Study Guide

Alice Adams

by Booth Tarkington

Alice Adams eText - Chapter XXIII

Chapter XXIII

Her mother's wailing could still be heard from overhead, though more faintly; and old Charley Lohr was coming down the stairs alone.

He looked at Alice compassionately. "I was just comin' to suggest maybe you'd excuse yourself from your company," he said. "Your mother was bound not to disturb you, and tried her best to keep you from hearin' how she's takin' on, but I thought probably you better see to her."

"Yes, I'll come. What's the matter?"

"Well," he said, "I only stepped over to offer my sympathy and services, as it were. I thought of course you folks knew all about it. Fact is, it was in the evening paper--just a little bit of an item on the back page, of course."

"What is it?"

He coughed. "Well, it ain't anything so terrible," he said. "Fact is, your brother Walter's got in a little trouble--well, I suppose you might call it quite a good deal of trouble. Fact is, he's quite considerable short in his accounts down at Lamb and Company."

Alice ran up the stairs and into her father's room, where Mrs. Adams threw herself into her daughter's arms. "Is he gone?" she sobbed. "He didn't hear me, did he? I tried so hard----"

Alice patted the heaving shoulders her arms enclosed. "No, no," she said. "He didn't hear you--it wouldn't have mattered--he doesn't matter anyway."

"Oh, POOR Walter!" The mother cried. "Oh, the POOR boy! Poor, poor Walter! Poor, poor, poor, POOR----"

"Hush, dear, hush!" Alice tried to soothe her, but the lament could not be abated, and from the other side of the room a repetition in a different spirit was as continuous. Adams paced furiously there, pounding his fist into his left palm as he strode. "The dang boy!" he said. "Dang little fool! Dang idiot! Dang fool! Whyn't he TELL me, the dang little fool?"

"He DID!" Mrs. Adams sobbed. "He DID tell you, and you wouldn't GIVE it to him."

"He DID, did he?" Adams shouted at her. "What he begged me for was money to run away with! He never dreamed of putting back what he took. What the dangnation you talking about--accusing me!"

"He NEEDED it," she said. "He needed it to run away with! How could he expect to LIVE, after he got away, if he didn't have a little money? Oh, poor, poor, POOR Walter! Poor, poor, poor----"

She went back to this repetition; and Adams went back to his own, then paused, seeing his old friend standing in the hallway outside the open door.

"Ah--I'll just be goin', I guess, Virgil," Lohr said. "I don't see as there's any use my tryin' to say any more. I'll do anything you want me to, you understand."

"Wait a minute," Adams said, and, groaning, came and went down the stairs with him. "You say you didn't see the old man at all?"

"No, I don't know a thing about what he's going to do," Lohr said, as they reached the lower floor. "Not a thing. But look here, Virgil, I don't see as this calls for you and your wife to take on so hard about--anyhow not as hard as the way you've started."

"No," Adams gulped. "It always seems that way to the other party that's only looking on!"

"Oh, well, I know that, of course," old Charley returned, soothingly. "But look here, Virgil: they may not catch the boy; they didn't even seem to be sure what train he made, and if they do get him, why, the ole man might decide not to prosecute if----"

"HIM?" Adams cried, interrupting. "Him not prosecute? Why, that's what he's been waiting for, all along! He thinks my boy and me both cheated him! Why, he was just letting Walter walk into a trap! Didn't you say they'd been suspecting him for some time back? Didn't you say they'd been watching him and were just about fixing to arrest him?"

"Yes, I know," said Lohr; "but you can't tell, especially if you raise the money and pay it back."

"Every cent!" Adams vociferated. "Every last penny! I can raise it--I GOT to raise it! I'm going to put a loan on my factory to-morrow. Oh, I'll get it for him, you tell him! Every last penny!"

"Well, ole feller, you just try and get quieted down some now." Charley held out his hand in parting. "You and your wife just quiet down some. You AIN'T the healthiest man in the world, you know, and you already been under quite some strain before this happened. You want to take care of yourself for the sake of your wife and that sweet little girl upstairs, you know. Now, good-night," he finished, stepping out upon the veranda. "You send for me if there's anything I can do."

"Do?" Adams echoed. "There ain't anything ANYBODY can do!" And then, as his old friend went down the path to the sidewalk, he called after him, "You tell him I'll pay him every last cent! Every last, dang, dirty PENNY!"

He slammed the door and went rapidly up the stairs, talking loudly to himself. "Every dang, last, dirty penny! Thinks EVERYBODY in this family wants to steal from him, does he? Thinks we're ALL yellow, does he? I'll show him!" And he came into his own room vociferating, "Every last, dang, dirty penny!"

Mrs. Adams had collapsed, and Alice had put her upon his bed, where she lay tossing convulsively and sobbing, "Oh, POOR Walter!" over and over, but after a time she varied the sorry tune. "Oh, poor Alice!" she moaned, clinging to her daughter's hand. "Oh, poor, POOR Alice to have THIS come on the night of your dinner--just when everything seemed to be going so well--at last--oh, poor, poor, POOR----"

"Hush!" Alice said, sharply. "Don't say 'poor Alice!' I'm all right."

"You MUST be!" her mother cried, clutching her. "You've just GOT to be! ONE of us has got to be all right--surely God wouldn't mind just ONE of us being all right--that wouldn't hurt Him----"

"Hush, hush, mother! Hush!"

But Mrs. Adams only clutched her the more tightly. "He seemed SUCH a nice young man, dearie! He may not see this in the paper--Mr. Lohr said it was just a little bit of an item--he MAY not see it, dearie----"

Then her anguish went back to Walter again; and to his needs as a fugitive--she had meant to repair his underwear, but had postponed doing so, and her neglect now appeared to be a detail as lamentable as the calamity itself. She could neither be stilled upon it, nor herself exhaust its urgings to self-reproach, though she finally took up another theme temporarily. Upon an unusually violent outbreak of her husband's, in denunciation of the runaway, she cried out faintly that he was cruel; and further wearied her broken voice with details of Walter's beauty as a baby, and of his bedtime pieties throughout his infancy.

So the hot night wore on. Three had struck before Mrs. Adams was got to bed; and Alice, returning to her own room, could hear her father's bare feet thudding back and forth after that. "Poor papa!" she whispered in helpless imitation of her mother. "Poor papa! Poor mama! Poor Walter! Poor all of us!"

She fell asleep, after a time, while from across the hall the bare feet still thudded over their changeless route; and she woke at seven, hearing Adams pass her door, shod. In her wrapper she ran out into the hallway and found him descending the stairs.

"Papa!"

"Hush," he said, and looked up at her with reddened eyes. "Don't wake your mother."

"I won't," she whispered. "How about you? You haven't slept any at all!"

"Yes, I did. I got some sleep. I'm going over to the works now. I got to throw some figures together to show the bank. Don't worry: I'll get things fixed up. You go back to bed. Good-bye."

"Wait!" she bade him sharply.

"What for?"

"You've got to have some breakfast."

"Don't want 'ny."

"You wait!" she said, imperiously, and disappeared to return almost at once. "I can cook in my bedroom slippers," she explained, "but I don't believe I could in my bare feet!"

Descending softly, she made him wait in the dining-room until she brought him toast and eggs and coffee. "Eat!" she said. "And I'm going to telephone for a taxicab to take you, if you think you've really got to go."

"No, I'm going to walk--I WANT to walk."

She shook her head anxiously. "You don't look able. You've walked all night."

"No, I didn't," he returned. "I tell you I got some sleep. I got all I wanted anyhow."

"But, papa----"

"Here!" he interrupted, looking up at her suddenly and setting down his cup of coffee. "Look here! What about this Mr. Russell? I forgot all about him. What about him?"

Her lip trembled a little, but she controlled it before she spoke. "Well, what about him, papa?" she asked, calmly enough.

"Well, we could hardly----" Adams paused, frowning heavily. "We could hardly expect he wouldn't hear something about all this."

"Yes; of course he'll hear it, papa."

"Well?"

"Well, what?" she asked, gently.

"You don't think he'd be the--the cheap kind it'd make a difference with, of course."

"Oh, no; he isn't cheap. It won't make any difference with him."

Adams suffered a profound sigh to escape him. "Well--I'm glad of that, anyway."

"The difference," she explained--"the difference was made without his hearing anything about Walter. He doesn't know about THAT yet."

"Well, what does he know about?"

"Only," she said, "about me."

"What you mean by that, Alice?" he asked, helplessly.

"Never mind," she said. "It's nothing beside the real trouble we're in--I'll tell you some time. You eat your eggs and toast; you can't keep going on just coffee."

"I can't eat any eggs and toast," he objected, rising. "I can't."

"Then wait till I can bring you something else."

"No," he said, irritably. "I won't do it! I don't want any dang food! And look here"--he spoke sharply to stop her, as she went toward the telephone--"I don't want any dang taxi, either! You look after your mother when she wakes up. I got to be at WORK!"

And though she followed him to the front door, entreating, he could not be stayed or hindered. He went through the quiet morning streets at a rickety, rapid gait, swinging his old straw hat in his hands, and whispering angrily to himself as he went. His grizzled hair, not trimmed for a month, blew back from his damp forehead in the warm breeze; his reddened eyes stared hard at nothing from under blinking lids; and one side of his face twitched startlingly from time to time;--children might have run from him, or mocked him.

When he had come into that fallen quarter his industry had partly revived and wholly made odorous, a negro woman, leaning upon her whitewashed gate, gazed after him and chuckled for the benefit of a gossiping friend in the next tiny yard. "Oh, good Satan! Wha'ssa matter that ole glue man?"

"Who? Him?" the neighbour inquired. "What he do now?"

"Talkin' to his ole se'f!" the first explained, joyously. "Look like gone distracted--ole glue man!"

Adams's legs had grown more uncertain with his hard walk, and he stumbled heavily as he crossed the baked mud of his broad lot, but cared little for that, was almost unaware of it, in fact. Thus his eyes saw as little as his body felt, and so he failed to observe something that would have given him additional light upon an old phrase that already meant quite enough for him.

There are in the wide world people who have never learned its meaning; but most are either young or beautifully unobservant who remain wholly unaware of the inner poignancies the words convey: "a rain of misfortunes." It is a boiling rain, seemingly whimsical in its choice of spots whereon to fall; and, so far as mortal eye can tell, neither the just nor the unjust may hope to avoid it, or need worry themselves by expecting it. It had selected the Adams family for its scaldings; no question.

The glue-works foreman, standing in the doorway of the brick shed, observed his employer's eccentric approach, and doubtfully stroked a whiskered chin.

"Well, they ain't no putticular use gettin' so upset over it," he said, as Adams came up. "When a thing happens, why, it happens, and that's all there is to it. When a thing's so, why, it's so. All you can do about it is think if there's anything you CAN do; and that's what you better be doin' with this case."

Adams halted, and seemed to gape at him. "What--case?" he said, with difficulty. "Was it in the morning papers, too?"

"No, it ain't in no morning papers. My land! It don't need to be in no papers; look at the SIZE of it!"

"The size of what?"

"Why, great God!" the foreman exclaimed. "He ain't even seen it. Look! Look yonder!"

Adams stared vaguely at the man's outstretched hand and pointing forefinger, then turned and saw a great sign upon the facade of the big factory building across the street. The letters were large enough to be read two blocks away.

"AFTER THE FIFTEENTH OF NEXT MONTH THIS BUILDING WILL BE OCCUPIED BY THE J. A. LAMB LIQUID GLUE CO. INC."

A gray touring-car had just come to rest before the principal entrance of the building, and J. A. Lamb himself descended from it. He glanced over toward the humble rival of his projected great industry, saw his old clerk, and immediately walked across the street and the lot to speak to him.

"Well, Adams," he said, in his husky, cheerful voice, "how's your glue-works?"

Adams uttered an inarticulate sound, and lifted the hand that held his hat as if to make a protective gesture, but failed to carry it out; and his arm sank limp at his side. The foreman, however, seemed to feel that something ought to be said.

"Our glue-works, hell!" he remarked. "I guess we won't HAVE no glue-works over here not very long, if we got to compete with the sized thing you got over there!"

Lamb chuckled. "I kind of had some such notion," he said. "You see, Virgil, I couldn't exactly let you walk off with it like swallering a pat o' butter, now, could I? It didn't look exactly reasonable to expect me to let go like that, now, did it?"

Adams found a half-choked voice somewhere in his throat. "Do you--would you step into my office a minute, Mr. Lamb?"

"Why, certainly I'm willing to have a little talk with you," the old gentleman said, as he followed his former employee indoors, and he added, "I feel a lot more like it than I did before I got THAT up, over yonder, Virgil!"

Adams threw open the door of the rough room he called his office, having as justification for this title little more than the fact that he had a telephone there and a deal table that served as a desk. "Just step into the office, please," he said.

Lamb glanced at the desk, at the kitchen chair before it, at the telephone, and at the partition walls built of old boards, some covered with ancient paint and some merely weatherbeaten, the salvage of a house-wrecker; and he smiled broadly. "So these are your offices, are they?" he asked. "You expect to do quite a business here, I guess, don't you, Virgil?"

Adams turned upon him a stricken and tortured face. "Have you seen Charley Lohr since last night, Mr. Lamb?"

"No; I haven't seen Charley."

"Well, I told him to tell you," Adams began;--"I told him I'd pay you----"

"Pay me what you expect to make out o' glue, you mean, Virgil?"

"No," Adams said, swallowing. "I mean what my boy owes you. That's what I told Charley to tell you. I told him to tell you I'd pay you every last----"

"Well, well!" the old gentleman interrupted, testily. "I don't know anything about that."

"I'm expecting to pay you," Adams went on, swallowing again, painfully. "I was expecting to do it out of a loan I thought I could get on my glue-works."

The old gentleman lifted his frosted eyebrows. "Oh, out o' the GLUE-works? You expected to raise money on the glue-works, did you?"

At that, Adams's agitation increased prodigiously. "How'd you THINK I expected to pay you?" he said. "Did you think I expected to get money on my own old bones?" He slapped himself harshly upon the chest and legs. "Do you think a bank'll lend money on a man's ribs and his broken-down old knee-bones? They won't do it! You got to have some BUSINESS prospects to show 'em, if you haven't got any property nor securities; and what business prospects have I got now, with that sign of yours up over yonder? Why, you don't need to make an OUNCE o' glue; your sign's fixed ME without your doing another lick! THAT'S all you had to do; just put your sign up! You needn't to----"

"Just let me tell you something, Virgil Adams," the old man interrupted, harshly. "I got just one right important thing to tell you before we talk any further business; and that's this: there's some few men in this town made their money in off-colour ways, but there aren't many; and those there are have had to be a darn sight slicker than you know how to be, or ever WILL know how to be! Yes, sir, and they none of them had the little gumption to try to make it out of a man that had the spirit not to let 'em, and the STRENGTH not to let 'em! I know what you thought. 'Here,' you said to yourself, 'here's this ole fool J. A. Lamb; he's kind of worn out and in his second childhood like; I can put it over on him, without his ever----'"

"I did not!" Adams shouted. "A great deal YOU know about my feelings and all what I said to myself! There's one thing I want to tell YOU, and that's what I'm saying to myself NOW, and what my feelings are this MINUTE!"

He struck the table a great blow with his thin fist, and shook the damaged knuckles in the air. "I just want to tell you, whatever I did feel, I don't feel MEAN any more; not to-day, I don't. There's a meaner man in this world than I am, Mr. Lamb!"

"Oh, so you feel better about yourself to-day, do you, Virgil?"

"You bet I do! You worked till you got me where you want me; and I wouldn't do that to another man, no matter what he did to me! I wouldn't----"

"What you talkin' about! How've I 'got you where I want you?'"

"Ain't it plain enough?" Adams cried. "You even got me where I can't raise the money to pay back what my boy owes you! Do you suppose anybody's fool enough to let me have a cent on this business after one look at what you got over there across the road?"

"No, I don't."

"No, you don't," Adams echoed, hoarsely. "What's more, you knew my house was mortgaged, and my----"

"I did not," Lamb interrupted, angrily. "What do I care about your house?"

"What's the use your talking like that?" Adams cried. "You got me where I can't even raise the money to pay what my boy owes the company, so't I can't show any reason to stop the prosecution and keep him out the penitentiary. That's where you worked till you got ME!"

"What!" Lamb shouted. "You accuse me of----"

"'Accuse you?' What am I telling you? Do you think I got no EYES?" And Adams hammered the table again. "Why, you knew the boy was weak----"

"I did not!"

"Listen: you kept him there after you got mad at my leaving the way I did. You kept him there after you suspected him; and you had him watched; you let him go on; just waited to catch him and ruin him!"

"You're crazy!" the old man bellowed. "I didn't know there was anything against the boy till last night. You're CRAZY, I say!"

Adams looked it. With his hair disordered over his haggard forehead and bloodshot eyes; with his bruised hands pounding the table and flying in a hundred wild and absurd gestures, while his feet shuffled constantly to preserve his balance upon staggering legs, he was the picture of a man with a mind gone to rags.

"Maybe I AM crazy!" he cried, his voice breaking and quavering. "Maybe I am, but I wouldn't stand there and taunt a man with it if I'd done to him what you've done to me! Just look at me: I worked all my life for you, and what I did when I quit never harmed you--it didn't make two cents' worth o' difference in your life and it looked like it'd mean all the difference in the world to my family--and now look what you've DONE to me for it! I tell you, Mr. Lamb, there never was a man looked up to another man the way I looked up to you the whole o' my life, but I don't look up to you any more! You think you got a fine day of it now, riding up in your automobile to look at that sign--and then over here at my poor little works that you've ruined. But listen to me just this one last time!" The cracking voice broke into falsetto, and the gesticulating hands fluttered uncontrollably. "Just you listen!" he panted. "You think I did you a bad turn, and now you got me ruined for it, and you got my works ruined, and my family ruined; and if anybody'd 'a' told me this time last year I'd ever say such a thing to you I'd called him a dang liar, but I DO say it: I say you've acted toward me like--like a--a doggone mean--man!"

His voice, exhausted, like his body, was just able to do him this final service; then he sank, crumpled, into the chair by the table, his chin down hard upon his chest.

"I tell you, you're crazy!" Lamb said again. "I never in the world----" But he checked himself, staring in sudden perplexity at his accuser. "Look here!" he said. "What's the matter of you? Have you got another of those----?" He put his hand upon Adams's shoulder, which jerked feebly under the touch.

The old man went to the door and called to the foreman.

"Here!" he said. "Run and tell my chauffeur to bring my car over here. Tell him to drive right up over the sidewalk and across the lot. Tell him to hurry!"

So, it happened, the great J. A. Lamb a second time brought his former clerk home, stricken and almost inanimate.