Laura Dearborn's native town was Barrington, in Worcester County, Massachusetts. Both she and Page had been born there, and there had lived until the death of their father, at a time when Page was ready for the High School. The mother, a North Carolina girl, had died long before.
Laura's education had been unusual. After leaving the High School her father had for four years allowed her a private tutor (an impecunious graduate from the Harvard Theological School). She was ambitious, a devoted student, and her instructor's task was rather to guide than to enforce her application. She soon acquired a reading knowledge of French, and knew her Racine in the original almost as well as her Shakespeare. Literature became for her an actual passion. She delved into Tennyson and the Victorian poets, and soon was on terms of intimacy with the poets and essayists of New England. The novelists of the day she ignored almost completely, and voluntarily. Only occasionally, and then as a concession, she permitted herself a reading of Mr. Howells.
Moderately prosperous while he himself was conducting his little mill, Dearborn had not been able to put by any money to speak of, and when Laura and the local lawyer had come to close up the business, to dispose of the mill, and to settle the claims against what the lawyer grandiloquently termed "the estate," there was just enough money left to pay for Page's tickets to Chicago and a course of tuition for her at a seminary.
The Cresslers on the event of Dearborn's death had advised both sisters to come West, and had pledged themselves to look after Page during the period of her schooling. Laura had sent the little girl on at once, but delayed taking the step herself.
Fortunately, the two sisters were not obliged to live upon their inheritance. Dearborn himself had a sister—a twin of Aunt Wess'—who had married a wealthy woollen merchant of Boston, and this one, long since, had provided for the two girls. A large sum had been set aside, which was to be made over to them when the father died. For years now this sum had been accumulating interest. So that when Laura and Page faced the world, alone, upon the steps of the Barrington cemetery, they had the assurance that, at least, they were independent.
For two years, in the solidly built colonial dwelling, with its low ceilings and ample fireplaces, where once the minute-men had swung their kettles, Laura, alone, thought it all over. Mother and father were dead; even the Boston aunt was dead. Of all her relations, Aunt Wess' alone remained. Page was at her finishing school at Geneva Lake, within two hours of Chicago. The Cresslers were the dearest friends of the orphan girls. Aunt Wess', herself a widow, living also in Chicago, added her entreaties to Mrs. Cressler's. All things seemed to point her westward, all things seemed to indicate that one phase of her life was ended.
Then, too, she had her ambitions. These hardly took definite shape in her mind; but vaguely she chose to see herself, at some far-distant day, an actress, a tragedienne, playing the roles of Shakespeare's heroines. This idea of hers was more a desire than an ambition, but it could not be realised in Barrington, Massachusetts. For a year she temporised, procrastinated, loth to leave the old home, loth to leave the grave in the cemetery back of the Methodist-Episcopal chapel. Twice during this time she visited Page, and each time the great grey city threw the spell of its fascination about her. Each time she returned to Barrington the town dwindled in her estimation. It was picturesque, but lamentably narrow. The life was barren, the "New England spirit" prevailed in all its severity; and this spirit seemed to her a veritable cult, a sort of religion, wherein the Old Maid was the priestess, the Spinster the officiating devotee, the thing worshipped the Great Unbeautiful, and the ritual unremitting, unrelenting Housework. She detested it.
That she was an Episcopalian, and preferred to read her prayers rather than to listen to those written and memorised by the Presbyterian minister, seemed to be regarded as a relic of heathenish rites—a thing almost cannibalistic. When she elected to engage a woman and a "hired man" to manage her house, she felt the disapprobation of the entire village, as if she had sunk into some decadent and enervating Lower-Empire degeneracy.
The crisis came when Laura travelled alone to Boston to hear Modjeska in "Marie Stuart" and "Macbeth," and upon returning full of enthusiasm, allowed it to be understood that she had a half-formed desire of emulating such an example. A group of lady-deaconesses, headed by the Presbyterian minister, called upon her, with some intention of reasoning and labouring with her.
They got no farther than the statement of the cause of this visit. The spirit and temper of the South, that she had from her mother, flamed up in Laura at last, and the members of the "committee," before they were well aware, came to themselves in the street outside the front gate, dazed and bewildered, staring at each other, all confounded and stunned by the violence of an outbreak of long-repressed emotion and long-restrained anger, that like an actual physical force had swept them out of the house.
At the same moment Laura, thrown across her bed, wept with a vehemence that shook her from head to foot. But she had not the least compunction for what she had said, and before the month was out had said good-by to Barrington forever, and was on her way to Chicago, henceforth to be her home.
A house was bought on the North Side, and it was arranged that Aunt Wess' should live with her two nieces. Pending the installation Laura and Page lived at a little family hotel in the same neighbourhood. The Cresslers' invitation to join the theatre party at the Auditorium had fallen inopportunely enough, squarely in the midst of the ordeal of moving in. Indeed the two girls had already passed one night in the new home, and they must dress for the affair by lamplight in their unfurnished quarters and under inconceivable difficulties. Only the lure of Italian opera, heard from a box, could have tempted them to have accepted the invitation at such a time and under such circumstances.
The morning after the opera, Laura woke in her bed—almost the only article of furniture that was in place in the whole house—with the depressing consciousness of a hard day's work at hand. Outside it was still raining, the room was cold, heated only by an inadequate oil stove, and through the slats of the inside shutters, which, pending the hanging of the curtains they had been obliged to close, was filtering a gloomy light of a wet Chicago morning.
It was all very mournful, and she regretted now that she had not abided by her original decision to remain at the hotel until the new house was ready for occupancy. But it had happened that their month at the hotel was just up, and rather than engage the rooms for another four weeks she had thought it easier as well as cheaper to come to the house. It was all a new experience for her, and she had imagined that everything could be moved in, put in place, and the household running smoothly in a week's time.
She sat up in bed, hugging her shoulders against the chill of the room and looking at her theatre gown, that—in default of a clean closet—she had hung from the gas fixture the night before. From the direction of the kitchen came the sounds of the newly engaged "girl" making the fire for breakfast, while through the register a thin wisp of blue smoke curled upward to prove that the "hired man" was tinkering with the unused furnace. The room itself was in lamentable confusion. Crates and packing boxes encumbered the uncarpeted floor; chairs wrapped in excelsior and jute were piled one upon another; a roll of carpet leaned in one corner and a pile of mattresses occupied another.
As Laura considered the prospect she realised her blunder.
"Why, and oh, why," she murmured, "didn't we stay at the hotel till all this was straightened out?"
But in an adjoining room she heard Aunt Wess' stirring. She turned to Page, who upon the pillows beside her still slept, her stocking around her neck as a guarantee against draughts.
"Page, Page! Wake up, girlie. It's late, and there's worlds to do."
Page woke blinking.
"Oh, it's freezing cold, Laura. Let's light the oil stove and stay in bed till the room gets warm. Oh, dear, aren't you sleepy, and, oh, wasn't last night lovely? Which one of us will get up to light the stove? We'll count for it. Lie down, sissie, dear," she begged, "you're letting all the cold air in."
Laura complied, and the two sisters, their noses all but touching, the bedclothes up to their ears, put their arms about each other to keep the warmer.
Amused at the foolishness, they "counted" to decide as to who should get up to light the oil stove, Page beginning:
But before the "count" was decided Aunt Wess' came in, already dressed, and in a breath the two girls implored her to light the stove. While she did so, Aunt Wess' remarked, with the alacrity of a woman who observes the difficulties of a proceeding in which she has no faith:
"I don't believe that hired girl knows her business. She says now she can't light a fire in that stove. My word, Laura, I do believe you'll have enough of all this before you're done. You know I advised you from the very first to take a flat."
"Nonsense, Aunt Wess'," answered Laura, good-naturedly. "We'll work it out all right. I know what's the matter with that range. I'll be right down and see to it so soon as I'm dressed."
It was nearly ten o'clock before breakfast, such as it was, was over. They ate it on the kitchen table, with the kitchen knives and forks, and over the meal, Page having remarked: "Well, what will we do first?" discussed the plan of campaign.
"Landry Court does not have to work to-day—he told me why, but I've forgotten—and he said he was coming up to help," observed Laura, and at once Aunt Wess' smiled. Landry Court was openly and strenuously in love with Laura, and no one of the new household ignored the fact. Aunt Wess' chose to consider the affair as ridiculous, and whenever the subject was mentioned spoke of Landry as "that boy."
Page, however, bridled with seriousness as often as the matter came up. Yes, that was all very well, but Landry was a decent, hard-working young fellow, with all his way to make and no time to waste, and if Laura didn't mean that it should come to anything it wasn't very fair to him to keep him dangling along like that.
"I guess," Laura was accustomed to reply, looking significantly at Aunt Wess', "that our little girlie has a little bit of an eye on a certain hard-working young fellow herself." And the answer invariably roused Page.
"Now, Laura," she would cry, her eyes snapping, her breath coming fast. "Now, Laura, that isn't right at all, and you know I don't like it, and you just say it because you know it makes me cross. I won't have you insinuate that I would run after any man or care in the least whether he's in love or not. I just guess I've got some self-respect; and as for Landry Court, we're no more nor less than just good friends, and I appreciate his business talents and the way he rustles 'round, and he merely respects me as a friend, and it don't go any farther than that. 'An eye on him,' I do declare! As if I hadn't yet to see the man I'd so much as look at a second time."
And Laura, remembering her "Shakespeare," was ever ready with the words:
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks."
Just after breakfast, in fact, Landry did appear.
"Now," he began, with a long breath, addressing Laura, who was unwrapping the pieces of cut glass and bureau ornaments as Page passed them to her from the depths of a crate. "Now, I've done a lot already. That's what made me late. I've ordered your newspaper sent here, and I've telephoned the hotel to forward any mail that comes for you to this address, and I sent word to the gas company to have your gas turned on—"
"Oh, that's good," said Laura.
"Yes, I thought of that; the man will be up right away to fix it, and I've ordered a cake of ice left here every day, and told the telephone company that you wanted a telephone put in. Oh, yes, and the bottled-milk man—I stopped in at a dairy on the way up. Now, what do we do first?"
He took off his coat, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and plunged into the confusion of crates and boxes that congested the rooms and hallways on the first floor of the house. The two sisters could hear him attacking his task with tremendous blows of the kitchen hammer. From time to time he called up the stairway:
"Hey, what do you want done with this jardiniere thing? … Where does this hanging lamp go, Laura?"
Laura, having unpacked all the cut-glass ornaments, came down-stairs, and she and Landry set about hanging the parlour curtains.
Landry fixed the tops of the window mouldings with a piercing eye, his arms folded.
"I see, I see," he answered to Laura's explanations. "I see. Now where's a screw-driver, and a step-ladder? Yes, and I'll have to have some brass nails, and your hired man must let me have that hammer again."
He sent the cook after the screw-driver, called the hired man from the furnace, shouted upstairs to Page to ask for the whereabouts of the brass nails, and delegated Laura to steady the step-ladder.
"Now, Landry," directed Laura, "those rods want to be about three inches from the top."
"Well," he said, climbing up, "I'll mark the place with the screw and you tell me if it is right."
She stepped back, her head to one side.
"No; higher, Landry. There, that's about it—or a little lower—so. That's just right. Come down now and help me put the hooks in."
They pulled a number of sofa cushions together and sat down on the floor side by side, Landry snapping the hooks in place where Laura had gathered the pleats. Inevitably his hands touched hers, and their heads drew close together. Page and Mrs. Wessels were unpacking linen in the upstairs hall. The cook and hired man raised a great noise of clanking stove lids and grates as they wrestled with the range in the kitchen.
"Well," said Landry, "you are going to have a pretty home." He was meditating a phrase of which he purposed delivering himself when opportunity afforded. It had to do with Laura's eyes, and her ability of understanding him. She understood him; she was to know that he thought so, that it was of immense importance to him. It was thus he conceived of the manner of love making. The evening before that palavering artist seemed to have managed to monopolise her about all of the time. Now it was his turn, and this day of household affairs, of little domestic commotions, appeared to him to be infinitely more desirous than the pomp and formality of evening dress and opera boxes. This morning the relations between himself and Laura seemed charming, intimate, unconventional, and full of opportunities. Never had she appeared prettier to him. She wore a little pink flannel dressing-sack with full sleeves, and her hair, carelessly twisted into great piles, was in a beautiful disarray, curling about her cheeks and ears. "I didn't see anything of you at all last night," he grumbled.
"Well, you didn't try."
"Oh, it was the Other Fellow's turn," he went on. "Say," he added, "how often are you going to let me come to see you when you get settled here? Twice a week—three times?"
"As if you wanted to see me as often as that. Why, Landry, I'm growing up to be an old maid. You can't want to lose your time calling on old maids."
He was voluble in protestations. He was tired of young girls. They were all very well to dance with, but when a man got too old for that sort of thing, he wanted some one with sense to talk to. Yes, he did. Some one with sense. Why, he would rather talk five minutes with her—
"Honestly, Landry?" she asked, as though he were telling a thing incredible.
He swore to her it was true. His eyes snapped. He struck his palm with his fist.
"An old maid like me?" repeated Laura.
"Old maid nothing!" he vociferated. "Ah," he cried, "you seem to understand me. When I look at you, straight into your eyes—"
From the doorway the cook announced that the man with the last load of furnace coal had come, and handed Laura the voucher to sign. Then needs must that Laura go with the cook to see if the range was finally and properly adjusted, and while she was gone the man from the gas company called to turn on the meter, and Landry was obliged to look after him. It was half an hour before he and Laura could once more settle themselves on the cushions in the parlour.
"Such a lot of things to do," she said; "and you are such a help, Landry. It was so dear of you to want to come."
"I would do anything in the world for you, Laura," he exclaimed, encouraged by her words; "anything. You know I would. It isn't so much that I want you to care for me—and I guess I want that bad enough—but it's because I love to be with you, and be helping you, and all that sort of thing. Now, all this," he waved a hand at the confusion of furniture, "all this to-day—I just feel," he declared with tremendous earnestness, "I just feel as though I were entering into your life. And just sitting here beside you and putting in these curtain hooks, I want you to know that it's inspiring to me. Yes, it is, inspiring; it's elevating. You don't know how it makes a man feel to have the companionship of a good and lovely woman."
"Landry, as though I were all that. Here, put another hook in here."
She held the fold towards him. But he took her hand as their fingers touched and raised it to his lips and kissed it. She did not withdraw it, nor rebuke him, crying out instead, as though occupied with quite another matter:
"Landry, careful, my dear boy; you'll make me prick my fingers. Ah—there, you did."
He was all commiseration and self-reproach at once, and turned her hand palm upwards, looking for the scratch.
"Um!" she breathed. "It hurts."
"Where now," he cried, "where was it? Ah, I was a beast; I'm so ashamed." She indicated a spot on her wrist instead of her fingers, and very naturally Landry kissed it again.
"How foolish!" she remonstrated. "The idea! As if I wasn't old enough to be—"
"You're not so old but what you're going to marry me some day," he declared.
"How perfectly silly, Landry!" she retorted. "Aren't you done with my hand yet?"
"No, indeed," he cried, his clasp tightening over her fingers. "It's mine. You can't have it till I say—or till you say that—some day—you'll give it to me for good—for better or for worse."
"As if you really meant that," she said, willing to prolong the little situation. It was very sweet to have this clean, fine-fibred young boy so earnestly in love with her, very sweet that the lifting of her finger, the mere tremble of her eyelid should so perturb him.
"Mean it! Mean it!" he vociferated. "You don't know how much I do mean it. Why, Laura, why—why, I can't think of anything else."
"You!" she mocked. "As if I believed that. How many other girls have you said it to this year?"
Landry compressed his lips.
"Miss Dearborn, you insult me."
"Oh, my!" exclaimed Laura, at last withdrawing her hand.
"And now you're mocking me. It isn't kind. No, it isn't; it isn't kind."
"I never answered your question yet," she observed.
"About your coming to see me when we were settled. I thought you wanted to know."
"How about lunch?" said Page, from the doorway. "Do you know it's after twelve?"
"The girl has got something for us," said Laura. "I told her about it. Oh, just a pick-up lunch—coffee, chops. I thought we wouldn't bother to-day. We'll have to eat in the kitchen."
"Well, let's be about it," declared Landry, "and finish with these curtains afterward. Inwardly I'm a ravening wolf."
It was past one o'clock by the time that luncheon, "picked up" though it was, was over. By then everybody was very tired. Aunt Wess' exclaimed that she could not stand another minute, and retired to her room. Page, indefatigable, declaring they never would get settled if they let things dawdle along, set to work unpacking her trunk and putting her clothes away. Her fox terrier, whom the family, for obscure reasons, called the Pig, arrived in the middle of the afternoon in a crate, and shivering with the chill of the house, was tied up behind the kitchen range, where, for all the heat, he still trembled and shuddered at long intervals, his head down, his eyes rolled up, bewildered and discountenanced by so much confusion and so many new faces.
Outside the weather continued lamentable. The rain beat down steadily upon the heaps of snow on the grass-plats by the curbstones, melting it, dirtying it, and reducing it to viscid slush. The sky was lead grey; the trees, bare and black as though built of iron and wire, dripped incessantly. The sparrows, huddling under the house-eaves or in interstices of the mouldings, chirped feebly from time to time, sitting disconsolate, their feathers puffed out till their bodies assumed globular shapes. Delivery wagons trundled up and down the street at intervals, the horses and drivers housed in oil-skins.
The neighborhood was quiet. There was no sound of voices in the streets. But occasionally, from far away in the direction of the river or the Lake Front, came the faint sounds of steamer and tug whistles. The sidewalks in either direction were deserted. Only a solitary policeman, his star pinned to the outside of his dripping rubber coat, his helmet shedding rivulets, stood on the corner absorbed in the contemplation of the brown torrent of the gutter plunging into a sewer vent.
Landry and Laura were in the library at the rear of the house, a small room, two sides of which were occupied with book-cases. They were busy putting the books in place. Laura stood half-way up the step-ladder taking volume after volume from Landry as he passed them to her.
"Do you wipe them carefully, Landry?" she asked.
He held a strip of cloth torn from an old sheet in his hand, and rubbed the dust from each book before he handed it to her.
"Yes, yes; very carefully," he assured her. "Say," he added, "where are all your modern novels? You've got Scott and Dickens and Thackeray, of course, and Eliot—yes, and here's Hawthorne and Poe. But I haven't struck anything later than Oliver Wendell Holmes."
Laura put up her chin. "Modern novels—no indeed. When I've yet to read 'Jane Eyre,' and have only read 'Ivanhoe' and 'The Newcomes' once."
She made a point of the fact that her taste was the extreme of conservatism, refusing to acknowledge hardly any fiction that was not almost classic. Even Stevenson aroused her suspicions.
"Well, here's 'The Wrecker,'" observed Landry, handing it up to her. "I read it last summer-vacation at Waukesha. Just about took the top of my head off."
"I tried to read it," she answered. "Such an outlandish story, no love story in it, and so coarse, so brutal, and then so improbable. I couldn't get interested."
But abruptly Landry uttered an exclamation:
"Well, what do you call this? 'Wanda,' by Ouida. How is this for modern?"
She blushed to her hair, snatching the book from him.
"Page brought it home. It's hers."
But her confusion betrayed her, and Landry shouted derisively.
"Well, I did read it then," she suddenly declared defiantly. "No, I'm not ashamed. Yes, I read it from cover to cover. It made me cry like I haven't cried over a book since I was a little tot. You can say what you like, but it's beautiful—a beautiful love story—and it does tell about noble, unselfish people. I suppose it has its faults, but it makes you feel better for reading it, and that's what all your 'Wreckers' in the world would never do."
"Well," answered Landry, "I don't know much about that sort of thing. Corthell does. He can talk you blind about literature. I've heard him run on by the hour. He says the novel of the future is going to be the novel without a love story."
But Laura nodded her head incredulously.
"It will be long after I am dead—that's one consolation," she said.
"Corthell is full of crazy ideas anyhow," Landry went on, still continuing to pass the books up to her. "He's a good sort, and I like him well enough, but he's the kind of man that gets up a reputation for being clever and artistic by running down the very one particular thing that every one likes, and cracking up some book or picture or play that no one has ever heard of. Just let anything get popular once and Sheldon Corthell can't speak of it without shuddering. But he'll go over here to some Archer Avenue pawn shop, dig up an old brass stewpan, or coffee-pot that some greasy old Russian Jew has chucked away, and he'll stick it up in his studio and regularly kow-tow to it, and talk about the 'decadence of American industrial arts.' I've heard him. I say it's pure affectation, that's what it is, pure affectation."
But the book-case meanwhile had been filling up, and now Laura remarked:
"No more, Landry. That's all that will go here."
She prepared to descend from the ladder. In filling the higher shelves she had mounted almost to the topmost step.
"Careful now," said Landry, as he came forward. "Give me your hand."
She gave it to him, and then, as she descended, Landry had the assurance to put his arm around her waist as if to steady her. He was surprised at his own audacity, for he had premeditated nothing, and his arm was about her before he was well aware. He yet found time to experience a qualm of apprehension. Just how would Laura take it? Had he gone too far?
But Laura did not even seem to notice, all her attention apparently fixed upon coming safely down to the floor. She descended and shook out her skirts.
"There," she said, "that's over with. Look, I'm all dusty."
There was a knock at the half-open door. It was the cook.
"What are you going to have for supper, Miss Dearborn?" she inquired. "There's nothing in the house."
"Oh, dear," said Laura with sudden blankness, "I never thought of supper. Isn't there anything?"
"Nothing but some eggs and coffee." The cook assumed an air of aloofness, as if the entire affair were totally foreign to any interest or concern of hers. Laura dismissed her, saying that she would see to it.
"We'll have to go out and get some things," she said. "We'll all go. I'm tired of staying in the house."
"No, I've a better scheme," announced Landry. "I'll invite you all out to dine with me. I know a place where you can get the best steak in America. It has stopped raining. See," he showed her the window.
"But, Landry, we are all so dirty and miserable."
"We'll go right now and get there early. There will be nobody there, and we can have a room to ourselves. Oh, it's all right," he declared. "You just trust me."
"We'll see what Page and Aunt Wess' say. Of course Aunt Wess' would have to come."
"Of course," he said. "I wouldn't think of asking you unless she could come."
A little later the two sisters, Mrs. Wessels, and Landry came out of the house, but before taking their car they crossed to the opposite side of the street, Laura having said that she wanted to note the effect of her parlour curtains from the outside.
"I think they are looped up just far enough," she declared. But Landry was observing the house itself.
"It is the best-looking place on the block," he answered.
In fact, the house was not without a certain attractiveness. It occupied a corner lot at the intersection of Huron and North State streets. Directly opposite was St. James' Church, and at one time the house had served as the rectory. For the matter of that, it had been built for just that purpose. Its style of architecture was distantly ecclesiastic, with a suggestion of Gothic to some of the doors and windows. The material used was solid, massive, the walls thick, the foundation heavy. It did not occupy the entire lot, the original builder seeming to have preferred garden space to mere amplitude of construction, and in addition to the inevitable "back yard," a lawn bordered it on three sides. It gave the place a certain air of distinction and exclusiveness. Vines grew thick upon the southern walls; in the summer time fuchsias, geraniums, and pansies would flourish in the flower beds by the front stoop. The grass plat by the curb boasted a couple of trees. The whole place was distinctive, individual, and very homelike, and came as a grateful relief to the endless lines of houses built of yellow Michigan limestone that pervaded the rest of the neighbourhood in every direction.
"I love the place," exclaimed Laura. "I think it's as pretty a house as I have seen in Chicago."
"Well, it isn't so spick and span," commented Page. "It gives you the idea that we're not new-rich and showy and all."
But Aunt Wess' was not yet satisfied.
"You may see, Laura," she remarked, "how you are going to heat all that house with that one furnace, but I declare I don't."
Their car, or rather their train of cars, coupled together in threes, in Chicago style, came, and Landry escorted them down town. All the way Laura could not refrain from looking out of the windows, absorbed in the contemplation of the life and aspects of the streets.
"You will give yourself away," said Page. "Everybody will know you're from the country."
"I am," she retorted. "But there's a difference between just mere 'country' and Massachusetts, and I'm not ashamed of it."
Chicago, the great grey city, interested her at every instant and under every condition. As yet she was not sure that she liked it; she could not forgive its dirty streets, the unspeakable squalor of some of its poorer neighbourhoods that sometimes developed, like cancerous growths, in the very heart of fine residence districts. The black murk that closed every vista of the business streets oppressed her, and the soot that stained linen and gloves each time she stirred abroad was a never-ending distress.
But the life was tremendous. All around, on every side, in every direction the vast machinery of Commonwealth clashed and thundered from dawn to dark and from dark till dawn. Even now, as the car carried her farther into the business quarter, she could hear it, see it, and feel in her every fibre the trepidation of its motion. The blackened waters of the river, seen an instant between stanchions as the car trundled across the State Street bridge, disappeared under fleets of tugs, of lake steamers, of lumber barges from Sheboygan and Mackinac, of grain boats from Duluth, of coal scows that filled the air with impalpable dust, of cumbersome schooners laden with produce, of grimy rowboats dodging the prows and paddles of the larger craft, while on all sides, blocking the horizon, red in color and designated by Brobdignag letters, towered the hump-shouldered grain elevators.
Just before crossing the bridge on the north side of the river she had caught a glimpse of a great railway terminus. Down below there, rectilinear, scientifically paralleled and squared, the Yard disclosed itself. A system of grey rails beyond words complicated opened out and spread immeasurably. Switches, semaphores, and signal towers stood here and there. A dozen trains, freight and passenger, puffed and steamed, waiting the word to depart. Detached engines hurried in and out of sheds and roundhouses, seeking their trains, or bunted the ponderous freight cars into switches; trundling up and down, clanking, shrieking, their bells filling the air with the clangour of tocsins. Men in visored caps shouted hoarsely, waving their arms or red flags; drays, their big dappled horses, feeding in their nose bags, stood backed up to the open doors of freight cars and received their loads. A train departed roaring. Before midnight it would be leagues away boring through the Great Northwest, carrying Trade—the life blood of nations—into communities of which Laura had never heard. Another train, reeking with fatigue, the air brakes screaming, arrived and halted, debouching a flood of passengers, business men, bringing Trade—a galvanising elixir—from the very ends and corners of the continent.
Or, again, it was South Water Street—a jam of delivery wagons and market carts backed to the curbs, leaving only a tortuous path between the endless files of horses, suggestive of an actual barrack of cavalry. Provisions, market produce, "garden truck" and fruits, in an infinite welter of crates and baskets, boxes, and sacks, crowded the sidewalks. The gutter was choked with an overflow of refuse cabbage leaves, soft oranges, decaying beet tops. The air was thick with the heavy smell of vegetation. Food was trodden under foot, food crammed the stores and warehouses to bursting. Food mingled with the mud of the highway. The very dray horses were gorged with an unending nourishment of snatched mouthfuls picked from backboard, from barrel top, and from the edge of the sidewalk. The entire locality reeked with the fatness of a hundred thousand furrows. A land of plenty, the inordinate abundance of the earth itself emptied itself upon the asphalt and cobbles of the quarter. It was the Mouth of the City, and drawn from all directions, over a territory of immense area, this glut of crude subsistence was sucked in, as if into a rapacious gullet, to feed the sinews and to nourish the fibres of an immeasurable colossus.
Suddenly the meaning and significance of it all dawned upon Laura. The Great Grey City, brooking no rival, imposed its dominion upon a reach of country larger than many a kingdom of the Old World. For, thousands of miles beyond its confines was its influence felt. Out, far out, far away in the snow and shadow of Northern Wisconsin forests, axes and saws bit the bark of century-old trees, stimulated by this city's energy. Just as far to the southward pick and drill leaped to the assault of veins of anthracite, moved by her central power. Her force turned the wheels of harvester and seeder a thousand miles distant in Iowa and Kansas. Her force spun the screws and propellers of innumerable squadrons of lake steamers crowding the Sault Sainte Marie. For her and because of her all the Central States, all the Great Northwest roared with traffic and industry; sawmills screamed; factories, their smoke blackening the sky, clashed and flamed; wheels turned, pistons leaped in their cylinders; cog gripped cog; beltings clasped the drums of mammoth wheels; and converters of forges belched into the clouded air their tempest breath of molten steel.
It was Empire, the resistless subjugation of all this central world of the lakes and the prairies. Here, mid-most in the land, beat the Heart of the Nation, whence inevitably must come its immeasurable power, its infinite, infinite, inexhaustible vitality. Here, of all her cities, throbbed the true life—the true power and spirit of America; gigantic, crude with the crudity of youth, disdaining rivalry; sane and healthy and vigorous; brutal in its ambition, arrogant in the new-found knowledge of its giant strength, prodigal of its wealth, infinite in its desires. In its capacity boundless, in its courage indomitable; subduing the wilderness in a single generation, defying calamity, and through the flame and the debris of a commonwealth in ashes, rising suddenly renewed, formidable, and Titanic.
Laura, her eyes dizzied, her ears stunned, watched tirelessly.
"There is something terrible about it," she murmured, half to herself, "something insensate. In a way, it doesn't seem human. It's like a great tidal wave. It's all very well for the individual just so long as he can keep afloat, but once fallen, how horribly quick it would crush him, annihilate him, how horribly quick, and with such horrible indifference! I suppose it's civilisation in the making, the thing that isn't meant to be seen, as though it were too elemental, too—primordial; like the first verses of Genesis."
The impression remained long with her, and not even the gaiety of their little supper could altogether disperse it. She was a little frightened—frightened of the vast, cruel machinery of the city's life, and of the men who could dare it, who conquered it. For a moment they seemed, in a sense, more terrible than the city itself—men for whom all this crash of conflict and commerce had no terrors. Those who could subdue it to their purposes, must they not be themselves more terrible, more pitiless, more brutal? She shrank a little. What could women ever know of the life of men, after all? Even Landry, extravagant as he was, so young, so exuberant, so seemingly innocent—she knew that he was spoken of as a good business man. He, too, then had his other side. For him the Battle of the Street was an exhilaration. Beneath that boyish exterior was the tough coarseness, the male hardness, the callousness that met the brunt and withstood the shock of onset.
Ah, these men of the city, what could women ever know of them, of their lives, of that other existence through which—freed from the influence of wife or mother, or daughter or sister—they passed every day from nine o'clock till evening? It was a life in which women had no part, and in which, should they enter it, they would no longer recognise son or husband, or father or brother. The gentle-mannered fellow, clean-minded, clean-handed, of the breakfast or supper table was one man. The other, who and what was he? Down there in the murk and grime of the business district raged the Battle of the Street, and therein he was a being transformed, case hardened, supremely selfish, asking no quarter; no, nor giving any. Fouled with the clutchings and grapplings of the attack, besmirched with the elbowing of low associates and obscure allies, he set his feet toward conquest, and mingled with the marchings of an army that surged forever forward and back; now in merciless assault, beating the fallen enemy under foot, now in repulse, equally merciless, trampling down the auxiliaries of the day before, in a panic dash for safety; always cruel, always selfish, always pitiless.
To contrast these men with such as Corthell was inevitable. She remembered him, to whom the business district was an unexplored country, who kept himself far from the fighting, his hands unstained, his feet unsullied. He passed his life gently, in the calm, still atmosphere of art, in the cult of the beautiful, unperturbed, tranquil; painting, reading, or, piece by piece, developing his beautiful stained glass. Him women could know, with him they could sympathise. And he could enter fully into their lives and help and stimulate them. Of the two existences which did she prefer, that of the business man, or that of the artist?
Then suddenly Laura surprised herself. After all, she was a daughter of the frontier, and the blood of those who had wrestled with a new world flowed in her body. Yes, Corthell's was a beautiful life; the charm of dim painted windows, the attraction of darkened studios with their harmonies of color, their orientalisms, and their arabesques was strong. No doubt it all had its place. It fascinated her at times, in spite of herself. To relax the mind, to indulge the senses, to live in an environment of pervading beauty was delightful. But the men to whom the woman in her turned were not those of the studio. Terrible as the Battle of the Street was, it was yet battle. Only the strong and the brave might dare it, and the figure that held her imagination and her sympathy was not the artist, soft of hand and of speech, elaborating graces of sound and color and form, refined, sensitive, and temperamental; but the fighter, unknown and un-knowable to women as he was; hard, rigorous, panoplied in the harness of the warrior, who strove among the trumpets, and who, in the brunt of conflict, conspicuous, formidable, set the battle in a rage around him, and exulted like a champion in the shoutings of the captains.
They were not long at table, and by the time they were ready to depart it was about half-past five. But when they emerged into the street, it was discovered that once more the weather had abruptly changed. It was snowing thickly. Again a bitter wind from off the Lake tore through the streets. The slush and melted snow was freezing, and the north side of every lamp post and telegraph pole was sheeted with ice.
To add to their discomfort, the North State Street cars were blocked. When they gained the corner of Washington Street they could see where the congestion began, a few squares distant.
"There's nothing for it," declared Landry, "but to go over and get the Clarke Street cars—and at that you may have to stand up all the way home, at this time of day."
They paused, irresolute, a moment on the corner. It was the centre of the retail quarter. Close at hand a vast dry goods house, built in the old "iron-front" style, towered from the pavement, and through its hundreds of windows presented to view a world of stuffs and fabrics, upholsteries and textiles, kaleidoscopic, gleaming in the fierce brilliance of a multitude of lights. From each street doorway was pouring an army of "shoppers," women for the most part; and these—since the store catered to a rich clientele—fashionably dressed. Many of them stood for a moment on the threshold of the storm-doorways, turning up the collars of their sealskins, settling their hands in their muffs, and searching the street for their coupes and carriages.
Among the number of those thus engaged, one, suddenly catching sight of Laura, waved a muff in her direction, then came quickly forward. It was Mrs. Cressler.
"Laura, my dearest girl! Of all the people. I am so glad to see you!" She kissed Laura on the cheek, shook hands all around, and asked about the sisters' new home. Did they want anything, or was there anything she could do to help? Then interrupting herself, and laying a glove on Laura's arm:
"I've got more to tell you."
She compressed her lips and stood off from Laura, fixing her with a significant glance.
"Me? To tell me?"
"Where are you going now?"
"Home; but our cars are stopped. We must go over to—"
"Fiddlesticks! You and Page and Mrs. Wessels—all of you are coming home and dine with me."
"But we've had dinner already," they all cried, speaking at once.
Page explained the situation, but Mrs. Cressler would not be denied.
"The carriage is right here," she said. "I don't have to call for Charlie. He's got a man from Cincinnati in tow, and they are going to dine at the Calumet Club."
It ended by the two sisters and Mrs. Wessels getting into Mrs. Cressler's carriage. Landry excused himself. He lived on the South Side, on Michigan Avenue, and declaring that he knew they had had enough of him for one day, took himself off.
But whatever Mrs. Cressler had to tell Laura, she evidently was determined to save for her ears only. Arrived at the Dearborns' home, she sent her footman in to tell the "girl" that the family would not be home that night. The Cresslers lived hard by on the same street, and within ten minutes' walk of the Dearborns. The two sisters and their aunt would be back immediately after breakfast.
When they had got home with Mrs. Cressler, this latter suggested hot tea and sandwiches in the library, for the ride had been cold. But the others, worn out, declared for bed as soon as Mrs. Cressler herself had dined.
"Oh, bless you, Carrie," said Aunt Wess'; "I couldn't think of tea. My back is just about broken, and I'm going straight to my bed."
Mrs. Cressler showed them to their rooms. Page and Mrs. Wessels elected to sleep together, and once the door had closed upon them the little girl unburdened herself.
"I suppose Laura thinks it's all right, running off like this for the whole blessed night, and no one to look after the house but those two servants that nobody knows anything about. As though there weren't heaven knows what all to tend to there in the morning. I just don't see," she exclaimed decisively, "how we're going to get settled at all. That Landry Court! My goodness, he's more hindrance than help. Did you ever see! He just dashes in as though he were doing it all, and messes everything up, and loses things, and gets things into the wrong place, and forgets this and that, and then he and Laura sit down and spoon. I never saw anything like it. First it's Corthell and then Landry, and next it will be somebody else. Laura regularly mortifies me; a great, grown-up girl like that, flirting, and letting every man she meets think that he's just the one particular one of the whole earth. It's not good form. And Landry—as if he didn't know we've got more to do now than just to dawdle and dawdle. I could slap him. I like to see a man take life seriously and try to amount to something, and not waste the best years of his life trailing after women who are old enough to be his grandmother, and don't mean that it will ever come to anything."
In her room, in the front of the house, Laura was partly undressed when Mrs. Cressler knocked at her door. The latter had put on a wrapper of flowered silk, and her hair was bound in "invisible nets."
"I brought you a dressing-gown," she said. She hung it over the foot of the bed, and sat down on the bed itself, watching Laura, who stood before the glass of the bureau, her head bent upon her breast, her hands busy with the back of her hair. From time to time the hairpins clicked as she laid them down in the silver trays close at hand. Then putting her chin in the air, she shook her head, and the great braids, unlooped, fell to her waist.
"What pretty hair you have, child," murmured Mrs. Cressler. She was settling herself for a long talk with her protege. She had much to tell, but now that they had the whole night before them, could afford to take her time.
Between the two women the conversation began slowly, with detached phrases and observations that did not call necessarily for answers—mere beginnings that they did not care to follow up.
"They tell me," said Mrs. Cressler, "that that Gretry girl smokes ten cigarettes every night before she goes to bed. You know the Gretrys—they were at the opera the other night."
Laura permitted herself an indefinite murmur of interest. Her head to one side, she drew the brush in slow, deliberate movements downward underneath the long, thick strands of her hair. Mrs. Cressler watched her attentively.
"Why don't you wear your hair that new way, Laura," she remarked, "farther down on your neck? I see every one doing it now."
The house was very still. Outside the double windows they could hear the faint murmuring click of the frozen snow. A radiator in the hallway clanked and strangled for a moment, then fell quiet again.
"What a pretty room this is," said Laura. "I think I'll have to do our guest room something like this—a sort of white and gold effect. My hair? Oh, I don't know. Wearing it low that way makes it catch so on the hooks of your collar, and, besides, I was afraid it would make my head look so flat."
There was a silence. Laura braided a long strand, with quick, regular motions of both hands, and letting it fall over her shoulder, shook it into place with a twist of her head. She stepped out of her skirt, and Mrs. Cressler handed her her dressing-gown, and brought out a pair of quilted slippers of red satin from the wardrobe.
In the grate, the fire that had been lighted just before they had come upstairs was crackling sharply. Laura drew up an armchair and sat down in front of it, her chin in her hand. Mrs. Cressler stretched herself upon the bed, an arm behind her head.
"Well, Laura," she began at length, "I have some real news for you. My dear, I believe you've made a conquest."
"I!" murmured Laura, looking around. She feigned a surprise, though she guessed at once that Mrs. Cressler had Corthell in mind.
"That Mr. Jadwin—the one you met at the opera."
Genuinely taken aback, Laura sat upright and stared wide-eyed.
"Mr. Jadwin!" she exclaimed. "Why, we didn't have five minutes' talk. Why, I hardly know the man. I only met him last night."
But Mrs. Cressler shook her head, closing her eyes and putting her lips together.
"That don't make any difference, Laura. Trust me to tell when a man is taken with a girl. My dear, you can have him as easy as that." She snapped her fingers.
"Oh, I'm sure you're mistaken, Mrs. Cressler."
"Not in the least. I've known Curtis Jadwin now for fifteen years—nobody better. He's as old a family friend as Charlie and I have. I know him like a book. And I tell you the man is in love with you."
"Well, I hope he didn't tell you as much," cried Laura, promising herself to be royally angry if such was the case. But Mrs. Cressler hastened to reassure her.
"Oh my, no. But all the way home last night—he came home with us, you know—he kept referring to you, and just so soon as the conversation got on some other subject he would lose interest. He wanted to know all about you—oh, you know how a man will talk," she exclaimed. "And he said you had more sense and more intelligence than any girl he had ever known."
"Oh, well," answered Laura deprecatingly, as if to say that that did not count for much with her.
"And that you were simply beautiful. He said that he never remembered to have seen a more beautiful woman."
Laura turned her head away, a hand shielding her cheek. She did not answer immediately, then at length:
"Has he—this Mr. Jadwin—has he ever been married before?"
"No, no. He's a bachelor, and rich! He could buy and sell us. And don't think, Laura dear, that I'm jumping at conclusions. I hope I'm woman of the world enough to know that a man who's taken with a pretty face and smart talk isn't going to rush right into matrimony because of that. It wasn't so much what Curtis Jadwin said—though, dear me suz, he talked enough about you—as what he didn't say. I could tell. He was thinking hard. He was hit, Laura. I know he was. And Charlie said he spoke about you again this morning at breakfast. Charlie makes me tired sometimes," she added irrelevantly.
"Charlie?" repeated Laura.
"Well, of course I spoke to him about Jadwin, and how taken he seemed with you, and the man roared at me."
"He didn't believe it, then."
"Yes he did—when I could get him to talk seriously about it, and when I made him remember how Mr. Jadwin had spoken in the carriage coming home."
Laura curled her leg under her and sat nursing her foot and looking into the fire. For a long time neither spoke. A little clock of brass and black marble began to chime, very prettily, the half hour of nine. Mrs. Cressler observed:
"That Sheldon Corthell seems to be a very agreeable kind of a young man, doesn't he?"
"Yes," replied Laura thoughtfully, "he is agreeable."
"And a talented fellow, too," continued Mrs. Cressler. "But somehow it never impressed me that there was very much to him."
"Oh," murmured Laura indifferently, "I don't know."
"I suppose," Mrs. Cressler went on, in a tone of resignation, "I suppose he thinks the world and all of you?"
Laura raised a shoulder without answering.
"Charlie can't abide him," said Mrs. Cressler. "Funny, isn't it what prejudices men have? Charlie always speaks of him as though he were a higher order of glazier. Curtis Jadwin seems to like him… . What do you think of him, Laura—of Mr. Jadwin?"
"I don't know," she answered, looking vaguely into the fire. "I thought he was a strong man—mentally I mean, and that he would be kindly and—and—generous. Somehow," she said, musingly, "I didn't think he would be the sort of man that women would take to, at first—but then I don't know. I saw very little of him, as I say. He didn't impress me as being a woman's man."
"All the better," said the other. "Who would want to marry a woman's man? I wouldn't. Sheldon Corthell is that. I tell you one thing, Laura, and when you are as old as I am, you'll know it's true: the kind of a man that men like—not women—is the kind of a man that makes the best husband."
Laura nodded her head.
"Yes," she answered, listlessly, "I suppose that's true."
"You said Jadwin struck you as being a kindly man, a generous man. He's just that, and that charitable! You know he has a Sunday-school over on the West Side, a Sunday-school for mission children, and I do believe he's more interested in that than in his business. He wants to make it the biggest Sunday-school in Chicago. It's an ambition of his. I don't want you to think that he's good in a goody-goody way, because he's not. Laura," she exclaimed, "he's a fine man. I didn't intend to brag him up to you, because I wanted you to like him. But no one knows—as I say—no one knows Curtis Jadwin better than Charlie and I, and we just love him. The kindliest, biggest-hearted fellow—oh, well, you'll know him for yourself, and then you'll see. He passes the plate in our church."
"Dr. Wendell's church?" asked Laura.
"Yes you know—the Second Presbyterian."
"I'm Episcopalian myself," observed Laura, still thoughtfully gazing into the fire.
"I know, I know. But Jadwin isn't the blue-nosed sort. And now see here, Laura, I want to tell you. J.—that's what Charlie and I call Jadwin—J. was talking to us the other day about supporting a ward in the Children's Hospital for the children of his Sunday-school that get hurt or sick. You see he has nearly eight hundred boys and girls in his school, and there's not a week passes that he don't hear of some one of them who has been hurt or taken sick. And he wants to start a ward at the Children's Hospital, that can take care of them. He says he wants to get other people interested, too, and so he wants to start a contribution. He says he'll double any amount that's raised in the next six months—that is, if there's two thousand raised, he'll make it four thousand; understand? And so Charlie and I and the Gretrys are going to get up an amateur play—a charity affair—and raise as much money as we can. J. thinks it's a good idea, and—here's the point—we were talking about it coming home in the carriage, and J. said he wondered if that Miss Dearborn wouldn't take part. And we are all wild to have you. You know you do that sort of thing so well. Now don't say yes or no to-night. You sleep over it. J. is crazy to have you in it."
"I'd love to do it," answered Laura. "But I would have to see—it takes so long to get settled, and there's so much to do about a big house like ours, I might not have time. But I will let you know."
Mrs. Cressler told her in detail about the proposed play. Landry Court was to take part, and she enlisted Laura's influence to get Sheldon Corthell to undertake a role. Page, it appeared, had already promised to help. Laura remembered now that she had heard her speak of it. However, the plan was so immature as yet, that it hardly admitted of very much discussion, and inevitably the conversation came back to its starting-point.
"You know," Laura had remarked in answer to one of Mrs. Cressler's observations upon the capabilities and business ability of "J.," "you know I never heard of him before you spoke of our theatre party. I don't know anything about him."
But Mrs. Cressler promptly supplied the information. Curtis Jadwin was a man about thirty-five, who had begun life without a sou in his pockets. He was a native of Michigan. His people were farmers, nothing more nor less than hardy, honest fellows, who ploughed and sowed for a living. Curtis had only a rudimentary schooling, because he had given up the idea of finishing his studies in the High School in Grand Rapids, on the chance of going into business with a livery stable keeper. Then in time he had bought out the business and had run it for himself. Some one in Chicago owed him money, and in default of payment had offered him a couple of lots on Wabash Avenue. That was how he happened to come to Chicago. Naturally enough as the city grew the Wabash Avenue property—it was near Monroe Street—increased in value. He sold the lots and bought other real estate, sold that and bought somewhere else, and so on, till he owned some of the best business sites in the city. Just his ground rent alone brought him, heaven knew how many thousands a year. He was one of the largest real estate owners in Chicago. But he no longer bought and sold. His property had grown so large that just the management of it alone took up most of his time. He had an office in the Rookery, and perhaps being so close to the Board of Trade Building, had given him a taste for trying a little deal in wheat now and then. As a rule, he deplored speculation. He had no fixed principles about it, like Charlie. Only he was conservative; occasionally he hazarded small operations. Somehow he had never married. There had been affairs. Oh, yes, one or two, of course. Nothing very serious, He just didn't seem to have met the right girl, that was all. He lived on Michigan Avenue, near the corner of Twenty-first Street, in one of those discouraging eternal yellow limestone houses with a basement dining-room. His aunt kept house for him, and his nieces and nephews overran the place. There was always a raft of them there, either coming or going; and the way they exploited him! He supported them all; heaven knew how many there were; such drabs and gawks, all elbows and knees, who soaked themselves with cologne and made companions of the servants. They and the second girls were always squabbling about their things that they found in each other's rooms.
It was growing late. At length Mrs. Cressler rose.
"My goodness, Laura, look at the time; and I've been keeping you up when you must be killed for sleep."
She took herself away, pausing at the doorway long enough to say:
"Do try to manage to take part in the play. J. made me promise that I would get you."
"Well, I think I can," Laura answered. "Only I'll have to see first how our new regime is going to run—the house I mean."
When Mrs. Cressler had gone Laura lost no time in getting to bed. But after she turned out the gas she remembered that she had not "covered" the fire, a custom that she still retained from the daily round of her life at Barrington. She did not light the gas again, but guided by the firelight, spread a shovelful of ashes over the top of the grate. Yet when she had done this, she still knelt there a moment, looking wide-eyed into the glow, thinking over the events of the last twenty-four hours. When all was said and done, she had, after all, found more in Chicago than the clash and trepidation of empire-making, more than the reverberation of the thunder of battle, more than the piping and choiring of sweet music.
First it had been Sheldon Corthell, quiet, persuasive, eloquent. Then Landry Court with his exuberance and extravagance and boyishness, and now—unexpectedly—behold, a new element had appeared—this other one, this man of the world, of affairs, mature, experienced, whom she hardly knew. It was charming she told herself, exciting. Life never had seemed half so delightful. Romantic, she felt Romance, unseen, intangible, at work all about her. And love, which of all things knowable was dearest to her, came to her unsought.
Her first aversion to the Great Grey City was fast disappearing. She saw it now in a kindlier aspect.
"I think," she said at last, as she still knelt before the fire, looking deep into the coals, absorbed, abstracted, "I think that I am going to be very happy here."