Alice Adams eText - Chapter XV

Chapter XV

Alice had said that no one who knew either Russell or herself would be likely to see them in the park or upon the dingy street; but although they returned by that same ungenteel thoroughfare they were seen by a person who knew them both. Also, with some surprise on the part of Russell, and something more poignant than surprise for Alice, they saw this person.

All of the dingy street was ugly, but the greater part of it appeared to be honest. The two pedestrians came upon a block or two, however, where it offered suggestions of a less upright character, like a steady enough workingman with a naughty book sticking out of his pocket. Three or four dim shops, a single story in height, exhibited foul signboards, yet fair enough so far as the wording went; one proclaiming a tobacconist, one a junk-dealer, one a dispenser of "soft drinks and cigars." The most credulous would have doubted these signboards; for the craft of the modern tradesman is exerted to lure indoors the passing glance, since if the glance is pleased the feet may follow; but this alleged tobacconist and his neighbours had long been fond of dust on their windows, evidently, and shades were pulled far down on the glass of their doors. Thus the public eye, small of pupil in the light of the open street, was intentionally not invited to the dusky interiors. Something different from mere lack of enterprise was apparent; and the signboards might have been omitted; they were pains thrown away, since it was plain to the world that the business parts of these shops were the brighter back rooms implied by the dark front rooms; and that the commerce there was in perilous new liquors and in dice and rough girls.

Nothing could have been more innocent than the serenity with which these wicked little places revealed themselves for what they were; and, bound by this final tie of guilelessness, they stood together in a row which ended with a companionable barbershop, much like them. Beyond was a series of soot-harried frame two-story houses, once part of a cheerful neighbourhood when the town was middle-aged and settled, and not old and growing. These houses, all carrying the label. "Rooms," had the worried look of vacancy that houses have when they are too full of everybody without being anybody's home; and there was, too, a surreptitious air about them, as if, like the false little shops, they advertised something by concealing it.

One of them--the one next to the barber-shop--had across its front an ample, jig-sawed veranda, where aforetime, no doubt, the father of a family had fanned himself with a palm-leaf fan on Sunday afternoons, watching the surreys go by, and where his daughter listened to mandolins and badinage on starlit evenings; but, although youth still held the veranda, both the youth and the veranda were in decay. The four or five young men who lounged there this afternoon were of a type known to shady pool-parlours. Hats found no favour with them; all of them wore caps; and their tight clothes, apparently from a common source, showed a vivacious fancy for oblique pockets, false belts, and Easter-egg colourings. Another thing common to the group was the expression of eye and mouth; and Alice, in the midst of her other thoughts, had a distasteful thought about this.

The veranda was within a dozen feet of the sidewalk, and as she and her escort came nearer, she took note of the young men, her face hardening a little, even before she suspected there might be a resemblance between them and any one she knew. Then she observed that each of these loungers wore not for the occasion, but as of habit, a look of furtively amused contempt; the mouth smiled to one side as if not to dislodge a cigarette, while the eyes kept languidly superior. All at once Alice was reminded of Walter; and the slight frown caused by this idea had just begun to darken her forehead when Walter himself stepped out of the open door of the house and appeared upon the veranda. Upon his head was a new straw hat, and in his hand was a Malacca stick with an ivory top, for Alice had finally decided against it for herself and had given it to him. His mood was lively: he twirled the stick through his fingers like a drum-major's baton, and whistled loudly.

Moreover, he was indeed accompanied. With him was a thin girl who had made a violent black-and-white poster of herself: black dress, black flimsy boa, black stockings, white slippers, great black hat down upon the black eyes; and beneath the hat a curve of cheek and chin made white as whitewash, and in strong bilateral motion with gum.

The loungers on the veranda were familiars of the pair; hailed them with cacklings; and one began to sing, in a voice all tin:

"Then my skirt, Sal, and me did go Right straight to the moving-pitcher show. OH, you bashful vamp!"

The girl laughed airily. "God, but you guys are wise!" she said.

"Come on, Wallie."

Walter stared at his sister; then grinned faintly, and nodded at Russell as the latter lifted his hat in salutation. Alice uttered an incoherent syllable of exclamation, and, as she began to walk faster, she bit her lip hard, not in order to look wistful, this time, but to help her keep tears of anger from her eyes.

Russell laughed cheerfully. "Your brother certainly seems to have found the place for 'colour' today," he said. "That girl's talk must be full of it."

But Alice had forgotten the colour she herself had used in accounting for Walter's peculiarities, and she did not understand. "What?" she said, huskily.

"Don't you remember telling me about him? How he was going to write, probably, and would go anywhere to pick up types and get them to talk?"

She kept her eyes ahead, and said sharply, "I think his literary tastes scarcely cover this case!"

"Don't be too sure. He didn't look at all disconcerted. He didn't seem to mind your seeing him."

"That's all the worse, isn't it?"

"Why, no," her friend said, genially. "It means he didn't consider that he was engaged in anything out of the way. You can't expect to understand everything boys do at his age; they do all sorts of queer things, and outgrow them. Your brother evidently has a taste for queer people, and very likely he's been at least half sincere when he's made you believe he had a literary motive behind it. We all go through----"

"Thanks, Mr. Russell," she interrupted. "Let's don't say any more."

He looked at her flushed face and enlarged eyes; and he liked her all the better for her indignation: this was how good sisters ought to feel, he thought, failing to understand that most of what she felt was not about Walter. He ventured only a word more. "Try not to mind it so much; it really doesn't amount to anything."

She shook her head, and they went on in silence; she did not look at him again until they stopped before her own house. Then she gave him only one glimpse of her eyes before she looked down. "It's spoiled, isn't it?" she said, in a low voice.

"What's 'spoiled?'"

"Our walk--well, everything. Somehow it always--is."

"'Always is' what?" he asked.

"Spoiled," she said.

He laughed at that; but without looking at him she suddenly offered him her hand, and, as he took it, he felt a hurried, violent pressure upon his fingers, as if she meant to thank him almost passionately for being kind. She was gone before he could speak to her again.

In her room, with the door locked, she did not go to her mirror, but to her bed, flinging herself face down, not caring how far the pillows put her hat awry. Sheer grief had followed her anger; grief for the calamitous end of her bright afternoon, grief for the "end of everything," as she thought then. Nevertheless, she gradually grew more composed, and, when her mother tapped on the door presently, let her in. Mrs. Adams looked at her with quick apprehension.

"Oh, poor child! Wasn't he----"

Alice told her. "You see how it--how it made me look, mama," she quavered, having concluded her narrative. "I'd tried to cover up Walter's awfulness at the dance with that story about his being 'literary,' but no story was big enough to cover this up--and oh! it must make him think I tell stories about other things!"

"No, no, no!" Mrs. Adams protested. "Don't you see? At the worst, all HE could think is that Walter told stories to you about why he likes to be with such dreadful people, and you believed them. That's all HE'D think; don't you see?"

Alice's wet eyes began to show a little hopefulness. "You honestly think it might be that way, mama?"

"Why, from what you've told me he said, I KNOW it's that way. Didn't he say he wanted to come again?"

"N-no," Alice said, uncertainly. "But I think he will. At least I begin to think so now. He----" She stopped.

"From all you tell me, he seems to be a very desirable young man," Mrs. Adams said, primly.

Her daughter was silent for several moments; then new tears gathered upon her downcast lashes. "He's just--dear!" she faltered.

Mrs. Adams nodded. "He's told you he isn't engaged, hasn't he?"

"No. But I know he isn't. Maybe when he first came here he was near it, but I know he's not."

"I guess Mildred Palmer would LIKE him to be, all right!" Mrs. Adams was frank enough to say, rather triumphantly; and Alice, with a lowered head, murmured:

"Anybody--would."

The words were all but inaudible.

"Don't you worry," her mother said, and patted her on the shoulder. "Everything will come out all right; don't you fear, Alice. Can't you see that beside any other girl in town you're just a perfect QUEEN? Do you think any young man that wasn't prejudiced, or something, would need more than just one look to----"

But Alice moved away from the caressing hand. "Never mind, mama. I wonder he looks at me at all. And if he does again, after seeing my brother with those horrible people----"

"Now, now!" Mrs. Adams interrupted, expostulating mournfully. "I'm sure Walter's a GOOD boy----"

"You are?" Alice cried, with a sudden vigour. "You ARE?"

"I'm sure he's GOOD, yes--and if he isn't, it's not his fault. It's mine."

"What nonsense!"

"No, it's true," Mrs. Adams lamented. "I tried to bring him up to be good, God knows; and when he was little he was the best boy I ever saw. When he came from Sunday-school he'd always run to me and we'd go over the lesson together; and he let me come in his room at night to hear his prayers almost until he was sixteen. Most boys won't do that with their mothers--not nearly that long. I tried so hard to bring him up right--but if anything's gone wrong it's my fault."

"How could it be? You've just said----"

"It's because I didn't make your father this--this new step earlier. Then Walter might have had all the advantages that other----"

"Oh, mama, PLEASE!" Alice begged her. "Let's don't go over all that again. Isn't it more important to think what's to be done about him? Is he going to be allowed to go on disgracing us as he does?"

Mrs. Adams sighed profoundly. "I don't know what to do," she confessed, unhappily. "Your father's so upset about--about this new step he's taking--I don't feel as if we ought to----"

"No, no!" Alice cried. "Papa mustn't be distressed with this, on top of everything else. But SOMETHING'S got to be done about Walter."

"What can be?" her mother asked, helplessly. "What can be?"

Alice admitted that she didn't know.

At dinner, an hour later, Walter's habitually veiled glance lifted, now and then, to touch her furtively;--he was waiting, as he would have said, for her to "spring it"; and he had prepared a brief and sincere defense to the effect that he made his own living, and would like to inquire whose business it was to offer intrusive comment upon his private conduct. But she said nothing, while his father and mother were as silent as she. Walter concluded that there was to be no attack, but changed his mind when his father, who ate only a little, and broodingly at that, rose to leave the table and spoke to him.

"Walter," he said, "when you've finished I wish you'd come up to my room. I got something I want to say to you."

Walter shot a hard look at his apathetic sister, then turned to his father. "Make it to-morrow," he said. "This is Satad'y night and I got a date."

"No," Adams said, frowning. "You come up before you go out. It's important."

"All right; I've had all I want to eat," Walter returned. "I got a few minutes. Make it quick."

He followed his father upstairs, and when they were in the room together Adams shut the door, sat down, and began to rub his knees.

"Rheumatism?" the boy inquired, slyly. "That what you want to talk to me about?"

"No." But Adams did not go on; he seemed to be in difficulties for words, and Walter decided to help him.

"Hop ahead and spring it," he said. "Get it off your mind: I'll tell the world I should worry! You aren't goin' to bother ME any, so why bother yourself? Alice hopped home and told you she saw me playin' around with some pretty gay-lookin' berries and you----"

"Alice?" his father said, obviously surprised. "It's nothing about Alice."

"Didn't she tell you----"

"I haven't talked with her all day."

"Oh, I see," Walter said. "She told mother and mother told you."

"No, neither of 'em have told me anything. What was there to tell?"

Walter laughed. "Oh, it's nothin'," he said. "I was just startin' out to buy a girl friend o' mine a rhinestone buckle I lost to her on a bet, this afternoon, and Alice came along with that big Russell fish; and I thought she looked sore. She expects me to like the kind she likes, and I don't like 'em. I thought she'd prob'ly got you all stirred up about it."

"No, no," his father said, peevishly. "I don't know anything about it, and I don't care to know anything about it. I want to talk to you about something important."

Then, as he was again silent, Walter said, "Well, TALK about it; I'm listening."

"It's this," Adams began, heavily. "It's about me going into this glue business. Your mother's told you, hasn't she?"

"She said you were goin' to leave the old place down-town and start a glue factory. That's all I know about it; I got my own affairs to 'tend to."

"Well, this is your affair," his father said, frowning. "You can't stay with Lamb and Company."

Walter looked a little startled. "What you mean, I can't? Why not?"

"You've got to help me," Adams explained slowly; and he frowned more deeply, as if the interview were growing increasingly laborious for him. "It's going to be a big pull to get this business on its feet."

"Yes!" Walter exclaimed with a sharp skepticism. "I should say it was!" He stared at his father incredulously. "Look here; aren't you just a little bit sudden, the way you're goin' about things? You've let mother shove you a little too fast, haven't you? Do you know anything about what it means to set up a new business these days?"

"Yes, I know all about it," Adams said. "About this business, I do."

"How do you?"

"Because I made a long study of it. I'm not afraid of going about it the wrong way; but it's a hard job and you'll have to put in all whatever sense and strength you've got."

Walter began to breathe quickly, and his lips were agitated; then he set them obstinately. "Oh; I will," he said.

"Yes, you will," Adams returned, not noticing that his son's inflection was satiric. "It's going to take every bit of energy in your body, and all the energy I got left in mine, and every cent of the little I've saved, besides something I'll have to raise on this house. I'm going right at it, now I've got to; and you'll have to quit Lamb's by the end of next week."

"Oh, I will?" Walter's voice grew louder, and there was a shrillness in it. "I got to quit Lamb's the end of next week, have I?" He stepped forward, angrily. "Listen!" he said. "I'm not walkin' out o' Lamb's, see? I'm not quittin' down there: I stay with 'em, see?"

Adams looked up at him, astonished. "You'll leave there next Saturday," he said. "I've got to have you."

"You don't anything o' the kind," Walter told him, sharply. "Do you expect to pay me anything?"

"I'd pay you about what you been getting down there."

"Then pay somebody else; I don't know anything about glue. You get somebody else."

"No. You've got to---"

Walter cut him off with the utmost vehemence. "Don't tell me what I got to do! I know what I got to do better'n you, I guess! I stay at Lamb's, see?"

Adams rose angrily. "You'll do what I tell you. You can't stay down there."

"Why can't I?"

"Because I won't let you."

"Listen! Keep on not lettin' me: I'll be there just the same."

At that his father broke into a sour laughter. "THEY won't let you, Walter! They won't have you down there after they find out I'm going."

"Why won't they? You don't think they're goin' to be all shot to pieces over losin' YOU, do you?"

"I tell you they won't let you stay," his father insisted, loudly.

"Why, what do they care whether you go or not?"

"They'll care enough to fire YOU, my boy!"

"Look here, then; show me why."

"They'll do it!"

"Yes," Walter jeered; "you keep sayin' they will, but when I ask you to show me why, you keep sayin' they will! That makes little headway with ME, I can tell you!"

Adams groaned, and, rubbing his head, began to pace the floor. Walter's refusal was something he had not anticipated; and he felt the weakness of his own attempt to meet it: he seemed powerless to do anything but utter angry words, which, as Walter said, made little headway. "Oh, my, my!" he muttered, "OH, my, my!"

Walter, usually sallow, had grown pale: he watched his father narrowly, and now took a sudden resolution. "Look here," he said. "When you say Lamb's is likely to fire me because you're goin' to quit, you talk like the people that have to be locked up. I don't know where you get such things in your head; Lamb and Company won't know you're gone. Listen: I can stay there long as I want to. But I'll tell you what I'll do: make it worth my while and I'll hook up with your old glue factory, after all."

Adams stopped his pacing abruptly, and stared at him. "'Make it worth your while?' What you mean?"

"I got a good use for three hundred dollars right now," Walter said. "Let me have it and I'll quit Lamb's to work for you. Don't let me have it and I SWEAR I won't!"

"Are you crazy?"

"Is everybody crazy that needs three hundred dollars?"

"Yes," Adams said. "They are if they ask ME for it, when I got to stretch every cent I can lay my hands on to make it look like a dollar!"

"You won't do it?"

Adams burst out at him. "You little fool! If I had three hundred dollars to throw away, besides the pay I expected to give you, haven't you got sense enough to see I could hire a man worth three hundred dollars more to me than you'd be? It's a FINE time to ask me for three hundred dollars, isn't it! What FOR? Rhinestone buckles to throw around on your 'girl friends?' Shame on you! Ask me to BRIBE you to help yourself and your own family!"

"I'll give you a last chance," Walter said. "Either you do what I want, or I won't do what you want. Don't ask me again after this, because----"

Adams interrupted him fiercely. "'Ask you again!' Don't worry about that, my boy! All I ask you is to get out o' my room."

"Look here," Walter said, quietly; and his lopsided smile distorted his livid cheek. "Look here: I expect YOU wouldn't give me three hundred dollars to save my life, would you?"

"You make me sick," Adams said, in his bitterness. "Get out of here."

Walter went out, whistling; and Adams drooped into his old chair again as the door closed. "OH, my, my!" he groaned. "Oh, Lordy, Lordy! The way of the transgressor----"