He had not undressed, and he sat beside the table, smoking his pipe and reading his newspaper. Upon his forehead the lines in that old pattern, the historical map of his troubles, had grown a little vaguer lately; relaxed by the complacency of a man who not only finds his health restored, but sees the days before him promising once more a familiar routine that he has always liked to follow.
As his wife came in, closing the door behind her, he looked up cheerfully, "Well, mother," he said, "what's the news downstairs?"
"That's what I came to tell you," she informed him, grimly.
Adams lowered his newspaper to his knee and peered over his spectacles at her. She had remained by the door, standing, and the great greenish shadow of the small lamp-shade upon his table revealed her but dubiously. "Isn't everything all right?" he asked. "What's the matter?"
"Don't worry: I'm going to tell you," she said, her grimness not relaxed. "There's matter enough, Virgil Adams. Matter enough to make me sick of being alive!"
With that, the markings on his brows began to emerge again in all their sharpness; the old pattern reappeared. "Oh, my, my!" he lamented. "I thought maybe we were all going to settle down to a little peace for a while. What's it about now?"
"It's about Alice. Did you think it was about ME or anything for MYSELF?"
Like some ready old machine, always in order, his irritability responded immediately and automatically to her emotion. "How in thunder could I think what it's about, or who it's for? SAY it, and get it over!"
"Oh, I'll 'say' it," she promised, ominously. "What I've come to ask you is, How much longer do you expect me to put up with that old man and his doings?"
"Whose doings? What old man?"
She came at him, fiercely accusing. "You know well enough what old man, Virgil Adams! That old man who was here the other night."
"Yes; 'Mister Lamb!'" She mocked his voice. "What other old man would I be likely to mean except J. A. Lamb?"
"What's he been doing now?" her husband inquired, satirically. "Where'd you get something new against him since the last time you----"
"Just this!" she cried. "The other night when that man was here, if I'd known how he was going to make my child suffer, I'd never have let him set his foot in my house."
Adams leaned back in his chair as though her absurdity had eased his mind. "Oh, I see," he said. "You've just gone plain crazy. That's the only explanation of such talk, and it suits the case."
"Hasn't that man made us all suffer every day of our lives?" she demanded. "I'd like to know why it is that my life and my children's lives have to be sacrificed to him?"
"How are they 'sacrificed' to him?"
"Because you keep on working for him! Because you keep on letting him hand out whatever miserable little pittance he chooses to give you; that's why! It's as if he were some horrible old Juggernaut and I had to see my children's own father throwing them under the wheels to keep him satisfied."
"I won't hear any more such stuff!" Lifting his paper, Adams affected to read.
"You'd better listen to me," she admonished him. "You might be sorry you didn't, in case he ever tried to set foot in my house again! I might tell him to his face what I think of him."
At this, Adams slapped the newspaper down upon his knee. "Oh, the devil! What's it matter what you think of him?"
"It had better matter to you!" she cried. "Do you suppose I'm going to submit forever to him and his family and what they're doing to my child?"
"What are he and his family doing to 'your child?'"
Mrs. Adams came out with it. "That snippy little Henrietta Lamb has always snubbed Alice every time she's ever had the chance. She's followed the lead of the other girls; they've always all of 'em been jealous of Alice because she dared to try and be happy, and because she's showier and better-looking than they are, even though you do give her only about thirty-five cents a year to do it on! They've all done everything on earth they could to drive the young men away from her and belittle her to 'em; and this mean little Henrietta Lamb's been the worst of the whole crowd to Alice, every time she could see a chance."
"What for?" Adams asked, incredulously. "Why should she or anybody else pick on Alice?"
"'Why?' 'What for?'" his wife repeated with a greater vehemence. "Do YOU ask me such a thing as that? Do you really want to know?"
"Yes; I'd want to know--I would if I believed it."
"Then I'll tell you," she said in a cold fury. "It's on account of you, Virgil, and nothing else in the world."
He hooted at her. "Oh, yes! These girls don't like ME, so they pick on Alice."
"Quit your palavering and evading," she said. "A crowd of girls like that, when they get a pretty girl like Alice among them, they act just like wild beasts. They'll tear her to pieces, or else they'll chase her and run her out, because they know if she had half a chance she'd outshine 'em. They can't do that to a girl like Mildred Palmer because she's got money and family to back her. Now you listen to me, Virgil Adams: the way the world is now, money IS family. Alice would have just as much 'family' as any of 'em every single bit--if you hadn't fallen behind in the race."
"How did I----"
"Yes, you did!" she cried. "Twenty-five years ago when we were starting and this town was smaller, you and I could have gone with any of 'em if we'd tried hard enough. Look at the people we knew then that do hold their heads up alongside of anybody in this town! WHY can they? Because the men of those families made money and gave their children everything that makes life worth living! Why can't we hold our heads up? Because those men passed you in the race. They went up the ladder, and you--you're still a clerk down at that old hole!"
"You leave that out, please," he said. "I thought you were going to tell me something Henrietta Lamb had done to our Alice."
"You BET I'm going to tell you," she assured him, vehemently. "But first I'm telling WHY she does it. It's because you've never given Alice any backing nor any background, and they all know they can do anything they like to her with perfect impunity. If she had the hundredth part of what THEY have to fall back on she'd have made 'em sing a mighty different song long ago!"
"How would she?"
"Oh, my heavens, but you're slow!" Mrs. Adams moaned. "Look here! You remember how practically all the nicest boys in this town used to come here a few years ago. Why, they were all crazy over her; and the girls HAD to be nice to her then. Look at the difference now! There'll be a whole month go by and not a young man come to call on her, let alone send her candy or flowers, or ever think of TAKING her any place and yet she's prettier and brighter than she was when they used to come. It isn't the child's fault she couldn't hold 'em, is it? Poor thing, SHE tried hard enough! I suppose you'd say it was her fault, though."
"No; I wouldn't."
"Then whose fault is it?"
"Oh, mine, mine," he said, wearily. "I drove the young men away, of course."
"You might as well have driven 'em, Virgil. It amounts to just the same thing."
"How does it?"
"Because as they got older a good many of 'em began to think more about money; that's one thing. Money's at the bottom of it all, for that matter. Look at these country clubs and all such things: the other girls' families belong and we don't, and Alice don't; and she can't go unless somebody takes her, and nobody does any more. Look at the other girls' houses, and then look at our house, so shabby and old-fashioned she'd be pretty near ashamed to ask anybody to come in and sit down nowadays! Look at her clothes--oh, yes; you think you shelled out a lot for that little coat of hers and the hat and skirt she got last March; but it's nothing. Some of these girls nowadays spend more than your whole salary on their clothes. And what jewellery has she got? A plated watch and two or three little pins and rings of the kind people's maids wouldn't wear now. Good Lord, Virgil Adams, wake up! Don't sit there and tell me you don't know things like this mean SUFFERING for the child!"
He had begun to rub his hands wretchedly back and forth over his bony knees, as if in that way he somewhat alleviated the tedium caused by her racking voice. "Oh, my, my!" he muttered. "OH, my, my!"
"Yes, I should think you WOULD say 'Oh, my, my!'" she took him up, loudly. "That doesn't help things much! If you ever wanted to DO anything about it, the poor child might see some gleam of hope in her life. You don't CARE for her, that's the trouble; you don't care a single thing about her."
"No; you don't. Why, even with your miserable little salary you could have given her more than you have. You're the closest man I ever knew: it's like pulling teeth to get a dollar out of you for her, now and then, and yet you hide some away, every month or so, in some wretched little investment or other. You----"
"Look here, now," he interrupted, angrily. "You look here! If I didn't put a little by whenever I could, in a bond or something, where would you be if anything happened to me? The insurance doctors never passed me; YOU know that. Haven't we got to have SOMETHING to fall back on?"
"Yes, we have!" she cried. "We ought to have something to go on with right now, too, when we need it. Do you suppose these snippets would treat Alice the way they do if she could afford to ENTERTAIN? They leave her out of their dinners and dances simply because they know she can't give any dinners and dances to leave them out of! They know she can't get EVEN, and that's the whole story! That's why Henrietta Lamb's done this thing to her now."
Adams had gone back to his rubbing of his knees. "Oh, my, my!" he said. "WHAT thing?"
She told him. "Your dear, grand, old Mister Lamb's Henrietta has sent out invitations for a large party--a LARGE one. Everybody that is anybody in this town is asked, you can be sure. There's a very fine young man, a Mr. Russell, has just come to town, and he's interested in Alice, and he's asked her to go to this dance with him. Well, Alice can't accept. She can't go with him, though she'd give anything in the world to do it. Do you understand? The reason she can't is because Henrietta Lamb hasn't invited her. Do you want to know why Henrietta hasn't invited her? It's because she knows Alice can't get even, and because she thinks Alice ought to be snubbed like this on account of only being the daughter of one of her grandfather's clerks. I HOPE you understand!"
"Oh, my, my!" he said. "OH, my, my!"
"That's your sweet old employer," his wife cried, tauntingly. "That's your dear, kind, grand old Mister Lamb! Alice has been left out of a good many smaller things, like big dinners and little dances, but this is just the same as serving her notice that she's out of everything! And it's all done by your dear, grand old----"
"Look here!" Adams exclaimed. "I don't want to hear any more of that! You can't hold him responsible for everything his grandchildren do, I guess! He probably doesn't know a thing about it. You don't suppose he's troubling HIS head over----"
But she burst out at him passionately. "Suppose you trouble YOUR head about it! You'd better, Virgil Adams! You'd better, unless you want to see your child just dry up into a miserable old maid! She's still young and she has a chance for happiness, if she had a father that didn't bring a millstone to hang around her neck, instead of what he ought to give her! You just wait till you die and God asks you what you had in your breast instead of a heart!"
"Oh, my, my!" he groaned. "What's my heart got to do with it?"
"Nothing! You haven't got one or you'd give her what she needed. Am I asking anything you CAN'T do? You know better; you know I'm not!"
At this he sat suddenly rigid, his troubled hands ceasing to rub his knees; and he looked at her fixedly. "Now, tell me," he said, slowly. "Just what ARE you asking?"
"You know!" she sobbed.
"You mean you've broken your word never to speak of THAT to me again?"
"What do I care for my word?" she cried, and, sinking to the floor at his feet, rocked herself back and forth there. "Do you suppose I'll let my 'word' keep me from struggling for a little happiness for my children? It won't, I tell you; it won't! I'll struggle for that till I die! I will, till I die till I die!"
He rubbed his head now instead of his knees, and, shaking all over, he got up and began with uncertain steps to pace the floor.
"Hell, hell, hell!" he said. "I've got to go through THAT again!"
"Yes, you have!" she sobbed. "Till I die."
"Yes; that's what you been after all the time I was getting well."
"Yes, I have, and I'll keep on till I die!"
"A fine wife for a man," he said. "Beggin' a man to be a dirty dog!"
"No! To be a MAN--and I'll keep on till I die!"
Adams again fell back upon his last solace: he walked, half staggering, up and down the room, swearing in a rhythmic repetition.
His wife had repetitions of her own, and she kept at them in a voice that rose to a higher and higher pitch, like the sound of an old well-pump. "Till I die! Till I die! Till I DIE!"
She ended in a scream; and Alice, coming up the stairs, thanked heaven that Russell had gone. She ran to her father's door and went in.
Adams looked at her, and gesticulated shakily at the convulsive figure on the floor. "Can you get her out of here?"
Alice helped Mrs. Adams to her feet; and the stricken woman threw her arms passionately about her daughter.
"Get her out!" Adams said, harshly; then cried, "Wait!"
Alice, moving toward the door, halted, and looked at him blankly, over her mother's shoulder. "What is it, papa?"
He stretched out his arm and pointed at her. "She says--she says you have a mean life, Alice."
Mrs. Adams turned in her daughter's arms. "Do you hear her lie? Couldn't you be as brave as she is, Virgil?"
"Are you lying, Alice?" he asked. "Do you have a mean time?"
He came toward her. "Look at me!" he said. "Things like this dance now--is that so hard to bear?"
Alice tried to say, "No, papa," again, but she couldn't. Suddenly and in spite of herself she began to cry.
"Do you hear her?" his wife sobbed. "Now do you----"
He waved at them fiercely. "Get out of here!" he said. "Both of you! Get out of here!"
As they went, he dropped in his chair and bent far forward, so that his haggard face was concealed from them. Then, as Alice closed the door, he began to rub his knees again, muttering, "Oh, my, my! OH, my, my!"