- CHAPTER XIX "YES" TO ANYTHING
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"YES" TO ANYTHING
AT last it was July, and New York felt like a vast hermetically sealed Turkish bath into which all were free to enter, but once in, must remain, as there were no exits and no closing hours. Most of the people you read about in the Sunday supplements (except those who commit murders and such' things) had escaped to the sea or mountains before the Turkish bath opened for the summer. But there is never anything in Sunday supplements about the assistants in department-stores, for they are fashionable only in restricted districts, and they do not commit murders and such things, though they might occasionally enjoy doing so.
It had been, said the newspapers, an exceptionally gay winter and spring. Seldom had there been so many beautiful and important débutantes. Lovely girls and admiring men had decorated each page of the calendar, like rose petals. There had been cup races for automobiles and football and baseball matches for men and girls, and other matches less noisy, but almost as emotional. There had been dinners and balls, first nights at the opera, Washington's Birthday week-end house-parties in the Adirondacks, and Easter church parades for those who had not gone abroad or to Florida. Among those who chose Florida (there had been a great deal about this in the Sunday supplements) were Miss Rolls and her brother. Ena | | 209 had collapsed under an alleged attack of influenza after Lord Raygan went away and his engagement with Kathleen (alias "Pobbles") Gregory—the rich Miss Gregory—was announced. Some people were mean enough to say that it was not grippe but grief which laid Ena low in the height of the season; and if there were anything in this gossip, the grief would have been greater had Miss Rolls known that she herself was (indirectly) responsible for the happy ending of Raygan's romance.
A letter written by Lady Eileen while at Sea Gull Manor to her cousin Pobbles had (so Pobbles confessed later) suddenly opened the lady's eyes to her own true feelings. She began to wonder if Rags had loved her "for herself," after all. And, anyhow, she didn't want a girl like Ena Rolls to get him. So she met the ship on which Lady Raygan, Rags, and Eileen returned to Ireland, in order to "make a dead set" at the man she had once discarded. An engagement was the consequence, and in the first letter Rags wrote to thank his kind host and hostess on Long Island he asked for congratulations.
It was the same day that Ena began to sneeze so dismally that the only place for her was bed. And when she could leave its seclusion the next only place was Palm Beach. She said she would die unless she could go to Palm Beach, so Mother took her, and Peter took them both, not to speak of Ena's maid.
He did not wish to play courier. To turn his back on New York interfered seriously with his plans and half-plans and hopes and half-hopes. But Father would not go, and Mother and Ena could not without a man. Peter was the only one available at the moment, and it was April when Ena felt well enough to face the North again. By this time the news of her engagement to the Marchese di Rivoli had been copied from all the | | 210 principal papers into the little papers, and even the most confirmed cats must be acknowledging far and near that to lose an earl and gain a marquis is a step up in life.
It was, of course, not ideal that the Marchese di Rivoli had no remaining family estates of which his fiancée could talk, and there were creatures ready to swear not only that he had come to Palm Beach to pick up an heiress, but that the penniless princess who introduced him to Miss Rolls had received a commission. Still there are always family estates in the market, and where a coronet is there is gossip also. Only the cat tribe start or believe it, and even cats purr to a marchesa, lest they may want to visit Italy next year.
In the Turkish bath which was New York that July, Peter Rolls's department-store was one of the hot rooms. Miss Rolls did not come over from Long Island to choose her trousseau there, as a badly informed newspaper announced that she would do. She went to London and Paris instead, because it was cooler as well as smarter to put the Atlantic between her and "New York with the lid off." She ran over with the divorced Italian princess who had made her acquainted with the Marchese di Rivoli, and Mother and Peter were released.
No doubt other big stores were as hot or hotter than Peter Rolls's that July; but it seemed to Winifred Child that the Tropic of Cancer might have breezes which the Hands missed. Those of the sales-people who did not look as if at any moment their eyes might come out and all their veins burst were living advertisements for Somebody's Anti-Anæmia Mixture before the mixture was taken.
Win was of the latter type. She had become so pale and thin that Sadie Kirk compared her to a celery stalk. Sadie herself had, according to her own criticism, | | 211 "shrunk and faded in the wash," but the two girls had now few chances of "passing remarks" on each other's appearance, for, though Sadie was still in Toys, Win had been put into Mantles.
This in itself was a solution of the Meggison mystery. The girl's "cheek" had frightened the would-be "dog" and reminded him that a model superintendent must never lose a born saleswoman. But he had not sent for Win again, and Gloves were not for such as she.
Sadie, having "sauced" her landlady, found it wise to change her quarters. She had taken a room in an apartment-house two blocks removed from her former home, and Win, not being able to afford a "flit," remained at the old address. At first, when her pay was increased by two dollars a week, she had intended to save and follow Sadie. One had, however, to live mostly on ice-cream soda in the hot weather, which cost money. Besides, even had she possessed the dollars, she lacked energy of late. It was easier to keep on doing what one had done than do anything new. And, in any case, nothing that one did seemed to matter.
As for the lion-tamer, Peter Rolls's shop saw him no more. He had "got his nerve back" and had returned to lion-taming, not because the old life drew him irresistibly, but because there was far more money in dominating real lions than in selling Teddy ones.
In the birth of Earl Usher's adoring love for Win the demise of the animal who had "died on him" was forgotten. "Nerve" and courage and love and the desire to conquer were one in his heart. When a "good summer job at Coney" came his way, through an old friend in the "show business," he took it.
Reluctant as he was to leave Peter Rolls, which meant leaving "his girl," a change of position offered the only hope of obtaining her in the end. And despite every discouragement from his Lygia, Ursus did secretly | | 212 cherish this hope. As she no longer lived in Toyland when he went, the wrench of parting was not what it would have been to leave her at the mercy of any man who could afford to buy a doll. There was no excuse for men to "butt into" Mantles, unless accompanied by female belongings, and thus accompanied, their sting was gone.
At Coney Island Ursus was earning thirty dollars a week instead of ten, and was encouraged by crowds of admiring girls (who watched his performance and bought his photographs) to consider himself exceedingly eligible on that income. Many indeed made it plain to him that he would have been worth taking for his face, his muscles, and his spangled tights alone.
Sometimes on Sundays Sadie Kirk persuaded Win to "go to Coney for a blow." The crowd on the boats was alarming and on the beach when you got there, but the air was splendid, and poor Ursus beamed over his lions' heads with pride and pleasure. These few excursions, however, had been Winifred's only outings, except a play or two seen from a gallery, since she came to make her fortune in America; and as each day the heat pressed more heavily upon her with its leaden weight, she felt that she would collapse and "do something stupid" if she could not have a change. Anything—anything at all that was different and would break the monotony!
Lily Leavitt, who was in Mantles too, had never ceased to be friendly, and had often invited Win to go out with her in the long summer evenings, but always in vain, month after month, until one day in mid-July, when the heat-wave had surged to its record height. It just chanced—if there be such a thing as chance—to happen on the day when the girl's craving for a change had become an obsession, almost an illness.
It was a little past noon, and the seniors in Mantles | | 213 had gone out to lunch. They were rather by way of being aristocrats, these seniors, for the Mantle department, Jewellery, and some others worked "on commission." Salaries were no larger than elsewhere, but a handsome percentage was paid on sales; and those tigers and tigresses who were strong and ferocious enough to grab meat from under their weaker comrades' noses did extremely well. The Mantles girls who had gone out were champion tigresses. They could afford to eat at something like real restaurants, and as there was nothing worth rushing back for, they would not return until the last moment.
Lily Leavitt, who was qualifying as a tigress, had just snatched a sale which ought to have been Win's, but that did not count in their private relations. It was business, and Win was "welcome to play the same game"—if she could. Only, there was no danger that she would. Win was not of the stuff from which tigresses are made, and was incapable of seizing for herself anything—be it a seat in the subway or the chance to sell a mantle—which some other human creature was striving to get.
Win bore Lily no grudge for having "bagged" her customer and gained in three minutes three dollars commission which should rightfully have found its way to her purse. She listened without resentment to the description of a hat which Lil intended to buy with the money—a "sticker" it had proved in Hats, and was now marked down to half-price. Lil had had an eye on it for some time, and would, of course, get it "ten per" off.
"I bought me a sweet party dress last week—a bargain," Miss Leavitt went on, seeing that Win had no intention of "slanging" her for what she had just done. "It came outta commission on that green chiffon evening cloak and that white yachtin' I snapped | | 214 off Kit Vance when she was day-dreamin' and let me catch onto her customer like you done just now. Things is down to no price this hot weather. It's an ill wind blows no one good, and now is us guyls' time to get a bit of our own. P.R. always manages to make his hay, rain or shine. And even with our ten per off, it's forty per profit for him. When you think there's two thousand folks forced to buy on the premises, you savvy what he squeezes outta us! If we do pick up a bargain, it's a rare chance. I wonder you don't hustle more'n you do and make enough com. to buy yourself sumpin' nice. Your shuyt-waists are the wuyst in the dep., if you don't mind my sayin' so, and the guyls speak of it. Now if you had a party dress to doll up in, I could give you the time of your life to-night."
"Could you?" echoed Win, more in the desire to turn Miss Leavitt's attention from her "shirt-waist" to something else, than because she wished to hear about the great opportunity.
Miss Leavitt had offered her numerous opportunities of alleged entertainment, none of which, though glowingly described, had ever tempted her to acceptance. At first she had been afraid of Lily's fruit and chocolates and theatre tickets, which, like the marshmallows, might have come from Mr. Logan. But for the last three or four months, since the two girls migrated together into Mantles, Logan had been conspicuously absent. Apparently he had not invented a cloak as well as a toy! Win no longer connected Lily Leavitt's occasional invitations with him. Her refusals were prompted merely by a disinclination for Lil's society out of business hours and the conviction that her friends would be no more congenial than herself. Winifred now, however, particularly wished to show her companion that she bore no animosity for the filched commission, therefore she became loquacious.| | 215
"I don't need to spend my hard-earned dollars on a party dress, as it happens," she said. "I can save all my pennies for the hire of a typewriter, which is going to lead me from the Hands some day along the road to fortune. I've got the most gorgeous gown you can possibly imagine. I don't believe Cinderella's godmother could give her anything better. There's only one trouble. I shall never be invited to a party good enough for it."
"I've invited you to as swell a party as there could be in little old New York," boasted Miss Leavitt. "I ain't foolin'. That's straight. Honour bright, cross my heart."
"Oh, but you didn't invite me. You said you would if I had a dress. You've got only my word for that," Win reminded her.
"I meant to invite you all the same, dress or no dress," Lily confessed. "I'd o' lent you one. Have you really got something swell? If you have, now's your chance to show it off. It's an artist gives this party. I sit to artists sometimes, Sundays, for my hair. I guess you offen seen it on covers of magazines. This artist friend o' mine's the best o' the whole bunch."
"Man or woman?" Win wanted to know.
She expected the answer to be "man," but Lily did not seem to hear. Her face looked dreamy.
"It's the loveliest house where the party'll be," she said. "'Tain't the artist's own. It's some relation's that's lent it for the summer while they're away at the seashore. I bin there. It's in the Fifties, just off Fift' Av'noo. To-night it'll be cool as snow, and everything'll be iced for supper. Iced consummay, chicken salad cold as the refrigerator, iced champagne cup flowin' like water; ice-cream and strawb'ries, the big, sweet red ones from up north, where they keep on grow- | | 216 in' all summer, and lilies and roses from the country to give away to us when we go home."
Win forgot the question that had not been answered. She seemed to see those strawberries and to smell the sweetness of roses and lilies in a house "as cool as snow."
"Heavenly!" she sighed. "I didn't remember there were such things in the world!"
"Well, come with me to-night and remind yourself," coaxed Miss Leavitt. "You needn't be afraid, because I said it was artists, to butt into some rowdy crowd. They'll be as quiet and refined as mice. They're more your kind than mine, I guess."
"But who invites me?" Win made another bid for information.
"My artist friend said I could bring any one I wanted to bring, and I want to bring you. I don't just know who all 'll be there, but I guess not many, and it's a real swell house. to see. You always refuse everything I ask you to, but I do think you might say yes this one time and show you're not proud and stuck up. It'd do you good!"
"I believe it would, and I'll go!" cried Win. She was in the mood to say "yes" to anything.
"Hully gee! That's the best thing's happened to me since the measles!" exclaimed Miss Leavitt jovially. "I'll call for you at your place half-past nine this evening, so you can have a good rest before you begin fixin' yourself up."
"It's an engagement," said Win, with a kind of self-defiance.
She had wished for a change—"anything for a change," and presto! her wish had been suddenly granted by fate. Rather spitefully granted, it would seem, because to go to a "party" with Lily Leavitt was the very last thing she would have chosen. And | | 217 spitefully, also, as if to punish her own foolishness in wishing, she accepted such goods as the gods had mischievously provided.
"You've said yes, and now you must stick to it," she told herself in preparation for a wave of regret, but to her surprise the day wore on and the expected tide of repentance did not set in.
The girl realized that she was looking forward, actually looking forward, to the evening. It would be like walking wide awake into the Hall of Dreams to put on a dress beautiful enough for a princess and eat ice-cream and big red strawberries in a house "cool as snow" instead of sitting in her hot bedroom practising on the hired typewriter or panting on her bed, dead to everything in the world except a palm-leaf fan.
When she had been a little girl, invited to children's parties, it had not been of the slightest importance whether she liked the child or not. The party was the thing. Now history was repeating itself in her nature. The blank monotony of life and work had given back that childish eagerness for fun, no matter whence it came. She did not care whose ice-cream and strawberries she was going to eat, provided she got them and they were good. Besides, it would be like finding an old, lost friend to look into her mirror (it was cracked and turned one's complexion pale green, with iridescent spots; but that was a detail) and see a bare-necked, white-armed girl in evening dress.
There was a new way of doing the hair which Win had noticed on a smiling wax beauty in Peter Rolls's Window-World and had dimly wished to try for herself. Only dimly, because if her hair were glossy and trim it suited those plain, ninety-eight-cent shirt-waists better than elaborate fashions affected by Lily Leavitt and one or two of the more successful tigresses who cheaply copied expensive customers. Now there was | | 218 an incentive for the experiment, and Win laughed at the eagerness with which she looked forward to the moment of making it, laughed patronizingly, as she might have laughed at a child's longing for Christmas.
"Anyhow, it's something that I can laugh," she thought, recalling, as she often did, her boast to Peter Rolls junior. "And I haven't cried yet!"
She had not guessed how vividly the sight of the Moon dress and putting it on would bring Mr. Balm of Gilead to her mind. But as she stood gazing into the greenish glass, with her hair very successfully done in the new way and the Moon gown shimmering night-blue and silver, it was as if Peter Rolls came and looked over her shoulder, their eyes meeting in the mirror.
Yes, she saw him for an instant as clearly as that. He was there. He was her friend, the nicest, most altogether delightful man she had ever seen; the one she knew best and needed most, though their actual acquaintanceship was but a few days old. The kind blue eyes were true and brave, and said: "I dare you not to believe in me, as I believe in you!"
Then the vision (it had almost amounted to that) was gone like a broken bubble. Win felt physically sick, as if the one thing worth having in the world had been shown her for a second, to be suddenly snatched away for ever.
The silver sheen and the faint, lingering perfume of that Nadine model gown had woven a magic carpet of moonbeams and transported her back to the mirrored room on the Monarchic for an instant. But it was only for an instant. Then the Columbus Avenue bedroom, with its window open to the roar and rush of the "L," had her again and made the Moon dress and the Moon-dress dreams seem ridiculously unsuited to life.
Win touched a switch which shut off light from the one unshaded electric bulb hanging like a lambent pear | | 219 over her head. Then, palm-leaf fan in hand, she sat down in the blue summer darkness to await the coming of Miss Leavitt.
For the first time she repented her promise to go out. Monotony was preferable to the party as she pictured it—a silly, giggling crowd of crude young people among whom she, the stranger, would be like a muted note on a cheap piano. Should she stay at home, after all, and tell Lily that the heat had made her too limp to stir? It would be quite true. But no. If she stayed she would not have the courage to undress for a long, long time. She would just sit there in the dark by the window in the Moon gown, its perfume surrounding her with the past, shutting her up, as it were, in the mirror room with Mr. Balm of Gilead who had never really existed.
Yet, had he not? What had the eyes in the cracked glass said just now? Why shouldn't she believe them instead of Ena Rolls's dreadful hints? Why might not a sister, even with the best intentions, be mistaken about a brother?
These were exactly the sort of questions that were upsetting and altogether useless to ask oneself, and Win jumped up to turn on the electric light again. She would go with Lily Leavitt!
Five minutes later a taxicab—a real, live, magnificent, unthinkably expensive taxicab—stopped and chortled in front of the apartment-house in which Mrs. McFarrell's flat was one of many. Heads flew out of windows, for the thing was unbelievable, and among other heads was Win's.
Instinct cried that the chortling was for her. The balcony where the rubber plants had died and mummied themselves, being scarcely more than a foot wide, she was able to see a face crowned with red hair and white as a Pierrette's in the lights of the street, looking | | 220 anxiously up from the cab window. Its expression implored the guest to hurry down, because each heart-throb meant not a drop of red blood, but several red cents. Win caught the message, and seizing the ancient though still respectable evening cloak which had spent months in a trunk with the "New Moon," she flew downstairs.
"What an extravagant creature!" she gasped, breathless, when after a wasted sixty seconds at most the taxi was en route.
"I had a present from a gentleman friend," said Lily in a self-satisfied voice, adding hastily, in deference to Miss Child's "stuck-up primness," "a filopena present, to choose myself anything I liked with. I thought us bein' in party dress, and you sort o' tired out, a taxi'd be just about the best thing goin'."
This reduced Win to the necessity for gratitude, and after months of the "L," the subway, and the cross-town car, the girl could not help revelling in a taxi. She refused to be depressed by the gloomy spectacle of lower-class New York in the throes of a heat wave—pallid people hanging out of windows or standing at corners to be eased of their torture by the merciful spray from fire-hydrants; barefooted, half-naked children staring thirstily at soda-fountains in bright, hot drugstores they could never hope to enter—every one limp, lethargic, glistening unhealthily with horrid moisture, all loathing themselves and indifferent to each other. Sometimes Win felt that these were her true brothers and sisters, the only ones who could understand, because they were the only ones who really suffered; but tonight she dared not think of them. If she did, because of what they endured she could not enjoy the ice-cream and strawberries in the snow-coolness of the artist's borrowed house.
New York not being her own city, its different | | 221 divisions lacked for her the meaning and importance they had for those at home; therefore she was disappointingly calm when Lil made the taxi stop in front of a house only three or four doors off Fifth Avenue. Miss Leavitt had the fare ready, with a small tip for the driver, and the two were out of the cab, standing in the street, before Win noticed a thing that struck her sharply and quickly as being very strange.
"Why!" she exclaimed, "we must have come to the wrong place. All these houses are shut. Their doors and windows are boarded up!"
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