A TOUCH OF SPRING--THE EMPTY SHELL
Those who look upon Hurstwood's Brooklyn venture as an error of judgment will none the less realise the negative influence on him of the fact that he had tried and failed. Carrie got a wrong idea of it. He said so little that she imagined he had encountered nothing worse than the ordinary roughness--quitting so soon in the face of this seemed trifling. He did not want to work.
She was now one of a group of oriental beauties who, in the second act of the comic opera, were paraded by the vizier before the new potentate as the treasures of his harem. There was no word assigned to any of them, but on the evening when Hurstwood was housing himself in the loft of the street-car barn, the leading comedian and star, feeling exceedingly facetious, said in a profound voice, which created a ripple of laughter:
"Well, who are you?"
It merely happened to be Carrie who was courtesying before him. It might as well have been any of the others, so far as he was concerned. He expected no answer and a dull one would have been reproved. But Carrie, whose experience and belief in herself gave her daring, courtesied sweetly again and answered:
"I am yours truly."
It was a trivial thing to say, and yet something in the way she did it caught the audience, which laughed heartily at the mock- fierce potentate towering before the young woman. The comedian also liked it, hearing the laughter.
"I thought your name was Smith," he returned, endeavouring to get the last laugh.
Carrie almost trembled for her daring after she had said this. All members of the company had been warned that to interpolate lines or "business" meant a fine or worse. She did not know what to think.
As she was standing in her proper position in the wings, awaiting another entry, the great comedian made his exit past her and paused in recognition.
"You can just leave that in hereafter," he remarked, seeing how intelligent she appeared. "Don't add any more, though."
"Thank you," said Carrie, humbly. When he went on she found herself trembling violently.
"Well, you're in luck," remarked another member of the chorus. "There isn't another one of us has got a line."
There was no gainsaying the value of this. Everybody in the company realised that she had got a start. Carrie hugged herself when next evening the lines got the same applause. She went home rejoicing, knowing that soon something must come of it. It was Hurstwood who, by his presence, caused her merry thoughts to flee and replaced them with sharp longings for an end of distress.
The next day she asked him about his venture.
"They're not trying to run any cars except with police. They don't want anybody just now--not before next week."
Next week came, but Carrie saw no change. Hurstwood seemed more apathetic than ever. He saw her off mornings to rehearsals and the like with the utmost calm. He read and read. Several times he found himself staring at an item, but thinking of something else. The first of these lapses that he sharply noticed concerned a hilarious party he had once attended at a driving club, of which he had been a member. He sat, gazing downward, and gradually thought he heard the old voices and the clink of glasses.
"You're a dandy, Hurstwood," his friend Walker said. He was standing again well dressed, smiling, good-natured, the recipient of encores for a good story.
All at once he looked up. The room was so still it seemed ghostlike. He heard the clock ticking audibly and half suspected that he had been dozing. The paper was so straight in his hands, however, and the items he had been reading so directly before him, that he rid himself of the doze idea. Still, it seemed peculiar. When it occurred a second time, however, it did not seem quite so strange.
Butcher and grocery man, baker and coal man--not the group with whom he was then dealing, but those who had trusted him to the limit--called. He met them all blandly, becoming deft in excuse. At last he became bold, pretended to be out, or waved them off.
"They can't get blood out of a turnip," he said. "if I had it I'd pay them."
Carrie's little soldier friend, Miss Osborne, seeing her succeeding, had become a sort of satellite. Little Osborne could never of herself amount to anything. She seemed to realise it in a sort of pussy-like way and instinctively concluded to cling with her soft little claws to Carrie.
"Oh, you'll get up," she kept telling Carrie with admiration. "You're so good."
Timid as Carrie was, she was strong in capability. The reliance of others made her feel as if she must, and when she must she dared. Experience of the world and of necessity was in her favour. No longer the lightest word of a man made her head dizzy. She had learned that men could change and fail. Flattery in its most palpable form had lost its force with her. It required superiority--kindly superiority--to move her--the superiority of a genius like Ames.
"I don't like the actors in our company," she told Lola one day. "They're all so struck on themselves."
"Don't you think Mr. Barclay's pretty nice?" inquired Lola, who had received a condescending smile or two from that quarter.
"Oh, he's nice enough," answered Carrie; "but he isn't sincere. He assumes such an air."
Lola felt for her first hold upon Carrie in the following manner:
"Are you paying room-rent where you are?"
"Certainly," answered Carrie. "Why?"
"I know where I could get the loveliest room and bath, cheap. It's too big for me, but it would be just right for two, and the rent is only six dollars a week for both."
"Where?" said Carrie.
"In Seventeenth Street."
"Well, I don't know as I'd care to change," said Carrie, who was already turning over the three-dollar rate in her mind. She was thinking if she had only herself to support this would leave her seventeen for herself.
Nothing came of this until after the Brooklyn adventure of Hurstwood's and her success with the speaking part. Then she began to feel as if she must be free. She thought of leaving Hurstwood and thus making him act for himself, but he had developed such peculiar traits she feared he might resist any effort to throw him off. He might hunt her out at the show and hound her in that way. She did not wholly believe that he would, but he might. This, she knew, would be an embarrassing thing if he made himself conspicuous in any way. It troubled her greatly.
Things were precipitated by the offer of a better part. One of the actresses playing the part of a modest sweetheart gave notice of leaving and Carrie was selected.
"How much are you going to get?" asked Miss Osborne, on hearing the good news.
"I didn't ask him," said Carrie.
"Well, find out. Goodness, you'll never get anything if you don't ask. Tell them you must have forty dollars, anyhow."
"Oh, no," said Carrie.
"Certainly!" exclaimed Lola. "Ask 'em, anyway."
Carrie succumbed to this prompting, waiting, however, until the manager gave her notice of what clothing she must have to fit the part.
"How much do I get?" she inquired.
"Thirty-five dollars," he replied.
Carrie was too much astonished and delighted to think of mentioning forty. She was nearly beside herself, and almost hugged Lola, who clung to her at the news.
"It isn't as much as you ought to get," said the latter, "especially when you've got to buy clothes."
Carrie remembered this with a start. Where to get the money? She had none laid up for such an emergency. Rent day was drawing near.
"I'll not do it," she said, remembering her necessity. "I don't use the flat. I'm not going to give up my money this time. I'll move."
Fitting into this came another appeal from Miss Osborne, more urgent than ever.
"Come live with me, won't you?" she pleaded. "We can have the loveliest room. It won't cost you hardly anything that way."
"I'd like to," said Carrie, frankly.
"Oh, do," said Lola. "We'll have such a good time."
Carrie thought a while.
"I believe I will," she said, and then added: "I'll have to see first, though." With the idea thus grounded, rent day approaching, and clothes calling for instant purchase, she soon found excuse in Hurstwood's lassitude. He said less and drooped more than ever.
As rent day approached, an idea grew in him. It was fostered by the demands of creditors and the impossibility of holding up many more. Twenty-eight dollars was too much for rent. "It's hard on her," he thought. "We could get a cheaper place."
Stirred with this idea, he spoke at the breakfast table.
"Don't you think we pay too much rent here?" he asked.
"Indeed I do," said Carrie, not catching his drift.
"I should think we could get a smaller place," he suggested. "We don't need four rooms."
Her countenance, had he been scrutinising her, would have exhibited the disturbance she felt at this evidence of his determination to stay by her. He saw nothing remarkable in asking her to come down lower.
"Oh, I don't know," she answered, growing wary.
"There must be places around here where we could get a couple of rooms, which would do just as well."
Her heart revolted. "Never!" she thought. Who would furnish the money to move? To think of being in two rooms with him! She resolved to spend her money for clothes quickly, before something terrible happened. That very day she did it. Having done so, there was but one other thing to do.
"Lola," she said, visiting her friend, "I think I'll come."
"Oh, jolly!" cried the latter.
"Can we get it right away?" she asked, meaning the room.
"Certainly," cried Lola.
They went to look at it. Carrie had saved ten dollars from her expenditures--enough for this and her board beside. Her enlarged salary would not begin for ten days yet--would not reach her for seventeen. She paid half of the six dollars with her friend.
"Now, I've just enough to get on to the end of the week," she confided.
"Oh, I've got some," said Lola. "I've got twenty-five dollars, if you need it."
"No," said Carrie. "I guess I'll get along."
They decided to move Friday, which was two days away. Now that the thing was settled, Carrie's heart misgave her. She felt very much like a criminal in the matter. Each day looking at Hurstwood, she had realised that, along with the disagreeableness of his attitude, there was something pathetic.
She looked at him the same evening she had made up her mind to go, and now he seemed not so shiftless and worthless, but run down and beaten upon by chance. His eyes were not keen, his face marked, his hands flabby. She thought his hair had a touch of grey. All unconscious of his doom, he rocked and read his paper, while she glanced at him.
Knowing that the end was so near, she became rather solicitous.
"Will you go over and get some canned peaches?" she asked Hurstwood, laying down a two-dollar bill.
"Certainly," he said, looking in wonder at the money.
"See if you can get some nice asparagus," she added. "I'll cook it for dinner."
Hurstwood rose and took the money, slipping on his overcoat and getting his hat. Carrie noticed that both of these articles of apparel were old and poor looking in appearance. It was plain enough before, but now it came home with peculiar force. Perhaps he couldn't help it, after all. He had done well in Chicago. She remembered his fine appearance the days he had met her in the park. Then he was so sprightly, so clean. Had it been all his fault?
He came back and laid the change down with the food.
"You'd better keep it," she observed. "We'll need other things."
"No," he said, with a sort of pride; "you keep it."
"Oh, go on and keep it," she replied, rather unnerved. "There'll be other things."
He wondered at this, not knowing the pathetic figure he had become in her eyes. She restrained herself with difficulty from showing a quaver in her voice.
To say truly, this would have been Carrie's attitude in any case. She had looked back at times upon her parting from Drouet and had regretted that she had served him so badly. She hoped she would never meet him again, but she was ashamed of her conduct. Not that she had any choice in the final separation. She had gone willingly to seek him, with sympathy in her heart, when Hurstwood had reported him ill. There was something cruel somewhere, and not being able to track it mentally to its logical lair, she concluded with feeling that he would never understand what Hurstwood had done and would see hard-hearted decision in her deed; hence her shame. Not that she cared for him. She did not want to make any one who had been good to her feel badly.
She did not realise what she was doing by allowing these feelings to possess her. Hurstwood, noticing the kindness, conceived better of her. "Carrie's good-natured, anyhow," he thought.
Going to Miss Osborne's that afternoon, she found that little lady packing and singing.
"Why don't you come over with me today?" she asked.
"Oh, I can't," said Carrie. "I'll be there Friday. Would you mind lending me the twenty-five dollars you spoke of?"
"Why, no," said Lola, going for her purse.
"I want to get some other things," said Carrie.
"Oh, that's all right," answered the little girl, good-naturedly, glad to be of service. It had been days since Hurstwood had done more than go to the grocery or to the news-stand. Now the weariness of indoors was upon him--had been for two days--but chill, grey weather had held him back. Friday broke fair and warm. It was one of those lovely harbingers of spring, given as a sign in dreary winter that earth is not forsaken of warmth and beauty. The blue heaven, holding its one golden orb, poured down a crystal wash of warm light. It was plain, from the voice of the sparrows, that all was halcyon outside. Carrie raised the front windows, and felt the south wind blowing.
"It's lovely out to-day," she remarked.
"Is it?" said Hurstwood.
After breakfast, he immediately got his other clothes.
"Will you be back for lunch?" asked Carrie nervously.
"No," he said.
He went out into the streets and tramped north, along Seventh Avenue, idly fixing upon the Harlem River as an objective point. He had seen some ships up there, the time he had called upon the brewers. He wondered how the territory thereabouts was growing.
Passing Fifty-ninth Street, he took the west side of Central Park, which he followed to Seventy-eighth Street. Then he remembered the neighbourhood and turned over to look at the mass of buildings erected. It was very much improved. The great open spaces were filling up. Coming back, he kept to the Park until 110th Street, and then turned into Seventh Avenue again, reaching the pretty river by one o'clock.
There it ran winding before his gaze, shining brightly in the clear light, between the undulating banks on the right and the tall, tree-covered heights on the left. The spring-like atmosphere woke him to a sense of its loveliness, and for a few moments he stood looking at it, folding his hands behind his back. Then he turned and followed it toward the east side, idly seeking the ships he had seen. It was four o'clock before the waning day, with its suggestion of a cooler evening, caused him to return. He was hungry and would enjoy eating in the warm room.
When he reached the flat by half-past five, it was still dark. He knew that Carrie was not there, not only because there was no light showing through the transom, but because the evening papers were stuck between the outside knob and the door. He opened with his key and went in. Everything was still dark. Lighting the gas, he sat down, preparing to wait a little while. Even if Carrie did come now, dinner would be late. He read until six, then got up to fix something for himself.
As he did so, he noticed that the room seemed a little queer. What was it? He looked around, as if he missed something, and then saw an envelope near where he had been sitting. It spoke for itself, almost without further action on his part.
Reaching over, he took it, a sort of chill settling upon him even while he reached. The crackle of the envelope in his hands was loud. Green paper money lay soft within the note.
"Dear George," he read, crunching the money in one hand, "I'm going away. I'm not coming back any more. It's no use trying to keep up the flat; I can't do it. I wouldn't mind helping you, if I could, but I can't support us both, and pay the rent. I need what little I make to pay for my clothes. I'm leaving twenty dollars. It's all I have just now. You can do whatever you like with the furniture. I won't want it.--CARRIE.
He dropped the note and looked quietly round. Now he knew what he missed. It was the little ornamental clock, which was hers. It had gone from the mantelpiece. He went into the front room, his bedroom, the parlour, lighting the gas as he went. From the chiffonier had gone the knick-knacks of silver and plate. From the table-top, the lace coverings. He opened the wardrobe--no clothes of hers. He opened the drawers--nothing of hers. Her trunk was gone from its accustomed place. Back in his own room hung his old clothes, just as he had left them. Nothing else was gone.
He stepped into the parlour and stood for a few moments looking vacantly at the floor. The silence grew oppressive. The little flat seemed wonderfully deserted. He wholly forgot that he was hungry, that it was only dinner-time. It seemed later in the night.
Suddenly, he found that the money was still in his hands. There were twenty dollars in all, as she had said. Now he walked back, leaving the lights ablaze, and feeling as if the flat were empty.
"I'll get out of this," he said to himself.
Then the sheer loneliness of his situation rushed upon him in full.
"Left me!" he muttered, and repeated, "left me!"
The place that had been so comfortable, where he had spent so many days of warmth, was now a memory. Something colder and chillier confronted him. He sank down in his chair, resting his chin in his hand--mere sensation, without thought, holding him.
Then something like a bereaved affection and self-pity swept over him.
"She needn't have gone away," he said. "I'd have got something."
He sat a long while without rocking, and added quite clearly, out loud:
"I tried, didn't I?"
At midnight he was still rocking, staring at the floor.