On a morning, a week after this collapse of festal hopes, Mrs. Adams and her daughter were concluding a three-days' disturbance, the "Spring house-cleaning"--postponed until now by Adams's long illness--and Alice, on her knees before a chest of drawers, in her mother's room, paused thoughtfully after dusting a packet of letters wrapped in worn muslin. She called to her mother, who was scrubbing the floor of the hallway just beyond the open door,
"These old letters you had in the bottom drawer, weren't they some papa wrote you before you were married?"
Mrs. Adams laughed and said, "Yes. Just put 'em back where they were--or else up in the attic--anywhere you want to."
"Do you mind if I read one, mama?"
Mrs. Adams laughed again. "Oh, I guess you can if you want to. I expect they're pretty funny!"
Alice laughed in response, and chose the topmost letter of the packet. "My dear, beautiful girl," it began; and she stared at these singular words. They gave her a shock like that caused by overhearing some bewildering impropriety; and, having read them over to herself several times, she went on to experience other shocks.
MY DEAR, BEAUTIFUL GIRL:
This time yesterday I had a mighty bad case of blues because I had not had a word from you in two whole long days and when I do not hear from you every day things look mighty down in the mouth to me. Now it is all so different because your letter has arrived and besides I have got a piece of news I believe you will think as fine as I do. Darling, you will be surprised, so get ready to hear about a big effect on our future. It is this way. I had sort of a suspicion the head of the firm kind of took a fancy to me from the first when I went in there, and liked the way I attended to my work and so when he took me on this business trip with him I felt pretty sure of it and now it turns out I was about right. In return I guess I have got about the best boss in this world and I believe you will think so too. Yes, sweetheart, after the talk I have just had with him if J. A. Lamb asked me to cut my hand off for him I guess I would come pretty near doing it because what he says means the end of our waiting to be together. From New Years on he is going to put me in entire charge of the sundries dept. and what do you think is going to be my salary? Eleven hundred cool dollars a year ($1,100.00). That's all! Just only a cool eleven hundred per annum! Well, I guess that will show your mother whether I can take care of you or not. And oh how I would like to see your dear, beautiful, loving face when you get this news.
I would like to go out on the public streets and just dance and shout and it is all I can do to help doing it, especially when I know we will be talking it all over together this time next week, and oh my darling, now that your folks have no excuse for putting it off any longer we might be in our own little home before Xmas.
Would you be glad?
Well, darling, this settles everything and makes our future just about as smooth for us as anybody could ask. I can hardly realize after all this waiting life's troubles are over for you and me and we have nothing to do but to enjoy the happiness granted us by this wonderful, beautiful thing we call life. I know I am not any poet and the one I tried to write about you the day of the picnic was fearful but the way I THINK about you is a poem.
Write me what you think of the news. I know but write me anyhow.
I'll get it before we start home and I can be reading it over all the time on the tram.
Your always loving
The sound of her mother's diligent scrubbing in the hall came back slowly to Alice's hearing, as she restored the letter to the packet, wrapped the packet in its muslin covering, and returned it to the drawer. She had remained upon her knees while she read the letter; now she sank backward, sitting upon the floor with her hands behind her, an unconscious relaxing for better ease to think. Upon her face there had fallen a look of wonder.
For the first time she was vaguely perceiving that life is everlasting movement. Youth really believes what is running water to be a permanent crystallization and sees time fixed to a point: some people have dark hair, some people have blond hair, some people have gray hair. Until this moment, Alice had no conviction that there was a universe before she came into it. She had always thought of it as the background of herself: the moon was something to make her prettier on a summer night.
But this old letter, through which she saw still flickering an ancient starlight of young love, astounded her. Faintly before her it revealed the whole lives of her father and mother, who had been young, after all--they REALLY had--and their youth was now so utterly passed from them that the picture of it, in the letter, was like a burlesque of them. And so she, herself, must pass to such changes, too, and all that now seemed vital to her would be nothing.
When her work was finished, that afternoon, she went into her father's room. His recovery had progressed well enough to permit the departure of Miss Perry; and Adams, wearing one of Mrs. Adams's wrappers over his night-gown, sat in a high-backed chair by a closed window. The weather was warm, but the closed window and the flannel wrapper had not sufficed him: round his shoulders he had an old crocheted scarf of Alice's; his legs were wrapped in a heavy comfort; and, with these swathings about him, and his eyes closed, his thin and grizzled head making but a slight indentation in the pillow supporting it, he looked old and little and queer.
Alice would have gone out softly, but without opening his eyes, he spoke to her: "Don't go, dearie. Come sit with the old man a little while."
She brought a chair near his. "I thought you were napping."
"No. I don't hardly ever do that. I just drift a little sometimes."
"How do you mean you drift, papa?"
He looked at her vaguely. "Oh, I don't know. Kind of pictures. They get a little mixed up--old times with times still ahead, like planning what to do, you know. That's as near a nap as I get--when the pictures mix up some. I suppose it's sort of drowsing."
She took one of his hands and stroked it. "What do you mean when you say you have pictures like 'planning what to do'?" she asked.
"I mean planning what to do when I get out and able to go to work again."
"But that doesn't need any planning," Alice said, quickly. "You're going back to your old place at Lamb's, of course."
Adams closed his eyes again, sighing heavily, but made no other response.
"Why, of COURSE you are!" she cried. "What are you talking about?"
His head turned slowly toward her, revealing the eyes, open in a haggard stare. "I heard you the other night when you came from the party," he said. "I know what was the matter."
"Indeed, you don't," she assured him. "You don't know anything about it, because there wasn't anything the matter at all."
"Don't you suppose I heard you crying? What'd you cry for if there wasn't anything the matter?"
"Just nerves, papa. It wasn't anything else in the world."
"Never mind," he said. "Your mother told me."
"She promised me not to!"
At that Adams laughed mournfully. "It wouldn't be very likely I'd hear you so upset and not ask about it, even if she didn't come and tell me on her own hook. You needn't try to fool me; I tell you I know what was the matter."
"The only matter was I had a silly fit," Alice protested. "It did me good, too."
"Because I've decided to do something about it, papa."
"That isn't the way your mother looks at it," Adams said, ruefully. "She thinks it's our place to do something about it. Well, I don't know--I don't know; everything seems so changed these days. You've always been a good daughter, Alice, and you ought to have as much as any of these girls you go with; she's convinced me she's right about THAT. The trouble is----" He faltered, apologetically, then went on, "I mean the question is--how to get it for you."
"No!" she cried. "I had no business to make such a fuss just because a lot of idiots didn't break their necks to get dances with me and because I got mortified about Walter--Walter WAS pretty terrible----"
"Oh, me, my!" Adams lamented. "I guess that's something we just have to leave work out itself. What you going to do with a boy nineteen or twenty years old that makes his own living? Can't whip him. Can't keep him locked up in the house. Just got to hope he'll learn better, I suppose."
"Of course he didn't want to go to the Palmers'," Alice explained, tolerantly--"and as mama and I made him take me, and he thought that was pretty selfish in me, why, he felt he had a right to amuse himself any way he could. Of course it was awful that this--that this Mr. Russell should----" In spite of her, the recollection choked her.
"Yes, it was awful," Adams agreed. "Just awful. Oh, me, my!"
But Alice recovered herself at once, and showed him a cheerful face. "Well, just a few years from now I probably won't even remember it! I believe hardly anything amounts to as much as we think it does at the time."
"Well--sometimes it don't."
"What I've been thinking, papa: it seems to me I ought to DO something."
She looked dreamy, but was obviously serious as she told him: "Well, I mean I ought to be something besides just a kind of nobody. I ought to----" She paused.
"Well--there's one thing I'd like to do. I'm sure I COULD do it, too."
"I want to go on the stage: I know I could act." At this, her father abruptly gave utterance to a feeble cackling of laughter; and when Alice, surprised and a little offended, pressed him for his reason, he tried to evade, saying, "Nothing, dearie. I just thought of something." But she persisted until he had to explain.
"It made me think of your mother's sister, your Aunt Flora, that died when you were little," he said. "She was always telling how she was going on the stage, and talking about how she was certain she'd make a great actress, and all so on; and one day your mother broke out and said she ought 'a' gone on the stage, herself, because she always knew she had the talent for it--and, well, they got into kind of a spat about which one'd make the best actress. I had to go out in the hall to laugh!"
"Maybe you were wrong," Alice said, gravely. "If they both felt it, why wouldn't that look as if there was talent in the family? I've ALWAYS thought----"
"No, dearie," he said, with a final chuckle. "Your mother and Flora weren't different from a good many others. I expect ninety per cent. of all the women I ever knew were just sure they'd be mighty fine actresses if they ever got the chance. Well, I guess it's a good thing; they enjoy thinking about it and it don't do anybody any harm."
Alice was piqued. For several days she had thought almost continuously of a career to be won by her own genius. Not that she planned details, or concerned herself with first steps; her picturings overleaped all that. Principally, she saw her name great on all the bill-boards of that unkind city, and herself, unchanged in age but glamorous with fame and Paris clothes, returning in a private car. No doubt the pleasantest development of her vision was a dialogue with Mildred; and this became so real that, as she projected it, Alice assumed the proper expressions for both parties to it, formed words with her lips, and even spoke some of them aloud. "No, I haven't forgotten you, Mrs. Russell. I remember you quite pleasantly, in fact. You were a Miss Palmer, I recall, in those funny old days. Very kind of you, I'm shaw. I appreciate your eagerness to do something for me in your own little home. As you say, a reception WOULD renew my acquaintanceship with many old friends--but I'm shaw you won't mind my mentioning that I don't find much inspiration in these provincials. I really must ask you not to press me. An artist's time is not her own, though of course I could hardly expect you to understand----"
Thus Alice illuminated the dull time; but she retired from the interview with her father still manfully displaying an outward cheerfulness, while depression grew heavier within, as if she had eaten soggy cake. Her father knew nothing whatever of the stage, and she was aware of his ignorance, yet for some reason his innocently skeptical amusement reduced her bright project almost to nothing. Something like this always happened, it seemed; she was continually making these illuminations, all gay with gildings and colourings; and then as soon as anybody else so much as glanced at them--even her father, who loved her--the pretty designs were stricken with a desolating pallor. "Is this LIFE?" Alice wondered, not doubting that the question was original and all her own. "Is it life to spend your time imagining things that aren't so, and never will be? Beautiful things happen to other people; why should I be the only one they never CAN happen to?"
The mood lasted overnight; and was still upon her the next afternoon when an errand for her father took her down-town. Adams had decided to begin smoking again, and Alice felt rather degraded, as well as embarrassed, when she went into the large shop her father had named, and asked for the cheap tobacco he used in his pipe. She fell back upon an air of amused indulgence, hoping thus to suggest that her purchase was made for some faithful old retainer, now infirm; and although the calmness of the clerk who served her called for no such elaboration of her sketch, she ornamented it with a little laugh and with the remark, as she dropped the package into her coat-pocket, "I'm sure it'll please him; they tell me it's the kind he likes."
Still playing Lady Bountiful, smiling to herself in anticipation of the joy she was bringing to the simple old negro or Irish follower of the family, she left the shop; but as she came out upon the crowded pavement her smile vanished quickly.
Next to the door of the tobacco-shop, there was the open entrance to a stairway, and, above this rather bleak and dark aperture, a sign-board displayed in begrimed gilt letters the information that Frincke's Business College occupied the upper floors of the building. Furthermore, Frincke here publicly offered "personal instruction and training in practical mathematics, bookkeeping, and all branches of the business life, including stenography, typewriting, etc."
Alice halted for a moment, frowning at this signboard as though it were something surprising and distasteful which she had never seen before. Yet it was conspicuous in a busy quarter; she almost always passed it when she came down-town, and never without noticing it. Nor was this the first time she had paused to lift toward it that same glance of vague misgiving.
The building was not what the changeful city defined as a modern one, and the dusty wooden stairway, as seen from the pavement, disappeared upward into a smoky darkness. So would the footsteps of a girl ascending there lead to a hideous obscurity, Alice thought; an obscurity as dreary and as permanent as death. And like dry leaves falling about her she saw her wintry imaginings in the May air: pretty girls turning into withered creatures as they worked at typing-machines; old maids "taking dictation" from men with double chins; Alice saw old maids of a dozen different kinds "taking dictation." Her mind's eye was crowded with them, as it always was when she passed that stairway entrance; and though they were all different from one another, all of them looked a little like herself.
She hated the place, and yet she seldom hurried by it or averted her eyes. It had an unpleasant fascination for her, and a mysterious reproach, which she did not seek to fathom. She walked on thoughtfully to-day; and when, at the next corner, she turned into the street that led toward home, she was given a surprise. Arthur Russell came rapidly from behind her, lifting his hat as she saw him.
"Are you walking north, Miss Adams?" he asked. "Do you mind if I walk with you?"
She was not delighted, but seemed so. "How charming!" she cried, giving him a little flourish of the shapely hands; and then, because she wondered if he had seen her coming out of the tobacco-shop, she laughed and added, "I've just been on the most ridiculous errand!"
"What was that?"
"To order some cigars for my father. He's been quite ill, poor man, and he's so particular--but what in the world do I know about cigars?"
Russell laughed. "Well, what DO you know about 'em? Did you select by the price?"
"Mercy, no!" she exclaimed, and added, with an afterthought, "Of course he wrote down the name of the kind he wanted and I gave it to the shopman. I could never have pronounced it."