The Story of Julia Page

by Kathleen Norris

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Julia found the family as usual in the kitchen, and the kitchen as usual dirty and close. Her old grandmother, a little bent figure in a loose calico wrapper, was rocking in a chair by the stove. Julia's mother was helpless in a great wheeled chair, with blankets and pillows carelessly disposed about her, and her eager eyes bright in a face chiselled by pain. Sitting at the table was a heavy, sad-faced woman, with several front teeth missing, in whom Julia recognized her aunt, Mrs. Torney. A girl of thirteen, with her somewhat colourless hair in untidy braids, and a flannel bandage high about her throat, came downstairs at the sound of Julia's entrance. This was Regina Torney.

"Well, it's Julia!" Mrs. Cox said. "And the darlin' sweetie—you oughtn't to bring her out such weather, Julie! How's them little hands?"

She took the baby, and Julia kissed her mother and aunt, expecting to draw from the former the usual long complaints when she said:

"How are you, dear? How does the chair go?"

But Mrs. Page surprised her by some new quality in her look and tone, something poignantly touching and admirable. She was a thin little shadow of her former self now, the skin drawn tight and shining over her cheek bones, her almost useless hands resting on a pillow in her lap. She wore a soiled dark wrapper, her dark hair, still without a touch of gray, was in disorder, and her blankets and pillows were not clean. She smiled at her daughter.

"I declare, Ju, you do seem to bring the good fresh air in with you whenever you come! Don't her cheeks look pretty, Regina? Why, I'm just about the same, Ju. To-day's a real bad day, on account of the rain, but I had a good night."

"She's had an awful week, Julia. She don't seem to get no better," Mrs. Torney said heavily. "I was just saying that it almost seems like she isn't going to get well; it just seems like it had got hold of her!"

Julia sat down next to her mother, and laid her own warm young hand over the hand on the pillow.

"What does the doctor say?" she asked, looking from one discouraging face to another.

"Oh, I don't know!" Mrs. Page said, sighing, and old Mrs. Cox cackled out a shrill "Doctors don't know nothing, anyway!"

"Emeline sent for me," Mrs. Torney said in a sad, droning voice. "Mamma just couldn't manage it, Julia; she's getting on; she can't do everything. So me and Regina gave up the Oakland house, and we've been here three weeks. We didn't want to do it, Julia, but you couldn't blame us if you'd read your Mamma's letter. Regina's going to work as soon as she can, and help out!"

Julia understood a certain deprecatory and apologetic note in her aunt's voice to refer to the fact that the Shotwell Street house was largely supported by Jim's generous monthly cheque, and that in establishing herself and her youngest daughter there she more or less avowedly added one more burden to Julia's shoulders.

"I'm glad you did, Auntie," she answered cheerfully. "How's Muriel? And where's Geraldine?"

"Geraldine's at school," Mrs. Torney said mournfully. "But Regina's not going to start in here. She done awfully well in school, too, Julia, but, as I say, she feels she ought to get to work now. She's got an awful sore throat, too. Muriel's started the nursing course, but I don't believe she can go on with it, it's something fierce. All my children have weak stomachs; she says the smell in the hospital makes her awfully sick. I don't feel real well myself; every time I stand up—my God! I feel as if my back was going to split in two, and yet with poor Em this way I felt as if I had ter come. Not that I can do anything for Emeline, but I was losing money on my boarders. I wish't you'd come out Sunday, Julia, I cooked a real good dinner, didn't I, Ma?"

Mrs. Cox did not hear, and Julia turned to her mother.

"Made up your mind really to go, Ju?" Mrs. Page asked.

"Oh, really! We leave on the seventh."

"I've always wanted to go somewheres on a ship," Emeline said. "Didn't care so much what it was when I got there, but wanted to go!"

"So have I," contributed Mrs. Torney. "I was real like you at your age, Julia, and I used to think I'd do this and that when the children was big. Well, some of us are lucky and some of us aren't—ain't that it, Ma? I was talking to a priest about it once," she pursued, "and he said, 'Well, Mrs. Torney, if there was no sorrow and suffering in the world, there wouldn't be no saints!' 'Oh, Father,' I says, 'there isn't much of the saint in me! But,' I says, 'I've been a faithful wife and mother, if I say it; seven children I've raised and two I've buried; I've worked my hands to the bone,' I says, 'and the Lord has sent me nothing but trouble!'"

"Ma, ain't you going to put your clothes on and go to the store?" Regina said.

"I was going to," Mrs. Torney said, sighing, "but I think maybe now I'll wait, and let Geraldine go—she'll have her things on."

"I suppose you haven't got any milk?" Mrs. Page said. "I declare I get to feeling awfully gone about this time!"

"We haven't a drop, Em," Mrs. Torney said, after investigating a small back porch, from which Julia got a strong whiff of wet ashes and decaying cabbage leaves.

"How much milk do you get regularly?" Julia asked, looking worried.

"Oh, my dear," Mrs. Torney said, from the sink, where she was attacking a greasy frying pan with cold water and a gray rag worn into holes, "you forget we ain't rich people here. We don't have him leave milk, but if we want it we put a bottle out on the back steps."

"You ought to have plenty of milk, Mama, taking those strong, depressing medicines!" Julia said.

"Well, I ain't got much appetite, Julie," her mother answered, with that new and touching smile. "Now, last night the girls had cabbage and corn beef cooking—I used to be real fond of that dinner, but it almost made me sick, just smelling it! So Geraldine fried me an egg, yet that didn't taste good, either! Gettin' old and fussy, I guess!"

Julia felt the tears press suddenly behind her eyes as she answered the patient smile. "Mama, I think you are terribly patient!" said she.

"I guess you can get used to anything!" Emeline said.

Regina coughed, and huddled herself in her chair.

"But I thought since we had the air-tight stove put in the other room you were going to use it more?" said Julia, as Mrs. Torney shook down the cooking stove with a violence that filled the air with the acrid taste of ashes.

"Well, we do sometimes. I meant to clean it to-day and get it started again," her aunt said. "I'm sure I don't know what we're going to do for dinner, Ma," she added. "Here it is getting round to five, and Geraldine hasn't come in. I don't know what on earth she does with herself—weather like this!"

Mrs. Cox made no response; she was nodding in the twilight over the little relaxed figure of the baby; a fat little white-clad leg rolled on her knee as she rocked. A moment later Geraldine, a heavy, highly coloured girl, much what her sister Marguerite had been ten years before, burst in, cold, wet, and tired, with a strapful of wet books which she flung on the table.

"My Lord, what do you keep this place so dark for, Ma!" said Geraldine. "It's something awful! Hello, Julia!" She kissed her cousin, picked Julia's big muff from a chair, and pressed the soft sables for a moment to her face. "Well, the little old darling, she's asleep, isn't she?" she murmured over the baby. "Say, Mamma," she went on more briskly, "I've got company coming to-night—"

"You!" said Julia, smiling, and laying an affectionate hand on her young cousin's shoulder, as she stood beside her. "Why, how old are you, child?"

"I'm sixteen—nearly," Geraldine said stoutly. "Didn't you have beaus when you were sixteen?"

"I suppose I did!" Julia admitted, smiling. "But you seem awfully young!"

"I thought—maybe you'd go to the store for me," said Mrs. Torney. Geraldine glared at her.

"Oh, my God! haven't the things come?" she demanded, in shrill disgust. "I can't, Mamma, I'm sopping wet, and I've got to clean the parlour. It's all over ashes, and mud, and the Lord knows what!"

"Well, I couldn't get out to-day, that's all there is to that," Mrs. Torney defended herself sharply. "My back's been like it was on fire. I've jest been resting all day. And when you go upstairs you won't find a thing straightened, so don't get mad about that—I haven't been able to do one thing! Regina's been real sick, too; she may have made the beds—she was upstairs a while—"

"She didn't!" supplied Regina herself, speaking over her shoulder as she lighted the gas. They all blinked in the harsh sudden light.

"Oh, Lord!" Geraldine was beginning, when Julia interrupted soothingly:

"See here, I have the car here; Chadwick was to come back at five. Let me send him for the things! What do we want?"

"Well, we don't want to keep you, lovey," her mother began. But Julia was already writing a list.

"Indeed I'm going to stay and have some with you, Mrs. Page," she said cheerfully. "Chops for the family—aren't those quickest? And a quart of oysters for Mama, and cake and cheese and jam and eggs—tell me anything you think of, Aunt May, because he might as well do it thoroughly!

"Mama and Regina are going to have oyster soup and toast because they are the invalids!" she announced cheerfully, coming back from the door a little later, "You like oysters, don't you, Mama?"

"Oh, Julia, I like 'em so much!" Mrs. Page said, with grateful fervour.

"You can have other things, too, you know, Madam," Julia assured her playfully. "And why don't you let me push you, so—" She wheeled the chair across the kitchen as she spoke. "Over here, you see, you're out of the crowd," she said. She presently put a coaxing arm about Regina. "Do go up and brush your hair and change, dear, you'll feel so much better," she urged.

"I feel rotten," Regina said, dragging herself stairward nevertheless.

Poor Mrs. Page cried when the moment for parting came. It was still early in the evening when Julia bundled up the sleeping Anna, and sent her to the motor car by Chester, a gentle gray-haired man, who had been extremely appreciative of a good dinner, and who had been sitting with his wet socks in the oven, and his stupid kindly eyes contentedly fixed upon Julia and her mother.

"I may not see you again, Julie," Mrs. Page said with trembling lips. "Mama ain't strong like she once was, dear. And I declare I don't know what I shall do, when day after day goes by and you don't come in—always so sweet!" The tears began to flow, and she twisted her head, and slowly and painfully raised her handkerchief in a crippled hand to dry her eyes. Julia knelt down to kiss her, her young face very sober.

"Listen, Mama—don't cry! Please don't cry!" said she. "Listen! I'll promise you to see you again before I go!"

Her mother brightened visibly at this, and Julia kissed her again, and ran out in the dripping rain to her car. She took the baby into her arms, and settled back in the darkness for the long trip to her hotel. And for the first time in many months her thoughts were not of her own troubles.

She thought of the Shotwell Street house, and wondered what had attracted her grandfather and grandmother to it, forty years ago. She tried to see her mother there, a slender, dark-haired child; tried to imagine her aunt as young and fresh and hopeful. Had the rooms been dark and dirty even then? Julia feared so; in none of her mother's reminiscences was there ever any tenderness or affection for early memories of Shotwell Street. Four young people had gone out from that house, nearly thirty years ago, how badly equipped to meet life!

Julia's own earliest recollections centred in it. She remembered herself as an elaborately dressed little child, shaking out her little flounces for her grandmother's admiration, and having large hats tied over her flushed sticky face and tumbled curls. She remembered that, instead of the row of cheap two-story flats that now faced it, there had been a vacant lot across the street then, where horses sometimes galloped. She remembered the Chester of those days, a pimply, constantly smoking youth, who gave her little pictures of actresses from his cigarette boxes, and other little pictures that, being held to a strong light, developed additional figures and lettering. He called her "Miss O'Farrell of Page Street" sometimes, and liked to poke her plump little person until she giggled herself almost into hysterics.

Still dreaming of the old times, she reached her hotel, and while Ellie settled the baby into her waiting crib, Julia sat down before a fire, her slippered feet to the comfortable coals, her loose mandarin robe deliciously warm and restful after the tiring day.

"You want the lights, Mrs. Studdiford?" asked Ellie, tiptoeing in from the next room.

"Oh, no, thank you!" Julia said. "I'll just sit here for a while, and then go to bed."

Ellie went softly out; the clock struck nine—ten—eleven. Against the closely curtained windows the rain still fell with a softened hiss, the coals broke, flamed up, died down to a rosy glow. Still Julia sat, sunk in her deep chair, musing.

She saw the Shotwell Street house changed, and made, for the first time in its years of tenancy, into a home. There must be paint outside, clean paint, there must be a garden, with a brick path and rose bushes, where a little girl might take her first stumbling steps, and where spring would make a brave showing in green and white for the eyes of tired homegoers.

Indoors there should be a cool little orderly dining-room, with blue china on its shelves, and a blue rug under the round table, and there should be a drawing-room papered in clean tans and curtained in cream colour, with an upright piano and comfortable chairs. The ugly old storeroom off the kitchen must be her mother's; it must have new windows cut, and nothing but what was new and pretty must go in there. And the kitchen should have blue-and-white linoleum, with curtains and shining tinware; there must be the gleam of scrubbed white woodwork, the shine of polished metal. It was a big kitchen, the invalid might still like to have her chair there.

The basement's big, unused front room must be finished in durable burlaps and grass matting for Uncle Chester; there must be a bath upstairs; two rooms for Aunt May and the girls, one for Grandma, one for Julia and little Anna.

So much for externals. But what of changing the tenants to suit the house? Would time and patience ever transform Mrs. Torney into a busy, useful woman? Would Geraldine and Regina develop into hopeless incompetents like Marguerite, or pay Julia for all her trouble by becoming happy and helpful and contented?

Time must show. Only the days and the years would answer the question that Julia asked of the fire. There must be patience, there must be endless effort, there would be times of bitterest discouragement and depression. And in the end?

In the end there would only be, at best, one family, out of millions of other families, saved from unnecessary suffering. There would be only one household lifted from the weight of incompetence and wretchedness that burdened the world. There would be no miracle, no appreciation, no gratitude.

"But—who knows?" mused Julia. "It may save Geraldine and Regina from lives like Rita's, and bitterness like Muriel's and Evelyn's. It may save them from clouding their lives as I did mine. Rita's children, too, who knows what a clean and sweet ideal—held before them, may do for them? And poor Chess, who has been wronged all his life, and my poor little grandmother, and Mama—"

It was the thought of her mother that turned the scale. Julia thought of the dirty blankets and the soggy pillow that furnished the invalid's chair, of the treat that a simple bowl of oyster soup seemed to the failing appetite.

"And I can do it!" she said to herself. "It will be hard for months and months, and it will be hard now to make Aunt Sanna see that I am right; but I can do it!" She looked about the luxurious room, and smiled a little sadly. "No more of this!" she thought. And then longing for her husband came with a sick rush. "Oh, Jimmy!" she whispered, with filling eyes. "If it was only you and me, my darling! If we were going anywhere together, to the poorest neighbourhood and the meanest cabin in the world—how blessed I would be! How we could work and laugh and plan together, for Anna and the others!" But presently the tears dried on her cheeks. "Never mind, it will keep me from thinking too hard," she thought. "I shall be needed, I shall be busy, and nothing else matters much!"

She got up, and went to one of the great windows that looked down across the city. The rain was over, dark masses of cloud were breaking and stirring overhead; through their rifts she caught the silver glimmer of the troubled moon. Across the shadowy band that was the bay a ferryboat, pricked with hundreds of tiny lights, was moving toward the glittering chain of Oakland. There was a light on Alcatraz, and other nearer lights scattered through the dark masts and dim hulks of the vessels in the harbour below her.

"It will be bright to-morrow!" Julia thought, resting her forehead against the glass. She was weary and spent; a measureless exhaustion seemed to enfold her. Yet under it all there glowed some new spark of warm reassurance and certainty. "Thank God, I see my way clear at last!" she said softly.

Return to the The Story of Julia Page Summary Return to the Kathleen Norris Library

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.