With more than 80 short stories and eight novels, Grace Sartwell Mason’s thematically diverse work found many publications in the period before and after World War I. Though her fiction and criticism has slipped through the cracks of familiarity over the years, her story “Home-Brew,” about the secretive and adventurous family of a budding New York writer, was an O. Henry Award finalist.
Published on August 18, 1923
Content Warning: Racial slurs
“Of course, they’re all dears, my family,” said Alyse; “but as fiction material there is nothing to them; no drama, you know; no color; just nice, ordinary, unimaginative dears. They’re utterly unstimulating. That’s why I can’t live at home, and create. They don’t understand it, poor dears; but what could I possibly find to write about at home?”
She crushed down upon her hair, with its Russian bob, a sad-colored hat of hand-woven stuff, and locked the door of a somewhat crumby room over the Rossetti Hand-Loom Shop, where she worked half time for a half living. A secondhand typewriter accounted for the other half; or, to be quite truthful, for a fraction of the other half. For her father, plain George Todd, helped out when the typewriter failed to provide.
She then betook herself on somewhat reluctant feet to the nearest Subway. For this was her evening at home with her unstimulating family; and though she was fond of them all, her predominating feeling for them was a mixture of amusement, tender tolerance and boredom. Moreover, they lived in Harlem, which was a deplorable wilderness, utterly lacking in atmosphere and a long, long way from the neighborhood of the hand-loom shop.
In the Subway, miraculously impelled through the bowels of the earth, Alyse — or Alice, as she had been christened — refrained from looking at the faces opposite her. The Subway does something curious to faces. It seems to drain all life out of them; it strips from them their defensive masks and exposes the deep and expressive scars of existence. A secret and hidden soul comes out in each Subway face. But Alyse averted her eyes.
“Dear me,” she sighed, “how dull they are! Isn’t there any beauty left in the world?”
Her father and his chum, Wally, were just ahead of her as she came up from the Subway depths. They were wending their way to their respective homes, having come up from downtown together, as was their invariable custom. Alyse gazed at their middle-aged backs without seeing anything unusual about them. Just two plodding men, getting tubby about the waist, with evening papers under their arms, walking along, not saying much. But when they reached George Todd’s door they would look at each other, and the passerby might well have stopped and taken off his hat, as before something rare and soul-satisfying. For here was perfect peace in friendship.
But all they said was: “S’long. See you tonight, ol’ hoss.” Or, “See you t’morrow mornin’, Georgie.”
Alyse had heard the tale of her father’s miraculous reunion with Wally so many times that it meant nothing to her. It seemed that as boys they had lived within two doors of each other in a small New England town, and they had been inseparable. First thing in the morning and last thing at night they were whistling outside each other’s windows; they owned a dog in common; and when George had scarlet fever, Wally nearly died from anxiety. Then, at sixteen, life had borne them in different directions. Wally drifted finally to Alaska and George got a job in New York. For a time they corresponded, but after a while letters began to come back to George marked Not Found, and then in a roundabout way he heard of Wally’s death.
Although George Todd was happily married, with a growing family, he admitted that the world would never seem quite the same to him with Wally out of it. Then came the happening that convinced him there are mysterious and unexplainable things in the world, say what you like. He was coming home from work one night, walking from the Subway rather more slowly than usual and enjoying the spring twilight, when in some strange way his heart stirred. He remembered how on evenings such as this he and Wally used to play a game in which one tossed a ball over the house to the other and gave a peculiar call. The middle-aged George declared that all of a sudden he could hear this call, and wanting to fix it in his memory, he endeavored to imitate it by whistling its rather melancholy intervals.
And at his whistle a man walking in front of him suddenly whirled and stared at him. It was Wally — Wally, with a newspaper in his pocket and a bundle of shirts from the laundry under his arm. He had been living within half a block of George for two years.
When her father told this story to Alyse he always at this point gave her an affectionate poke.
“Now there’s a story for you, Allie. You write up about Wally being washed out to sea and given up for dead and working his way around the world, and finally settling down in Harlem right next door to his old chum. And that about the whistle. What was it made me think of that old call?”
Alyse would explain that it was coincidence, and coincidence was the lowest form of literary life. She was patient about it, but there was nothing stimulating to her creative imagination in Wally and that come-and-find-me voice he had listened to half his life. Still less was she stimulated by her father, George Todd, owner of a feed and grain business of the most eccentric instability. He was a dear, and she loved him; but she hoped as they all sat down to supper that he wouldn’t begin to joke her about her work or offer her the plot for a story.
It was a spring evening and the dining room windows were open to the two lilac bushes which Alyse’s mother had nursed for years in the narrow, sooty backyard. The room was filled with an unreal light, as if the air was full of golden pollen dust. And something else, invisible and palpitant, was in the air of the homely room, something not to be seen but only sensed. Some intense preoccupation a sympathetic eye could have noted in three of the faces around the table.
“Well, well, we’re all dressed up tonight,” said George Todd, unfolding his napkin. “Look at Miggsy, Allie. Won’t she knock somebody’s eye out tonight?”
Alyse looked at her young sister, Mildred, aged sixteen. Mildred blushed, fidgeted, pouted entreatingly at her father. She was a thin little beauty, with a soft cloud of corn-silk hair about her face. In her red mouth desire and wistfulness mingled. Tonight her eyes were stretched and brilliant. She twitched at the table silver and appeared to have no appetite.
“Eat your spinach, dearie.” Her mother’s eyes brooded over her tenderly. “I thought you liked it creamed.”
“I do, but — Goodness, mother, is that clock right? I must fly!”
“But there’s chocolate pudding for dessert, dear.”
“Now, Miggs, finish your dinner. Why be so fidgety?”
Mildred looked in desperation from her father to her mother.
“But I don’t want any dinner, please! I — I have to be there early. Please let me go now, mother.”
She danced from one foot to the other, the secret excitement in her eyes threatening to change to anger. She had spent most of the time since she came home from school that afternoon in front of her mirror, and she was now exquisitely polished, powdered and perfumed. From under the fluff of hair over each ear an earring of blue to match her eyes dangled.
Alyse disapproved of the earrings and of the general effect of Milly tonight. She made a mental note to speak to her mother about letting the child go out so many evenings. But beyond the earrings and the general overstrung and overdressed effect she did not penetrate. She made no attempt to interpret the secret excitement in her young sister’s eyes. The affairs of a girl of sixteen were too inane and foolish to be taken seriously.
At the table when Milly had gone flying up the stairs there remained Alyse, her father and mother, Eddie, twenty-one, and Aunt Jude. Alyse glanced around the table and suppressed a sigh. The monotony of the lives of her family sometimes oppressed her. Take her mother, for instance. She seldom went outside the house except to church or to an occasional motion picture with Wally and George. All day she did housework or looked after Grandma Todd when Aunt Jude was at work. She did not have a cook because of a queer passion for feeding her family herself. But when she had them all there in front of her, ranged around the long table, and she had put onto their plates the well-cooked, savory dishes they liked, she would sit, eating little herself, looking from one to the other with her slightly anxious, tender glances, while gradually an expression of peace and satisfaction stole into her face; and Alyse wondered what her mother was getting out of life.
Take Eddie, also. No one, except perhaps his mother in odd moments, ever got a peep-in at Eddie’s thoughts. Alyse was of the opinion that he didn’t have any. There had been a time when she had tried to bring Eddie out by coaxing him down to her rooms over the hand-loom shop and introducing him to some of the girls she knew. But those clever and voluble maidens had abashed Eddie unspeakably, and Alyse had let him lapse back into his own plodding life. He apparently had no imagination. Soon after he left high school he had gone to work for a seed house downtown — George Todd badly needing help that year with the family expenses — and there he still was. Alyse hadn’t the slightest idea what were his amusements. Saturday and Sunday afternoons he generally disappeared, and when asked what he had been doing, he had been to a ball game or just taking a stroll around. He subscribed to a marine journal, which seemed strange reading for a packer in a seed house.
And there was Aunt Jude. Really, when you considered everything, what had Aunt Jude to live for?
Judith Todd was at that moment preparing a tray for Grandma Todd, who was having one of her faint spells and declined to come down to supper. With her long, slender fingers moving deftly, Judith made the tray inviting with the china she had bought especially for it. She had hurried her own supper so as to have plenty of time for the tray, and she moved from the table to the sideboard with the air of detached and ironic competence she sometimes wore when she was, as Alyse said, spoiling Grandma Todd. She was George Todd’s younger sister, thirty-eight, a spinster with the reputation of having been in her youth very high-spirited, adventure-loving, and moreover with a streak of queerness about her. As, for instance, her ambition to be a sculptor. In those days and in the Todds’ native village a girl might as becomingly have wanted to be a circus rider. It was said there had been some stormy scenes over days wasted in the attic with messy clay. But finally life itself had put a bit between her teeth — life and her mother’s well-timed heart attacks. Her father had failed in business and died, George had married early, and the brunt of taking care of her mother had fallen to Judith.
After a while she had brought her mother to George’s house, which helped George out with expenses and enabled Judith to make a living for herself. It was the nature of her job that convinced Alyse there couldn’t be anything in that old story about Aunt Jude’s having wanted to be an artist. It was such an absurd job. She worked for one of those concerns that produce novelties — favors, table decorations, boudoir dolls — designing many of these silly fripperies, often making them with her own hands. She had remarkable hands.
If she had an ounce of talent, Alyse decided, how could Aunt Jude go on, year after year, squandering herself on these silly and often grotesque objects? Alyse felt that it would have killed her to have so degraded her talent.
But Judith actually appeared to get a certain amount of fun out of the dreadful things. She would bring home samples of her handicraft and bedeck the supper table with tiny fat dolls in wedding veils, droll birds and beasts in colored wax, and so on. And in one of her high moods she could set the family to laughing with a single tweak at one of these grotesqueries. On these occasions a gay and malicious sparkle would come into her dark eyes, and her laugh would be high and reckless, rather like a person who has taken a stiff drink to ease up an ancient misery.
Two evenings a week she went out, no one knew where. Alyse had seen her once at the opera, leaning far out from the highest gallery, a frown between her brows, seeming to watch rather than to listen, with a wild brightness in her dark eyes. The general impression of the family was that these regular evenings away from home had something to do with her work. On these particular evenings there was always a breathless air about her. She would hasten in from the street, and as she climbed the stairs to her mother’s room her face would stiffen as if for conflict. For Grandma Todd resented these evenings.
“Traipsin’ off,” she called it. “Lord knows where. Something will happen to you, coming home alone after ten o’clock. I don’t think you’d better go out tonight, Judith. My heart has been fluttering this afternoon. If I have to lie here worrying all evening I shall probably have a bad spell.”
And then into her daughter’s face would come the expression of a person swimming painfully against the tide. Love and pity had overcome her at every turn of her life, until at last she had almost nothing of herself left, except her freedom for these two evenings. As if the call of them was more imperative even than her long habit of abnegation, she fought for them with a sort of desperation.
Tonight as she arranged her mother’s tray her fine hands trembled a little; she looked more than ever as if she were straining at a leash. There was an unusual color in her face, a sort of flame, which for an instant attracted Alyse’s attention. Aunt Jude, she reflected, must have been almost beautiful when she was younger, before the expression of half-defiant endurance came into her face. Her dark hair was still lovely, with its blue-black shadows. Over her brow was a white lock, which she took no pains to conceal. She wore it rather like a defiant banner, and it went well with a certain gallant air she sometimes had.
As soon as supper was finished the family began to melt away. Wally called for George Todd and they went out. They admitted, grinning, that they were going to an express-company auction of unclaimed packages. It was one of their pet forms of entertainment, and they frequently brought home queer bundles, which they opened with shouts of amusement. Alyse thought they were dears, but rather foolish. She could not guess that when they started out of an evening arm in arm they became boys again, and forgot that life had been a somewhat niggardly affair for them.
A moment later Miggs made a dash for the door, pulling on her long gloves. Her face was flushed and exquisite under her modish hat.
“I’ll have Eddie come around to Jane’s for you, Milly,” her mother called to her.
A shadow of fright and annoyance came over Miggs’ face.
“No, please don’t, mamma. Jane, or somebody, will come home with me. Besides, we — we may go to a movie. Don’t fuss over me, mamma. I’m not a baby.”
Then she darted back into the room, caught her mother’s head in her slim arms, snuggled her little powdered nose into her neck.
“Oh, mamma, I’m all right. I’m just so full of pep tonight I’m — I’m snappy. Don’t you worry, darling.”
And licking her scarlet lips, glancing once more into the mirror of the old-fashioned sideboard, she was off — a hummingbird caught in a mysterious gale.
Then appeared Aunt Jude, her jacket over her arm, the tray in her hands. Her dark eyes were feverishly bright, but her face looked pale and strained. Would they mind just cocking an ear now and then toward mother’s room? She would probably drop off to sleep soon, though she had made up her mind she wouldn’t.
“But I must go tonight,” she said; “just tonight. Perhaps after this I — won’t be going out Tuesday and Thursday evenings.”
She stood still, staring down at the tray she had put on the kitchen table. Then she threw up her head with the familiar defiant movement, made a sound as if of scorn at her own weakness, and shrugging herself into her old blue serge jacket, she, too, darted out into the evening.
Eddie stood by the window. He stooped to look up at the dark blue of the night sky — a gesture habitual with him — fiddled wistfully for a long moment with the shade, and then pulled it down as if resolutely shutting something out. But a moment or two later he took his hat down from the hall rack, muttered to his mother “Be back early,” and slid out the front door, as if suddenly afraid of being late for something.
The house fell silent. Alyse’s mother put a dark-red spread on the dining-room table and placed her darning basket under the light.
“Now this is cozy,” she said happily. “We’ll have time for a nice visit. Tell me about your work, dear. I’ve been hoping maybe you’d feel like coming home to stay as soon as you’d got some material to work on. Of course, I understand,” she added humbly, “you have to have something to inspire you.”
“That’s exactly it, mother. I must know interesting persons. It’s very important to be stimulated. Sometimes I’ve thought that if I could only go to Russia or Austria or some place where there is a sense of crisis, a — a vividness, you know; strife of souls. That’s what I want to study. You see, mother? And, of course, here at home — ”
Her mother sighed.
“I know we’re all pretty ordinary, and nothing much happens, here at home.”
She looked apologetic, as if she realized the family’s limitations and wished she could offer something more interesting to her talented daughter. She dropped the old darning egg into the heel of a sock. The homely house was very quiet.
And a few miles farther south Milly was running breathlessly up the Subway stairs, an eager, half-frightened Proserpine coming up from the bowels of the earth into flowery meadows, into the glare of the electric flowers of Broadway.
And a few blocks north Judith Todd stood in a dark doorway and whispered: “I mustn’t hope for anything. If nothing comes of tonight, I can go on. But, O, God, make something come out right for me at last, at last!”
And Eddie —
At about this moment Eddie’s mother was rolling a pair of his socks into a neat ball. She sighed unconsciously.
“Sometimes it seems to me,” she said, “as if Eddie has never really waked up. I can’t express it the way you would, Alice; but as if he was driving himself — dumb, you know.”
“Doesn’t he like his job?”
“I don’t know. He never says. But sometimes he looks — And then there’s that Haskins girl. I’m afraid he’s let her push him into being engaged. I wish I knew — he’s so silent lately … When he was a little boy he used to lie on the floor by the hour, so happy, drawing pictures of ships.”
Ships! Alyse had never noticed them, but they lay like a fringe about the tall city, slowly rising and falling with the tide, lying there waiting to be unloosed to the seven seas. But Eddie knew they were there. All the miles of wharves he knew, from Sunday and evening rambles, from noon hours when he went without food to stand looking at some lovely visitor from an unknown port. And now at this moment he was making his way as fast as he could to say farewell to one that had become the very core of his heart.
More eagerly and more swiftly than he ever had made his way to the Haskins girl he traveled toward the North River. Just before he reached the corner beyond which he could look down upon the river he felt his heart grow cold with the fear that sometime during the day she may have slipped out to sea. It seemed to him that if she had gone he could not bear it; and yet he told himself that tomorrow night she would not be there; they had begun to ship her cargo.
But when he had rounded the corner, there were her masts against the deep blue of the night sky — five masts, the beauty! He had seen them two weeks before one night when he was leaning over the wall of Riverside Drive, and his heart had leaped. He had made his way down to the wharf alongside which the schooner lay, and stood there studying her, feasting his eyes on her. The tall cliffs of houses towered above her, but she smelled of many cargoes and of the sea. He could imagine her furled canvas slowly shaking out to the breeze, the deck tilting. The mate had come up on deck with his pipe and talked to him over the side.
Next evening Eddie was there again, and the mate invited him on board; he talked about the schooner as a man might about a wife whose very faults he loved. And Eddie had asked him questions which had been storing up in his heart since he was a boy. He could talk to this man Jennings, for they had a passion in common. Evening after evening they leaned over the deck rail or sat in the cabin, smoking and talking, and a deep friendliness developed between them.
Tonight when Eddie came to the edge of the Drive he did not hurry down as usual to the wharf where the schooner was tied up, but stood looking down at her. In his brain there was a misery and a battle. They were working overtime down there, loading the last of a general cargo, and that meant they would take advantage of the first tide. Tomorrow she would be gone, off to the River Plate. He shut his eyes hard and gripped the wall against which he leaned.
Tomorrow he would go downtown as usual in the Subway, and all day long he would be nailing up boxes in the basement of the store, and in the evening he would go around to see Lily Haskins. Under his breath he uttered a sound between a groan and an oath. He felt bewildered when he thought of Lily. He gazed at the five masts against the sky and they were like a shining vision beside which Lily Haskins was but a dull unreality. Was it actually true that he was going to marry, to go on all his life nailing up boxes as if they were his own coffin?
His feet carried him slowly down toward the wharf. He must say goodbye to Jennings, no matter how much he shrank from going on board the schooner again, and as he went down the long stairs he was wondering at the stupidity of his own life. Why hadn’t he talked things over with someone? Perhaps someone else could have told him whether he was really obliged to marry Lily. But he guessed that he had always been dumb. Life had gone on within him, half alseep, in the dust of the packing room, until he and Jennings and the schooner became friends.
And after that he had awakened, but he was still dumb. Perhaps if years ago he had begun to talk about what he wanted to do — But that year when he was eighteen, and making his secret plan to join the Navy, was the year dad’s business was so poor. He couldn’t desert him when he was so hard pressed. Perhaps later, when dad had got on his feet, he might have broken loose, if only he had believed in his dream; if he hadn’t been afraid of being laughed at.
His thoughts went still farther back, to the days when he used to cover immense sheets of paper with pictures of ships, full-rigged, with each detail as correct as he could make it from pictures he had seen.
He remembered looking up one day from his drawing with a sudden vision in his heart and crying out, “When I grow up I’m going to be a sailor!”
And someone, he could not remember who, had laughed. For a long time they called him Yeave-Ho. The door of his heart through which this cry had gone out had closed.
If he had cared less about his dream, the door would not have closed so tightly, perhaps; or if there had been anyone in his world who did not regard the sea as merely a blue blur in a geography.
Well, if a man was a sensitive fool, he had only himself to blame. He closed his lips more tightly and went on down the wharf. Two fellows passed him with bundles over their shoulders. The crew was going on board. In the light of torches the last of the cargo was being hustled on board. The light streamed upward and touched the masts; the vessel moved slightly with the tramping of feet and the lifting of the tide. With the lights, the shouting and movement of men, the schooner seemed to rise on tiptoe, eager and expectant.
In a shaft of light stood Jennings, checking off the crew as they came aboard. Down the wharf came the captain, a man behind him carrying bags and bundles. As soon as he climbed on board, Jennings could be seen showing him a telegram, and the captain frowned. Eddie, his habitual diffidence overcoming him, shrank back into shadow; but presently when the captain had gone into the cabin, Eddie moved over to the edge of the wharf and called, “Goodbye, Mr. Jennings! Just thought I’d come down to wish you — wish you — ”
But before he could finish, Jennings leaped and grasped his shoulder.
“Eddie! By cricky, boy, you look good to me! Look here!” He waved the telegram under Eddie’s nose and dragged him on board. “Look here, it’s Providence sent you down here just now. Petersen’s in hospital. We’re short a hand. My boy, it’s your chance! You’ll never have a better one. How about it? You’d have time to get your dunnage. Le’s see — tide will be right in two hours and fifteen minutes; all the time in the world. What say?”
The night reeled and rocked around Eddie.
The mate drew him forward, whispering, “Look here, you know as much about a vessel now as Pete ever did. You were born for the sea, and that’s the truth. This is your great chance to get your apprenticeship — good captain and a dandy vessel.”
Eddie stared about him while his heart pounded. He looked down the long lines of the schooner, he heard the masts faintly creaking and whispering in the rising wind, he smelled the unforgettable smell of a ship, and he choked with longing. He thought of his mother, but not at all of Lily Haskins. Could his father do without him? Would they all think he had gone crazy? Would they laugh? And at that instant the wind ruffled the water, the smell of the sea came stealing up the river, and the deck rose under his feet, an imperceptible movement to anyone not tuned to the sea. But to Eddie it was as if his heart itself turned over. His heart was like a seed, long buried in the dark and cold of the earth, which has been pushing blindly upward, and now at last sees the sun. His hand on the smooth curve of the mast tingled and drank in the feel of the ship, while into his soul there poured a new steadiness, a clean new certainty. His dumb boyhood was over and his beloved was under his hand.
Alyse yawned and her thoughts came back from her novel about Russia as her eyes fastened themselves on the chiffon stocking her mother was carefully mending.
“Really, mother, it’s ridiculous the way Mildred dresses. And ought she to go out every night? When I was sixteen I didn’t want to do anything but read.”
Her mother smiled and sighed.
“I wish to goodness Milly would sit down at home with a book. But she says life is so much more exciting than books. She told me the other day that she had to live her own life.”
“Life!” Alyse laughed scornfully. “That baby!”
It was at about this moment and several miles farther downtown in a dancing place called Poppy Gardens that Mildred, the baby, was on the verge of learning something about life. She was also being called an infant, but in quite a different tone.
“I’d jus’ soon tell the world,” said Dion Delanoy, holding her closer, “that you’re some little dancer, baby.”
And at the half-lazy, half-insolent caress in his voice, Milly thrilled with rapture and with discomfort. But it was very queer — there seemed to be two of her. One was intoxicated with delight and wonder, and the other held herself cool and aloof and, looking on, curled her lip. Overhead in the ceiling electric bulbs were stuck like pins in a cushion. When you tilted your head back so that your cheek touched your partner’s shoulder, all these lights reeled and swam after you around the room, and the floor undulated in long flat waves. When you floated through the green spotlight, Dion Delanoy’s eyes, like large shoe buttons in an ordinary light, became queer and sinister. When at the other end of the room the red spotlight washed over you, his pale dusky skin with the blue tinge from shaving had a bloom like an exotic fruit, and he became beautiful; he became what she had come out to meet, a romantic hero.
And she had reached that brief, glamorous season when there must be a hero to worship or one goes hungry and thirsty. When she had seen him in a bull fighter’s costume, with the footlights performing their nightly miracle with him, her hunger had fed itself upon him. Jane Tremont had been almost as bad, but it was her note he had answered, and she alone whom he had invited to meet him in the Peacock Alley of a Broadway hotel. It was Fate, his choosing her and not Jane, and it could only mean that they were meant for each other.
Having only just begun to learn about life, Milly didn’t suspect that the trysting spot Delanoy had chosen could be neatly overlooked from a balcony, and standing here, he could scrutinize his latest conquest and decide whether or not he cared to keep the appointment. He had been a bit taken aback by Milly’s youth, but it happened to be a dull evening. And besides, in the dressing room, heavy with the odor of stale powder, Milly had used a forbidden lip stick. He could not possibly know that in spite of her desirous lips her heart was pounding with fright.
But now, since they had danced for half an hour, fright had given place to this queer mixture of emotions; elation, dizzy wonder — she, Mildred Todd, dancing with a famous dancer, or at any rate a nearly famous dancer — hadn’t he had a dance practically alone, with the spotlight once directly on him? — and a curious undercurrent of vague unhappiness, as if already she had said good-by to someone she had shrined and now had lost. And those two individualities into which she had divided, the one whose lip curled sometimes, who looked on, not happy and yet not unhappy — homesick, rather — and the other, confused, ecstatic and silly.
“I feel funny,” thought Mills, “and nothing is quite like I thought it would be.”
Then the next minute she thrilled when someone behind them said “That fella’s Dion Delanoy.”
They had iced drinks at a sloppy table in a room off the dancing floor. He poured something into her glass from a flask, under the table. She became dreadfully sleepy and wished she were home and in bed. Then the lights around the dancing floor grew suddenly brighter and danced, and everything was gayer. Dion Delanoy became again a hero, and she knew that she herself was very wicked and beautiful. The cool half of her gave her lips one final curl of scorn and retired to an immense distance. The vague ache of disillusion left her too. She saw herself engaged to Dion Delanoy, giving a theater party in a box, and afterward taking Jane behind to meet him. He was her hero. He was marvelous. She clung tight to this thought, as if she knew that once she let it go she could not stand him.
And they wandered down to the street and into a taxicab. The drive was a flash and blur of lights, with Dion Delanoy holding her uncomfortably close. The taxicab increased her sense of wickedness, and she thought of a word she had recently added to her vocabulary — “insouciance.” She was convinced that she had a great deal of it, and as for Dion Delanoy he was magnificent with it. If only the cool and critical half of her would drop behind, and take with her the dim sense of sadness that was so oddly like homesickness.
“Wouldn’t it be perfectly terrible if I should cry?” thought Milly.
The cab stopped in front of a studio building.
“Friend of mine let me have his studio,” murmured Delanoy vaguely. “Let’s go up and start the phonograph.”
Milly hung back.
“I — I ought to go home. It’s getting late.”
He laughed at that, without any particular merriment in his watchful eyes.
“Aw, baby — that’s what you are, a baby.”
There was no taunt that could have hurt Milly more deeply. She looked up at him pleadingly, when an incident, small but important, as many small incidents are, occurred. Two markedly elegant young women approached and passed, perfuming the air. They bowed and smiled at Delanoy. He swept off his hat with a gesture nicely combining hauteur and suavity. In the light from the apartment-house doorway he looked for the first time that evening as she had seen him on the stage.
“Evelyn’s looking all to the good tonight,” he said, gazing after the two young women with a careless appraisal.
“You don’t mean Evelyn Beverly, of the Follies, do you?”
“Sure,” he replied, rather too quickly; “old friend of mine. She and I was dancing up here in Jack’s studio last night. Come on. Don’t pretend you’ve never been out after dark before. That kind of bluff makes me sick.”
She felt a desperate necessity not to displease him, this godlike being so handsome as he stood frowning down at her. And she would die rather than let him think her less endowed with insouciance than Evelyn Beverly. Meekly, with her lips parted childishly and her flower-blue eyes very wide, she followed him to the elevator.
In spite of Alyse’s contempt for coincidence, it does happen in life. For instance, there was the sprig of lilac in the buttonhole of the negro elevator boy. As Milly stepped out of the elevator this bit of flower, stuck so casually in a buttonhole, sent a sort of message to her brain. On the supper table at home that night there had been a sprig or two from the bush in the back yard. Her mother had always been foolish about that bush, coaxing it, feeding it, ever since Milly could remember. And now the perfume of lilac acted like a reagent in Milly’s subconscious mind. As she watched Dion Delanoy searching his pockets for his key, bending over the keyhole, it was as if her vision for the first time that evening was quite clear.
And nothing can be more merciless than a young girl’s scrutiny. Milly saw the ignoble back of his head, his hair sleeked back with pomade, a slight sprinkling of dandruff on his coat collar, the pinched-in waist of his coat, his commonplace hand, not too clean. He smelled slightly of the barber shop and of toilet water.
She was kept waiting only a few seconds, but in this interval a romantic hero died. liked his necktie. She had a sudden, furious distaste for this cheap stranger, and her heart ached too. She wanted dreadfully to be at home. But she felt helpless; she couldn’t think what to do next or how to get away. Delanoy had at last got the door open. He opened it, turned to her.
And at that instant behind a door at the end of the short hall a woman laughed low and happily.
“Why,” exclaimed Milly, “that sounds exactly like Aunt Jude!”
Judith Todd, when she had left the house and her mother behind her, became as usual a thing with wings on her feet. She flew toward the Subway entrance, her dark eyes eager, her chin outthrust, her tall figure leaning forward as if the waiting to get there was intolerable. Sometimes she took a quick and happy look up at the sky, as a girl may who is hastening to meet a lover.
At Columbus Circle she came up to the surface and walked quickly across to a certain somewhat shabby studio building. Usually she could not reach it quickly enough; but tonight she passed the door twice, and finally stepped into the shadow of another doorway to have it out with herself. She told herself that tonight was not different from any other Tuesday or Thursday night, and she was a fool to be so excited. But all day it had hung over her, a prescience that this was the most important hour of her life. She longed for it and she dreaded it terribly. If it brought her disappointment, it would be no ordinary disappointment; it would mean the death of something in her without which her life would become merely an existence — hope. Tonight she realized that she had never really lost it — hope — and an undying belief in her own genius.
But tonight could kill them both, or it could turn them into strength and glory. She clenched her hands in the pockets of her old serge jacket and set her lips in their lines of endurance.
The colored boy in the elevator smiled at her and eyed the sprig of lilac in her buttonhole. She had taken it from the supper table and completely forgotten it until this instant.
“Looks like summer’s comin’,” he drawled.
She held the flower out to him.
“For luck,” she smiled.
Then at the top floor she went on down the short hall to the door behind which every Tuesday and Thursday night she came to life.
With her hand on the knob, she heard voices within. She shrank back. So, already it was here, the life or death of her hope, waiting there beyond the door. She had expected to have a half hour to herself, to quiet in work this sickening tremor of her heart. Well, nothing for it now but to harden herself for whatever verdict those voices in there would soon utter. She threw her head back defiantly and opened the door.
Three men were in the high, bare studio, standing about a long table. They turned toward her at the sound of her entrance, and one of them, a tall, thin man of forty, with quiet eyes and a sensitive mouth, came quickly forward to meet her. But she looked past him toward the table on which stood ten or twelve little figures, some of them still mere lumps of clay. Not even in this moment could she keep her eyes from them, the objects into which she had poured herself in delight and in suffering.
The tall man, John Richmond, followed her glance with understanding.
“You see, I got them back safely; and these gentlemen asked to meet you.”
He presented them, and at the name of one of them she flushed — Ybarra. She knew him by repute as a Fifth Avenue art dealer whose galleries were noted for the cleverest and most daring of the exhibitions. The second man stood a little without the circle of white light that beat down from overhead. He appeared to her as merely a little grizzled man, and the name, Mr. Purcell, meant nothing to her, until stepping toward the table and thus coming under the light, some feature or gesture arrested her attention sharply. She caught her breath and fixed her eyes on him in a startled stare. George Jean Purcell. She knew him now. She had seen him in his box at the opera one night. A girl sitting next to her in one of the topmost balconies had pointed him out. A fabulously rich man, and a discriminating collector. She had often longed to see the inside of the little white marble gem which was his private museum.
Something like terror invaded her. She had an impulse to gather them up in her arms, those bits of clay which were part of her, to protect them from the eyes of these two men who could command so much of the beauty of the world. She gripped the back of a chair, while a defiant glare came into her bright dark eyes.
The little grizzled man touched one of the clay figures. It was a study, a fantastic interpretation of a famous tenor in one of his most picturesque roles.
“You knew him very well, didn’t you?”
She smiled her fleeting, ironic smile.
“From the top gallery. Once I bribed an usher to let me into the dress circle.”
George Jean Purcell and Ybarra, the art dealer, looked at her sharply.
“My dear young lady,” cried Ybarra, “do you mean to say none of these people sat to you?”
“To me! Why should they? And, anyway,” she added, “I didn’t want them to sit to me. These are not portraits. They’re — bits of what goes on inside of me, I suppose.”
Ybarra started to speak, but Purcell held up his hand. He looked from Judith Todd to the bits of clay on the table. The tallest were perhaps fourteen inches, figures of famous men and women, of little shopgirls, of an ancient hag of a woman, of a blind mail, Fantastic, gay, sinister and pathetic, each one had its authentic breath of life. They had been done with the lightness of touch, the half-bitter whimsicality of a genius that is afraid of itself. And into them there had been poured the hunger and the rebellion of long repression.
George Jean Purcell shot a keen glance from under his gray brows at the woman who stood clutching the back of a chair, trying to keep defiance in her eyes. He noted the old serge suit, carelessly worn, the unfashionable hat; and over and beyond these details he observed the lines of endurance about her mouth, which could not obliterate its humor. He also saw the rather bitter keenness of her dark bright eyes.
“Spinster,” he thought; “iron-bound sense of duty; starving for proper soil to grow in. What miracle was it that let her do these amazing things?” And aloud he said, “How did you happen to wait until now?”
She looked as if she thought the question a little stupid.
“I never had time or a place to work in, where I could do as I liked.”
“You have ties, obligations?”
She smiled without bitterness.
“I have to make a living; and I have a mother with a weak heart, who can’t realize I’ve grown up.”
“You know you have genius?”
Her face became gay with a touch of impish humor.
“I know. It’s God’s little joke with me.”
Purcell chuckled grimly.
“You’re not giving anything away, young lady.” He offered his hand. “I’m going to leave you with Ybarra and John. They’ll tell you what I want you to do. And I hope, for the sake of an old man who treasures beauty wherever he can find it, you will accept their advice.”
Without another glance or word he walked briskly out.
The instant the door closed on him, Ybarra seized her hands with an exuberant Latin gesture.
“Congratulations, my dear young woman! I’ve never known old George Jean to go so far for native talent.”
She looked past him appealingly at John Richmond, her face white.
“What does he mean?”
John Richmond detached Ybarra and himself took her hands and looked into her eyes. “Judith Todd, it means the end of the long road; it means a fair chance at last. You know, don’t you, that when George Jean Purcell puts in an order for an artist’s work, he’s got a pretty canny idea that that artist has a future? Isn’t that so, Ybarra?”
“It has meant just that several times in the past.”
“Very well, that’s that,” said John Richmond. “Now, you’re to finish up a certain number of those figures — yes, yes, we know you can’t afford to have them cast, but Mr. Purcell will attend to that. In return you will sell him six that he chooses. I believe he gave you a check, Ybarra? Perhaps if she sees that she’ll believe us.”
But though they put in her hands the slip of pale-green paper with its figure which exceeded her earnings for a year in the novelty shop, she did not look at it. Instead, her burning gaze clung desperately to John Richmond’s face.
“You’re not fooling, are you? You wouldn’t be so cruel as that, would you?”
Richmond’s eyes blurred. He made a signal to Ybarra, and the dealer slipped out of the room, murmuring something about an engagement.
“Remember,” he said as he went out, “one of my galleries will be ready for your exhibition in the autumn.”
With the sound of the closing door, Judith Todd collapsed upon a chair. She was not the crying sort of woman; tears hurt her as they do a man; but now the floods rushed over her. All the years when she had borne the pain and the wonder of her gift alone, all the years when it had been denied, were in that flood. And John Richmond went down on his knees. He held her racked body close, murmuring his deep sympathy and understanding. But presently, when she had grown calmer, she tried to draw herself away, looking much ashamed.
“I’m a frightful fool, letting go like this; and I haven’t thanked you yet. If you hadn’t lent me this studio, if you hadn’t encouraged me — “
“Don’t, Judith! You know — I’ve told you — ever since that rainy Sunday afternoon in the Museum, when I saw you prowling around the Rodin things like a hungry ghost, and finally got up courage to speak to you because your face had such longing in it — ever since then I’ve believed in you.”
“Yes, you’ve believed in me,” she whispered, as if the wonder of it were something she could never fathom. “The first one to believe in me.”
“But more than that,” he went on in a low voice. “I’ve loved you.”
She shrank a little and put up her hand.
“No, no, that can’t be so! Look at me, a shabby old maid. I know! I haven’t got young nieces for nothing; and I’m considered a bit queer too. That has always been rubbed into me too. But it doesn’t matter now. You don’t need to think you love me, for I have so much now. A chance to work, unashamed — and your friendship. I — I shall be content with that; I don’t ask more than that.”
“Judith, don’t you know it’s a privilege to love you? Don’t you know you’re wonderful, in your courage and strength? Don’t you know you’re beautiful?”
All the light and amazement there was in the world seemed to be in her enormous eyes.
“It is too much,” she whispered, “to be offered love and fame all in one hour. I’m afraid. I’ve never been afraid before, but now I’m scared. I’m afraid of waking up.”
He drew her to her feet.
“Come and look at something real and you’ll know this is no dream.”
Together they stood beside the long table and bent over the little figures so vital and so gay, which were the soul of Judith Todd squeezed out of her by the drab discipline of the years, turning itself at the first touch of encouragement into these vivid and mordant fragments.
“How did you do it?” he cried. “How did you get underneath the surface like that, as if you had stripped off the smooth skin and seen what was rioting underneath, the ridiculous and sublime fantasy of the soul?”
It was then that she laughed, low and happily.
“Because I am like that — all smooth and gray on the surface, and underneath amazing — little colored worlds within worlds, always something dying and something else being born. No one ever is commonplace, underneath. Why, take my family — at the supper table we sit, a dull family in a narrow house in a Harlem street. But if you watch with patience and insight, you see worlds opening up behind each pair of eyes, longings, incredible dreams — ”
She stopped abruptly, her eyes fixed on the door.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I thought I heard my name. Wait, let me look. Someone out there — ”
She threw open the door. A sleek young man dropped his hand from the arm of a girl who sprang forward with a cry of the frankest relief, “Aunt Jude! I want to go home with you.”
The socks and stockings were all darned and they lay neatly folded in a ring around the darning basket. The evening noises in the street outside were stilled, and the narrow house in the Harlem street was quietly breathing, waiting. Alyse yawned, looked at the clock and put on her sad-colored hand-loomed hat. Another evening practically wasted. Of course, she had a sense of having done her duty, and it was nice to spend a peaceful evening with mother. But from the point of view of literature she had got nothing out of it. Families were mostly like that, nice as something to come home to occasionally, but utterly unstimulating to the imagination.
“Mother, do you suppose father could afford to send me to Russia — ”
And just there the telephone rang. It was her father, and he told Allie to tell her mother not to be worried if he was a bit late getting home. The fact was, he chuckled, he and Wally had got arrested.
“Arrested! Father! What for?”
“Well, you see,” he explained, “Wally bid on a package at the express-company auction, and we were taking it away down a side street, sort of dark, you know, when the darned thing dropped and broke. A policeman came snooping along just at that minute and he ran us in.”
“But why, why, father?”
“I guess he thought we were bootleggers, because Wally, for a joke, kind of helped it along, and — ”
“But what was in the package, father?”
“Well, that was a joke on us,” said George Todd, and she could hear his appreciative chuckle over the wire. “You see, there was two dozen bottles of hair tonic in that darned package.”
Alyse hung up the telephone with a disapproving face.
“You might know that if anything happened to father it would be something ridiculous,” she sighed.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now