Back Pay, by Fannie Hurst
I set out to write a love story, and for the purpose sharpened a
bright-pink pencil with a glass ruby frivolously at the eraser end.
Something sweet. Something dainty. A candied rose leaf after all the
bitter war lozenges. A miss. A kiss. A golf stick. A motor car. Or, if
need be, a bit of khaki, but without one single spot of blood or mud,
and nicely pressed as to those fetching peg-top trouser effects where
they wing out just below the skirt-coat. The oldest story in the world
told newly. No wear out to it. Editors know. It's as staple as eggs
or printed lawn or ipecac. The good old-fashioned love story with the
above-mentioned miss, kiss, and, if need be for the sake of timeliness,
the bit of khaki, pressed.
Just my luck that, with one of these modish tales at the tip of my pink
pencil, Hester Bevins should come pounding and clamoring at the door of
my mental reservation, quite drowning out the rather high, the lipsy,
and, if I do say it myself, distinctly musical patter of Arline. That
was to have been her name. Arline Kildane. Sweet, don't you think, and
with just a bit of wild Irish rose in it?
But Hester Bevins would not let herself be gainsaid, sobbing a little,
elbowing her way through the group of mental unborns, and leaving me to
blow my pitch pipe for a minor key.
Not that Hester's isn't one of the oldest stories in the world, too. No
matter how newly told, she is as old as sin, and sin is but a few weeks
younger than love—and how often the two are interchangeable!
If it be a fact that the true lady is, in theory, either a virgin or
a lawful wife, then Hester Bevins stands immediately convicted on two
She was neither. The most that can be said for her is that she was
honestly what she was.
"If the wages of sin is death," she said to a roadhouse party of
roysterers one dawn, "then I've quite a bit of back pay coming to me."
And joined in the shout that rose off the table.
I can sketch her in for you rather simply because of the hackneyed
lines of her very, very old story. Whose pasts so quickly mold and
disintegrate as those of women of Hester's stripe? Their yesterdays are
entirely soluble in the easy waters of their to-days.
For the first seventeen years of her life she lived in what we might
call Any American Town of, say, fifteen or twenty thousand inhabitants.
Her particular one was in Ohio. Demopolis, I think. One of those
change-engine-and-take-on-water stops with a stucco art-nouveau station,
a roof drooping all round it, as if it needed to be shaved off like
edges of a pie, and the name of the town writ in conch shells on a
green slant of terrace. You know—the kind that first establishes a
ten-o'clock curfew for its young, its dance halls and motion-picture
theaters, and then sends in a hurry call for a social-service expert
from one of the large Eastern cities to come and diagnose its malignant
Hester Bevins, of a mother who died bearing her and one of those
disappearing fathers who can speed away after the accident without even
stopping to pick up the child or leave a license number, was reared—no,
grew up, is better—in the home of an aunt. A blond aunt with many gold
teeth and many pink and blue wrappers.
Whatever Hester knew of the kind of home that fostered her, it left
apparently no welt across her sensibilities. It was a rather poor house,
an unpainted frame in a poor street, but there was never a lack of
gayety or, for that matter, any pinching lack of funds. It was an actual
fact that, at thirteen, cotton or lisle stockings brought out a
little irritated rash on Hester's slim young legs, and she wore silk.
Abominations, it is true, at three pair for a dollar, that sprang runs
and would not hold a darn, but, just the same, they were silk. There was
an air of easy camaraderie and easy money about that house. It was
not unusual for her to come home from school at high noon and find a
front-room group of one, two, three, or four guests, almost invariably
men. Frequently these guests handed her out as much as half a dollar
for candy money, and not another child in school reckoned in more than
Once a guest, for reasons of odd change, I suppose, handed her out
thirteen cents. Outraged, at the meanness of the sum, and with an early
and deep-dyed superstition of thirteen, she dashed the coins out of his
hand and to the four corners of the room, escaping in the guffaw of
laughter that went up.
Often her childish sleep in a small top room with slanting sides would
be broken upon by loud ribaldry that lasted into dawn, but never by
word, and certainly not by deed, was she to know from her aunt any of
its sordid significance.
Literally, Hester Bevins was left to feather her own nest. There were
no demands made upon her. Once, in the little atrocious front parlor of
horsehair and chromo, one of the guests, the town baggage-master, to
be exact, made to embrace her, receiving from the left rear a sounding
smack across cheek and ear from the aunt.
"Cut that! Hester, go out and play! Whatever she's got to learn from
life, she can't say she learned it in my house."
There were even two years of high school, and at sixteen, when she went,
at her own volition, to clerk in Finley's two-story department store on
High Street, she was still innocent, although she and Gerald Fishback
were openly sweethearts.
Gerald was a Thor. Of course, you are not to take that literally; but if
ever there was a carnification of the great god himself, then Gerald was
in his image. A wide streak of the Scandinavian ran through his make-up,
although he had been born in Middletown, and from there had come
recently to the Finley Dry Goods Company as an accountant.
He was so the viking in his bigness that once, on a picnic, he had
carried two girls, screaming their fun, across twenty feet of stream.
Hester was one of them.
It was at this picnic, the Finley annual, that he asked Hester, then
seventeen, to marry him. She was darkly, wildly pretty, as a rambler
rose tugging at its stem is restlessly pretty, as a pointed little
gazelle smelling up at the moon is whimsically pretty, as a runaway
stream from off the flank of a river is naughtily pretty, and she wore
a crisp percale shirt waist with a saucy bow at the collar, fifty-cent
silk stockings, and already she had almond incarnadine nails with points
They were in the very heart of Wallach's Grove, under a natural
cathedral of trees, the noises of the revelers and the small explosions
of soda-water and beer bottles almost remote enough for perfect quiet.
He was stretched his full and splendid length at the picknickers'
immemorial business of plucking and sucking grass blades, and she seated
very trimly, her little blue-serge skirt crawling up ever so slightly to
reveal the silken ankle, on a rock beside him.
"Tickle-tickle!" she cried, with some of that irrepressible animal
spirit of hers, and leaning to brush his ear with a twig.
He caught at her hand.
"Hester," he said, "marry me."
She felt a foaming through her until her finger tips sang.
"Well, I like that!" was what she said, though, and flung up a pointed
profile that was like that same gazelle's smelling the moon.
He was very darkly red, and rose to his knees to clasp her about the
waist. She felt like relaxing back against his blondness and feeling her
fingers plow through the great double wave of his hair. But she did not.
"You're too poor," she said.
He sat back without speaking for a long minute.
"Money isn't everything," he said, finally, and with something gone from
"I know," she said, looking off; "but it's a great deal if you happen to
want it more than anything else in the world."
"Then, if that's how you feel about it, Hester, next to wanting you, I
want it, too, more than anything else in the world."
"There's no future in bookkeeping."
"I know a fellow in Cincinnati who's a hundred-and-fifty-dollar man.
"Why, of course not, dear—a month!"
"Faugh!" she said, still looking off.
He felt out for her hand, at the touch of her reddening up again.
"Hester," he said, "you're the most beautiful, the most exciting, the
most maddening, the most—the most everything girl in the world!
You're not going to have an easy time of it, Hester, with your—your
environment and your dangerousness, if you don't settle down—quick,
with some strong fellow to take care of you. A fellow who loves you.
That's me, Hester. I want to make a little home for you and protect you.
I can't promise you the money—right off, but I can promise you the
bigger something from the very start, Hester. Dear?"
She would not let her hand relax to his.
"I hate this town," she said.
"There's Cincinnati. Maybe my friend could find an opening there."
"Cincinnati, dear, is a metropolis."
"No, no! You don't understand. I hate littleness. Even little
metropolises. Cheapness. I hate little towns and little spenders
and mercerized stockings and cotton lisle next to my skin, and
machine-stitched nightgowns. Ugh! it scratches!"
"And I—I just love you in those starchy white shirt waists, Hester.
"That's just the trouble. It satisfies you, but it suffocates me. I've
got a pink-crêpe-de-Chine soul. Pink crêpe de Chine—you hear?"
He sat back on his heels.
"It—Is it true, then, Hester that—that you're making up with that
salesman from New York?"
"Why," she said, coloring—"why, I've only met him twice walking up High
"But it is true, isn't it, Hester?"
"Say, who was answering your questions this time last year?"
"But it is true, isn't it, Hester? Isn't it?"
"Well, of all the nerve!"
But it was.
* * * * *
The rest tells glibly. The salesman, who wore blue-and-white-striped
soft collars with a bar pin across the front, does not even enter the
story. He was only a stepping-stone. From him the ascent or descent, or
whatever you choose to call it, was quick and sheer.
Five years later Hester was the very private, the very exotic,
manicured, coiffured, scented, svelted, and strictly de-luxe chattel
of one Charles G. Wheeler, of New York City and Rosencranz, Long Island,
vice-president of the Standard Tractor Company, a member of no clubs but
of the Rosencranz church, three lodges, and several corporations.
You see, there is no obvious detail lacking. Yes, there was an
apartment. "Flat" it becomes under their kind of tenancy, situated on
the windiest bend of Riverside Drive and minutely true to type from
the pale-blue and brocade vernis-Martin parlor of talking-machine,
mechanical piano, and cellarette built to simulate a music cabinet, to
the pink-brocaded bedroom with a chaise-longue piled high with a
small mountain of lace pillowettes that were liberally interlarded with
paper-bound novels, and a spacious, white-marble adjoining bathroom with
a sunken tub, rubber-sheeted shower, white-enamel weighing scales,
and overloaded medicine chest of cosmetic array in frosted bottles,
sleeping-, headache-, sedative powders, et al. There were also a negro
maid, two Pomeranian dogs, and last, but by no means least, a private
telephone inclosed in a hall closet and lighted by an electric bulb that
turned on automatically to the opening of the door.
There was nothing sinister about Wheeler. He was a rather fair exponent
of that amazing genus known as "typical New-Yorker," a roll of money in
his pocket, and a roll of fat at the back of his neck. He went in for
light checked suits, wore a platinum-and-Oriental-pearl chain across his
waistcoat, and slept at a Turkish bath once a week; was once named in a
large corporation scandal, escaping indictment only after violent and
expensive skirmishes; could be either savage or familiar with waiters;
wore highly manicured nails, which he regarded frequently in public,
white-silk socks only; and maintained, on a twenty-thousand-a-year
scale in the decorous suburb of Rosencranz, a decorous wife and three
children, and, like all men of his code, his ethics were strictly double
decked. He would not permit his nineteen-year-old daughter Marion so
much as a shopping tour to the city without the chaperonage of her
mother or a friend, forbade in his wife, a comely enough woman with a
white unmarcelled coiffure and upper arms a bit baggy with withering
flesh, even the slightest of shirtwaist V's unless filled in with
net, and kept up, at an expense of no less than fifteen thousand a
year—thirty the war year that tractors jumped into the war-industry
class—the very high-priced, -tempered, -handed, and -stepping Hester of
Not that Hester stepped much. There were a long underslung roadster
and a great tan limousine with yellow-silk curtains at the call of her
The Wheeler family used, not without complaint, a large open car of very
early vintage, which in winter was shut in with flapping curtains with
isinglass peepers, and leaked cold air badly.
On more than one occasion they passed on the road—these cars. The
long tan limousine with the shock absorbers, foot warmers, two brown
Pomeranian dogs, little case of enamel-top bottles, fresh flowers, and
outside this little jewel-case interior, smartly exposed, so that the
blast hit him from all sides, a chauffeur in uniform that harmonized
nicely with the tans and yellows. And then the grotesque caravan of the
Azoic motor age, with its flapping curtains and ununiformed youth in
visored cap at the wheel.
There is undoubtedly an unsavory aspect to this story. For purpose of
fiction, it is neither fragrant nor easily digested. But it is not so
unsavory as the social scheme which made it possible for those two cars
to pass thus on the road, and, at the same time, Charles G. Wheeler to
remain the unchallenged member of the three lodges, the corporations,
and the Rosencranz church, with a memorial window in his name on the
left side as you enter, and again his name spelled out on a brass plate
at the end of a front pew.
No one but God and Mrs. Wheeler knew what was in her heart. It is
possible that she did not know what the world knew, but hardly. That she
endured it is not admirable, but then there were the three children,
and, besides, she lived in a world that let it go at that. And so she
continued to hold up her head in her rather poor, mute way, rode beside
her husband to funerals, weddings, and to the college Commencement of
their son at Yale. Scrimped a little, cried a little, prayed a little in
private, but outwardly lived the life of the smug in body and soul.
But the Wheelers' is another story, also a running social sore; but it
was Hester, you remember, who came sobbing and clamoring to be told.
As Wheeler once said of her, she was a darn fine clothes horse. There
was no pushed-up line of flesh across the middle of her back, as
the corsets did it to Mrs. Wheeler. She was honed to the ounce. The
white-enameled weighing scales, the sweet oils, the flexible fingers of
her masseur, the dumb-bells, the cabinet, salt-water, needle-spray,
and vapor baths saw to that. Her skin, unlike Marion Wheeler's, was
unfreckled, and as heavily and tropically white as a magnolia leaf, and,
of course, she reddened her lips, and the moonlike pallor came out more
As I said, she was frankly what she was. No man looked at her more than
once without knowing it. To use an awkward metaphor, it was before her
face like an overtone; it was an invisible caul. The wells of her eyes
were muddy with it.
But withal, she commanded something of a manner, even from Wheeler. He
had no key to the apartment. He never entered her room without knocking.
There were certain of his friends she would not tolerate, from one or
another aversion, to be party to their not infrequent carousals. Men
did not always rise from their chairs when she entered a room, but she
suffered few liberties from them. She was absolutely indomitable in her
"Lord!" ventured Wheeler, upon occasion, across a Sunday-noon,
lace-spread breakfast table, when she was slim and cool fingered in
orchid-colored draperies, and his newest gift of a six-carat,
pear-shaped diamond blazing away on her right hand. "Say, aren't these
Yvette bills pretty steep?
"One midnight-blue-and-silver gown . . . . . . . . . $485.00
One blue-and-silver head bandeau . . . . . . . . . . 50.00
One serge-and-satin trotteur gown . . . . . . . . . 275.00
One ciel-blue tea gown . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 280.00
"Is that the cheapest you can drink tea? Whew!"
She put down her coffee cup, which she usually held with one little
finger poised elegantly outward as if for flight.
"You've got a nerve!" she said, rising and pushing back her chair. "Over
whose ticker are you getting quotations that I come cheap?"
He was immediately conciliatory, rising also to enfold her in an embrace
that easily held her slightness.
"Go on," he said. "You could work me for the Woolworth Building in
diamonds if you wanted it badly enough."
"Funny way of showing it! I may be a lot of things, Wheeler, but I'm not
cheap. You're darn lucky that the war is on and I'm not asking for a
He crushed his lips to hers.
"You devil!" he said.
There were frequent parties. Dancing at Broadway cabarets, all-night joy
rides, punctuated with road-house stop-overs, and not infrequently, in
groups of three or four couples, ten-day pilgrimages to showy American
"Getting boiled out," they called it. It was part of Hester's scheme for
keeping her sveltness.
Her friendships were necessarily rather confined to a definite
circle—within her own apartment house, in fact. On the floor above,
also in large, bright rooms of high rental, and so that they were
exchanging visits frequently during the day, often en déshabillé,
using the stairway that wound up round the elevator shaft, lived a
certain Mrs. Kitty Drew, I believe she called herself. She was plump and
blond, and so very scented that her aroma lay on a hallway for an hour
after she had scurried through it. She was well known and chiefly
distinguished by a large court-plaster crescent which she wore on her
left shoulder blade. She enjoyed the bounty of a Wall Street broker
who for one day had attained the conspicuousness of cornering the egg
There were two or three others within this group. A Mrs. Denison, half
French, and a younger girl called Babe. But Mrs. Drew and Hester were
intimates. They dwaddled daily in one or the other's apartment, usually
lazy and lacy with negligée, lounging about on the mounds of lingerie
pillows over chocolates, cigarettes, novels, Pomeranians, and always the
headache powders, nerve sedatives, or smelling salts, a running line of:
"Lord! I've a head!" "I need a good cry for the blues!" "Talk about a
dark-brown taste!" or, "There was some kick to those cocktails last
night," through their conversation.
KITTY: "Br-r-r! I'm as nervous as a cat to-day."
HESTER: "Naughty, naughty bad doggie to bite muvver's diamond ring."
KITTY: "Leave it to you to land a pear-shaped diamond on your hooks."
HESTER: "He fell for it, just like that!"
KITTY: "You could milk a billiard ball."
HESTER: "I don't see any 'quality of mercy' to spare around your flat."
There were the two years of high school, you see.
"Ed's going out to Geyser Springs next month for the cure. I told him he
could not go without me unless over my dead body, he could not."
"Geyser Springs. That's thirty miles from my home town."
"Your home town? Nighty-night! I thought you was born on the corner of
Forty-second Street and Broadway with a lobster claw in your mouth."
"What is that—a skin disease?"
"My last relation in the world died out there two years ago. An aunt.
Wouldn't mind some Geyser Springs myself if I could get some of this
stiffness out of my joints."
"Come on! I dare you! May Denison and Chris will come in on it, and Babe
can always find somebody. Make it three or four cars full and let's
motor out. We all need a good boiling, anyways. Wheeler looks about
ready for spontaneous combustion, and I got a twinge in my left little
toe. You on?"
"I am, if he is."
"If he is!' He'd fall for life in an Igorrote village with a ring in his
nose if you wanted it."
And truly enough, it did come about that on a height-of-the-season
evening a highly cosmopolitan party of four couples trooped into the
solid-marble foyer of the Geyser Springs Hotel, motor coated, goggled,
veiled; a whole litter of pigskin and patent-leather bags, hampers,
and hat boxes, two golf bags, two Pomeranians, a bull in spiked collar,
furs, leather coats, monogrammed rugs, thermos bottles, air pillows,
robes, and an ensemble of fourteen wardrobe trunks sent by express.
They took the "cure." Rode horseback, motored, played roulette at the
casino for big stakes, and scorned the American plan of service for the
smarter European idea, with a special à la carte menu for each meal.
Extraordinary-looking mixed drinks, strictly against the mandates of
the "cure," appeared at their table. Strange midnight goings-on were
reported by the more conservative hotel guests, and the privacy of their
circle was allowed full integrity by the little veranda groups of gouty
ladies or middle-aged husbands with liver spots on their faces. The bath
attendants reveled in the largest tips of the season. When Hester walked
down the large dining room evenings, she was a signal for the craning of
necks for the newest shock of her newest extreme toilette. The kinds of
toilettes that shocked the women into envy and mental notes of how the
underarm was cut, and the men into covert delight. Wheeler liked to sit
back and put her through her paces like a high-strung filly.
"Make 'em sit up, girl! You got them all looking like dimes around
One night she descended to the dining room in a black evening gown so
daringly lacking in back, and yet, withal, so slimly perfect an elegant
thing, that an actual breathlessness hung over the hall, the clatter of
There was a gold bird of paradise dipped down her hair over one
shoulder, trailing its smoothness like fingers of lace. She defied with
it as she walked.
"Take it from me," said Kitty, who felt fat in lavender that night,
"she's going it one too strong."
Another evening she descended, always last, in a cloth of silver with a
tiny, an absurd, an impeccably tight silver turban dipped down over one
eye, and absolutely devoid of jewels except the pear-shaped diamond on
her left forefinger.
They were a noisy, a spending, a cosmopolitan crowd of too-well-fed men
and too-well-groomed women, ignored by the veranda groups of wives and
mothers, openly dazzling and arousing a tremendous curiosity in the
younger set, and quite obviously sought after by their own kind.
But Hester's world, too, is all run through with sharply defined social
"I wish that Irwin woman wouldn't always hang round our crowd," she
said, one morning, as she and Kitty lay side by side in the cooling room
after their baths, massages, manicures, and shampoos. "I don't want to
be seen running with her."
"Did you see the square emerald she wore last night?"
"Fake. I know the clerk at the Synthetic Jewelry Company had it made up
for her. She's cheap, I tell you. Promiscuous. Who ever heard of anybody
standing back of her? She knocks around. She sells her old clothes to
Tessie, my manicurist. I've got a line on her. She's cheap."
Kitty, who lay with her face under a white mud of cold cream and her
little mouth merely a hole, turned on her elbow.
"We can't all be top-notchers, Hester," she said. "You're hard as
"I guess I am, but you've got to be to play this game. The ones who
aren't end up by stuffing the keyhole and turning on the gas. You've got
to play it hard or not at all. If you've got the name, you might as well
have the game."
"If I had it to do over again—well, there would be one more
wife-and-mother role being played in this little old world, even if I
had to play it on a South Dakota farm."
"'Whatever is worth doing is worth doing well,' I used to write in a
copy book. Well, that's the way I feel about this. To me, anything is
worth doing to escape the cotton stockings and lisle next to your skin.
I admit I never sit down and think. You know, sit down and take stock
of myself. What's the use thinking? Live! Yes," mused Hester, her arms
in a wreath over her head, "I think I'd do it all over again. There's
not been so many, at that. Three. The first was a salesman. He'd have
married me, but I couldn't see it on six thousand a year. Nice fellow,
too—an easy spender in a small way, but I couldn't see a future to
ladies' neckwear. I hear he made good later in munitions. Al was a
pretty good sort, too, but tight. How I hate tightness! I've been pretty
lucky in the long run, I guess."
"Did I say 'hard as nails'?" said Kitty, grotesquely fitting a cigarette
in the aperture of her mouth. "I apologize. Why, alongside of you a
piece of flint is morning cereal. Haven't you ever had a love affair?
I've been married twice—that's how chicken hearted I can be. Haven't
you ever pumped a little faster just because a certain some one walked
into the room?"
"I liked a fellow. Pretty much. A blond. Say, he was blond! I always
think to myself, Kit, next to Gerald, you've got the bluest eyes under
heaven. Only, his didn't have any dregs."
"I sometimes wonder about Gerald. I ought to drive over while we're out
here. Poor old Gerald Fishback!"
"Sweet name—'Fishback.' No wonder you went wrong, dearie."
"Oh, I'm not getting soft. I saw my bed and made it, nice and soft and
comfy, and I'm lying on it without a whimper."
"You just bet your life you made it up nice and comfy! You've the right
idea; I have to hand that to you. You command respect from them. Lord!
Ed would as soon fire a teacup at me as not. But, with me, it pays. The
last one he broke he made up to me with my opal-and-diamond beetle."
"Wouldn't wear an opal if it was set next to the Hope diamond."
"Unlucky. Never knew it to fail."
"Not a superstition in my bones. I don't believe in walking under
ladders or opening an umbrella in the house or sitting down with
thirteen, but, Lordy! never saw the like with you! Thought you'd have
the hysterics over that little old vanity mirror you broke that day out
at the races."
"Br-r-r! I hated it."
"Lay easy, dearie. Nothing can touch you the way he's raking in the war
"Play for a country home, dearie. I always say real estate and jewelry
are something in the hand. Look ahead in this game, I always say."
"You just bet I've looked ahead."
"So have I, but not enough."
"Somehow, I never feel afraid. I could get a job to-morrow if I had to."
"Say, dearie, if it comes to that, with twenty pounds off me, there's
not a chorus I couldn't land back in."
"I worked once, you know, in Lichtig's import shop."
"Yes. It was in between the salesman and Al. I sold two thousand five
hundred dollars' worth of gowns the first week."
"'Girl,' old man Lichtig said to me the day I quit—'girl,' he said, 'if
ever you need this job again, comeback; it's waiting.'"
"I've got the last twenty-five dollars I earned pinned away this minute
in the pocket of the little dark-blue suit I wore to work. I paid for
that suit with my first month's savings. A little dark-blue Norfolk,
Lichtig let me have out of stock for twenty-seven fifty."
"Were they giving them away with a pound of tea?"
"Honest, Kitty, it was neat. Little white shirt waist, tan shoes, and
one of those slick little five-dollar sailors, and every cent paid out
of my salary. I could step into that outfit to-morrow, look the part,
and land back that job or any other. I had a way with the trade, even
back at Finley's."
"Here, hold my jewel bag, honey; I'm going to die of cold-cream
suffocation if she don't soon come back and unsmear me."
"Opal beetle in it?"
"Yes, dearie; but it won't bite. It's muzzled with my diamond
"Nothing doing, Kit. Put it under your pillow."
"You better watch out. There's a thirteenth letter in the alphabet; you
might accidentally use it some day. You're going to have a sweet time
to-night, you are!"
"The boys have engaged De Butera to come up to the rooms."
"You mean the fortune teller over at the Stag Hotel?"
"She's not a fortune teller, you poor nervous wreck. She's the
highest-priced spiritualist in the world. Moving tables—spooks—woof!"
"Faugh!" said Hester, rising from her couch and feeling with her little
bare feet for the daintiest of pink-silk mules. "I could make tables
move, too, at forty dollars an hour. Where's my attendant? I want an
They did hold séance that night in a fine spirit of lark, huddled
together in the de-luxe sitting room of one of their suites, and
little half-hysterical shrieks and much promiscuous ribaldry under cover
Madame de Butera was of a distinctly fat and earthy blondness, with a
coarse-lace waist over pink, and short hands covered with turquoise
rings of many shapes and blues.
Tables moved. A dead sister of Wheeler's spoke in thin, high voice. Why
is it the dead are always so vocally thin and high?
A chair tilted itself on hind legs, eliciting squeals from the women.
Babe spoke with a gentleman friend long since passed on, and Kitty with
a deceased husband, and began to cry quite sobbily and took little sips
of highball quite gulpily. May Denison, who was openly defiant, allowed
herself to be hypnotized and lay rigid between two chairs, and
Kitty went off into rampant hysteria until Wheeler finally placed a
hundred-dollar bill over the closed eyes, and whether under it, or to
the legerdemain of madam's manipulating hands, the tight eyes opened,
May, amid riots of laughter, claiming for herself the hundred-dollar
bill, and Kitty, quite resuscitated, jumping up for a table cancan, her
yellow hair tumbling, and her china-blue eyes with the dregs in them
inclined to water.
All but Hester. She sat off by herself in a peacock-colored gown that
wrapped her body suavity as if the fabric were soaking wet, a band of
smoky-blue about her forehead. Never intoxicated, a slight amount of
alcohol had a tendency to make her morose.
"What's the matter, Cleo?" asked Wheeler, sitting down beside her and
lifting her cool fingers one by one, and, by reason of some remote
analogy that must have stirred within him, seeing in her a Nile queen.
"What's the matter Cleo? Does the spook stuff get your goat?"
She turned on him eyes that were all troubled up, like waters suddenly
"God!" she said, her fingers, nails inward, closing about his arm.
But fleeting as the hours themselves were the moods of them all, and
the following morning there they were, the eight of them, light with
laughter and caparisoned again as to hampers, veils, coats, dogs, off
for a day's motoring through the springtime countryside.
"Where to?" shouted Wheeler, twisting from where he and Hester sat in
the first of the cars to call to the two motor-loads behind.
"I thought Crystal Cave was the spot"—from May Denison in the last of
the cars, winding her head in a scarlet veil.
"Crystal Cave it is, then."
"Is that through Demopolis?"
Followed a scanning of maps.
"Sure! Here it is! See! Granite City. Mitchell. Demopolis. Crystal
"Good Lord! Hester, you're not going to spend any time in that dump?"
"It's my home town," she replied, coldly. "The only relation I had is
buried there. It's nothing out of your way to drop me on the court-house
steps and pick me up as you drive back, I've been wanting to get there
ever since we're down here. Wanting to stop by your home town you
haven't seen in five years isn't unreasonable, is it?"
He admitted it wasn't, leaning to kiss her.
She turned to him a face soft, with one of the pouts he usually found
"Honey," she said, "what do you think?"
"Chris is buying May that chinchilla coat I showed you in Meyerbloom's
window the day before we left."
"The deuce he is!" he said, letting go of her hand, but hers immediately
"She's wiring her sister in the 'Girlie Revue' to go in and buy it for
"Outrage—fifteen thousand dollars to cover a woman's back! Look at the
beautiful scenery, honey! You're always prating about views. Look at
those hills over there! Great—isn't it?"
"I wouldn't expect it, Wheeler, if it wasn't war year and you landing
one big contract after another. I'd hate to see May show herself in
that chinchilla coat when we could beat her to it by a wire. I could
telegraph Meyerbloom himself. I bought the sable rug of him. I'd hate
it, Wheeler, to see her and Chris beat us to it. So would you. What's
fifteen thousand when one of your contracts alone runs into the hundred
"Wire," he said, sourly, but not withdrawing his hand from hers.
* * * * *
They left her at the shady court-house steps in Demopolis, but with
pleasantry and gibe.
"Give my love to the town pump."
"Rush the old oaken growler for me."
"So long!" she called, eager to be rid of them. "Pick me up at six
She walked slowly up High Street. Passers-by turned to stare, but
otherwise she was unrecognized. There was a new five-and-ten-cent store,
and Finley Brothers had added an ell. High Street was paved. She made a
foray down into the little side street where she had spent those queerly
remote first seventeen years of her life. How dim her aunt seemed! The
little unpainted frame house was gone. There was a lumber yard on the
site. Everything seemed to have shrunk. The street was narrower and
dirtier than she recalled it.
She made one stop, at the house of Maggie Simms, a high-school chum. It
was a frame house, too, and she remembered that the front door opened
directly into the parlor and the side entrance was popularly used
instead. But a strange sister-in-law opened the side door. Maggie was
married and living in Cincinnati. Oh, fine—a master mechanic, and there
were twins. She started back toward Finley's, thinking of Gerald, and
halfway she changed her mind.
Maggie Simms married and living in Cincinnati. Twins! Heigh-ho! What a
world! The visit was hardly a success. At half after five she was on her
way back to the court-house steps. Stupid to have made it six!
And then, of course, and quite as you would have it, Gerald Fishback
came along. She recognized his blondness long before he saw her. He was
bigger and more tanned, and, as of old, carried his hat in his hand. She
noticed that there were no creases down the front of his trousers, but
the tweed was good and he gave off that intangible aroma of well-being.
She was surprised at the old thrill racing over her. Seeing him was like
a stab of quick steel through the very pit of her being. She reached
out, touching him, before he saw her.
"Gerald," she said, soft and teasingly.
It was actually as if he had been waiting for that touch, because before
he could possibly have perceived her her name was on his lips.
"Hester!" he said, the blueness of his eyes flashing between blinks.
"Yes, Hester," she said, smiling up at him.
He grasped both her hands, stammering for words that wanted to come
quicker than he could articulate.
"Hester!" he kept repeating. "Hester!"
"To think you knew me, Gerald!"
"Know you! I'd know you blindfolded. And how—I—You're beautiful,
Hester! I think you've grown five years younger."
"You've got on, Gerald. You look it."
"Yes; I'm general manager now at Finley's."
"I'm so glad. Married?"
"Not while there's a Hester Bevins on earth."
She started at her own name.
"How do you know I'm not married?"
"I—I know—" he said, reddening up.
"Isn't there some place we can talk, Gerald? I've thirty minutes before
my friends call for me."
"Your rooms? Haven't you rooms or a room where we could go and sit
"Why—why, no, Hester," he said, still red. "I'd rather you didn't
go there. But here. Let's stop in at the St. James Hotel. There's a
To her surprise, she felt herself color up and was pleasantly conscious
of her finger tips.
"You darling!" She smiled up at him.
They were seated presently in the unaired plush-and-cherry,
Nottingham-and-Axminster parlor of a small-town hotel.
"Hester," he said, "you're like a vision come to earth."
"I'm a bad durl," she said, challenging his eyes for what he knew.
"You're a little saint walked down and leaving an empty pedestal in my
She placed her forefinger over his mouth.
"Sh-h!" she said. "I'm not a saint, Gerald; you know that."
"Yes," he said, with a great deal of boyishness in his defiance, "I do
know it, Hester, but it is those who have been through the fire who can
sometimes come out—new. It was your early environment."
"My aunt died on the town, Gerald, I heard. I could have saved her all
that if I had only known. She was cheap, aunt was. Poor soul! She never
"It was your early environment, Hester. I've explained that often enough
to them here. I'd bank on you, Hester—swear by you."
She patted him.
"I'm a pretty bad egg, Gerald. According to the standards of a town
like this, I'm rotten, and they're about right. For five years, Gerald,
"The real you is ahead of—and not behind you, Hester."
"How wonderful," she said, "for you to feel that way, but—"
"Hester," he said, more and more the big boy, and his big blond head
nearing hers, "I don't care about anything that's past; I only know
that, for me, you are the—"
"Gerald," she said, "for God's sake!"
"I'm a two hundred-a-month man now, Hester. I want to build you the
prettiest, the whitest little house in this town. Out in the Briarwood
section. I'll make them kowtow to you, Hester; I—"
"Why," she said, slowly, and looking at him with a certain sadness, "you
couldn't keep me in stockings, Gerald! The aigrettes on this hat cost
more than one month of your salary."
"Good God!" he said.
"You're a dear, sweet boy just the same; but you remember what I told
you about my crêpe-de-Chine soul."
"Just the same, I love you best in those crispy white shirt waists you
used to wear and the little blue suits and sailor hats. You remember
that day at Finleys' picnic, Hester, that day, dear, that you—you—"
"You dear boy!"
"But it—your mistake—it—it's all over. You work now, don't you,
Somehow, looking into the blueness of his eyes and their entreaty for
her affirmative, she did what you or I might have done. She half lied,
regretting it while the words still smoked on her lips.
"Why, yes, Gerald; I've held a fine position in Lichtig Brothers, New
York importers. Those places sometimes pay as high as seventy-five a
week. But I don't make any bones, Gerald; I've not been an angel."
"The—the salesman, Hester?"—his lips quivering with a nausea for the
"I haven't seen him in four years," she answered, truthfully.
He laid his cheek on her hand.
"I knew you'd come through. It was your environment. I'll marry you
to-morrow—to-day, Hester. I love you."
"You darling boy!" she said, her lips back tight against her teeth. "You
darling, darling boy!"
"Please, Hester! We'll forget what has been."
"Let me go," she said, rising and pinning on her hat; "let me go—or—or
I'll cry, and—and I don't want to cry."
"Hester," he called, rushing after her and wanting to fold her back into
his arms, "let me prove my trust—my love—"
"Don't! Let me go! Let me go!"
At slightly after six the ultra cavalcade drew up at the court-house
steps. She was greeted with the pleasantries and the gibes.
"Have a good time, sweetness?" asked Wheeler, arranging her rugs.
"Yes," she said, lying back and letting her lids droop; "but
tired—very, very tired."
At the hotel, she stopped a moment to write a telegram before going up
for the vapor bath, nap, and massage that were to precede dinner.
"Meyerbloom & Co., Furriers. Fifth Avenue, New York," it was addressed.
* * * * *
This is not a war story except that it has to do with profiteering,
parlor patriots, and the return of Gerald Fishback.
While Hester was living this tale, and the chinchilla coat was
enveloping her like an ineffably tender caress, three hundred thousand
of her country's youths were at strangle hold across three thousand
miles of sea, and on a notorious night when Hester walked, fully dressed
in a green gown of iridescent fish scales, into the electric fountain of
a seaside cabaret, and Wheeler had to carry her to her car wrapped in a
sable rug, Gerald Fishback was lying with his face in Flanders mud, and
his eye sockets blackly deep and full of shrapnel, and a lung-eating gas
cloud rolling at him across the vast bombarded dawn.
* * * * *
Hester read of him one morning, sitting up in bed against a mound of
lace-over-pink pillows, a masseuse at the pink soles of her feet. It was
as if his name catapulted at her from a column she never troubled to
read. She remained quite still, looking at the name for a full five
minutes after it had pierced her full consciousness. Then, suddenly, she
swung out of bed, tilting over the masseuse.
"Tessie," she said, evenly enough, "that will do. I have to hurry to
Long Island to a base hospital. Go to that little telephone in the
hall—will you?—and call my car."
But the visit was not so easy of execution. It required two days of red
tape and official dispensation before she finally reached the seaside
hospital that, by unpleasant coincidence, only a year before had been
the resort hotel of more than one dancing orgy.
She thought she would faint when she saw him, jerking herself back with
a straining of all her faculties. The blood seemed to drain away
from her body, leaving her ready to sink, and only the watchful and
threatening eye of a man nurse sustained her. He was sitting up in bed,
and she would never have recognized in him anything of Gerald except
for the shining Scandinavian quality of his hair. His eyes were not
bandaged, but their sockets were dry and bare like the beds of old lakes
long since drained. She had only seen the like in eyeless marble busts.
There were unsuspected cheek bones, pitched now very high in his face,
and his neck, rising above the army nightshirt, seemed cruelly long,
possibly from thinness.
"Are you Hester?" whispered the man nurse.
She nodded, her tonsils squeezed together in an absolute knot.
"He called for you all through his delirium," he said, and went out. She
stood at the bedside, trying to keep down the screams from her speech
when it should come. But he was too quick for her.
"Hester," he said, feeling out.
And in their embrace, her agony melted to tears that choked and seared,
beat and scalded her, and all the time it was he who held her with rigid
arm, whispered to her, soothed down the sobs which tore through her like
the rip of silk, seeming to split her being.
"Now—now! Why, Hester! Now—now—now! Sh-h! It will be over in a
minute. You mustn't feel badly. Come now, is this the way to greet a
fellow that's so darn glad to see you that nothing matters? Why I can
see you, Hester. Plain as day in your little crispy waist. Now, now!
You'll get used to it in a minute. Now—now—"
"I can't stand it, Gerald! I can't! Can't! Kill me, Gerald, but don't
ask me to stand it!"
He stroked down the side of her, lingering at her cheek.
"Sh-h! Take your time, dear," he said, with the first furry note in his
voice. "I know it's hard, but take your time. You'll get used to me.
It's the shock, that's all. Sh-h!"
She covered his neck with kisses and scalding tears, her compassion for
him racing through her in chills.
"I could tear out my eyes, Gerald, and give them to you. I could tear
out my heart and give it to you. I'm bursting of pain. Gerald! Gerald!"
There was no sense of proportion left her. She could think only of what
her own physical suffering might do in penance. She would willingly have
opened the arteries of her heart and bled for him on the moment. Her
compassion wanted to scream. She, who had never sacrificed anything,
wanted suddenly to bleed at his feet, and prayed to do so on the
agonized crest of the moment.
"There's a girl! Why, I'm going to get well, Hester, and do what
thousands of others of the blinded are doing. Build up a new, a useful,
and a busy life."
"It's not fair! It's not fair!"
"I'm ready now, except for this old left lung. It's burnt a bit, you
"It's pretty bad, I admit. But there's another way of looking at it.
There's a glory in being chosen to bear your country's wounds."
"Your beautiful eyes! Your blue, beautiful eyes! O God, what does it
all mean? Living! Dying! All the rotters, all the rat-eyed ones I know,
scot-free and Gerald chosen. God! God! where are you?"
"He was never so close to me as now, Hester. And with you here, dear, He
is closer than ever."
"I'll never leave you, Gerald," she said, crying down into his sleeve
again. "Don't be afraid of the dark, dear; I'll never leave you."
"Nonsense!" he said, smoothing her hair that the hat had fallen away
"Never! Never! I wish I were a mat for you to walk on. I want to crawl
on my hands and knees for you. I'll never leave you, Gerald—never!"
"My beautiful Hester!" he said, unsteadily, and then again, "Nonsense!"
But, almost on the moment, the man nurse returned and she was obliged to
leave him, but not without throbbing promises of the to-morrow's
return, and then there took place, downstairs in an anteroom, a long, a
closeted, and very private interview with a surgeon and more red tape
and filing of applications. She was so weak from crying that a nurse was
called finally to help her through the corridors to her car.
Gerald's left lung was burned out and he had three, possibly four, weeks
All the way home, in her tan limousine with the little yellow curtains,
she sat quite upright, away from the upholstery, crying down her
uncovered face, but a sudden, an exultant determination hardening in her
* * * * *
That night a strange conversation took place in the Riverside Drive
apartment. She sat on Wheeler's left knee, toying with his platinum
chain, a strained, a rather terrible pallor out in her face, but the
sobs well under her voice, and its modulation about normal. She had been
talking for over two hours, silencing his every interruption until he
had fallen quite still.
"And—and that's all, Wheeler," she ended up. "I've told you everything.
We were never more than just—friends—Gerald and me. You must take my
word for it, because I swear it before God."
"I take your word, Hester," he said, huskily.
"And there he lies, Wheeler, without—without any eyes in his head. Just
as if they'd been burned out by irons. And he—he smiles when he talks.
That's the awful part. Smiles like—well, I guess like the angel he—he
almost is. You see, he says it's a glory to carry the wounds of his
country. Just think! just think! that boy to feel that, the way he lies
"Poor boy! Poor, poor boy!"
"Gerald's like that. So—so full of faith. And, Wheeler, he thinks he's
going to get well and lead a useful life like they teach the blind to
do. He reminds me of one of those Greek statues down at the Athens Café.
You know—broken. That's it; he's a broken statue."
"Poor fellow! Poor fellow! Do something for him. Buy the finest fruit in
the town for him. Send a case of wine. Two."
"I—I think I must be torn to pieces inside, Wheeler, the way I've
"Poor little girl!"
"Now, now," he said; "taking it so to heart won't do no good. It's
rotten, I know, but worrying won't help. Got me right upset, too. Come,
get it off your mind. Let's take a ride. Doll up; you look a bit peaked.
Come now, and to-morrow we'll buy out the town for him."
"Wheeler?" she said. "Wheeler?"
"Don't look, Wheeler. I've something else to ask of you—something
"Now, now," he said, his voice hardening but trying to maintain a
chiding note; "you know what you promised after the chinchilla—no more
this year until—"
"No, no; for God's sake, not that! It's still about Gerald."
"Wheeler, he's only got four weeks to live. Five at the outside."
"Now, now, girl; we've been all over that."
"He loves me, Wheeler, Gerald does."
"It would be like doing something decent—the only decent thing I've
done in all my life, Wheeler, almost like doing something for the war,
the way these women in the pretty white caps have done, and you know
we—we haven't turned a finger for it except to—to gain—if I was
to—to marry Gerald for those few weeks, Wheeler. I know it's a—rotten
sacrifice, but I guess that's the only kind I'm capable of making."
He sat squat, with his knees spread.
"You crazy?" he said.
"It would mean, Wheeler, his dying happy. He doesn't know it's all up
with him. He'd be made happy for the poor little rest of his life. He
loves me. You see, Wheeler, I was his first—his only sweetheart. I'm on
a pedestal, he says, in his dreams. I never told you—but that boy was
willing to marry me, Wheeler, knowing—some—of the things I am. He's
always carried round a dream of me, you see—no, you wouldn't see, but
I've been—well, I guess sort of a medallion that won't tarnish in his
heart. Wheeler, for the boy's few weeks he has left? Wheeler?"
"Well, I'll be hanged!"
"I'm not turning holy, Wheeler. I am what I am. But that boy lying
out there—I can't bear it! It wouldn't make any difference with
us—afterward. You know where you stand with me and for always, but it
would mean the dying happy of a boy who fought for us. Let me marry
that boy, Wheeler. Let his light go out in happiness. Wheeler? Please,
Wheeler?" He would not meet her eyes. "Wheeler?"
"Go to it, Hester," he said, coughing about in his throat and rising to
walk away. "Bring him here and give him the fat of the land. You can
count on me to keep out of the way. Go to it," he repeated.
And so they were married, Hester holding his hand beside the hospital
cot, the man nurse and doctor standing by, and the chaplain incanting
the immemorial words. A bar of sunshine lay across the bed, and Gerald
pronounced each "I will" in a lifted voice that carried to the four
corners of the little room. She was allowed to stay that night past
hospital hours, and they talked with the dusk flowing over them.
"Hester, Hester," he said, "I should have had the strength to hold out
against your making this terrible sacrifice."
"It's the happiest hour of my life," she said, kissing him.
"I feel well enough to get up now, sweetheart."
"Gerald, don't force. You've weeks ahead before you are ready for that."
"But to-morrow, dear, home! In whose car are you calling for me
to-morrow to take me home?"
"In a friend's, dearest."
"Won't I be crowding up our little apartment? Describe it again to me,
"It's so little, Gerald. Three rooms and the littlest, babiest kitchen.
When you're once up, I'll teach its every corner to you."
Tears seeped through the line where his lids had been, and it was almost
more than she could bear.
"I'll make it up to you, though, Hester. I know I should have been
strong enough to hold out against your marrying me, but I'll make it up.
I've a great scheme; a sort of braille system of accountancy—"
"Please, Gerald—not now!"
"If only, Hester, I felt easier about the finances. Will your savings
stand the strain? Your staying at home from your work this way—and then
"Gerald dear, I've told you so often—I've saved more than we need."
"My dear, my dear!" she said.
* * * * *
They moved him with hardly a jar in an army ambulance, and with the
yellow limousine riding alongside to be of possible aid, and she had the
bed stripped of its laces and cool with linen for him, and he sighed out
when they placed him on it and would not let go her hand.
"What a feeling of space for so little a room!"
"It's the open windows, love."
He lay back tiredly.
"What sweet linen!"
"I shopped it for you."
"You, too—you're in linen, Hester?"
"A percale shirt waist. I shopped it for you, too."
"Give me your hand," he said, and pressed a string of close kisses into
The simplicity of the outrageous subterfuge amazed even her. She held
hothouse grapes at two dollars a pound to his lips, and he ate them
through a smile.
"Naughty, extravagant girl!" he said.
"I saw them on a fruit stand for thirty cents, and couldn't resist."
"Never mind; I'll make it up to you."
Later, he asked for braille books, turning his sightless face toward her
as he studied, trying to concentrate through the pain in his lung.
"If only you wouldn't insist upon the books awhile yet, dear. The doctor
says it's too soon."
"I feel so strong, Hester, with you near, and, besides, I must start the
She kissed down into the high nap of his hair, softly.
Evenings, she read to him newspaper accounts of his fellow-soldiers, and
the day of the peace, for which he had paid so terribly, she rolled his
bed, alone, with a great tugging and straining, to the open window,
where the wind from the river could blow in against him and steamboat
whistles shoot up like rockets.
She was so inexpressibly glad for the peace day. Somehow, it seemed
easier and less blackly futile to give him up.
Of Wheeler for three running weeks she had not a glimpse, and then, one
day, he sent up a hamper, not a box, but an actual trunk of roses, and
she, in turn, sent them up the back way to Kitty's flat, not wanting
even their fragrance released.
With Kitty there were little hurried confabs each day outside the
apartment door in the hallway before the elevator shaft. A veil of awe
seemed to wrap the Drew woman.
"I can't get it out of my head, Hester. It's like a fairy story, and, in
another way, it's a scream—Wheeler standing for this."
"Sh-h, Kitty! His ears are so sensitive."
"Quit shushing me every time I open my mouth. Poor kid! Let me have a
look at him. He wouldn't know."
"God! if it wasn't so sad it would be a scream—Wheeler footing the
"All right, all right! Don't take the measles over it. I'm going. Here's
some chicken broth I brought down. Ed sent it up to me from Sherry's."
But Hester poured it into the sink for some nameless reason, and brewed
some fresh from a fowl she tipped the hallboy a dollar to go out and
She slept on a cot at the foot of his bed, so sensitive to his waking
that almost before he came up to consciousness she was at his side. All
day she wore the little white shirt waists, a starchy one fresh each
morning, and at night scratchy little unlacy nightgowns with long
sleeves and high yokes. He liked to run his hand along the crispness of
"I love you in cool stuff, Hester. You're so cool yourself, I always
think of you in the little white waist and blue skirt. You remember,
"I—I'm going to dress like that for you always, Gerald."
"I won't let you be going back to work for long, sweetheart. I've some
plans up my sleeve, I have."
But when the end did come, it was with as much of a shock as if she had
not been for days expecting it. The doctor had just left, puncturing his
arm and squirting into his poor tired system a panacea for the pain. But
he would not react to it, fighting down the drowsiness.
"Hester," he said, suddenly, and a little weakly, "lean down,
sweetheart, and kiss me—long—long—"
She did, and it was with the pressure of her lips to his that he died.
* * * * *
It was about a week after the funeral that Wheeler came back. She was on
the chaise-longue that had been dragged out into the parlor, in the
webbiest of white negligées, a little large-eyed, a little subdued, but
sweetening the smile she turned toward him by a trick she had of lifting
"Hel-lo, Wheeler!" she said, raising her cheek to be kissed.
He trailed his lips, but did not seek her mouth, sitting down rather
awkwardly and in the spread-kneed fashion he had.
"Well, girl—you all right?"
"You helped," she said.
"It gave me a jolt, too. I made over twenty-five thousand to the Red
Cross on the strength of it."
"Thank you, Wheeler."
"Lord!" he said, rising and rubbing his hands together. "Give us a
couple of fingers to drink, honey; I'm cotton-mouthed."
She reached languidly for a blue-enameled bell, lying back, with her
arms dangling and her smile out. Then, as if realizing that the occasion
must be lifted, turned her face to him.
"Old bummer!" she said, using one of her terms of endearment for him and
two-thirds closing her eyes. Then did he stoop and kiss her roundly on
* * * * *
For the remainder of this tale, I could wish for a pen supernally
dipped, or for a metaphysician's plating to my vernacular, or for the
linguistic patois of that land off somewhere to the west of Life. Or
maybe just a neurologist's chart of Hester's nerve history would help.
In any event, after an evening of musical comedy and of gelatinous
dancing, Hester awoke at four o'clock the next morning out of an hour of
sound sleep, leaping to her knees there in bed like a quick flame, her
gesture shooting straight up toward the jointure of wall and ceiling.
"Gerald!" she called, her smoky black hair floating around her and her
arms cutting through the room's blackness. "Gerald!" Suddenly the room
was not black. It was light with the Scandinavian blondness of Gerald,
the head of him nebulous there above the pink-satin canopy of her
dressing table, and, more than that, the drained lakes of his sockets
were deep with eyes. Yes, in all their amazing blueness, but queerly
sharpened to steel points that went through Hester and through her as if
bayonets were pushing into her breasts and her breathing.
"Gerald!" she shrieked, in one more cry that curdled the quiet, and sat
up in bed, trembling and hugging herself, and breathing in until her
lips were drawn shudderingly against her teeth like wind-sucked window
"Gerald!" And then the picture did a sort of moving-picture fade-out,
and black Lottie came running with her hair grotesquely greased and
flattened to take out the kink, and gave her a drink of water with the
addition of two drops from a bottle, and turned on the night light and
went back to bed.
The next morning Hester carried about what she called "a head," and,
since it was Wheeler's day at Rosencranz, remained in bed until three
o'clock, Kitty curled at the foot of it the greater part of the
"It was the rotten night did me up. Dreams! Ugh! dreams!"
"No wonder," diagnosed Kitty, sweetly. "Indigestion from having your
cake and eating it."
At three she dressed and called for her car, driving down to the Ivy
Funeral Rooms, a Gothic Thanatopsis, set, with one of those laughs up
her sleeves in which the vertical city so loves to indulge, right in
the heart of the town, between an automobile-accessory shop and a
quick-lunch room. Gerald had been buried from there with simple
flag-draped service in the Gothic chapel that was protected from the
view and roar of the Elevated trains by suitably stained windows. There
was a check in Hester's purse made out for an amount that corresponded
to the statement she had received from the Ivy Funeral Rooms. And right
here again, for the sake of your elucidation, I could wish at least for
the neurologist's chart. At the very door to the establishment—with
one foot across the threshold, in fact—she paused, her face tilted
toward the corner where wall and ceiling met, and at whatever she saw
there her eyes dilated widely and her left hand sprang to her bosom as
if against the incision of quick steel. Then, without even entering, she
rushed back to her car again, urging her chauffeur, at the risk of every
speed regulation, homeward.
That was the beginning of purgatorial weeks that were soon to tell on
Hester. They actually brought out a streak of gray through her hair,
which Lottie promptly dyed and worked under into the lower part of her
coiffure. For herself, Hester would have let it remain.
Wheeler was frankly perplexed. God knows it was bad enough to be called
upon to endure streaks of unreasonableness at Rosencranz, but Hester
wasn't there to show that side to him if she had it. To be pretty frank
about it, she was well paid not to. Well paid! He'd done his part. More
than nine out of ten would have done. Been made a jay of, if the truth
was known. She was a Christmas-tree bauble and was expected to throw off
holiday iridescence. There were limits!
"You're off your feed, girl. Go off by yourself and speed up."
"It's the nights, Gerald. Good God—I mean Wheeler! They kill me. I
can't sleep. Can't you get a doctor who will give me stronger drops? He
doesn't know my case. Nerves, he calls it. It's this head. If only I
could get rid of this head!"
"You women and your nerves and your heads! Are you all alike? Get out
and get some exercise. Keep down your gasoline bills and it will send
your spirits up. There's such a thing as having it too good."
She tried to meet him in lighter vein after that, dressing her most
bizarrely, and greeting him one night in a batik gown, a new process of
dyeing that could be flamboyant and narrative in design. This one, a
long, sinuous robe that enveloped her slimness like a flame, beginning
down around the train in a sullen smoke and rushing up to her face in a
burst of crimson.
He thought her so exquisitely rare that he was not above the poor, soggy
device of drinking his dinner wine from the cup of her small crimson
slipper, and she dangled on his knee like the dangerous little flame she
none too subtly purported to be, and he spanked her quickly and softly
across the wrists because she was too nervous to hold the match steadily
enough for his cigar to take light, and then kissed away all the mock
But the next morning, at the fateful four o'clock, and in spite of four
sleeping-drops, Lottie on the cot at the foot of her bed, and the night
light burning, she awoke on the crest of such a shriek that a stiletto
might have slit the silence, the end of the sheet crammed up and into
her mouth, and, ignoring all of Lottie's calming, sat up on her knees,
her streaming eyes on the jointure of wall and ceiling, where the open,
accusing ones of Gerald looked down at her. It was not that they were
terrible eyes. They were full of the sweet blue, and clear as lakes. It
was only that they knew. Those eyes knew. They knew! She tried the
device there at four o'clock in the morning of tearing up the still
unpaid check to the Ivy Funeral Rooms, and then she curled up in bed
with her hand in the negro maid's and her face half buried in the
"Help me, Lottie!" she begged; "help me!"
"Law! Pore child! Gettin' the horrors every night thisaway! I've been
through it before with other ladies, but I never saw a case of the sober
horrors befoh. Looks like they's the worst of all. Go to sleep, child.
You see, Lottie had looked in on life where you and I might not. A
bird's-eye view may be very, very comprehensive, but a domestic's-eye
view can sometimes be very, very close.
And then, one night, after Hester had beat her hands down into the
mattress and implored Gerald to close his accusing eyes, she sat up in
bed, waiting for the first streak of dawn to show itself, railing at the
pain in her head.
"God! My head! Rub it, Lottie! My head! My eyes! The back of my neck!"
The next morning she did what you probably have been expecting she would
do. She rose and dressed, sending Lottie to bed for a needed rest.
Dressed herself in the little old blue-serge suit that had been hanging
in the very back of a closet for four years, with a five-and two
ten-dollar bills pinned into its pocket, and pressed the little blue
sailor hat down on the smooth, winglike quality of her hair. She looked
smaller, peculiarly, indescribably younger. She wrote Wheeler a note,
dropping it down the mail-chute in the hall, and then came back, looking
about rather aimlessly for something she might want to pack. There was
nothing; so she went out quite bare and simply, with all her lovely
jewels in the leather case on the upper shelf of the bedroom closet, as
she had explained to Wheeler in the note.
That afternoon she presented herself to Lichtig. He was again as you
would expect—round-bellied, and wore his cigar up obliquely from one
corner of his mouth. He engaged her immediately at an increase of five
dollars a week, and as she was leaving with the promise to report at
eight-thirty the next morning he pinched her cheek, she pulling away
"None of that!"
"My mistake," he apologized.
She considered it promiscuous and cheap, and you know her aversion for
Then she obtained, after a few forays in and out of brownstone houses
in West Forty-fifth Street, one of those hall bedrooms so familiar to
human-interest stories—the iron-bed, washstand, and slop-jar kind.
There was a five-dollar advance required. That left her twenty dollars.
She shopped a bit then in an Eighth Avenue department store, and, with
the day well on the wane, took a street car up to the Ivy Funeral Rooms.
This time she entered, but the proprietor did not recognize her until
she explained. As you know, she looked smaller and younger, and there
was no tan car at the curb.
"I want to pay this off by the week," she said, handing him out
the statement and a much-folded ten-dollar bill. He looked at her,
surprised. "Yes," she said, her teeth biting off the word in a click.
"Certainly," he replied, handing her out a receipt for the ten.
"I will pay five dollars a week hereafter."
"That will stretch it out to twenty-eight weeks," he said, still
"I can't help it; I must."
"Certainly," he said, "that will be all right," but looked puzzled.
That night she slept in the hall bedroom in the Eighth Avenue,
machine-stitched nightgown. She dropped off about midnight, praying not
to awaken at four. But she did—with a slight start, sitting up in bed,
her eyes where the wall and ceiling joined.
Gerald's face was there, and his blue eyes were open, but the steel
points were gone. They were smiling eyes. They seemed to embrace her, to
wash her in their fluid.
All her fear and the pain in her head were gone. She sat up, looking at
him, the tears streaming down over her smile and her lips moving.
Then, sighing out like a child, she lay back on the pillow, turned over,
and went to sleep.
* * * * *
And this is the story of Hester which so insisted to be told. I think
she must have wanted you to know. And wanted Gerald to know that you
know, and, in the end, I rather think she wanted God to know.