One morning, that autumn, Mrs. Adams came into Alice's room, and found her completing a sober toilet for the street; moreover, the expression revealed in her mirror was harmonious with the business-like severity of her attire. “What makes you look so cross, dearie?” the mother asked. “Couldn't you find anything nicer to wear than that plain old dark dress?”
“I don't believe I'm cross,” the girl said, absently. “I believe I'm just thinking. Isn't it about time?”
“Time for what?”
“Time for thinking—for me, I mean?”
Disregarding this, Mrs. Adams looked her over thoughtfully. “I can't see why you don't wear more colour,” she said. “At your age it's becoming and proper, too. Anyhow, when you're going on the street, I think you ought to look just as gay and lively as you can manage. You want to show 'em you've got some spunk!”
“How do you mean, mama?”
“I mean about Walter's running away and the mess your father made of his business. It would help to show 'em you're holding up your head just the same.”
“All these other girls that——”
“Not I!” Alice laughed shortly, shaking her head. “I've quit dressing at them, and if they saw me they wouldn't think what you want 'em to. It's funny; but we don't often make people think what we want 'em to, mama. You do thus and so; and you tell yourself, 'Now, seeing me do thus and so, people will naturally think this and that'; but they don't. They think something else—usually just what you DON'T want 'em to. I suppose about the only good in pretending is the fun we get out of fooling ourselves that we fool somebody.”
“Well, but it wouldn't be pretending. You ought to let people see you're still holding your head up because you ARE. You wouldn't want that Mildred Palmer to think you're cast down about—well, you know you wouldn't want HER not to think you're holding your head up, would you?”
“She wouldn't know whether I am or not, mama.” Alice bit her lip, then smiled faintly as she said:
“Anyhow, I'm not thinking about my head in that way—not this morning, I'm not.”
Mrs. Adams dropped the subject casually. “Are you going down-town?” she inquired.
“Just something I want to see about. I'll tell you when I come back. Anything you want me to do?”
“No; I guess not to-day. I thought you might look for a rug, but I'd rather go with you to select it. We'll have to get a new rug for your father's room, I expect.”
“I'm glad you think so, mama. I don't suppose he's ever even noticed it, but that old rug of his—well, really!”
“I didn't mean for him,” her mother explained, thoughtfully. “No; he don't mind it, and he'd likely make a fuss if we changed it on his account. No; what I meant—we'll have to put your father in Walter's room. He won't mind, I don't expect—not much.”
“No, I suppose not,” Alice agreed, rather sadly. “I heard the bell awhile ago. Was it somebody about that?”
“Yes; just before I came upstairs. Mrs. Lohr gave him a note to me, and he was really a very pleasant-looking young man. A VERY pleasant-looking young man,” Mrs. Adams repeated with increased animation and a thoughtful glance at her daughter. “He's a Mr. Will Dickson; he has a first-rate position with the gas works, Mrs. Lohr says, and he's fully able to afford a nice room. So if you and I double up in here, then with that young married couple in my room, and this Mr. Dickson in your father's, we'll just about have things settled. I thought maybe I could make one more place at table, too, so that with the other people from outside we'd be serving eleven altogether. You see if I have to pay this cook twelve dollars a week—it can't be helped, I guess—well, one more would certainly help toward a profit. Of course it's a terribly worrying thing to see how we WILL come out. Don't you suppose we could squeeze in one more?”
“I suppose it COULD be managed; yes.”
Mrs. Adams brightened. “I'm sure it'll be pleasant having that young married couple in the house and especially this Mr. Will Dickson. He seemed very much of a gentleman, and anxious to get settled in good surroundings. I was very favourably impressed with him in every way; and he explained to me about his name; it seems it isn't William, it's just 'Will'; his parents had him christened that way. It's curious.” She paused, and then, with an effort to seem casual, which veiled nothing from her daughter: “It's QUITE curious,” she said again. “But it's rather attractive and different, don't you think?”
“Poor mama!” Alice laughed compassionately. “Poor mama!”
“He is, though,” Mrs. Adams maintained. “He's very much of a gentleman, unless I'm no judge of appearances; and it'll really be nice to have him in the house.”
“No doubt,” Alice said, as she opened her door to depart. “I don't suppose we'll mind having any of 'em as much as we thought we would. Good-bye.”
But her mother detained her, catching her by the arm. “Alice, you do hate it, don't you!”
“No,” the girl said, quickly. “There wasn't anything else to do.”
Mrs. Adams became emotional at once: her face cried tragedy, and her voice misfortune. “There MIGHT have been something else to do! Oh, Alice, you gave your father bad advice when you upheld him in taking a miserable little ninety-three hundred and fifty from that old wretch! If your father'd just had the gumption to hold out, they'd have had to pay him anything he asked. If he'd just had the gumption and a little manly COURAGE——”
“Hush!” Alice whispered, for her mother's voice grew louder. “Hush! He'll hear you, mama.”
“Could he hear me too often?” the embittered lady asked. “If he'd listened to me at the right time, would we have to be taking in boarders and sinking DOWN in the scale at the end of our lives, instead of going UP? You were both wrong; we didn't need to be so panicky—that was just what that old man wanted: to scare us and buy us out for nothing! If your father'd just listened to me then, or if for once in his life he'd just been half a MAN——”
Alice put her hand over her mother's mouth. “You mustn't! He WILL hear you!”
But from the other side of Adams's closed door his voice came querulously. “Oh, I HEAR her, all right!”
“You see, mama?” Alice said, and, as Mrs. Adams turned away, weeping, the daughter sighed; then went in to speak to her father.
He was in his old chair by the table, with a pillow behind his head, but the crocheted scarf and Mrs. Adams's wrapper swathed him no more; he wore a dressing-gown his wife had bought for him, and was smoking his pipe. “The old story, is it?” he said, as Alice came in. “The same, same old story! Well, well! Has she gone?”
“Got your hat on,” he said. “Where you going?”
“I'm going down-town on an errand of my own. Is there anything you want, papa?”
“Yes, there is.” He smiled at her. “I wish you'd sit down a while and talk to me unless your errand——”
“No,” she said, taking a chair near him. “I was just going down to see about some arrangements I was making for myself. There's no hurry.”
“What arrangements for yourself, dearie?”
“I'll tell you afterwards—after I find out something about 'em myself.”
“All right,” he said, indulgently. “Keep your secrets; keep your secrets.” He paused, drew musingly upon his pipe, and shook his head. “Funny—the way your mother looks at things! For the matter o' that, everything's pretty funny, I expect, if you stop to think about it. For instance, let her say all she likes, but we were pushed right spang to the wall, if J. A. Lamb hadn't taken it into his head to make that offer for the works; and there's one of the things I been thinking about lately, Alice: thinking about how funny they work out.”
“What did you think about it, papa!”
“Well, I've seen it happen in other people's lives, time and time again; and now it's happened in ours. You think you're going to be pushed right up against the wall; you can't see any way out, or any hope at all; you think you're GONE—and then something you never counted on turns up; and, while maybe you never do get back to where you used to be, yet somehow you kind of squirm out of being right SPANG against the wall. You keep on going—maybe you can't go much, but you do go a little. See what I mean?”
“Yes. I understand, dear.”
“Yes, I'm afraid you do,” he said. “Too bad! You oughtn't to understand it at your age. It seems to me a good deal as if the Lord really meant for the young people to have the good times, and for the old to have the troubles; and when anybody as young as you has trouble there's a big mistake somewhere.”
“Oh, no!” she protested.
But he persisted whimsically in this view of divine error: “Yes, it does look a good deal that way. But of course we can't tell; we're never certain about anything—not about anything at all. Sometimes I look at it another way, though. Sometimes it looks to me as if a body's troubles came on him mainly because he hadn't had sense enough to know how not to have any—as if his troubles were kind of like a boy's getting kept in after school by the teacher, to give him discipline, or something or other. But, my, my! We don't learn easy!” He chuckled mournfully. “Not to learn how to live till we're about ready to die, it certainly seems to me dang tough!”
“Then I wouldn't brood on such a notion, papa,” she said.
“'Brood?' No!” he returned. “I just kind o' mull it over.” He chuckled again, sighed, and then, not looking at her, he said, “That Mr. Russell—your mother tells me he hasn't been here again—not since——”
“No,” she said, quietly, as Adams paused. “He never came again.”
“Well, but maybe——”
“No,” she said. “There isn't any 'maybe.' I told him good-bye that night, papa. It was before he knew about Walter—I told you.”
“Well, well,” Adams said. “Young people are entitled to their own privacy; I don't want to pry.” He emptied his pipe into a chipped saucer on the table beside him, laid the pipe aside, and reverted to a former topic. “Speaking of dying——”
“Well, but we weren't!” Alice protested.
“Yes, about not knowing how to live till you're through living—and THEN maybe not!” he said, chuckling at his own determined pessimism. “I see I'm pretty old because I talk this way—I remember my grandmother saying things a good deal like all what I'm saying now; I used to hear her at it when I was a young fellow—she was a right gloomy old lady, I remember. Well, anyhow, it reminds me: I want to get on my feet again as soon as I can; I got to look around and find something to go into.”
Alice shook her head gently. “But, papa, he told you——”
“Never mind throwing that dang doctor up at me!” Adams interrupted, peevishly. “He said I'd be good for SOME kind of light job—if I could find just the right thing. 'Where there wouldn't be either any physical or mental strain,' he said. Well, I got to find something like that. Anyway, I'll feel better if I can just get out LOOKING for it.”
“But, papa, I'm afraid you won't find it, and you'll be disappointed.”
“Well, I want to hunt around and SEE, anyhow.”
Alice patted his hand. “You must just be contented, papa. Everything's going to be all right, and you mustn't get to worrying about doing anything. We own this house it's all clear—and you've taken care of mama and me all our lives; now it's our turn.”
“No, sir!” he said, querulously. “I don't like the idea of being the landlady's husband around a boarding-house; it goes against my gizzard. I know: makes out the bills for his wife Sunday mornings—works with a screw-driver on somebody's bureau drawer sometimes—'tends the furnace maybe—one the boarders gives him a cigar now and then. That's a FINE life to look forward to! No, sir; I don't want to finish as a landlady's husband!”
Alice looked grave; for she knew the sketch was but too accurately prophetic in every probability. “But, papa,” she said, to console him, “don't you think maybe there isn't such a thing as a 'finish,' after all! You say perhaps we don't learn to live till we die but maybe that's how it is AFTER we die, too—just learning some more, the way we do here, and maybe through trouble again, even after that.”
“Oh, it might be,” he sighed. “I expect so.”
“Well, then,” she said, “what's the use of talking about a 'finish?' We do keep looking ahead to things as if they'd finish something, but when we get TO them, they don't finish anything. They're just part of going on. I'll tell you—I looked ahead all summer to something I was afraid of, and I said to myself, 'Well, if that happens, I'm finished!' But it wasn't so, papa. It did happen, and nothing's finished; I'm going on, just the same only——” She stopped and blushed.
“Only what?” he asked.
“Well——” She blushed more deeply, then jumped up, and, standing before him, caught both his hands in hers. “Well, don't you think, since we do have to go on, we ought at least to have learned some sense about how to do it?”
He looked up at her adoringly.
“What I think,” he said, and his voice trembled;—“I think you're the smartest girl in the world! I wouldn't trade you for the whole kit-and-boodle of 'em!”
But as this folly of his threatened to make her tearful, she kissed him hastily, and went forth upon her errand.
Since the night of the tragic-comic dinner she had not seen Russell, nor caught even the remotest chance glimpse of him; and it was curious that she should encounter him as she went upon such an errand as now engaged her. At a corner, not far from that tobacconist's shop she had just left when he overtook her and walked with her for the first time, she met him to-day. He turned the corner, coming toward her, and they were face to face; whereupon that engaging face of Russell's was instantly reddened, but Alice's remained serene.
She stopped short, though; and so did he; then she smiled brightly as she put out her hand.
“Why, Mr. Russell!”
“I'm so—I'm so glad to have this—this chance,” he stammered. “I've wanted to tell you—it's just that going into a new undertaking—this business life—one doesn't get to do a great many things he'd like to. I hope you'll let me call again some time, if I can.”
“Yes, do!” she said, cordially, and then, with a quick nod, went briskly on.
She breathed more rapidly, but knew that he could not have detected it, and she took some pride in herself for the way she had met this little crisis. But to have met it with such easy courage meant to her something more reassuring than a momentary pride in the serenity she had shown. For she found that what she had resolved in her inmost heart was now really true: she was “through with all that!”
She walked on, but more slowly, for the tobacconist's shop was not far from her now—and, beyond it, that portal of doom, Frincke's Business College. Already Alice could read the begrimed gilt letters of the sign; and although they had spelled destiny never with a more painful imminence than just then, an old habit of dramatizing herself still prevailed with her.
There came into her mind a whimsical comparison of her fate with that of the heroine in a French romance she had read long ago and remembered well, for she had cried over it. The story ended with the heroine's taking the veil after a death blow to love; and the final scene again became vivid to Alice, for a moment. Again, as when she had read and wept, she seemed herself to stand among the great shadows in the cathedral nave; smelled the smoky incense on the enclosed air, and heard the solemn pulses of the organ. She remembered how the novice's father knelt, trembling, beside a pillar of gray stone; how the faithless lover watched and shivered behind the statue of a saint; how stifled sobs and outcries were heard when the novice came to the altar; and how a shaft of light struck through the rose-window, enveloping her in an amber glow.
It was the vision of a moment only, and for no longer than a moment did Alice tell herself that the romance provided a prettier way of taking the veil than she had chosen, and that a faithless lover, shaking with remorse behind a saint's statue, was a greater solace than one left on a street corner protesting that he'd like to call some time—if he could! Her pity for herself vanished more reluctantly; but she shook it off and tried to smile at it, and at her romantic recollections—at all of them. She had something important to think of.
She passed the tobacconist's, and before her was that dark entrance to the wooden stairway leading up to Frincke's Business College—the very doorway she had always looked upon as the end of youth and the end of hope.
How often she had gone by here, hating the dreary obscurity of that stairway; how often she had thought of this obscurity as something lying in wait to obliterate the footsteps of any girl who should ascend into the smoky darkness above! Never had she passed without those ominous imaginings of hers: pretty girls turning into old maids “taking dictation”—old maids of a dozen different types, yet all looking a little like herself.
Well, she was here at last! She looked up and down the street quickly, and then, with a little heave of the shoulders, she went bravely in, under the sign, and began to climb the wooden steps. Half-way up the shadows were heaviest, but after that the place began to seem brighter. There was an open window overhead somewhere, she found; and the steps at the top were gay with sunshine.