MARY DENBIGH could not remember the day when the holy estate of matrimony had not been held up to her by others as the whole destiny of woman and had not presented itself as the natural, the easy, the sole path of escape from filial servitude.
She belonged, as has been intimated, to a race in which motherhood is an instinctive passion and an economic necessity, and she was born into a class in which not to marry is socially shameful and materially precarious. When she was very small, her own dolls were her own children and her playmates' dolls her children-in-law, and, when she grew older, she had always before her the sedulously maintained illusion of emancipation worn by those girls, but a few years her seniors, who had given up the drudgery of childhood, which she hated, for the drudgery of wifehood, which they loftily concealed. A young wife was a superior being, whose condition was not at all to be judged by the known condition of one's mother, and all the other and more intimate relations of marriage remained, to the uninitiate, a charmed mystery. If it seems strange to us that this mystery and this innocence remained to Mary at sixteen, the reflection rests not upon her from whom the secret kept its secrecy, but upon us to whom the innocence appears remarkable.
From a house that exacted everything and forgave nothing, a narrow house, which she could not see as simply an inevitable result of conditions as wide as the world, the girl looked out to that wonderful house next door where her sister had, only three years before, been taken as a bride. This sister was now an elegant person, who said "fore-head," "of-ten," and "a-gain," but Mary could remember Etta, in gingham frock and apron, performing the tasks that were now enforced upon Mary herself. And she could now observe–as, indeed, her sister's wholly conscious pride well intended that she should observe–Etta in clothes that were beyond the reach of an unmarried daughter of Owen Denbigh; Etta going to dances forbidden to a Denbigh maid. When she climbed reluctantly to bed at ten o'clock, Etta's lights blazed always wide awake, and when she rose in the gray of the morning, Etta's shutters were luxuriously closed.
Every dawn Mary must pack her father's dinnerbucket, as Etta used to pack it, before Owen started for the mill. That done, and the hurried breakfast eaten, she must make her own bed and wash the dishes before she set out for school. At noon there were more dishes, and only every other evening, before sitting down to detested study by the kerosene lamp in the dining-room, was she relieved of still more dish-washing by the growing, and apparently too favored, younger sister, Sallie.
The evening that followed Mary's truant walk along the river was one of those when she should have been granted this modicum of relief, but now, after the brief five o'dock supper, tow-headed Sallie set up a wail as the table was cleared.
"What's the matter with you now?" demanded Mrs. Denbigh, her harassed eyes blinking in the lamplight, and her hatchet-face more than commonly sharp.
"I ain't feelin' good," said Sallie. "I'm tired; I'm sick; I don't want to wash no dishes." Mrs. Denbigh shot a glance through the doubledoorway to the littered parlor; but the face of her unattentive husband was hidden behind the crinkling sheets of the Daily Spy, gripped by one great, grimy fist, while the stubby forefinger of the other hand spelled out the short syllables of the personal-column, facetiously headed " Our Card-Basket." His huge bulk bulged over all the edges of the uncomfortable patent armchair in which he was sitting: a picture of gorged contentment, there was as yet no help to be expected from him.
It was Mary, experienced in such attacks, who made ready to defend the law.
"You ain't sick," she declared.
"I am, too!" sniffed Sallie. "I'm awful sick!"
"Get out: you et more'n I did. You just want to make me do the work, an' I won't,'cause it's your turn. So there!"
Mary's homecoming had, as it happened, not been the signal for a renewal of hostilities between her mother and herself. The former had just then been too hard at work to have either energy or thought in that direction, and throughout the evening meal the girl had deemed it wise to maintain a reticence calculated to keep her in the domestic background. Now,however, she had impulsively come forward, and the step at once brought her to Mrs. Denbigh's attention.
" After what you done this noon," she said to Mary, " you'd better keep your mouth shut. Go and wash them dishes!"
But Mary knew that she had now gone too far to retreat.
"It wasn't my fault the stew was spilled," she protested; " and anyhow, you did lick me onc't for that. Sallie just wants to shove her work off on me."
"I don't," blubbered Sallie. "I'll do 'em some evenin' when it's your turn."
"Yes," Mary sneered, "I know how you will."
"I will–I will–I will so!"
Sallie's voice rose to a shrill shriek, and then suddenly broke off in the middle of a note: there was sound of elephantine stirring from the parlor, and the feared master of the house, moved at last from his lethargy, rolled into the double doorway and seemed nearly to block it.
One of the young reporters of The Spy had once remarked–not in print–that Owen Denbigh resembled nothing so much as the stern of an armored cruiser seen from a catboat. How much of the covering of his powerful frame was fat and how much muscle is matter for conjecture; his life in the iron mills had certainly given him a strength at least approaching the appearance, and had blackened his large hands, reddened his big face, and grayed his bristling hair and his fiercely flaring mustache.
"Whad's ahl this devil's racket? " he shouted, in the voice he used in triumphing over the turmoil of the puddling-furnace.
Both children quailed before him, each prepared regardless of its merits, for acquittal or condemnation, as he might decide the issue. Even Mrs. Denbigh drew back and set her lips to silence. The giant raised a threatening hand.
"Be ye ahl gone deef! " he demanded. Whads ahl this devil's racket fur?"
In a panic of self-preservation, the two girls began at once to clamor forth their woes.
" Sallie won't wash the dishes!" cried Mary.
"I'm sick," sobbed Sarah, " an' mom says Mary must wash 'em because she upset the stew this noontime!"
In the merits of any case brought before him, the household Solomon was as little interested as if he had been the judge of a law-court. His years of overwork had limited his sense of a just division of toil among others, and his long oppression by task masters had made himself a merciless task-master. Like the men that had driven him, he delighted most in driving those who were the hardest to drive. Sallie was too young to furnish appreciable resistance, but in the awakening Mary he now saw something that approached worthy opposition. He turned first to his wife.
" Did you tell 'er," he inquired, his stubby forefinger leveled at Mary–" did you tell 'er to wash 'un?"
Mrs. Denbigh bowed her sweating forehead in timid assent.
Then the father looked again at the offender. ""Wash 'un! " he ordered, and marched back to his parlor, his armchair, and his evening paper.
Mary knew her father too well not to know also the price of disobedience. Sullenly, but without hesitation, she retreated to the little kitchen and took up her uncongenial task.
Girlhood, then, must be denied much of its claim to recreation; the social machine was pitiless. Young life was a period of menial service from which the sole escape was marriage, whether to stranger or to friend. That a stranger should harm her was, to Mary–as it is to most girls of her age and environment–an idea unentertained: strangers were too few, and the world of moral fact too closely shut and guarded. Boys she had always been cautioned against in vague generalities; but she understood that they were prohibited because their company was a delectable luxury reserved for older and marriageable girls whose younger sisters were needed only to help in the household tasks.
Rebellion once more reddened her heart–rebellion, as she thought, against her own particular condition, but the old rebellion, actually, that burns, at one time or another, in every heart: the revolt of the individual, more or less conscious of its individuality, against the conditions that are combined to crush it. She poured the water from the heavy iron tea-kettle into the tin dishpan with a quick anger that was not eased when two or three of the scalding drops leaped back against her bared, round arms. She flung the home-boiled soap after the water, and she clattered the dishes as loudly as she dared. Through the window–her soul hot with the sense of the injustice done her-she could see the happy lights in Etta's house, and, her hands deep in the greasy fluid, it came to her suddenly that she had been a fool to neglect–to repudiate–to-day what might have been the golden chance to such an estate as her sister's.
She had heard the protesting Sarah sent to bed; had heard her mother return to the parlor with the sewing-basket, and, finally, as she was putting away the last of the dishes in the china-closet in the dining-room, she caught the voices of both of her parents.
Dimly glimpsed from the small apartment beyond, she knew the scene well enough to reconstruct it perfectly. The crowded little parlor was like a hundred others in the immediate neighborhood, a mathematical result of the community of which it was a part. There were the two front windows with the horsehair chairs before each and, between them, the marble-top table bearing the family Bible. There was the gilt mirror over the gorgeously lambrequined mantelpiece, which was littered with a brass clock, dried-grass-bearing yellow vases, stiff photographs of dead or married younger Denbighs, and "memorial cards " with illegible gilt lettering upon a ground of black. Close by the cabinet-organ on one side and the green sofa on the other–the sofa adorned with a lace " tidy " that would never remain neatly in its place–her father and mother sat, separated by the purple-covered center-table, their gaze interrupted by the tall glass case that contained the bunch of white immortelles from the grave of their eldest son.
Mrs. Denbigh was finishing, it seemed, the narrative of the town's latest scandal.
"I never knowed Mrs. Drumbaugh was that soft-hearted," the mother was saying. " Nobody in town was fooled over the reason for why her Jennie went away, an' yet here the girl comes back a'ready, and Mrs. Drumbaugh, church-member though she is, takes her into the house ag'in–her an' her baby along with her."
What was it in the words that brought Mary to a sudden pause? Her mother had always been, like most drudges, a gossip, and had sought, in repeating scandal about her acquaintances, that relief from drudgery which she knew how to obtain only by this second-hand thrill of evil. The girl had heard and disregarded the telling of many such a tale, and yet, to-night, she stood there first listening in uncomprehending horror to the narrative and then awaiting the inevitable paternal comment upon it.
"Tuke 'er bahk, hey?" rumbled Owen Denbigh. "Well, ef she bay sooch a fule, she deserves the scandal ov't. Thank God no youngling o' ourn ever went the devil's way. I hahve ahlways bin sure what I'd do to'un ef she did, though."
He paused a moment, as if to have his wife inquire as to the terrible punishment that he had reserved for such an error, and then, as no inquiry was forthcoming he gave his statement at any rate, with all ferocity of a Judge Jeffries pronouncing sentence.
"Bay 'un thirty year old an' noot another sin ag'in 'un," he declared, "I would beat 'un within a bare inch o''er deeth, an' turn 'un oot to live the life 'un had picked fur herself!"
The whole intent of that speech Mary was incapable of comprehending, but she understood enough to tremble and then to fan to destructive fury the fire of her rebellion. Of a sudden, the atmosphere of the house had become unendurable. She was gasping like a sparrow under a bell-glass.
Stealthily she crept into the hall. Carefully she took her coat and faded hat from the rack. Very gently she opened the front door and stole into the street. She felt dumbly that the world was wrong, that youth should not have to work, and that to seize the fruit of pleasure should not be matter for punishment, but for congratulation.
I do not think that she meant to pass by the hotel that evening. I do not believe that most of us, in such moments, are actuated any more by motive than we are directed by discretion. Nevertheless, when the clutch of her emotions had enough loosened from her throat to permit her to take account of her whereabouts, the time, and the place, it was a quarter after six by the town-clock; Mary was just before the plate-glass window where the drummers sat, and, only a minute later, the stranger of the morning was again at her side.
" Von't you chust say that you're not mad vith me? " he was asking.
She was so frightened that she was conscious of no other definite sensation, much less of any ordered thought or opinion; but she looked fairly at him, and of what she saw she was immediately fully aware.
He was a young man, but the sort of young man that might be anywhere from nineteen to thirty-two, because he had the figure and the face of the former age and the eyes and the expression of the latter. The hair on his head was black and curly; though his hands were not the working-hands with which Mary was best acquainted, they were almost covered with a lighter down of the same growth; and through the pale olive of his sorely clean-shaven cheeks shone the blue-black hint of a wiry beard fighting for freedom. His lips were thick when he did not smile and thin when he did, with teeth very white; and his gray glance had a penetrating calculation about it that made the girl instinctively draw her coat together and button it.
To his speech she could pay, just then, scarcely any attention, except to feel that its quick, thick quality, and its ictus on the vowels, denoted the foreigner; but his clothes were a marvel that would not be denied. His coat and trousers of green were cut in the extreme of a fashion that was new to her; his brown plush hat was turned far down on one side and far up on the other; his waistcoat, of purple striped by white, was held by large mother-of-pearl buttons, and his shoes, long and pointed, were the Color of lemons.
Impulsively she had refused an answer to his first words; but the young man was a member of the persistent race, and speedily followed the first speech with a second.
"Chust say the vord," he pleaded, "und I von' bother you no more. I only vanted to make myself square vith you."
Mary hesitated. Something, she knew, she feared, but whether it was the man, herself, or the habit of obedience she could not tell. He was polite, he was respectful; he came, it was clear, from a happier world than her own–and, as against her own she was now in open revolt, a certain parley with this visitor from an alien orb seemed likely to constitute a fitting declaration of independence. Conditions had worked upon her to desperation, and the same conditions, little as she guessed it, had, under the mask of chance, inevitably provided this avenue of protest.
"Oh," she said, " I'm not mad at you, if that's what you want to know."
" I'm glad of that," he easily answered, as they turned, quite naturally, away from the main street. " But I thought you considered me fresh."
"Well, I hadn't never been introduced to you, you know."
The young man laughed.
"I'll introduce myself! " said he. "My name's Max Crossman–not my real name, because I vas born in Hungary an' nobody could say my real name ofer here. My fader is a big distiller in New York "e's vorth half a million un' more: anybody'll tell you about him. 'Und he's put me on the road for him."
This and much more he told her in the following minutes. He drew a truly brilliant picture of his parental home, and, animadverting now and then with scorn on the town in which he now found himself, he painted in the highest colors the glory of Manhattan.
New York, it appeared, was a city of splendid leisure. Its entire four millions of population spent their days in rest and their nights in amusement. There were the rumbling cable-cars, the roaring elevated trains, the subway expresses, which reached out and drew the Battery within twenty minutes of the Bronx. There were the realities that had been only vague magic names to this girl: the East Side, the Bowery, the Metropolitan Opera House, the Waldorf. Nobody went to bed before three o'clock in the morning, or woke before one in the afternoon. Nobody was ugly and nobody was old. There were no books to study, no errands to run, no dishes to wash. There were only the cabs and the taxis to ride in, the hundred theaters to see, the cafes and the music, Fifth Avenue with its palaces, and Broadway, from Thirty-fourth to Forty-third "von big, yellow, happy electric lighd."
She listened. As he spoke, though she did not know it, the far-off orchestras were calling her, as if the sound of the city deafened her to all other sounds, as if the lights of New York blinded her to the lights of home.
Her own story, as she in turn briefly told it to him, provided her with the one touch of contrast needed to make the lure of the new dream complete, provided him with the one text necessary for the implications he frankly wanted her to receive. She was already so metropolitan that, when she agreed to go to the moving-picture show, she passed the portals of "The Happy Hour," as the place was optimistically entitled, with a superior scorn for all that it had to offer.
The narrow hall was dark when they entered– Max pocketing the large roll of yellow bills from which he had drawn the price of their admission–and, as they sat down, half-way toward the stage, there was being shown, on the screen, the absurd adventures of a tramp, who entered an ornate hotel grill-room and who, among wondering, well-dressed guests, was proceeding to order an elaborate meal.
" That's the Astor," whispered Max, loudly. " I'd know id anywheres."
The pictured tramp was, of course, unable to pay his score, and, equally, of course, was pursued as he leaped through an open window.
Max acted as Mary's guide during the tableaux of the chase that followed. Now the quarry was darting among the congested traffe of Times Square; now he had clambered over the platform of a Forty-second Street surface-car; now he was running up the steep stairway of the Sixth Avenue " L," and now, the hunters close at his heels, he was dashing along Thirty-fourth Street past the Waldorf, turning down toward the Park Avenue Hotel, and so, at last, was caught at the nearby entrance to the subway.
When the lights flared up at the conclusion of the little drama, Mary sighed as if suddenly plunged from fairyland down to the real world below. And then the sigh changed to a gasp of fright: in the same row, only six seats away, her sister Etta was sitting.
The girl started to rise.
" Vhat's wrong? " asked the astonished Max.
"I must go. Don't come out with me. Wait a minute, and then follow. I'll be at the next corner up street. That's our Etta over there !"
But Max did not seem fully to comprehend the warning. He rose with Mary, and made some stir in doing it, so that, as the pair reached the aisle, Etta's eyes were drawn in the direction of her sister and the man.
Mary, though she hastily turned her head, thought that she saw recognition in this sudden glance. She thought that she saw recognition turn to amazement, and amazement to rebuke. Instantly, there rose before her the reefs of ultimate domestic disaster. With Max in close attendance, she hurried to the door.
Outside she did not speak until they had reached the comparative seclusion of a less frequented street. Then she turned hotly upon the youth, whom she considered the cause of her peril.
"Why was you such a fool!" she demanded. " Didn't you hear me say for you not to come out when I did?"
" I didn't understand you," Max humbly expostulated. "But what difference does it make, anyvays?"
"Difference? Why, you were so blamed noisy Etta looked round an' seen me. She'll go right home and tell pop I was here with you."
" Veil," protested Max, "it's not seven o'clock :, und I'm not eatin' you, vas I? "
" That don't matter. You don't know my pop! "
"Vhat'll he do?"
"He'll"–Mary remembered previous punishments for smaller offenses, and recalled the judgment she had heard her father pronounce on a hypothetical offender. "He'll beat me till I'm near dead," she declared; "an' then, like as not, he'll turn me out of the house."
They were at pause in the shadow of an old buttonwood tree, Max leaning against the gnarled trunk, the girl facing him, erect.
Even as she sketched her possible punishment, the possible became probable. She was afraid, and this young man, who had been so deferential, so protecting, who had given her so alluring a glimpse of another world, seemed her only refuge.
He put out his hands and, gently, took both of hers.
At that touch the last of her anger melted, almost to tears.
"Look here," he said. " I've been decent to you, haven't I? I ain't tried to get fresh? "
She shook her head, not trusting speech.
"Veil, then, listen here," he pursued. "If your old man gets gay, chust remember that. You ain't treated righd at home, the best of times. You said so yourself. Un' this here jay town's no place for a pretty young lady like you, anyvays. So, if there's any trouble, you come for me, und I'll get you avay from here."
The girl thrilled with a delicious sense of adventure. She trembled with the foretaste of a new delight. The passing praise of her looks and of her newly acquired maturity, a novel sound in her ears, was not lost upon her; but even that: was dwarfed by the tenor of her companion's words, and the wonderful current that ran from his hands to hers. Was this what had been meant, that truant afternoon, by the calling birds, the leafing trees and the poignant air along the river? Was this what young women felt when lovers told their love? She could not have formulated the questions, but her heart asked them, and Max, meanwhile, was repeating: "I'll get you avay from here! "
" How–how could you do it? " she gasped.
"It'd be dead easy. If there's any scrap, you vatch your chanc't un' give the house the slip. I'll be vaitin' at the hotel till midnight. Delephone me from the nearest drugstore, un' ve'll take a trolley down the line un' catch a train to N'York un' be married there this same nighd. I've a friend who's a minister un' vill get out of his bed any hour I'd ask him."
He pressed her hands tighter, and, as he leaned against the tree, drew her slightly toward him.
But Mary, though she did not know why, still fearful, held back.
"I–we couldn't do that," she said.
"Vhy not?" he demanded.
"Because-why, we couldn't go away together, alone: it wouldn't be right."
Max straightened suddenly. He released her hands and placed one tight arm about her waist.
" It vould be righd if I lofed you," he said. " Und I do lof you. Ve city folk, ve can't do things slow like you liddle town people. Vhen I saw you this morning, I knew I liked you, because you vas so different from all these rubes around here; un' when I talk vith you this efenin' I know I lof you. Listen here: you come avay with me to-nighd. Ve vill go righd er to N'York, un' there ve get married righd avay. No more school, nor dishvashin', nor scoldin'. Your own fader will be pleased when it's ofer, because my fader is reech, un' my fader vill be pleased too, because he's been devilin' me to marry for more'n a ye-ar, only I nefer till now found a girl I lof. Come on, Mary: I lof you! "
Her eyes swam in a mist. They had come then–love and freedom, hand in hand. Her soul grew faint within her. She struggled a little, fluttering like a young bird in a capturing palm, but he drew her tighter, and his free hand passed electrically across her cheek.
" Come on avay !" he urged softly.
" I–I don't know what to do!" she panted. "Wait–wait "–it was the ancient cry of womanhood upon the brink–" wait till to-morrow!"
There was a step behind them, which Max was the first to hear. He freed her, and they stood mute until the shadowy passer-by had gone. It was an incident that at least lessened the spell.
" Perhaps it's all right," said Mary. " Perhaps Etta didn't see me, an' I can tell 'em I was over at my girl-friend's."
" It's only puttin' off what's got to happen sometime," Max argued. "This town's no place for a girl like you."
He leaned toward her, but she drew, reluctantly, away. What might be well by day may well seem ill by night.
"Wait till to-morrow, anyhow," she urged.–But to-morrow, she wondered, how should she explain her afternoon away from school?
"All righd," he at last nodded. " Go home un' think things ofer vith yourself; but I'll be chust as ready to-morrow as I am to-day. You've got to get avay from all this ugliness. Remember that, un' remember I hafn't been fresh, un' I vant righd now to marry you. I hafn't efen tried to kiss you. Think of that, un' think that I'll be vaitin' up at the hotel, in case of drouble, till midnighd."
He wheeled at that, and left her.
Ten minutes later–at a quarter to seven, so rapidly had the drama unrolled itself–she had reached home to find that Etta had been there before her. Denbigh, on the early morning shift that week, was already in bed, but her mother tossed the truant into the parlor and locked both doors while she went up stairs to waken him.
He came down at once, in his nightshirt, roaring. He turned the key and flung wide the door.
The room, however, was empty, and the window open. Mary and Max were already together, hurrying through the warm spring evening toward the trolley-car that was to carry them on the first stage of their journey to New York.