SHE was born five blocks from Fifth Avenue. They were long blocks, even in those days, leading down into another world, a humble gossipy region of cheap frame houses, close to the North River docks.
At the age of eight she was already marked by two deep traits: an utter contempt for all the small girls on her block, and a love for her dolls, so intense that even the solemn wee matrons on neighboring doorsteps frowned disapprovingly, said she was spoiling her children. Once, when her mother noticed a blissful dreamy look on her face, and asked her what it was all about, she made this remarkable statement: —
“I’m going to have nine children! One boy and eight girls. And when they all have the measles at once, what on earth am I going to do ? Bless their little hearts! ” And she plunged again into the ecstatic future.
Her name was Bess. She was thin and dark, and she had a lofty little nose. She had two dolls, and both were prim undeniable ladies.
Her sister Sally, who was light, curlyheaded, freckled, and stout, had only one doll, a jovial unkempt rag affair whose life was spent on tops of sheds. Sally was a tomboy. She could walk the most rickety fences, she always led one army in the game of “ Prisoner’s Base.” She called her sister Bess “ stuck up,” and often challenged her to fight.
As the years passed, and Bess regretfully laid aside her dolls, she transferred her care to babies. She became a volunteer nurse, gladly accepting the infant brothers and sisters of Sally’s chums, who were delighted to be so easily rid of their burdens. The neighborhood’s babies were dumped at her feet; and selecting as her favorites three of the feminine sex, with infinite patience and tact she strove to bring them up “ genteel.”
But when, as this stage passed in its turn, all three of her children, despite her grieved remonstrance, became jolly recruits to Sally’s gang, Bess sternly renounced the whole vulgar scampering world. She drew into herself and began, slowly at first but with a fast deepening hunger, to read what were known as “ society novels.” They were bound in paper, and could be purchased secondhand, some for ten cents, others for seven.
She was fifteen now, and the care she bestowed on her looks and dress was not in vain. Little by little, her sister Sally’s oldest male friends, office-boys, shrewd men of the world, began to cast not unromantic glances. But Bess scorned them all. The more she read, the more bright and clear did her visions become.
At seventeen she took her place behind the glove counter of a Sixth Avenue department store. There, as the years drew on, working hard to please, and watching her wealthier customers close, by degrees she caught the details of their dress, their manner of walking, standing, and sitting, their facial expressions, the very tones of their voices. By anxious planning, keeping to the simplest styles, she achieved what she herself modestly called “ an across-the-street imitation.” In the newspapers she read the society columns, and grew so well versed in society gossip that she could smile amusedly at the mistakes which were made by some of her colleagues, equally eager but not half so clever as herself.
At twenty-one she became engaged to the assistant floor-walker of her department.
Despite all her resolute isolation since the days of her “ children,” Bess had not lost that old fierce hunger for human affection. And Jimmy, this dapper lover of hers, was so thoroughly clean and honest and safe, so deeply imbued with the same ambitiou as hers, and above all so headover-heels in love, so proud of this spruce, quiet lady of his, so anxious to please her, that in the weeks that followed, the gay theatre evenings, the long delighted plans for the future and talks about the great people above them, she grew radiantly happy. And in her own joy, she felt with a sudden sting of remorse that she had neglected her sister. She tried to see more of Sally, gave delicate hints as to manners and dress, even offered to introduce her to some of the floor-walker’s friends. And when Sally laughed in her face, and said that she had a “ beau ” of her own, a common pilot, whose ignoble “ job ” it was to bring in ocean liners, even then Bess managed to conceal the shock it gave her, smiled forgivingly, turned her attention to her old father (her mother had died), and strove in every possible way to make the break easy. For she felt that it was a break, a gap of tremendous proportions.
At the wedding, standing beside her husband, who was more dapper than ever; arrayed in a spick-and-span frock suit, she beamed upon all the family friends in such a gracious, well-bred, affable way, that the neighborhood buzzed wrathfully for one entire week, and frankly told their good chum Sal that her sister was a hopeless snob.
Bess never heard of this. She had betaken herself to her climbing.
She was not blind. Long ago she had seen the absurdity of hoping to reach the great goal at the top. But in her glovecounter days she had watched the procession toward that goal, a procession of thousands, each with more or less wealth, each with more or less aptness in imitating the clothes, the manners, and speech of the great ones. At least so they seemed to Bess. For what else could they be trying to do? What else could a real lady want in life ? To get into the procession, to play the game, to struggle up as far as one could — this made life worth living.
To begin with, money must be had. Her own earnings had been spent, week by week, to the last penny — on clothes. So in her little husband’s desperate effort to rise, Bess was a staunch, untiring helper. In the four years of work in his department, her quick eye had not been idle; she went there often now; she racked her brains for possible ways of augmenting the sales. At night they had long, eager discussions. And when, as a result of all this, Jimmy’s commissions were slowly increased, his admiring love for his wife deepened to blind adoration.
Still, the rise was painfully slow, and meanwhile she made the most of their income. After weeks of searching, she had chosen a small flat, dark and sunless by day but making a fairly good showing at night, — and only three blocks from the Avenue. Jimmy’s greatest pleasure in life had been to go to the theatre twice every week. Such delights were now sternly suppressed, and the money went into “ entertaining.”
The first entertainments were awkward affairs, for Jimmy had but a meagre assortment of friends. But her reading helped her. Years ago she had discarded the paper novels, smiling at the gross ignorance they displayed. In their place she studied a far more practical book, The Art of Life in Décolleté. From this she had taken the hint that where money and social assurance are lacking, “ a little Bohemian touch ” may often save the evening. And so it did. Her Sundaynight suppers were not only much less expensive than dinners, but they allowed a certain jovial laxity in dress, manners, and speech, most reassuring to guests whose scant incomes and knowledge of what was correct kept them constantly fearful of “ making a break.” She carried it off with a spirit and dash so unlike her old accustomed self that it would have amazed her sister Sal. And only now and then, by a smile, a glance, some careless remark, she reminded them all that this boisterous fun was really only make-believe, and that behind every guest was a kind of a Newport background.
The weekly soirées had swift success. And as the adoring Jimmy, swelling with hope and pride, worked valiantly to gather acquaintances of a “ tonier ” grade, and some of these consented to come, and came, and were charmed by his affable wife, — then little by little, reaching cautiously for the next rung on the ladder, feeling her way, taking time to be sure of her hold, she began the process of “ weeding out.” What quiet exultation ! The journey had begun.
About this time, her sister Sally married the pilot. And at the wedding, deep under the amused pity Bess felt as she watched uproarious jollity, not make-believe here but shamelessly real, came again that quiet sensation. How far she had already climbed!
Five years passed.
Bess was twenty-seven, Jimmy twentynine. And although both looked somewhat thin and worn from overwork and the hiding of work, over-scrimping, overscheming, and even at times so bored that a careless observer might have said their eyes looked into a great dreary emptiness in place of a human world, the observer would have been wrong. They both believed in their struggle, in fact saw nothing else. They had climbed safely through several weedings-out, were still watching and working bravely, patiently on.
Jimmy had aged, grown carefully genial. In the five years, twice he had been sick, but had kept himself up and about by sheer grit. And by his own efforts and his wife’s he had forced his earnings up to over a hundred dollars a month.
Then something amazing happened. In the space of one year he saw this wonderful wife of his change, change in a way that left little Jimmy humbled, staggered, dazed. A boy was born.
Into the pretense of those sunless rooms the reality of life seemed to flash with a blinding power, seemed for a time to sweep out all the shams and the schemings. No more “entertaining” now. Lucky the excuse they had, for they needed every cent. As Bess grew slowly stronger, Jim spent long evenings by her side. And though little was said, watching her face sleeping and waking, for the first time he felt the second inborn passion of her life. Sometimes the contrast between this and the other bore him up into another world — almost. But the happiness was too simple, strange. He wondered if he were dreaming.
The awakening came at last, but only after another year’s delay. And what a distance had been lost. Not only had “ friends ” climbed out of their reach. Jimmy seemed somehow to have reached the top notch of his power. During the dream, eager to give Bess and the boy every comfort he could find, he had gone into debt. Enthralled as she was in her new motherhood, Bess had paid no heed. He had borrowed more and more. And now the burden weighed like lead.
Once awakened, rack her brains as she would, appeal as she did to his ambition, his love for her and the child, by every means she could think of — it was all in vain. Jimmy worked nights till the debt was paid off. But that took another precious two years. And it left him with just enough vigor to keep the position to which he had climbed.
From the point of view of the ladder, that boy had been a grave mistake.
But as Bess thought it out, over the cradle, she decided otherwise. Although she had changed, grown half real and suddenly older, she took up again her visions of grandeur, she valiantly struggled for what she had lost; and regaining a part, she resumed her climbing — only now at a slower pace. Her eyes were fixed on a time far ahead. That old passion of hers had not been lost, but only harnessed fast to the new, postponed for one generation, transferred to Jimmy Junior.
A woman now of thirty-one, with something strongly magnetic in her dark slender face and firm, smiling eyes, she jealously watched his growth, striving to guard him from everything “ vulgar ” — to an extent at times that made even the correct Jimmy Senior smile.
She was his only chum; for the few of her friends who had children were scattered far over the city and had no nurses to take them about. So up in the Park in fair weather, and again in the tiny nursery which she had made at home, she “ played ” nurse: laughed and scolded and punished and petted him, as she had done to three other urchins twenty years before, in the endless striving to bring him up “ right.”
She was intensely happy. Only, as in the days long ago, there was one ominous shadow.
Bess had kept up, by occasional stiff duty calls, her relations with her sister. When the boy was born, the motherly Sally, once so disdainful of dolls, but now the fond mother of four lively youngsters. had suddenly smothered old resentments, warmed to the little newcomer. And in the first five years of his life, she had been so kind and helpful (scenting the tragedy in the flat), that Bess could do no less than accept at last the warm invitations. She took him one Saturday afternoon to his aunt’s frame house down by the docks, the same battered old home where Bess had been born.
And the wee Jimmy, so shy and solemn at first with his awkward society manners, secretly scared and breathless as he watched the rough romps of his cousins, but mustering courage at last and joining in, went all at once wild with joy.
He barely slept that night. He talked of it excitedly all the next day and the next, and repeatedly through the week. When his mother tried to omit the next visit, he pleaded so hard that she could not resist. And for another blissful Saturday afternoon he tasted again the forbidden fruit. From attic to cellar they scampered and shrieked, led on by Sally the Second. Jimmy’s childhood was begun!
There was no stopping it now. “ Aunt Sally’s ” became the home of his dreams, those weekly jubilees like so many Christmas Eves.
As Jimmy happily dreamed aloud, his mother’s jealousy deepened. She carefully planned all sorts of household mishaps to prevent her taking him to his aunt’s. But Sally the First, recalling her own old tomboy days, and pitying tiny Jim in his struggle, determined that he should have his fling. She made plans of her own. And Jim made plans. And the two became allies.
Noticing this with sudden alarm, his mother gave up her obstructions and tried another course. How were “ well-bred ” boys amused ? She consulted her friends, scrimped harder, saved, bought many enticing toys and games.
And Jimmy was delighted. To her vast relief, he played with them by the hour. And then, choosing the best, he took them along to “ Aunt Sally’s,” where they were received with shouts of glee and played into wrecks in one afternoon.
She took him once to the theatre. Jim watched the performance with shining eyes. And at “ Aunt Sally’s ” that week, with the help of his cousins, he gave a “ show ” that made the other one look like a ghost.
She took him to the country, taxed her prim imagination to people the woods with fairies, giants, tigers, bears. And later, at “ Aunt Sally’s,” he led a bear hunt over the sheds, and nearly broke his leg.
Once when he gleefully told of a romp in the streets that made Bess think of the days gone by, she sternly forbade him to play with any but his cousins. But when on the next visit he tried to obey, his cousins and their “ gang ” promptly chased him home. He stayed away the next week. The thought of his shame brought silent scowling spells. He said nothing, but she could feel that he blamed her. And as the second week of exile drew to an end, things grew more and more strained, till she gave in and told him to go. Tears came in her eyes, she held him tight, and begged him not to behave like a “ micky.” And Jim, in a tumult of love and wrath, feeling vaguely that something big ought to be done, promised in choking tones that he would “ lick ’em all! ”
The years went by. Jim grew up, thin, wiry, working and playing alike with a nervous intensity that kept him near the head of his class at the public school and a leader in play hours. He still went often to Aunt Sally’s. But, at home in the evenings, his mother helped him study, read with him aloud; and as that boisterous stage, of which she knew so little, passed, she began again to feel her ground, and the two drew steadily closer.
In school, and later in high school, each time that he carried off honors, his mother was so delighted, celebrated the event by such a feast in the little flat, that Jim worked harder and still harder.
She began to dream of college, one of the great universities where the sons of gentlemen went, where he might make “ useful ” friends. To gather the money to send him, she worked for a Woman’s Exchange, sewing, embroidering, making preserves, managing somehow to hide it all from Jim and his father.
But this was painfully slow. And long before she was ready to unfold her plan, Jim found it out, and refused to touch a penny.
“ Look here, mother,” he said indignantly, “ I’m eighteen now. Isn’t it about time I supported myself ? You bet it is! I thought so long ago. I’ve been trying to plan things out so I could, and I’ve got a scheme at last! ”
He told of the plan in minute detail, with a keen relish. He had found achance to work half the day, so earning his share of their living expenses. The rest of his time, for the next three years, he meant to put in at the free City College.
“But Jim!” cried his mother, her face blank with disappointment. “The free City College! Why — what — what chance will you have—tomake friends ?”
Jim smiled grimly.
“ The way it looks now,” he said, “ there won’t be much of a chance for anything but grind. I’ll be lucky if I can skin through at all. You see, mother, it’s the scientific course I’m after. I want to be an engineer.”
“An engineer! Jimmy!” She caught her breath. When she spoke again, her voice was almost a whisper: “ What on earth — ”
Jim’s puzzled stare suddenly cleared. He started to laugh, but stopped short at sight of her face.
“ No, little mother,” he said, with all the grave protecting tenderness of his youthful age, “ I don’t mean that I’ll spend all my life in bad-smelling overalls up in the cab of an engine. The kind of engineer I mean is different.”
He spent the rest of the evening in glowing accounts of tremendous achievements, of men grown famous in building of ships, tunnels, skyscrapers, and bridges.
She listened in deep relief. And when later she learned that engineers of this kind even found their way sometimes to the great goal at the top of the ladder, she gave an eager assent.
In the years that followed, she set her mind fiercely upon his success. As he mounted by slow degrees up into the unknown regions of higher mathematics, where she could not hope to follow, she still watched his course with such unflagging zeal, her anxiety so plain, her happiness so deep at each advance he made, that Jim leaned on her more and more, gradually dropped “ Aunt Sally’s ” out of his life, worked on with increasing intensity.
In the spring of the third year, he broke down, and lay for five weeks a nervous wreck in bed.
At the end of that time the doctor told her that if her son were to be any good as a worker again, he must spend the summer in life out of doors.
The illness had taken all their scant savings. The constant worry and loss of sleep had severely taxed her strength. But with a grim resolve that Jim should have that summer’s vacation in spite of it all, she began a desperate hunt for work. She found it at last, began again in secret, worked on through May and part of June, — and then she in her turn broke under the strain, was taken with brain fever.
It was over a month before consciousness returned.
She lay on a hospital bed, and Jim was standing beside her. Too weak to move even a finger, she lay a long time staring up, her mind groping. A troubled look came in her eyes.
“ Why, Jim,” she whispered, “ how are you getting that — ”
“ Now, dearest,” he said soothingly, “ you must n’t worry. You’ve done too much of that. That money you saved, I used it — on a vacation. Can’t you see ? Look — how strong I’m getting.”
She noticed the wholesome color on his cheeks, smiled happily, closed her eyes. “ My money — mine,” she thought. She drew a long sigh of utter content, dropped into a dreamless sleep.
It was not until three weeks later, when he had taken her to a small seaside place and the rough salt air was beginning to bring back her strength, that she began to question him more closely. He paid her only brief visits of a few hours each. Where was he in the time between ?
At last the truth came out. There had been no vacation. His uncle, who was now third officer on one of the big Sound steamers, had helped Jim to get a job on the boat. And the salt-water life had worked wonders.
“ A job ” — and with his uncle. It sounded suspiciously vulgar. She pressed her question further. Was he an officer too ? Jim laughed. Not yet. Then came a horrible thought. A cabin steward ? A waiter? No. Then what did he do ? He “ just worked around on the decks.”
As she stared at him, her face grew slowly red.
“ Oh — son! ”
“ Oh — son! ” he repeated, his underlip twitching. “Now, mother, be sensible. — Don’t look at me like that! This is n’t my funeral, not by a long shot! It’s making a man of me!”
“ A common — deck-hand.”
“ Yes, but a deck-hand is one of the healthiest critturs alive! And that’s what I want, is n’t it, strength enough so I’ll never break down again.”
“ Yes,” she admitted. Her face brightened. “ But Jim,” she added, pleadingly, “ you’ll soon be strong enough to stop, won’t you ? ”
This hope cheered her through the next few weeks. She returned to the city soon, for she was unwilling to use any more of his wages. To her friends at home she said that her son was “ roughing it, under doctor’s orders.” And in increasing anxiety she waited till the roughing should be ended.
“ He certainly looks rough enough,” she thought. He certainly did. Week by week his face grew darker tanned, the skin more coarse, with even a scar on his forehead. His hands she could feel growing constantly harder, more calloused. His chest was broadening by degrees, and into his voice came a ring it had never had before. His appetite was frightful. Rough enough, indeed! Even his talk, his interests, seemed to be more and more of the sea.
The autumn advanced, and still he did not stop. He evaded her questions. He had but two nights a week ashore, and even these he spent absorbed in ponderous books, of which she could make nothing.
Late one night in December, she noticed a gleam of light from the crack beneath his bedroom door. She went in. He was sitting up in bed, his chin in his hands, scowling down over one of those books.
“Jim!” she asked sharply. “What are you reading? ”
“ Navigation,” he said simply. Her face set in a puzzled frown.
“ But, son! I thought you were only on that boat to get back your health! ” Her lip curled. “ Are n’t you about healthy enough ? ”
“ Well, mother,” he cried impatiently, “ suppose I am. Is it a crime to be healthy ? — Please don’t look so worried. Where’s the harm ? I never knew what it was to feel like this. You never knew. What a lot I’d give if you had! You’d understand then. I love the salt air, the waves at night, the whole glorious business! I know all the lighthouses now, I’m learning something from charts. The whole ocean job seems to kind of take hold in a way nothing else ever has. That’s all. Where’s the harm?”
“ You mean,” she asked slowly, “ you’re going to be just a sailor ? ”
“No, no — why, mother, there’s no end to the different kinds of work on one of these big boats. Some of ’em, the most important, belong to an engineer. And that’s where I come in. I’m beginning low of course, till I get hold. But can’t you see, no matter what branch of engineering I’d gone into, it would have been the same. Not having a pull, I’d have had to begin at the bottom! Can’t you see ? ”
Slowly his mother turned to the door.
“ I’m afraid I can’t, Jim,” she said. “ Not yet. I’ll try to think it out.”
She said little about it that winter. The struggle to readjust herself was hard.
How long the old ladder seemed now, the top how hopelessly distant, receding high into the clouds. Her mind traveled back over the last thirty years, years of unceasing struggle. She saw here and there the mistakes she had made, and bitterly she blamed herself for not having managed better. What had she done for Jim ? What kind of a start had she given him ? “ No pull,” he had said. None at all. And the best part of her life, the vital part, was already gone.
She turned to her husband, but found little comfort there. Jimmy Senior was kind, he did his best to raise her hopes. But in the small flat he had long ago been relegated to a third place. The knowledge that in his wife’s eyes he was a failure, had brought a humility which not all his gay little worldliness could conceal. Besides, he had been badly frightened by that desperate illness of hers. He felt small, weak; he was already growing stooped; his hair was slightly tinged with gray. And his evident anxiety for his son’s swift success as a breadwinner was by no means reassuring.
And Sally’s husband — what a contrast! This was the bitterest pill of all. He, the common pilot, was a ship officer, high over Jim. She imagined the triumph Sally must feel. She knew instinctively that during her illness Jim had consulted his aunt, that Sally must have arranged it all, the hospital, the “ job.” And was she not now doing her best to plant in him this dangerous love of the sea ? Bess imagined all this to herself, though she never went to her sister’s house, and when Sally came to the flat, “ to pat herself over all she had done,” the reception Bess gave her was frigid. Coldest of all when Sally tried, in what seemed the kindest, most patient manner, to cheer her sister by the hope that some day Jimmy might rise to his uncle’s position. Indeed!
Jim brought his uncle to see her one night. Bess at once scented a plot. And by an elaborate graciousness she strove to make the bluff seaman thoroughly ill at ease. But he had changed since the old pilot days. She felt it with a shock of surprise. There was no polish, not the sign of anything “ genteel ” But he forced the conversation to his own ground. And as he talked of Jim’s work, the chances ahead, of ocean-liners, the fast-growing immensity of the part ships played in the work of the world, he displayed a strength and assurance that appealed to Bess in spite of herself. Here was a man who had succeeded in what he had set out to do, even though the goal was not high.
His solid assurance acted like a strong tonic upon her. If such a man had come so far, what might Jim not do, with his education ? She hinted this in the questions she asked. And the good-natured officer, half-pitying, half-admiring her for the fierce hunger so plainly shown, took the hint, and despite the protests of his nephew, he laid stress on the difference between them, regretted the education he himself had missed, envied Jim his boundless chances.
From that night on, those old hopes of hers came back one by one. She began to read about ocean-liners. She learned at last of certain men in control of the great shipping interests, men whose wives stood high as society leaders.
The readjustment was complete.
Jim had already gained a slight promotion, through his own vigilance and his uncle’s favor. His work was now in the engine-rooms. In reality he was there only one of the humblest helpers. But his mother told her friends that her son was an “ under-officer, studying navigation.”
Still, the distance to be climbed was appalling. Even in her wildest dreams she knew that long weary years must elapse before he could rise from the odors and grime. And in the meantime she felt that her part, the one service she could render to atone for her failure in the past, was to keep bright before his eyes the true goal of it all, to keep him from growing uncouth like his uncle, above all else to keep him away from “ Aunt Sally’s.”
He had been at the old house often lately. Even now he was there at least once a week.
She set about the task of breaking again the warm relations between them. From the few fairly successful friends that she herself still had, she secured an “ entrée ” for “ the young officer ” into their circle. She persuaded him to go out once or twice, “ to get some fun out of life.” And when he came back in disgust and vowed he would never go again, even this did not make her despair.
She changed her tack. She forced herself to learn more of his work. Each night that he was ashore, they spent together reading aloud, about engines of every shape and kind. Long after Jim’s father had dismally gone to bed, his mother sat on, reading and listening by turns, with the most wonderful imitation of interest, though half the time she understood barely a word.
As in the old school days, so again she had her reward. For Aunt Sally had neither mind nor time nor inclination for such things. She frankly yawned when Jimmy talked of his great dreams, of twin screws and turbine engines. And his visits at her house grew less and less frequent. Bess breathed easier. That danger at least was left behind.
At the end of another year, his young cousins and their friends had given him up. He went to see them barely at all.
But in the autumn Bess noticed a change. A change so sudden it took her quite off her guard, struck her in distinct separate shocks, for which at first she could find no connection, no meaning.
His appetite, which during the three bracing years of sea-life had continued enormous, now began to show the most unaccountable ups and downs. He still had but two “ shore nights” a week. One night he would come home silent, gloomy, preoccupied, and would eat nothing. Again he would appear radiant, eat recklessly, noticing none of the dainties she had so carefully prepared. He would gladly consent to her reading anything under the sun; and while she read, by sharp glances over her book she could see that he heard not a word.
She put it down to ambition. And in this she had reason; for into his talk of his work there had come a new fervor. But here again were the same bewildering ups and downs.
While she was still puzzling over these spells, they stopped as suddenly as they began.
And little by little, watching him closely with ever sharpening suspicion, as before she had seen the ocean-life take hold of him body and soul, so now she saw the life of the city, the teeming “ common ” life of four millions of mortals crowded together, take hold. To his slowly opening eyes, the very streets at night seemed taking on new interests, new meanings; he noticed the most amusing things and the most tragic, recounting them in the evenings. And on his boat, by day and by night, he seemed seeing his work in the most curious way, no longer as a ladder alone, but rich with human relations. He was making friends down among the crew, listening to common sailors spin their world-wide yarns.
Last and most baffling of all, he began to talk about his school days, not of the college or even the high school, but of the common public school, which the most “ ordinary ” child was forced by law to attend. He had read or heard somewhere about immense improvements in the school system, the new roof-gardens, the gymnasiums, playgrounds. He even spoke of “ the rights of the kids.” He gave one of his two weekly nights of leisure to a boys’ athletic club, told her funny things they said, chuckled over their very toughness, described certain tragic poverty eases, and spoke of them all as his chums!
In the midst of all this, when his mother’s whole correct little world seemed tumbling about her ears, one night he brought home a novel by Dickens, and proposed that they read it aloud. In the weeks that followed, struggling through as best she could, trying hard to smile at the jokes which to her seemed decidedly vulgar, to simulate sympathy in the grim scenes that filled her only with disgust, his chuckles and his comments opened a gap between them which filled her with dismay.
What was the cause of it all ? She racked her brains to find the reason. But this absorption in the ill-bred human millions, without even a glance at the chosen few above, their dazzling entertainments, their weddings and thrilling divorces, was so strange to her eyes, so wholly ludicrous, in such shocking taste, that all her groping was blind. She could find not a clue.
None — except the old one — Aunt Sally’s.
He was going there again. He admitted it shamelessly. As an excuse, he gave her the news of the fast approaching wedding of his young cousin Sally the Second. He said that at such a time a girl certainly had a right to expect her own flesh and blood to stand by her. He spoke in this tone so often, seemed so anxious to effect a reconciliation, that his mother’s suspicions took a new turn. And when, evidently expecting a struggle before he should win his point, he begged her to go with him to the wedding, she surprised him by a prompt assent.
The wedding of Sally the Second was in quite as “ bad taste ” as had been that of Sally the First. And in that hilarious scene, she saw Jim, her carefully nurtured Jim, decidedly at home, having the time of his life.
And even this was not the worst.
Suddenly she caught her breath, and looked again to make quite sure. Jim stood in the one quiet nook at the end of the room. Beside him was a dark-haired girl, simply, almost severely dressed, but with an outrageous look in her eyes. And the look in Jim’s eyes in one flash gave the clue to the whole wretched business.
A rush of giddiness came over her. She rose quickly, slipped out unobserved, put on her hat and cloak and started home.
Once there, she sank into a chair, feeling numb and cold, staring out of the narrow window into the twinkling city below.
When at last she heard him at the door, without warning and despite her angry attempts at control, two hot tears started slowly down her cheeks.
He entered, humming gayly to himself. He saw her by the window in the dark.
“ Why, mother,” he cried, “ what made you leave like that ? There was somebody — two or three people — I wanted you to meet.” He turned up the light, caught sight of her face. “ I say! ” he cried. “ What’s wong ? ”
She passed quickly by him into her bedroom and shut the door. And she did not sleep that night.
She saw that this was final.
When next he came home, she had gathered herself for the struggle. And her attack was so unexpected, her questions came so swift and searching, that she soon broke through his guard.
The girl was a niece of his uncle’s. She had taught school in the country, had come to teach in a public school here, was living at Aunt Sally’s. He had met her there, had seen her often, and she had “ opened his eyes to things.”
“Queer,” he said, “how I’d never seen it before. What an infernal snob I’ve been, how narrow, talking of nothing but schemes for pushing myself. What a bore I must have been! I don’t see how you stood it, mother! Why on earth did n’t you stop me?”
His mother was looking at him with a curious drawn expression.
“ Because,” she said, “ I “was just like you. And I am still. £ An infernal snob — narrow — pushing myself.’ What a bore this friend of yours would find me,”
“ Mother! ”
“ Oh yes! All of that! Do you believe it, Jim? Is this girl going to succeed in making you despise your mother, so that the way will be clear for her?”
Jim started, reddened, turned, and walked to the window. When he spoke at last, his voice shook slightly : —
“ Is n’t that a little small — when you’ve never even talked with her?”
“ Small ? Yes. But I am, Jim. And ' narrow ’ — and ‘ scheming.’ It has been a long time, twenty-six years since you were born, all spent in ' schemes ’ to give you half a chance. They have n’t been easy, these schemes, I’m getting old these days, and weary from the fight. I’d rather hoped you would stay with us, for a time at least, instead of taking a wife to support.— Such a wife!” The last words came out sharply. She felt at once the mistake.
Jim turned abruptly back from the window.
“I’ve asked her already,” he said.
His mother winced.
“I’m waiting for her answer,” he continued, trying hard to control his voice. “ But you’re wrong about my supporting her, — I can’t.”
“ Why not ? ”
“ Because she says that even if she marries me — she won’t give up her school.”
“ Jim! ”
She gave him one blank look, then burst into a peal of unsteady laughter,
“A school-teacher,” she cried harshly, “ a common school-teacher all her life! What a blessing! What a chance for you — and your children! What breeding, what refinement! ”
“ Look here, mother! ” His face was suddenly gray. “ I would n’t talk like that! I did n’t say ' for all her life.’ But if she loves her work, and the kids, and wants to keep on with them till the time when she’s a mother herself — is that so low ? What do you mean by breeding ? Is n’t there anything in it but what you read in the papers — balls, divorces, Newport scandals —shoes, clothes, hats, gloves, smiles, tact, lies ? What are you ? Haven’t you done anything else? Did n’t you work before you married, have n’t you worked ever since ? Did n’t you half kill yourself once, just to give me a summer’s vacation ? — Mother! ” He bent over her, trembling. “ Give me a chance to show you what she really is — a woman — like you. The same! Quite the same! ”
Her grip on his arm tightened till it shook.
“ No! ” she whispered. “ Not the same! So different — that if she succeeds, I’ll lose you! Jimmy! I love you! It’s going to be hard — hard! ”
And so it was.
She did not easily give up the work and the purpose of her life. There were many stormy scenes in the next few weeks. There were times when she seemed old and weak and desperate, times when she was harsh and bitter, times when she lay all night awake, staring dry-eyed into a dreary nothingness. The gap was widening fast.
Three months later, at the wedding, in the same old house where she herself had been married thirty years before, at the beginning of the long, slow climb — she saw it all come to an end.
And when the ordeal was over, she went back with her husband, the old Jimmy who had failed, back to the flat, to live out the years that were left.
Her pride remained, and a spark of the old vigor. She kept up a few of her friends. She was kind to the man now growing so old. She dreamed back over the years of struggle, privations, plannings, hopes.
She was lonely. In spite of all her pride, she was hungry for that son of hers, counted the days between his visits.
He came only once a month. She had forbidden him to come oftener, she had declined to see his wife, she had indignantly refused all money aid. When he came they avoided the present, spoke only of old times.
She had kept a few relics, baby things, battered toys, badges he had won at school. And little by little, dreaming over these scant reminders, her mind traveled back even farther, to the days of dolls, of that fierce maternity which had made the wee matrons on neighboring doorsteps frown, and say she was “ spoiling her children.”
As the months wore on and the loneliness grew, this elemental passion rose, till her few remaining friends shook their heads, said she was getting “ unbalanced ” — till even the great ladder was almost lost to view.
One night when Jimmy came, she saw at once that he was intensely excited. He stayed until long after midnight.
And after that evening, for weeks and weeks she was so silent, her husband grew afraid for her mind. To quiet his fears, she told him the reason. But when in a rush of glad relief he began to plead in Jim’s behalf, she begged him not to speak of it again. And the struggle went on as before.
Here was a last readjustment. There had been many since Jim was born, but none so deep as this. The two old passions of her nature were set now one against the other. And there was little thinking. Only a matter of instinct. The issue was so clear.
As the months drew on toward summer, a new element crept in — anxiety. Jim came often, bringing news, now good and now decidedly bad. Anxiety — it rose steadily, slowly but surely pushing all else aside. It ended late one evening, when Jim came in, quiet and pale, and asked his mother to come.
The night was long. There was little time for thinking. But when the strange new light of an April dawn came sifting into a quiet room, and fell on a grayhaired woman bending over a cradle, it showed how completely the struggle of a lifetime had been left behind. For these things come by instinct.
Time, in that slow silent way it has, did the rest.
From the point of view of the ladder — that boy had been a grave mistake.