A Petal on the Current, by Fannie
Were I only swifter and more potent of pen, I could convey to you all in
the stroke of a pestle the H2O, the pigment of the red-cheeked apple,
the blue of long summer days, and the magnesia of the earth for which
Stella Schump was the mortal and mortar receptacle.
She was about as exotic as a flowering weed which can spring so strongly
and so fibrously from slack. And yet such a weed can bleed milk. If
Stella Schump was about fourteen pounds too plump, too red of cheek, and
too blandly blue of eye, there was the very milk of human kindness in
her morning punching up of her mother's pillows and her smoothing down
of the gray and poorly hair. She could make a bed freshly, whitely, her
strong young arms manoeuvering under but not even jarring the poor old
form so often prone there.
There was a fine kind of virile peasantry in the willing hands, white
enough, but occasionally broken at the nails from eight hours of this
box in and that box out in a children's shoe department.
Differing by the fourteen pounds, Watteau would have scorned and Rubens
have adored to paint her.
She was not unconscious of the rather flaxen ripple of her hair, which
she wore slickly parted and drawn back, scallop by scallop, to a round
and shining mat of plaits against the back of her head. But neither was
she unconscious that she thereby enhanced the too high pitch of her
cheek-bones and the already too generous width between them. It was when
Stella Schump opened wide her eyes that she transcended the milky
fleshliness and the fact that, when she walked rapidly, her cheeks
quivered in slight but gelatinous fashion. Her eyes—they were the color
of perfect June at that high-noon moment when the spinning of the
humming-bird can be distilled to sound. Laura and Marguerite and Stella
Schump had eyes as blue as Cleopatra's, and Sappho's and Medea's must
have been green.
For reading and occasional headaches, she wore a pair of horn-rimmed
spectacles prescribed but not specially ground by the optical
department, cater-corner from the children's shoes. Upon the occasion of
their first adjustment, Romance, for the first time, had leaned briefly
into the smooth monotony of Miss Schump's day-by-day, to waft a scented,
a lace-edged, an elusive kerchief.
"You ought to heard, mamma, that fellow over in the specs, when he gimme
the test for the glasses."
"Tee-hee!—it sounds silly to repeat it."
"You got the Schump eyes, Stella. I always used to say, with his big
blue ones, your poor father ought to been a girl, too."
"'Say,' he said to me, he said, just like that, 'I know a society who
will pay you a big fat sum if you'll sign over them eyes for
post-mortem laboratory work. Believe me, Bettina,' he said, just like
that, 'those are some goo-goos!'"
"Yes, ma—the way I look out of them."
"See, Stella, if you'd only mix with the young men and not be so
stiff-like with them. See! Is he the sober, genteel kind who could sit
out an evening in a self-respectin' girl's front parlor?"
"I—I can't ask a fellow if he didn't ask me, can I? I can't make a
pusher out of myself."
"A girl don't have to make a pusher out of herself to have beaus; it's
natural for her to have them in moderation. I don't want my girl shut
out of her natural pleasures."
"'Believe me, Bettina,' he said, 'those are some goo-goos'—just like
that, he said it."
"Before I'd let a girl like Cora Kinealy have all the beaus! I bet
she'd ask him."
"It—it just ain't in me, ma. The other girls do, I know—you ought to
heard the way Mabel Runyan was kiddin' a fellow in the silks to-day—it
just ain't in me to."
"Nowadays, young men got to be made to feel welcome."
"I just don't seem to take."
"'I'll be pleased to have you call of a Saturday night, Mr. So-and-so.'
No one could say there's anything but the genteel in that. Those are
just the words I used to say to your poor father when he was courtin'."
"If only I—I wouldn't turn all red!"
"I bet Cora Kinealy would have asked him." "I—I'll ask him, ma."
When Stella Schump was adjusting her black sleevelets next morning,
somewhat obviously oblivious of the optical department across the aisle,
a blond, oiled head leaned out at her.
A flush that she could feel rush up and that would not be controlled
threw her into a state of agitation that was almost abashing to behold.
"Believe me, Bettina, those are some goo-goos!"
"I'd be pleased to have you—come—to—"
"I told the little wifey last night, 'Angel Face, I've found a pair of
goo-goos that are a close runner-up to yours.'"
Miss Schump turned to her first customer of the day, the flush receding
as suddenly as it had come to scorch.
"Copper toes for the little boy? Just be seated, please."
Thus did the odor of romance lay for the merest moment upon the stale
air of Miss Schump's routine.
Evenings, in the high-ceilinged, long-windowed, and inside-shuttered
little flat in very West Thirteenth Street, tucked up in the top story
of one of a row of made-over-into-apartments residences that boasted
each a little frill of iron balcony and railed-in patch of front lawn,
they would sit beside an oil-lamp with a flowered china shade, Mrs.
Schump, gnarled of limb and knotted of joint, ever busy, except on the
most excruciatingly rheumatic of her days, at a needlework so cruel, so
fine that for fifteen years of her widowhood it had found instant market
at a philanthropic Woman's Exchange.
Very often Miss Cora Kinealy, also of the children's shoes, would rock
away an evening in that halo of lamplight, her hair illuminated to
copper and her hands shuttling in and out at the business of knitting.
There were frank personal discussions, no wider in diameter than the
little circle of light itself.
MISS KINEALY (slumped in her chair so that her knee rose higher than
her waist-line): I always say of Stella, she's one nut too hard for me
to crack, and I've cracked a good many in my life. Why that girl 'ain't
got beaus galore—well, I give up!
MRS. SCHUMP (stooped for an infinitesimal stab of needle): She don't
give 'em a chance, Cora. You can't tell me there is not many a nice,
sober young man wouldn't be glad to sit out a Saturday evening with her.
She's that bashful she don't give 'em a chance. I tell her it's almost
as much ruination to a girl to be too retiring as to be too forward. She
don't seem to have a way with the boys.
MISS SCHUMP (in a pink, warm-looking flannelette kimono and brushing
out into fine fluff her flaxen-looking hair, and then, in the name of
to-morrow's kink, plaiting it into a multitude of small, tight-looking
braids): You can talk, mamma. You, too, Cora, with a boy like Archie
Sensenbrenner and your wedding-day in sight. But what's a girl goin' to
do if she don't take; if she ain't got an Archie?
Mrs. Schump (riding her glasses down toward the end of her nose to
look up sharply over them): Get one.
"There you go again! Honest, you two make me mad. I can't go out and
lasso 'em, can I?"
"She doesn't give 'em a chance, Cora; mark my word! The trouble is,
she's too good for most she sees. They ain't up to her."
"I can't understand it, Mrs. Schump. I always say there ain't a finer
girl on the floor than Stella. When I see other girls, most of 'em fresh
little rag-timers that ain't worth powder and shot, bringing down the
finest kind of fellows, and Stella never asked out or nothing, I always
say to myself, 'I can't understand it.' Take me—what Arch Sensenbrenner
ever seen in me, with Stella and her complexion working in the same
"You got a way, Cora. There's just something about me don't take with
the boys. Honest, if I could only see one of you girls alone with a
fellow once, to see how you do it!"
"Just listen to her, Mrs. Schump, with her eyes and complexion and all!"
"There's not a reason my girl shouldn't have it as good and better than
the best of them. She's a good girl, Cora. Stella's a good girl to me."
"Don't I know it, Mrs. Schump! I always say if ever a girl would make
some nice-earning, steady fellow a good wife, it's—"
'"Good wife'! That ain't the name! Why, Cora, for ten years that child
has lifted me on my bad days and carried me and babied me like I was a
queen. It's nothing for her to rub me two hours straight. Not a day
before she leaves for work that she don't come to me and—"
"Fellows don't care about that kind of thing. A girl's got to have pep
and something besides complexion and elbow-grease. I'm too fat."
"She's always sayin' she's too fat. With one pound off, would she
look as good, Cora? If I hadn't been as plump as a partridge in my
girl-days—and if I do say it myself, I was as fine a lookin' girl
as my Stella—do you think Dave Schump would have had eyes for me?
Not if I was ten times the woman I was for him."
"Sure she ain't too fat, Mrs. Schump. I always tell her it's her
imagination. I know a girl bigger than she is that's keeping company
with an expert piano-tuner. Why, I know girls twice her size. Stella's
got a right good figure, she has."
"Lots of good it does me! I—It's just like my brains to go right to my
hands, once you put me with a fellow. That time your brother Ed called
for me for that party at your house—honest, I couldn't open my mouth
"Can't understand it! 'Honest,' I says to Ed that time after the party,
I says to him, 'Ed, why don't you go over and call on Stella Schump and
take her to a movie or something? She's my idea of a girl, Stella is.'
Think I could budge him? 'Naw,' was all I could get out of him. Just,
'Naw.' Honest, I could have shook him. But did he run down to that
little flirt of a Gert Cobb's the very same night? He did. Honest, like
I said to Arch, it makes me sick. Is it any wonder the world is filled
with little flips like Gert Cobb, the way the fellows fall for 'em?"
"I never could be fresh with a boy. Take that time at your party. I bet
your brother Ed would have liked me better if I'd have got out in the
middle of the floor with him, like he wanted me to and like Gert did, to
see who could blow the biggest bunch of suds off his stein. I never
could be fresh with a fellow."
"That's just the trouble, Mrs. Schump. Stella don't see the difference
between what's fresh and what's just fun. Is there anything wrong about
one stein of beer in a jolly crowd? A girl can be nice without being
goody-good. If there's anything a fellow hates, it's a goody-good. Take
a fellow like Arch—you think he'd have any time for me if I wasn't a
good-enough sport to take a glass of beer with him maybe once a week
when he gets to feeling thirsty? Nothing rough. Everything in
moderation, I always say. But there's a difference, Mrs. Schump, between
being rough and being a goody-good."
"There's something in what you say, Cora. I've had her by me so much,
maybe I've tried to raise her a little over-genteel. There ain't one
single bad appetite she's got to be afraid of. It's not in her. I used
to tell her poor father, one glass of beer could make him so crazy loony
he never had to try how two tasted."
"I'm bashful, and what you goin' to do about it?"
"Say, you and Ed's foreman ought to meet together! Honest, you'd be a
pair! Ed brought him to the house one night. Finest boy you ever seen.
Thirty-five a week, steady as you make 'em; and when they put in girls
to work down at the munitions-plant where him and Ed works, Ed said it
was all they could do to keep him from throwing up his job from fright.
Whatta you know? A dandy fellow like him, with a dagger-shaped scar
clear down his arm from standing by his job that time when the whole
south end of the plant exploded. A fellow that could save a whole plant
and two hundred lives afraid to face a few skirts! Crazy to get married.
Told Ed so. Always harping on his idea of blue eyes and yellow hair, and
then, when he gets the chance, afraid of a few skirts!"
"That's me every time with fellows. I get to feelin' down inside of me
something terrible—scary—and all."
"Say, I'll tell you what! I'll get Ed to bring him down to Gert Cobb's
party next Saturday night, and you come, too."
"There's two of a kind for you, Mrs. Schump. A fellow that's more afraid
of girls than explosions, and a girl that's afraid to blow a little foam
off a glass of beer! Them two ought to meet. Me and Arch and Ed'll fix
it up. How's that for a scheme? Now say I ain't your friend! Are
"I don't go out tryin' to meet fellows that way."
"You see, Mrs. Schump, the way she puts a gold fence around herself?"
"Cora's puttin' herself out for you, Stella. There's no harm in a
Saturday night's party in the company of Cora and some genteel friends."
"Gert Cobb don't know I'm on earth."
"You hear, Mrs. Schump? Is it any wonder she don't get out? All I got to
do is say the word, and any friend of mine is welcome in Gert
"I'll make you up them five yards of pink mull for it, Stella. It's a
shame that pretty dress-pattern from your two birthdays ago has never
had the occasion to be made up. It's nice of Cora to be puttin'
"Look at 'er, like I was asking her to a funeral!"
"There's such a pretty sash I been savin' to make up with that mull,
Cora. A handsome black-moiré length of ribbon off a beaded basque her
father gimme our first Christmas married."
"I'll lend her my pink pearls to wear. Honest, I never knew a girl could
wear pink like Stella."
Miss Schump leaned forward in the lamplight, the myriad of tight little
braids at angles, but her eyes widening to their astounding blueness.
"Not your—pink beads, Cora?"
"You heard me the first time, didn't you? 'Pink' was what I said."
"Now ain't that nice of Cora?"
"Quick—are you game?"
* * * * *
There is a section of New York which rays out rather crazily from old
Jefferson Market and Night Court in spokes of small streets that seem
to run at haphazard angles each to the other—that less sooty part of
Greenwich not yet invaded by the Middle West in search of bohemia. An
indescribable smack of Soho here, tired old rows of tired old houses
going down year by year before the wrecker's ax, the model tenement
rising insolently before the scar is cold.
It is that part of the Latin Quarter which is literally just that, lying
slightly to the south and slightly to the west of that odd-fellow's land
of short-haired women and long-haired men. Free love, free verse, free
thought, free speech, and freed I.W.W.'s have no place here. For three
blocks a little Italy runs riot in terms of pastry, spaghetti, and
plaster-of-Paris shops, and quite as abruptly sobers and becomes Soho
again. A Greek church squats rather broadly at the intersection of three
of these streets.
There intervened between Stella Schump's and the six-story model
tenement adjoining the Greek church which Miss Gertrude Cobb called
home, a rhomboid of park, municipally fitted with playground apparatus,
the three-block riot of little Italy, the gloomy barracks of old
Jefferson Market and Night Court, and a few more blocks of still intact,
tired old rows of tired old houses.
On a spring night that was as insinuatingly sweet as the crush of a rose
to the cheek there walked through these lowly streets of lower Manhattan
Mr. Archie Sensenbrenner, bounded on the north by a checked,
deep-visored cap; on the south by a very bulldogged and very tan pair of
number nines; on the east by Miss Cora Kinealy, very much of the
occasion in a peaked hood faced in eider-down and a gay silk bag of
slippers dangling; on the west by Miss Stella Schump, a pink scarf
entwining her head like a Tanagra.
"Honest, Cora, I feel just like I'm intruding."
"'Intrudin'! Would I have invited her if we didn't want her, Arch?"
"'There's always room for one more,' is my motto. I believe it always
comes home to the girl that don't share her good times. If me and Arch
couldn't call by for a girl on our way to a party, I'd feel sorry for
us. Give her your arm, Arch."
"Here! I tried once to, and she wouldn't take it."
Miss Schump hooked a highly diffident hand into Mr. Sensenbrenner's
sharply jutted elbow.
"You two go on and talk together. I've chewed Arch's right ear off
"It's a grand evenin'—ain't it, Mr. Sensenbrenner?"
At that from Miss Schump, Miss Kinealy executed a very soprano squeal
that petered out in a titter of remonstrances.
"Arch Sensenbrenner, if you don't stop pinching me! Honest, my arm's
black and blue! Honest! What'll Stella think we are? Now cut it out!"
They walked a block in silence, but, beside her, Miss Schump could feel
them shaking to a duet of suppressed laughter, and the red in her face
rose higher and a little mustache of the tiniest of perspiration beads
came out over her lip. The desire to turn back, the sudden ache for the
quietude of the little halo of lamplight and the swollen finger-joints
of her mother in and out at work, were almost not to be withstood.
"I—You—you and Mr. Sensenbrenner go on, Cora. I—me not knowin' Gertie
Cobb and all—I—I—feel I'm intruding. You and him go on. Please!"
Miss Kinealy crossed to her, kindly at once and sobered.
"Now, Stella Schump, you're coming right to this party with me and Arch.
We can't do more than tell her she's welcome, can we, Arch?"
"I promised your mother I'm going to see to it that you get away from
her apron-strings and out among young folks more, and you're coming
right to this party with me and Arch. Ain't I right, Arch?"
"You mustn't feel bad, honey, that Ed couldn't get John Gilly to come
around and call after you. Ed says he'd never get him to steam up his
nerve enough to call at a girl's house after her; but ain't it enough
he's coming to Gert's to-night just to meet you? You ought to heard him
when Ed got to telling him what kind of a girl you was. 'Gee!' Ed says
he says. 'Big blue eyes like saucers sounds good to me! Well,' he says,
Ed says he says, 'if my nerve don't lay down on me, I'll show up there
with you.' That's something, ain't it, for a fellow like John Gilly to
do just to meet a girl? Ain't it, Arch, for that fine, big fellow, Ed's
foreman, you seen up at our house that night? You know the one I mean,
the one with his arm scalded up from the explosion."
"Honest, if I wasn't already tagged and spoken for, I'd set my cap for
"'Mother, mother, mother, pin a rose on me!'" cried Mr. Sensenbrenner,
with no great pertinence.
Miss Kinealy threw him a northwest glance. "Ain't he the cut-up,
"He sure is."
"Br-a-a-y!" said Mr. Sensenbrenner, again none too relevantly.
"Oh, show her the way the zebra in the Park goes on Sunday morning,
He inserted two fingers, splaying his mouth. "Heigh-ho!
"Ain't that lifelike, Stella?"
"It sure is."
"Oh, look! Up there—the third story—see—those are the Cobbs'
windows, all lit up! Oh, gee! I just can't make my feet behave. Waltz me
around again, Archie! No; you got to take the first dance with Stella."
"Oh no, Cora; he wants—"
"You hear, Arch?"
"Sure; only, I can't force her if she don't want to."
"Sure she wants to! Hurry! I hear Skinnay Flint's ukulele. Gee! I just
can't make my feet be-have!"
They entered an institutional, sanitary, and legislation-smelling box of
foyer and up three flights of fire-proof stairs. At each landing were
four fire-proof doors, lettered. The Cobbs' door, "H," stood open, an
epicene medley of voices and laughter floating down the long neck of
hallway on the syncopated whine of a ukulele.
There was an immediate parting of ways, Mr. Sensenbrenner hanging his
cap on an already well-filled rack of pegs and making straight for the
sound of revelry by night.
The girls made foray into a little side pocket of bedroom for the
changing of shoes, whitening of noses, and various curlicue preambles.
"Stella, your hair looks swell!"
"Ma plaited it up last night with sugar-water."
"Here, just this speck on your lips, just a little to match your
cheeks!—See—all the girls use it."
"There, just a stroke. Fine! Say, wasn't Arch killing to-night when he
called my cheeks naturally curly?"
"You look grand, Cora. Sure you don't want your pink beads?"
"I'll throw 'em down and step on 'em if you take 'em off."
"I just love that changeable silk on you."
"Does the split under the arm show?"
"Come on, then!"
In the Cobb front room a frightened exodus of furniture had taken place.
A leather-and-oak "davenbed" had obviously and literally been dragged to
the least conspicuous corner. An unpainted center of floor space showed
that there had been a rug. Camp-chairs had been introduced against all
available wall space. Only a fan-shaped, three-shelved cabinet of
knickknacks had been allowed its corner. Diagonal from it, the horn of a
talking-machine, in shape a large, a violent, a tin morning-glory, was
directed full against the company.
Not a brilliant scene, except by grace or gracelessness of state of
mind. But to Stella Schump, neither elected nor electing to walk in
greater glory, there was that about the Cobb front room thus lighted,
thus animated, that gave her a sense of function—a crowding around the
heart. The neck of hallway might have been a strip of purple, awninged.
There were greetings that rose in crescendo and falsetto.
"Cora Kinealy! Hello, Cora! How's every little thing?"
"Baby-shoes—tra-la-la!" "Oh, you changeable-silk kiddo! Turn green for
the ladies." "Come on over here, Cora, and make Arch tell fortunes!"
"Gertie, this is my girl friend, Stella, from the shoes, I brought.
Y'know? I told you about her. Ed's bringing down a gentleman friend
Miss Gertie Cobb, so blond, so small, so titillating that she resembled
nothing so much as one of those Dresden table-candelabra under a pink
glass-fringed shade with the fringe always atinkle, laughed upward in a
voice eons too old.
"Make yourself right at home. At our house, it's what you don't see ask
for. Skin-nay Flint, if you don't stop! Make him quit, Cora; he's been
ticklin' me something awful with that little old feather duster he
brought along. Whatta you think this is—Coney Island? E-e-e-e-e-e!"
There ensued a scramble down the length of the room, Miss Cobb with her
thin, bare little arms flung up over her head, Miss Kinealy tugging and
then riding in high buffoonery over the bare floor, firmly secured to
Mr. Flint's coattails.
"Quit—ouch—e-e-e-e-e! That's right; give it to him! Cora—go to
Lips lifted to belie a sinkage of heart, Miss Schump, left standing,
backed finally, sinking down to one of the camp-chairs against the wall.
The little glittering mustache had come out again, and, sitting there,
her smile so insistently lifted, the pink pearls at her throat rose and
fell. The ukulele was whanging again, and a couple or two, locked cheek
to cheek, were undulating in a low-lidded kind of ecstasy. Finally, Cora
Kinealy and Archie Sensenbrenner, rather uglily oblivious.
A youth, frantic to outdistance a rival for the dancing-hand of Miss
Gertie Cobb, stumbled across Miss Schump's carefully crossed ankles.
"'Scuse," he said, without glancing back.
"Certainly," said Miss Schump, through aching tonsils.
There was an encore, the raucous-throated morning-glory taking up where
the ukulele had left off. Miss Schump sat on, the smile drawn more and
more resolutely across her face. Occasionally, to indicate a state of
social ease, she caught an enforced yawn with her hand.
After a while Mrs. Cobb entered, quietly, almost furtively, hands
wrapped muff fashion in a checked apron, sitting down softly on the
first of the camp-chairs near the door. She had the dough look of the
comfortable and the uncorseted fat, her chin adding a scallop as,
watching, her smile grew.
"It's great to watch the young ones," she said, finally.
Miss Schump moved gratefully, oh, so gratefully, two chairs over.
"It sure is," she said, assuming an attitude of conversation.
"Like I tell Gert, it makes me young again myself."
"It sure does."
"Give it to 'em in the house, I say, and it keeps 'em in off the
"Your daughter is sure one pretty girl."
"Gert's a good-enough girl, if I could keep her in. I tell 'er of all my
young ones she's the prettiest and the sassiest. Law, how that girl
"Like my mother always says to me about sass, sass never gets a girl
"Indeed it don't! It's lost her more places than my other two, married
now, ever lost put together. You work in the Criterion?"
"Yes'm. Children's shoes."
"I bet you're not the kind of a girl to change places every week."
"No'm. Criterion is the only place I ever worked at. I started there as
"I bet you give up at home out of your envelop."
"No'm. He was a night watchman and got shot on duty."
"Only child, huh?"
Then Miss Cobb blew up in a state of breathless haste and bobbing of
"Eats, maw—eats! The crowd's thirsty—spittin' cotton. What's the idea?
My tongue's out. Eats! Quick, for Gawsakes—eats!"
Mrs. Cobb, wide and quivery of hip, retreated precipitately into the
slit of hallway. Almost immediately there were refreshments, carried in
on portentous black tin trays by a younger Cobb in pigtails and by Mrs.
Cobb, swayback from a great outheld array of tumblers and bottles.
A shout went up.
The tray of sandwiches, piled to an apex, scarcely endured one round of
passing. The fluted tin tops of bottles were pried off. Tumblers
clicked. There were the sing of suds and foamy overflowings.
Enter Mr. Ed Kinealy, very brown and tight of suit, very black and
pomaded of hair.
"Oh, Ed!" This from Miss Kinealy between large mouthfuls of sandwich
and somewhat jerkily from being dandled on Mr. Sensenbrenner's knee,
"Where's your friend—where's John Gilly?"
"Oh, Ed!" "Naouw, Eh-ud!" "I'll give you a slap on the wrist." "Naouw,
Ed!" Delivered by those present in a chorus of catcalls and falsetto
impersonations of Miss Kinealy in plaintive vein.
"Now tell me—where is he, Ed? Shut up every body! Where is he, Ed?"
Mr. Kinealy shot a pair of very striped cuffs.
"That guy had sense. One whiff of this roughhouse and he bolted down
again, six steps at a jump. He slipped me so easy I was talking to
myself all the way up-stairs. That guy had sense. Petticoat shush-shush
can't put nothing over on him."
CHORUS: Aw, Eh-ud! Aw, Eh-ud! Naouw—
"And him dated for Stella! Honest, it's a rotten shame!" Suddenly Miss
Kinealy flashed to her feet, her glance running quick. "Where is she?
Well, Stella Schump, sitting over there playing chums with yourself!
Honest, your name ought to be Chump! Whatta you think that is—the amen
corner? You're a fine bunch of social entertainers, you fellows are!
Bring her up a chair. Gee! you are! Honest, Gertie Cobb, I wouldn't want
my cat to be company to you! Bring 'er up a chair, Ed. Here, next to me!
Honest, it's a rotten shame! Give 'er a sandwich. Open 'er up a bottle.
Gee! you're a fine crowd of fish, you are!"
There was a general readjustment of circle and scraping of chairs. Miss
Schump, scarlet, drew up and in, Mr. Kinealy prying off a fluted
top for her.
"Have this one on me, Stella!" he cried. "Your guy bolted of stage
fright; but I'm here, and don't you forget it!"
"Aw—tee-hee!" she said, wiping at her upper lip.
She regarded the foam sing down into amber quiet.
"I'm on the water-wagon," she said, essaying to be light of vein,
crossing her hands and feet and tilting her glance at him.
"Say, here's a girl won't blow the foam off a fellow's glass for fear
she'll get soapsuds in her eyes!"
"Wash her face with 'em!"
MISS KINEALY: Aw, now, Stella; can't you be a good fellow for once? Do
it, if it hurts you. Honest, I hate to say it, but you're the limit, you
are! My God! limber up a little—limber up!
"Here, now—open your mouth and shut your eyes."
"Open it for her, Ed."
"Aw, no; don't force her if she don't want it."
"Gowann, Stella; be human, if it hurts you."
Redly and somewhat painfully, the observed of all observers, Miss Schump
tilted her head and drank, manfully and shudderingly, to the bitter end
of the glass.
"Attaboy! Say, tell it to the poodles and the great Danes! That Jane's
Eyes stung to tears, pink tip of her tongue quickly circling her lips,
Miss Schump held out to Mr. Kinealy the empty tumbler.
"Don't give 'er a whole glass, Ed."
She drank, again at one whiff.
"That's more like it! Didn't kill you, did it? Now eat that Swiss-cheese
sandwich and come over next to me and Arch while he tells fortunes."
Miss Schump rose, rather high of head, the moment hers.
Miss Kinealy stretched her hand out into the center of the closing-in
circle of heads.
"I said palm-reading, Arch, not hand-holding. Leave that part to Ed and
Gert over there. Now quit squeezing—"
Mr. Sensenbrenner bent low, almost nose to her palm.
"I see," he began, his voice widening to a drawl—"I se-e a fellow about
my size and complexion entering your life—"
To Miss Schump, her hand on Miss Kinealy's shoulder and her head peering
over, the voice seemed to trail off somewhere out into infinitudes of
space, off into bogs of eternity, away and behind some beyond.
"Gee! it's hot in here!" she muttered, no one heeding or hearing. "Sure
"Going on a long journey, and a fellow about my size and complexion is
going along with you, and there's money coming—"
"Sure hot!" It was then Miss Schump, with fear of a rather growing and
sickening sense of dizziness and of the wavy and unstable outline of
things, slipped quietly and unobtrusively out into the hallway, her
craving for air not to be gainsaid. The door to the little bedroom stood
open, her pink scarf uppermost on the cot-edge. She stood for an instant
in the doorway, regarding and wanting it, but quite as suddenly turned,
and down the three flights gained the dewy quiet of out-of-doors,
The street had long since fallen tranquil, the Greek church casting
immense shadow. The air had immediate and sedative effect upon Miss
Schump's rather distressing symptoms of unrest, but not quite allaying a
certain state of mental upheaval. She had the distinct sensation of the
top of her head lifted off from the eyebrows up. Her state of
light-headedness took voice.
"Gimme," she said, lifting the pink-mull, ankle-length skirt as if it
trailed a train and marching off down-street; "now you gimme!"
An entirely new lack of self-consciousness enhanced her state of
giddiness. A titter seemed to run just a scratch beneath the surface
The passing figure of a woman in a black cape and a bulge of bundle
elicited a burst of laughter which her hand clapped to her mouth
promptly subdued. Awaiting the passing of a street-car, she was again
prone to easy laughter.
"Oh, you!" she said, quirking an eye to the motorman, who quirked back.
Crossing the street, she came down rather splashily in a pool of water,
wetting and staining the light slippers.
"Aw!" she repeated, scolding and stamping down at them. "Aw! Aw! You!"
Across from the gloomy pile of old Jefferson Market, she stood, reading
up at an illuminated tower-clock, softly, her lips moving.
A dark figure slowed behind her elbow; she turned with a sense of that
nearness and peered up under the lowering brim of a soft-felt hat.
"Hello!" she answered, slyly.
She peered closer.
"Got a girl?"
He flung back his coat, revealing a star.
"You're under arrest," he said, laconically. "Solicitin'. Come on; no
Her comprehension was unplumbed.
"O Lord!" she said, pressing inward at her waistline to abet laughter,
following him voluntarily enough, and her voice rising. "You make me
laugh. You make me laugh."
"That'll do," he said.
"Now, you get noisy and watch me."
He turned in rather abruptly at a side door of the dark-red pile of
building which boasted the illuminated tower-clock and a jutting ell
with barred windows.
She drew back.
"No, you don't! Aw, no, you don't! Whatta you think I yam? Cora's! Tell
it to the poodles and the great Danes!"
He shoved her with scant ceremony beyond the heavy door. She entered in
one of the uncontrollable gales of laughter, the indoor heat immediately
inducing the dizziness.
"Whatta you think I yam? Tell it to the poodles and the great Danes!"
Thirty minutes later, in a court-room as smeared of atmosphere as a
dirty window, a bridge officer, reading from a slip of paper, singsonged
to the sergeant-at-arms:
"Stella Schump. Officer Charles Costello."
How much more daringly than my poor pen would venture, did life, all of
a backhanded, flying leap of who knows what centrifugal force, transcend
for Stella Schump the vague boundaries of the probable.
The milky-fleshed, not highly sensitized, pinkly clean creature of an
innocence born mostly of ignorance and slow perceptions, who that
morning had risen sweet from eleven hours of unrestless sleep beside a
mother whose bed she had never missed to share, suddenly here in
slatternliness! A draggled night bird caught in the aviary of night
court, lips a deep vermilion scar of rouge, hair out of scallop and
dragging at the pins, the too ready laugh dashing itself against what
must be owned a hiccough.
Something congenital and sleeping subcutaneously beneath the surface of
her had scratched through. She was herself, strangely italicized.
A judge regarded her not unkindly. There were two of him, she would keep
thinking, one merging slightly into his prototype.
She stood, gazing up. Around her swam the court-room—rows of faces;
comings and goings within her railed area. And heat—the dizzying, the
exciting heat—and the desire to shake off the some one at her elbow.
That some one was up before her now, in a chair beside the judge, and
his voice was as far away as Archie Sensenbrenner's.
"And she says to me, she says, your Honor, 'Got a girl?'"
"Were those her exact words to you?"
"Yes, your Honor."
"And I says to her, I says, 'No,' and then she comes up close and says
to me, she says, 'Buy me a drink?'"
"Were those her exact words?"
"Yes, your Honor, as near as I can remember."
"And I says to her, 'Where do you want to go?' and she says to me,
giving me a wink, 'Cora's.'"
"Yes, your Honor; the Cora Jones mulatto woman that was cleaned out last
"She suggested that you accompany her to the house of the Jones woman?"
"Beg pardon, your Honor?"
"She suggested this resort?"
"Yes, your Honor. 'Cora Jones,' she said."
Through the smoke of her bewilderment something irate stirred within
Miss Schump, a smouldering sense of anger that burst out into a brief
tongue of flame.
"You! You! You're no amachure! Cora Jones! Cora Kinealy! Go tell it to
the great Danes! Say it again! Gimme leave! Gimme leave!" The immediate
peremptoriness of the gavel set her to blinking, but did not silence.
"'Gimme leave,' was what I said—"
"Come to order in the court!"
A new presence at her elbow grasped her sharply. She subsided, but still
"And then, when she starts off with me, I says to her, I says, 'You're
under arrest,' and brought her over."
"Does the defendant wish to take the chair?"
From her elbow, "His Honor asks if you want to state your case."
"Do you wish to state your case from the witness-chair? Since you did
not employ counsel, do you wish to state your own case?"
"Look up here, my girl. I am the judge, trying to help you."
"Is this your first offense?"
"Well, it's my offense, ain't it?"
"Address the court properly. Are you intoxicated or only slightly
"He lied about Cora Kinealy. He lied—that little skunk lied."
"Didn't you ask him to go there with you?"
"Sure; but he's no amachure."
"No, this Jane ain't."
"Will you go quietly into the next room with the matron and tell her all
about it? The court does not want to have to deal too harshly with a
girl like you. Do you want to engage counsel and have your case go over?
If there is a chance, I don't want to have to send a girl like
"Aw, you—you're a poodle and a great Dane!"
"Ten days," said the judge, rather wearily.
The bridge officer took up the next slip from the pile of them, his
voice the droning quality of a bee bumbling through sultry air:
"Maizie Smith. Officer Jerry Dinwiddie."
* * * * *
Spring and her annual epidemic of aching hearts and aching joints had
advanced ten days and ten degrees. The season's first straw replacement
of derby had been noted by press. The city itched in its last days of
woolens and drank sassafras tea for nine successive mornings. A commuter
wore the first sweet sprig of lilac. The slightly East Sixties took to
boarding up house-fronts into bland, eyeless masks. The very East
Sixties began to smell.
When a strangely larger-eyed, strangely thinner, a whitened and somehow
a tightened Stella Schump drew up, those ten days later, before the
little old row with the little old iron balconies, there was already in
the ridiculous patches of front yards a light-green powdering of grass,
and from the doorbell of her own threshold there hung quite a little
spray of roses, waxy white against a frond of fern and a fold of black.
Deeper within that threshold, at the business of flooding its floor with
a run of water from a tipped pail and sweeping harshly into it, was the
vigorous, bony silhouette of Mrs. O'Connor, landlady.
For the second that it took her presence to be felt, Miss Schump stood
there trembling, all of a sudden more deeply and more rapidly. Then,
Mrs. O'Connor leaned out, bare arms folded atop her broom.
"So!" she said, a highly imperfect row of lower teeth seeming to jut
out, and her voice wavy with brogue and vibrant to express all its
"So! Ye've come back in time for the buryin'! Faith, an' it's a foine
toime for the showin'-up of the chief mourner! Faith now it is!"
"Ain't ye ashamed? Ain't ye ashamed before the Lord to face your Maker?"
"The pasty-faced lyin' ways of ye! I can see now how ye look what ye
are! I'd have believed it as soon of my own. It's the still water that
run deep in ye, is the way your girl friend put it. The hussy under that
white complexion of yours! Your sainted mither! Oh, ain't ye ashamed in
the name of the Lord to face your Maker?"
"O God—please what—"
"Your sainted mither! Niver, after that letter from ye the next night
after her scourin' the city, a whimper more out of her—"
"I wrote—I wrote—they gimme a stamp—I wrote—how—Where is she?"
"A cousin had called ye sudden-like for sickness was how she put it.
Faith and me niver once a-smellin' the mice, the way she lay there,
waitin', waitin' day after day, doubled up in the joints and waitin' for
thim ten days to pass—"
"I found her in bed yisterday, a-clutchin' the letter, or niver to my
own dyin' would I have known the shameful truth of it. It's screw open
her poor hands I had to, for the readin' of the letter that had been
eatin' 'er for all them days of waitin'. Ye hussy! Ye jailbird—and me
niver thinkin' but what it was the sick cousin! Me niver smellin' the
mice! Your own girl friend, neither. Ye hussy! Jailbird!"
"Oh! Oh! Oh!"
"It's only because she was sainted I'm lettin' ye up in on her. She
layin' up there, waitin'. Strangers that crossed her poor hands on her
poor breast and strangers that laid her out. Niver even a priest called
in on her. She a-layin' up there, waitin'—the Lord have mercy on your
soul! If ye ain't afraid before the Lord to look on her, come up. It's
thankin' God I am she can't open her eyes to see ye."
Hands clutching her throat, Miss Schump remained standing there on the
sun-drenched steps, gazing after the figure receding into the musty
gloom of the hallway. She wanted to follow, but instead could only stand
there, repeating and repeating:
"O my God! O my God! God! God! What have I done? What have I done?
Mamma—mamma—mamma! O my God! What? What—"
* * * * *
In the pyramidal plot-structure of this story the line of descent is by
far the sheerer. Short-story correspondence-schools would call it the
brief downward action leading to dénouement.
With Stella Schump it was almost a straight declivity. There were days
of the black kind of inertia when to lift the head from its sullen
inclination to rest chin on chest was not to be endured. There was
actually something sick in the eyes, little cataracts of gray cloud
seeming to float across. She would sit hunched and looking out of them
so long and so unseeingly that her very stare seemed to sleep.
She had removed the stick or two that remained unsold to a little rear
room high up in a large, damp-smelling lodging-house on West Twentieth
Street, within view of a shipping-pier. There was a sign inserted in the
lower front window:
ROOMS. LIGHT HOUSEKEEPING.
She would sit in that room, so heavy with its odor of mildew, her window
closed against the long, sweetly warm days, hunched dumbly on the
cot-edge and staring into the stripe and vine, stripe and vine of the
wall-paper design, or lie back when the ache along her spine began to
set in. There were occasional ventures to a corner bake-shop for raisin
rolls and to the delicatessen next door for a quarter-pound of Bologna
sausage sliced into slivers while she waited. She would sit on the
cot-edge munching alternately from sliver to roll, gulping through a
throat that was continually tight with wanting to cry, yet would not
relax for that relief.
There was little attempt for employment except when the twenty dollars
left from the sale of effects and funeral expenses began to dwindle. She
would wake up nights, sweaty with the nightmare that her room was some
far-off ward for incorrigibles and that one of the strange, veiny-nosed
inmates was filching her small leather bag from beneath her pillow.
When her little roll had flattened finally down to five one-dollar bills
she took to daily and conscientiously buying morning papers and scanning
want-advertisements as she stood at the news-stand, answering first
those that were within walking-distance.
She would make a five-block détour of the Criterion rather than pass
the nearer to it.
Once, returning after a fruitless tour of the smaller department stores,
and borne along by the six-o'clock tide of Sixth Avenue, her heart
leaped up at sight of Miss Cora Kinealy, homeward bound on her smart
tall heels that clicked, arm in arm with Mabel Runyan of the notions.
Standing there with her folded newspaper hugged to her and the small
hand-bag dangling, Stella Schump gazed after.
It was not only the lack of references or even of experience that
conspired against her every effort at employment. It was the lack
of luster to the eye, an absolutely new tendency to tiptoe, a
furtive lookout over her shoulder, a halting tongue, that, upon
the slightest questioning, would stutter for words. Where there were
application-blanks to be filled in she would pore inkily over them and,
after a while, slyly crunch hers up in her hand and steal out. She was
still pinkly and prettily clean, and her hair with its shining mat of
plaits, high of gloss, but one Saturday half-holiday, rather than break
into her last bill, she ate a three-cent frankfurter-sausage sandwich
from off a not quite immaculate push-cart, leaning forward as she bit
into it to save herself from the ooze of mustard. Again she had the
sense of Cora Kinealy hurrying along the opposite side of the street on
the tall heels that clicked. She let fall the bun into the gutter and
stood there trembling.
She obtained, one later afternoon, at the instance of a window-card, the
swabbing of the tiled floor of an automobile show-room. She left before
her first hour was completed, crying, her finger-tips stinging, two
Finally came that chimera of an hour when she laid down her last coin
for the raisin rolls. She ate them on the cot-edge. And then, because
her weekly dollar-and-twenty-five-cent room rent fell due that evening,
she wrapped two fresh and self-laundered waists, some white but unlacy
underwear, a mound of window-dried handkerchiefs, a little knitted
shoulder-shawl so long worn by her mother, her tooth-brush and tube of
paste, and all her sundry little articles no less indispensable, into a
white-paper package. There were left a short woolen petticoat, too
cumbersome to include, the small wooden rocker and lamp with the china
shade which she had rather unexplainably held out from the dealer's
inventory. She closed the door softly on them one evening and, parcel in
hand, tiptoed down the stonily cold halls and out into a street of long,
thin, high-stooped houses. Outside in the May evening it was as black,
as softly deep, as plushy as a pansy. She walked swiftly into it as if
with destination. But after five or six of the long cross-town blocks
her feet began to lag. She stood for a protracted moment outside a
drug-store window, watching the mechanical process of a pasteboard man
stropping his razor; loitered to read the violent three-sheet outside a
Third Avenue cinematograph. In the aura of white light a figure in a
sweater and cap nudged up to her.
She moved on.
In Stuyvesant Square were a first few harbingers of summer scattered
here and there—couples forcing the gladsome season of the dim park
bench; solitary brooders who can sit so long, so droop-shouldered, and
so deeply in silence. On one of these benches, beside a slim,
scant-skirted, light-spatted silhouette, Stella Schump sat finally down.
It was ten o'clock. There was a sense of panic, which she felt mostly at
her throat, rising in her. Then she would force herself into a state of
quiet, hand on bundle, nictitating, as it were—eyes opening, eyes
closing. The figure beside her slid over a bit, spreading the tiny width
of skirt as if to reserve the space between them.
"Lord!" she said, indicating Second Avenue with a nod. "The lane's like
a morgue to-night."
"Cold, ain't it?" said Stella Schump, shivering with night damp.
A figure with a tilted derby came sauntering toward them.
"Lay off my territory. I seen him first."
The place in between them was filled then, the tilted derby well forward
and revealing a rear bulge of head. There was an indeterminate moment of
silence broken by the slim-skirted silhouette.
"Where you goin'?"
Straightening, Miss Schump could hear more.
"No place. Where you goin'?"
"Buy you a drink?"
In the shaft of arc-light Miss Schump could see the little face framed
in the wan curls lift and crinkle the nose to smile.
She watched them recede down the narrow asphalt of the parkway. At
eleven o'clock, to lessen her stiffening of joints, she walked twice the
circumference of the fenced-in inclosure, finally sitting again, this
time beneath a gaunt oleander that was heavy with bud.
"O God!" she kept repeating, her stress growing. "O God! God! God!"
With the lateness, footfalls were growing more and more audible, the
gong of a street-car sounding out three blocks down.
"O my God!" And then in rapid succession, closing her eyes and digging
her finger-nails into her palms: "Mamma! Mamma! Mamma!"
She wanted and wanted to cry, but her throat would not let her, and so
she sat and sat.
There were still occasional figures moving through the little lanes and
a couple or two deep in the obscurity of benches. After another while,
at the remote end of her own bench, a figure sat down, lighting a pipe.
She watched him pu-pu-pup. At half after eleven she slid along
"Where you goin'?"
He turned to look down.
"Where you goin'?"
She leaned around, trying to bring her face to front his and to lift her
nose to a little wrinkly smile.
"Go home and go to bed," he said. "A nice-appearin' girl like you ought
to be ashamed."
"You're barkin' up the wrong tree."
She fell silent. A chill raced through her.
"O God!" she began, under her breath. "O God! God!" Then: "Mamma! Mamma!
"You are cold," he said, reaching out to pinch her jacket sleeve.
"That's a warm coat. Where do you live?"
"Lemme alone," she said, staring out before her as if she were seeing
the stripe and vine, stripe and vine.
"You got the shivers," he said. "Better go home."
"Ain't there no way you girls can learn to behave yourselves?
Here"—digging down into his pocket—"here."
"Where you live?"
"I dunno. I dunno."
"You surely know where you live."
She looked up at him in one of the rare moments of opening wide her
"I tell you I dunno."
"What's in there?"
She plucked at the knot, drawing back for him to lean to see the top
layer of neatly folded waist.
"Don't," she said, withdrawing it quickly from his touch.
"Why," he said, "you poor little kid! What's got you into this mess?"
At that in his voice, such a quick, a thick, a hot layer of tears sprang
to her eyes that she could not relax her throat for words.
"What got you in?"
"Aw, now, yes, you do know. Try to think—take your time—what got you
"Yes, you can. Go on; I ain't lookin' at you."
He turned off to an angle.
Her first sob burst from her, tearing her throat and ending in a tremolo
of moans in her throat.
"Now, now," he said, still in profile; "that won't do. Not for a
sensible little girl like you. Easy—easy—take your time—"
"You see, mister—you see, it was my—my mamma—my beautiful, darling
"Yes, yes; it was your mamma—and then what?"
"It was my mamma, my beautiful, darling mamma! What'll I do, mister? I
can't make it up to her. No way—nohow. She's gone—she's gone—"
"Easy—easy—try to keep easy."
"I used to kiss her hands when they was embroiderin'. I used to grease
'em for her all night when she screamed with the pain of 'em. I used to
scream at night, too, when I was doin' my time—her there waitin'—she
died alone—there waitin'—the letter they gave me the stamp for—I—I
was crazy with scare when I wrote it—O God!—mamma—mamma—mamma!"
"'Sh-h-h! 'Sh-h-h! Try to keep easy."
"It was this way—O God, how was it?—it was this way—you see, me and
my mamma and sometimes a friend—Cora Jones—no—no—no—Cora
Kinealy—we used to sit in the lamplight—no—no—first, I was in the
shoes—the children's shoes—they used to come in, little kiddies with
their toes all kicked out wantin' new shoes—cute little baby-shoes that
I loved to try on 'em. My friend—Cora—my friend—O God!—"
"Now, now, like a good girl—go on."
"My friend Cora—my darling little mamma—I never knew nothing about
anything except me and my mamma, we—it worried her that I didn't have
it like—like other girls—I—you see—you see, mister?"
"Yes, yes, I see."
Her voice, so jerked up with sobs, quieted down to a drone finally, to a
low drone that talked on and on through an hour, through two. There were
large, shining beads of tears flowing constantly from her cheeks, but
she wiped at them unceasingly with her handkerchief and talked evenly
through a new ease in her throat.
"She died, mister," she ended up finally, turning her salt-bitten eyes
full upon him; "she died of that letter written when I was so full of a
scared craziness from bein' in—in that place—that terrible, terrible
place—but she didn't die believin' me bad. I never seen her alive again
to hear it from her, but there in her—her little coffin I—I seen it in
her little face, all sunk, she didn't believe it—she didn't die
thinkin' me bad. Mister, did she? Did she?"
He did not answer, sitting there, drooped forward for so long that
finally she put out her hand to touch his.
He did not turn his face, but reached around, inclosing her wrist,
pressing it, gripping it.
"Did she, mister?"
"No, no," he said, finally, "no, Stella; she didn't die thinkin' you
She sighed out, eyes closing, and her quivering lips falling quiet.
"Do you think I'm bad, mister?"
"No, Stella! No! No! No! My God, no!"
"I'm goin' to take you across the street there to the Young Women's
Shelter Home for to-night. Just across there. See the sign? Don't be
afraid, Stella. Please don't be afraid."
He retied the white-paper package, tucking it up under one arm.
She rose, swaying for the merest second. His arm shot out.
"I'm all right," she said, steadying herself, smilingly, shamefacedly,
but relaxing gratefully enough to the flung support.
"Don't be afraid, Stella," he said. "I'm here. I'm here."
His forearm where the cuff had ridden up bore a scar, as if molten lead
had run a fiery, a dagger-shaped, an excoriating course.