The Assistant Secretary
The Assistant Secretary
BY MARGARITA SPALDING GERRY
THE chief done require yo' suhvices, Miss Mavis."
The old office-building in which we were did not boast of coldly mechanical innovations like electric call-bells. Henry was call-bell, messenger, flunkey, "three in one," under the guise of his official status of doorkeeper. Unctuous African smiles usually swathed in cheer the summons of duty. But to-day a strange solemnity engulfed Henry.
I must admit I was a little nervous myself. Even if it does occur frequently, it is not every day that a new Assistant Secretary takes possession of the innermost room in the suite of offices. What if the head of our department doesn't ever make much difference with the work, he can make a great deal of difference in your comfort. He can be a chronic grouch or a petty tyrant, or in other ways make the situation rather difficult for a girl. Or he can just be nice and easy-going, and let you run things the way you always have.
But this time I had hoped that the politicians might, for once, have put in a man with some knowledge of the work of the department. It was getting beyond me. You see our status was rather unusual. We had originally been a tiny offshoot of one of the big government departments, of so little importance that we boasted only a chief clerk and half a dozen women stenographers, all under the Assistant Secretary, who was the titular head. Actually, as is apt to be the case, the chief clerk, being a fixture where the Assistant Secretary changed more often than the administrations, ran things. Now, because of the peculiar attitude of Mr. Redlands, who drew the salary of chief clerk, most of his work fell on me, who am supposed to be his stenographer and secretary! To complicate matters, because of recent developments, our work had become more and more technical. In any government but ours the head would have been a scientific expert. As it was—well, it would be a little too humorous to be politic if I gave the reasons for the appointment of the three Assistant Secretaries of whom I had had experience!
My own qualifications for my post were not exhaustive. I had had a dab at a science or so in my two years at college before the bottom dropped out of my fortunes; I had picked up stenography and typewriting in preparation for a government office. I managed to acquire a little technical knowledge by cramming at the Congressional Library in the evenings. But I would really have liked to be sure that the letters we sent out, to be accepted as gospel truth by our correspondents, hit the high places of plausibility once in a while. So I had hopes of the new incumbent.
But I knew, as soon as I had caught up my dictation-pad and got myself into the presence, that here was no scientific student. I found out afterward that he owned a stock-farm in the nearer West. He had qualified for office by doing a rattling round of stump speeches. Mr. Harris was a big man with huge hands and feet, buttoned rather too closely for classic lines into the frock coat that he seemed to consider the proper garb for his first official appearance. His skin had the burnt-in red that years of city living cannot bleach, and no manicure would have undertaken his hands in an optimistic spirit. He sat very stiffly on his chair, as if he were not altogether sure it would not buck under him.
He eyed me in some surprise. "I asked for the chief clerk, ma'am," he said.
I jumped at the title of respect. I had known plenty of Westerners, but it was at the stage when they had evolved from that pioneer deference to women that prompts the "ma'am" at anything reputably feminine in long skirts. Hut I recovered in time to reply to the question.
"Mr. Redlands is not here this morning." I knew he'd find out soon enough about the chief clerk. "Meantime, I am his secretary and in charge."
"Oh, I see; of the routine work," he said, stiffly.
"Certainly—of the routine work," I said, meekly. He'd find out by degrees just like the others.
"Very will, ma'am," he said, pompously. "It will take me a few days, I suppose, to learn all the details."
I registered, as they say in film-land, my fixed conviction that, while the work of our department was of an exactingness not to be equaled in the government service or elsewhere, he was the one person who could dispose of its intricacies in a day.
"Very well, then," said the Assistant Secretary in this case. "Before we get down to business I'll just dictate a few personal letters."
The next day he was hack at sharp 9 a. m., asking for the chief clerk. You could see that having a woman work for him made him uneasy. He would have been more comfortable giving orders to a whole army of cow-punchers. Of course it wasn't for me to enlighten him about the chief clerk, but a few days later, when he asked me point-blank how many days a month the gentleman's attendance averaged, I had to answer. Then he got the whole story—political appointment, bucket-shop in New York, and all.
"It's outrageous," he fumed, and was all for putting an end to such a state of affairs. In pursuance thereof he began to dictate a letter to the Secretary. I took it down, silently, of course. When he was partly through it began to dawn upon him that the young woman who was taking down the dictation was not enthusiastic. You know—you only have to think hard enough to have it penetrate in some( specially sensitive cases. With Mr. Harris, however, I bad to ask him, in a dubious sort of way to repeat several sentences before he became really uneasy.
He didn't like to ask me point-blank what I thought of his letter; that wouldn't have been dignified. And yet he just couldn't bear to exist one moment longer in an atmosphere that implied that he was not unqualifiedly approved of—worshipfully approved of. Most men, of course, are like that. He fidgeted around for a time, and finally came out with the question:
"Don't you think this is—hmmm—the most forcible way in which to state the matter?"
"Oh yes, it's forcible—"
"Well, then, what's the matter?" It had occurred to him that I was a woman and a subordinate, so his tone was sulky.
"Why, Mr. Redlands is a nephew of Senator Richardson, you know."
"Well, well, what of that?" he blustered. "If I had a cow-rustler who wasn't onto his job, I'd pry him loose from the pay-roll so suddenly—"
"Yes, that would do on your ranch. And, of course, if you expect never to have a favor to put through where the Senator will have a say—and I've noticed that what he says goes pretty much in this branch of the service—it's all right to take the matter up now. It's straight graft, of course, and short-sighted. Nobody could run a private business successfully on such terms. But—"
He sat for a time in frowning silence. "Well—we'll take that up later," he said, finally, uneasily shuffling over the morning's correspondence that I had sorted and brought to him. It was evident that he didn't like dropping the matter at all. No honest man would enjoy such a situation. But I took it that be did want to hold his job.
The Assistant Secretary really did make an effort to earn his salary. Morning after morning be plowed through the correspondence, asking questions of me when he was absolutely put to it, but more often spending hours puzzling over what could have been explained in five minutes, his thick, stubby brows frowning, and bis lips unconsciously framing silent words as one sees a child doing over a hard reading-lesson.
I didn't much wonder. It bad taken me the five years I had been in the Bureau to work up the little I knew. And I, at least, was fairly fresh from study when I came in, and had some little foundation to go on, whereas Mr. Harris had had the most meager of educations—in school, that is. He had begun to be confidential with me about his early struggles. His career had been that typical one of the man of the United States; the organization of a big industry by hard work coupled with a shrewd grasp of the immediate circumstances.
Whenever he forgot me enough to really let himself loose on the subject of these early activities the transformation in the man was astounding. It happened only once or twice when something in his correspondence suggested it, but I never have forgotten. The big, red features took on force and blunt directness; the glance of his small, deeply bedded black eyes became piercing, the big figure had a splendid poise and force. It needed but little imagination to picture the frontiersman, tense hand on his horse's neck, eyes watchful, and yet unafraid, on the horizon. And when one glimpsed that, the burly figure in the yet undiscarded, tightly buttoned frock-coat, the big, red, aimless hands, the confusion of his face as he pored over tables which a moderately intelligent high-school boy could have mastered with ease, all this became rather pitiable. I was haunted by a fear that some day I might forget myself and ask him how he had been willing to occupy that desk.
One morning I did it, interrupting his floundering amid a mass of bygone reports. Then I tried to soften my too-evident incredulity by adding, "I should think it would have been difficult to arrange to have your home interests cared for."
His face certainly clouded. There was a sort of big simplicity in the man that made you have a curious mixture of feelings about him, an indulgence that you might have had for a child, tempered with respect—that is, if it wasn't fear. You were ignorant of just what forces were under that almost childish perplexity. You couldn't tell what might happen if you prodded just a little too much. You can lift a stick of dynamite and carry it wherever you will, but you don't pound it with the careless gaiety that you do an English walnut. Still, in this case, he answered my question with the utmost frankness and without the slightest feeling that I was taking a liberty.
"Oh—I don't know, ma'am. I'd worked mighty hard for the election and it seemed like I ought to have something. Then, my wife she thought she'd like a few winters in Washington for Mattie—that's our girl. It's kind of rough where we live for Mattie, I guess; at least it has been since she went East to school and saw something different. They think there aren't many people out home for her to associate with. And I guess my wife is right, and it's time for me to have some position of authority."
"I understand, Mr. Harris," I said. And of course, anybody could see the whole thing. The meetings of the Congressional Club are jammed with just such mothers and daughters. I gave a minute's thought to wondering how the ambition of this mother and daughter were destined to be realized; and "authority," when you thought of our office with its half-dozen anxious tame rabbits of women!
Nobody could say Mr. Harris was a quitter. Even if he did mix things up and make my work twice as hard, the way he struggled to be efficient deserved admiration. But it got so I often had to come down to the office after dinner and, like Penelope, unravel at night what had been done by day! But it was hopeless. One doesn't adapt oneself to a new profession after one is fifty. Moreover, I had a suspicion that his women-folks were worrying him.
One morning he came to the office with care enthroned upon his brow. By this time he had learned to discard the frock-coat, and wore quite "snappy" ready-made business clothes. We had plodded along through our correspondence for a time when he began to drop into long pauses and play absent-mindedly with the letter-opener on his desk. After a few minutes I grew restless.
"Is that all, Mr. Harris?" I prodded him.
"Oh no—that is— You have always lived in Washington, I believe you told me?"
"Except when my father was stationed at Annapolis. When he had sea-duty we lived in Washington. When my mother went to Japan with him I was in school." I wondered, of course, what was coming.
"Oh, then you belonged to what the women-folks are always calling 'The Army and Navy Set'?" He looked at me with—it would not be true to say—"new respect." He was far too much of a man to have the rudiments of snobbishness. It was rather with a hopeful gleam in his eyes.
"Why, yes, naturally."
"What was your father's rank?"
"He is dead, I believe you told me?"
"I wouldn't be here if he were not—five years ago." I couldn't keep the quiver out of my voice. It was still with me, that frightful time. I could feel again the sick terror and loneliness.
He speculated a little. "Why, then, you ought to be able to help us out. You see, the wife and daughter are a little upset—"
I thought I knew what was coming.
"Of course they expected to mix with this here Washington society that we hear so much about. In fact, I guess I told you that's about why they did want to come, especially on Mattie's account, you know. Not that I like to think about Mattie's marrying any one, but—"
I nodded intelligently. But you couldn't help laughing a little to yourself and yet feeling sorry. Good heavens! the irony of bringing a girl to Washington to marry her with a whole State full of real men where she came from!
"Well, we've been here about a month now, and the wife figures that things ought to be beginning; the papers have a whole lot of doings in them; they say the 'season has begun with great brilliancy.' But we haven't seen anything of it. We had our reception published in the paper, and they—well, they just stayed at home the last two weeks all dressed up and nobody came at all. Blamed if I can see what they care for, anyway, I told them people didn't fairly know we were here yet. But it does seem kind of queer that not even a neighbor called—"
"Oh no, neighborhood people don't call, That's entirely gone out except in the suburbs, you know, where it's more as it would be in a village. But have they made their calls?"
"Why, no. They haven't told me anything about it, But we didn't suppose it was our place to make the first call. Out where we came from people expect to kind of welcome strangers, you know, and make them feel it home."
"Oh, dear no, Nobody does that here, nobody except subordinates. Everybody calls first on the person higher up, you know. So that— Why, if you carried it on down, the clerks here would be the ones to call on Mrs. Harris, But I don't know that any one wants us particularly. We don't count socially, you see." I bent my head to hide the smile that would come.
"But Congressmen and Senators' wives!"
"Mrs. Harris will have to make the first call there. The idea is, since the Assistant Secretaries are appointed by Congress, they are subordinates—"
He looked rather crestfallen. But recovering, he said, with a kind of gallantry: "I'm sure Mrs. Harris would he mighty glad to see all you ladies. But—"
"But what you want is the real official society, of course," I said, soothingly. "Well, then, the ladies will have to go to work. It's a winter's undertaking, I tell you, to get around, Of course the Cabinet ladies don't return calls."
"But I didn't think society was just calling on a lot of people," he said, plainly bewildered. "It all ought to work up to something. Young people like parties, balls, things like that. I'm sure I don't believe Mattie—"
"Well, all that will develop," I reassured him, although I wasn't free from misgivings myself. "After they have worked up a set of acquaintances other things will follow."
"Oh, I see. They'll have to make friends first—"
"Oh, as to friends! Enough acquaintances, anyway, to invite to dansants or dinners, most of them people who happen to be making the rounds the same year. Then some of the other people entertain in exchange."
He shook his head. "Looks like toadying to me—courting those higher up. And I don't want any favors from anybody. And I don't like to have anybody think my women-folk have to kotow to anybody. But, I say, Miss Mavis, suppose you do just call on my wife and daughter and say all this to them. I guess it would help them to know the rules of this society game here. Don't seem to me 's if there ought to be rules about how you enjoy yourself; and that's what society's supposed to be, isn't it:"
"Oh no, Mr. Harris; not in Washington, if it is anywhere. It's just hard work."
I dutifully called on the Harris ladies one afternoon soon after that. They were as simple types, in their way, as the Assistant Secretary; they were large women—the mother fat, the daughter raw-boned. They had been in Washington long enough to have good clothes. Clothes are the simplest problem always with women. With department stores and specialty shops and a little money there is no reason why every woman should not be as accurate a copy of the prevailing insanity in dress as any other, and on short notice, too. The days when the beauty from the backwoods electrified society by appearing in garb outlandish and not in style are past. It is by other things that one judges—the way the clothes are worn, the way muscles flow or jerk under supple surfaces, the quality of voice, and that indescribable something that testifies whether or not it is an evolved personality, sufficiently free from awkward egotism to make its instant sortie in search of its like. And of these finer qualities the dear ladies had not one atom. They hadn't even a whiff of an understanding of what they lacked. They were merely avid for social distinction. I have often thought that that is the thirst that most pitifully transforms women into shapes as gross and grotesque as did Circe's brew. One could see that these had been honest friends, kind neighbors. But now they stood ready to crawl or toady or knife—quite in the approved style—any who stood in the way of their climbing.
They were very business-like, especially the daughter, and accepted what information I could give with directness. We made a list of the ladies who were their immediate superiors in administrative circles, and of the Congressional people whom they might or might not call on as they wished—I could hazard a guess that they would wish. When I left them it was plain to be seen that their social campaign was being mapped out. I had some difficulty in being sufficiently blank to suggestions that they would not object to introductions to some of the Navy people. They were too new to conditions to understand how completely I had dropped out.
It wasn't many more weeks before the Assistant Secretary's industry began to flag. I suppose that wasn't surprising. The languor in our air here makes activity against the current, not with it. The mental exertion was necessarily irksome. When he came into office he found everything running smoothly, and satisfactorily as far as he knew. He knew that, whether he attempted to get the subject through his head or not, letters would go out with regularity. He finally came to the conclusion, as he said to me, that "his end of the job" was something else.
Gradually it became evident that "his end" was perhaps not as wholesome an end as it might have been. There seemed to be an endless chain of visiting politicians from his state in town, and they all had to he entertained, usually at lunch. There wen several occasions when the Assistant Secretary came in, late in the afternoon, obviously fuddled by too many cocktails. He wore better and better clothes; but the brick-red tan of the prairies began to be mottled with a more uneven red, and coarsened layers of fat blunted the strength of his face. And his manner to me, to all of the women in the office, changed.
I suppose that wasn't to be wondered at. You take a man from a place where he has had to contend with other men to keep his footing, and put him down in a ready-made position where, even if there are many over him, there are also many under him to whom his small office seems little short of omnipotence—especially helpless, rather inefficient women whose position is dependent on him—it isn't wonderful that his chief diet, voluntarily or not, is flattery. Just for the sake of keeping things smooth so that I could carry on the office I had to treat him "tactfully." And what is tact but a tacit assurance that the object of it is great and worshipful, to be propitiated? And just below me was Miss Allen, who had constituted herself the understudy to my position—although she probably did not admit it to herself—and was devoutly hoping that I might be caught napping so that she could step into my place and salary. My manner to the Assistant Secretary was insulting compared with hers. One and all made the chief conscious that the little world of our office revolved around him. The darky door-keeper, who openly exchanged smiles and full-bodied compliments for tips and cigars, was merely a simpler practitioner. In a surprisingly short time Mr. Harris passed through all the degrees of initiation into little officialdom until he came to a point where he considered it almost too much for the government to ask him to sign the correspondence that was sent out in his name.
I hardly know how to express the change in his manner to us all, but it altered. That fine mixture of comradeship of the mind with simple deference to the beneficent possibilities of womanhood, which the pioneer woman won for all women from the man by whose side she worked, was gone. In place of it were alternations of an almost contemptuous negligence with that uncomfortably personal emphasis that implies that the mere fact that you are a woman is, in some way, of extraordinary significance. That is known, I suppose, as the "knowing" manner, and it is something that stirs an undercurrent of indignation with every woman who has a sense of personal dignity. And yet, in place of indignation, I watched him sometimes with real regret. It was all a part of a flabbiness of character that was creeping over him.
The Assistant Secretary's personal mail began to take up a large part of his attention. Soon after his Washington advent he was induced to open the usual accounts with tradespeople. All of his hills were sent to the office; it was evidently his habit to keep a tight grip on expenditure. At the beginning he was almost laughably anxious to get bills paid the very day of then receipt. As time went on the number of accounts increased; florists, caterers, garages, all testified to the zest with which the ladies of his household were pursuing their quest. Then—I couldn't help observing, since had me make the checks out for him to sign—partial payments were in order, then lapses. The summer campaign on the Northern coast—for the ladies preferred not to go home—proved expensive. The usual scrupulously polite protests began to appear, then, down through all the descending degrees of courtesy, to sharp insistences. About this time the Assistant Secretary began to dictate anxious or angry letters to the foreman whom he had left in charge of his cattle business. Funds were evidently not coming in fast enough to finance the social crusade the ladies were pursuing. By the end of the year my chief was plainly embarrassed by debts. Most of his energy was absorbed in making the various shifts by which one wards off immediate unpleasantness by mortgaging the future. There had even been a suggestion made about raising money on his ranch.
For some time he had been getting down just before luncheon, so I was able to get off all the strictly office mail before having to take up his personal correspondence. One morning he came down earlier than usual. He looked at once glum and feverish. Apparently he had been drinking, and he didn't usually do that before lunch. That probably accounted for his being more confidential than usual.
"Well, what do you think's up now?" he demanded, a fixed grin upon his face that was painful because, while it meant to be facetious, there was undoubted alarm behind it. "Footer's after my scalp!"
I expressed my proper indignation while I was getting ready to take his letter. I didn't know who "Footer" was, but Mr. Harris had got into a way of assuming that we were contemporaries and that he had been associated with me since the beginning. And I knew the letter would tell me who Footer was and how he was trying to get my chief's scalp.
I didn't have to wait long. Footer was a politician "up-state" who, having been disappointed in the juicy plum he had been promised, had fixed upon Mr. Harris's position as his due. There was an additional motive since the Assistant Secretary and he had locked horns over various local affairs. Mr. Harris not unnaturally regarded him as a "skeezinks," and I think, from later developments, that the term applied. He certainly gave us a lively time of it. He attacked the Assistant Secretary's record. Some scientific expert discovered flaws in the information the other sent out—I'm sure I don't wonder at that. Still, as this really hit me harder than it did the chief, I became as vindictive toward "Skeezicks" as was my superior officer. Footer also got hold of the fact that the Harrises were splurging socially; he was even on the track of debts. It was a loathsome enough business, and it made things pretty unpleasant.
This made much extra work, and we were thrown together a good deal. I often stayed after office hours to help him, sometimes until six o'clock. And, of course, that kind of propinquity does have an effect, Perhaps I was nicer to him than I would have been if I hadn't begun to think it might not he a bad thing it I did have some sort of an influence over him. Also, he was "bracing up" with cocktails and highballs more than was really good tor him, and they had their effect. It was the not unusual situation when a girl who isn't exactly ancient—although, I assure you, she feels sometimes as it she were a hundred—or positively repulsive in appearance, is thrown with a man who—in fact, almost any kind of a man. I fancy it depends on what sort you are yourself what you make out of it. But, anyway, things had been going on like this for some weeks, and I couldn't help seeing the hints and looks going on around the office, and the girls were always putting me up to ask him for things they wanted. I hadn't been paying much attention to them, except that I couldn't help realizing that I did have a sort of ascendancy over him, and wondering. ... Then one evening he asked me if I would work overtime for him that night—meet him there at seven o'clock. He looked a little queer, and I thought hard a few seconds before I answered. I said I would come. What I was thinking was, that it might be my opportunity.
He was at the office before me. When I opened the door his eyes were on me—waiting. His face lit up rather wistfully, but he said nothing beyond his usual, somewhat ungracious greeting. I got my hat and coat off, feeling that I was being uncomfortably scrutinized. I hadn't realized just what it would mean to be alone with him. But I tried to seem natural as I settled down to take his dictation.
He had got off several letters when he stopped. He had evidently not had anything to drink that evening, and his face, revealed pitilessly by the circle of electric light, was pale. There were worn lines on it, too, lines that had not been there a few months before. The hues and the pallor made him, all at once, look like an aging man and a little sad. But the sigh that he gave as he stretched his arms out luxuriously was not sad, but recklessly full of contentment.
"I tell you this is great!" he said. And his eyes quickened wickedly as they met mine.
I said nothing, glad that I had the pretext of turning over a sheet of paper to see what the last words of the dictation were. But I wasn't sure what was coming.
"House full of a lot of people that I don't care a hang for!" he went on, rather savagely. "What's more, they don't give a hang for us—except the ones that think they're going to make something out of us. You can't make her believe that, though. We wouldn't waste time on them out home. the only reason they pass here is that they've got a lot of queer clothes that some scissors-Johnny has said is the right thing, and a kind of patter that makes you feel like you must be Rip Van Winkle when he first waked up. And the same people who learned the lingo day before yesterday try to disguise their amusement at your being so ignorant that you prefer to speak English. But, anyway, they're always at the house and we're feeding them, or Mrs. Harris and Mattie are out meeting a lot more of the same pattern. They don't care whether I go with them or not. All I'm good for is to give them my name to have engraved in such fashionable letters that I wouldn't recognize it myself it I hadn't been told, and pay the bills. Ought to be grateful, I suppose, to be of use somewhere, but there just isn't any place where I fit in." He laughed an awkward little laugh, realizing that he had been rather over-communicative. The code seems to be that other women can know pretty much everything about a man except his family. Then his eyes rested on me again, changed again in expression. "But here I'm somebody count here, don't I? You think what I say 's worth listening to? And you must have had a chance to know plenty of men, too—a handsome, well-grown girl like you. You care just a little bit—don't you? Don't you—?" His voice had sunk into a fatuous murmur, and his big hand fell heavily on mine.
It had come sooner than I expected. And I wasn't quite ready. "I suppose it isn't to be wondered at," I was thinking. "What can Nature expect, after all? A man finds himself in that bare desert in the middle of life—there is the sudden assurance of one's essential loneliness—the good one has gained seems a little shop-worn. And you have the daily association with some one whose job it is to please you, and whose smiles you don't know by rote, the reason for them or what they lead to." Was I getting blunted, vulgarized? I wondered, in sudden alarm at myself. Would the women of my race, my high headed father, blush for me because I was not ready with a whole conflagration of virtuous resentment? But what should I say to him?
I don't know how long it was that my my thoughts took then twisting course, how long it was that we sat there in the intense circle of light from the electric lamp. But it was too long. One of those lagging instants had marked the division between comedy and something very like tragedy—for the door had opened so noiselessly that neither of us heard it. Mrs. Harris stood on the threshold looking at us.
I don't know whether I had expected Mrs. Harris to prove a red faced, berating virago, but I do know I had a moment of genuine surprise when she didn't. She merely stood there silently while every particle of color faded from her face. The only motion that she made was to draw her resplendent evening wrap about her more closely, as if she had suddenly been chilled. As for the Assistant Secretary, he was so utterly paralyzed that he made no effort to remove that culpable hand of his. And when I got mine away he rammed both of his into his pockets with an audible sigh of relief. Apparently he felt that they would be safe there, at least. The heavy silence finally conveyed to him the idea that speech was necessary. What he evoked was a feeble, "Oh, see here, Mamie; you mustn't get—!"
With a fierce, intolerant sound she turned to go.
Then I waked up. Whatever could lift this situation out of a sordid, hideous mess I had to do. Oh, why hadn't I said what I was planning to say a minute earlier! Then she would have heard something that would have backed me up. But now—could you expect any woman to believe you? But I had to make her believe me.
Perhaps my desperation put something authoritative into my voice when I said, "Wait a minute, Mrs. Harris." She halted. "Won't you sit down?" But that apparently was presuming too much.
"No, I'll not sit down," she rapped out, as if I had suggested the final indignantly. "I'll not sit."
Then, absurdly enough, I fired, too. All at once a wave of red rage came over me. How dared she, just because I was a clerk in her husband's office, earning my living unprotected—just because I was in a position where a thing like that could occur—insult me! That a great, middle-aged, dull materialist whom chance had put into a position of cheap authority over me—all the while I was doing his work for him—could put that coarse, heavy hand of his on mine, and so thrust me into a humiliating position where I had to beg for mere belief! I must have looked positively venomous, for she shrank from me.
"But you will sit down," I said, when I had mastered myself. "And you will listen while I clear up this absurd situation. And you will understand also that it is an additional affront put upon me by your husband that I should have to make an explanation."
I imagine that this was, after all, about the most useful tone I could have taken with her, although I didn't know anything at the time but that I was utterly furious, so furious that, when I was alone that night, I found myself being glad I hadn't had anything in my hands that I could have struck out with. I felt I couldn't have trusted myself.
At all events I made her listen, and, though she couldn't be expected to admit it, I suppose, she more than half believed me. Perhaps my pitching into her husband helped things out; it gave a sort of homey atmosphere. The aghast, end-of-the-world-has-come, expression faded from her face to be replaced by determined resentment. When I came to a pause she said, in a voice so hateful that it was funny:
"Of course we all know how weak men are. And what can a man do when a woman throws herself at his head—especially when he has to see her every day?"
Can any one tell me how I managed to keep from saying absolutely scorching things especially when I had such a large vocabulary? As if I would have tolerated that hulking, half-evolved Assistant Secretary if it hadn't been my job to do so, after— But I knew what I had to do was to straighten things out, and fireworks wouldn't have helped that end. Moreover, she was much more apt to he sensible after she had had time to spit out a few more thoroughly nasty and unjust remarks. And that proved to be so, for after a little more she began to look more amiable. Still she wouldn't look at her husband, and he began to look absently around for his hat and overcoat. The big stack of unpaid bills he gathered together with a rubber band and slipped into his pocket.
I suppose I ought to have let it go at that. But something in the forlornness of the big, red-faced thing who had come into the office little more than a year ago so full of blustering self-confidence got at my sympathy. Just why I, at twenty-five, late on trial for my reputation, should have constituted myself the guardian of a middle-aged man and his wife somebody else will have to decide. Possibly it was because I had planned to say something of the same sort to Mr. Harris before the advent of the lady had complicated things. But it seemed, all at once, a great pity that the two of them, whom one felt to be so adequate in that wholesome environment of work and neighborliness from which they had come, should be warping from the straight line because here they were such piteous misfits. And I seemed to see that, with the dawning of a certain regret for her harshness on Mrs. Harris's face, the time had come when she might be in a receptive condition. So I took the bull right by its still pugnacious horns:
"Why don't you go back home?" It took a good deal of assurance to go on after that. They were both of them staring at me with stupefaction. "What can you do here but mark time and so let all the splendid muscle, physical and moral and mental, that have been built up by years of whole-hearted effort, grow flabby and diseased? Surely you've both been here long enough to see the wicked loss and failure and heartburning of being where you're not needed. The only man who can be anything but a pensioner on the government in this department is some one with a technical equipment who can build up the Bureau to give the country what it needs. And the only people who get good out of the social life in Washington are the ones who don't need it; men and women who, having won position, need recreation. These can give themselves to it for an evening, a month, a year, as one looks on at a play, and relax from the tenseness of effort. But for the others, the climbers, cringing to those above them and, in turn, being victimized by other climbers who think the first have achieved—what are they but a colony of ants building up, with painful effort, the atoms of their ant-hill, only to have it scattered by the foot of a passer-by on a worthier errand? The changes of one season ought to prove it to you. You come back, after the absence of one summer, to find a new colony of ants building and the old horde with whom you thought you had achieved a sure position gone—for the most part. Drop out for a season, or just fall hack a little, and see how many remember your name when you come back."
The woman's face was very red. "There is an old saying about sour-grapes," she said.
"Of course, my grapes are sour. Nobody has evolved an abstract, impersonal philosophy at twenty-five. Of course I speak out of my own life. What argument is there that is more forcible? We were Navy people. We were connected with all that was best of the old Washington families—those who had not disintegrated. I had a cousin or so who married into the diplomatic set. My brother was naval attaché, and I stood behind the line at White House receptions. There wasn't anything in the city that was called or called itself 'smart' that wasn't open to me. No girl in Washington had a better time than I had the year I came out. Then—at my father's death it all fell away. The suttee at the death of a naval officer in the United States is more complete than that of the most exalted Brahman of India; it's not the widow only who is sacrificed, it is the man's whole family that go into eclipse. My mother had gone before, so I made suttee. Out of a whole city full of friends I can count hardly a dozen that I see more than once a year. My own special set has scattered to the four winds. It isn't that Navy people are afraid of the undesirably poor; they are too utterly sure of their own position for that. It's just that it takes every ounce of energy they have to keep up with the crazy pace. That's what five years have seen happen in the case of some one who was born in, not an outsider trying to climb in. And there was a time that I cared. But that was before I learned that all that counted absolutely nothing."
Nothing could stop me in my tirade once I had started. All that had been gathering in me during years of searching loneliness some things that I did not know I had ever said to myself—came tumbling out, full-formed. It was not the Harrises I was enlightening; it was myself. This was my emancipation proclamation, setting me free from the stupid conventions, the cramping regrets that had held me. Mrs. Harris was aghast; the Assistant Secretary's face I couldn't see. He was looking at his wife. But I went on; I couldn't stop.
"The only people in this incoherent land of ours that count in these fearful years of struggle are the ones that are making things—building, not destroying. There never was a time when it was written in such fiery letters that the masters are the men who work. But their women! The smug, sleek, carefully corseted, idle women that make an obstructive delta wherever the tide of prosperity is lush with spoils—what have they not to answer for? Turning their backs on all that really calls them, vapid with pleasure or gripping their hands raw climbing the senseless heights that lead to nowhere, stripping the men who feed them of the only armor that always shelters—that armor that the love of home masks—and then sending them out where at the first step stands an enemy, and the next, a Circe! And whose moans are louder than one of these when her man comes back to her with a festering arrow in him—and the memory of arms that are more eager than her own to cling! What are they thinking of, those well-fed, complacent women, that they hug to themselves the assurance that theirs is the one job that can be neglected and still go on eternally yielding them comfort and plenty and domination!"
The utter stupefaction that confronted me in the eyes of the woman who still huddled her handsome cloak around her brought me back to my senses. And with that sudden softening, some fictitious strength gave way in me.
"I beg your pardon. You must think that I am crazy," I said, not finding it easy to get the words out without a tremor. "But you see—when one has lost it, when you haven't any home but a square space between walls in a boarding-house, when there isn't one soul but yourself left of what has been a family in a whole great city—"
I couldn't manage my voice, so I stopped until I could get my calmness back. Then I saw the Assistant Secretary still humbly staring at his wife, not hearing a word I said, for all my hectic eloquence. It almost sent me off into hysterical laughter. It didn't need a word to prove how superficial had been the stirring of his senses that could be laid to my account. Then it occurred to me how to remove whatever piece of the barb still remained in Mrs. Harris's substantial bosom. So I said, this time calculating my pathos a little, "You see—whatever I might do, there is nobody to look at me as Mr. Harris is looking at you."
The next minute I was wondering whether I had told the strict truth or not. But the Assistant Secretary batted his eyes that had been so forlornly pleading with his incensed lady. And she, after one glance at him, averted her eyes suddenly. The grim corners of her mouth quivered, bent into an involuntary smile. She settled the wrap on her shoulders.
"Come, come, Sam," she said. "I was on my way to get Mattie. Ralston won't like to be kept waiting so long."
When the Assistant Secretary had hurried guiltily out ahead of her, she paused a moment at the door, fixing me with eyes that scorned any sentimental softening. "I suppose you don't expect me to be obliged to you, do you?"
That grim, unwilling humor cleared the air. I laughed. "I happen to be a woman, too," I said.
One week afterward the resignation of the Assistant Secretary was announced, to take effect the following month.
It really was more decent of me than they knew. It's going to make a lot more work for me. I'll have to break in a new Assistant Secretary.