The Alien Country

THE Boy had come to them so unexpectedly, so, as it were, by accident, that the surprise of it never quite wore off. One afternoon just as they were finishing up the dishes, the apartment bell rang and Miss Rosie went to the door; and there she found him. He took off his hat with embarrassed courtesy and began, “I’ve come to inquire about the room if you don’t mind.”

Miss Rosie looked at him blankly. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Why, is n’t this Suite 19 ?” he asked in a tone of sudden misgiving.

“But we have n’t any rooms,” she replied. The color had come into her cheeks.

At this the Boy looked very miserable. “ I suppose I must have made some mistake,” he apologized. “But I thought I had it right.”

He took a folded copy of the Herald out of his pocket and began hunting for an advertisement. Meantime Miss Rosie looked him over timidly. He was hardly a man yet, — not more than twenty, certainly, with a frank, irresolute smile, and blue eyes whose expression seemed always changing. She noticed how prettily his dark hair curled about his forehead; and it occurred to her that New York must be a very lonely place for a boy like this. And so full of temptations too! Miss Rosie’s personal experience with such matters was slight, to be sure; but she had not needed to come to New York to learn that Cities and Temptations went together.

Then the Boy laughed. “Is n’t that just like me ? ” he said. “ It was West and not East Eighteenth. I’m ever so sorry I’ve made you all this trouble.”

He thrust the paper into his pocket and started precipitately down the stairs; but something made her call him back. “Wait just a minute, please,” she said. “ I ’ll speak to my sister Electa if you ’ll step inside.”

This was a strange suggestion for Rosie to make. She was painfully conscious of the fact herself, suspecting, as she led him into the “front room” that she was doing something not altogether right. Her cheeks flushed pinker, and she disappeared without any further word.

The Boy sat down in a wide old-fashioned rocker which was drawn up beside a little pile of stockings and darning materials on the window ledge. The more he looked about him, the harder it became to remember where he was. The bright-figured “ingrain ” on the floor, the small rosewood table in one corner with its row of pious-looking books, the haircloth lounge, the crayon portraits in gilt frames on the walls,—it all had a transplanted look, as if a clump of petunias or some other homely annual had been set out by mistake in one of the flamboyant flower-beds of a city square.

He wondered who the little lady was. She had such a timid, half-frightened manner, and he had noticed the flush in her face. Despite the fact that she was certainly thirty-five or forty, she reminded him, somehow, of a little girl in the mistaken garb of a grown-up.

But his thoughts had not carried him far before the kitchen door opened and she appeared again, this time not alone. Her sister was of about the same height, but in other respects more amply proportioned, with a round, homelike face, upon which years of responsibility had forced an expression of anxious determination. She wore her hair parted in the middle and drawn back in smooth ripples already touched with gray. She gave one the impression of trying to look much bolder than her heart would give warrant for.

“My sister Rose tells me,” she began, in a tone of business-like formality, “that you were making inquiries about a room and came here by mistake.”

The Boy felt uncomfortable again. “Yes ma’am,” he answered. “It was stupid of me, I know.” He was conscious of being looked over critically. Sister Rose said nothing; but he felt that she was his tacit champion.

“Of course,” went on Miss Electa, “we’ve never thought of such a thing as taking in an outsider; but lately something has happened in our family,” —she was beginning to speak rapidly as though in self-defense, — “and so there are only two of us left now, and as there happened to be a vacant room, we thought perhaps we might be willing to rent it to the right party. What do you think, Rosie ? ”

It was easy to see that when Miss Electa asked advice, she expected confirmation. “I’m sure I don’t know what is right, sister,” replied Rosie, — but the disguise in her tone was thin. “Perhaps we might consider the matter if the young man wished.”

The young man smiled gratefully. They amused him, somehow, this strange little pair. He could n’t help liking them either, and he had already discovered that they were good housekeepers. “You’re ever so kind,” he said, “and I’m sure I’d enjoy it here; but—” he hesitated,— “to tell the truth, I don’t suppose the price would be quite down to my level. You see I have n’t been in the city long, and it’s rather tough, getting along at the start.”

If he had been seeking to plead his cause he could not have made a more strategic remark than that. All the potential mother in Miss Lecky was touched at once. “You poor boy! ” she exclaimed. Then she remembered that a commercial proposition was under discussion and made an effort, without much success, to reassume her formal tone. “ Of course we would have to discuss the matter of price in detail later; but I think we could come to some satisfactory arrangement if — if it seemed best,” she finished, rather at a loss.

The result of the interview was that the Boy, whose name was Ralph Hunter, came to live with the little Norton ladies; and he had not lived with them long, before he became an integral part of the family. It did seem too bad, they said, that he should have to go out to a boarding-house for his meals! They had heard things about the conditions in boarding-houses, — the Temptations must be dreadful there for a young man new to city life; and then, beside, they had got so into the habit of planning meals for three, that it came a great deal more natural than planning for only themselves. Therefore the Boy was established at the family table for two meals a day, occupying the seat that had been brother John’s.

Every one who knew the little Norton ladies was aware that they did not approve of city life; that they had only consented to put up with it those two years because John had needed some one to make a home for him. Just why, after their sudden bereavement, they had stayed on there week after week in the little five-room apartment four flights above the noisy street, they would have found it difficult to explain themselves. Certainly not because New York was an endurable place of residence. The Elevated trains and the Subway — into which neither of them had yet consented to venture, — the crowded streets, the sky-scrapers, and the drunken men, — it was all one nightmare to her, so Miss Lecky never tired of repeating.

“Why, from our home in Sharon,” she liked to say to Mrs. Meggs, the janitress, “we used to look right down across the big meadow and beyond the river, miles and miles, and we never thought that was anything at all.”

“An’ sure I am, ma’am, ye must be awful homesick,” was Mrs. Meggs’s sympathetic comment.

“I sometimes wonder how we get on at all,” Electa would answer wdth a determined sigh.

But the months had passed and still they stayed on. And then the Boy had come, and somehow they had stopped talking about any change. It may be they found a furtive satisfaction in the idle luxuries of running water and bathtubs; and though steam-pipes made a horrible noise sometimes and had an unhealthy smell, yet the five little rooms did have a snug and cheerful look on a stormy day in winter, and there was an undeniable comfort in knowing that you were close to folks, even if you could n’t call them real neighbors.

Every morning, unless the weather was too bad, the little ladies would go forth together to do the day’s marketing on First Avenue. “Of course,” Miss Electa admitted, “they ’re all foreigners on First Avenue, and we never can think of pronouncing their names, and most of them, I suppose, are Romanists. But all the same they do treat you as if you was a human being.”

It was into this life — quiet, regular, uneventful, like a little calm pool along the edge of a torrent — that the Boy found himself so unexpectedly introduced. It was a new and agreeable experience for him. It was pleasant to be sure that when you got home from work at night, tired and dirty, there would be a bathtub of warm water waiting for you and a crash towel on the back of a chair; and you could n’t help being glad, too, that no matter how down on your luck you might happen to be, there was somebody who believed in you absolutely.

Ralph Hunter was only a draughtsman in a downtown city-office, — and he was not even a first-rate draughtsman. The assistant engineer who had charge of his work reported that he was careless and forgetful; but they kept him because he was a nice fellow, and because in the civil service it is easier to keep a man than to get rid of him.

“Never mind, Ralph,” Miss Electa would remark reassuringly, if he ever spoke of being discouraged. “Rosie and I know what you can do, and we don’t mind waiting till the time comes. You must n’t expect people who hardly know you to see what you’re really good for.”

But Ralph was not often discouraged. He had a way of expecting things to take a turn for the better soon. Every time he made a bungling drawing he said to himself that he would know better than to do it again. “ Everybody’s got to make his mistakes,” he said, and there was some satisfaction in the thought.

On Sundays he frequently went with Miss Rosie to the Broadway Tabernacle. It gave him a comfortable feeling of doing something obliging; and anyway, Sunday morning was liable to be a pretty dull time. He did n’t care much about reading, and he hardly ever wrote a letter. The only drawback in the matter of going to church was his fear lest he should happen to run across any of the men from the office on the way. He knew that they would think it a great joke and would never have done with asking him about his Sweet Sixteen. Fortunately one could forget all such disturbing possibilities in sitting down to one of Miss Electa’s Sunday dinners of roast chicken and cranberry-sauce and hot mince pie.

It came about gradually, nevertheless, that as the months passed, the Boy found it less and less convenient to go to church very often. He would be so tired, it appeared, when Sunday came, —after his hard week at the office, — that he would feel as if he must get in as much rest as possible. So he would not get up until eleven o’clock or thereabouts, and then sit in his slippers reading a Sunday paper the janitress had bought for him, while Miss Lecky bustled about the kitchen over preparations for dinner.

“You poor boy!” she would say, noticing the dark circles under his eyes, — “how hard they do work you, don’t they! It’s a perfect shame.”

The Boy blushed very easily, and such remarks always had the effect of bringing the color to his face. “Don’t you worry about me,” he would laugh with an effort at nonchalance. “It’s all a part of the game.”

“It is n’t right, Ralph, for all that,’ she would maintain. “Especially this way they’ve got into of giving you evening work to do. You don’t get enough sleep.”

The loyalty of the little ladies made him feel curiously ill at ease sometimes, — a bit sick of himself. But he found a convenient way of remedying that. “If only they had a little idea of what real life was,” he would say to himself, — “why, then there’d be some hope of making them understand a few things; but they think everybody else is built on the same plan as themselves.”

Ralph, it will be noticed, had progressed from twenty to twenty-two. It is an easy progress. For a number of months now he had been making discoveries about real life. Perceiving that he was a boy no longer, he told himself that he must live a man’s life in a man’s way. Only he wished that the little ladies would not insist upon making sympathetic remarks.

But he liked them as much as ever, with something of the tolerant affection which a world-traveled navigator must feel for his kindred who still mend nets uneventfully on the shore at home. They were so gentle and simple-minded and kind-hearted; and he had a sincere desire to have them happy. Perhaps that was the real reason why he made up his mind to leave them. His affection was sincere enough to make him unwilling to keep on living with them under false colors. It was not quite loyal: it would be better, he concluded, to get out of the whole thing; to find a place to live where no one would take any personal interest in a fellow, and where you could go on your own way without criticism.

Besides, he did not like to face the possibility of the little ladies making discoveries. He did not want to have them disillusionized about him; because he had the feeling somehow that their belief in him meant a great deal in their lives.

A friend of his named Stone, who had a room in Harlem, had been urging him for a long time to move up there. “ What’s the use,” said Stone, “of cooping yourself up like that with two pious little old maids when you might just as well be independent, — free to come and go when you like, and no questions asked.”

Ralph did not like Stone’s manner of speaking of the little ladies; but he recognized the force of his arguments. And Stone was a very good fellow too, in his way: a man who had seen a good deal of real life and was glad to offer himself as a gratuitous guidebook.

Consequently, after a good deal of delay, the Boy made application for a transfer to the Harlem office, and it was granted without reluctance. Then he broke the news one night at supper, — untactfully, brutally, because he did n’t know how else to do it.

“I’ve just found,” he began, “that they’ve transferred me to 125th Street. I’m booked to begin work there next month, so I suppose that means I’ll have to move.”

Both of the little ladies looked at him speechlessly for a moment, and Rosie’s hand went to her throat as if to check a slight cough.

“Ralph, that is n’t really true!” exclaimed Electa weakly.

“That’s the worst of it,” said the Boy. “They’re likely to change the force around like that any time. You never know what’s ahead.”

Rosie leaned forward excitedly. “Did you ever see anything like the way a man gets ordered about nowadays,” she protested. “It’s an outrage! Just as if he did n’t have any rights of his own!”

Ralph felt his face growing red. “ Oh, I would n’t mind it so much,” he went on, in a blundering effort to say the right thing, — “only I hate to think of leaving you people.”

“Leaving us, —” Rosie gasped. “Why, — ” she caught a warning look from Electa and stopped abruptly. Then there was a silence. Electa knew what her sister had been upon the point of saying; but she had suddenly grown aware that it was for the Boy and not for either of them to make any such proposal. And he did not make it.

Instead he sat there in embarrassed silence, jerking at the corners of his napkin.

Finally Miss Lecky managed to break the spell. “It will seem very lonely, Ralph, without you,” she said, in a low voice that almost hurt him.

It was hardly to be expected that he would prove equal to the situation. He glanced nervously at the clock. “Golly,” he exclaimed, “it’s time I was off. Will you please excuse me ?” In another second he had left the room.

The two sisters looked at each other across the table, which seemed empty.

“Rosie,” said Miss Electa rather sharply, “we must n’t make fools of ourselves.” She got up from her chair and began to remove the dishes.

In the weeks that followed, the subject of the Boy’s departure was never brought up at the table. The external regularity of life in Suite 19 was not in the least disturbed, and if the Boy had any suspicion of the truth underneath, it was only because he found himself more than ever the object of delicate attentions. Although it was now May there were waffles for breakfast every morning. At last the end of the month came and still there was no talk of the future. The Boy spent a good part of Decoration Day in packing up his belongings, while the two sisters hovered about, diffidently eager to be of assistance. When dinner was over he took his new straw hat and started out.

“ I ‛ve got to go up to Harlem and make my last arrangements there,” he said. “I’m not sure how soon I can get back.”

“All right, Ralph,” said Miss Lecky. “We won’t worry about you.”

Then the door shut behind him. Electa looked at her sister with a troubled expression and shook her head. “I can’t quite feel comfortable, Rosie,” she said, “over the way we’ve kept our plans all to ourselves and never told the Boy anything. He’s always been so fair with us, — it sort of hurts my conscience. And of course, now — there can’t be any use in putting it off.”

This was the first time either of them had admitted that their silence had been deliberate.

“We’ll tell him to-morrow when we give him the picture,” suggested Rosie.

Electa thought a moment. “Yes,” she agreed, “we’ll tell him to-morrow; but I don’t think we’d better wait about the picture till then. You see he’d want to send that off with his trunk in the morning, and it ought to be packed to-night. I think we’d better put it on his dresser so he ’ll see it as soon as he comes in.”

Rosie brought out the picture from their bedroom and they looked at it together. It was a large photograph of themselves sitting on the steps of the old homestead in the Litchfields. An itinerant camera-man had persuaded them one day five years ago to sit for it; and once persuaded, they had done it conscientiously. Rosie was seated carefully on the top step against the post, her gaze intently fixed upon a bouquet of coriander and sweet alyssum which she held judicially at one side; while Electa stood in the doorway, posed, the photographer had suggested, as if about to welcome a dear friend. The picture had just been framed.

“I think that will please him,” said Miss Lecky, in a gratified tone. “ Pictures brighten up a room so; and even if this was taken quite a while ago, it’s about as good as it ever was.”

They carried it into his room and gave it a conspicuous position on the chiffonier.

After the dinner dishes were washed and put away, Electa always read aloud until bed-time, while Rosie crocheted or did embroidery. To-night the reading did not go very well. Still it was probably better than doing nothing. At ten o’clock Electa was just shutting the book at a good breaking-off place, when Rosie suddenly remembered that they had forgotten to get any strawberries for the Boy’s breakfast. The next to the last breakfast that he would have with them, too! She spoke of it to her sister.

“I suppose,” she ventured timidly, “we might find some even now on First Avenue.”

“What are you thinking of, child!” exclaimed Miss Electa, reproachfully. “You surely don’t want to go out at this time of night ”

“ Of course I did n’t mean that,” apologized Rosie. “I was thinking we could get them before breakfast to-morrow, only he likes them better just out of the refrigerator.”

“Well, I suppose you won’t be happy now till you go, since you’ve got the idea in your head. Put on your things. We’d better get it done before it’s any later.” When Electa did something which her principles disapproved, she called it “humoring Rosie.” But since the accident they had not once been out so late as this. The city at night — that is to say, after half-past eight — was an unknown and alien country, full of dangers.

Hastily they put on their white shawls and little black hats and set forth, clinging to each other for reassurance. City streets have a strange look under the flare and shadows of arc lights. Their shortest route would have been diagonally through the square; but instinctively they avoided it. It always gave one the feeling of intruding, Miss Rosie had once said, when one walked by the park benches of a warm evening. So they went along the end of the square instead.

With great relief they found that Pietro’s stall was still open. The black-eyed little Sicilian greeted them enthusiastically. “But the hour !” he added. “It ees not ever like dis for you’s ladies.”

Miss Electa carefully selected her quart of berries. “What a lot of people there are on the streets,” she said. “ Don’t they ever go to bed at all ? ”

“Bed, mees ! ” His smile showed all his white teeth. “For us here the night only begin.”

Miss Electa sighed. “I never can get used to the way these city people live,” she said to her sister as they set out once more for home. “It don’t seem right to me. What was the night made for anyway ? Sometimes I’ve thought I’d speak to Ralph about it, because I know he needs more sleep; but I don’t like to preach to him, and besides, I suppose when you’re in Rome you must do like the Romans do.”

Electa rather plumed herself upon her liberal-mindedness. “When you’ve had as much experience with life as I have, Rosie,” she would say, “you’ll see that it don’t pay to be too sure about anything but your own duty.”

They returned home through the park, for a group of noisy boys had gathered on the corner. It was a very warm night, and Stuyvesant Square teemed with its usual summer population. Complacent German matrons from Avenue A sat in ample comfort on the high-lighted central benches near the fountain, while their flocks of young ones raced noisily about the open pavement. But in order to cross the square from any of its corners, one must pass by the less illuminated benches, and these were occupied too, but not by German housewives.

The Norton ladies dropped their eyes modestly as they passed, a little ashamed in the presence of what they had been taught to look upon as a kind of sacred mystery. There was something unabashed about city people. They seemed to know no respect for times and seasons. Miss Electa wondered who these girls’ mothers were that they should allow them to be out like this, and so late, too.

“I suppose it may be all right in its way,” she whispered incredulously, — “living as they do in such quarters; but I don’t like to see such things go on in public and never did. It don’t seem refined.”

The words had hardly left her lips, when she felt Rosie’s hand suddenly clutch her arm. She heard a little halfsuppressed gasp, too, and felt her shrink back as if from something that had terrified her.

Instinctively Electa’s eyes turned to the farther side of the path where the benches were, and then she grasped Rosie’s hand, and they fled silently, without exchanging a look, to the outer gate. She felt Rosie’s arm trembling. She wanted to speak; but for the moment no words would come. Up the four long flights they hastened, hardly feeling the stairs under their feet. It took a long time to get the key into its lock. But at last they were there, at home once more, inhabitants of their own particular world.

Rosie sat down on the edge of the haircloth lounge and began unsteadily to draw off her silk mitts. She kept her eyes on her hands; but Electa saw her lips quivering and noticed how the color had gone out of her cheeks. Still neither spoke.

Then Electa went into the Boy’s room and brought out the photograph. “There’s no use in giving him this — not now,” she said. Her voice had a curiously impersonal and far-away sound.

She took it into their bedroom and laid it in the bottom drawer of the old-fashioned mahogany dresser.

“Thank you,” said Rosie, without looking up.

A few minutes later they went to bed. But it was impossible to sleep. The night was breathless and full of street noises. Once a crowd of rowdies passed under the window singing. Lecky reached across the bed and put her hand lightly on Rosie’s shoulder. “Rose,” she whispered, “do you think Ralph knew it was us?”

“I’m sure he did. He — he tried to keep us from seeing him.”

There was a long silence.

“I don’t see why he did n’t want us to know,” said Electa at last with a baffled sigh. “We never tried to interfere with what he did.”

“ I’m sure it was n’t that,” said Rosie. “But perhaps — he might have thought we would n’t understand. You’d better tell him, Lecky, to-morrow, that it’s all right.”

They did not speak again that night, although a couple of hours later when the Boy came in, Electa’s hand found her sister’s and held it silently for a minute.

Ralph was not at breakfast the next morning. He had gone out quietly at six o’clock, leaving a note behind him to the effect that, as it was his last day in the downtown office, he wanted to finish up a lot of work and must get in as much extra time as he could. “I will be back for dinner, though,” he ended.

He kept his word. He knew that he must. He would not let them think he was a coward, at all events. He was going to face it out and have it over with.

The little room which he had occupied for two years seemed strangely empty as he entered it. His trunk had gone. The narrow white bed, the fresh cover on the washstand, the dustless chiffonier — a feeling like homesickness came over him as he looked about him, and a sort of regret for the days when he had been able to live there without being ashamed. It did not occur to the Boy that he might seek to recall the past into being. Having undertaken to live a man’s life, he had no thought of giving it up. But the old times seemed suddenly very sweet, and in the presence of the fresh little room with its muslin curtains, he looked back upon them with longing.

“Ralph, dinner is ready.” It was Miss Electa’s voice from the other side of the door.

To walk out into the dining-room just as if this night were like other nights cost an effort. He succeeded pretty well. He sauntered up to the table with his usual gayly-formal “Good-evening, ladies,” and seated himself.

All three bowed their heads for a silent moment, and then Electa brought from the refrigerator a large pitcher of lemonade in which several strawberries floated blithely. “Something very special,” she said, with a little laugh, “for the last night.”

They all tried to laugh, but it sounded queerly; and then the conversation failed. Nobody seemed to know quite what to say next. The Boy noticed out of the corner of his eye that Miss Rosie’s cheeks were pink and that she hardly touched her food ; only now and then she would take a little sip from her glass of lemonade and then smile nervously, as if sharing with passive politeness in the ordinary small-talk of the dinner-table.

Miss Electa busied herself ostensibly with preparing some French dressing for the lettuce. The small business of an ordinary meal — the serving of the dishes, the passing of plates, the filling of the glasses— assumed undue conspicuousness from the fact that it was the only bulwark against a silence which every one dreaded.

“Rosie,” said Miss Electa anxiously, “you look ill. Don’t you think you’d better go and lie down a while in our room ? ”

The Boy had not looked at her directly before; but now his eyes met hers involuntarily, and he noticed two tears quivering on their lids. She rose hastily from her chair and hurried out of the room without a word. He felt the blood burning up to his temples.

There was a moment of intolerable silence. “Ralph,” began Miss Electa at last, looking at him very bravely, “I’ve got to speak to you some time, and I suppose this is my chance. Sister and I are planning to go back to Sharon in two weeks. We did n’t tell you before because we — because it seemed easier somehow not to. But we want to ask your pardon for keeping it to ourselves.”

The Boy started. “Why, Miss —”

“That’s not all,” she interrupted. Her voice was beginning to tremble; but she felt that it was her duty to speak. “There’s something else.”

Then she looked at him helplessly and lost her words. Before the Boy’s mind flashed the picture of the previous night, — the two timid little women hurrying down the path under the trees, the sudden look of recognition in Rosie’s face, and the way she had shrunk back against her sister. All day long he had kept hearing that little gasping sob of hers, and had said to himself in the pity of self-accusation, “She’s always done so much to make a fellow happy, it must have been pretty tough to find out all of a sudden he was that sort!”

But Electa had found her voice again. “Yes, there’s something else,” she was saying. “ It seems to us as if we had n’t quite understood each other, Ralph, and we can’t bear to have you go off— like this, and everything, without having you know that we do understand — now — and that — that we ’re very glad indeed — and we hope you ’ll be so very, very happy together.”

For a second the Boy’s mind groped blindly; then in a flash he saw what she meant — and his lips said, “Thank you, Miss Lecky.”

“And now,” she went on tremulously, — “that we do know about it, we’re so sorry that we’re not going to be in the city any longer — because — Don’t you see, Ralph, if you’d only told us, we could have asked her in to dinner sometimes

— and then — afterwards, you could have sat in the parlor together, while we did the dishes.”