Sieve of Fulfilment, by Fannie Hurst
How constant a stream is the runnel of men's small affairs!
Dynasties may totter and half the world bleed to death, but one or the
other corner pâtisserie goes on forever.
At a moment when the shadow of world-war was over the country like a pair
of black wings lowering Mrs. Harry Ross, who swooned at the sight of blood
from a penknife scratch down the hand of her son, but yawned over the
head-line statistics of the casualties at Verdun, lifted a lid from a pot
that exuded immediate savory fumes, prodded with a fork at its content, her
concern boiled down to deal solely with stew.
An alarm-clock on a small shelf edged in scalloped white oilcloth ticked
with spick-and-span precision into a kitchen so correspondingly spick and
span that even its silence smelled scoured, rows of tins shining into it.
A dun-colored kind of dusk, soot floating in it, began to filter down the
air-shaft, dimming them.
Mrs. Ross lowered the shade and lighted the gas-jet. So short that in the
long run she wormed first through a crowd, she was full of the genial
curves that, though they bespoke three lumps in her coffee in an elevator
and escalator age, had not yet reached uncongenial proportions. In fact,
now, brushing with her bare forearm across her moistly pink face, she was
like Flora, who, rather than fade, became buxom.
A door slammed in an outer hall, as she was still stirring and looking down
into the stew.
"Don't track through the parlor."
"You hear me?"
"I yain't! Gee, can't a feller walk?"
"Put your books on the hat-rack."
She supped up bird-like from the tip of her spoon, smacking for flavor.
"I made you an asafetida-bag, Edwin, it's in your drawer. Don't you leave
this house to-morrow without it on."
"It don't smell."
"Where's my stamp-book?"
"On your table, where it belongs."
"Gee whiz! if you got my Argentine stamps mixed!"
"Where's my batteries?"
"Under your bed, where they belong."
"Your father'll be home any minute now. Don't spoil your appetite."
"I got ninety in manual training, mother."
"Did yuh, Edwin?"
"All the other fellows only got seventy and eighty."
"Mamma's boy leads 'em."
He entered at that, submitting to a kiss upon an averted cheek.
"See what mother's fixed for you!"
"I shopped all morning to get okra to go in it for your father."
She tiptoed up to kiss him again, this time at the back of the neck,
carefully averting her floury hands.
"Mamma's boy! I made you three pen-wipers to-day out of the old red
"Aw, fellers don't use pen-wipers!"
He set up a jiggling, his great feet coming down with a clatter.
"Can't I jig?"
"No; not with neighbors underneath."
He flopped down, hooking his heels in the chair-rung.
At sixteen's stage of cruel hazing into man's estate Edwin Ross, whose
voice, all in a breath, could slip up from the quality of rock in the
drilling to the more brittle octave of early-morning milk-bottles, wore a
nine shoe and a thirteen collar. His first long trousers were let down and
taken in. His second taken up and let out. When shaving promised to become
a manly accomplishment, his complexion suddenly clouded, postponing that
event until long after it had become a hirsute necessity. When he smiled
apoplectically above his first waistcoat and detachable collar, his Adam's
apple and his mother's heart fluttered.
"Blow-cat Dennis is going to City College."
"Quit crackin' your knuckles."
"He only got seventy in manual training."
"Tell them things to your father, Edwin; I 'ain't got the say-so."
"His father's only a bookkeeper, too, and they live 'way up on a Hundred
and Forty-fourth near Third."
"I'm willing to scrimp and save for it, Edwin; but in the end I haven't got
the say-so, and you know it."
"The boys that are going to college got to register now for the High School
"Your father, Edwin, is the one to tell that to."
"Other fellers' mothers put in a word for 'em."
"I do, Edwin; you know I do! It only aggravates him—There's papa now,
Edwin, coming in. Help mamma dish up. Put this soup at papa's place and
this at yours. There's only two plates left from last night."
In Mrs. Ross's dining-room, a red-glass dome, swung by a chain over the
round table, illuminated its white napery and decently flowered china.
Beside the window looking out upon a gray-brick wall almost within reach,
a canary with a white-fluted curtain about the cage dozed headless. Beside
that window, covered in flowered chintz, a sewing-machine that could
collapse to a table; a golden-oak sideboard laid out in pressed glassware.
A homely simplicity here saved by chance or chintz from the simply homely.
Mr. Harry Ross drew up immediately beside the spread table, jerking
open his newspaper and, head thrown back, read slantingly down at the
"Hah—that's the stuff! Don't spill!"
He jammed the newspaper between his and the chair back, shoving in closer
to the table. He was blond to ashiness, so that the slicked-back hair might
or might not be graying. Pink-shaved, unlined, nose-glasses polished to
sparkle, he was ten years his wife's senior and looked those ten years
younger. Clerks and clergymen somehow maintain that youth of the flesh, as
if life had preserved them in alcohol or shaving-lotion. Mrs. Ross entered
then in her crisp but faded house dress, her round, intent face still
moistly pink, two steaming dishes held out.
He did not rise, but reached up to kiss her as she passed.
"Burnt your soup a little to-night, mother."
She sat down opposite, breathing deeply outward, spreading her napkin out
across her lap.
"It was Edwin coming in from school and getting me worked up with his talk
"Nothing. Edwin, run out and bring papa the paprika to take the burnt taste
out. I turned all the cuffs on your shirts to-day, Harry."
"Lordy! if you ain't fixing at one thing, you're fixing another."
He was well over his soup now, drinking in long draughts from the tip of
"News! In A. E. Unger's office, a man don't get his nose far enough up from
the ledger to even smell news."
"I see Goldfinch & Goetz failed."
"Could have told 'em they'd go under, trying to put on a spectacular show
written in verse. That same show boiled down to good Forty-second Street
lingo with some good shapes and a proposition like Alma Zitelle to lift
it from poetry to punch has a world of money in it for somebody. A war
spectacular show filled with sure-fire patriotic lines, a bunch of
show-girl battalions, and a figure like Alma Zitelle's for the Goddess of
Liberty—a world of money, I tell you!"
"That trench scene they built for that show is as fine a contrivance as
I've ever seen of the kind. What did they do? Set it to a lot of music
without a hum or a ankle in it. A few classy nurses like the Mercy Militia
Sextet, some live, grand-old-flag tunes by Harry Mordelle, and there's a
half a million dollars in that show. Unger thinks I'm crazy when I try to
get him interested, but I—"
"I got ninety in manual training to-day, pop."
"That's good, son. Little more of that stew, mother?"
"Unger isn't so smart, honey, he can't afford to take a tip off you once in
a while: you've proved that to him."
"Yes, but go tell him so."
"He'll live to see the day he's got to give you credit for being the first
to see money in 'Pan-America.'"
"Credit? Huh! to hear him tell it, he was born with that idea in his bullet
"I'd like to hear him say it to me, if ever I lay eyes on him, that it
wasn't you who begged him to get into it."
"I'll show 'em some day in that office that I can pick the winners for
myself, as well as for the other fellow. Believe me, Unger hasn't raised
me to fifty a week for my fancy bookkeeping, and he knows it, and, what's
more, he knows I know he knows it."
"The fellers that are goin' to college next term have to register for the
High School College Society, pop—dollar dues."
"Well, you aren't going to college, and that's where you and I save a
hundred cents on the dollar. Little more gravy, mother."
The muscles of Edwin's face relaxed, his mouth dropping to a pout, the
crude features quivering.
"Aw, pop, a feller nowadays without a college education don't stand a
"He don't, don't he? I know one who will."
Edwin threw a quivering glance to his mother and gulped through a
"Mother says I—I can go if only you—"
"Your mother'd say you could have the moon, too, if she had to climb a
greased pole to get it. She'd start weaving door-mats for the Cingalese
Hottentots if she thought they needed 'em."
"But, Harry, he—"
"Your mother 'ain't got the bills of this shebang to worry about, and your
mother don't mind having a college sissy a-laying around the house to
support five years longer. I do."
"It's the free City College, pop."
"You got a better education now than nine boys out of ten. If you ain't man
enough to want to get out after four years of high school and hustle for
a living, you got to be shown the way out. I started when I was in short
pants, and you're no better than your father. Your mother sold notions and
axle-grease in an up-State general store up to the day she married. Now cut
out the college talk you been springing on me lately. I won't have it—you
hear? You're a poor man's son, and the sooner you make up your mind to it
the better. Pass the chow-chow, mother."
Nervousness had laid hold of her so that in and out among the dishes her
"You see, Harry, it's the free City College, and—"
"I know that free talk. So was high school free when you talked me into
it, but if it ain't one thing it's been another. Cadet uniform, football
"The child's got talent for invention, Harry; his manual-training teacher
told me his air-ship model was—"
"I got ninety in manual training when the other fellers only got seventy."
"I guess you're looking for another case like your father, sitting
penniless around the house, tinkering on inventions up to the day he died."
"Pa never had the business push, Harry. You know yourself his churn was
ready for the market before the Peerless beat him in on it."
"Well, your son is going to get the business push trained into him. No boy
of mine with a poor daddy eats up four years of his life and my salary
training to be a college sissy. That's for the rich men's sons. That's for
the Clarence Ungers."
"I'll pay it back some day, pop; I—."
"They all say that."
"If it's the money, Harry, maybe I can—"
"If it didn't cost a cent, I wouldn't have it. Now cut it out—you hear?
Edwin Ross pushed back from the table, struggling and choking against
impending tears. "Well, then, I—I—"
"And no shuffling of feet, neither!"
"He didn't shuffle, Harry; it's just his feet growing so fast he can't
"Well, just the samey, I—I ain't going into the theayter business. I—I—"
Mr. Ross flung down his napkin, facing him. "You're going where I put you,
young man. You're going to get the right kind of a start that I didn't get
in the biggest money-making business in the world."
"I won't. I'll get me a job in an aeroplane-factory."
His father's palm came down with a small crash, shivering the china. "By
Gad! you take that impudence out of your voice to me or I'll rawhide it
"Leave the table!"
"Harry, he's only a child—"
"Go to your room!"
His heavy, unformed lips now trembling frankly against the tears he tried
so furiously to resist, Edwin charged with lowered head from the room, sobs
escaping in raw gutturals.
Mr. Ross came back to his plate, breathing heavily, fist, with a knife
upright in it, coming down again on the table, his mouth open, to
facilitate labored breathing.
"By Heaven! I'll cowhide that boy to his senses! I've never laid hand on
him yet, but he ain't too old. I'll get him down to common sense, if I got
to break a rod over him."
Handkerchief against trembling lips, Mrs. Ross looked after the vanished
form, eyes brimming.
"Harry, you—you're so rough with him."
"I'll be rougher yet before I'm through."
"He's only a—"
"He's rewarding the way you scrimped to pay his expenses for nonsense clubs
and societies by asking you to do it another four years. You're getting
your thanks now. College! Well, not if the court knows it—"
"He's got talent, Harry; his teacher says he—"
"So'd your father have talent."
"If pa hadn't lost his eye in the Civil War—"
"I'm going to put my son's talent where I can see a future for it."
"He's ambitious, Harry."
"So'm I—to see my son trained to be something besides a looney inventor
like his grandfather before him."
"It's all I want in life, Harry, to see my two boys of you happy."
"It's your woman-ideas I got to blame for this. I want you to stop, Millie,
putting rich man's ideas in his head. You hear? I won't stand for it."
"Harry, if—if it's the money, maybe I could manage—"
"Yes—and scrimp and save and scrooge along without a laundress another
four years, and do his washing and—"
"I—could fix the money part, Harry—easy."
He regarded her with his jaw dropped in the act of chewing.
"By Gad! where do you plant it?"
"It—it's the way I scrimp, Harry. Another woman would spend it on clothes
or—a servant—or matinées. It ain't hard for a home body like me to save,
He reached across the table for her wrist.
"Poor little soul," he said, "you don't see day-light."
"Let him go, Harry, if—if he wants it. I can manage the money."
His scowl returned, darkening him.
"No. A. E. Unger never seen the inside of a high school, much less a
college, and I guess he's made as good a pile as most. I've worked for the
butcher and the landlord all my life, and now I ain't going to begin being
a slave to my boy. There's been two or three times in my life where, for
want of a few dirty dollars to make a right start, I'd be, a rich man
to-day. My boy's going to get that right start."
"But, Harry, college will—"
"I seen money in 'Pan-America' long before Unger ever dreamed of producing
it. I sicked him onto 'The Official Chaperon' when every manager in town
had turned it down. I went down and seen 'em doing 'The White Elephant' in
a Yiddish theater and wired Unger out in Chicago to come back and grab it
for Broadway. Where's it got me? Nowhere. Because I whiled away the best
fifteen years of my life in an up-State burg, and then, when I came down
here too late in life, got in the rut of a salaried man. Well, where it
'ain't got me it's going to get my son. I'm missing a chance, to-day that,
mark my word, would make me a rich man but for want of a few—"
"Harry, you mean that?"
"My hunch never fails me."
She was leaning across the table, her hands clasping its edge, her small,
plump face even pinker.
He threw out his legs beneath the table and sat back, hands deep in
pockets, and a toothpick hanging limp from between lips that were sagging.
"Gad! if I had my life to live over again as a salaried man, I'd—I'd hang
myself first! The way to start a boy to a million dollars in this business
is to start him young in the producing-end of a strong firm."
"You—got faith in this Goldfinch & Goetz failure like you had in
'Pan-America' and 'The Chaperon,' Harry?"
"I said it five years ago and it come to pass. I say it now. For want of a
few dirty dollars I'm a poor man till I die."
"How—many dollars, Harry?"
"Don't make me say it, Millie—it makes me sick to my stummick. Three
thousand dollars would buy the whole spectacle to save it from the
storehouse. I tried Charley Ryan—he wouldn't risk a ten-spot on a
"Harry, I—oh, Harry—"
"Why, mother, what's the matter? You been overworking again, ironing my
shirts and collars when they ought to go to the laundry? You—"
"Harry, what would you say if—if I was to tell you something?"
"What is it, mother? You better get Annie in on Mondays. We 'ain't got any
more to show without her than with her."
"Well, you just had an instance of the thanks you get."
"Harry, what—what would you say if I could let you have nearly all of that
He regarded her above the flare of a match to his cigar-end.
"If I could let you have twenty-six hundred seventeen dollars and about
fifty cents of it?"
He sat well up, the light reflecting in points off his polished glasses.
"Mother, you're joking!"
Her hands were out across the table now, almost reaching his, her face
close and screwed under the lights.
"When—when you lost out that time five years ago on 'Pan-America' and I
seen how Linger made a fortune out of it, I says to myself, 'It can never
happen again.' You remember the next January when you got your raise to
fifty and I wouldn't move out of this flat, and instead gave up having
Annie in, that was what I had in my head, Harry. It wasn't only for sending
Edwin to high school; it was for—my other boy, too, Harry, so it couldn't
"Millie, you mean—"
"You ain't got much idea, Harry, of what I been doing. You don't know it,
honey, but, honest, I ain't bought a stitch of new clothes for five years.
You know I ain't, somehow—made friends for myself since we moved here."
"It's the hard shell town of the world!"
"You ain't had time, Harry, to ask yourself what becomes of the house
allowance, with me stinting so. Why, I—I won't spend car fare, Harry,
since 'Pan-America,' if I can help it. This meal I served up here t-night,
with all the high cost of living, didn't cost us two thirds what it
might if—if I didn't have it all figured up. Where do you think your
laundry-money that I've been saving goes, Harry? The marmalade-money I
made the last two Christmases? The velvet muff I made myself out of the
fur-money you give me? It's all in the Farmers' Trust, Harry. With the two
hundred and ten I had to start with five years ago, it's twenty-six hundred
and seventeen dollars and fifty cents now. I've been saving it for this
kind of a minute, Harry. When it got three thousand, I was going to tell
you, anyways. Is that enough, Harry, to do the Goldfinch-Goetz spectacle on
your own hook? Is it, Harry?"
He regarded her in a heavy-jawed kind of stupefaction.
"Woman alive!" he said. "Great Heavens, woman alive!"
"It's in the bank, waiting, Harry—all for you."
"Why, Millie, I—I don't know what to say."
"I want you to have it, Harry. It's yours. Out of your pocket, back into
it. You got capital to start with now."
"I—Why, I can't take that money, Millie, from you!"
"From your wife? When she stinted and scrimped and saved on shoe-leather
for the happiness of it?"
"Why, this is no sure thing I got on the brain."
"I got nothing but my own judgment to rely on."
"You been right three times, Harry."
"There's not as big a gamble in the world as the show business. I can't
take your savings, mother."
"Harry, if—if you don't, I'll tear it up. It's what I've worked for. I'm
too tired, Harry, to stand much. If you don't take it, I—I'm too tired,
Harry, to stand it."
"I couldn't stand it, I tell you," she said, the tears now bursting and
flowing down over her cheeks.
"Why, Millie, you mustn't cry! I 'ain't seen you cry in years. Millie! my
God! I can't get my thoughts together! Me to own a show after all these
years; me to—"
"Don't you think it means something to me, too, Harry?"
"I can't lose, Millie. Even if this country gets drawn into the war,
there's a mint of money in that show as I see it. It'll help the people.
The people of this country need to have their patriotism tickled."
"All my life, Harry, I've wanted a gold-mesh bag with a row of sapphires
and diamonds across the top—"
"I'm going to make it the kind of show that 'Dixie' was a song—"
"And a gold-colored bird-of-paradise for a black-velvet hat, all my life,
"With Alma Zitelle in the part—"
"Is it her picture I found in your drawer the other day, Harry, cut out
from a Sunday newspaper?"
"One and the same. I been watching her. There's a world of money in that
woman, whoever she is. She's eccentric and they make her play straight, but
if I could get hold of her—My God! Millie, I—I can't believe things!"
She rose, coming round to lay her arms across his shoulders.
"We'll be rich, maybe, Harry—"
"I've picked the winners for the other fellows every time, Mil."
"Anyhow, it's worth the gamble, Harry."
"I got a nose for what the people want. I've never been able to prove it
from a high stool, but I'll show 'em now—by God! I'll show 'em now!" He
sprang up, pulling the white table-cloth awry and folding her into his
embrace. "I'll show 'em."
She leaned from him, her two hands against his chest, head thrown back and
eyes up to him.
"We—can educate our boy, then, Harry, like—like a rich man's son."
"We ain't rich yet."
"Promise me, Harry, if we are—promise me that, Harry. It's the only
promise I ask out of it. Whatever comes, if we win or lose, our boy can
have college if he wants."
He held her close, his head up and gazing beyond her.
"With a rich daddy my boy can go to college like the best of 'em."
"Promise me that, Harry."
"I promise, Millie."
He released her then, feeling for an envelope in an inner pocket, and,
standing there above the disarrayed dinner-table, executed some rapid
figures across the back of it.
She stood for a moment regarding him, hands pressed against the sting of
her cheeks, tears flowing down over her smile. Then she took up the plate
of cloying fritters and tiptoed out, opening softly the door to a slit of
a room across the hall. In the patch of light let in by that opened door,
drawn up before a small table, face toward her ravaged with recent tears,
and lips almost quivering, her son lay in the ready kind of slumber youth
can bring to any woe. She tiptoed up beside him, placing the plate of
fritters back on a pile of books, let her hands run lightly over his hair,
kissed him on each swollen lid.
"My son! My little boy! My little boy!"
Where Broadway leaves off its roof-follies and its water-dancing, its
eighty-odd theaters and its very odd Hawaiian cabarets, upper Broadway,
widening slightly, takes up its macadamized rush through the city in
block-square apartment-houses, which rise off plate-glass foundations of
the de-luxe greengrocer shops, the not-so-green beauty-parlors, and the
dyeing-and-cleaning, automobile-supplies, and confectionery establishments
of middle New York.
In a no-children-allowed, swimming-pool, electric-laundry, roof-garden,
dogs'-playground, cold-storage apartment most recently erected on a
block-square tract of upper Broadway, belonging to and named after the
youngest scion of an ancestor whose cow-patches had turned to kingdoms, the
fifteenth layer of this gigantic honeycomb overlooked from its seventeen
outside windows the great Babylonian valley of the city, the wide blade
of the river shining and curving slightly like an Arabian dagger, and the
embankment of New Jersey's Palisades piled against the sky with the effect
of angry horizon.
Nights, viewed from one of the seventeen windows, it was as if the river
flowed under a sullen sheath which undulated to its curves. On clear days
it threw off light like parrying steel in sunshine.
Were days when, gazing out toward it, Mrs. Ross, whose heart was like a
slow ache of ever-widening area, could almost feel its laving quality and,
after the passage of a tug- or pleasure-boat, the soothing folding of the
water down over and upon itself. Often, with the sun setting pink and whole
above the Palisades, the very copper glow which was struck off the water
would beat against her own west windows, and, as if smarting under the
brilliance, tears would come, sometimes staggering and staggering down,
long after the glow was cold. With such a sunset already waned, and the
valley of unrest fifteen stories below popping out into electric signs and
the red danger-lanterns of streets constantly in the remaking, Mrs. Harry
Ross, from the corner window of her seventeen, looked down on it from under
lids that were rimmed in red.
Beneath the swirl of a gown that lay in an iridescent avalanche of sequins
about her feet, her foot, tilted to an unbelievable hypothenuse off a
cloth-of-silver heel, beat a small and twinkling tattoo, her fingers
tattooing, too, along the chair-sides.
How insidiously do the years nibble in! how pussy-footed and how cocksure
the crow's-feet! One morning, and the first gray hair, which has been
turning from the cradle, arrives. Another, the mirror shows back a
sag beneath the eyes. That sag had come now to Mrs. Ross, giving her
eye-sockets a look of unconquerable weariness. The streak of quicksilver
had come, too, but more successfully combated. The head lying back against
the brocade chair was guilty of new gleams. Brass, with a greenish alloy.
Sitting there with the look of unshed tears seeming to form a film over
her gaze, it was as if the dusk, flowing into a silence that was solemnly
shaped to receive it, folded her in, more and more obscuring her.
A door opened at the far end of the room, letting in a patch of hall light
and a dark figure coming into silhouette against it.
She sprang up.
"Good Lord! sitting in the dark again!" He turned a wall key, three
pink-shaded lamps, a cluster of pink-glass grapes, and a center bowl of
alabaster flashing up the familiar spectacle of Louis Fourteenth and the
interior decorator's turpitude; a deep-pink brocade divan backed up by a
Circassian-walnut table with curly legs; a maze of smaller tables; a
marble Psyche holding out the cluster of pink grapes; a gilt grand piano,
festooned in rosebuds. Around through these Mr. Ross walked quickly,
winding his hands, rubbing them.
"Well, here I am!"
"Had your supper—dinner, Harry?"
"No. What's the idea calling me off when I got a business dinner on hand?
What's the hurry call this time? I have to get back to it."
She clasped her hands to her bare throat, swallowing with effort.
"You've got to stop this kind of thing, Millie, getting nervous spells like
all the other women do the minute they get ten cents in their pocket. I
ain't got the time for it—that's all there is to it."
"I can't help it, Harry. I think I must be going crazy. I can't stop
myself. All of a sudden everything comes over me. I think I must be going
Her voice jerked up to an off pitch, and he flung himself down on the
deep-cushioned couch, his stiff expanse of dress shirt bulging and
straining at the studs. A bit redder and stouter, too, he was constantly
rearing his chin away from the chafing edge of his collar.
"O Lord!" he said. "I guess I'm let in for some cutting-up again! Well,
fire away and have it over with! What's eating you this time?"
She was quivering so against sobs that her lips were drawn in against her
teeth by the great draught of her breathing.
"I can't stand it, Harry. I'm going crazy. I got to get relief. It's
killing me—the lonesomeness—the waiting. I can't stand no more."
He sat looking at a wreath of roses in the light carpet, lips compressed,
beating with fist into palm.
"Gad! I dunno! I give up. You're too much for me, woman."
"I can't go on this way—the suspense—can't—can't."
"I don't know what you want. God knows I give up!
Thirty-eight-hundred-dollar-a-year apartment—more spending-money in a
week than you can spend in a month. Clothes. Jewelry. Your son one of the
high-fliers at college—his automobile—your automobile. Passes to every
show in town. Gad! I can't help it if you turn it all down and sit up here
moping and making it hot for me every time I put my foot in the place. I
don't know what you want; you're one too many for me."
"I can't stand—"
"All of a sudden, out of a clear sky, she sends for me to come home. Second
time in two weeks. No wonder, with your long face, your son lives mostly
up at the college. I 'ain't got enough on my mind yet with the 'Manhattan
Revue' opening to-morrow night. You got it too good, if you want to know
it. That's what ails women when they get to cutting up like this."
She was clasping and unclasping her hands, swaying, her eyes closed.
"I wisht to God we was back in our little flat on a Hundred and
Thirty-seventh Street. We was happy then. It's your success has lost you
for me. I ought to known it, but—I—I wanted things so for you and the
boy. It's your success has lost you for me. Back there, not a supper we
didn't eat together like clockwork, not a night we didn't take a walk or—"
"There you go again! I tell you, Millie, you're going to nag me with
that once too often. Then ain't now. What you homesick for? Your
poor-as-a-church-mouse days? I been pretty patient these last two years,
feeling like a funeral every time I put my foot in the front door—"
"It ain't often you put it in."
"But, mark my word, you're going to nag me once too often!"
"O God! Harry, I try to keep in! I know how wild it makes you—how busy you
"A man that's give to a woman heaven on earth like I have you! A man that
started three years ago on nothing but nerve and a few dollars, and now
stands on two feet, one of the biggest spectacle-producers in the business!
By Gad! you're so darn lucky it's made a loon out of you! Get out more.
Show yourself a good time. You got the means and the time. Ain't there no
way to satisfy you?"
"I can't do things alone all the time, Harry. I—I'm funny that way. I
ain't a woman like that, a new-fangled one that can do things without her
husband. It's the nights that kill me—the nights. The—all nights sitting
"If you 'ain't learned the demands of my business by now, I'm not going
over them again."
"Yes; but not all—"
"You ought to have some men to deal with. I'd like to see Mrs. Unger try to
dictate to him how to run his business."
"You've left me behind, Harry. I—try to keep up, but—I can't. I ain't
the woman to naturally paint my hair this way. It's my trying to keep up,
Harry, with you and—and—Edwin. These clothes—I ain't right in 'em,
Harry; I know that. That's why I can't stand it. The suspense. The waiting
up nights. I tell you I'm going crazy. Crazy with knowing I'm left behind."
"I never told you to paint up your hair like a freak."
"I thought, Harry—the color—like hers—it might make me seem younger—"
"You thought! You're always thinking."
She stood behind him now over the couch, her hand yearning toward but not
"O God! Harry, ain't there no way I can please you no more—no way?"
"You can please me by acting like a human being and not getting me home on
wild-goose chases like this."
"But I can't stand it, Harry! The quiet. Nobody to do for. You always gone.
Edwin. The way the servants—laugh. I ain't smart enough, like some women.
I got to show it—that my heart's breaking."
"Go to matinées; go—"
"Tell me how to make myself like Alma Zitelle to you, Harry. For God's
sake, tell me!"
He looked away from her, the red rising up above the rear of his collar.
"You're going to drive me crazy desperate, too, some day, on that jealousy
stuff. I'm trying to do the right thing by you and hold myself in,
"Harry, it—ain't jealousy. I could stand anything if I only knew. If you'd
only come out with it. Not keep me sitting here night after night, when I
know you—you're with her. It's the suspense, Harry, as much as anything is
killing me. I could stand it, maybe, if I only knew. If I only knew!"
He sprang up, wheeling to face her across the couch.
"You mean that?"
"Well, then, since you're the one wants it, since you're forcing me to
it—I'll end your suspense, Millie. Yes. Let me go, Millie. There's no use
trying to keep life in something that's dead. Let me go."
She stood looking at him, cheeks cased in palms, and her sagging
eye-sockets seeming to darken, even as she stared.
"It happens every day, Millie. Man and woman grow apart, that's all. Your
own son is man enough to understand that. Nobody to blame. Just happens."
"Aw, now, Millie, it's no easier for me to say than for you to listen. I'd
sooner cut off my right hand than put it up to you. Been putting it off all
these months. If you hadn't nagged—led up to it, I'd have stuck it out
somehow and made things miserable for both of us. It's just as well you
brought it up. I—Life's life, Millie, and what you going to do about it?"
A sound escaped her like the rising moan of a gale up a flue; then she
sat down against trembling that seized her and sent ripples along the
"Harry—Alma Zitelle—you mean—Harry?"
"Now what's the use going into all that, Millie? What's the difference who
I mean? It happened."
"Harry, she—she's a common woman."
"We won't discuss that."
"She'll climb on you to what she wants higher up still. She won't bring you
nothing but misery, Harry. I know what I'm saying; she'll—"
"You're talking about something you know nothing about—you—"
"I do. I do. You're hypnotized, Harry. It's her looks. Her dressing like
a snake. Her hair. I can get mine fixed redder 'n hers, Harry. It takes a
little time. Mine's only started to turn, Harry, is why it don't look right
yet to you. This dress, it's from her own dressmaker. Harry—I promise you
I can make myself like—her—I promise you, Harry—"
"For God's sake, Millie, don't talk like—that! It's awful! What's those
things got to do with it? It's—awful!"
"They have, Harry. They have, only a man don't know it. She's a bad woman,
Harry—she's got you fascinated with the way she dresses and does—"
"We won't go into that."
"We will. We will. I got the right. I don't have to let you go if I don't
want to. I'm the mother of your son. I'm the wife that was good enough for
you in the days when you needed her. I—"
"You can't throw that up to me, Millie. I've squared that debt."
"She'll throw you over, Harry, when I'll stand by you to the crack of doom.
Take my word for it, Harry. O God! Harry, please take my word for it!"
She closed her streaming eyes, clutching at his sleeve in a state beyond
her control. "Won't you please? Please!"
He toed the carpet.
"I—I'd sooner be hit in the face, Millie, than—have this happen. Swear I
would! But you see for yourself we—we can't go on this way."
She sat for a moment, her stare widening above the palm clapped tightly
against her mouth.
"Then you mean, Harry, you want—you want a—a—"
"Now, now, Millie, try to keep hold of yourself. You're a sensible woman.
You know I'll do the right thing by you to any amount. You'll have the boy
till he's of age, and after that, too, just as much as you want him. He'll
live right here in the flat with you. Money's no object, the way I'm going
to fix things. Why, Millie, compared to how things are now—you're going to
be a hundred per cent, better off—without me."
She fell to rocking herself in the straight chair.
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!"
"Now, Millie, don't take it that way. I know that nine men out of ten would
call me crazy to—to let go of a woman like you. But what's the use trying
to keep life in something that's dead? It's because you're too good for me,
Millie. I know that. You know that it's not because I think any less of
you, or that I've forgot it was you who gave me my start. I'd pay you back
ten times more if I could. I'm going to settle on you and the boy so that
you're fixed for life. When he's of age, he comes into the firm half
interest. There won't even be no publicity the way I'm going to fix things.
Money talks, Millie. You'll get your decree without having to show your
face to the public."
"O God—he's got it all fixed—he's talked it all over with her! She—"
"You—you wouldn't want to force something between you and me, Millie;
that—that's just played out—"
"I done it myself. I couldn't let well enough alone. I was ambitious for
'em. I dug my own grave. I done it myself. Done it myself!"
"Now, Millie, you mustn't look at things that way. Why, you're the kind of
a little woman all you got to have is something to mother over. I'm going
to see to it that the boy is right here at home with you all the time. He
can give up those rooms at the college—you got as fine a son as there is
in the country, Millie—I'm going to see to it that he is right here at
home with you—"
"O God—my boy—my little boy—my little boy!"
"The days are over, Millie, when this kind of thing makes any difference.
If it was—the mother—it might be different, but where the father is—to
blame—it don't matter with the boy. Anyways, he's nearly of age. I tell
you, Millie, if you'll just look at this thing sensible—"
"I—Let me think, let—me—think."
Her tears had quieted now to little dry moans that came with regularity.
She was still swaying in her chair, eyes closed.
"You'll get your decree, Millie, without—."
"Don't talk," she said, a frown lowering over her closed eyes and pressing
two fingers against each temple. "Don't talk."
He walked to the window in a state of great perturbation, stood pulling
inward his lips and staring down into the now brilliantly lighted flow of
Broadway. Turned into the room with short, hasty strides, then back again.
Came to confront her.
"Aw, now, Millie—Millie—" Stood regarding her, chewing backward and
forward along his fingertips. "You—you see for yourself, Millie, what's
dead can't be made alive—now, can it?"
She nodded, acquiescing, her lips bitterly wry.
"My lawyer, Millie, he'll fix it, alimony and all, so you won't—"
"Suppose I just slip away easy, Millie, and let him fix up things so it'll
be easiest for us both. Send the boy down to see me to-morrow. He's
old enough and got enough sense to have seen things coming. He knows.
Suppose—I just slip out easy, Millie, for—for—both of us. Huh, Millie?"
She nodded again, her lips pressed back against outburst.
"If ever there was a good little woman, Millie, and one that deserves
better than me, it's—"
"Don't!" she cried. "Don't—don't—don't!"
He hesitated, stood regarding her there in the chair, eyes squeezed closed
like Iphigenia praying for death when exiled in Tauris.
"Go!" she cried, the wail clinging to her lips.
He felt round for his hat, his gaze obscured behind the shining glasses,
tiptoed out round the archipelago of too much furniture, groped for the
door-handle, turning it noiselessly, and stood for the instant looking back
at her bathed in the rosy light and seated upright like a sleeping Ariadne;
opened the door to a slit that closed silently after him.
She sat thus for three hours after, the wail still uppermost on the
At ten o'clock, with a gust that swayed the heavy drapes, her son burst in
upon the room, his stride kicking the door before he opened it. Six feet in
his gymnasium shoes, and with a ripple of muscle beneath the well-fitting,
well-advertised Campus Coat for College Men, he had emerged from the three
years into man's complete estate, which, at nineteen, is that patch of
territory at youth's feet known as "the world." Gray eyed, his dark lashes
long enough to threaten to curl, the lean line of his jaw squaring after
the manner of America's fondest version of her manhood, he was already in
danger of fond illusions and fond mommas.
"Hello, mother!" he said, striding quickly through the chairs and over to
where she sat.
"Thought I'd sleep home to-night, mother."
He kissed her lightly, perking up her shoulder butterflies of green
sequins, and standing off to observe.
"Got to hand it to my little mother for quiet and sumptuous el-e-gance!
Some classy spangy-wangles!" He ran his hand against the lay of the
sequins, absorbed in a conscious kind of gaiety.
She moistened her lips, trying to smile.
"Oh, boy," she said—"Edwin!"—holding to his forearm with fingers that
tightened into it.
"Mother," he said, pulling at his coat lapels with a squaring of shoulders,
"you—you going to be a dead game little sport?"
She was looking ahead now, abstraction growing in her white face.
He fell into short strides up and down the length of the couch front.
"I—I guess I might have mentioned it before, mother, but—but—oh,
hang!—when a fellow's a senior it—it's all he can do to get home once in
a while and—and—what's the use talking about a thing anyway before
it breaks right, and—well, everybody knows it's up to us college
fellows—college men—to lead the others and show our country what we're
made of now that she needs us—eh, little dressed-up mother?"
She looked up at him with the tremulous smile still trying to break
"My boy can mix with the best of 'em."
"That's not what I mean, mother."
"You got to be twice to me what you been, darling—twice to me. Listen,
darling. I—Oh, my God!"
She was beating softly against his hand held in hers, her voice rising
again, and her tears.
"Now, mother, don't go into a spell. The war is going to help you out
on these lonesome fits, mother. Like Slawson put it to-day in Integral
Calculus Four, war reduces the personal equation to its lowest terms—it's
a matter of—."
"I need you now, Edwin—O God! how I need you! There never was a minute in
all these months since you've grown to understand how—it is between your
father and me that I needed you so much—"
"Mother, you mustn't make it harder for me to—tell you what I—"
"I think maybe something has happened to me, Edwin. I can feel myself
breathe all over—it's like I'm outside of myself somewhere—"
"It's nervousness, mother. You ought to get out more. I'm going to get you
some war-work to do, mother, that 'll make you forget yourself. Service is
what counts these days!"
"Edwin, it's come—he's leaving me—it—"
"Speaking of service, I—I guess I might have mentioned it before, mother,
but—but—when war was declared the other day, a—a bunch of us fellows
volunteered for—for the university unit to France, and—well, I'm
accepted, mother—to go. The lists went up to-night. I'm one of the twenty
"We sail for Bordeaux for ambulance service the twentieth, mother. I was
the fourth accepted with my qualifications—driving my own car and—and
physical fitness. I'm going to France, mother, among the first to do my
bit. I know a fellow got over there before we were in the war and worked
himself into the air-fleet. That's what I want, mother, air service!
They're giving us fellows credit for our senior year just the same. Bob
Vandaventer and Clarence Unger and some of the fellows like that are in the
crowd. Are you a dead-game sport, little mother, and not going to make a
"I—don't know. What—is—it—I—"
"Your son at the front, mother, helping to make the world a safer place for
democracy. Does a little mother with something like that to bank on have
time to be miserable over family rows? You're going to knit while I'm gone.
The busiest little mother a fellow ever had, doing her bit for her country!
There's signs up all over the girls' campus: 'A million soldiers "out
there" are needing wool jackets and chest-protectors. How many will you
take care of?' You're going to be the busiest little mother a fellow ever
had. You're going to stop making a fuss over me and begin to make a fuss
over your country. We're going into service, mother!"
"Don't leave me, Edwin! Baby darling, don't leave me! I'm alone! I'm
"There, there, little mother," he said, patting at her and blinking,
"I—Why—why, there's men come back from every war, and plenty of them.
Good Lord! just because a fellow goes to the front, he—"
"I got nothing left. Everything I've worked for has slipped through my life
like sand through a sieve. My hands are empty. I've lost your father on
the success I slaved for. I'm losing my boy on the fine ideas and college
education I've slaved for. I—Don't leave me, Edwin. I'm afraid—Don't—"
"Mother—I—Don't be cut up about it. I—"
"Why should I give to this war? I ain't a fine woman with the fine ideas
you learn at college. I ask so little of life—just some one who needs me,
some one to do for. I 'ain't got any fine ideas about a son at war. Why
should I give to what they're fighting for on the other side of the ocean?
Don't ask me to give up my boy to what they're fighting for in a country
I've never seen—my little boy I raised—my all I've got—my life! No! No!"
"It's the women like you, mother—with guts—with grit—that send their
sons to war."
"I 'ain't got grit!"
"You're going to have your hands so full, little mother, taking care of the
Army and Navy, keeping their feet dry and their chests warm, that before
you know it you'll be down at the pier some fine day watching us fellows
come home from victory."
"You're going to coddle the whole fighting front, making 'em sweaters and
aviation sets out of a whole ton of wool I'm going to lay in the house for
you. Time's going to fly for my little mother."
"I'll kill myself first!"
"You wouldn't have me a quitter, little mother. You wouldn't have the other
fellows in my crowd at college go out and do what I haven't got the guts to
do. You want me to hold up my head with the best of 'em."
"I don't want nothing but my boy! I—"
"Us college men got to be the first to show that the fighting backbone of
the country is where it belongs. If us fellows with education don't set the
example, what can we expect from the other fellows? Don't ask me to be a
quitter, mother. I couldn't! I wouldn't! My country needs us, mother—you
"Attention, little mother—stand!"
She lay back her head, laughing, crying, sobbing, choking.
"O God—take him and bring him back—to me!"
On a day when sky and water were so identically blue that they met in
perfect horizon, the S. S. Rowena, sleek-flanked, mounted fore and aft
with a pair of black guns that lifted snouts slightly to the impeccable
blue, slipped quietly, and without even a newspaper sailing-announcement
into a frivolous midstream that kicked up little lace edged wavelets,
undulating flounces of them. A blur of faces rose above deck-rails, faces
that, looking back, receded finally. The last flag and the last kerchief
became vapor. Against the pier-edge, frantically, even perilously forward,
her small flag thrust desperately beyond the rail, Mrs. Ross, who had
lost a saving sense of time and place, leaned after that ship receding in
majesty, long after it had curved from view.
The crowd, not a dry-eyed one, women in spite of themselves with lips
whitening, men grim with pride and an innermost bleeding, sagged suddenly,
thinning and trickling back into the great, impersonal maw of the city.
Apart from the rush of the exodus, a youth remained at the rail, gazing
out and quivering for the smell of war. Finally, he too, turned back
Now only Mrs. Ross. An hour she stood there, a solitary figure at the rail,
holding to her large black hat, her skirts whipped to her body and snapping
forward in the breeze. The sun struck off points from the water, animating
it with a jewel-dance. It found out in a flash the diamond-and-sapphire top
to her gold-mesh hand-bag, hoppity-skippiting from facet to facet.
"My boy—my little boy!"
A pair of dock-hands, wiping their hands on cotton-waste, came after a
while to the door of the pier-house to observe and comment. Conscious of
that observation, she moved then through the great dank sheds in and among
the bales and boxes, down a flight of stairs and out to the cobbled
street. Her motor-car, the last at the entrance, stood off at a slant,
the chauffeur lopping slightly and dozing, his face scarcely above the
steering-wheel. She passed him with unnecessary stealth, her heels
occasionally wedging between the cobbles and jerking her up. Two hours she
walked thus, invariably next to the water's edge or in the first street
running parallel to it. Truck-drivers gazed at and sang after her. Deck-
and dock-hands, stretched out in the first sun of spring, opened their eyes
to her passing, often staring after her under lazy lids. Behind a drawn
veil her lips were moving, but inaudibly now. Motor-trucks, blocks of them,
painted the gray of war, stood waiting shipment, engines ready to throb
into no telling what mire. Once a van of knitted stuffs, always the gray,
corded and bound into bales, rumbled by, close enough to graze and send her
stumbling back. She stood for a moment watching it lumber up alongside a
It was dusk when she emerged from the rather sinister end of West Street
into Battery Park, receding in a gracious new-green curve from the water.
Tier after tier of lights had begun to prick out in the back-drop of
skyscraping office-buildings. The little park, after the six-o'clock
stampede, settled back into a sort of lamplit quiet, dark figures, the
dregs of a city day, here and there on its benches. The back-drop of
office-lights began to blink out then, all except the tallest tower in the
world, rising in the glory of its own spotlight into a rococo pinnacle of
Strolling the edge of that park so close to the water that she could hear
it seethe in the receding, a policeman finally took to following Mrs. Ross,
his measured tread behind hers, his night-stick rapping out every so often.
She found out a bench then, and never out of his view, sat looking out
across the infinitude of blackness to where the bay so casually meets the
sea. Night dampness had sent her shivering, the plumage of her hat, the
ferny feathers of the bird-of-paradise, drooping almost grotesquely over
A small detachment of Boy Scouts, sturdy with an enormous sense of uniform
and valor, marched through the asphalt alleys of the park with trained,
small-footed, regimental precision—small boys with clean, lifted faces. A
fife and drum came up the road.
High over the water a light had come out—Liberty's high-flung torch.
Watching it, and quickened by the fife and drum to an erect sitting
posture, Mrs. Ross slid forward on her bench, lips opening. The policeman
standing off, rapped twice, and when she rose, almost running toward the
lights of the Elevated station, followed.
Within her apartment on upper Broadway, not even a hall light burned
when she let herself in with her key. At the remote end of the aisle of
blackness a slit of yellow showed beneath the door, behind it the babble of
She entered with a stealth that was well under cover of those voices,
groping into the first door at her right, feeling round for the wall key,
switching the old rose-and-gold room into immediate light. Stood for a
moment, her plumage drooping damply to her shoulders, blue foulard dress
snagged in two places, her gold mesh bag with the sapphire-and-diamond top
hanging low from the crook of her little finger. A clock ticked with almost
an echo into the rather vast silence.
She entered finally, sidling in among the chairs.
A great mound of gray yarn, uncut skein after uncut skein of it, rose off
the brocade divan, more of them piled in systematic pyramids on three
chairs. She dropped at sight of it to the floor beside the couch, burying
her face in its fluff, grasping it in handfuls, writhing into it. Surges of
merciful sobs came sweeping through and through her.
After a while, with a pair of long amber-colored needles, she fell to
knitting with a fast, even furious ambidexterity, her mouth pursing up with
a driving intensity, her boring gaze so concentrated on the thing in hand
that her eyes seemed to cross.
Dawn broke upon her there, her hat still cockily awry, tears dried in
a vitrified gleaming down her cheeks. Beneath her flying fingers, a
sleeveless waistcoat was taking shape, a soldier's inner jacket against the
dam of trenches. At sunup it lay completed, spread out as if the first of
a pile. The first noises of the city began to rise remotely. A bell pealed
off somewhere. Day began to raise its conglomerate voice. On her knees
beside the couch there, the second waistcoat was already taking shape
beneath the cocksure needles.
The old pinkly moist look had come out in her face.
One million boys "out there" were needing chest-protectors!