The Street stretched away north and south in two lines of ancient houses that seemed to meet in the distance. The man found it infinitely inviting. It had the well-worn look of an old coat, shabby but comfortable. The thought of coming there to live pleased him. Surely here would be peace— long evenings in which to read, quiet nights in which to sleep and forget. It was an impression of home, really, that it gave. The man did not know that, or care particularly. He had been wandering about a long time— not in years, for he was less than thirty. But it seemed a very long time.
At the little house no one had seemed to think about references. He could have given one or two, of a sort. He had gone to considerable trouble to get them; and now, not to have them asked for—
There was a house across and a little way down the Street, with a card in the window that said: “Meals, twenty-five cents.” Evidently the midday meal was over; men who looked like clerks and small shopkeepers were hurrying away. The Nottingham curtains were pinned back, and just inside the window a throaty barytone was singing:
“Home is the hunter, home from the hill: And the sailor, home from sea.”
Across the Street, the man smiled grimly— Home!
For perhaps an hour Joe Drummond had been wandering up and down the Street. His straw hat was set on the back of his head, for the evening was warm; his slender shoulders, squared and resolute at eight, by nine had taken on a disconsolate droop. Under a street lamp he consulted his watch, but even without that he knew what the hour was. Prayer meeting at the corner church was over; boys of his own age were ranging themselves along the curb, waiting for the girl of the moment. When she came, a youth would appear miraculously beside her, and the world-old pairing off would have taken place.
The Street emptied. The boy wiped the warm band of his hat and slapped it on his head again. She was always treating him like this— keeping him hanging about, and then coming out, perfectly calm and certain that he would still be waiting. By George, he’d fool her, for once: he’d go away, and let her worry. She wouldworry. She hated to hurt anyone. Ah!
Across the Street, under an old ailanthus tree, was the house he watched, a small brick, with shallow wooden steps and— curious architecture of Middle West sixties— a wooden cellar door beside the steps.
In some curious way it preserved an air of distinction among its more pretentious neighbors, much as a very old lady may now and then lend tone to a smart gathering. On either side of it, the taller houses had an appearance of protection rather than of patronage. It was a matter of self-respect, perhaps. No windows on the Street were so spotlessly curtained, no doormat so accurately placed, no “yard” in the rear so tidy with morning-glory vines over the whitewashed fence.
The June moon had risen, sending broken shafts of white light through the ailanthus to the house door. When the girl came at last, she stepped out into a world of soft lights and wavering shadows, fragrant with tree blossoms not yet overpowering, hushed of its daylight sounds of playing children and moving traffic.
The house had been warm. Her brown hair lay moist on her forehead, her thin white dress was turned in at the throat. She stood on the steps, the door closed behind her, and threw out her arms in a swift gesture to the cool air. The moonlight clothed her as with a garment. From across the Street the boy watched her with adoring, humble eyes. All his courage was for those hours when he was not with her.
He crossed over, emerging out of the shadows into her enveloping radiance. His ardent young eyes worshiped her as he stood on the pavement.
“I’m late. I was taking out bastings for mother.”
“Oh, that’s all right.”
Sidney sat down on the doorstep, and the boy dropped at her feet.
“I thought of going to prayer meeting, but mother was tired. Was Christine there?”
“Yes; Palmer Howe took her home.”
He was at his ease now. He had discarded his hat, and lay back on his elbows, ostensibly to look at the moon. Actually his brown eyes rested on the face of the girl above him. He was very happy. “He’s crazy about Chris. She’s good-looking, but she’s not my sort.”
“Pray, what is your sort?”
She laughed softly. “You’re a goose, Joe!”
She settled herself more comfortably on the doorstep and drew along breath.
“How tired I am! Oh— I haven’t told you. We’ve taken a roomer!”
“A roomer.” She was half apologetic. The Street did not approve of roomers. “It will help with the rent. It’s my doing, really. Mother is scandalized.”
“What sort of man?”
“How do I know? He is coming tonight. I’ll tell you in a week.”
Joe was sitting bolt upright now, a little white.
“Is he young?”
“He’s a good bit older than you, but that’s not saying he’s old.”
Joe was twenty-one, and sensitive of his youth.
“He’ll be crazy about you in two days.”
She broke into delighted laughter.
“I’ll not fall in love with him— you can be certain of that. He is tall and very solemn. His hair is quite gray over his ears.”
“What’s his name?”
“K. Le Moyne.”
“That’s what he said.”
Interest in the roomer died away. The boy fell into the ecstasy of content that always came with Sidney’s presence. His inarticulate young soul was swelling with thoughts that he did not know how to put into words. It was easy enough to plan conversations with Sidney when he was away from her. But, at her feet, with her soft skirts touching him as she moved, her eager face turned to him, he was miserably speechless.
Unexpectedly, Sidney yawned. He was outraged.
“If you’re sleepy— ”
“Don’t be silly. I love having you. I sat up late last night, reading. I wonder what you think of this: one of the characters in the book I was reading says that every man who— who cares for a woman leaves his mark on her! I suppose she tries to become what he thinks she is, for the time anyhow, and is never just her old self again.”
She said “cares for” instead of “loves.” It is one of the traditions of youth to avoid the direct issue in life’s greatest game. Perhaps “love” is left to the fervent vocabulary of the lover. Certainly, as if treading on dangerous ground, Sidney avoided it.
“Every man! How many men are supposed to care for a woman, anyhow?”
“Well, there’s the boy who— likes her when they’re both young.”
A bit of innocent mischief this, but Joe straightened.
“Then they both outgrow that foolishness. After that there are usually two rivals, and she marries one of them— that’s three. And— ”
“Why do they always outgrow that foolishness?” His voice was unsteady.
“Oh, I don’t know. One’s ideas change. Anyhow, I’m only telling you what the book said.”
“It’s a silly book.”
“I don’t believe it’s true,” she confessed. “When I got started I just read on. I was curious.”
More eager than curious, had she only known. She was fairly vibrant with the zest of living. Sitting on the steps of the little brick house, her busy mind was carrying her on to where, beyond the Street, with its dingy lamps and blossoming ailanthus, lay the world that was some day to lie to her hand. Not ambition called her, but life.
The boy was different. Where her future lay visualized before her, heroic deeds, great ambitions, wide charity, he planned years with her, selfish, contented years. As different as smug, satisfied summer from visionary, palpitating spring, he was for her— but she was for all the world.
By shifting his position his lips came close to her bare young arm. It tempted him.
“Don’t read that nonsense,” he said, his eyes on the arm. “And— I’ll never outgrow my foolishness about you, Sidney.”
Then, because he could not help it, he bent over and kissed her arm.
She was just eighteen, and Joe’s devotion was very pleasant. She thrilled to the touch of his lips on her flesh; but she drew her arm away.
“Please— I don’t like that sort of thing.”
“Why not?” His voice was husky.
“It isn’t right. Besides, the neighbors are always looking out the windows.”
The drop from her high standard of right and wrong to the neighbors’ curiosity appealed suddenly to her sense of humor. She threw back her head and laughed. He joined her, after an uncomfortable moment. But he was very much in earnest. He sat, bent forward, turning his new straw hat in his hands.
“I guess you know how I feel. Some of the fellows have crushes on girls and get over them. I’m not like that. Since the first day I saw you I’ve never looked at another girl. Books can say what they like: there are people like that, and I’m one of them.”
There was a touch of dogged pathos in his voice. He was that sort, and Sidney knew it. Fidelity and tenderness— those would be hers if she married him. He would always be there when she wanted him, looking at her with loving eyes, a trifle wistful sometimes because of his lack of those very qualities he so admired in her— her wit, her resourcefulness, her humor. But he would be there, not strong, perhaps, but always loyal.
“I thought, perhaps,” said Joe, growing red and white, and talking to the hat, “that some day, when we’re older, you— you might be willing to marry me, Sid. I’d be awfully good to you.”
It hurt her to say no. Indeed, she could not bring herself to say it. In all her short life she had never willfully inflicted a wound. And because she was young, and did not realize that there is a short cruelty, like the surgeon’s, that is mercy in the end, she temporized.
“There is such a lot of time before we need think of such things! Can’t we just go on the way we are?”
“I’m not very happy the way we are.”
“Well, I’m not”— doggedly. “You’re pretty and attractive. When I see a fellow staring at you, and I’d like to smash his face for him, I haven’t the right.”
“And a precious good thing for you that you haven’t!” cried Sidney, rather shocked.
There was silence for a moment between them. Sidney, to tell the truth, was obsessed by a vision of Joe, young and hot-eyed, being haled to the police station by virtue of his betrothal responsibilities. The boy was vacillating between relief at having spoken and a heaviness of spirit that came from Sidney’s lack of enthusiastic response.
“Well, what do you think about it?”
“If you are asking me to give you permission to waylay and assault every man who dares to look at me— ”
“I guess this is all a joke to you.”
She leaned over and put a tender hand on his arm.
“I don’t want to hurt you; but, Joe, I don’t want to be engaged yet. I don’t want to think about marrying. There’s such a lot to do in the world first. There’s such a lot to see and be.”
“Where?” he demanded bitterly. “Here on this Street? Do you want more time to pull bastings for your mother? Or to slave for your Aunt Harriet? Or to run up and down stairs, carrying towels to roomers? Marry me and let me take care of you.”
Once again her dangerous sense of humor threatened her. He looked so boyish, sitting there with the moonlight on his bright hair, so inadequate to carry out his magnificent offer. Two or three of the star blossoms from the tree had fallen all his head. She lifted them carefully away.
“Let me take care of myself for a while. I’ve never lived my own life. You know what I mean. I’m not unhappy; but I want to do something. And some day I shall,— not anything big; I know. I can’t do that,— but something useful. Then, after years and years, if you still want me, I’ll come back to you.”
“How can I know that now? But it will be a long time.”
He drew a long breath and got up. All the joy had gone out of the summer night for him, poor lad. He glanced down the Street, where Palmer Howe had gone home happily with Sidney’s friend Christine. Palmer would always know how he stood with Christine. She would never talk about doing things, or being things. Either she would marry Palmer or she would not. But Sidney was not like that. A fellow did not even caress her easily. When he had only kissed her arm— He trembled a little at the memory.
“I shall always want you,” he said. “Only— you will never come back.”
It had not occurred to either of them that this coming back, so tragically considered, was dependent on an entirely problematical going away. Nothing, that early summer night, seemed more unlikely than that Sidney would ever be free to live her own life. The Street, stretching away to the north and to the south in two lines of houses that seemed to meet in the distance, hemmed her in. She had been born in the little brick house, and, as she was of it, so it was of her. Her hands had smoothed and painted the pine floors; her hands had put up the twine on which the morning-glories in the yard covered the fences; had, indeed, with what agonies of slacking lime and adding blueing, whitewashed the fence itself!
“She’s capable,” Aunt Harriet had grumblingly admitted, watching from her sewing-machine Sidney’s strong young arms at this humble spring task.
“She’s wonderful!” her mother had said, as she bent over her hand work. She was not strong enough to run the sewing-machine.
So Joe Drummond stood on the pavement and saw his dream of taking Sidney in his arms fade into an indefinite futurity.
“I’m not going to give you up,” he said doggedly. “When you come back, I’ll be waiting.”
The shock being over, and things only postponed, he dramatized his grief a trifle, thrust his hands savagely into his pockets, and scowled down the Street. In the line of his vision, his quick eye caught a tiny moving shadow, lost it, found it again.
“Great Scott! There goes Reginald!” he cried, and ran after the shadow. “Watch for the McKees’ cat!”
Sidney was running by that time; they were gaining. Their quarry, a four-inch chipmunk, hesitated, gave a protesting squeak, and was caught in Sidney’s hand.
“You wretch!” she cried. “You miserable little beast— with cats everywhere, and not a nut for miles!”
“That reminds me,”— Joe put a hand into his pocket,— “I brought some chestnuts for him, and forgot them. Here.”
Reginald’s escape had rather knocked the tragedy out of the evening. True, Sidney would not marry him for years, but she had practically promised to sometime. And when one is twenty-one, and it is a summer night, and life stretches eternities ahead, what are a few years more or less?
Sidney was holding the tiny squirrel in warm, protecting hands. She smiled up at the boy.
“Good-night. I say, Sidney, it’s more than half an engagement. Won’t you kiss me good-night?”
She hesitated, flushed and palpitating. Kisses were rare in the staid little household to which she belonged.
“I— I think not.”
“Please! I’m not very happy, and it will be something to remember.”
Perhaps, after all, Sidney’s first kiss would have gone without her heart,— which was a thing she had determined would never happen,— gone out of sheer pity. But a tall figure loomed out of the shadows and approached with quick strides.
“The roomer!” cried Sidney, and backed away.
“Damn the roomer!”
Poor Joe, with the summer evening quite spoiled, with no caress to remember, and with a potential rival who possessed both the years and the inches he lacked, coming up the Street!
The roomer advanced steadily. When he reached the doorstep, Sidney was demurely seated and quite alone. The roomer, who had walked fast, stopped and took off his hat. He looked very warm. He carried a suitcase, which was as it should be. The men of the Street always carried their own luggage, except the younger Wilson across the way. His tastes were known to be luxurious.
“Hot, isn’t it?” Sidney inquired, after a formal greeting. She indicated the place on the step just vacated by Joe. “You’d better cool off out here. The house is like an oven. I think I should have warned you of that before you took the room. These little houses with low roofs are fearfully hot.”
The new roomer hesitated. The steps were very low, and he was tall. Besides, he did not care to establish any relations with the people in the house. Long evenings in which to read, quiet nights in which to sleep and forget— these were the things he had come for.
But Sidney had moved over and was smiling up at him. He folded up awkwardly on the low step. He seemed much too big for the house. Sidney had a panicky thought of the little room upstairs.
“I don’t mind heat. I— I suppose I don’t think about it,” said the roomer, rather surprised at himself.
Reginald, having finished his chestnut, squeaked for another. The roomer started.
“Just Reginald— my ground-squirrel.” Sidney was skinning a nut with her strong white teeth. “That’s another thing I should have told you. I’m afraid you’ll be sorry you took the room.”
The roomer smiled in the shadow.
“I’m beginning to think that you are sorry.”
She was all anxiety to reassure him:—
“It’s because of Reginald. He lives under my— under your bureau. He’s really not troublesome; but he’s building a nest under the bureau, and if you don’t know about him, it’s rather unsettling to see a paper pattern from the sewing-room, or a piece of cloth, moving across the floor.”
Mr. Le Moyne thought it might be very interesting. “Although, if there’s nest-building going on, isn’t it— er— possible that Reginald is a lady ground-squirrel?”
Sidney was rather distressed, and, seeing this, he hastened to add that, for all he knew, all ground-squirrels built nests, regardless of sex. As a matter of fact, it developed that he knew nothing whatever of ground-squirrels. Sidney was relieved. She chatted gayly of the tiny creature— of his rescue in the woods from a crowd of little boys, of his restoration to health and spirits, and of her expectation, when he was quite strong, of taking him to the woods and freeing him.
Le Moyne, listening attentively, began to be interested. His quick mind had grasped the fact that it was the girl’s bedroom he had taken. Other things he had gathered that afternoon from the humming sewing-machine, from Sidney’s businesslike way of renting the little room, from the glimpse of a woman in a sunny window, bent over a needle. Genteel poverty was what it meant, and more— the constant drain of disheartened, middle-aged women on the youth and courage of the girl beside him.
K. Le Moyne, who was living his own tragedy those days, what with poverty and other things, sat on the doorstep while Sidney talked, and swore a quiet oath to be no further weight on the girl’s buoyant spirit. And, since determining on a virtue is halfway to gaining it, his voice lost its perfunctory note. He had no intention of letting the Street encroach on him. He had built up a wall between himself and the rest of the world, and he would not scale it. But he held no grudge against it. Let others get what they could out of living.
Sidney, suddenly practical, broke in on his thoughts:—
“Where are you going to get your meals?”
“I hadn’t thought about it. I can stop in somewhere on my way downtown. I work in the gas office— I don’t believe I told you. It’s rather haphazard— not the gas office, but the eating. However, it’s convenient.”
“It’s very bad for you,” said Sidney, with decision. “It leads to slovenly habits, such as going without when you’re in a hurry, and that sort of thing. The only thing is to have some one expecting you at a certain time.”
“It sounds like marriage.” He was lazily amused.
“It sounds like Mrs. McKee’s boarding-house at the corner. Twenty-one meals for five dollars, and a ticket to punch. Tillie, the dining-room girl, punches for every meal you get. If you miss any meals, your ticket is good until it is punched. But Mrs. McKee doesn’t like it if you miss.”
“Mrs. McKee for me,” said Le Moyne. “I daresay, if I know that— er— Tillie is waiting with the punch, I’ll be fairly regular to my meals.”
It was growing late. The Street, which mistrusted night air, even on a hot summer evening, was closing its windows. Reginald, having eaten his fill, had cuddled in the warm hollow of Sidney’s lap, and slept. By shifting his position, the man was able to see the girl’s face. Very lovely it was, he thought. Very pure, almost radiant—and young. From the middle age of his almost thirty years, she was a child. There had been a boy in the shadows when he came up the Street. Of course there would be a boy— a nice, clear-eyed chap—
Sidney was looking at the moon. With that dreamer’s part of her that she had inherited from her dead and gone father, she was quietly worshiping the night. But her busy brain was working, too,— the practical brain that she had got from her mother’s side.
“What about your washing?” she inquired unexpectedly.
K. Le Moyne, who had built a wall between himself and the world, had already married her to the youth of the shadows, and was feeling an odd sense of loss.
“I suppose you’ve been sending things to the laundry, and— what do you do about your stockings?”
“Buy cheap ones and throw ’em away when they’re worn out.” There seemed to be no reserve with this surprising young person.
“Use safety-pins. When they’re closed one can button over them as well as— ”
“I think,” said Sidney, “that it is quite time some one took a little care of you. If you will give Katie, our maid, twenty-five cents a week, she’ll do your washing and not tear your things to ribbons. And I’ll mend them.”
Sheer stupefaction was K. Le Moyne’s. After a moment:—
“You’re really rather wonderful, Miss Page. Here am I, lodged, fed, washed, ironed, and mended for seven dollars and seventy-five cents a week!”
“I hope,” said Sidney severely, “that you’ll put what you save in the bank.”
He was still somewhat dazed when he went up the narrow staircase to his swept and garnished room. Never, in all of a life that had been active, — until recently,—had he been so conscious of friendliness and kindly interest. He expanded under it. Some of the tired lines left his face. Under the gas chandelier, he straightened and threw out his arms. Then he reached down into his coat pocket and drew out a wide-awake and suspicious Reginald.
“Good-night, Reggie!” he said. “Good-night, old top!” He hardly recognized his own voice. It was quite cheerful, although the little room was hot, and although, when he stood, he had a perilous feeling that the ceiling was close above. He deposited Reginald carefully on the floor in front of the bureau, and the squirrel, after eyeing him, retreated to its nest.
It was late when K. Le Moyne retired to bed. Wrapped in a paper and securely tied for the morning’s disposal, was considerable masculine underclothing, ragged and buttonless. Not for worlds would he have had Sidney discover his threadbare inner condition. “New underwear for yours tomorrow, K. Le Moyne,” he said to himself, as he unknotted his cravat. “New underwear, and something besides K. for a first name.”
He pondered over that for a time, taking off his shoes slowly and thinking hard. “Kenneth, King, Kerr— ” None of them appealed to him. And, after all, what did it matter? The old heaviness came over him.
He dropped a shoe, and Reginald, who had gained enough courage to emerge and sit upright on the fender, fell over backward.
Sidney did not sleep much that night. She lay awake, gazing into the scented darkness, her arms under her head. Love had come into her life at last. A man— only Joe, of course, but it was not the boy himself, but what he stood for, that thrilled her had asked her to be his wife.
In her little back room, with the sweetness of the tree blossoms stealing through the open window, Sidney faced the great mystery of life and love, and flung out warm young arms. Joe would be thinking of her now, as she thought of him. Or would he have gone to sleep, secure in her half promise? Did he really love her?
The desire to be loved! There was coming to Sidney a time when love would mean, not receiving, but giving— the divine fire instead of the pale flame of youth. At last she slept.
A night breeze came through the windows and spread coolness through the little house. The ailanthus tree waved in the moonlight and sent sprawling shadows over the wall of K. Le Moyne’s bedroom. In the yard the leaves of the morning-glory vines quivered as if under the touch of a friendly hand.
K. Le Moyne slept diagonally in his bed, being very long. In sleep the lines were smoothed out of his face. He looked like a tired, overgrown boy. And while he slept the ground-squirrel ravaged the pockets of his shabby coat.