Fannie Hurst’s writing career began in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post. The all-but-forgotten author was one of the highest paid writers in the United States after World War I. Of Hurst, it was said that “no other living American woman has gone so far in fiction in so short a time.” Her novels Back Street and Imitation of Life were best-sellers of their day, but now her work is mostly out of print.
The Four-Leaf Clover Club met on Saturday night — a night particularly favored by those who set their alarm clocks for six-thirty six days out of the week, and whose monthly checks are written in four figures, with a decimal point after the second.
It is true enough that Mrs. S. Stuyvesant Trowbridge, in whose world the only cabbages are Brussels sprouts, and whose sunken gardens and blue pear-shaped diamonds have helped inaugurate a thriving American institution known as the Sunday Supplement, recently gave her famous love and beauty party on Saturday; and that same night has of late become so popular at the Opera that numerous boxes are filled before the close of the second act.
There is a piquancy about The Cotter’s Saturday Night, however, that makes Mrs. Trowbridge’s weekend seem as utterly without thrills as a grab-bag where the packages are all prizes.
It is doubtful whether Mrs. S. Stuyvesant Trowbridge, when she inspected the mirror-lined swimming pool the Saturday night of her famous love and beauty function, and directed the spreading of the carpet of Jacqueminot roses over the triple terraces, experienced the genuine thrill up and down her spine or the pleasant palpitation of heart that disturbed Miss Freda Stutz when she gave the final touch and daub to her highly magnetized red-plush parlor, lowered the shades to shut out Eighth Avenue three stories beneath, and lighted the four arms of the center chandelier.
A bisque angel with dimpled legs and arms and upright wings depended in a first swimming-lesson position from that chandelier; it swung lightly on a bit of red ribbon as Miss Freda passed beneath it — she paused to steady it with careful hand. Then she dragged the piano stool — an oak one, with feet in the form of brass claws clutching at crystal balls — to an inviting angle from the piano, set the flexible neck of a brown-stuff dog on the mantelpiece awag, and swept past the red portieres through a bedroom into the kitchen beyond.
A drift of smoke hung like the after-haze of an exploded flashlight powder over the upper portion of the room and wafted slowly toward the window, open two inches from the top.
Mrs. Stutz bent low over the oven of the stove and ran a wisp of broom straw into the fluffy heart of a new-raised cake — it came out sleek.
Mrs. Stutz’ smile and face and figure were opulent; she ran the edge of a knife carefully between the cake and the sides of the tin, reversed the pan swiftly and removed it from the upside-down cake with the same breathless expectancy that a bride removes the lid of her ring box.
“Say!” she cried. “I wish you’d look at that for a two-egg cake!”
“Swell!” cried her daughter, touching the top lightly with her forefinger. “Charley and Paw won’t do a thing to it!”
Mrs. Stutz struggled to her feet and raised the lid from a spluttering skillet on the stovetop; the sparks snapped in her face and she cocked her head out of their range.
“Ain’t Jimmie home yet?” Mrs. Stutz inquired.
“No. Say, Maw, I guess I’ll put a damp napkin over the sandwiches — I ain’t goin’ to serve ‘em until half past ten, and it’ll keep ‘em fresh.”
Mrs. Stutz turned the chops in the skillet and the spluttering began afresh. “Take one of them old napkins in the table drawer there.”
“Say, Maw, do you know what?”
“No — what?”
“I was goin’ to bring home some swell Boston cheese from the store today — Charley had it on display — but I forgot it. There ain’t a chance that Paw’d have any down in the shop — is there?”
“You ought to know better than to ask a thing like that! We ain’t runnin’ none of your swell downtown groceries that looks more like a drug store than a respectable place to buy butter ‘n’ eggs — we’re still runnin’ the same little Eighth Avenue grocery you was raised over, with sawdust on the floor instead of marble tilin’, and a pickle barrel near the cashier’s window instead of an icebox made out of lookin’-glasses.”
“When Mayme had the Club she served them Boston cheese sandwiches, and they were great!”
Mrs. Stutz placed the back of one hand on her hip, dillydallied her fork up and down and regarded her daughter through the sapid mist. “When I was a girl the boys in the store where I worked was glad if they could get houseroom, let alone a banquet — I didn’t have to feed them to get them to come; and if I do say it, I had plenty of beaus too —”
Aw, Maw, don’t begin that; you ought to see what the other girls serve. Didn’t Angie have green ice cream and green-icing cakes, and —”
“Ain’t you havin’ two kinds of sandwiches and gingersnaps and rootbeer — what more could you want?”
“I ain’t kickin’, am I?”
“That’s what I always say about Charley; there ain’t a plainer and more unassuming boy. Mrs. Blutenbach was telling me as how she’s got the first cross word to hear out of him. I’ll bet you can go there any time and not hear him carin’ if old man Blutenbach takes off his shoes when he comes home from a hard day’s work, or carin’ if there’s a red tablecloth on when there’s company for supper.”
“Aw, Maw, what’s the use talkin’ about Charley? Paw ain’t makin’ no effort to sell out and I ain’t goin’ to marry no sausage clerk. Charley and Paw could get that Amsterdam Avenue store as easy as nothin’ if they was smart. I says to Paw, I says, `Sell at eighteen hundred if you have to,’ but he stands for two thousand, like two hundred dollars was a million!”
“Paw’s right; I say two thousand too! Paw and Charley are doin’ all they can — ain’t they advertised the store for two Sundays? I’m willin’ that Paw and Charley should go in together. I’m sick of this old stand; and I always did say, for a young man to have saved up nine hundred dollars like Charley has —”
“I ain’t goin’ to let Charley put his money in this hole. If Paw wants to go in with Charley, let him sell before the fifteenth and get the Amsterdam Avenue store; a place like the Amsterdam, with a separate entrance to the flat and no green goods and uptown prices, is what I say Paw and Charley should get together on—but all they do is talk!”
“Didn’t him and Charley have them two men that offered the eighteen hundred lookin’ at the books? But it’s just like Charley said — there ain’t no use losin’ two hundred dollars till we know the reason why — Jimmie, is that you? Jim-mie!”
Mrs. Stutz’ voice rose like an up-scale.
“Don’t you go in the parlor with your muddy shoes — Freda’s havin’ her party tonight.”
Jimmie slouched down the narrow dark hall and entered the kitchen, slamming the door behind him. He printed a large and slightly soiled kiss on the rear of his mother’s neck.
“What’s doin’ tonight — some of them pewees from the store comin’ up?”
Miss Stutz was immediately on the defensive; she paused with a plate of sandwiches covered with a snowy napkin held aloft on one hand, and turned her dark, bright eyes upon her brother.
“You just start with me, Jimmie Stutz!”
“Take it from me, little beauty, if your friends from the fancy soaps and the granulated sugar ain’t out of here by eleven, it’s me for me downy davenport just the same — I’m a busy man and me noives need rest.”
“This is my party, Jimmie Stutz; and if you or Paw begin anything I’m goin’ — I’m goin’ to — Maw, make Jimmie quit cuttin’ up! If he comes in while I got the crowd here and starts makin’ eyes at the davenport like he did the night I had George Schmale up here, I’ll tell Paw about his losin’ his job at the telegraph office and you havin’ to go down and beg it back — I will!”
Mrs. Stutz impaled a chop upon a fork and turned awful eyes upon her son.
“I just dare you!” she threatened. “I just dare you to go actin’ smart round your sister’s party! If I hear a word from you, young man — if I don’t tell your Paw you lost your job for sassin’ a lady you was deliverin’ a telegram to! And your poor mother had to go down and beg you in again — if I don’t tell your Paw!”
“Aw, I never said nothin’, did I? Ain’t a fellow got a right to get sleepy when he comes home from work at night?”
“He don’t get sleepy when it’s picture shows and runnin’ around in the streets, Maw.”
“If you wanta sleep you can bring Paw’s patent rockin’- chair out here in the kitchen and catch a nap till they go. Ain’t you got no respect for your sister and her lady and genelmen friends?”
“Say,” cried Jimmie, subdued but scornful, “you call them ladies and gents! I seen you, Missy, passin’ up Charley and walking up Broadway with that yellow haired window dresser! I seen you showin’ him the store, and braggin’ and makin’ eyes at him like a widow at her old beau’s wife’s funeral.”
There was a pause — a too red flush dyed Miss Stutz’ cheeks; she turned burning eyes upon her brother.
“Jimmie! If —”
“You owe me a quarter, too, Missy. You thought I’d forget — didn’t you?”
“Jimmie, go down in the store and tell your Paw supper is ready; and tell him to bring up a bar of lye soap and some lard if the new tub’s come in yet.”
There were two wrinkles between Mrs. Stutz’ eyes and her lips quirked downward at the corners.
The quirk was not lost upon her son. He indulged in a parting shot.
“You know what he looks like to me — that yellow headed window dresser — you know what he looks like to me? He looks like the hole in a bad penny — and if he comes round here much I’ll give him a run for his money.”
“Maw, make —”
The junior Stutz fled down the long hall, however, slapping his hands along the walls.
“Jimmie,” called Mrs. Stutz in a voice of warning, “keep your hands off that wall paper!”
A door slammed, cutting in two Jimmie’s retreating whistle.
Mrs. Stutz’ eyes slanted upward in a squint and her forehead fell into fine wrinkles — a Pallas Athens brow would have suffered by that squint; it gave Mrs. Stutz’ comely, warm-blooded face a fleeting semblance to the inscrutable mask of a mandarin.
“So!” she said. “So!”
“So what?” repeated Miss Stutz semi defiantly.
“If I was a genteel girl and was keepin’ steady like you, and keepin’ steady with a fine young man like Charley, there wouldn’t be another man livin’ who could have my likin’! When me and your Paw was —”
“Don’t begin that, Maw. Mr. Koolaage is a new man down at the store and a fine young fellow; he ain’t like Charley — he wants to get in a business of his own. He ain’t goin’ to be nothin’ but a trimmer all his life; he’s got more money saved up than Charley, and he’s goin’ into a business of his own — he ain’t slow!”
“A good steady young man like Charley ain’t goin’ to let Paw sell at a loss. Charley ain’t like you; he’s got his eyes open and thinks of something besides himself — he wants Paw to sell for the best. When a boy’s on the marry he can’t be too careful.”
“Can’t you quit fussin’, Maw?”
“I ain’t fussin’ — I’m just tellin’ you.”
“Say, Maw, can’t you make Paw keep his coat on tonight? It’s so mortifying the way he does; and he never gets jolly and cuttin’ up with the crowd, neither, like Angie’s father. Can’t you tell him without lettin’ him know you are tellin’ him?”
“If your old Paw and his ways ain’t good enough fer your crowd, coat or no coat, you’d better give your parties down there at that swell Broadway store that’s putting these ideas into your head! I never wanted Charley to get you that job down there, nohow; you was better off downstairs in the store. If your Paw’s shirtsleeves ain’t good enough for them snippy girls and boys, they don’t need to burn our gas and use up our houseroom.”
“You know what I mean, Maw. Mr. Koolaage’s a new member, and he ain’t like Charley and the rest of the boys; he’s had a business of his own — the Red-Front Delicatessen up on Ninth Avenue — and he’s just at this till he gets another opening. There’s something real stylish about him.”
“Huh?” said Mrs. Stutz.
“Just the same, Gertie let Angie see the books, and he’s gettin’ twenty-two a week. I guess that’s not bad ‘longside of Charley’s fifteen!”
“No,” agreed Mrs. Stutz, placing a bowl of steaming brown-jacketed potatoes on a small laid-for-four table at one end of the kitchen — “twenty-two dollars a week ain’t bad money.”
Miss Stutz was quick to catch the shift from minor to treble.
“No, it ain’t, Maw,” she pursued; “an’ nobody can say there’s anything slow about Mr. Koolaage. He says he wouldn’t work steady for a salary for nobody; and honest, Maw — not that I care —but he ain’t looked at another girl in the place but me. I wish you’d see Stella, in the soaps, actin’ up to him; but he ain’t stuck on nobody down at the store.”
“Cut some bread and put your father’s big coffee cup on the table.”
“Yesterday he was arrangin’ a fruit display in the Broadway window and I just watched him for fun — all the chorus girls passin’ and all; and, if I do say it, the only time he looked up at all was to look over at the cashier’s cage — real admirin’ like too.”
“That don’t get you nowheres; a real refined, genteel girl is too modest and too busy mindin’ her work to see such things.”
“Well, just the same, you can tell he stands pretty well or the crowd wouldn’t want him in the Four-Leafs. Take Stella, in the soaps — she’s been wantin’ to get in too; but we won’t take none except the best.”
“Here, put the soup on the table and give Paw the big plate.”
“He ain’t commonlike a bit, Maw. Now take Charley — there ain’t nothin’ wrong about Charley, but it does get on my nerves to see him and Paw runnin’ a race in the sword-swallowin’ act.”
“That’s because you’re gettin’ shiftless, good-for-nothin’ ideas in your head. Your Paw and Charley may do the sword-swallowin’ act, all righty, but it’s only themselves they turn their knives against. Lots of times these swells that only use their knives for cuttin’, and drink coffee with their little fingers stickin’ away from the cup, will turn the edge of their knives against you instead of themselves — I’m a plain woman, I am, and I got plain ideas.”
“Aw, Maw, that preachin’ talk don’t get anywheres.”
“Don’t give me none of your sass and back talk, Freda; you ain’t got any reason to be ashamed of your old parents.”
“I ain’t ashamed, Maw; but is there anything wrong in wantin’ Jimmie to keep quiet about things and not get show-offish? It ain’t nobody’s business that we got our new table off of tradin’ stamps. Paw ought to have more manners than to slide out of his coat and shoes when there’s company.”
“I dare either of ‘em to let me catch ‘em at those tricks!” said Mrs. Stutz with a sudden veer of sentiment.
“And, Maw, when I introduce you to Mr. Koolaage I’ll say:
“Mr. Koolaage, I wanta introduce you to my mother!’ Don’t just mumble, but say it out like: ‘Pleased to meet you, Mr. Koolaage. Won’t you sit down?’“
“I knew manners before you was born; there never was a girl with prettier ways than I had in my days. You can’t learn me nothin’ — and I can say the same for your Paw; a more refined and genteel man never went courtin’!”
“There’s Paw comin’ in now. Lemme help you with that, Maw.”
“Paw! — Jimmie, don’t come through the parlor; Freda’s havin’ her party tonight — soup’s on the table.”
Mr. Stutz entered, peeling off his coat; his shirtsleeves were caught in above the elbow with red elastic bands and the black-ribbed silk back of his waistcoat was split evenly up the center.
“Here’s that lye soap and a head of cabbage that was wiltin’ in the box — it’ll be a happy day when we give up the green goods.”
“I’ll make slaw tomorrow,” said Mrs. Stutz.
Miss Freda was a tender offshoot of the father — his crinkles were her dimples; his hair, short and stubbly like a thistle when you look down at it, grew with a little V-shaped indenture off his forehead — Miss Freda’s, smooth and full of lights, sprang back with that same V-shaped indenture; her face was rounded out and soft as a plum — her father’s was of that same plum family, but dried like a prune. He washed his hands at the sink, removed his glasses, fitted them into a leather case with a snap top and slid them into an upper vest pocket.
“Where’s my old specs, Maw?”
“Under the clock. Jimmie, give Paw his specs.”
Mr. Stutz adjusted his silver-rimmed spectacles and, rubbing three dry fingers of one hand together, regarded his daughter dubiously over their tops.
“Party! — such nonsense like a party I got no time for! I play pinochle with Charley.”
Mr. Stutz drew up at his end of the table and tucked two ends of his napkin in his collar beneath his ears, so that it fell straight down, like a bib.
“Aw, Maw, I knew Paw would spoil my party — how’ll it look for him and Charley to come sneakin’ off to the kitchen to play cards? Other girls’ fathers come in, and —”
“Such nonsense I ain’t got no time for — in my own house I’m goin’ to do what I want.”
“I got your black suit and clean shirt laid out for you, Paw.”
“I got the Club tonight and you gotta dress up— all the other girls’ fathers do. Angie’s father never misses puttin’ on his black suit and comin’ in.”
“Oh, no!” said Mr. Stutz, breathing in his soup. “For funerals and lodges and Sundays I wear my black suit, but for such a crowd of young ones that ain’t got their second teeth yet I wear no stiff shirt.”
Miss Freda turned agonized eyes upon her mother — there were tears in her voice.
“Maw, you’re goin’ to wear your silk and your cameo pin — ain’t you? Maw’s goin’ to dress up, Paw; you —”
“Yes, and your Paw’s goin’ to wear his black suit. Don’t you start nothin’ with me, Gus Stutz! I got it in for you, anyway — any man that’ll lie about the lodge the way you did last week! If you ain’t got no regard for your daughter and her company I’ll see that you get some. Tonight’s one night you keep your shoes and coat on!”
Jimmy cut vigorously at his meat; he held his black handled fork upright, with his fingers clutched about it as if he were aiming a dagger at his heart; his elbows worked at sharp angles from his sides like the flapping of duck wings.
“Go to it, Paw! Don’t let ‘em put the blacks on you!”
“Jimmie” — there was a to-be-reckoned-with note in Mrs. Stutz’ voice —”another word out of you and if I don’t tell your Paw — if I don’t tell your Paw!”
“I didn’t say nothin’ — did I?”
“Keep your galoshes on, Bertha! Your old man ain’t much on the black-suit society, but he’s your best friend, all right—ain’t it, Bertha? Ain’t he your best friend?”
“It’s always been that way, Freda — your Paw ain’t never done the right thing by me. I never had a chance to take it like a lady because he ain’t got no manners and never did have. When he was keepin’ company with me it was the same way — he never did have manners.”
Mr. Stutz stabbed, one at a time, a generous forkful of large peas. “Maw’s after me tonight — ain’t she, Jimmie?”
“It’s the same way with manners at the table — there ain’t nothin’ shows up a man meaner than eatin’ with his knife or blowing his coffee cold! I always say I can tell a genelman by the way he uses his knife and folds his napkin in his ring.”
“Easy there, old lady! Keep your galoshes on!”
“Any man that’ll tell his wife he is goin’ to lodge, and then —”
“Say, old lady, I came as near as shavings to sellin’ the store today.”
Miss Stutz leaned forward in her chair.
“Yes. Charley sent a fellow up to look things over; if I’d ‘a’ knocked off the two hundred I’d ‘a’ got him sure.”
“Whatta you want to sell for, anyway, Paw — just ‘cause Freda’s got a hunch that she and Charley gotta have the whole family taggin’ on?” said Jimmie.
“You keep out of this, Jimmie — you don’t know anything; you don’t care how the neighborhood is running down or how hard the green goods are on Paw. I guess you wouldn’t like a good corner up on Amsterdam, with a separate entrance and an uptown apartment-house trade, yourself?” said Freda.
“Freda’s right,” said Mr. Stutz.
“Jimmie, go in and put on your brown suit and get your father’s shaving mug — it’s in Freda’s room on the table.”
“Watch out for my party dress, Jimmie — it’s spread out on the bed.”
“Say, I wouldn’t muss your dress if I was runnin’ the manglin’ machine in a laundry.”
“Maw, make him watch out for my dress. I pressed it last night.”
“Jimmie!” said Mrs. Stutz.
The family scraped back from their little circle, the table was cleared, spread with a fringe-edged blue-and-red worsted cover and pushed back into its corner. A pregnant quiet fell over the little flat, relieved a bit by Jimmie’s whistling in the bedroom as he tugged with his collar.
Mr. Stutz, in a carpet-upholstered rocker beside the stove, perused his newspaper over the tops of his glasses. When Mr. Stutz read his lips moved silently, and he was fond of following the printed line with his spatulate finger.
A line of drying clothes, stretched across the narrow ledge of the rear porch, snapped and slapped in a sharp early April wind, and a limp white sleeve batted against the windowpane.
“If it wasn’t for this party,” observed Mrs. Stutz, “I’d ‘a’ got to the ironin’ today.”
Jimmie, shiny-haired and tall-collared, emerged from the business of ablutions. His cheeks were the rubbed-red of the show apples on a vender’s cart, and the hair that grew on his head like stubble was plentifully watered.
“Fix my tie, Maw.”
Mrs. Stutz dried her moist, pink hands and jerked her son’s chin sharply upward.
“Hold still!” she said.
“Ouch!” complained Jimmie suddenly; “you make my collar pinch in the middle!”
Mrs. Stutz patted the bow into place and turned toward her husband; there was an undercurrent of challenge in her voice.
“Gus, I got your buttons in your shirt. Come on!”
Mr. Stutz rattled his newspaper, opened his mouth to speak, pushed his glasses up on his nose and again opened his mouth to speak.
“Bertha,” he began, “ I— I —”
Then on second thought he ambled out of his chair, refolded his glasses and disappeared in the direction of the bedroom.
“Your mug’s on the table,” called Mrs. Stutz.
“Gimme one of them collars with a soft edge,” said Mr. Stutz with a rasp in his voice.
At eight o’clock Miss Stutz’ guests began to arrive; she met them at the door, animated with smiles and dimples, and full of the gracious responsibility of the hostess.
“Come right in! Ain’t them steps the limit of a climb! Hello yourself, Heine! Angie, go right in the other room and lay your things on the bed; Maw’ll help you. Here, you boys! Aw, Otto, quit your kiddin’! Here, boys, just put your hats and overcoats out here on this chair — are you acquainted with my father? Heine, this is Paw.”
Mr. Stutz came forward without enthusiasm.
“Sit down,” he said.
Jimmie hedged about, jangling keys and coins in his pockets.
“Who won today, Otto?”
“White Sox!” replied Mr. Tobin, straddling the piano stool and plucking out a tune with one finger.
Mr. Tobin was short and his feet dangled; he wound them about the legs of the stool and fumbled vainly for a harmonious descent from middle C sharp.
More guests; the blather of voices and laughter rose. Young ladies with their heads wrapped in gay-colored scarves disappeared between the red portieres, placed their wraps across the bed and preened before the bureau.
Mrs. Stutz hovered in amiable expectancy.
“There’s powder in that glass dish, girls, and pins on the cushion. Make yourselfs right at home. My, don’t you girls look sweet, though! Right there’s the comb, Lulu. Angie, my Freda’s always tellin’ me what a trim little figure you got! It’s just like Charley was sayin’ the other night after him and Freda came home from the picture-show party — it’s hard to find a prettier set of girls than work at Mark & Silver’s.”
“Oh, Mrs. Stutz!” Miss Angie Weincoop posed before the mirror and perked at her blouse. “I ain’t got such a swell figure now — you ought to seen me last year when I was in the canned goods — up and down the ladder kept me as thin as a straw. I didn’t have a sign of hips.”
“I always say to Freda I like to see the girls with a little flesh on their bones. Why, when I was a girl I was real plump and healthy lookin’; and, if I do say it, Mr. Stutz knew what good looks were.”
Miss Weincoop powdered carefully at the sides of her nose and ran a careful forefinger along each eyebrow.
“All the new styles are hipless,” she said.
“Let me fix that for you, Lulu. My, ain’t that a sweet waist, though! My boy Jimmie had a dress trimmed in that kind of lace when he was a baby. I got it saved along with a little pair of red shoes and Freda’s rattle. Now just make yourselfs at home, girls. Yes, Freda, I’m comin’!”
In the front room the young men were grouped about in various postures and degrees of ease. Mr. Charley Blutenbach, with the freedom that his close family intimacy warranted, was amusing the group by setting the head of the brown-stuff dog wagging and by barking in ventriloquial fashion under his breath.
“That’s the way Old Man Mark barks when the sales go down!” he cried.
Miss Freda admonished him gently.
“Aw, Charley, quit your foolin’! Ain’t he the silly one! Mr. Koolaage, you ain’t met Maw, have you? I want to make you acquainted. Mr. Koolaage’s the new window dresser and a new member of the FourLeafs I been tellin’ you about, Maw.”
Mr. Koolaage rose from the chair; he was pink-cheeked and blond — the sort of Viking who inhabits Third Avenue between the forties.
His hay-colored mustache was clipped so short it resembled in texture a close-nap doormat, and his eyes were bluer than haytime skies.
“I’ve heard Miss Freda talk about her mamma a great deal.”
“You don’t say so!”
“Won’t you sit down here on the sofa, Mrs. Stutz?”
“Much obliged!” Mrs. Stutz sat down stiffly; her silk dress rose about her like a balloon in process of inflation.
Mr. Koolaage seated himself beside her and tugged at his trouser knees until he revealed the delicate cream of his hose above the tan shoes; the V of his waistcoat, displaying a striped shirt and a knit cravat, was piped with a tiny edge of white silk braid, after the fashion of floorwalkers and gentlemen who sit in club-windows overlooking the Avenue. “Great weather, ain’t it?” said Mr. Koolaage, hitching at his trouser knees again until the up-and-down ribbing of the cream-colored hose showed.
“It is that,” agreed Mrs. Stutz.
The young people buzzed about them. Charley and Mr. Stutz, in close-headed discussion, sought out two chairs just beyond the red portieres; young ladies were scattered about the bright-lighted parlor in witching attitudes. Miss Freda, the white lace yoke of her dark red dress fluffy about her soft neck, twined her arms about the trim waist of Miss Angie Weincoop, and the two of them laughed and twittered with Mr. Otto Tobin.
“Miss Freda is certainly one nice girl,” said Mr. Koolaage by way of conversation — his eyes wandered in the direction of the small figure perched on the red-plush arm of a chair.
“Freda is a good girl, if I do say so myself,” agreed Mrs. Stutz, smoothing the silk lap. “She ain’t never give us a minute’s worry. I can say the same for my boy Jimmie too. I’ve seen worse children than mine.”
“She sure is some little cashier!”
“You know it is just born in that girl to work. I don’t want to brag on my children; but there ain’t no reason for Freda to work — a grand, steady boy like Charley waitin’ for her and all!” Mrs. Stutz shot a glance at Mr. Koolaage out of the tail of her eye. “A grand, steady boy like Charley waitin’ for her!” she repeated. “But, even before her and Charley got to keepin’ steady, it’s just like I always used to think — we got a little grocery downstairs that’s payin’ good; and I always say to Freda, I’d say: ‘You don’t have to work — you can stay at home and help with the house, and if you want to you can go in the store mornings while Paw’s at market; but you don’t have to work downtown.”
“I got a friend like that — she likes to work and work.”
“Yes, and Freda up and says: ‘Maw, it ain’t like I gotta work; but the pinmoney comes in real handy.’ And so she worried at Charley till he got her this place down at the store — it’s a real fine place for her to be in, and such nice girls and boys; but I always say I get real mixed up wonderin’ if I’m in a drug store or a grocery.”
“It’s a great institution,” said Mr. Koolaage. “I was with ‘em five years ago before I went into the delicatessen business. I’m just back doin’ window dressin’ temporary, since I sold out — just for the time bein’, you know.”
“Well, well; but I guess there’s big money in window dressin’ at that — ain’t there?”
Mr. Koolaage waved a deprecatory hand.
“There ain’t never big money in a salary, Mrs. Stutz. I’m the kind that believes in havin’ his own stand — if it’s only a news-stand!”
“That’s just what Paw always used to say — he was workin’ in a shippin’ room before we got enough saved for our start; but, like you say, we didn’t mind it after we got into our little business, even if it was a pull uphill.”
“Sure, you didn’t; that’s how I always feel — window trimmin’ is all right for the other fellow, but not for me. I just sold out the Red Front ‘cause a good chance came along — but Mark & Silver’s a pretty nice place to work; there’s where you catch the swell trade.”
“I don’t get down that way much; but I love to pass Mark & Silver’s window, with the cologne and hairbrushes, and prunes as big as your hand, in one window, and fancy wrapped soap and sponges in the other.”
“This Club is a fine little idea — ain’t it?” said Mr. Koolaage.
“It is that,” agreed Mrs. Stutz. “Charley and Freda got it up themselves. I always say it keeps the boys and girls from dances and things like that. I tell my boy Jimmie there ain’t nothin’ so degeneratin’ in my mind as girls and boys goin’ round to these pay dances. Freda always says she’d rather have the crowd and refreshments at home, even if there ain’t no room for dancin’.”
“This is a nice little flat you got up here, Mrs. Stutz. I always did think Eighth Avenue was good for retail, and this certainly is a real nice flat; you’re like a friend of mine — you like bright-colored wall paper.”
“I’ve seen better and I’ve seen worse. Freda don’t like it because it’s all stores round here and ain’t got electric light and them fancy things — but I’ve raised two children right here, and it’s a good, steady little stand; and I always say what’s good enough for me has got to be good enough for them. But Freda’s got the idea that she wants to go farther uptown, and I ain’t sayin’ what might happen — that girl can just wrap her Paw round her little finger!”
“It ain’t always the nickel-plated, fancy stores that make the most money, Mrs. Stutz.”
“That’s what I always say — right here we’re gettin’ more and more book trade; and nothin’ counts in the grocery business in my mind like book trade. Let a woman come in with her book instead of her pocketbook, and she won’t argue for six bars for a quarter and she’ll buy butter where she had only thought of lard.”
“I’m comin’ over some night and give you a swell soap window that’s a favorite of mine if you’ll want it — just plain stock soaps and red tissue will do it. I’ll be real pleased to fix it for you.”
“Ain’t you kind-hearted, Mr. Koolaage! But we couldn’t ask your time; we ain’t much on the window except for canned goods, and then Freda does it odd evenings — she’s real tasty.”
“A good window never hurts any business,” said Mr. Koolaage epigrammatically.
Miss Freda, airy as a fairy, drifted toward the divan.
“What you two tellin’ secrets about? Ain’t it awful the way Paw and Charley go sneakin’ off! Can’t you make ‘em come in and be sociable, Maw? I’ll sit here with Mr. Koolaage. And there’s another, pair of sneaking ones! Oh, Angie, ain’t you and Heine ashamed! I see you sittin’ out there in the hall. Come in and give us all a chance.”
Loud laughter, and the guilty pair in the hall peeked in red faces and disappeared into the gloom.
“Say, Angie,” called Otto Tobin, “why don’t you come in and give us a song?”
This suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm, and the reluctant Angie was dragged into the room and crowded down upon the piano stool.
“Say,” she protested, “I can’t play a thing without my music — and I got an awful sore throat.”
Heine hovered over her.
“Play Ain’t it Fun to be in Love!” he urged.
“Heine, behave!” she admonished, coloring and striking a random chord.
“Go wan an’ play it!” he urged.
“I ain’t played that for months,” she flipped at him.
“Well, go on an’ play something!” urged Jimmie.
After preliminaries, swinging the stool now higher, now lower, spreading of skirts and trilling little scales up toward the top of the piano, Miss Angie began.
The company sat about the room pleasantly attentive; Jimmie’s eyes were shining and his lips pursed in a whistle as she played Oh You Great Big Beautiful Doll.
“Gee!” he said. “You ought to hear one of the operators down at our office whistle that! She sure is some little whistler!”
Mr. Koolaage placed a hand on each knee and sat staring as if inspired at the wings of the bisque angel; the low drone of Mr. Stutz and Charley penetrated through the portieres.
Miss Freda gesticulated frantically to her brother.
“Tell Paw and Charley to hush!”
Jimmie thrust his head through the portieres.
“Sh-h-h-h-h!” he hissed.
The drone continued.
Miss Angie sang with fervor. Heine draped himself over the lower end of the piano and followed the rapid, twinkling fingers with sentimental eyes — the song was greeted with applause.
“Now play Rings on Her Fingers and Bells on Her Toes!” cried Jimmie. “Gee! I love that! Go on an’ play it, Angie.”
The little company crowded about the piano and joined in the chorus with whistles and tra-la-las — only Mr. Koolaage and Freda remained aloof on the divan.
“I love music — don’t you?” said Miss Freda.
“I sure do!” said Mr. Koolaage, not taking his eyes from her face.
“Charley can play the flute like anything,” remarked Miss Stutz. “I hope he brought it along. He used to play a lot at our sodality meetings.”
“I was tellin’ your Maw I’m comin’ over some night and dress you a soap window, and I’ll bring my jew’s-harp along. Lizzie says it sounds like real music.”
“That’ll be swell!” agreed Miss Stutz.
Mr. Koolaage drew apart the lace curtains and stared into the street below, at the rows of bright-lighted small shops across the street and the surge of pedestrians.
“This is a busy part of town — ain’t it, Miss Freda?”
“Busy! Mr. Koolaage, it may not be swell, but for good steady little stands it can’t be beat. Paw always says, even if he quits this for a larger store in a sweller part, he ain’t sure he’ll do as well as he can right here.”
“There ain’t another greengrocery on the block, neither — that’s a good thing.”
“I always say, Mr. Koolaage, it’s the only block in New York that can boast of haven’ only one grocery and two delicatessens. They been tryin’ to get in Schlage’s hardware store next door for two years, but old man Schlage won’t think of sellin’.”
“There ain’t many girls got thinkin’ heads on ‘em like you, Miss Freda.”
He regarded her with intent, interested eyes. A tint of excitement, faint as the first pink of dawn, crept into Miss Freda’s face; the string of large pearl beads at her throat rose and fell.
“Paw always says I got a man’s head for business,” she admitted.
They receded farther into the recesses of the divan; half of the lace curtain draped itself over Miss Freda’s head and shoulders, screening her from the room; their conversation was low and intimate.
The group at the piano sang fortissimo and with verve; every street musical hit of the hour had its moment. Mrs. Stutz sat on the right of the piano beside Miss Lulu Ruttermann, a young woman slightly past her first flush, and regarded the young people with a smile on her lips.
“Paw,” she called during a short interval between songs, “you and Charley quit talkin’ business — Charley ain’t here for that; he’s here to have a good time. Charley, you brought your flute along; bring it in and play for the boys and girls.”
Charley, carrying his small black leather case with the nickel-plated mountings, was greeted with acclaim. When he played his cheeks swelled outward until they were as tight as the vellum on a snare-drum.
“Oh, Charley, that was fine! Now play the Flower Song,” urged Miss Angie, who had once recited the Rosary to music. “I could just cry when I hear that! Play the Flower Song, Charley.”
“All right,” he agreed, smiling with every feature. “Where’s Freda? She can accompany me swell on that.”
“Oh, you Freda!” sang Heine. “Come out from behind the curtain there and give us a tune.”
Freda and Mr. Koolaage were well back in the window embrasure now, however, the lace curtain draping them like an ephod of mystery.
“Freda!” called Charley, with that intangible quality of voice that runs like a silver thread in the tones of those who love. “Come on and play for me. I ain’t set eyes on you tonight!”
Miss Freda peeped bright eyes round the edge of the curtain.
“Can’t you leave me alone for a minute, Charley? Let Angie play — I’m busy!”
The curtain fell and Miss Freda receded into her corner.
Charley blinked his eyes rapidly; his wide, smiling face was frankly stunned into stolidity — the mere physical smile remained, with the essence gone from it.
From the kitchen came the prophetic clattering of dishes, the querulous drone of Mrs. Stutz and the defensive retorts of her husband; a snicker came from behind the lace curtain.
Miss Angie struck a lower chord.
“Come on, Charley, let’s play the Polka Glide.” The company laughed a pitch too high; Charley fitted the shining mouthpiece to his lips with too much red-faced alacrity, and they started off in two distinctly different keys.
“Oh, gee!” cried Miss Angie. “I just love to accompany you, Charley—you play with so much feeling!”
“I ain’t got much feeling outside my fingertips,” said Charley by way of repartee, but his tones were flat, like the ring of a bell with the clapper muffled.
The clatter and rattle from the kitchen grew; Jimmie wound his way in and out among the chairs and guests, distributing three-cornered fringed napkins into each lap. Next appeared Mrs. Stutz, carrying aloft a round tray of tumblers filled with a dark red liquid, which swayed in the glasses and in some cases slopped over the sides on to the white tray cover. Three young men sprang to her assistance and Miss Freda emerged from her corner.
“Aw, Maw,” she said, “the evening slipped round so I didn’t know it was time for refreshments. Why didn’t you let me help you? Jimmie, pass Mr. Koolaage some of them ham and cheese sandwiches. Lulu, you’d better taste that rootbeer — Maw made it herself.” The guests spread themselves in a circle, fringed napkins open on their laps and plates carefully poised thereon. “Now, girls and boys, don’t be bashful — there’s plenty more sandwiches in the kitchen. Jimmie, you go out and get some more; and Charley — you’re at home here — you pass Otto and Gertie some gingersnaps.”
Heine poised a sandwich in each hand and ate alternately at them.
“Say!” he cried. “If I don’t report down at the store Monday on time you can tell old Mark it was Freda’s sandwiches did it.”
From his place on the divan Mr. Koolaage laughed and took a drink of the red liquid.
“Monday’s my window day too — if I take much more of Mrs. Stutz’ delicious rootbeer there won’t be no flag window.”
“Oh, Mr. Koolaage,” spoke up Miss Gertrude, a young woman whose timidity forbade her venturing into conversational wilds, “your windows are so elegant lookin’ — that California fruit window last week was just lovely!”
“I think so too,” amended Miss Stutz. A dove might have cooed to its mate in that same tone.
Mr. Stutz remained in the kitchen with a plate of sandwiches and his newspaper. Mrs. Stutz nudged her son:
“Jimmie, tell Paw to come in here and sit down.”
“Aw, you lemme alone!” complained Jimmie.
“Let’s play a game,” cried Miss Stutz, assuming the initiative of the hostess. “ I got two prizes — a first and a booby. Somebody choose a game.”
“What’s the matter with Post-Office?” volunteered Heine, beaming across at Angie.
“Nix on Post-Office,” said Miss Angie, challenging Heine with a glance. “Post-Office ain’t no fun anymore.” “I know a new game,” volunteered Mr. Otto Tobin. “Whoever makes the worst face gets a prize.”
Miss Angie nodded her yellow curls and set them all a-bobbing.
“Oh,” she said, “I bet I get the booty!”
The circle drew their chairs closer, Mr. Koolaage and Miss Stutz pushing their divan in unison.
“When I count six everybody make a face!” cried Mr. Tobin, assuming direction. “Me and Mrs. Stutz’ll be the judges.”
He began with a well-timed pause between each count: The company attempted various facial contortions calculated to inspire supremacy, the young women assuming gyration and distortion of features, only to destroy the combination by breaking into irrepressible giggles. Miss Freda gracefully conceded the field of competition to her guests and withdrew from the ranks with a slight grimace. Charley eyed Miss Stutz and Mr. Koolaage with drooping lips and sagging chin — hurt and bewilderment were written across his face.
“Four — five — six!” counted Otto. The faces held their gargoyle expressions for a moment and the judges conferred quickly together.
“Charley gets the prize!” announced Mr. Tobin. A shout went round and Charley glanced up amazed.
“Make the face again, Charley — we didn’t see it,” urged the company.
“Make what?” inquired the bewildered Charley.
“Aw, make the face again, Charley — there won’t be no fun if we can’t see it.”
“The game, silly — the game.”
“What’s the joke?” inquired Charley in some disgust. “I didn’t know you was playin’ a game. What game?”
Miss Freda handed him a small package.
“You get the prize, Charley!” she said.
Charley, after his first bewilderment at receiving the prize, ripped open the paper. “Gee!” he cried. “I guess they ain’t swell — a pair of red silk socks!”
The guests crowded about him with polite Ohs! and Ahs!
“They’re swell, Freda; and I sure do like red. I seen some just like these in Rudd’s, on Broadway.”
“Aw, cut it out!” sang Jimmie from the piano, where he picked at a tune. “I was with her when she bought ‘em — forty-nine per at Tracy’s, mercerized and guaranteed to look like silk.”
“Maw, call Jimmie!”
“Oh, look!” trilled Miss Angie. “I got the booby — ain’t it a cute little bottle! I never was one to make ugly faces. I just love Little Fairy Cologne! Here, smell! Quit that, Heine!”
“These are sure swell reds, Freda,” said Charley.
“I’m glad you like ‘em,” said Miss Freda with indifference. She resumed her place beside Mr. Koolaage.
The evening waned, the voices became softer and the sing of the four bright burning gas-jets louder. Mrs. Stutz and Charley found chairs side by side.
“Ain’t it awful, Charley — Paw out there in the kitchen!”
“Let him sleep; he ain’t got no use for this society business.”
“Paw was sayin’ that he could have sold today fer eighteen hundred — easy time, Charley.”
“Yes,” said Charley, his gaze wandering.
“I guess you’re right, though, wantin’ to hold out fer two thousand; but Freda she gets kind of impatient like — a lively girl like her wants everything done at once.”
“Maybe we’re tryin’ to sell for nothin’. What if, after we find a buyer and I quit my job and we land the uptown store, Freda ain’t goin’ to want me?”
“Stuff!” said Mrs. Stutz, a shade of uneasiness in her voice. “She’s a good, steady girl. A woman’s a woman and likes to play up sometimes. When I was a girl there was many a time I had Paw where he didn’t know where he was at — but I was only playin’ with him all the time.”
“I’m so strong for Freda I guess it don’t take much to make me sore; but, gee! a fellow can’t stand for everything!” said Charley, the tail of his eye on the divan.
“Me and Paw put a lot of store by you, Charley. I always tell Freda she’s a lucky girl to be gettin’ a fine, steady boy like you — a boy that’s got respect for us, and ain’t too wild to stay at home and play pinochle with Paw of an evening.”
“Gee!” said Charley stoutly. “There ain’t nothin’ I like better’n a game with the old man, even if he does cheat.”
“Now, Charley,” said Mrs. Stutz with playful voice and gentle eyes, “ain’t I seen you playin’ cards to please Paw when you couldn’t keep your eyes off Freda sittin’ at the piano? You’re the greatest boy for bein’ good-hearted!”
“Paw ain’t such a bad penny!” said Charley. “You’ve just gotta know him — that’s all.”
“No,” said Mrs. Stutz, a tentacle of wrath flashing in her eyes; “but ain’t his manners shameful? Ain’t him and Freda acted shameful this evenin’? — Freda at her own party too!”
“Well, Heine,” said Miss Angie, arching her neck and tilting her small chin, “if there’s goin’ to be any gelatine sold Monday it looks to me like I got to be gettin’ in my beauty sleep.”
“Oh, any time you need beauty sleep!”
“Heine, if you don’t quit your jollyin’ —” Miss Angie left unsaid the extent of her threat.
“I guess I’d better be goin’ too,” said Miss Gertie, rising from her chair and gazing timidly at her escort.
“What’s your hurry?” protested Miss Freda.
Miss Angie rose and the guests with her.
“It’s high time we was goin’.”
The girls filed into the bedroom.
“You don’t need to bother comin’ with us, Mrs. Stutz — we can find our things,” remonstrated Miss Gertrude.
“Oh, I’ll come along,” said Mrs. Stutz by way of raillery — “I’m afraid you girls might take something!”
They passed through the portieres in smiling file and reappeared in scarves and cloaks.
“We’ve had a grand time, Freda, and thanks for the booby. Good night, dearie — I’ll see you at the store Monday,” said Angie.
The various guests expressed various appreciations.
Good night, Freda,” Mr. Otto Tobin extended a hand and as Miss Freda was about to take it withdrew it sharply. “Give it to Koolaage — he’s savin’ handshakes!” said Mr. Tobin.
The group shouted with laughter.
“Oh, Otto, ain’t you always the life of the crowd though!” gasped Miss Lulu. “You sure have been the cut-up tonight!”
“Good night, Mrs. Stutz.”
“Good n’ght, Gertie. Give my love to your mamma.”
Charley wriggled into his coat and crammed the tissue-paper-wrapped package into a deep side-pocket.
“Good night, Freda! Ain’t you goin’ with me tomorrow to—”
“Good night, Charley! Mr. Koolaage, if you’ll wait a minute after the others I’ll finish what I was tellin’ you about,” said Freda.
“Sure!” said Mr. Koolaage.
The group gathered on the dim-lit landing, repeated their adieus and clattered down three flights of stairs — only Mr. Koolaage and Freda remained at the top.
Looking back from the lower hall, Charley could see their faces outlined by the bead of gaslight; their heads were bright and surrounded with light like Scripture pictures; and on their faces an expression that sent Charley to bed with a sensation as if a boulder attached to a string were anchored to his heart.
For fifteen minutes Miss Freda and Mr. Koolaage remained on the landing in low-voiced conversation; the door to the Stutz apartment opened and closed significantly, and twice Mr. Koolaage made a feint to leave. When he finally departed he held Miss Freda’s lingeringly.
“See you Monday, Miss Freda.”
“Monday, Mr. Koolaage,” she repeated so softly that her voice was muffled in a whisper.
In the Stutz parlor but one of the four gas-jets remained burning; the chairs were set back in place and Mrs. Stutz was engaged in making up her son’s davenport bed.
“I was just gettin’ ready to call you in, Missy. In my day a girl didn’t take on like that when she was keepin’ steady. You ought to be ashamed — the way you acted tonight!”
Miss Freda jerked open her dress halfway down the back.
“Don’t begin, Maw. You always do spoil things for me by beginnin’! I didn’t do nothin’ I wouldn’t do again.”
“You didn’t, didn’t you? You didn’t hurt Charley’s feelin’s and humiliate him by carryin’ on with that window dresser — you didn’t hurt the feelin’s of a boy that would jump into the harbor for you!” Mrs. Stutz patted a pillow into place and turned a warm, indignant face toward her daughter. “There ain’t no good ever comes from actin’ like that.”
Jimmie without coat or collar entered from the kitchen.
“Aw! I seen you, Missy!” pointing a finger of scorn at his sister. “I seen you, Missy!”
“Maw, make Jimmie quit buttin’ in! I wish you could have seen him cuttin’ up tonight — he was squinting at Mr. Koolaage and me; and I was so mortified I nearly died, him doin’ that and Paw goin’ to bed while they was here.”
“There ain’t a finer boy than Charley, and he’ll be your friend when a dandy like this Koolaage’s gone and forgotten. It ain’t always the looks and the money that comes out first.”
That was a snide-lookin’ dress that Angie wore tonight, wasn’t it? That’s the kind I was tellin’ you I seen at Bloom’s fer three-ninety-eight,” said Freda.
“I always say girls ain’t like they used to be. Girls are so empty-headed nowadays — all that gets ‘em is flashy dressin’ and big talk.”
“Aw, Maw, lemme alone! I guess I know what I’m doin’! I didn’t do nothin’ to Charley.”
“Don’t you gimme none of your back talk, Freda! I’ll talk the way I want to. Jimmie, take your feet off that chair!”
Jimmie waggled his head and made a queer noise in his throat.
“I told you she was strong for the window dresser — didn’t I, Maw? I can read her as easy as I can read a telegram through the envelope. Gee! — strong for a fellow that shoots his handkerchief up his cuff and don’t know the difference between the White Sox and the Red Sox!”
“Maw, make Jimmie quit!”
“Jimmie, we’re goin’ out of here; and you go to bed, and don’t let me have to call you twice in the mornin’ or I’ll sure tell Paw how you sassed a lady! Come on out, Freda; we’ll do the dishes.”
“Maw, it’s after twelve — let’s let ‘em go and let’s get up early.”
“I never have left dishes overnight and I’m not goin’ to begin now. It ain’t too late for you to stand out in the hall and give the neighbors something to talk about, is it? It may be the style with you and your stylish friends to leave the dishes stand over night, but I ain’t one of them. I’m a plain woman that’s had to work hard all her life — I am! Give me that cup towel.”
“Here, I’ll dry those glasses,” said Freda.
“If I see any more of your cuttin’ up I’ll tell Paw, sure! Here’s him and Charley tryin’ to sell, all to satisfy you, and you —”
“Shall I save these cakes?” “Yes; put ‘em in the cupboard and dry these plates.”
“I think my red dress looked real good tonight — don’t you?”
“I always say it ain’t the looks that count — Charley ain’t what I’d call right handsome, but a better boy never drew breath.”
“Everything’s away now, ain’t it? Good night, Maw!” Miss Freda bent and kissed her mother lightly on the cheek. “Good night, Maw!”
Mrs. Stutz placed her arm timidly up about her daughter’s neck.
“You’ve been a good girl, Freda. Don’t go getting ideas in your head that can’t bring no good!”
“Good night, Maw.”
“Good night, Freda.”
Miss Freda sought out her little corner of a room. In her coarse white night robe, her firm white shoulders half bare and her neck with the soft curves of her throat rising and falling, she sat on the edge of the bed, braiding a whorl of shining brown hair over one shoulder and staring round-eyed before her.
There were various modest necessities on her dresser — a hairbrush with a yellow wood back, a shoe buttoner with a corresponding yellow wood handle, and a gold-and-blue-and-white china powder dish on a lace mat. A small bunch of artificial cherries was impaled by a pin in one corner of the mirror, and in an opposite corner a flashlight photograph of Charley, taken indoors, showed him white-eyed against a lace-curtain background.
Freda regarded that corner of the mirror with soft, unseeing eyes; then she turned out the gas and crept into bed, with her heart thumping unevenly and little thuds of excitement skipping up and down her spine.
Mark & Silver, fancy grocers, fruiterers, importers, occupied sixty-nine by sixty-nine of the most expensive feet on Broadway.
Mark & Silver’s store was faced in plate glass — the expensive, heavy, beveled kind, which reflected a high-class interior and the tilt of ladies’ bonnets as they passed.
Within this shining emporium, Miss Freda Stutz, in a brass-barred cage between the crystallized fruits and the fancy soaps, and directly opposite the imported sausages, clicked her cash register and distributed smiles and change.
A tropical or musical-comedy queen might have envied her the setting. When she turned her head ever so slightly a shining wall of fruits, carefully polished and matched, ran two-thirds of the width of the store in a brilliant phalanx and banked up in solid tiers of Mark & Silver’s carefully selected. For uniform excellence and quality, Mark & Silver might have contracted with Ceres for her choicest delicacies, except that the long rows of violent-cheeked apples, sleek pomegranates, limes, fresh figs, alligator pears, strawberries born out of time, and opaque hothouse grapes bore the label of various territories lying between Ohio and California.
From across the aisle a bouquet of odors made up of lily-of-the-valley perfume and complexion soaps mingled with deep, aromatic whiffs of Mocha and Java. To the immediate right of the entrance Miss Angie Weincoop, in a perky black alpaca apron and black alpaca sleevelets, presided at a small table behind fanciful mounds of pink, green, yellow and topaz gelatine — her voice, ingratiating as a beggar’s who pleads in the name of Allah, invited the passing public to her gelatinous lair:
“Something new in gelatine today, madam? A delightful and inexpensive dessert — fifteen cents a small package; twenty-five cents the large size. Directions within. Add a cup of boiling water to each teaspoonful; sweeten to taste; add fruit; place molds on ice and serve — delicious and simple dessert!”
Behind the pale de foie gras, imported cervelat and Berlin Bockwurst Mr. Charley Blutenbach, in a coat as white and stiff and immaculate as a dentist’s or a Pullman car porter’s, sharpened his gleaming knives and arranged them in a row. His weighing scale of polished brass, with a porcelain plate and an indicator that faced the purchaser, hovered round the two-pound mark. Charley, a slab of spiced sausage held aloft, added it lightly to the delicate bits on the porcelain dish, and the indicator settled comfortably at two. Next he removed the glass dome from a mound of Brie cheese, cut out a neat section the shape of an arc of pie, wrapped it in oiled tissue paper and tossed it, along with the spiced sausage, into a large wicker delivery basket.
Charley’s special pride was his cheese display — his Camembert was always at the ripe and ready stage when it oozed soft, creamy rivulets; his Swiss cheese sweated tiny beads of oil; and his yellow American cheese, with a hard white rind, was so firm that when he cut it he was obliged to bring the pressure of one hand to bear on the handle of his knife and the other on the heavy blade near the point.
If Epicurus had strolled through Mark & Silver’s, it is probable he would have lingered longest at the delicatessen counter and before the tiers of shining fruit. It is also probable he might have paused for a moment before the brassbound cashier cage, wherein Miss Stutz perched on her obelisk stool like a perky little hummingbird that knows the doors of its cage are not barred.
Miss Stutz smiled across at the sausages, jangled two bracelets back off her wrist, and flashed up a sign on the front of her cash register for one dollar and ninety cents.
“I thought that dame was buying out the canned goods — them dollar-ninety orders always make a noise like they was buyin’ for Mrs. Waldorf Astoria.”
“Ain’t it so?” agreed Miss Angie. “And look at the walk of her, would you? Maybe if she’d lend me and you her ninety horsepower she’d lose that limousine limp and catch up with us on the subway gait.”
“Don’t that coffee machine get on your nerves, Angie? Paw’s old thing up at the store that you turn by hand has got that electric rumbler beat. Imported wines second floor, madam — elevator to the right. Gee, ain’t I tired!”
Miss Angie turned sharply about, setting the various mounds of gelatine aquiver.
“You think you got it hard! Wait till you been at the demonstrations a year! You just try and convince a dame that she can make a pink-and-green, heart-shaped mold, with Maraschino cherries showing through — and have her come back next day with a sample that looks like a jellyfish and want her money back! Try that for a week and see what a cinch you’ve got jangling change! Say, I guess that ain’t some window Koolaage’s fixin’!”
“Ain’t it, though! Look at the brandied peaches, will you!” agreed Miss Stutz, her eyes following the figure of Mr. Koolaage moving cautiously about the Broadway display window.
“Who’d ‘a’ thought of putting glace fruit and Tunis figs and cultivated mushrooms in the same window! It’s like I was tellin’ him up at your house last night — it’s all in the knowing how. Hello, Charley, when did you get your stand-in with old Mark that you can leave your counter to entertain your friends?” said Angie.
“Hello, there!” said Charley; but his eyes were for Miss Freda, who was intent on polishing the nails of one hand on the palm of the other. “Thought you might like to try some of this spiced sausage that came in this mornin’, Freda — it’s fine!” Charley slid a small package wrapped in tissue paper through the brass bars and his face was pleasantly eager. “Try it, Freda — it’s fine!”
Freda opened the package and regarded three exquisitely shaved paper-thin disks of the dark red delicacy.
“No — thanks, Charley — I never eat sausages in the mornin’. Try it on Angie.”
Charley smiled at her, his lips tilting conscientiously upward at the corners.”
“That’s all right, Freda — keep it and maybe you’ll feel like eatin’ it after a while.”
“Oh, very well,” replied Miss Stutz. She placed the package in one corner of her desk and ran her forefinger along the top line of her collar. “Watch out, Charley — you’re blocking the lady’s way.”
Ten minutes later Mr. Koolaage peeped through the brass bars.
“What time you leavin’ tonight, Miss Freda? Shall we walk up to Fifty-third Street — like we did the other night?”
“Don’t mind if we do,” simpered Miss Stutz; the simper grew into a smile and the smile finally spread all over her face — high up round her eyes; and her teeth flashed.
“Ain’t you comin’ up to supper tonight, Mr. Koolaage? I was hopin’ you was. Maw and Paw and all of us up at the house took such a fancy to you.”
Mr. Koolaage regarded her for a moment between the glinting bars.
“You’ll have to take pot luck; but we always got room for one more.”
“Are you sure I won’t be any trouble, Miss Stutz?”
“S-u-r-e you won’t!”
“Course I kinda aim to devote my evenings to —”
“Aw, ain’t you mean, now! — with my heart set on havin’ you.”
Mr. Koolaage laughed in a girlish, naïve fashion and colored a violent ox-blood red clear up into his yellow hair.
“It’s an old sayin’ — ‘He who hesitates is lost!’” he said.
She leaned forward on her tall stool, an escaped curl fell over her warm cheek, and the eyes that peeped through the lowered lids were soft as mist.
“Of course it ain’t everybody I’d invite up — if you don’t wanna come, that’s different.”
“Sure! I wanna come,” laughed Mr. Koolaage. “You don’t need to ask me twice neither; but I won’t have time to go home and put on a clean collar.”
“There ain’t goin’ to be nobody there but Charley; he comes up Monday nights to play pinochle with Paw; but he won’t be in our way — Charley ain’t nothin’ for style.”
“Except when it comes to red socks!” laughed Mr. Koolaage.
Freda laughed after him — a laugh as delicious as the fast burble of spring water.
“But, gee!” said Mr. Koolaage, the slightest shade in his voice, “I don’t wanna get him sore!”
“Any old time,” said Miss Freda, nibbling at the delicate sliver of imported sausage. “Wanna bite?” she said, arching her head and holding her hand aloft.
“Sure!” said Mr. Koolaage.
She held the bite up to his lips and he bent close over her fingers.
“Gee, that’s good!” he said with a double insinuation.
Across the aisle Mr. Blutenbach sharpened his knives one against the other, and his steel blades flashed and crashed — Perseus, ready to slay Medusa, must have clashed his swords so. lie ripped open the canvas covering of a tube of sausage, tilted the pink heart of a boiled ham upright on to a platter, and fell to sharpening his knives again — they glinted and rang.
“Well,” observed Mr. Koolaage, “if I wanta be leavin’ with you I must be goin’ back and get busy on that window. How do you like that jar of alcohol peaches there in the middle? It was a hard job workin’ old Silver for that — he wanted me to use them old fake candy boxes.”
“It’s swell, Mr. Koolaage — a fellow that can do that well ought to be doin’ something besides window dressin’.”
“Leave it to me — I ain’t goin’ to stick to this,” said Mr. Koolaage.
“Shall we meet at the side door tonight?”
“At the side door,” he agreed.
They walked home through the nippy evening air of early spring; the red and white and green lights of Broadway began to bloom against the taupe-colored sky, and home-going New York trudged past them on foot, flashed past in caparisoned automobiles, or rumbled by in street cars that rattled their aisle-swaying humanity like dice in a box.
Miss Freda wore a warm brown knit scarf at her neck with an end falling jauntily backward over one shoulder; her hands were buried in the spacious pockets of her rough brown coat. Her eight-dollar and-eighty-nine-cent cloak fitted her with that intangible swagger which has made the American shop girl and How Does She Do it on Six Dollars a Week? the substance of many columns of statistics, sociological and economic pamphlets, and subjects for white-handed, Vandyke-bearded scholars who address Ladies’ Uplift Societies at one hundred and twenty-five dollars per Society.
Beneath the whip of an unnatural April, Miss Freda’s cheeks took on a firm red that spread to her ear tips, and her breath came from her mouth in white, cloudlike billows.
“Ain’t it a grand evenin’ for walkin’ home?” she cried.
“Ain’t it, though!” agreed Mr. Koolaage, helping her through a maze of traffic.
They turned into a quiet cross-town street, their paces nicely matched and the low drone of their conversation lost in the sharp click-clack of their heels on the cold, dry asphalt.
They lingered a moment before the store, which was already closed for the day. A solitary gas-jet burned in the rear. Mr. Koolaage expressed polite interest.
“You got good window space there,” he said.
“Yes,” said Miss Stutz; “but Paw will have these benches out here in front piled up with green goods during the day — without ‘em, it’s a real good front.”
They climbed the three flights up to the flat; at each landing they paused with little gasps of pleasure and exertion and smiled breathlessly at one another. At their approach Mrs. Stutz opened the door and peered into the dim hallway.
“We’re waitin’ for you and Paw — Jimmie’s been home five minutes.”
“Paw ain’t in the store, Maw.”
“I guess he went down to get them hinges.”
“Maw, I brought Mr. Koolaage home to supper.”
“Oh!” cried Mrs. Stutz, drawing her apron up round her ample waist. “ I thought you was Charley with Freda. Howdy-do, Mr. Koolaage? Walk right in.”
“I hope I ain’t buttin’ in,” said Mr. Koolaage.
“Not at all!” cried Mrs. Stutz, whisking off her apron; but her daughter caught the tail-end of a glance that was less assuring.
“Sit right down and make yourself right at home, Mr. Koolaage. It won’t take me and Freda long to dish up. Please excuse the looks of me; but I wasn’t expectin’ company tonight.”
“That’s all right — ain’t it, Mr. Koolaage?” cried Freda with an artificial lightness of voice. “I tole you it would be pot luck — didn’t I?”
“Just don’t you worry about me,” said Mr. Koolaage — “anything’s better’n my boarding house.”
Miss Freda dived beneath the center table and brought up a large picture album, with a velours and painted celluloid cover.
“If you’re anything like me, Mr. Koolaage, you like to look at photos.” She flopped open a large, stiff page. “Don’t look at them silly tintypes of me; but that’s Jimmie when he was three. There’s Maw, taken when she was sixteen, and there’s a picture of the store with Paw there — behind that barrel. There’s Maw’s first cousin, who lives out in Oklahoma — and there’s his wife; and there’s Maw’s sister’s little girl, who —”
“Yes’m; I’m comin’.”
Miss Stutz hurried to the rear of the apartment. Out in the kitchen Mrs. Stutz was vigorously cutting additional slices of bread.
“Jimmie, quit whittlin’ that wood all over the floor, and run down and bring up a head of lettuce and a can of peaches from the store — your sister brought home company.”
Jimmie slouched toward the hall.
“Gee-whiz! When a fellow’s been workin’ all day can’t he get a minute’s rest? I got two more messages to deliver tonight. Who is that in there? Koolaage! Didn’t I tell you she was sweet on him? I’d bet on it as soon as I would on the Red Sox.”
Mrs. Stutz flopped a skillet on the stove and it rang angrily.
“Where’s Charley?” she inquired of her daughter.
Miss Stutz busied herself about the kitchen with a side-stepping movement.
“I don’t know; he was coverin’ up his stock when I left. He says to tell Paw maybe he can’t get here until after supper.”
Mr. Stutz ambled into the kitchen.
“Well, old lady, is supper ready?”
“Paw” — there were tight lines about Mrs. Stutz’ mouth — “let Freda tell you what’s up.”
“What’s the matter, Freda?”
“If you don ‘t tell him I will — there ain’t no sense in this thing goin’ on any longer!”
“Mind your mother, Freda,” said Mr. Stutz, anxious to dismiss an impending controversy. “A girl should mind her mother and do the right thing. How’d them cabbages cook up, Bertha?”
“Freda, tell your Paw the way you’re actin’ to Charley, and tell him who you got sittin’ out there in the front parlor in his place.”
Freda regarded her mother in an agony of apprehension.
“Sh-h-h-h, Maw; he’ll hear you!” She closed the door softly and stood with her back against it looking at her father like an animal at bay. “It ain’t nothin’, Paw, except that Charley couldn’t come up for supper and I brought Mr. Koolaage. Maw’s always lookin’ for somethin’ to find fault with.”
“Ask her what about Charley, Paw. Ask her about the way she treated him at her party and the way she’s gallivantin’ round with somebody we don’t know nothin’ about. Ask her.”
“What d’yer mean? You ain’t scrappin’ with Charley, are you, Freda? You just keep your galoshes on, Bertha; they’ll fight it out — young ones are young ones, you know.”
“What if I tell you she’s runnin’ round with that new yellow-headed window dresser they got down there at the store, and treatin’ Charley like nothin’? They ain’t had no scrap — she’s just treatin’ him like nothin’ so she can keep company with him that’s sitting in the parlor.”
“Maw,” cried Freda, tears welling up in her eyes, “he’ll hear you!”
Her father’s eyes were suddenly the cold of steel.
“So!” he cried. “So that’s what we got yet! Don’t you try no such business — if I have to go tell him myself. I’ll go myself — “
Miss Stutz held her vantage at the door, barring her father’s way.
“Maw,” she cried, “make him quit! I’ll tell Koolaage after supper. Make him quit, Maw! I’ll tell him after supper, Paw.”
Miss Freda was trembling and her face was the drab of dust.
“You hear what she says, Gus — let it go this once. Tonight when Charley comes see how she acts — just let things go and see what comes.”
“No more such nonsense in my house!” warned Mr. Stutz, waggling a finger at his daughter. “You get him out tonight — you hear?”
“Yes, Paw. Maw, put a clean tablecloth on, and I’ll call Jimmie to hurry with the peaches.”
Miss Stutz’ voice jerked in her throat.
The meal passed off in gloom. Mrs. Stutz made a pretense at conversation, but her husband indulged in frank silence. Miss Stutz, the red rims carefully powdered out of her eyes, was as alluring as she dared be; and Mr. Koolaage, all unsuspecting, partook with vim and relish.
“Thanks; I will have a second helping of that succotash — when a fellow ain’t used to home cooking this is great! But I expect to be gettin’ home cookin’ for a regular diet before long,” he insinuated with an indirect glance at Miss Stutz.
“Won’t you have some more slaw, Mr. Koolaage?”
Mr. Stutz and Jimmie scraped back from the table with no excuses.
“S’long!” said Jimmie.
“If Charley comes,” said Mr. Stutz, “tell him I’ll be right back. I’m goin’ back to get them hinges.”
“Charley’ll come, all right — won’t he, Freda?” said Mrs. Stutz with a knowing look in her daughter’s direction. “Charley sure is a devoted boy to that girl!”
“Yes’m,” said Mr. Koolaage.
“What’s the score? Who won today? Do you know, Koolaage?” inquired Jimmie.
“No,” said Mr. Koolaage. “I ain’t up on baseball.”
“Ain’t you?” said Jimmie in a tone as dry as wood.
“Freda, what are you and Charley going to do this evening?” asked Mrs. Stutz. “I guess you two’ll just go off together like you always do. It’s terrible the way you two are — just so wrapped up in each other!”
“I don’t know, Maw,” said Miss Freda, gulping hard.
When Charley arrived they all sat in a stiff little circle about the parlor. There were tired lines in Charley’s face and he ran his hand through his hair very frequently, with the nervous gesture of a first speaker of the evening who is being introduced to the audience by the president of the Society, or of a man whose copper stocks have just gone down twenty points.
“Paw’ll be back soon, Charley; he had to go down to Schmidt’s again about them hinges. You and Freda go along like you always do; you don’t need to mind me and Mr. Koolaage — we’ll entertain each other.”
For answer Miss Freda rose lightly to her feet.
“Maw, me and Mr. Koolaage are going to take a little walk. My! ain’t you clumsy, though, Mr. Koolaage, falling over that little chair! That’s a little rocker I used to have when I was only five. We’ll be back soon, Maw.”
“See you later, Mrs. Stutz,” said Mr. Koolaage. He wriggled into his coat and they passed out, their laughter filtering backward.
“Why!” gasped Mrs. Stutz. “Why, Charley, I — “
“It’s all right, Maw — it ain’t no use. I’ve been hanging round long enough now. Freda’s old enough to know what she wants.”
Large tears welled up and fell in wide, meandering paths down Mrs. Stutz’ cheeks.
“Charley,” she cried, “you’ve been a son to us as much as our own Jimmie! There ain’t a boy — if he was made of gold — could take your place with me and Paw and Jimmie! Freda ain’t settled down yet. Give her a chance! Give —”
“I ain’t blamin’ Freda. Koolaage ain’t a bad kind, Maw; he’s got two thousand from a delicatessen stand he had before he sold out. He ain’t a bad kind, Maw — I — he ain’t, Maw!”
“Oh, my Gawd!” cried Mrs. Stutz, laying one arm round Charley’s neck. “If he had ten thousand he couldn’t take your place! There ain’t nothin’ goin’ to come of this other. Give her a little time, Charley, she ain’t —”
“I gotta quit, Maw; a fellow’s got to have some backbone. Freda ain’t wantin’ me anymore and I ain’t the kind to hang round where there ain’t no show.”
“She was wild after you, Charley, before this Koolaage came along — she was wild after you. Take my word for it.”
“I know it,” replied Charley, rubbing the back of his hand across his eyes. “I think she can’t get over it that me and Paw couldn’t sell before the fifteenth and get a show at that Amsterdam place. Koolaage cut me out square, Maw. I ain’t got a chance there anymore.”
They sat staring past one another; at intervals Mrs. Stutz sniffed and brushed her eyes with her apron.
“It’s a sad thing to raise children!” she whimpered. “There’s no tellin’ how they’ll turn out.”
“Don’t carry on so bad, Maw; you ain’t got no kick comin’ on Freda. They all tell me Koolaage is a good, honest fellow, and — well, I was just countin’ too strong on her, I guess. I — Oh, what’s the use talkin’!”
Charley rose abruptly to his feet and walked over to the window, standing with his back to the room and gazing moodily into the street below.
Mrs. Stutz rocked herself to and fro in a straight chair and uttered little inarticulate moans from time to time.
“How I’ve been countin’ on the new store and the new flat, and you and Freda! Paw was sayin’ only the other night things was comin’ out grand, us all bein’ together in the new flat and — and everything.”
“Aw, Maw! Aw, Maw!” Charley placed his hand heavily upon her shoulder.
The duet of Miss Freda’s and Mr. Koolaage’s laughter drifted in from the outer hall; they entered with the smiles still carved on their lips.
“Gee! What are you so quiet about?” sang Miss Stutz. “Where’s Paw? Ain’t he back yet?”
“No,” replied Charley, smiling at them; “he ain’t back yet.”
“Ain’t that provokin’? Won’t you sit down and wait, Mr. Koolaage?”
“I hate to be in a hurry; but if he ain’t back soon I’ll have to come back in the mornin’ — I just want to see him a few minutes.”
“Oh,” said Mrs. Stutz stiffly, “there ain’t no tellin’ when Paw’ll get back.”
The sharp tick-tack of a clock penetrated from the bedroom.
“Lemme take your coat, Mr. Koolaage,” said Freda.
“Yes, Maw; Mr. Koolaage wants to see Paw — and you.”
“Paw ain’t here, I said,” replied Mrs. Stutz scantly.
Charley inserted three fingers inside his collar.
“Well,” he said, “I guess I’d better be goin’.”
“Don’t go, Charley.” Miss Freda placed her hand on his arm and he drew it away. “You don’t need to be afraid to talk out before Charley, Mr. Koolaage.”
Mr. Koolaage cleared his throat.
“The fact is, Mrs. Stutz — the fact is — “
“The fact is, Maw, me and Mr. Koolaage have made a deal on the store. I’ve been holdin’ out fer twenty-two hundred, ‘cause it’s givin’ it away at that; but I told him if you and Paw was willin’ to knock off two hundred and let it go at two thousand, I wasn’t goin’ to be the one to say no, even if it was givin’ it away.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Stutz.
“I thought maybe the cash deal might make a difference with you and Paw; so I told Mr. Koolaage I’d put his offer up to you.”
“Oh!” said Mrs. Stutz. “I was thinkin’, Maw, if you’d go down and run over the books with Mr. Koolaage till Paw gets back, it might help some. Mr. Koolaage is in a hurry — he’s got to get away out to Newark tonight yet.”
“It’s like Freda says, Mrs. Stutz. I don’t want to hurry you, but I’m goin’ out to Newark tonight and I’d like to know a little more definite before I go; so I — well, so I can take some news along.”
“Mr. Koolaage’s in a hurry, Maw. If he makes the deal he wants to fix it so they can come in on the fifteenth — that’s — that’s — “ Freda looked at Mr. Koolaage with a pretty appeal in her eyes.
“That’s my lady friend’s birthday, Mrs. Stutz; and we’d get married and do it up in a hurry! I brought Lizzie in from Newark Sunday to look at the outside, and she liked it.”
“Oh! Wait, Mr. Koolaage, till I get the keys. Certainly I’ll be glad to go down with you. Freda, ain’t you ashamed! Why don’t you give Mr. Koolaage that big chair? Mr. Stutz’ll be back any minute now — just you wait here a minute till I get the keys.”
“Miss Freda’s gone over everything pretty well with me, but she’s afraid she ain’t been accurate enough; so I’m just humoring her.”
“Come right this way, Mr. Koolaage — be careful of the steps! It just makes me sick to think of movin’ out of here, Mr. Koolaage! Now that I know a bride and groom are comin’ in, I’m goin’ to leave that horseshoe over the door.”
“Ain’t this room papered bright!” observed Mr. Koolaage. “Lizzie loves bright wall paper. I always tell her she’s so fond of workin’ that, if she didn’t have nothin’ else to do, she’d shine the flowers on the wall paper!”
“That’s the way with me. I — “ Their voices drifted down the rear stairs.
In the bright-lit parlor Miss Freda let her head drop heavily on Charley’s shoulder.
“I’m awfully tired, Charley.”
“My little Freda! Gee! Why didn’t you tell us, honey?”
“Yes — and have you all come in and spoil things!”
She let her hand rest caressingly on his cheek.
“Oh, it’s good to be back home again!” She nestled against him and dragged his head down to kiss his forehead where the hair sprang back. “Sellin’ ain’t near so easy as buyin’!”
“My little girl! My little pussy! Say, didn’t you put one over on us!” said Charley, his eyes shining with the softness of spring rain.
Their faces were close.
Jimmie entered, slamming the door behind him, and scurried down the narrow hall toward the dark kitchen.
“That you in there, Charley?” he called.
“I heard some fellows sayin’ Welch was goin’ to pitch today. Who won?”
“The Red Sox!” replied Charley.