With this, having more immediately practical questions before them, they dropped the subject, to bend their entire attention upon the dress; and when the lunch-gong sounded downstairs Alice was still sketching repairs and alterations. She continued to sketch them, not heeding the summons.
“I suppose we'd better go down to lunch,” Mrs. Adams said, absently. “She's at the gong again.” “In a minute, mama. Now about the sleeves——” And she went on with her planning. Unfortunately the gong was inexpressive of the mood of the person who beat upon it. It consisted of three little metal bowls upon a string; they were unequal in size, and, upon being tapped with a padded stick, gave forth vibrations almost musically pleasant. It was Alice who had substituted this contrivance for the brass “dinner-bell” in use throughout her childhood; and neither she nor the others of her family realized that the substitution of sweeter sounds had made the life of that household more difficult. In spite of dismaying increases in wages, the Adamses still strove to keep a cook; and, as they were unable to pay the higher rates demanded by a good one, what they usually had was a whimsical coloured woman of nomadic impulses. In the hands of such a person the old-fashioned “dinner-bell” was satisfying; life could instantly be made intolerable for any one dawdling on his way to a meal; the bell was capable of every desirable profanity and left nothing bottled up in the breast of the ringer. But the chamois-covered stick might whack upon Alice's little Chinese bowls for a considerable length of time and produce no great effect of urgency upon a hearer, nor any other effect, except fury in the cook. The ironical impossibility of expressing indignation otherwise than by sounds of gentle harmony proved exasperating; the cook was apt to become surcharged, so that explosive resignations, never rare, were somewhat more frequent after the introduction of the gong.
Mrs. Adams took this increased frequency to be only another manifestation of the inexplicable new difficulties that beset all housekeeping. You paid a cook double what you had paid one a few years before; and the cook knew half as much of cookery, and had no gratitude. The more you gave these people, it seemed, the worse they behaved—a condition not to be remedied by simply giving them less, because you couldn't even get the worst unless you paid her what she demanded. Nevertheless, Mrs. Adams remained fitfully an optimist in the matter. Brought up by her mother to speak of a female cook as “the girl,” she had been instructed by Alice to drop that definition in favour of one not an improvement in accuracy: “the maid.” Almost always, during the first day or so after every cook came, Mrs. Adams would say, at intervals, with an air of triumph: “I believe—of course it's a little soon to be sure—but I do really believe this new maid is the treasure we've been looking for so long!” Much in the same way that Alice dreamed of a mysterious perfect mate for whom she “waited,” her mother had a fairy theory that hidden somewhere in the universe there was the treasure, the perfect “maid,” who would come and cook in the Adamses' kitchen, not four days or four weeks, but forever.
The present incumbent was not she. Alice, profoundly interested herself, kept her mother likewise so preoccupied with the dress that they were but vaguely conscious of the gong's soft warnings, though these were repeated and protracted unusually. Finally the sound of a hearty voice, independent and enraged, reached the pair. It came from the hall below.
“I says goo'-BYE!” it called. “Da'ss all!”
Then the front door slammed.
“Why, what——” Mrs. Adams began.
They went down hurriedly to find out. Miss Perry informed them.
“I couldn't make her listen to reason,” she said. “She rang the gong four or five times and got to talking to herself; and then she went up to her room and packed her bag. I told her she had no business to go out the front door, anyhow.”
Mrs. Adams took the news philosophically. “I thought she had something like that in her eye when I paid her this morning, and I'm not surprised. Well, we won't let Mr. Adams know anything's the matter till I get a new one.”
They lunched upon what the late incumbent had left chilling on the table, and then Mrs. Adams prepared to wash the dishes; she would “have them done in a jiffy,” she said, cheerfully. But it was Alice who washed the dishes.
“I DON'T like to have you do that, Alice,” her mother protested, following her into the kitchen. “It roughens the hands, and when a girl has hands like yours——”
“I know, mama.” Alice looked troubled, but shook her head. “It can't be helped this time; you'll need every minute to get that dress done.”
Mrs. Adams went away lamenting, while Alice, no expert, began to splash the plates and cups and saucers in the warm water. After a while, as she worked, her eyes grew dreamy: she was making little gay-coloured pictures of herself, unfounded prophecies of how she would look and what would happen to her that evening. She saw herself, charming and demure, wearing a fluffy idealization of the dress her mother now determinedly struggled with upstairs; she saw herself framed in a garlanded archway, the entrance to a ballroom, and saw the people on the shining floor turning dramatically to look at her; then from all points a rush of young men shouting for dances with her; and she constructed a superb stranger, tall, dark, masterfully smiling, who swung her out of the clamouring group as the music began. She saw herself dancing with him, saw the half-troubled smile she would give him; and she accurately smiled that smile as she rinsed the knives and forks.
These hopeful fragments of drama were not to be realized, she knew; but she played that they were true, and went on creating them. In all of them she wore or carried flowers—her mother's sorrow for her in this detail but made it the more important—and she saw herself glamorous with orchids; discarded these for an armful of long-stemmed, heavy roses; tossed them away for a great bouquet of white camellias; and so wandered down a lengthening hothouse gallery of floral beauty, all costly and beyond her reach except in such a wistful day-dream. And upon her present whole horizon, though she searched it earnestly, she could discover no figure of a sender of flowers.
Out of her fancies the desire for flowers to wear that night emerged definitely and became poignant; she began to feel that it might be particularly important to have them. “This might be the night!” She was still at the age to dream that the night of any dance may be the vital point in destiny. No matter how commonplace or disappointing other dance nights have been this one may bring the great meeting. The unknown magnifico may be there.
Alice was almost unaware of her own reveries in which this being appeared—reveries often so transitory that they developed and passed in a few seconds. And in some of them the being was not wholly a stranger; there were moments when he seemed to be composed of recognizable fragments of young men she knew—a smile she had liked, from one; the figure of another, the hair of another—and sometimes she thought he might be concealed, so to say, within the person of an actual acquaintance, someone she had never suspected of being the right seeker for her, someone who had never suspected that it was she who “waited” for him. Anything might reveal them to each other: a look, a turn of the head, a singular word—perhaps some flowers upon her breast or in her hand.
She wiped the dishes slowly, concluding the operation by dropping a saucer upon the floor and dreamily sweeping the fragments under the stove. She sighed and replaced the broom near a window, letting her glance wander over the small yard outside. The grass, repulsively besooted to the colour of coal-smoke all winter, had lately come to life again and now sparkled with green, in the midst of which a tiny shot of blue suddenly fixed her absent eyes. They remained upon it for several moments, becoming less absent.
It was a violet.
Alice ran upstairs, put on her hat, went outdoors and began to search out the violets. She found twenty-two, a bright omen—since the number was that of her years—but not enough violets. There were no more; she had ransacked every foot of the yard.
She looked dubiously at the little bunch in her hand, glanced at the lawn next door, which offered no favourable prospect; then went thoughtfully into the house, left her twenty-two violets in a bowl of water, and came quickly out again, her brow marked with a frown of decision. She went to a trolley-line and took a car to the outskirts of the city where a new park had been opened.
Here she resumed her search, but it was not an easily rewarded one, and for an hour after her arrival she found no violets. She walked conscientiously over the whole stretch of meadow, her eyes roving discontentedly; there was never a blue dot in the groomed expanse; but at last, as she came near the borders of an old grove of trees, left untouched by the municipal landscapers, the little flowers appeared, and she began to gather them. She picked them carefully, loosening the earth round each tiny plant, so as to bring the roots up with it, that it might live the longer; and she had brought a napkin, which she drenched at a hydrant, and kept loosely wrapped about the stems of her collection.
The turf was too damp for her to kneel; she worked patiently, stooping from the waist; and when she got home in a drizzle of rain at five o'clock her knees were tremulous with strain, her back ached, and she was tired all over, but she had three hundred violets. Her mother moaned when Alice showed them to her, fragrant in a basin of water.
“Oh, you POOR child! To think of your having to: work so hard to get things that other girls only need; lift their little fingers for!”
“Never mind,” said Alice, huskily. “I've got 'em and I AM going to have a good time to-night!”
“You've just got to!” Mrs. Adams agreed, intensely sympathetic. “The Lord knows you deserve to, after picking all these violets, poor thing, and He wouldn't be mean enough to keep you from it. I may have to get dinner before I finish the dress, but I can get it done in a few minutes afterward, and it's going to look right pretty. Don't you worry about THAT! And with all these lovely violets——”
“I wonder——” Alice began, paused, then went on, fragmentarily: “I suppose—well, I wonder—do you suppose it would have been better policy to have told Walter before——”
“No,” said her mother. “It would only have given him longer to grumble.”
“But he might——”
“Don't worry,” Mrs. Adams reassured her. “He'll be a little cross, but he won't be stubborn; just let me talk to him and don't you say anything at all, no matter what HE says.”
These references to Walter concerned some necessary manoeuvres which took place at dinner, and were conducted by the mother, Alice having accepted her advice to sit in silence. Mrs. Adams began by laughing cheerfully. “I wonder how much longer it took me to cook this dinner than it does Walter to eat it?” she said. “Don't gobble, child! There's no hurry.”
In contact with his own family Walter was no squanderer of words.
“Is for me,” he said. “Got date.”
“I know you have, but there's plenty of time.”
He smiled in benevolent pity. “YOU know, do you? If you made any coffee—don't bother if you didn't. Get some down-town.” He seemed about to rise and depart; whereupon Alice, biting her lip, sent a panic-stricken glance at her mother.
But Mrs. Adams seemed not at all disturbed; and laughed again. “Why, what nonsense, Walter! I'll bring your coffee in a few minutes, but we're going to have dessert first.”
“Some lovely peaches.”
“Doe' want 'ny canned peaches,” said the frank Walter, moving back his chair. “G'-night.”
“Walter! It doesn't begin till about nine o'clock at the earliest.”
He paused, mystified. “What doesn't?”
“Why, Mildred Palmer's dance, of course.”
Walter laughed briefly. “What's that to me?”
“Why, you haven't forgotten it's TO-NIGHT, have you?” Mrs. Adams cried. “What a boy!”
“I told you a week ago I wasn't going to that ole dance,” he returned, frowning. “You heard me.”
“Walter!” she exclaimed. “Of COURSE you're going. I got your clothes all out this afternoon, and brushed them for you. They'll look very nice, and——”
“They won't look nice on ME,” he interrupted. “Got date down-town, I tell you.”
“But of course you'll——”
“See here!” Walter said, decisively. “Don't get any wrong ideas in your head. I'm just as liable to go up to that ole dance at the Palmers' as I am to eat a couple of barrels of broken glass.”
Walter was beginning to be seriously annoyed. “Don't 'Walter' me! I'm no s'ciety snake. I wouldn't jazz with that Palmer crowd if they coaxed me with diamonds.”
“Didn't I tell you it's no use to 'Walter' me?” he demanded.
“My dear child——”
At this Mrs. Adams abandoned her air of amusement, looked hurt, and glanced at the demure Miss Perry across the table. “I'm afraid Miss Perry won't think you have very good manners, Walter.”
“You're right she won't,” he agreed, grimly. “Not if I haf to hear any more about me goin' to——”
But his mother interrupted him with some asperity: “It seems very strange that you always object to going anywhere among OUR friends, Walter.”
“YOUR friends!” he said, and, rising from his chair, gave utterance to an ironical laugh strictly monosyllabic. “Your friends!” he repeated, going to the door. “Oh, yes! Certainly! Good-NIGHT!”
And looking back over his shoulder to offer a final brief view of his derisive face, he took himself out of the room.
Alice gasped: “Mama——”
“I'll stop him!” her mother responded, sharply; and hurried after the truant, catching him at the front door with his hat and raincoat on.
“Told you had a date down-town,” he said, gruffly, and would have opened the door, but she caught his arm and detained him.
“Walter, please come back and finish your dinner. When I take all the trouble to cook it for you, I think you might at least——”
“Now, now!” he said. “That isn't what you're up to. You don't want to make me eat; you want to make me listen.”
“Well, you MUST listen!” She retained her grasp upon his arm, and made it tighter. “Walter, please!” she entreated, her voice becoming tremulous. “PLEASE don't make me so much trouble!”
He drew back from her as far as her hold upon him permitted, and looked at her sharply. “Look here!” he said. “I get you, all right! What's the matter of Alice GOIN' to that party by herself?”
“She just CAN'T!”
“It makes things too MEAN for her, Walter. All the other girls have somebody to depend on after they get there.”
“Well, why doesn't she have somebody?” he asked, testily. “Somebody besides ME, I mean! Why hasn't somebody asked her to go? She ought to be THAT popular, anyhow, I sh'd think—she TRIES enough!”
“I don't understand how you can be so hard,” his mother wailed, huskily. “You know why they don't run after her the way they do the other girls she goes with, Walter. It's because we're poor, and she hasn't got any background.
“'Background?'” Walter repeated. “'Background?' What kind of talk is that?”
“You WILL go with her to-night, Walter?” his mother pleaded, not stopping to enlighten him. “You don't understand how hard things are for her and how brave she is about them, or you COULDN'T be so selfish! It'd be more than I can bear to see her disappointed to-night! She went clear out to Belleview Park this afternoon, Walter, and spent hours and hours picking violets to wear. You WILL——”
Walter's heart was not iron, and the episode of the violets may have reached it. “Oh, BLUB!” he said, and flung his soft hat violently at the wall.
His mother beamed with delight. “THAT'S a good boy, darling! You'll never be sorry you——”
“Cut it out,” he requested. “If I take her, will you pay for a taxi?”
“Oh, Walter!” And again Mrs. Adams showed distress. “Couldn't you?”
“No, I couldn't; I'm not goin' to throw away my good money like that, and you can't tell what time o' night it'll be before she's willin' to come home. What's the matter you payin' for one?”
“I haven't any money.”
She shook her head dolefully. “I got some from him this morning, and I can't bother him for any more; it upsets him. He's ALWAYS been so terribly close with money——”
“I guess he couldn't help that,” Walter observed. “We're liable to go to the poorhouse the way it is. Well, what's the matter our walkin' to this rotten party?”
“In the rain, Walter?”
“Well, it's only a drizzle and we can take a streetcar to within a block of the house.”
Again his mother shook her head. “It wouldn't do.”
“Well, darn the luck, all right!” he consented, explosively. “I'll get her something to ride in. It means seventy-five cents.”
“Why, Walter!” Mrs. Adams cried, much pleased. “Do you know how to get a cab for that little? How splendid!”
“Tain't a cab,” Walter informed her crossly. “It's a tin Lizzie, but you don't haf' to tell her what it is till I get her into it, do you?”
Mrs. Adams agreed that she didn't.