Part I: Stories - Her Boss
Paul Wanning opened the front door of his house in Orange, closed it softly behind him, and stood looking about the hall as he drew off his gloves.
Nothing was changed there since last night, and yet he stood gazing about him with an interest which a long-married man does not often feel in his own reception hall. The rugs, the two pillars, the Spanish tapestry chairs, were all the same. The Venus di Medici stood on her column as usual and there, at the end of the hall (opposite the front door), was the full-length portrait of Mrs. Wanning, maturely blooming forth in an evening gown, signed with the name of a French painter who seemed purposely to have made his signature indistinct. Though the signature was largely what one paid for, one couldn’t ask him to do it over.
In the dining room the colored man was moving about the table set for dinner, under the electric cluster. The candles had not yet been lighted. Wanning watched him with a homesick feeling in his heart. They had had Sam a long while, twelve years, now. His warm hall, the lighted dining-room, the drawing room where only the flicker of the wood fire played upon the shining surfaces of many objects—they seemed to Wanning like a haven of refuge. It had never occurred to him that his house was too full of things. He often said, and he believed, that the women of his household had “perfect taste.” He had paid for these objects, sometimes with difficulty, but always with pride. He carried a heavy life-insurance and permitted himself to spend most of the income from a good law practise. He wished, during his life-time, to enjoy the benefits of his wife’s discriminating extravagance.
Yesterday Wanning’s doctor had sent him to a specialist. Today the specialist, after various laboratory tests, had told him most disconcerting things about the state of very necessary, but hitherto wholly uninteresting, organs of his body.
The information pointed to something incredible; insinuated that his residence in this house was only temporary; that he, whose time was so full, might have to leave not only his house and his office and his club, but a world with which he was extremely well satisfied—the only world he knew anything about.
Wanning unbuttoned his overcoat, but did not take it off. He stood folding his muffler slowly and carefully. What he did not understand was, how he could go while other people stayed. Sam would be moving about the table like this, Mrs. Wanning and her daughters would be dressing upstairs, when he would not be coming home to dinner any more; when he would not, indeed, be dining anywhere.
Sam, coming to turn on the parlor lights, saw Wanning and stepped behind him to take his coat.
“Good evening, Mr. Wanning, sah, excuse me. You entahed so quietly, sah, I didn’t heah you.”
The master of the house slipped out of his coat and went languidly upstairs.
He tapped at the door of his wife’s room, which stood ajar.
“Come in, Paul,” she called from her dressing table.
She was seated, in a violet dressing gown, giving the last touches to her coiffure, both arms lifted. They were firm and white, like her neck and shoulders. She was a handsome woman of fifty-five,—still a woman, not an old person, Wanning told himself, as he kissed her cheek. She was heavy in figure, to be sure, but she had kept, on the whole, presentable outlines. Her complexion was good, and she wore less false hair than either of her daughters.
Wanning himself was five years older, but his sandy hair did not show the gray in it, and since his mustache had begun to grow white he kept it clipped so short that it was unobtrusive. His fresh skin made him look younger than he was. Not long ago he had overheard the stenographers in his law office discussing the ages of their employers. They had put him down at fifty, agreeing that his two partners must be considerably older than he—which was not the case. Wanning had an especially kindly feeling for the little new girl, a copyist, who had exclaimed that “Mr. Wanning couldn’t be fifty; he seemed so boyish!”
Wanning lingered behind his wife, looking at her in the mirror.
“Well, did you tell the girls, Julia?” he asked, trying to speak casually.
Mrs. Wanning looked up and met his eyes in the glass. “The girls?”
She noticed a strange expression come over his face.
“About your health, you mean? Yes, dear, but I tried not to alarm them. They feel dreadfully. I’m going to have a talk with Dr. Seares myself. These specialists are all alarmists, and I’ve often heard of his frightening people.”
She rose and took her husband’s arm, drawing him toward the fireplace.
“You are not going to let this upset you, Paul? If you take care of yourself, everything will come out all right. You have always been so strong. One has only to look at you.”
“Did you,” Wanning asked, “say anything to Harold?”
“Yes, of course. I saw him in town today, and he agrees with me that Seares draws the worst conclusions possible. He says even the young men are always being told the most terrifying things. Usually they laugh at the doctors and do as they please. You certainly don’t look like a sick man, and you don’t feel like one, do you?”
She patted his shoulder, smiled at him encouragingly, and rang for the maid to come and hook her dress.
When the maid appeared at the door, Wanning went out through the bathroom to his own sleeping chamber. He was too much dispirited to put on a dinner coat, though such remissness was always noticed. He sat down and waited for the sound of the gong, leaving his door open, on the chance that perhaps one of his daughters would come in.
When Wanning went down to dinner he found his wife already at her chair, and the table laid for four.
“Harold,” she explained, “is not coming home. He has to attend a first night in town.”
A moment later their two daughters entered, obviously “dressed.” They both wore earrings and masses of hair. The daughters’ names were Roma and Florence,—Roma, Firenze, one of the young men who came to the house often, but not often enough, had called them. Tonight they were going to a rehearsal of “The Dances of the Nations,”—a benefit performance in which Miss Roma was to lead the Spanish dances, her sister the Grecian.
The elder daughter had often been told that her name suited her admirably. She looked, indeed, as we are apt to think the unrestrained beauties of later Rome must have looked,—but as their portrait busts emphatically declare they did not. Her head was massive, her lips full and crimson, her eyes large and heavy-lidded, her forehead low. At costume balls and in living pictures she was always Semiramis, or Poppea, or Theodora. Barbaric accessories brought out something cruel and even rather brutal in her handsome face. The men who were attracted to her were somehow afraid of her.
Florence was slender, with a long, graceful neck, a restless head, and a flexible mouth—discontent lurked about the corners of it. Her shoulders were pretty, but her neck and arms were too thin. Roma was always struggling to keep within a certain weight—her chin and upper arms grew persistently more solid—and Florence was always striving to attain a certain weight. Wanning used sometimes to wonder why these disconcerting fluctuations could not go the other way; why Roma could not melt away as easily as did her sister, who had to be sent to Palm Beach to save the precious pounds.
“I don’t see why you ever put Rickie Allen in charge of the English country dances,” Florence said to her sister, as they sat down. “He knows the figures, of course, but he has no real style.”
Roma looked annoyed. Rickie Allen was one of the men who came to the house almost often enough.
“He is absolutely to be depended upon, that’s why,” she said firmly.
“I think he is just right for it, Florence,” put in Mrs. Wanning. “It’s remarkable he should feel that he can give up the time; such a busy man. He must be very much interested in the movement.”
Florence’s lip curled drolly under her soup spoon. She shot an amused glance at her mother’s dignity.
“Nothing doing,” her keen eyes seemed to say.
Though Florence was nearly thirty and her sister a little beyond, there was, seriously, nothing doing. With so many charms and so much preparation, they never, as Florence vulgarly said, quite pulled it off. They had been rushed, time and again, and Mrs. Wanning had repeatedly steeled herself to bear the blow. But the young men went to follow a career in Mexico or the Philippines, or moved to Yonkers, and escaped without a mortal wound.
Roma turned graciously to her father.
“I met Mr. Lane at the Holland House today, where I was lunching with the Burtons, father. He asked about you, and when I told him you were not so well as usual, he said he would call you up. He wants to tell you about some doctor he discovered in Iowa, who cures everything with massage and hot water. It sounds freakish, but Mr. Lane is a very clever man, isn’t he?”
“Very,” assented Wanning.
“I should think he must be!” sighed Mrs. Wanning. “How in the world did he make all that money, Paul? He didn’t seem especially promising years ago, when we used to see so much of them.”
“Corporation business. He’s attorney for the P. L. and G.,” murmured her husband.
“What a pile he must have!” Florence watched the old negro’s slow movements with restless eyes. “Here is Jenny, a Contessa, with a glorious palace in Genoa that her father must have bought her. Surely Aldrini had nothing. Have you seen the baby count’s pictures, Roma? They’re very cunning. I should think you’d go to Genoa and visit Jenny.”
“We must arrange that, Roma. It’s such an opportunity.” Though Mrs. Wanning addressed her daughter, she looked at her husband. “You would get on so well among their friends. When Count Aldrini was here you spoke Italian much better than poor Jenny. I remember when we entertained him, he could scarcely say anything to her at all.”
Florence tried to call up an answering flicker of amusement upon her sister’s calm, well-bred face. She thought her mother was rather outdoing herself tonight,—since Aldrini had at least managed to say the one important thing to Jenny, somehow, somewhere. Jenny Lane had been Roma’s friend and schoolmate, and the Count was an ephemeral hope in Orange. Mrs. Wanning was one of the first matrons to declare that she had no prejudices against foreigners, and at the dinners that were given for the Count, Roma was always put next him to act as interpreter.
Roma again turned to her father.
“If I were you, dear, I would let Mr. Lane tell me about his doctor. New discoveries are often made by queer people.”
Roma’s voice was low and sympathetic; she never lost her dignity.
Florence asked if she might have her coffee in her room, while she dashed off a note, and she ran upstairs humming “Bright Lights” and wondering how she was going to stand her family until the summer scattering. Why could Roma never throw off her elegant reserve and call things by their names? She sometimes thought she might like her sister, if she would only come out in the open and howl about her disappointments.
Roma, drinking her coffee deliberately, asked her father if they might have the car early, as they wanted to pick up Mr. Allen and Mr. Rydberg on their way to rehearsal.
Wanning said certainly. Heaven knew he was not stingy about his car, though he could never quite forget that in his day it was the young men who used to call for the girls when they went to rehearsals.
“You are going with us, Mother?” Roma asked as they rose.
“I think so dear. Your father will want to go to bed early, and I shall sleep better if I go out. I am going to town tomorrow to pour tea for Harold. We must get him some new silver, Paul. I am quite ashamed of his spoons.”
Harold, the only son, was a playwright—as yet “unproduced”—and he had a studio in Washington Square.
A half-hour later, Wanning was alone in his library. He would not permit himself to feel aggrieved. What was more commendable than a mother’s interest in her children’s pleasures? Moreover, it was his wife’s way of following things up, of never letting die grass grow under her feet, that had helped to push him along in the world. She was more ambitious than he,—that had been good for him. He was naturally indolent, and Julia’s childlike desire to possess material objects, to buy what other people were buying, had been the spur that made him go after business. It had, moreover, made his house the attractive place he believed it to be.
“Suppose,” his wife sometimes said to him when the bills came in from Céleste or Mme. Blanche, “suppose you had homely daughters; how would you like that?”
He wouldn’t have liked it. When he went anywhere with his three ladies, Wanning always felt very well done by. He had no complaint to make about them, or about anything. That was why it seemed so unreasonable—He felt along his back incredulously with his hand. Harold, of course, was a trial; but among all his business friends, he knew scarcely one who had a promising boy.
The house was so still that Wanning could hear a faint, metallic tinkle from the butler’s pantry. Old Sam was washing up the silver, which he put away himself every night.
Wanning rose and walked aimlessly down the hall and out through the dining-room.
“Any Apollinaris on ice, Sam? I’m not feeling very well tonight.”
The old colored man dried his hands.
“Yessah, Mistah Wanning. Have a little rye with it, sah?”
“No, thank you, Sam. That’s one of the things I can’t do any more. I’ve been to see a big doctor in the city, and he tells me there’s something seriously wrong with me. My kidneys have sort of gone back on me.”
It was a satisfaction to Wanning to name the organ that had betrayed him, while all the rest of him was so sound.
Sam was immediately interested. He shook his grizzled head and looked full of wisdom.
“Don’t seem like a gen’leman of such a temperate life ought to have anything wrong thar, sah.”
“No, it doesn’t, does it?”
Wanning leaned against the china closet and talked to Sam for nearly half an hour. The specialist who condemned him hadn’t seemed half so much interested. There was not a detail about the examination and the laboratory tests in which Sam did not show the deepest concern. He kept asking Wanning if he could remember “straining himself” when he was a young man.
“I’ve knowed a strain like that to sleep in a man for yeahs and yeahs, and then come back on him, ’deed I have,” he said, mysteriously. “An’ again, it might be you got a floatin’ kidney, sah. Aftah dey once teah loose, dey sometimes don’t make no trouble for quite a while.”
When Wanning went to his room he did not go to bed. He sat up until he heard the voices of his wife and daughters in the hall below. His own bed somehow frightened him. In all the years he had lived in this house he had never before looked about his room, at that bed, with the thought that he might one day be trapped there, and might not get out again. He had been ill, of course, but his room had seemed a particularly pleasant place for a sick man; sunlight, flowers,—agreeable, well-dressed women coming in and out.
Now there was something sinister about the bed itself, about its position, and its relation to the rest of the furniture.
The next morning, on his way downtown, Wanning got off the subway train at Astor Place and walked over to Washington Square. He climbed three flights of stairs and knocked at his son’s studio. Harold, dressed, with his stick and gloves in his hand, opened the door. He was just going over to the Brevoort for breakfast. He greeted his father with the cordial familiarity practised by all the “boys” of his set, clapped him on the shoulder and said in his light, tonsilitis voice:
“Come in, Governor, how delightful! I haven’t had a call from you in a long time.”
He threw his hat and gloves on the writing table. He was a perfect gentleman, even with his father.
Florence said the matter with Harold was that he had heard people say he looked like Byron, and stood for it.
What Harold would stand for in such matters was, indeed, the best definition of him. When he read his play “The Street Walker” in drawing rooms and one lady told him it had the poetic symbolism of Tchekhov, and another said that it suggested the biting realism of Brieux, he never, in his most secret thoughts, questioned the acumen of either lady. Harold’s speech, even if you heard it in the next room and could not see him, told you that he had no sense of the absurd,—a throaty staccato, with never a downward inflection, trustfully striving to please.
“Just going out?” his father asked. “I won’t keep you. Your mother told you I had a discouraging session with Seares?”
“So awfully sorry you’ve had this bother, Governor; just as sorry as I can be. No question about it’s coming out all right, but it’s a downright nuisance, your having to diet and that sort of thing. And I suppose you ought to follow directions, just to make us all feel comfortable, oughtn’t you?” Harold spoke with fluent sympathy.
Wanning sat down on the arm of a chair and shook his head. “Yes, they do recommend a diet, but they don’t promise much from it.”
Harold laughed precipitately. “Delicious! All doctors are, aren’t they? So profound and oracular! The medicine-man; it’s quite the same idea, you see; with tom-toms.”
Wanning knew that Harold meant something subtle,—one of the subtleties which he said were only spoiled by being explained—so he came bluntly to one of the issues he had in mind.
“I would like to see you settled before I quit the harness, Harold.”
Harold was absolutely tolerant.
He took out his cigarette case and burnished it with his handkerchief.
“I perfectly understand your point of view, dear Governor, but perhaps you don’t altogether get mine. Isn’t it so? I am settled. What you mean by being settled, would unsettle me, completely. I’m cut out for just such an existence as this; to live four floors up in an attic, get my own breakfast, and have a charwoman to do for me. I should be awfully bored with an establishment. I’m quite content with a little diggings like this.”
Wanning’s eyes fell. Somebody had to pay the rent of even such modest quarters as contented Harold, but to say so would be rude, and Harold himself was never rude. Wanning did not, this morning, feel equal to hearing a statement of his son’s uncommercial ideals.
“I know,” he said hastily. “But now we’re up against hard facts, my boy. I did not want to alarm your mother, but I’ve had a time limit put on me, and it’s not a very long one.”
Harold threw away the cigarette he had just lighted in a burst of indignation.
“That’s the sort of thing I consider criminal, Father, absolutely criminal! What doctor has a right to suggest such a thing? Seares himself may be knocked out tomorrow. What have laboratory tests got to do with a man’s will to live? The force of that depends upon his entire personality, not on any organ or pair of organs.”
Harold thrust his hands in his pockets and walked up and down, very much stirred. “Really, I have a very poor opinion of scientists. They ought to be made serve an apprenticeship in art, to get some conception of the power of human motives. Such brutality!”
Harold’s plays dealt with the grimmest and most depressing matters, but he himself was always agreeable, and he insisted upon high cheerfulness as the correct tone of human intercourse.
Wanning rose and turned to go. There was, in Harold, simply no reality, to which one could break through. The young man took up his hat and gloves.
“Must you go? Let me step along with you to the sub. The walk will do me good.”
Harold talked agreeably all the way to Astor Place. His father heard little of what he said, but he rather liked his company and his wish to be pleasant.
Wanning went to his club for luncheon, meaning to spend the afternoon with some of his friends who had retired from business and who read the papers there in the empty hours between two and seven. He got no satisfaction, however. When he tried to tell these men of his present predicament, they began to describe ills of their own in which he could not feel interested. Each one of them had a treacherous organ of which he spoke with animation, almost with pride, as if it were a crafty business competitor whom he was constantly outwitting. Each had a doctor, too, for whom he was ardently soliciting business. They wanted either to telephone their doctor and make an appointment for Wanning, or to take him then and there to the consulting room. When he did not accept these invitations, they lost interest in him and remembered engagements. He called a taxi and returned to the offices of McQuiston, Wade, and Wanning.
Settled at his desk, Wanning decided that he would not go home to dinner, but would stay at the office and dictate a long letter to an old college friend who lived in Wyoming. He could tell Douglas Brown things that he had not succeeded in getting to any one else. Brown, out in the Wind River mountains, couldn’t defend himself, couldn’t slap Wanning on the back and tell him to gather up the sunbeams.
He called up his house in Orange to say that he would not be home until late. Roma answered the telephone. He spoke mournfully, but she was not disturbed by it.
“Very well, Father. Don’t get too tired,” she said in her well modulated voice.
When Wanning was ready to dictate his letter, he looked out from his private office into the reception room and saw that his stenographer in her hat and gloves, and furs of the newest cut, was just leaving.
“Goodnight, Mr. Wanning,” she said, drawing down her dotted veil.
Had there been important business letters to be got off on the night mail, he would have felt that he could detain her, but not for anything personal. Miss Doane was an expert legal stenographer, and she knew her value. The slightest delay in dispatching office business annoyed her. Letters that were not signed until the next morning awoke her deepest contempt. She was scrupulous in professional etiquette, and Wanning felt that their relations, though pleasant, were scarcely cordial.
As Miss Doane’s trim figure disappeared through the outer door, little Annie Wooley, the copyist, came in from the stenographers’ room. Her hat was pinned over one ear, and she was scrambling into her coat as she came, holding her gloves in her teeth and her battered handbag in the fist that was already through a sleeve.
“Annie, I wanted to dictate a letter. You were just leaving, weren’t you?”
“Oh, I don’t mind!” she answered cheerfully, and pulling off her old coat, threw it on a chair. “I’ll get my book.”
She followed him into his room and sat down by a table,—though she wrote with her book on her knee.
Wanning had several times kept her after office hours to take his private letters for him, and she had always been good-natured about it. On each occasion, when he gave her a dollar to get her dinner, she protested, laughing, and saying that she could never eat so much as that.
She seemed a happy sort of little creature, didn’t pout when she was scolded, and giggled about her own mistakes in spelling. She was plump and undersized, always dodging under the elbows of taller people and clattering about on high heels, much run over. She had bright black eyes and fuzzy black hair in which, despite Miss Doane’s reprimands, she often stuck her pencil. She was the girl who couldn’t believe that Wanning was fifty, and he had liked her ever since he overheard that conversation.
Tilting back his chair—he never assumed this position when he dictated to Miss Doane—Wanning began: “To Mr. D. E. Brown, South Forks, Wyoming.”
He shaded his eyes with his hand and talked off a long letter to this man who would be sorry that his mortal frame was breaking up. He recalled to him certain fine months they had spent together on the Wind River when they were young men, and said he sometimes wished that like D. E. Brown, he had claimed his freedom in a big country where the wheels did not grind a man as hard as they did in New York. He had spent all these years hustling about and getting ready to live the way he wanted to live, and now he had a puncture the doctors couldn’t mend. What was the use of it?
Wanning’s thoughts were fixed on the trout streams and the great silver-firs in the canyons of the Wind River Mountains, when he was disturbed by a soft, repeated sniffling. He looked out between his fingers. Little Annie, carried away by his eloquence, was fairly panting to make dots and dashes fast enough, and she was sopping her eyes with an unpresentable, end-of-the-day handkerchief.
Wanning rambled on in his dictation. Why was she crying? What did it matter to her? He was a man who said good-morning to her, who sometimes took an hour of the precious few she had left at the end of the day and then complained about her bad spelling. When the letter was finished, he handed her a new two dollar bill.
“I haven’t got any change tonight; and anyhow, I’d like you to eat a whole lot. I’m on a diet, and I want to see everybody else eat.”
Annie tucked her notebook under her arm and stood looking at the bill which she had not taken up from the table.
“I don’t like to be paid for taking letters to your friends, Mr. Wanning,” she said impulsively. “I can run personal letters off between times. It ain’t as if I needed the money,” she added carelessly.
“Get along with you! Anybody who is eighteen years old and has a sweet tooth needs money, all they can get.”
Annie giggled and darted out with the bill in her hand.
Wanning strolled aimlessly after her into the reception room.
“Let me have that letter before lunch tomorrow, please, and be sure that nobody sees it.” He stopped and frowned. “I don’t look very sick, do I?”
“I should say you don’t!” Annie got her coat on after considerable tugging. “Why don’t you call in a specialist? My mother called a specialist for my father before he died.”
“Oh, is your father dead?”
“I should say he is! He was a painter by trade, and he fell off a seventy-foot stack into the East River. Mother couldn’t get anything out of the company, because he wasn’t buckled. He lingered for four months, so I know all about taking care of sick people. I was attending business college then, and sick as he was, he used to give me dictation for practise. He made us all go into professions; the girls, too. He didn’t like us to just run.”
Wanning would have liked to keep Annie and hear more about her family, but it was nearly seven o’clock, and he knew he ought, in mercy, to let her go. She was the only person to whom he had talked about his illness who had been frank and honest with him, who had looked at him with eyes that concealed nothing. When he broke the news of his condition to his partners that morning, they shut him off as if he were uttering indecent ravings. All day they had met him with a hurried, abstracted manner. McQuiston and Wade went out to lunch together, and he knew what they were thinking, perhaps talking, about. Wanning had brought into the firm valuable business, but he was less enterprising than either of his partners.
In the early summer Wanning’s family scattered. Roma swallowed her pride and sailed for Genoa to visit the Contessa Jenny. Harold went to Cornish to be in an artistic atmosphere. Mrs. Wanning and Florence took a cottage at York Harbor where Wanning was supposed to join them whenever he could get away from town. He did not often get away. He felt most at ease among his accustomed surroundings. He kept his car in the city and went back and forth from his office to the club where he was living. Old Sam, his butler, came in from Orange every night to put his clothes in order and make him comfortable.
Wanning began to feel that he would not tire of his office in a hundred years. Although he did very little work, it was pleasant to go down town every morning when the streets were crowded, the sky clear, and the sunshine bright. From the windows of his private office he could see the harbor and watch the ocean liners come down the North River and go out to sea.
While he read his mail, he often looked out and wondered why he had been so long indifferent to that extraordinary scene of human activity and hopefulness. How had a short-lived race of beings the energy and courage valiantly to begin enterprises which they could follow for only a few years; to throw up towers and build sea-monsters and found great businesses, when the frailest of the materials with which they worked, the paper upon which they wrote, the ink upon their pens, had more permanence in this world than they? All this material rubbish lasted. The linen clothing and cosmetics of the Egyptians had lasted. It was only the human flame that certainly, certainly went out. Other things had a fighting chance; they might meet with mishap and be destroyed, they might not. But the human creature who gathered and shaped and hoarded and foolishly loved these things, he had no chance—absolutely none. Wanning’s cane, his hat, his topcoat, might go from beggar to beggar and knock about in this world for another fifty years or so; but not he.
In the late afternoon he never hurried to leave his office now. Wonderful sunsets burned over the North River, wonderful stars trembled up among the towers; more wonderful than anything he could hurry away to. One of his windows looked directly down upon the spire of Old Trinity, with the green churchyard and the pale sycamores far below. Wanning often dropped into the church when he was going out to lunch; not because he was trying to make his peace with Heaven, but because the church was old and restful and familiar, because it and its gravestones had sat in the same place for a long while. He bought flowers from the street boys and kept them on his desk, which his partners thought strange behavior, and which Miss Doane considered a sign that he was failing.
But there were graver things than bouquets for Miss Doane and the senior partner to ponder over.
The senior partner, McQuiston, in spite of his silvery hair and mustache and his important church connections, had rich natural taste for scandal.—After Mr. Wade went away for his vacation, in May, Wanning took Annie Wooley out of the copying room, put her at a desk in his private office, and raised her pay to eighteen dollars a week, explaining to McQuiston that for the summer months he would need a secretary. This explanation satisfied neither McQuiston nor Miss Doane.
Annie was also paid for overtime, and although Wanning attended to very little of the office business now, there was a great deal of overtime. Miss Doane was, of course, ‘above’ questioning a chit like Annie; but what was he doing with his time and his new secretary, she wanted to know?
If anyone had told her that Wanning was writing a book, she would have said bitterly that it was just like him. In his youth Wanning had hankered for the pen. When he studied law, he had intended to combine that profession with some tempting form of authorship. Had he remained a bachelor, he would have been an unenterprising literary lawyer to the end of his days. It was his wife’s restlessness and her practical turn of mind that had made him a money-getter. His illness seemed to bring back to him the illusions with which he left college.
As soon as his family were out of the way and he shut up the Orange house, he began to dictate his autobiography to Annie Wooley. It was not only the story of his life, but an expression of all his theories and opinions, and a commentary on the fifty years of events which he could remember.
Fortunately, he was able to take great interest in this undertaking. He had the happiest convictions about the clear-cut style he was developing and his increasing felicity in phrasing. He meant to publish the work handsomely, at his own expense and under his own name. He rather enjoyed the thought of how greatly disturbed Harold would be. He and Harold differed in their estimates of books. All the solid works which made up Wanning’s library, Harold considered beneath contempt. Anybody, he said, could do that sort of thing.
When Wanning could not sleep at night, he turned on the light beside his bed and made notes on the chapter he meant to dictate the next day.
When he returned to the office after lunch, he gave instructions that he was not to be interrupted by telephone calls, and shut himself up with his secretary.
After he had opened all the windows and taken off his coat, he fell to dictating. He found it a delightful occupation, the solace of each day. Often he had sudden fits of tiredness; then he would lie down on the leather sofa and drop asleep, while Annie read “The Leopard’s Spots” until he awoke.
Like many another business man Wanning had relied so long on stenographers that the operation of writing with a pen had become laborious to him. When he undertook it, he wanted to cut everything short. But walking up and down his private office, with the strong afternoon sun pouring in at his windows, a fresh air stirring, all the people and boats moving restlessly down there, he could say things he wanted to say. It was like living his life over again.
He did not miss his wife or his daughters. He had become again the mild, contemplative youth he was in college, before he had a profession and a family to grind for, before the two needs which shape our destiny had made of him pretty much what they make of every man.
At five o’clock Wanning sometimes went out for a cup of tea and took Annie along. He felt dull and discouraged as soon as he was alone. So long as Annie was with him, he could keep a grip on his own thoughts. They talked about what he had just been dictating to her. She found that he liked to be questioned, and she tried to be greatly interested in it all.
After tea, they went back to the office. Occasionally Wanning lost track of time and kept Annie until it grew dark. He knew he had old McQuiston guessing, but he didn’t care. One day the senior partner came to him with a reproving air.
“I am afraid Miss Doane is leaving us, Paul. She feels that Miss Wooley’s promotion is irregular.”
“How is that any business of hers, I’d like to know? She has all my legal work. She is always disagreeable enough about doing anything else.”
McQuiston’s puffy red face went a shade darker.
“Miss Doane has a certain professional pride; a strong feeling for office organization. She doesn’t care to fill an equivocal position. I don’t know that I blame her. She feels that there is something not quite regular about the confidence you seem to place in this inexperienced young woman.”
Wanning pushed back his chair.
“I don’t care a hang about Miss Doane’s sense of propriety. I need a stenographer who will carry out my instructions. I’ve carried out Miss Doane’s long enough. I’ve let that schoolma’am hector me for years. She can go when she pleases.”
That night McQuiston wrote to his partner that things were in a bad way, and they would have to keep an eye on Wanning. He had been seen at the theatre with his new stenographer.
That was true. Wanning had several times taken Annie to the Palace on Saturday afternoon. When all his acquaintances were off motoring or playing golf, when the down-town offices and even the streets were deserted, it amused him to watch a foolish show with a delighted, cheerful little person beside him.
Beyond her generosity, Annie had no shining merits of character, but she had the gift of thinking well of everything, and wishing well. When she was there Wanning felt as if there were someone who cared whether this was a good or a bad day with him. Old Sam, too, was like that. While the old black man put him to bed and made him comfortable, Wanning could talk to him as he talked to little Annie. Even if he dwelt upon his illness, in plain terms, in detail, he did not feel as if he were imposing on them.
People like Sam and Annie admitted misfortune,—admitted it almost cheerfully. Annie and her family did not consider illness or any of its hard facts vulgar or indecent. It had its place in their scheme of life, as it had not in that of Wanning’s friends.
Annie came out of a typical poor family of New York. Of eight children, only four lived to grow up. In such families the stream of life is broad enough, but runs shallow. In the children, vitality is exhausted early. The roots do not go down into anything very strong. Illness and deaths and funerals, in her own family and in those of her friends, had come at frequent intervals in Annie’s life. Since they had to be, she and her sisters made the best of them. There was something to be got out of funerals, even, if they were managed right. They kept people in touch with old friends who had moved uptown, and revived kindly feelings.
Annie had often given up things she wanted because there was sickness at home, and now she was patient with her boss. What he paid her for overtime work by no means made up to her what she lost.
Annie was not in the least thrifty, nor were any of her sisters. She had to make a living, but she was not interested in getting all she could for her time, or in laying up for the future. Girls like Annie know that the future is a very uncertain thing, and they feel no responsibility about it. The present is what they have—and it is all they have. If Annie missed a chance to go sailing with the plumber’s son on Saturday afternoon, why, she missed it. As for the two dollars her boss gave her, she handed them over to her mother. Now that Annie was getting more money, one of her sisters quit a job she didn’t like and was staying at home for a rest. That was all promotion meant to Annie.
The first time Annie’s boss asked her to work on Saturday afternoon, she could not hide her disappointment. He suggested that they might knock off early and go to a show, or take a run in his car, but she grew tearful and said it would be hard to make her family understand. Wanning thought perhaps he could explain to her mother. He called his motor and took Annie home.
When his car stopped in front of the tenement house on Eighth Avenue, heads came popping out of the windows for six storys up, and all the neighbor women, in dressing sacks and wrappers, gazed down at the machine and at the couple alighting from it. A motor meant a wedding or the hospital.
The plumber’s son, Willy Steen, came over from the corner saloon to see what was going on, and Annie introduced him at the doorstep.
Mrs. Wooley asked Wanning to come into the parlor and invited him to have a chair of ceremony between the folding bed and the piano.
Annie, nervous and tearful, escaped to the dining-room—the cheerful spot where the daughters visited with each other and with their friends. The parlor was a masked sleeping chamber and store room.
The plumber’s son sat down on the sofa beside Mrs. Wooley, as if he were accustomed to share in the family councils. Mrs. Wooley waited expectant and kindly. She looked the sensible, hard-working woman that she was, and one could see she hadn’t lived all her life on Eighth Avenue without learning a great deal.
Wanning explained to her that he was writing a book which he wanted to finish during the summer months when business was not so heavy. He was ill and could not work regularly. His secretary would have to take his dictation when he felt able to give it; must, in short, be a sort of companion to him. He would like to feel that she could go out in his car with him, or even to the theater, when he felt like it. It might have been better if he had engaged a young man for this work, but since he had begun it with Annie, he would like to keep her if her mother was willing.
Mrs. Wooley watched him with friendly, searching eyes. She glanced at Willy Steen, who, wise in such distinctions, had decided that there was nothing shady about Annie’s boss. He nodded his sanction.
“I don’t want my girl to conduct herself in any such way as will prejudice her, Mr. Wanning,” she said thoughtfully. “If you’ve got daughters, you know how that is. You’ve been liberal with Annie, and it’s a good position for her. It’s right she should go to business every day, and I want her to do her work right, but I like to have her home after working hours. I always think a young girl’s time is her own after business hours, and I try not to burden them when they come home. I’m willing she should do your work as suits you, if it’s her wish; but I don’t like to press her. The good times she misses now, it’s not you nor me, sir, that can make them up to her. These young things has their feelings.”
“Oh, I don’t want to press her, either,” Wanning said hastily. “I simply want to know that you understand the situation. I’ve made her a little present in my will as a recognition that she is doing more for me than she is paid for.”
“That’s something above me, sir. We’ll hope there won’t be no question of wills for many years yet,” Mrs. Wooley spoke heartily. “I’m glad if my girl can be of any use to you, just so she don’t prejudice herself.”
The plumber’s son rose as if the interview were over.
“It’s all right, Mama Wooley, don’t you worry,” he said.
He picked up his canvas cap and turned to Wanning. “You see, Annie ain’t the sort of girl that would want to be spotted circulating around with a monied party her folks didn’t know all about. She’d lose friends by it.”
After this conversation Annie felt a great deal happier. She was still shy and a trifle awkward with poor Wanning when they were outside the office building, and she missed the old freedom of her Saturday afternoons. But she did the best she could, and Willy Steen tried to make it up to her.
In Annie’s absence he often came in of an afternoon to have a cup of tea and a sugar-bun with Mrs. Wooley and the daughter who was “resting.” As they sat at the dining-room table, they discussed Annie’s employer, his peculiarities, his health, and what he had told Mrs. Wooley about his will.
Mrs. Wooley said she sometimes felt afraid he might disinherit his children, as rich people often did, and make talk; but she hoped for the best. Whatever came to Annie, she prayed it might not be in the form of taxable property.
Late in September Wanning grew suddenly worse. His family hurried home, and he was put to bed in his house in Orange. He kept asking the doctors when he could get back to the office, but he lived only eight days.
The morning after his father’s funeral, Harold went to the office to consult Wanning’s partners and to read the will. Everything in the will was as it should be. There were no surprises except a codicil in the form of a letter to Mrs. Wanning, dated July 8th, requesting that out of the estate she should pay the sum of one thousand dollars to his stenographer, Annie Wooley, “in recognition of her faithful services.”
“I thought Miss Doane was my father’s stenographer,” Harold exclaimed.
Alec McQuiston looked embarrassed and spoke in a low, guarded tone.
“She was, for years. But this spring,—” he hesitated.
McQuiston loved a scandal. He leaned across his desk toward Harold.
“This spring your father put this little girl, Miss Wooley, a copyist, utterly inexperienced, in Miss Doane’s place. Miss Doane was indignant and left us. The change made comment here in the office. It was slightly—No, I will be frank with you, Harold, it was very irregular.”
Harold also looked grave. “What could my father have meant by such a request as this to my mother?”
The silver haired senior partner flushed and spoke as if he were trying to break something gently.
“I don’t understand it, my boy. But I think, indeed I prefer to think, that your father was not quite himself all this summer. A man like your father does not, in his right senses, find pleasure in the society of an ignorant, common little girl. He does not make a practise of keeping her at the office after hours, often until eight o’clock, or take her to restaurants and to the theater with him; not, at least, in a slanderous city like New York.”
Harold flinched before McQuiston’s meaning gaze and turned aside in pained silence. He knew, as a dramatist, that there are dark chapters in all men’s lives, and this but too clearly explained why his father had stayed in town all summer instead of joining his family.
McQuiston asked if he should ring for Annie Wooley.
Harold drew himself up. “No. Why should I see her? I prefer not to. But with your permission, Mr. McQuiston, I will take charge of this request to my mother. It could only give her pain, and might awaken doubts in her mind.”
“We hardly know,” murmured the senior partner, “where an investigation would lead us. Technically, of course, I cannot agree with you. But if, as one of the executors of the will, you wish to assume personal responsibility for this bequest, under the circumstances—irregularities beget irregularities.”
“My first duty to my father,” said Harold, “is to protect my mother.”
That afternoon McQuiston called Annie Wooley into his private office and told her that her services would not be needed any longer, and that in lieu of notice the clerk would give her two weeks’ salary.
“Can I call up here for references?” Annie asked.
“Certainly. But you had better ask for me, personally. You must know there has been some criticism of you here in the office, Miss Wooley.”
“What about?” Annie asked boldly.
“Well, a young girl like you cannot render so much personal service to her employer as you did to Mr. Wanning without causing unfavorable comment. To be blunt with you, for your own good, my dear young lady, your services to your employer should terminate in the office, and at the close of office hours. Mr. Wanning was a very sick man and his judgment was at fault, but you should have known what a girl in your station can do and what she cannot do.”
The vague discomfort of months flashed up in little Annie. She had no mind to stand by and be lectured without having a word to say for herself.
“Of course he was sick, poor man!” she burst out. “Not as anybody seemed much upset about it. I wouldn’t have given up my half-holidays for anybody if they hadn’t been sick, no matter what they paid me. There wasn’t anything in it for me.”
McQuiston raised his hand warningly.
“That will do, young lady. But when you get another place, remember this: it is never your duty to entertain or to provide amusement for your employer.”
He gave Annie a look which she did not clearly understand, although she pronounced him a nasty old man as she hustled on her hat and jacket.
When Annie reached home she found Willy Steen sitting with her mother and sister at the dining-room table. This was the first day that Annie had gone to the office since Wanning’s death, and her family awaited her return with suspense.
“Hello yourself,” Annie called as she came in and threw her handbag into an empty armchair.
“You’re off early, Annie,” said her mother gravely. “Has the will been read?”
“I guess so. Yes, I know it has. Miss Wilson got it out of the safe for them. The son came in. He’s a pill.”
“Was nothing said to you, daughter?”
“Yes, a lot. Please give me some tea, mother.” Annie felt that her swagger was failing.
“Don’t tantalize us, Ann,” her sister broke in. “Didn’t you get anything?”
“I got the mit, all right. And some back talk from the old man that I’m awful sore about.”
Annie dashed away the tears and gulped her tea.
Gradually her mother and Willy drew the story from her. Willy offered at once to go to the office building and take his stand outside the door and never leave it until he had punched old Mr. McQuiston’s face. He rose as if to attend to it at once, but Mrs. Wooley drew him to his chair again and patted his arm.
“It would only start talk and get the girl in trouble, Willy.
When it’s lawyers, folks in our station is helpless. I certainly believed that man when he sat here; you heard him yourself. Such a gentleman as he looked.”
Willy thumped his great fist, still in punching position, down on his knee.
“Never you be fooled again, Mama Wooley. You’ll never get anything out of a rich guy that he ain’t signed up in the courts for. Rich is tight. There’s no exceptions.”
Annie shook her head.
“I didn’t want anything out of him. He was a nice, kind man, and he had his troubles, I guess. He wasn’t tight.”
“Still,” said Mrs. Wooley sadly, “Mr. Wanning had no call to hold out promises. I hate to be disappointed in a gentleman. You’ve had confining work for some time, daughter; a rest will do you good.”
Smart Set, October 1919