The Smudge, by Fannie Hurst
The Vertical City
In the bleak little graveyard of Hattie Bertch's dead hopes, dead loves,
and dead ecstasies, more than one headstone had long since begun to sag
and the wreaths of bleeding heart to shrivel.
That was good, because the grave that is kept bubbly with tears is a
tender, quivering thing, almost like an amputated bit of self that still
aches with threads of life.
Even over the mound of her dead ambitions, which grave she had dug with
the fingers of her heart, Hattie could walk now with unsensitive feet.
It had become dry clay with cracks in it like sardonic smiles.
Smiles. That was the dreadful part, because the laugh where there
have been tears is not a nice laugh, and Hattie could sit among the
headstones of her dead dreams now and laugh. But not horridly. Just
There was one grave, Heart's Desire, that was still a little moist. But
it, too, of late years, had begun to sink in, like an old mouth with
receding gums, as if the very teeth of a smiling dream had rotted. They
Hattie, whose heart's desire had once been to play Juliet, played maids
now. Buxom negro ones, with pale palms, white eyes, and the beat of
kettledrums somewhere close to the cuticle of the balls of her feet.
She was irrevocably down on managers' and agents' lists as "comedy
black." Countless the premiers she had opened to the fleck of a duster!
Hattie came high, as maids go. One hundred and fifty dollars a week and
no road engagements. She dressed alone. Her part in "Love Me Long" had
been especially written in for the sake of the peculiar kind of comedy
relief she could bring to it. A light roar of recognition swept the
audience at her entrance. Once in a while, a handclap. So Hattie, whose
heart's desire had once been to play Juliet, played maids now. Buxomly.
And this same Hattie, whose heart's desire had once been to kiss Love,
but whose lips were still a little twisted with the taste of clay, could
kiss only Love's offspring now. But not bitterly. Thanksgivingly.
Love's offspring was Marcia. Sixteen and the color and odor of an ivory
fan that has lain in frangipani. And Hattie could sometimes poke her
tongue into her cheek over this bit of whimsy:
It was her well-paid effort in the burnt cork that made possible, for
instance, the frill of real lace that lay to the low little neck of
Marcia's first party dress, as if blown there in sea spume.
Out of the profits of Hattie's justly famous Brown Cold
Cream—Guaranteed Color-fast—Mulatto, Medium, Chocolate, had come
Marcia's ermine muff and tippet; the enamel toilet set; the Steinway
grand piano; the yearly and by no means light tuition toll at Miss
Harperly's Select Day School for Girls.
You get the whimsy of it? For everything fair that was Marcia, Hattie
had brownly paid for. Liltingly, and with the rill of the song of
thanksgiving in her heart.
That was how Hattie moved through her time. Hugging this melody of
Marcia. Through the knife-edged nervous evenings in the theater.
Bawlings. Purple lips with loose muscles crawling under the rouge.
Fetidness of scent on stale bodies. Round faces that could hook into the
look of vultures when the smell of success became as the smell of red
meat. All the petty soiled vanities, like the disordered boudoir of a
cocotte. The perpetual stink of perfume. Powder on the air and caking
the breathing. Open dressing-room doors that should have been closed.
The smelling geometry of the make-up box. Curls. Corsets. Cosmetics. Men
in undershirts, grease-painting. "Gawdalmighty, Tottie, them's my teddy
bears you're puttin' on." Raw nerves. Raw emotions. Ego, the actor's
overtone, abroad everywhere and full of strut. "Overture!" The wait in
the wings. Dizziness at the pit of the stomach. Audiences with lean jaws
etched into darkness. Jaws that can smile or crack your bones and eat
you. Faces swimming in the stage ozone and wolfish for cue. The purple
Almost like a frieze stuck on to the border of each day was Hattie's
life in the theater. Passementerie.
That was how Hattie treated it. Especially during those placid years of
the phenomenal New York run of "Love Me Long." The outer edge of her
reality. The heart of her reality? Why, the heart of it was the long
morning hours in her own fragrant kitchen over doughnuts boiled in oil
and snowed under in powdered sugar! Cookies that bit with a snap. Filet
of sole boned with fingers deft at it and served with a merest fluff of
tartar sauce. Marcia ate like that. Preciously. Pecksniffily. An egg at
breakfast a gag to the sensibilities! So Hattie ate hers in the kitchen,
standing, and tucked the shell out of sight, wrapped in a lettuce leaf.
Beefsteak, for instance, sickened Marcia, because there was blood in the
ooze of its juices. But Hattie had a sly way of camouflage. Filet
mignon (so strengthening, you see) crushed under a little millinery of
mushrooms and served under glass. Then when Marcia's neat little row of
neat little teeth bit in and the munch began behind clean and careful
lips, Hattie's heart, a regular old bandit for cunning, beat hoppity,
Those were her realities. Home. The new sandwich cutters. Heart shape.
Diamond shape. Spade. The strip of hall carpet newly discovered to scour
like new with brush and soap and warm water. Epstein's meat market
throws in free suet. The lamp with the opal-silk shade for Marcia's
piano. White oilcloth is cleaner than shelf paper. Dotted Swiss
curtains, the ones in Marcia's room looped back with pink bows. Old
sashes, pressed out and fringed at the edges.
And if you think that Hattie's six rooms and bath and sunny, full-sized
kitchen, on Morningside Heights, were trumped-up ones of the press agent
for the Sunday Supplement, look in.
Any afternoon. Tuesday, say, and Marcia just home from school. On
Tuesday afternoon of every other week Hattie made her cream, in a large
copper pot that hung under the sink. Six dozen half-pint jars waiting
to be filled with Brown Cold Cream. One hundred and forty-four jars
a month. Guaranteed Color-fast. Mulatto, Medium, Chocolate. Labeled.
Sealed. Sold. And demand exceeding the supply. An ingratiating, expert
cream, known the black-faced world over. It slid into the skin, not
sootily, but illuminating it to winking, African copper. For instance,
Hattie's make-up cream for Linda in "Love Me Long" was labeled
"Chocolate." But it worked in even a truer brown, as if it had come out
of the pigment instead of gone into the pores.
Four hours of stirring it took, adding with exact minutiae the
mysteriously proper proportions of spermacetti, oil of sweet almonds,
white wax—But never mind. Hattie's dark secret was her own.
Fourteen years of her black art as Broadway's maid de luxe had been
her laboratory. It was almost her boast now—remember the sunken
headstones—that she had handled spotlessly every fair young star of the
theaters' last ten years.
It was as mysterious as pigment, her cream, and as true, and netted
her, with occasional extra batches, an average of two hundred dollars a
month. She enjoyed making it. Singing as she stirred or rather stirring
as she sang, the plenitude of her figure enveloped in a blue-and-white
bungalow apron with rickrack trimming.
Often Marcia, home from day school, watched. Propped up in the window
frame with her pet cat, a Persian, with eyes like swimming pools with
painted green bottoms, seated in a perfect circle in her quiet lap,
for all the world in the attitude of a sardel except for the toothpick
Sometimes it almost seemed as if Marcia did the purring. She could sit
like that, motionless, her very stare seeming to sleep. To Hattie that
stare was beautiful, and in a way it was. As if two blue little suns
were having their high noon.
Sometimes Marcia offered to help, because toward the end, Hattie's back
could ache at this process, terribly, the pain knotting itself into her
face when the rotary movement of her stirring arm began to yank at her
"Momie, I'll stir for a while."
Marcia's voice was day-schooled. As clipped, as boxed, and as precise
as a hedge. Neat, too, as neat as the way her clear lips met, and her
teeth, which had a little mannerism of coming down after each word,
biting them off like threads. They were appealing teeth that had never
grown big or square. Very young corn. To Hattie there was something
about them that reminded her of a tiny set of Marcia's doll dishes that
she had saved. Little innocences.
"I don't mind stirring, dear. I'm not tired."
"But your face is all twisted."
Hattie's twisted face could induce in Marcia the same gagged pallor that
the egg in the morning or the red in the beefsteak juices brought there.
"Go in and play the piano awhile, Marcy, I'll be finished soon."
"Sh-h-h! No. Pussy-kitty's asleep."
As the cream grew heavier and its swirl in the pot slower, Hattie could
keep the twist out of her face only by biting her tongue. She did, and a
little arch of sweat came out in a mustache.
The brown mud of the cream began to fluff. Hattie rubbed a fleck of it
into her freckled forearm. Yes, Hattie's arm was freckled, and so was
the bridge of her nose, in a little saddle. Once there had been a
prettiness to the freckles because they whitened the skin they sprinkled
and were little stars to the moon reddiness of Hattie's hair. But the
red of the moon had set coldly in Hattie's hair now, and the stars were
just freckles, and there was the dreaded ridge of flesh showing above
the ridge of her corsets, and when she leaned forward to stir her cheeks
hung forward like a spaniel's, not of fat, but heaviness. Hattie's arms
and thighs were granite to the touch and to the scales. Kindly freckled
granite. She weighed almost twice what she looked. Marcia, whose hips
were like lyres, hated the ridge above the corset line and massaged it.
Mab smacking the Himalayas.
After a while, there in the window frame, Marcia closed her eyes. There
was still the illusion of a purr about her. Probably because, as her
kitten warmed in its circle, its coziness began to whir mountingly.
The September afternoon was full of drone. The roofs of the city from
Hattie's kitchen window, which overlooked Morningside Heights, lay flat
as slaps. Tranced, indoor quiet. Presently Hattie began to tiptoe. The
seventy-two jars were untopped now, in a row on a board over the built-in
washtub. Seventy-two yawning for content. Squnch! Her enormous spoon
into the copper kettle and flop, gurgle, gooze, softly into the jars.
One—two—three—At the sixty-eighth, Marcia, without stirring or
lifting her lids, spoke into the sucky silence.
"You'll be glad."
Hattie, pausing at the sixty-eighth, "Why, dear?"
"I came home in Nonie Grosbeck's automobile. I'm invited to a dinner
dance October the seventeenth. At their house in Gramercy Park."
The words must have gone to Hattie's knees, because, dropping a spat of
mulatto cold cream on the linoleum, she sat down weakly on the kitchen
chair that she had painted blue and white to match the china cereal set
on the shelf above it.
"And she likes me better than any girl in school, momie, and I'm to
be her chum from to-day on, and not another girl in school is invited
except Edwina Nelson, because her father's on nearly all the same boards
of directors with Mr. Grosbeck, and—"
"Marcia! Marcia! and you came home from school just as if nothing had
happened! Child, sometimes I think you're made of ice."
"Why, I'm glad, momie."
But that's what there were, little ice glints of congealed satisfaction
in Marcia's eyes.
"Glad," said Hattie, the word full of tears. "Why, honey, you don't
realize it, but this is the beginning! This is the meaning of my
struggle to get you into Miss Harperly's school. It wasn't easy. I've
never told you the—strings I had to pull. Conservative people, you see.
That's what the Grosbecks are, too. Home people. The kind who can afford
to wear dowdy hats and who have lived in the same house for thirty
"Nome's mother was born in the house they live in."
"Substantial people, who half-sole their shoes and endow colleges.
Taxpayers. Policyholders. Church members. Oh, Marcia, those are the safe
"There's a Grosbeck memorial window in the Rock Church."
"I used to be so afraid for you, Marcy. Afraid you would take to the
make-believe folks. The play people. The theater. I used to fear for
you! The Pullman car. The furnished room. That going to the hotel
room, alone, nights after the show. You laugh at me sometimes for just
throwing a veil over my face and coming home black-face. It's because
I'm too tired, Marcy. Too lonesome for home. On the road I always used
to think of all the families in the audience. The husbands and wives.
Brides and grooms. Sweethearts. After the performance they all went to
homes. To brownstone fronts like the Grosbecks'. To cottages. To flats.
With a snack to eat in the refrigerator or laid out on the dining-room
table. Lamps burning and waiting. Nighties laid out and bedcovers turned
back. And then—me. Second-rate hotels. That walk through the dark
downtown streets. Passing men who address you through closed lips. The
dingy lobby. There's no applause lasts long enough, Marcia, to reach
over that moment when you unlock your hotel room and the smell of
disinfectant and unturned mattress comes out to you."
"Oh, keep to the safe people, Marcia! The unexciting people, maybe, but
the safe home-building ones with old ideals and old hearthstones."
"Nonie says they have one in their library that comes from Italy."
"Hitch your ideal to a hearthstone like that, Marcia."
"Nonie goes to riding academy."
"So shall you."
"It's six dollars an hour."
"I don't care."
"Her father's retired except for being director in banks. And,
momie—they don't mind, dear—about us. Nonie knows that my—father
is—is separated and never lived at home with us. She's broad-minded.
She says just so there's no scandal, a divorce, or anything like that.
She said it's vulgar to cultivate only rich friends. She says she'd go
with me even if she's forbidden to."
"Why, Marcy darling, why should she be forbidden?"
"Oh, Nonie's broadminded. She says if two people are unsuited they
should separate, quietly, like you and my father. She knows we're one of
the first old Southern families on my father's side. I—I'm not trying
to make you talk about it, dear, but—but we are—aren't we?"
"He—he was just—irresponsible. That's not being—not nice people, is
"Nonie's not forbidden. She just meant in case, momie. You see, with
some old families like hers—the stage—but Nonie says her father
couldn't even say anything to that if he wanted to. His own sister went
on the stage once, and they had to hush it up in the papers."
"Did you explain to her, Marcy, that stage life at its best can be full
of fine ideals and truth? Did you make her see how regular your own
little life has been? How little you know about—my work? How away I've
kept you? How I won't even play out-of-town engagements so we can always
be together in our little home? You must explain all those things to
your friends at Miss Harperly's. It helps—with steady people."
"I have, momie, and she's going to bring me home every afternoon in
their automobile after we've called for her brother Archie at Columbia
"Marcy! the Grosbeck automobile bringing you home every day!"
"And it's going to call for me the night of the party. Nonie's getting a
"I'll get you ivory, with a bit of real lace!"
"Oh, momie, momie, I can scarcely wait!"
"What did she say, Marcy, when she asked—invited you?"
"Why—she—didn't invite me, momie."
"But you just said—"
"It was her brother Archie invited me. We called for him at Columbia Law
School, you see. It was he invited me. Of course Nonie wants me and said
'Yes' right after him—but it's he—who wants Nonie and me to be chums.
Suddenly Marcia's eyes, almost with the perpendicular slits of her
kitten's in them, seemed to swish together like portières, shutting
Hattie behind them with her.
"Oh—my Marcy!" said Hattie, dimly, after a while, as if from their
depths. "Marcy, dearest!"
"At—at Harperly's, momie, almost all the popular upper-class girls
wear—a—a boy's fraternity pin."
"It's the—the beginning of being engaged."
"Archie's a Pi Phi!"
"A Pi Phi."
* * * * *
On October 17th "Love Me Long" celebrated its two-hundredth performance.
Souvenir programs. A few appropriate words by the management.
A flashlight of the cast. A round of wine passed in the
after-the-performance gloom of the wings. Aqueous figures fading off in
the orderly back-stage fashion of a well-established success.
Hattie kissed the star. They liked each other with the unenvy of their
divergent roles. Miss Robinson even humored some of Hattie's laughs. She
liked to feel the flame of her own fairness as she stood there waiting
for the audience to guffaw its fill of Hattie's drolleries; a narcissus
swaying reedily beside a black crocodile.
She was a new star and her beauty the color of cloth of gold, and Hattie
in her lowly comedian way not an undistinguished veteran. So they could
kiss in the key of a cat cannot unseat a king.
But, just the same, Miss Robinson's hand flew up automatically against
the dark of Hattie's lips.
"I don't fade off, dearie. Your own natural skin is no more color-fast.
I handled Elaine Doremus in 'The Snowdrop' for three seasons. Never so
much as a speck or a spot on her. My cream don't fade."
"Of course not, dear! How silly of me! Kiss me again."
That was kind enough of her. Oh yes, they got on. But sometimes Hattie,
seated among her sagging headstones, would ache with the dry sob of the
black crocodile who yearned toward the narcissus….
Quite without precedent, there was a man waiting for her in the wings.
The gloom of back-stage was as high as trees and Hattie had not seen
him in sixteen years. But she knew. With the stunned consciousness of a
stabbed person that glinting instant before the blood begins to flow.
It was Morton Sebree—Marcia's father.
"Come up to my dressing room," she said, as matter-of-factly as if her
brain were a clock ticking off the words.
They walked up an iron staircase of unreality. Fantastic stairs. Wisps
of gloom. Singing pains in her climbing legs like a piano key hit very
hard and held down with a pressing forefinger. She could listen to her
pain. That was her thought as she climbed. How the irrelevant little
ideas would slide about in her sudden chaos. She must concentrate now.
Terribly. Morton was back.
His hand, a smooth glabrous one full of clutch, riding up the banister.
It could have been picked off, finger by finger. It was that kind of a
hand. But after each lift, another finger would have curled back again.
Morton's hand, ascending the dark like a soul on a string in a burlesque
Face to face. The electric bulb in her dressing room was incased in a
wire like a baseball mask. A burning prison of light. Fat sticks of
grease paint with the grain of Hattie's flesh printed on the daub end.
Furiously brown cheesecloth. An open jar of cream (chocolate) with the
gesture of the gouge in it. A woolly black wig on a shelf, its kinks
seeming to crawl. There was a rim of Hattie au natural left around her
lips. It made of her mouth a comedy blubber, her own rather firm lips
sliding about somewhere in the lightish swamp. That was all of Hattie
that looked out. Except her eyes. They were good gray eyes with popping
whites now, because of a trick of blackening the lids. But the irises
were in their pools, inviolate.
"Well, Hattie, I reckon I'd have known you even under black."
"I thought you were in Rio."
"Got to hankering after the States, Hattie."
"I read of a Morris Sebree died in Brazil. Sometimes I used to think
maybe it might have been a misprint—and—that—you—were—the—one."
"No, no. 'Live and kickin'. Been up around here a good while."
"Home. N'Orleans. M' mother died, Hattie, God rest her bones. Know it?"
It was a peculiar silence. A terrible word like that was almost slowly
soluble in it. Gurgling down.
"Sort of gives a fellow the shivers, Hattie, seeing you kinda hidin'
behind yourself like this. But I saw you come in the theater to-night.
You looked right natural. Little heavier."
"What do you want?"
"Why, I guess a good many things in general and nothing in particular,
as the sayin' goes. You don't seem right glad to see me, honey."
"Glad!" said Hattie, and laughed as if her mirth were a dice shaking in
a box of echoes.
"Your hair's right red yet. Looked mighty natural walkin' into the
theater to-night. Take off those kinks, honey."
She reached for her cleansing cream, then stopped, her eyes full of the
foment of torture.
"What's my looks to you?"
"You've filled out."
"You haven't," she said, putting down the cold-cream jar. "You haven't
aged an hour. Your kind lies on life like it was a wall in the sun. A
wall that somebody else has built for you stone by stone."
"I reckon you're right in some ways, Hattie. There's been a meanderin'
streak in me somewheres. You and m' mother, God rest her bones, had a
different way of scoldin' me for the same thing. Lot o' Huck Finn in
"Don't use bad-boy words for vicious, bad-man deeds!"
"But you liked me. Both of you liked me, honey. Only two women I ever
really cared for, too. You and m' mother."
Her face might have been burning paper, curling her scorn for him.
"Don't try that, Morton. It won't work any more. What used to infatuate
me only disgusts me now. The things I thought I—loved—in you, I loathe
now. The kind of cancer that killed your mother is the kind that eats
out the heart. I never knew her, never even saw her except from a
distance, but I know, just as well as if I'd lived in that fine big
house with her all those years in New Orleans, that you were the
sickness that ailed her—lying, squandering, gambling, no-'count son! If
she and I are the only women you ever cared for, thank God that there
aren't any more of us to suffer from you. Morton, when I read that a
Morris Sebree had died in Brazil, I hoped it was you! You're no good!
You're no good!"
She was thumping now with the sobs she kept under her voice.
"Why, Hattie," he said, his drawl not quickened, "you don't mean that!"
"I do! You're a ruiner of lives! Her life! Mine! You're a rotten apple
that can speck every one it touches."
"That's hard, Hattie, but I reckon you're not all wrong."
"Oh, that softy Southern talk won't get us anywhere, Morton. The very
sound of it sickens me now. You're like a terrible sickness I once had.
I'm cured now. I don't know what you want here, but whatever it is you
might as well go. I'm cured!"
He sat forward in his chair, still twirling the soft brown hat. He was
dressed like that. Softly. Good-quality loosely woven stuffs. There was
still a tan down of persistent youth on the back of his neck. But his
hands were old, the veins twisted wiring, and his third finger yellowly
stained, like meerschaum darkening.
"Grantin' everything you say, Hattie—and I'm holdin' no brief for
myself—I've been the sick one, not you. Twenty years I've been down
sick with hookworm."
"No, Hattie. It's the government's diagnosis. Hookworm. Been a sick man
all my life with it. Funny thing, though, all those years in Rio knocked
it out of me."
"I'm a new man since I'm well of it."
"Hookworm! That's an easy word for ingrained no-'countness, deviltry,
and deceit. It wasn't hookworm came into the New Orleans stock company
where I was understudying leads and getting my chance to play big
things. It wasn't hookworm put me in a position where I had to take
anything I could get! So that instead of finding me playing leads
you find me here—black-face! It was a devil! A liar! A spendthrift,
no-'count son out of a family that deserved better. I've cried more
tears over you than I ever thought any woman ever had it in her to cry.
Those months in that boarding house in Peach Tree Street down in New
Orleans! Peach Tree Street! I remember how beautiful even the name of
it was when you took me there—lying—and how horrible it became to me.
Those months when I used to see your mother's carriage drive by the
house twice a day and me crying my eyes out behind the curtains. That's
what I've never forgiven myself for. She was a woman who stood for
fine things in New Orleans. A good woman whom the whole town pitied! A
no-'count son squandering her fortune and dragging down the family name.
If only I had known all that then! She would have helped me if I had
appealed to her. She wouldn't have let things turn out secretly—the way
they did. She would have helped me. I—You—Why have you come here
to jerk knives out of my heart after it's got healed with the points
sticking in? You're nothing to me. You're skulking for a reason. You've
been hanging around, getting pointers about me. My life is my own! You
"The girl. She well?"
It was a quiet question, spoken in the key of being casual, and Hattie,
whose heart skipped a beat, tried to corral the fear in her eyes to take
it casually, except that her eyelids seemed to grow old even as they
drooped. Squeezed grape skins.
"You get out, Morton," she said. "You've got to get out."
He made a cigarette in an old, indolent way he had of wetting it with
his smile. He was handsome enough after his fashion, for those who like
the rather tropical combination of dark-ivory skin, and hair a lighter
shade of tan. It did a curious thing to his eyes. Behind their allotment
of tan lashes they became neutralized. Straw colored.
"She's about sixteen now. Little over, I reckon."
"What's that to you?"
"Blood, Hattie. Thick."
"What thickened it, Morton—after sixteen years?"
"Used to be an artist chap down in Rio. On his uppers. One night,
according to my description of what I imagined she looked like, he drew
her. Yellow hair, I reckoned, and sure enough—"
"You're not worthy of the resemblance. It wouldn't be there if I had the
"You haven't," he said, suddenly, his teeth snapping together as if
biting off a thread.
"Nor you!" something that was the whiteness of fear lightening behind
her mask. She rose then, lifting her chair out of the path toward the
door and flinging her arm out toward it, very much after the manner of
Miss Robinson in Act II.
"You get out, Morton," she said, "before I have you put out. They're
closing the theater now. Get out!"
"Hattie," his calm enormous, "don't be hasty. A man that has come to his
senses has come back to you humble and sincere. A man that's been sick.
Take me back, Hattie, and see if—"
"Back!" she said, lifting her lips scornfully away from touching the
word. "You remember that night in that little room on Peach Tree Street
when I prayed on my knees and kissed—your—shoes and crawled for your
mercy to stay for Marcia to be born? Well, if you were to lie on this
floor and kiss my shoes and crawl for my mercy I'd walk out on you the
way you walked out on me. If you don't go, I'll call a stage hand and
make you go. There's one coming down the corridor now and locking the
house. You go—or I'll call!"
His eyes, with their peculiar trick of solubility in his color scheme,
seemed all tan.
"I'll go," he said, looking slim and Southern, his imperturbability ever
so slightly unfrocked—"I'll go, but you're making a mistake, Hattie."
Fear kept clanging in her. Fire bells of it.
"Oh, but that's like you, Morton! Threats! But, thank God, nothing you
can do can harm me any more."
"I reckon she's considerable over sixteen now. Let's see—"
Fire bells. Fire bells.
"Come out with what you want, Morton, like a man! You're feeling
for something. Money? Now that your mother is dead and her fortune
squandered, you've come to harass me? That's it! I know you, like a
person who has been disfigured for life by burns knows fire. Well, I
"Pay? Why, Hattie—I want you—back—"
She could have cried because, as she sat there blackly, she was sick
with his lie.
"I'd save a dog from you."
"Then save—her—from me."
The terrible had happened so quietly. Morton had not raised his voice;
scarcely his lips.
She closed the door then and sat down once more, but that which had
crouched out of their talk was unleashed now.
"That's just exactly what I intend to do."
"By saving her sight or sound of you."
"You can't, Hattie."
"I've come back." There was a curve to his words that hooked into her
heart like forceps about a block of ice. But she outstared him, holding
her lips in the center of the comedy rim so that he could see how firm
"Not to me."
"To her, then."
"Even you wouldn't be low enough to let her know—"
"You mean she doesn't know?"
"Know! Know you for what you are and for what you made of me? I've
kept it something decent for her. Just the separation of husband and
wife—who couldn't agree. Incompatibility. I have not told her—" And
suddenly could have rammed her teeth into the tongue that had betrayed
her. Simultaneously with the leap of light into his eyes came the leap
of her error into her consciousness.
"Oh," he said, and smiled, a slow smile that widened as leisurely as
sorghum in the pouring.
"You made me tell you that! You came here for that. To find out!"
"Nothin' the sort, Hattie. You only verified what I kinda suspected.
Naturally, you've kept it from her. Admire you for it."
"But I lied! See! I know your tricks. She does know you for what you are
and what you made of me. She knows everything. Now what are you going
to do? She knows! I lied! I—" then stopped, at the curve his lips were
taking and at consciousness of the pitiableness of her device.
"Morton," she said, her hands opening into her lap into pads of great
pink helplessness, "you wouldn't tell her—on me! You're not that low!"
"Wouldn't tell what?"
He was rattling her, and so she fought him with her gaze, trying to
fasten and fathom under the flicker of his lids. But there were no eyes
there. Only the neutral, tricky tan.
"You see, Morton, she's just sixteen. The age when it's more important
than anything else in the world to a young girl that's been reared like
her to—to have her life regular! Like all her other little school
friends. She's like that, Morton. Sensitive! Don't touch her, Morton.
For God's sake, don't! Some day when she's past having to care so
terribly—when she's older—you can rake it up if you must torture. I'll
tell her then. But for God's sake, Morton, let us live—now!"
"Hattie, you meet me to-morrow morning and take a little journey to one
of these little towns around here in Jersey or Connecticut, and your lie
to her won't be a lie any more."
"Morton—I—I don't understand. Why?"
"I'll marry you."
"You fool!" she said, almost meditatively. "So you've heard we've gotten
on a bit. You must even have heard of this"—placing her hand over the
jar of the Brown Cold Cream. "You want to be in at the feast. You're so
easy to read that I can tell you what you're after before you can get
the coward words out. Marry you! You fool!"
It was as if she could not flip the word off scornfully enough, sucking
back her lower lip, then hurling.
"Well, Hattie," he said, unbunching his soft hat, "I reckon that's
"I reckon it is, Morton."
"All right. Everybody to his own notion of carryin' a grudge to the
grave. But it's all right, honey. No hard feelin's. It's something to
know I was willin' to do the right thing. There's a fruit steamer out of
here for N'Orleans in the mawnin'. Reckon I'll catch it."
"I'd advise you to."
"No objection to me droppin' around to see the girl first? Entitled to a
little natural curiosity. Come, I'll take you up home this evenin'. The
girl. No harm."
"You're not serious, Morton. You wouldn't upset things. You wouldn't
"Why, not in a thousand years, honey, unless you forced me to it. Well,
you've forced me. Come, Hattie, I'm seein' you home this evenin'."
"You can't put your foot—"
"Come now. You're too clever a woman to try to prevent me. Course
there's a way to keep me from goin' up home with you this evenin'. I
wouldn't use it, if I were you. You know I'll get to see her. I even
know where she goes to school. Mighty nice selection you made, Hattie,
"You can't frighten me," she said, trying to moisten her lips with her
tongue. But it was dry as a parrot's. It was hard to close her lips.
They were oval and suddenly immobile as a picture frame. What if she
could not swallow. There was nothing to swallow! Dry tongue. O God!
That was the fleeting form her panic took, but almost immediately she
could manage her lips again. Her lips, you see, they counted so! She
must keep them firm in the slippery shine of the comedy black.
"Come," he said, "get your make-up off. I'll take you up in a cab."
"How do you know it's—up?"
"Why, I don't know as I do know exactly. Just came kind of natural to
put it that way. Morningside Heights is about right, I calculate."
"So—you have—been watching."
"Well, I don't know as I'd put it thataway. Naturally, when I got to
town—first thing I did—most natural thing in the world. That's a
mighty fine car with a mighty fine-looking boy and a girl brings
your—our girl home every afternoon about four. We used to have a family
of Grosbeaks down home. Another branch, I reckon."
"O—God!" A malaprop of a tear, too heavy to wink in, came rolling
suddenly down Hattie's cheek. "Morton—let—us—live—for God's sake!
He regarded the clean descent of the tear down Hattie's color-fast cheek
and its clear drop into the bosom of her black-taffeta housemaid's
"By Jove! The stuff is color-fast! You've a fortune in that cream if
you handle it right, honey."
"My way is the right way for me."
"But it's a woman's way. Incorporate. Manufacture it. Get a man on the
job. Promote it!"
"Ah, that sounds familiar. The way you promoted away every cent of your
mother's fortune until the bed she died in was mortgaged. One of your
wildcat schemes again! Oh, I watched you before I lost track of you in
South America—just the way you're watching—us—now! I know the way you
squandered your mother's fortune. The rice plantation in Georgia. The
alfalfa ranch. The solid-rubber-tire venture in Atlanta. You don't get
your hands on my affairs. My way suits me!"
The tumult in her was so high and her panic so like a squirrel in the
circular frenzy of its cage that she scarcely noted the bang on the door
and the hairy voice that came through.
"Yes," she said, without knowing it.
"You're losing a fortune, Hattie. Shame on a fine, strapping woman like
you, black-facing herself up like this when you've hit on something with
a fortune in it if you work it properly. You ought to have more regard
for the girl. Black-face!"
"What has her—father's regard done for her? It's my black-face has kept
her like a lily!"
"Admitting all that you say about me is right. Well, I'm here eating
humble pie now. If that little girl doesn't know, bless my heart,
I'm willin' she shouldn't ever know. I'll take you out to Greenwich
to-morrow and marry you. Then what you've told her all these years is
the truth. I've just come back, that's all. We've patched up. It's done
every day. Right promoting and a few hundred dollars in that there cream
She laughed. November rain running off a broken spout. Yellow leaves
scuttling ahead of wind.
"The picture puzzle is now complete, Morton. Your whole scheme, piece
by piece. You're about as subtle as corn bread. Well, my answer to you
again is, 'Get out!'"
"All right. All right. But we'll both get out, Hattie. Come, I'm a-goin'
to call on you-all up home a little while this evenin'!"
"No. It's late. She's—"
"Come, Hattie, you know I'm a-goin' to see that girl one way or another.
If you want me to catch that fruit steamer to-morrow, if I were you I'd
let me see her my way. You know I'm not much on raisin' my voice, but if
I were you, Hattie, I wouldn't fight me."
"Morton—Morton, listen! If you'll take that fruit steamer without
trying to see her—would you? You're on your uppers. I understand. Would
a hundred—two hundred—"
"I used to light my cigarette with that much down on my rice swamps—"
"You see, Morton, she's such a little thing. A little thing with big
eyes. All her life those eyes have looked right down into me, believing
everything I ever told her. About you too, Morton. Good things. Not that
I'm ashamed of anything I ever told her. My only wrong was ignorance.
And innocence. Innocence of the kind of lesson I was to learn from you."
"Nothin' was ever righted by harping on it, Hattie."
"But I want you to understand—O God, make him understand—she's such a
sensitive little thing. And as things stand now—glad I'm her mother.
Yes, glad—black-face and all! Why, many's the time I've gone home from
the theater, too tired to take off my make-up until I got into my own
rocker with my ankles soaking in warm water. They swell so terribly
sometimes. Rheumatism, I guess. Well, many a time when I kissed her in
her sleep she's opened her eyes on me—black-face and all. Her arms up
and around me. I was there underneath the black! She knows that! And
that's what she'll always know about me, no matter what you tell her.
I'm there—her mother—underneath the black! You hear, Morton! That's
why you must let us—live—"
"My proposition is the mighty decent one of a gentleman."
"She's only a little baby, Morton. And just at that age where being
like all the other boys and girls is the whole of her little life. It's
killing—all her airiness and fads and fancies. Such a proper little
young lady. You know, the way they clip and trim them at finishing
school. Sweet-sixteen nonsense that she'll outgrow. To-night, Morton,
she's at a party. A boy's. Her first. That fine-looking yellow-haired
young fellow and his sister that bring her home every afternoon. At
their house. Gramercy Park. A fine young fellow—Phi Pi—"
"Looka here, Hattie, are you talking against time?"
"She's home asleep by now. I told her she had to be in bed by eleven.
She minds me, Morton. I wouldn't—couldn't—wake her. Morton, Morton,
she's yours as much as mine. That's God's law, no matter how much man's
law may have let you shirk your responsibility. Don't hurt your own
flesh and blood by coming back to us—now. I remember once when you cut
your hand it made you ill. Blood! Blood is warm. Red. Sacred stuff.
She's your blood, Morton. You let us alone when we needed you. Leave us
alone, now that we don't!"
"But you do, Hattie girl. That's just it. You're running things a
woman's way. Why, a man with the right promoting ideas—"
There was a fusillade of bangs on the door now, and a shout as if the
hair on the voice were rising in anger.
"All out or the doors 'll be locked on yuh! Fine doings!"
She grasped her light wrap from its hook, and her hat with its whirl of
dark veil, fitting it down with difficulty over the fizz of wig.
"Come, Morton," she said, suddenly. "I'm ready. You're right, now or
"No time now. Later—at home! She'll know that I'm there—under the
"So do I, Hattie. That's why I—"
"I'm not one of the ready-made heroines you read about. That's not my
idea of sacrifice! I'd let my child hang her head of my shame sooner
than stand up and marry you to save her from it. Marcia wouldn't want me
to! She's got your face—but my character! She'll fight! She'll glory
that I had the courage to let you tell her the—truth! Yes, she will,"
she cried, her voice pleading for the truth of what her words exclaimed.
"She'll glory in having saved me—from you! You can come! Now, too,
while I have the strength that loathing you can give me. I don't want
you skulking about. I don't want you hanging over my head—or hers! You
can tell her to-night—but in my presence! Come!"
"Yes, sir," he repeated, doggedly and still more doggedly. "Yes, siree!"
Following her, trying to be grim, but his lips too soft to click.
They drove up silently through a lusterless midnight with a threat of
rain in it, hitting loosely against each other in a shiver-my-timbers
taxicab. Her pallor showing through the brown of her face did something
horrid to her.
It was as if the skull of her, set in torment, were looking through a
transparent black mask, but, because there were not lips, forced to
And yet, do you know that while she rode with him Hattie's heart was
high? So high that when she left him finally, seated in her little
lamplit living room, it was he whose unease began to develop.
"I—If she's asleep, Hattie—"
Her head looked so sure. Thrust back and sunk a little between the
"If she's asleep, I'll wake her. It's better this way. I'm glad, now. I
want her to see me save myself. She would want me to. You banked on mock
heroics from me, Morton. You lost."
Marcia was asleep, in her narrow, pretty bed with little bowknots
painted on the pale wood. About the room all the tired and happy muss of
after-the-party. A white-taffeta dress with a whisper of real lace at
the neck, almost stiffishly seated, as if with Marcia's trimness, on
a chair. A steam of white tulle on the dressing table. A buttonhole
gardenia in a tumbler of water. One long white-kid glove on the table
beside the night light. A naked cherub in a high hat, holding a pink
umbrella for the lamp shade.
"Dear me! Dear me!" screamed Hattie to herself, fighting to keep her
mind on the plane of casual things. "She's lost a glove again. Dear me!
Dear me! I hope it's a left one to match up with the right one she saved
from the last pair. Dear me!"
She picked up a white film of stocking, turning and exploring with
spread fingers in the foot part for holes. There was one! Marcia's big
toe had danced right through. "Dear me!"
Marcia sleeping. Very quietly and very deeply. She slept like that.
Whitely and straightly and with the covers scarcely raised for the ridge
of her slim body.
Sometimes Marcia asleep could frighten Hattie. There was something about
her white stilliness. Lilies are too fair and so must live briefly.
That thought could clutch so that she would kiss Marcia awake. Kiss her
soundly because Marcia's sleep could be so terrifyingly deep.
"Marcia," said Hattie, and stood over her bed. Then again, "Mar-cia!" On
more voice than she thought her dry throat could yield her.
There was the merest flip of black on the lacy bosom of Marcia's
nightgown, and Hattie leaned down to fleck it. No. It was a pin—a small
black-enameled pin edged in pearls. Automatically Hattie knew.
"Marcia," cried Hattie, and shook her a little. She hated so to waken
her. Always had. Especially for school on rainy days. Sometimes didn't.
Couldn't. Marcia came up out of sleep so reluctantly. A little dazed. A
little secretive. As if a white bull in a dream had galloped off with
her like Persephone's.
Only Hattie did not know of Persephone. She only knew that Marcia slept
beautifully and almost breathlessly. Sweet and low. It seemed silly,
sleeping beautifully. But just the same, Marcia did.
Then Hattie, not faltering, mind you, waited. It was better that Marcia
should know. Now, too, while her heart was so high.
Sometimes it took as many as three kisses to awaken Marcia. Hattie bent
for the first one, a sound one on the tip of her lip.
"Marcia!" she cried. "Marcy, wake up!" and drew back.
Something had happened! Darkly. A smudge the size of a quarter and
the color of Hattie's guaranteed-not-to-fade cheek, lay incredibly on
Hattie had smudged Marcia! Hattie Had Smudged Marcia!
There it lay on her beautiful, helpless whiteness. Hattie's smudge.
* * * * *
It is doubtful, from the way he waited with his soft hat dangling
from soft fingers, if Morton had ever really expected anything else.
Momentary unease gone, he was quiet and Southern and even indolent about
"We'll go to Greenwich first thing in the morning and be married," he
"Sh-h-h!" she whispered to his quietness. "Don't wake Marcia."
"Hattie—" he said, and started to touch her.
"Don't!" she sort of cried under her whisper, but not without noting
that his hand was ready enough to withdraw. "Please—go—now—"
"To-morrow at the station, then. Eleven. There's a train every hour for
He was all tan to her now, standing there like a blur.
"Yes, Morton, I'll be there. If—please—you'll go now."
"Of course," he said. "Late. Only I—Well, paying the taxi—strapped
me—temporarily. A ten spot—old Hat—would help."
She gave him her purse, a tiny leather one with a patent clasp. Somehow
her fingers were not flexible enough to open it.
There were a few hours of darkness left, and she sat them out, exactly
as he had left her, on the piano stool, looking at the silence.
Toward morning quite an equinoctial storm swept the city, banging
shutters and signs, and a steeple on 122d Street was struck by
And so it was that Hattie's wedding day came up like thunder.