well.
There are _reasons_ why he wants to keep his little girl with him
"But, daddy dear, I promise you we'll never let you be lonely. Why, I
couldn't stand leaving you any more than you could--"
"Not those reasons alone, Ann."
"You're so young," he tried to procrastinate.
"I'll be eighteen. A woman."
All his faculties were cornered.
"You're--so--Oh, I don't know--I--"
"You haven't any reasons, dad, except dear silly ones. You can't keep me
a little girl all the time, dear. I love Fred. It's all planned. Don't
ruin my life, daddy--don't ruin my life."
She was lovely in her tears and surprisingly resolute in her mind, and
he was more helpless than ever with her.
"Ann--you're not strong."
"Strong!" she cried, flinging back her curls and out her chest. "That is
a fine excuse. I'm stronger than most. All youngsters have measles and
scarlet fever and Fred says his sister Lucile out in Des Moines had St.
Vitus' dance when she was eleven, just like I did. I'm stronger than you
are, dad. I didn't get the flu and you did."
"You're nervous, Annie. That's why I want always to keep you at
She sat back, her pretty eyes troubled-up lakes.
"You mean the dreams and the scared feeling, once in a while, that I
can't swallow. That's nothing. I know now why I was so frightened in my
sleep the other night. I told Fred, and he said it was the peach sundae
on top of the crazy old movie we saw that evening. Why, Jeanette
Peopping had to take a rest cure the year before she was married. Girls
are always more nervous than fellows. Daddy--you--you frighten me when
you look at me like that! I don't know what you mean! What-do-you-mean?"
He was helpless and at bay and took her in his arms and kissed her hair.
"I guess your old daddy is a jealous pig and can't bear to share his
girl with anyone. Can't bear to--to give her up."
"You won't be giving up, daddums. I couldn't stand that, either. It
will be three of us then. You'll see. Look up and smile at your Ann
Elizabeth. Smile, now, smile."
And of course he did.
It was typical of her that she should be the busiest of brides-to-be,
her complete little trousseau, every piece down to the dishcloths,
monogrammed by her--A.E.W.
Skillful with her needle and thrifty in her purchases, the outfit when
completed might have represented twice the outlay that Henry expended
on it. Then there were "showers,"--linen, stocking, and even a tin one;
gifts from her girl friends--cup, face, bath and guest towels; all the
tremendous trifles and addenda that go to gladden the chattel-loving
heart of a woman. A little secret society of her erstwhile school
friends presented her with a luncheon set; the Keller twins with a
silver gravy boat; and Jeanette Peopping Truman, who occupied an
apartment in the same building, spent as many as three afternoons a week
with her, helping to piece out a really lovely tulip-design quilt of
pink and white sateen.
"Jeanette," said Ann Elizabeth, one afternoon as the two of them sat in
a frothy litter of the pink and white scraps, "how did you feel that
time when you had the nerv--the breakdown?"
Jeanette, pretty after a high-cheek-boned fashion and her still bright
hair worn coronet fashion about her head, bit off a thread with sharp
white teeth, only too eager to reminisce her ills.
"I was just about gone, that's what I was. Let anybody so much as look
at me twice and, pop! I'd want to cry about it."
"For six weeks I didn't even have enough interest to ask after Truman,
who was courting me then. Oh, it was no fun, I can tell you, that
nervous breakdown of mine!"
"Isn't that enough?"
"Did it--was it--was it ever hard to swallow, Jeanette?"
"Yes. I mean--did you ever dream or--think--or feel so frightened you
"I felt lots of ways, but that wasn't one of them. Swallow! Who ever
heard of not swallowing?"
"But didn't you ever dream, Jeanette--terrible things--such terrible
things--and get to thinking and couldn't stop yourself? Silly,
Jeanette put down her sewing.
"Ann, are you quizzing me about--your mother?"
"My mother? Why my mother? Jeanette, what do you mean? Why do you ask me
a thing like that? What has my mother got to do with it? Jeanette!"
Conscious that she had erred, Jeanette veered carefully back.
"Why, nothing, only I remember mamma telling me when I was just a kiddie
how your mamma used to--to imagine all sorts of things just to pass the
time away while she embroidered the loveliest pieces. You're like her,
mamma used to say--a handy little body. Poor mamma, to think she had to
be taken before Truman, junior, was born! Ah me!"
That evening, before Fred came for his two hours with her in the little
parlor, Ann, rid of her checked apron and her crisp pink frock saved
from the grease of frying sparks, flew in from a ring at the doorbell
with a good-sized special-delivery box from a silversmith, untying it
with eager, fumbling fingers, her father laying aside his newspaper to
venture three guesses as to its contents.
"Another one of those syrup pitchers."
"Oh dear!"--plucking the twine--"I hope not!"
"Some more nut picks."
"Daddy, stop calamity howling. Here's the card. Des Moines, Iowa. 'From
Lucile Willis, with love to her new sister.' Isn't that the sweetest!
It's something with a pearl handle."
"I know. Another one of those pie-spade things."
"Wrong! Wrong! It's two pieces. Oh!"
It was a fish set of silver and mother-of-pearl. A large-bowled spoon
and a sort of Neptune's fork, set up in a white-sateen bed.
"Say now, that _is_ neat," said Henry, appraising each piece with a show
of critical appreciation not really his. All this spread of the gewgaws
of approaching nuptials seemed meaningless to him; bored him. Butter
knives. Berry spoons. An embarrassment of nut picks and silver pitchers.
A sliver of silver paper cutter with a hilt and a dog's-head handle. And
now, for Fred's delectation this evening, the newly added fish set, so
appropriately inscribed from his sister.
Tilting it against the lamp in the place of honor, Ann Elizabeth turned
away suddenly, looking up at her father in a sudden dumb panic of which
he knew nothing, her two hands at her fair, bare throat. It was so hard
again to swallow. Impossible.
But finally, as was always the case, she did swallow, with a great surge
of relief. A little later, seated on her father's knee and plucking at
his tie in a futile fashion that he loved, she asked him:
They seldom talked of her, but always during these rare moments a
beautiful mood shaped itself between them. It was as if the mere breath
of his daughter's sweetly lipped use of "mother" swayed the bitter-sweet
memory of the woman he carried so faithfully in the cradle of his heart.
"Yes, baby--about mother?"
"Daddy"--still fingering at the tie--"was mother--was everything all
right with her up--to the very--end? I mean--no nerv--no pain? Just all
of a sudden the end--quietly. Or have you told me that just to--spare
She could feel him stiffen, but when his voice came it was even.
"Why, Ann, what a--question! Haven't I told you so often how mother just
peacefully passed on, holding a little pink you."
Sweet-Beautiful--his heart was tolling through a sense of
"I know, daddy, but before--wasn't there any nerv--any sickness?"
"No," he said, rather harshly for him. "No. No. What put such ideas into
You see, he was shielding Emma way back there, and a typhoon of her
words was raging through his head:
"Oh, Henry, protect me against anyone ever saying--that. Promise me."
And now, with no sense of his terrible ruthlessness, he was protecting
her with her own daughter.
"Then, daddy, just one more thing," and her underlip caught while she
waited for answer. "There is no other reason except your own dear silly
one of loneliness--why you keep wanting me to put off my marriage?"
"No, baby," he said, finally, his words with no more depth than if his
body were a hollow gourd. "What else could there be?"
Immediately, and with all the resilience of youth, she was her happy
self again, kissing him through his mustache and on his now frankly bald
head, which gave off the incongruous odor of violet eau de Cologne.
"Old dude daddy!" she cried, and wanted to kiss his hands, which he held
suddenly very still and far from her reach.
Then the bell rang again and Fred Willis arrived. All the evening,
long after Henry lay on his deep-mattressed bed, staring, the little
apartment trilled to her laughter and the basso of Fred's.
* * * * *
A few weeks later there occurred a strike of the delivery men and truck
drivers of the city, and Henry, especially hard hit because of the
perishable nature of his product, worked early and late, oftentimes
loading the wagons himself and riding alongside of the precariously
Frequently he was as much as an hour or two late to dinner, and upon one
or two occasions had tiptoed out of the house before the usual hour
when Ann opened her eyes to the consciousness of his breakfast to be
They were trying days, the scheme of his universe broken into, and Henry
thrived on routine.
The third week of the strike there were street riots, some of them
directly in front of the fish store, and Henry came home after a day of
the unaccustomed labor of loading and unloading hampers of fish, really
When he arrived Ann Elizabeth was cutting around the scalloped edge of
a doily with embroidery scissors, the litter of cut glass and silver
things out on the table and throwing up quite a brilliance under the
electric lamp, and from the kitchen the slow sizzle of waiting chops.
"Whew!" he said, as he entered, both from the whiff he emanated as he
shook out of his overcoat, and from a great sense of his weariness.
Loading the hampers, you understand. "Whew!"
Ann Elizabeth started violently, first at the whiff which preceded him
and at his approach into the room; then sat forward, her hand closing
into the arm of the chair, body thrust forward and her eyes widening
like two flowers opening.
Then she rose slowly and slyly, and edged behind the table, her two
hands up about her throat.
"Don't you come in here," she said, lowly and evenly. "I know you, but
I'm not afraid. I'm only afraid of you at night, but not by light. You
let me swallow, you hear! Get out! Get out!"
Rooted, Henry stood.
"Why, Annie!" he said in the soothing voice from out of his long ago,
"No, you don't," she cried, springing back as he took the step forward.
"My daddy'll kill you if he finds you here. He'll slit you up from your
tail right up to your gill. He knows how. I'm going to tell him and Fred
on you. You won't let me swallow. You're slippery. I can't stand it.
Don't you come near me! Don't!"
"Annie!" he cried. "Good God! Annie, it's daddy who loves you!" Poor
Henry, her voice was still under a whisper and in his agony he committed
the error of rushing at her. "Annie, it's daddy! See, your own dear
But she was too quick. Her head thrown back so that the neck muscles
strained out like an outraged deer's cornered in the hunt and her
eyes rolled up, Ann felt for and grasped the paper knife off the
"Don't you touch me--slit you up from tail to your gills."
"Annie, it's daddy! Papa! For God's sake look at daddy--Ann! God!" And
caught her wrist in the very act of its plumb-line rush for his heart.
He was sweating in his struggle with her, and most of all her strength
appalled him, she was so little for her terrible unaccountable power.
"Don't touch me! You can't! You haven't any arms! Horrible gills!"
She was talking as she struggled, still under the hoarse and frantic
whisper, but her breath coming in long soughs. "Slit-you-up-from-tail.
"Annie! Annie!" still obsessed by his anguished desire to reassure
her with the normality of his touch. "See, Annie, it's daddy. Ann
Elizabeth's daddy." With a flash her arm and the glint of the paper
cutter eluded him again and again, but finally he caught her by the
waist, struggling, in his dreadful mistake, to calm her down into the
"Now I've got you, darling. Now--sit--down--"
"No, you haven't," she said, a sort of wild joy coming out in her
whisper, and cunningly twisting the upper half of her body back from
his, the hand still held high. "You'll never get me--you fish!"
And plunged with her high hand in a straight line down into her throat.
It was only when the coroner withdrew the sliver of paper knife from its
whiteness, that, coagulated, the dead and waiting blood began to ooze.
* * * * *
"Do you," intoned the judge for the third and slightly more impatient
time, "plead guilty or not guilty to the charge of murder against you?"
This time the lips of the prisoner's wound of a mouth moved stiffly
Snow in the village of Vodna can have the quality of hot white plush
of enormous nap, so dryly thick it packs into the angles where fences
cross, sealing up the windward sides of houses, rippling in great seas
across open places, flaming in brilliancy against the boles of ever so
occasional trees, and tucking in the houses up to the sills and down
over the eaves.
Out in the wide places it is like a smile on a dead face, this snow
hush, grateful that peace can be so utter. It is the silence of a broody
God, and out of that frozen pause, in a house tucked up to the sills and
down to the eaves, Sara Turkletaub was prematurely taken with the pangs
of childbirth, and in the thin dawn, without even benefit of midwife,
twin sons were born.
Sturdy sons, with something even in their first crescendo wails that
bespoke the good heritage of a father's love-of-life and a mother's
No Sicilian sunrise was ever more glossy with the patina of hope
than the iced one that crept in for a look at the wide-faced,
high-cheek-boned beauty of Sara Turkletaub as she lay with her sons to
the miracle of her full breasts, her hair still rumpled with the agony
of deliverance. So sweetly moist her eyes that Mosher Turkletaub, his
own brow damp from sweat of her writhings, was full of heartbeat, even
to his temples.
Long before moontime, as if by magic of the brittle air, the tidings had
spread through the village, and that night, until the hand-hewn rafters
rang, the house of Turkletaub heralded with twofold and world-old fervor
the advent of the man-child. And through it all--the steaming warmth,
the laughter through bushy beards, the ministering of women wise and
foolish with the memory of their own pangs, the shouts of vodka-stirred
men, sheepish that they, too, were part custodians of the miracle of
life--through it all Sara Turkletaub lay back against her coarse bed, so
rich--so rich that the coves of her arms trembled each of its burden and
held tighter for fear somehow God might repent of his prodigality.
That year the soil came out from under the snow rich and malmy to the
plow, and Mosher started heavy with his peddler's pack and returned
light. It was no trick now for Sara to tie her sons to an iron ring in
the door jamb and, her strong legs straining and her sweat willing,
undertake household chores of water lugging, furniture heaving,
marketing with baskets that strained her arms from the sockets as she
carted them from the open square to their house on the outskirts, her
massive silhouette moving as solemnly as a caravan against the sky line.
Rich months these were and easy to bear because they were backed by a
dream that each day, however relentless in its toil, brought closer to
The long evenings full of the smell of tallow; maps that curled under
the fingers; the well-thumbed letters from Aaron Turkletaub, older
brother to Mosher and already a successful pieceworker on skirts in
Brooklyn. The picture postcards from him of the Statue of Liberty! Of
the three of them, Aaron, Gussie, his wife, and little Leo, with donkey
bodies sporting down a beach labeled "Coney." A horrific tintype of
little Leo in tiny velveteen knickerbockers that fastened with large,
ruble-sized, mother-of-pearl buttons up to an embroidered sailor blouse.
It was those mother-of-pearl buttons that captured Sara's imagination
so that she loved and wept over the tintype until little Leo quite
disappeared under the rust of her tears. Long after young Mosher, who
loved his Talmud, had retired to sway over it, Sara could yearn at this
Her sons in little knickerbockers that fastened to the waistband with
large pearl buttons!
Her black-eyed Nikolai with the strong black hair and the virile little
profile that hooked against the pillow as he slept.
Her red-headed Schmulka with the tight curls, golden eyes, and even
more thrusting profile. So different of feature her twins and yet so
temperamentally of a key. Flaming to the same childish passions, often
too bitter, she thought, and, trembling with an unnamed fear, would tear
Pull of the cruelties and the horrible torture complex of the young
male, they had once burned a cat alive, and the passion of their father
and their cries under flaying had beat about in her brain for weeks
after. Jealousies, each of the other, burned fiercely, and, aged three,
they scratched blood from one another over the favor of the shoemaker's
tot of a girl. And once, to her soul-sickness, Nikolai, the black one,
had found out the vodka and drunk of it until she discovered him in a
little stupor beside the cupboard.
Yet--and Sara would recount with her eyes full of more tears than they
could hold the often-told tale of how Schmulka, who could bear no
injustice, championed the cause of little Mottke, the butcher's son,
against the onslaught of his drunken father, beating back the lumbering
attack with small fists tight with rage; of little Nikolai, who fell
down the jagged wall of a quarry and endured a broken arm for the six
hours until his father came home rather than burden his mother with what
he knew would be the agony of his pain.
Red and black were Sara's sons in pigment. But by the time they were
four, almost identical in passion, inflammable both to the same angers,
the impulsive and the judiciary cunningly distributed in them.
And so, to the solemn and Talmud teachings of Mosher and the
wide-bosomed love of this mother who lavishly nurtured them, these sons,
so identically pitched, grew steady of limb, with all the thigh-pulling
power of their parents, the calves of their little legs already tight
as fists. And from the bookkeeping one snow-smelling night, to the
drip-drip of tallow, there came the decisive moment when America looked
exactly four months off!
Then one starlit hour before dawn the pogrom broke. Redly, from the very
start, because from the first bang of a bayonet upon a door blood began
to flow and smell.
There had been rumors. For days old Genendel, the ragpicker, had
prophetically been showing about the village the rising knobs of his
knotting rheumatic knuckles, ill omen of storm or havoc. A star had shot
down one night, as white and sardonic as a Cossack's grin and almost
with a hiss behind it. Mosher, returning from a peddling tour to a
neighboring village, had worn a furrow between his eyes. Headache, he
called it. Somehow Sara vaguely sensed it to be the ache of a fear.
One night there was a furious pink tint on the distant horizon, and
borne on miles of the stiffly thin air came the pungency of burning
wood and flesh across the snowlight. Flesh! The red sky lay off in the
direction of Kishinef. What was it? The straw roof of a burning barn?
The precious flesh of an ox? What? Reb Baruch, with a married daughter
and eleven children in Kishinef, sat up all night and prayed and swayed
Packed in airtight against the bite of the steely out-of-doors, most of
the village of Vodna--except the children and the half-witted Shimsha,
the _ganef_--huddled under its none-too-plentiful coverings that night
and prayed and trembled.
At five o'clock that red dawn, almost as if a bayonet had crashed into
her dream, Sara, her face smeared with pallor, awoke to the smell of
her own hair singeing. A bayonet _had_ crashed, but through the door,
The rest is an anguished war frieze of fleeing figures; of running
hither and thither in the wildness of fear; of mothers running with
babes at breasts; of men, their twisted faces steaming sweat, locked in
the Laocooen embrace of death. Banners of flame. The exultant belch of
iridescent smoke. Cries the shape of steel rapiers. A mouth torn back to
an ear. Prayers being moaned. The sticky stench of coagulating blood.
Pillage. Outrage. Old men dragging household chattels. Figures crumpling
up in the outlandish attitudes of death. The enormous braying of
frightened cattle. A spurred heel over a face in that horrible moment
when nothing can stay its descent. The shriek of a round-bosomed girl
to the smear of wet lips across hers. The superb daring of her lover to
kill her. A babe in arms. Two. The black billowing of fireless smoke.
A child in the horse trough, knocked there from its mother's arms by the
butt end of a bayonet, its red curls quite sticky in a circle of its
little blood. A half-crazed mother with a singed eyebrow, blatting over
it and groveling on her breasts toward the stiffening figure for the
warmth they could not give; the father, a black-haired child in his
arms, tearing her by force out of the zone of buckshot, plunging back
into it himself to cover up decently, with his coat, what the horse
Dawn. A huddle of fugitives. Footsteps of blood across the wide open
places of snow. A mother, whose eyes are terrible with what she has left
in the horse trough, fighting to turn back. A husband who literally
carries her, screaming, farther and farther across the cruel open
places. A town. A ship. The crucified eyes of the mother always looking
And so it was that Sara and Mosher Turkletaub sailed for America with
only one twin--Nikolai, the black.
* * * * *
The Turkletaubs prospered. Turkletaub Brothers, Skirts, the year after
the war, paying a six-figure excess-profit tax.
Aaron dwelt in a three-story, American-basement house in West 120th
Street, near Lenox Avenue, with his son Leo, office manager of the
Turkletaub Skirt Company, and who had recently married the eldest
daughter of an exceedingly well-to-do Maiden Lane jewelry merchant.
The Mosher Turkletaubs occupied an eight-room-and-two-baths apartment
near by. Sara, with much of the fleetness gone from her face and a smile
tempered by a look of unshed tears, marketing now by white-enameled desk
telephone or, on days when the limp from an old burn down her thigh was
not too troublesome, walked up to a plate-glass butcher shop on 125th
Street, where there was not so much as a drop of blood on the marble
counter and the fowl hung in white, plucked window display with
garnitures of pink tissue paper about the ankles and even the dangling
heads wrapped so that the dead eyes might not give offense.
It was a widely different Sara from the water lugger of those sweaty
Russian days. Such commonplaces of environment as elevator service,
water at the turning of a tap, potatoes dug and delivered to her
dumbwaiter, had softened Sara and, it is true, vanquished, along with
the years, some of the wing flash of vitality from across her face. So
was the tough fiber of her skin vanquished to almost a creaminess, and
her hair, due perhaps to the warm water always on tap, had taken on
a sheen, and even through its grayness grew out hardily and was well
trained to fall in soft scallops over the singed place.
Yes, all in all, life had sweetened Sara, and, except for the occasional
look of crucifixion somewhere back in her eyes, had roly-polied her
into new rotundities of hip and shelf of bosom, and even to what
mischievously promised to be a scallop of second chin.
Sara Turkletaub, daughter of a ne'er-do-well who had died before her
birth with the shadow of an unproved murder on him; Sara, who had run
swiftly barefoot for the first dozen summers of her life, and married,
without dower or approval, the reckless son of old Turkletaub, the
peddler; Sara, who once back in the dim years, when a bull had got loose
in the public square, had jerked him to a halt by swinging herself from
his horns, and later, standing by, had helped hold him for the emergency
of an un-kosher slaughter, not even paling at the slitting noises of the
Mosher Turkletaub, who had peddled new feet for stockings and calico for
the sacques the peasant women wore in the fields, reckoning no longer in
dozens of rubles but in dozens of thousands! Indeed, Turkletaub Brothers
could now afford to owe the bank one hundred thousand dollars! Mosher
dwelling thus, thighs gone flabby, in a seven-story apartment house with
a liveried lackey to swing open the front door and another to shoot him
upward in a gilded elevator.
It was to laugh!
And Sara and Mosher with their son, their turbulent Nikolai, now an
accredited Doctor of Law and practicing before the bar of the city of
It was upon that realization, most of all, that Sara could surge tears,
quickly and hotly, and her heart seem to hurt of fullness.
Of Nikolai, the black. Nicholas, now:
It was not without reason that Sara had cried terrible tears over him,
and that much, but not all, of the struggle was gone from her face.
Her boy could be as wayward as the fling to his fierce black head, and
sickeningly often Mosher, with a nausea at the very pit of him, had
wielded the lash.
Once even Nicholas in his adolescent youth, handsomely dark, had stood
in Juvenile Court, ringleader of a neighborhood gang of children on a
foray into the strange world of some packets of cocaine purloined from
the rear of a vacated Chinese laundry.
Bitterly had Mosher stood in the fore of that court room, thumbing his
hat, his heart gangrening, and trying in a dumbly miserable sort of way
to press down, with his hand on her shoulder, some of the heaving of
Sara's enormous tears.
There had followed a long, bitter evening of staying the father's lash
from descending, and finally, after five hours with his mother in his
little room, her wide bosom the sea wall against which the boiling
waywardness of him surged, his high head came down like a black swan's
and apparently, at least so far as Mosher knew, Sara had won again.
And so it was that with the bulwark of this mother and a father who
spared not the wise rod even at the price of the sickness it cost
him, Nicholas came cleanly through these difficult years of the long
midchannel of his waywardness.
At twenty-one he was admitted to the bar of the city of New York,
although an event so perilous followed it by a year or two that the
scallops of strong hair that came down over the singed place of Sara's
brow whitened that year; although Mosher, who was beginning to curve
slightly of the years as he walked, as if a blow had been struck him
from behind, never more than heard the wind before the storm.
Listen in on the following:
The third year that Nicholas practiced law, junior member in the Broad
Street firm of Leavitt & Dilsheimer, he took to absenting himself from
dinner so frequently, that across the sturdy oak dining table, laid out
in a red-and-white cloth, gold-band china not too thick of lip, and a
cut-glass fern dish with cunningly contrived cotton carnations stuck in
among the growing green, Sara, over rich and native foods, came more and
more to regard her husband through a clutch of fear.
"I tell you, Mosher, something has come over the boy. It ain't like him
to miss _gefuelte_-fish supper three Fridays in succession."
"All right, then, because he has a few more or less _gefuelte_-fish
suppers in his life, let it worry you! If that ain't a woman every
"_Gefuelte_ fish! If that was my greatest worry. But it's not so easy to
prepare, that you should take it so much for granted. _Gefuelte_ fish, he
says, just like it grew on trees and didn't mean two hours' chopping on
"Now, Sara, was that anything to fly off at? Do I ever so much as eat
two helpings of it in Gussie's house? That's how I like yours better!"
"Gussie don't chop up her onions fine enough. A hundred times I tell her
and a hundred times she does them coarse. Her own daughter-in-law, a
girl that was raised in luxury, can cook better as Gussie. I tell you,
Mosher, I take off my hat to those Berkowitz girls. And if you should
ask me, Ada is a finer one even than Leo's Irma."
The sly look of wiseacre wizened up Mosher's face.
"Ada!" she says. "The way you pronounce that girl's name, Sara, it's
like every tooth in your mouth was diamond filled out of Berkowitz's
Quite without precedent Sara's lips began to quiver at this pleasantry.
"I'm worried, Mosher," she said, putting down a forkful of untasted food
that had journeyed twice toward her lips. "I don't say he--Nicky--I
don't say he should always stay home evenings when Ada comes over
sometimes with Leo and Irma, but night after night--three times whole
nights--I--Mosher, I'm afraid."
In his utter well-being from her warming food, Mosher drank deeply and,
if it must be admitted, swishingly, through his mustache, inhaling
copiously the draughts of Sara's coffee.
Do not judge from the mustache cup with the gilt "Papa" inscribed, that
Sara's home did not meticulously reflect the newer McKinley period, so
to speak, of the cut-glass-china closet, curio cabinet, brass bedstead,
velour upholstery, and the marbelette Psyche.
They had furnished newly three years before, the year the business
almost doubled, Sara and Gussie simultaneously, the two of them poring
with bibliophiles' fervor over Grand Rapids catalogic literature.
Bravely had Sara, even more so than Gussie, sacrificed her old regime to
the dealer. Only a samovar remained. A red-and-white pressed-glass punch
bowl, purchased out of Nicholas's--aged fourteen--pig-bank savings. An
enlarged crayon of her twins from a baby picture. A patent rocker which
she kept in the kitchen. (It fitted her so for the attitude of peeling.)
Two bisque plaques, with embossed angels. Another chair capable of
metamorphosis into a ladder. And Mosher's cup.
From this Mosher drank with gusto. His mustache, to Sara so thrillingly
American, without its complement of beard, could flare so above the
relishing sounds of drinking. It flared now and Mosher would share none
of her concern.
"You got two talents, Sara. First, for being my wife; and second, for
wasting worry like it don't cost you nothing in health or trips to
Cold Springs in the Catskills for the baths. Like it says in Nicky's
Shakespeare, a boy who don't sow his wild oats when he's young will some
day do 'em under another name that don't smell so sweet."
"I--It ain't like I can talk over Nicky with you, Mosher, like another
woman could with her husband. Either you give him right or right away
you get so mad you make it worse with him than better."
"But only this morning that Mrs. Lessauer I meet sometimes at Epstein's
fish store--you know the rich sausage-casings Lessauers--she says to me
this morning, she says with her sweetness full of such a meanness, like
it was knives in me--'Me and my son and daughter-in-law was coming out
of a movie last night and we saw your son getting into a taxicab with
such a blonde in a red hat!' The way she said it, Mosher, like a cat
licking its whiskers--'such a blonde in a red hat'!"
"I wish I had one dollar in my pocket for every blond hat with red hair
her Felix had before he married."
"But it's the second time this week I hear it, Mosher. The same
description of such a--a nix in a red hat. Once in a cabaret show Gussie
says she heard it from a neighbor, and now in and out from taxicabs with
her. Four times this week he's not been home, Mosher. I can't help it,
I--I get crazy with worry."
A sudden, almost a simian old-age seemed to roll, like a cloud that can
thunder, across Sara's face. She was suddenly very small and no little
old. Veins came out on her brow and upon the backs of her hands, and
Mosher, depressed with an unconscious awareness, was looking into the
tired, cold, watery eyes of the fleet woman who had been his.
"Why, Sara!" he said, and came around the table to let her head wilt in
unwonted fashion against his coat. "Mamma!"
"I'm tired, Mosher." She said her words almost like a gush of warm blood
from the wound of her mouth. "I'm tired from keeping up and holding in.
I have felt so sure for these last four years that we have saved him
from his--his wildness--and now, to begin all over again, I--I 'ain't
got the fight left in me, Mosher."
"You don't have to have any fight in you, Mamma. 'Ain't you got a
husband and a son to fight for you?"
"Sometimes I think, except for the piece of my heart I left lying back
there, that there are worse agonies than even massacres. I've struggled
so that he should be good and great, Mosher, and now, after four years
already thinking I've won--maybe, after all, I haven't."
"Why, Sara! Why, Mamma! Shame! I never saw you like this before. You
ain't getting sick for another trip to the Catskills, are you? Maybe you
need some baths--"
"Sulphur water don't cure heart sickness."
"Heart sickness, nonsense! You know I don't always take sides with
Nicky, Mamma. I don't say he hasn't been a hard boy to raise. But a man,
Mamma, is a man! I wouldn't think much of him if he wasn't. You 'ain't
got him to your apron string in short pants any more. Whatever troubles
we've had with him, women haven't been one of them. Shame, Mamma, the
first time your grown-up son of a man cuts up maybe a little nonsense
with the girls! Shame!"
"Girls! No one would want more than me he should settle himself down to
a fine, self-respecting citizen with a fine, sweet girl like Ad--"
"Believe me, and I ain't ashamed to say it, I wasn't an angel, neither,
every minute before I was married."
"My husband brags to me about his indiscretioncies."
"_Na, na_, Mamma, right away when I open my mouth you make out a
case against me. I only say it to show you how a mother maybe don't
understand as well as a father how natural a few wild oats can be."
"L-Leo didn't have 'em."
"Leo ain't a genius. He's just a good boy."
"I--I worry so!"
"Sara, I ask you, wouldn't I worry, too, if there was a reason? God
forbid if his nonsense should lead to really something serious, then
it's time to worry."
Sara Turkletaub dried her eyes, but it was as if the shadow of
crucifixion had moved forward in them.
"If just once, Mosher, Nicky would make it easy for me, like Leo did for
Gussie. When Leo's time comes he marries a fine girl like Irma Berkowitz
from a fine family, and has fine children, without Gussie has to cry her
eyes out first maybe he's in company that--that--"
"I don't say, Sara, we didn't have our hard times with your boy. But we
got results enough that we shouldn't complain. Maybe you're right. With
a boy like Leo, a regular good business head who comes into the firm
with us, it ain't been such a strain for Gussie and Aaron as for us with
a genius. But neither have they got the smart son, the lawyer of the
family, for theirs. _We_ got a temperament in ours, Sara. Ain't that
something to be proud of?"
She laid her cheek to his lapel, the freshet of her tears past staying.
"I--I know it, Mosher. It ain't--often I give way like this."
"We got such results as we can be proud of, Sara. A genius of a lawyer
son on his way to the bench. Mark my word if I ain't right, on his way
to the bench!"
"Yes, yes, Mosher."
"Well then, Sara, I ask you, is it nice to--"
"I know it, Papa. I ought to be ashamed. Instead of me fighting you to
go easy with the boy, this time it's you fighting me. If only he--he was
the kind of boy I could talk this out with, it wouldn't worry me so.
When it comes to--to a girl--it's so different. It's just that I'm
tired, Mosher. If anything was to go wrong after all these years of
struggling for him--alone--"
"Alone! Alone! Why, Sara! Shame! Time after time for punishing him I was
a sick man!"
"That's it! That's why so much of it was alone. I don't know why I
should say it all to-night after--after so many years of holding in."
"You meant well, God knows a father never meant better, but it wasn't
the way to handle our boy's nature with punishments, and a quick temper
like yours. Your way was wrong, Mosher, and I knew it. That's why so
much of it was--alone--so much that I had to contend with I was afraid
to tell you, for fear--for fear--"
"Now, now, Mamma, is that the way to cry your eyes out about nothing? I
don't say I'm not sometimes hasty--"
"Time and time again--keeping it in from you--after the Chinese laundry
that night after you--you whipped him so--you never knew the months of
nights with him afterward--when I found out he liked that--stuff! Me
alone with him--"
"Sara, is now time to rake up such ten-year-old nonsense!"
"It's all coming out in me now, Mosher. The strain. You never knew. That
time you had to send me to the Catskills for the baths. You thought
it was rheumatism. I knew what was the matter with me. Worry. The
nights--Mosher. He liked it. I found it hid away in the toes of his
gymnasium shoes and in the mouth to his bugle. He--liked that stuff,
Mosher. You didn't know that, did you?"
"It. The--the stuff from the Chinese laundry. Even after the Juvenile
Court, when you thought it was all over after the whipping that night.
He'd snuff it up. I found him twice on his bed after school. All
druggy-like--half sleeping and half laughing. The gang at school he was
in with--learned him--"
"It ain't so easy to undo with a day in Juvenile Court such a habit like
that. You thought the court was the finish. My fight just began then!"
"You remember the time he broke his kneecap and how I fighted the
doctors against the hypodermic and you got so mad because I wouldn't let
him have it to ease the pain. I knew why it was better he should suffer
than have it. _I knew!_ It was a long fight I had with him alone,
Mosher. He liked that--stuff."
"And that wasn't the only lead-pipe case that time, neither, Mosher.
Twice I had to lay out of my own pocket so you wouldn't know, and talk
to him 'til sometimes I thought I didn't have any more tears left
inside of me. Between you and your business worries that year of the
garment-workers' strike--and our boy--I--after all that I haven't got
the strength left. Now that he's come out of it big, I can't begin over
again. I haven't got what he would call the second wind for it. If
anything should keep him now from going straight ahead to make him count
as a citizen, I wouldn't have the strength left to fight it, Mosher.
And so Sara Turkletaub lay back with the ripple writing of stormy high
tides crawling out in wrinkles all over her face and her head, that he
had never seen low, wilting there against his breast.
He could not be done with soothing her, his own face suddenly as
puckered as an old shoe, his chin like the toe curling up.
"Mamma, Mamma, I didn't know! God knows I never dreamt--"
"I know you didn't, Mosher. I ain't mad. I'm only tired. I 'ain't got
the struggle left in me. This feeling won't last in me, I'll be all
right, but I'm tired, Mosher--so tired."
"My poor Sara!"
"And frightened. Such a blonde in a red hat. Cabarets. Taxicabs. Night
after night. Mosher, hold me. I'm frightened."
Cheek to cheek in their dining room of too-carved oak, twin shadow-boxed
paintings of Fruit and Fish, the cut-glass punch bowl with the hooked-on
cups, the cotton palm, casually rigid velour drapes, the elusive floor
bell, they huddled, these two, whose eyes were branded with the scars
of what they had looked upon, and a slow, a vast anger began to rise in
Mosher, as if the blood in his throat were choking him, and a surge of
it, almost purple, rose out of his collar and stained his face.
"Loafer! Low-life! No-'count! His whole body ain't worth so much as your
little finger. I'll learn him to be a worry to you with this all-night
business. By God! I'll learn my loafer of a son to--"
On the pistol shot of that, Sara's body jumped out of its rigidity, all
her faculties coiled to spring.
"He isn't! You know he isn't! 'Loafer'! Shame on you! Whatever else he
is, he's not a loafer. Boys will be boys--you say so yourself. 'Loafer'!
You should know once what some parents go through with real _loafers_
"No child what brings you such worry is anything else than a loafer!"
"And I say 'no'! The minute I so much as give you a finger in finding
fault with that boy, right away you take a hand!"
"I'll break his--"
"You don't know yet a joke when you hear one. I wanted to get you mad! I
get a little tired and I try to make myself funny."
"There wasn't no funniness in the way your eyes looked when you--"
"I tell you I didn't mean one word. No matter what uneasiness that child
has brought me, always he has given me more in happiness. Twice more.
That's what he's been. Twice of everything to make up for--for only
being half of my twins."
"Then what the devil is--"
"I don't envy Gussie her Leo and his steady ways. Didn't you say
yourself for a boy like ours you got to pay with a little uneasiness?"
"Not when that little uneasiness is enough to make his mother sick."
"Sick! If I felt any better I'd be ashamed of having so much health! If
you get mad with him and try to ask him where he stays every night is
all that can cause me worry. It's natural a handsome boy like ours
should sow what they call his wild oat. With such a matzos face like
poor Leo, from where he broke his nose, I guess it ain't so easy for him
to have his wild oat. Promise me, Mosher, you won't ask one question or
get mad at him. His mother knows how to handle her boy so he don't even
know he's handled."
"I'll handle him--"
"See now, just look at yourself once in the glass with your eyes full of
red. That's why I can't tell you nothing. Right away you fly to pieces.
I say again, you don't know how to handle your son. Promise me you won't
say nothing to him or let on, Mosher. Promise me."
"That's the way with you women. You get a man crazy and then--"
"I tell you it's just my nonsense."
"If I get mad you're mad, and if I don't get mad you're mad! Go do me
something to help me solve such a riddle like you."
"It's because me and his aunt Gussie are a pair of matchmaking old
women. That the two cousins should marry the two sisters, Irma and Ada,
we got it fixed between us! Just as if because we want it that way it's
got to happen that way!"
"A pair of geeses, the two of you!"
"I wouldn't let on to Gussie, but Ada, the single one, has got Leo's
Irma beat for looks. Such a complexion! And the way she comes over to
sew with me afternoons! A young girl like that! An old woman like me!
You see, Mosher? See?"
"See, she asks me. What good does it do me if I see or I don't see when
his mother gets her mind made up?"
"But does Nicky so much as look at her? That night at Leo's birthday I
was ashamed the way he right away had an engagement after supper, when
she sat next to him and all through the meal gave him the white meat off
her own plate. Why, the flowered chiffon dress that girl had on cost ten
dollars a yard if it cost a cent. Did Nicky so much as look at her? No."
"Too many birthdays in this family."
"I notice you eat them when they are set down in front of you!"
"Ha! That's fine! A new dish. Boiled birthdays with horseradish sauce."
"All right, then, the birthday _parties_. Don't be so exactly with me.
Many a turn in his grave you yourself have given the man who made the
dictionary. I got other worries than language. If I knew where he
Rather contentedly, while Sara cleared and tidied, Mosher snapped open
his evening paper, drawing his spectacles down from the perch of his
"You women," he said, breathing out with the male's easy surcease from
responsibility--"you women and your worries. If you 'ain't got 'em, you
"Heigh-ho!" sighed out Sara, presently, having finished, and diving
into her open workbasket for the placidity her flying needle could so
cunningly simulate. "Heigh-ho!"
But inside her heart was beating over and over again to itself, rapidly:
This is where he was:
In the Forty-fifth-Street flat of Miss Josie Drew, known at various
times and places as Hattie Moore, Hazel Derland, Mrs. Hazel, and--But
what does it matter.
At this writing it was Josie Drew of whom more is to be said of than
Yet pause to consider the curve of her clay. Josie had not molded her
nose. Its upward fling was like the brush of a perfumed feather duster
to the senses. Nor her mouth. It had bloomed seductively, long before
her lip stick rushed to its aid and abetment, into a cherry at the
bottom of a glass for which men quaffed deeply. There was something
rather terrifyingly inevitable about her. Just as the tide is plaything
of the stars, so must the naughty turn to Josie's ankle have been
complement to the naughty turn of her mind.
It is not easy for the woman with a snub nose and lips molded with a
hard pencil to bleed the milk of human kindness over the frailties of
the fruity chalice that contained Miss Drew. She could not know, for
instance, if her own gaze was merely owlish and thin-lashed, the
challenge of eyes that are slightly too long. Miss Drew did. Simply
drooping hers must have stirred her with a none-too-nice sense of
herself, like the swell of his biceps can bare the teeth of a gladiator.
That had been the Josie Drew of eighteen.
At thirty she penciled the droop to her eyebrows a bit and had a not
always successful trick of powdering out the lurking caves under her
eyes. There was even a scar, a peculiar pocking of little shotted spots
as if glass had ground in, souvenir of one out of dozens of such nights
of orgies, this particular one the result of some unmentionable jealousy
she must have coaxed to the surface.
She wore it plastered over with curls. It was said that in rage it
turned green. But who knows? It was also said that Josie Drew's correct
name was Josie Rosalsky. But again who knows? Her past was vivid with
the heat lightning of the sharp storms of men's lives. At nineteen she
had worn in public restaurants a star-sapphire necklace, originally
designed by a soap magnate for his wife, of these her birthstones.
At twenty her fourteen-room apartment faced the Park, but was on the
ground floor because a vice-president of a bank, a black-broadcloth
little pelican of a man, who stumped on a cane and had a pink tin roof
to his mouth, disliked elevators.
At twenty-three and unmentionably enough, a son of a Brazilian coffee
king, inflamed with the deviltry of debauch, had ground a wine tumbler
against her forehead, inducing the pock marks. At twenty-seven it was
the fourth vice-president of a Harlem bank. At twenty-nine an interim.
Startling to Josie Drew. Terrifying. Lean. For the first time in eight
years her gasoline expenditures amounted to ninety cents a month instead
of from forty to ninety dollars. And then not at the garage, but at the
corner drug store. Cleaning fluid for kicked-out glove and slipper tips.
The little jangle of chatelaine absurdities which she invariably
affected--mesh bag, lip stick, memorandum (for the traffic in telephone
numbers), vanity, and cigarette case were gold--filled. There remained
a sapphire necklace, but this one faithfully copied to the wink of the
stars and the pearl clasp by the Chemic Jewel Company. Much of the
indoor appeal of Miss Drew was still the pink silkiness of her, a
little stiffened from washing and ironing, it is true, but there was a
flesh-colored arrangement of intricate drape that was rosily kind to
her. Also a vivid yellow one of a later and less expensive period, all
heavily slashed in Valenciennes lace. This brought out a bit of virago
through her induced blondness, but all the same it italicized her, just
as the crescent of black court plaster exclaimed at the whiteness of her
She could spend an entire morning fluffing at these things, pressing
out, with a baby electric iron and a sleeve board, a crumple of chiffon
to new sheerness, getting at spots with cleaning fluid. Under alcoholic
duress Josie dropped things. There was a furious stain down the
yellow, from a home brew of canned lobster a la Newburg. The stain
she eliminated entirely by cutting out the front panel and wearing it
In these first slanting years, in her furnished flat of upright,
mandolin-attachment piano, nude plaster-of-Paris Bacchante holding
a cluster of pink-glass incandescent grapes, divan mountainous with
scented pillows, she was about as obvious as a gilt slipper that has
started to rub, or a woman's kiss that is beery and leaves a red
To Nicholas Turkletaub, whose adolescence had been languid and who had
never known a woman with a fling, a perfume, or a moue (there had been
only a common-sense-heeled co-ed of his law-school days and the rather
plump little sister-in-law of Leo's), the dawn of Josie cleft open
something in his consciousness, releasing maddened perceptions that
stung his eyeballs. He sat in the imitation cheap frailty of her
apartment like a young bull with threads of red in his eyeballs, his
head, not unpoetic with its shag of black hair, lowered as if to bash at
the impotence of the thing she aroused in him.
Also, a curious thing had happened to Josie. Something so jaded in
her that she thought it long dead, was stirring sappily, as if with
Maybe it was a resurgence of sense of power after months of terror that
the years had done for her.
At any rate, it was something strangely and deeply sweet.
"Nicky-boy," she said, sitting on the couch with her back against the
wall, her legs out horizontally and clapping her rubbed gilt slippers
together--"Nicky-boy must go home ten o'clock to-night. Josie-girl
Her mouth, like a red paper rose that had been crushed there, was always
bunched to baby talk.
"Come here," he said, and jerked her so that the breath jumped.
"Won't," she said, and came.
His male prowess was enormous to him. He could bend her back almost
double with a kiss, and did. His first kisses that he spent wildly. He
could have carried her off like Persephone's bull, and wanted to, so
swift his mood. His flare for life and for her leaped out like a flame,
and something precious that had hardly survived sixteen seemed to stir
in the early grave of her heart.
"Oh, Nicky-boy! Nicky-boy!" she said, and he caught that she was
yearning over him.
"Don't say it in down curves like that. Say it up. Up."
She didn't get this, but, with the half-fearful tail of her eye for
the clock, let him hold her quiescent, while the relentlessly sliding
moments ticked against her unease.
"I'm jealous of every hour you lived before I met you."
"I want to kiss your eyes until they go in deep--through you--I don't
know--until they hurt--deep--I--want--to hurt you--"
"Oh! Oh! Josie scared!"
"You're like one of those orange Angora kittens. Yellow. Soft. Deep."
"I Nicky's pussy."
"I can see myself in your eyes. Shut me up in them."
"Josie so tired."
"Nicky so--so strong."
"My poor pussy! I didn't mean--"
"Nicky-boy, go home like good Nicky."
"I don't want ever to go home."
"Go now, Josie says."
"You mean never."
He kissed his "No, No," down against each of her eyelids.
"You must," she said this time, and pushed him off.
For a second he sat quite still, the black shine in his eyes seeming to
give off diamond points.
"You're nervous," he said, and jerked her back so that the breath jumped
The tail of her glance curved to the gilt clock half hidden behind a
litter of used highball glasses, and then, seeing that his quickly
suspicious eye followed hers:
"No," she said, "not nervous. Just tired--and thirsty."
He poured her a high drink from a decanter, and held it so that, while
she sipped, her teeth were magnified through the tumbler, and he thought
that adorable and tilted the glass higher against her lips, and when she
choked soothed her with a crush of kisses.
"You devil," he said, "everything you do maddens me."
There was a step outside and a scraping noise at the lock. It was only
a vaudeville youth, slender as a girl, who lived on the floor above,
feeling unsteadily, and a bit the worse for wear, for the lock that must
eventually fit his key.
But on that scratch into the keyhole, Josie leaped up in terror, so that
Nicholas went staggering back against the Bacchante, shattering to a
fine ring of crystal some of the pink grapes, and on that instant she
clicked out the remaining lights, shoving him, with an unsuspected and
catamount strength, into an adjoining box of a kitchenette.
There an uncovered bulb burned greasily over a small refrigerator, that
stood on a table and left only the merest slit of walking space. It was
the none too fastidious kitchen of a none too fastidious woman. A pair
of dress shields hung on the improvised clothesline of a bit of twine.
A clump of sardines, one end still shaped to the tin, cloyed in its own
oil, crumbily, as if bread had been sopped in, the emptied tin itself,
with the top rolled back with a patent key, filled now with old beer.
Obviously the remaining contents of a tumbler had been flung in.
Cigarette stubs floated. A pasteboard cylindrical box, labeled "Sodium
Bi-carbonate," had a spoon stuck in it. A rubber glove drooped deadly
over the sink edge.
On the second that he stood in that smelling fog, probably for no longer
than it took the swinging door to settle, something of sickness rushed
over Nicholas. The unaired odors of old foods. Those horrific things on
the line. The oil that had so obviously been sopped up with bread. The
old beer, edged in grease. Something of sickness and a panoramic flash
of things absurdly, almost unreasonably irrelevant.
Snow, somewhere back in his memory. A frozen silence of it that was
clean and thin to the smell. The ridges in the rattan with which his
father had whipped him the night after the Chinese laundry. The fine
white head of the dean of the law school. His mother baking for Friday
night in a blue-and-white gingham apron that enveloped her. Red
curls--some one's--somewhere. The string of tiny Oriental pearls that
rose and fell with the little pouter-pigeon swell of a bosom. Pretty
perturbation. His cousin's sister-in-law, Ada. A small hole in a
pink-silk stocking, peeping like a little rising sun above the heel of a
rubbed gilt slipper. Josie's slipper.
Something seemed suddenly to rise in Nicholas, with the quick
capillarity of water boiling over.
The old familiar star-spangled red over which Sara had time after time
laid sedative hand against his seeing, sprang out. The pit of his
passion was bottomless, into which he was tumbling with the icy laughter
of breaking glass.
Then he struck out against the swinging door so that it ripped outward
with a sough of stale air, striking Josie Drew, as she approached it
from the room side, so violently that her teeth bit down into her lips
and the tattling blood began to flow.
"Nicky! It's a mistake. I thought--my sister--It got so late--you
wouldn't go. Go now! The key--turning--Nervous--silly--mistake. Go--"
He laughed, something exhilarant in his boiling over, and even in her
sudden terror of him she looked at his bare teeth and felt the unnice
beauty of the storm.
"Nicky," she half cried, "don't be--foolish! I--"
And then he struck her across the lip so that her teeth cut in again.
"There is some one coming here to-night," he said, with his smile still
She sat on the couch, trying to bravado down her trembling.
"And what if there is? He'll beat you up for this! You fool! I've tried
to explain a dozen times. You know, or if you don't you ought to, that
there's a--friend. A traveling salesman. Automobile accessories. Long
trips, but good money. Good money. And here you walk in a few weeks ago
and expect to find the way clear! Good boy, you like some one to go
ahead of you with a snow cleaner, don't you? Yes, there's some one due
in here off his trip to-night. What's the use trying to tell Nicky-boy
with his hot head. He's got a hot head, too. Go, and let me clear the
way for you, Nicky. For good if you say the word. But I have to know
where I'm at. Every girl does if she wants to keep her body and soul
together. You don't let me know where I stand. You know you've got me
around your little finger for the saying, but you don't say. Only go
now, Nicky-boy. For God's sake, it's five minutes to eleven and he's due
in on that ten-forty-five. Nicky-boy, go, and come back to me at six
to-morrow night. I'll have the way clear then, for good. Quit blinking
at me like that, Nicky. You scare me! Quit! When you come back to-morrow
evening there won't be any more going home for Josie's Nicky-boy.
Nicky, go now. He's hotheaded, too. Quit blinking, Nicky--for God's
It was then Nicholas bent back her head as he did when he kissed her
there on the swan's arch to her neck, only this time his palm was
against her forehead and his other between her shoulder blades.
"I could kill you," he said, and laughed with his teeth. "I could bend
back your neck until it breaks."
"And I want to," he said through the star-spangled red. "I want you to
crack when I twist. I'm going to twist--twist--"
And he did, shoving back her hair with his palm, and suddenly bared,
almost like a grimace, up at him, was the glass-shotted spot where
the wine tumbler had ground in, greenish now, like the flanges of her
Somewhere--down a dear brow was a singed spot like that--singed with the
flame of pain--
"Nicky, for God's sake--you're--you're spraining my neck! Let go! Nicky.
God! if you hadn't let go just when you did. You had me croaking.
Nicky-boy--kiss me now and go! Go! To-morrow at six--clear for
you--always--only go--please, boy--my terrible--my wonderful. To-morrow
Somehow he was walking home, the burn of her lips still against his,
loathsome and gorgeous to his desires. He wanted to tear her out by the
roots from his consciousness. To be rollickingly, cleanly free of her.
His teeth shone against the darkness as he walked, drenched to the skin
of his perspiration and one side of his collar loose, the buttonhole
Rollickingly free of her and yet how devilishly his shoes could clat on
To-morrow at six. To-morrow at six. To-morrow at six.
* * * * *
It was some time after midnight when he let himself into the uptown
apartment. He thought he heard his mother, trying to be swift, padding
down the hallway as if she had been waiting near the door. That would
have angered him.
The first of these nights, only four weeks before (it seemed years),
he had come in hotly about four o'clock and gone to bed. About five he
thought he heard sounds, almost like the scratch of a little dog at
his door. He sprang up and flung it open. The flash of his mother's
gray-flannelette wrapper turned a corner of the hall. She must have
been crying out there and wanting him to need her. None the less it had
angered him. These were men's affairs.
But in his room to-night the light burned placidly on the little table
next to the bed, a glass of milk on a plate beside it. The bed was
turned back, snowy sheets forming a cool envelope for him to slip
in between. The room lay sedatively in shadow. A man's room. Books,
uncurving furniture, photographs of his parents taken on their
twenty-fifth anniversary standing on the chiffonier in a double leather
frame that opened like a book. Face down on the reading table beside the
glass of milk, quite as he must have left it the night before, except
where Sara had lifted it to dust under, a copy of Bishop's _New Criminal
Law_, already a prognosis, as it were, of that branch of the law he was
ultimately and brilliantly to bend to fuller justice.
Finally, toward morning Nicholas slept, and at ten o'clock of a
rain-swept Sunday forenoon awoke, as he knew he must, to the grip of a
blinding headache, so called for want of a better noun to interpret the
kind of agony which, starting somewhere around his eyes, could prick
each nerve of his body into a little flame, as if countless matches had
As a youngster these attacks had not been infrequent, usually after a
fit of crying. The first, in fact, had followed the burning of the cat;
a duet of twin spasms then, howled into Sara's apron, And once after he
had fished an exhausted comrade out of an ice hole in Bronx Park. They
had followed the lead-pipe affairs and the Chinese-laundry episode with
dreadful inevitability. But it had been five years since the last--the
night his mother had fainted with terror at what she had found concealed
in the toes of his gymnasium shoes.
Incredible that into his manhood should come the waving specter of those
At eleven o'clock, after she heard him up and moving about, his mother
carried him his kiss and his coffee, steaming black, the way he liked
it. She had wanted to bring him an egg--in fact, had prepared one, to
just his liking of two minutes and thirty seconds--but had thought
better of it, and wisely, because he drank the coffee at a quick gulp
and set down the cup with his mouth wry and his eyes squeezed tight.
From the taste of it he remembered horridly the litter of tall glasses
beside the gilt clock.
With all her senses taut not to fuss around him with little jerks and
pullings, Sara jerked and pulled. Too well she knew that furrow between
his eyes and wanted unspeakably to tuck him back into bed, lower the
shades, and prepare him a vile mixture good for exactly everything that
did not ail him. But Sara could be wise even with her son. So instead
she flung up the shade, letting him wince at the clatter, dragged off
the bedclothes into a tremendous heap on the chair, beat up the pillows,
and turned the mattress with a single-handed flop.
"The Sunday-morning papers are in the dining room, son."
He was standing in his dressing gown at the rain-lashed window,
strumming. Lean, long, and, to Sara, godlike, with the thick shock of
his straight hair still wet from the shower.
"Mrs. Berkowitz telephoned already this morning with such a grand
compliment for you, son. Her brother-in-law, Judge Rosen, says you're
the brains of your firm even if you are only the junior partner yet, and
your way looks straight ahead for big things."
"Uhm! Who's talking out there so incessantly, mother?"
"That's your uncle Aaron. He came over for Sunday-morning breakfast with
your father. You should see the way he tracked up my hall with his wet
shoes. I'm sending him right back home with your father. They should
clutter up your aunt Gussie's house with their pinochle and ashes. I had
'em last Sunday. She don't need to let herself off so easy every week.
It's enough if I ask them all over here for supper to-night. Not?"
"Don't count on me, dear. I won't be home for supper."
There was a tom-tom to the silence against her beating ear drums.
"All right, son," she said, pulling her lips until they smiled at him,
"with Leo and Irma that'll only make six of us, then."
He kissed her, but so tiredly that again it was almost her irresistible
woman's impulse to drag down that fiercely black head to the beating
width of her bosom and plead from him drop by drop some of the bitter
welling of pain she could see in his eyes.
"Nicky," she started to cry, and then, at his straightening back from
her, "come out in the dining room after I pack off the men. I got my
work to do. That nix of a house girl left last night. Such sass, too!
I'm better off doing my work alone."
Sara, poor dear, could not keep a servant, and, except for the
instigation of her husband and son, preferred not to. Cooks rebelled
at the exactitude of her household and her disputative reign of the
"I'll be out presently, mother," he said, and flung himself down in the
leather Morris chair, lighting his pipe and ostensibly settling down to
the open-faced volume of _Criminal Law_.
Sara straightened a straight chair. She knew, almost as horridly as
if she had looked in on it, the mucky thing that was happening; the
intuitive sixth sense of her hovered over him with great wings that
wanted to spread. Josie Drew was no surmise with her. The blond head and
the red hat were tatooed in pain on her heart and she trembled in a bath
of fear, and, trembling, smiled and went out.
Sitting there while the morning ticked on, head thrown back, eyes
closed, and all the little darting nerves at him, the dawn of Nicholas
Turkletaub's repugnance was all for self. The unfrowsy room, and himself
fresh from his own fresh sheets. His mother's eyes with that clean-sky
quality in them. The affectionate wrangling of those two decent voices
from the dining room. Books! His books, that he loved. His tastiest
dream of mother, with immensity and grandeur in her eyes, listening
from a privileged first-row bench to the supreme quality of his mercy.
But tastily, too, and undeniably against his lips, throughout these
conjurings, lay the last crushy kiss of Josie Drew. That swany arch to
her neck as he bent it back. He had kissed her there. Countlessly.
He tried to dwell on his aversions for her. She had once used an
expletive in his presence that had sickened him, and, noting its effect,
she had not reiterated. The unfastidious brunette roots to her light
hair. That sink with the grease-rimmed old beer! But then: her eyes
where the brows slid down to make them heavy-lidded. That bit of blue
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