The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 19


ALONE with Clara in room Number 12 at Jen Cordeen's, Marjorie tensely dropped off her cape, went to her glass and stared at herself and turned about to discover Clara out of her dancing dress and limp on her back on her bed, with arms stretched above her head and yawning peacefully at the ceiling. "Gawd, I'm sleepy!"

"Sleepy!" Marjorie shot back so excitedly that Clara started up and sat, leaning on her hands.

"Why, anything happen to you to-night, dearie?" she demanded with suspicious concern.

"Anything!" Marjorie repeated, glaring at her roommate; and she gave a gesture of hopelessness.

"Bourbon don't keep me awake," Clara volunteered, as though having come to the conclusion that Marjorie complained of excitation from that. "Does just the opposite to me. Just want to sleep; that's all." And she yawned again but did not lie down. "Come on, get it off your chest, kid," Clara invited, pulling out a couple of hairpins and shaking down her hair.

"Clara, every man I danced with to-night—but one—was—was——"

"What?" urged Clara indistinctly, for the hairpins between her lips.

"Trying me!"

Clara's hair had fallen, perhaps by accident, before her face. "Sure," she said, still impeded by hairpins. "You were a new one to them and mighty damn good-looking; and who'd you think I was steering you up against? A bunch of dead ones?" And she put the rest of her pins in her mouth and tossed back her hair.

Marjorie's impulse was to bolt from the room; for the instant she had a home in Evanston to which she could fee; then she controlled herself. "You needn't swear at me," all she said.

"You needn't be so damned superior to my friends. Are you, anyway? Are you?" Clara demanded clearly, gathering the pins from her lips and depositing them on her bed. "You and I might just as well have a show-down right now, Marjorie whatever-your-real-name-is. What're you here for?"

"I've told you," Marjorie evaded.

"Sure you told me you wanted to room here; going to get a job, support yourself. Family's had reverses; all right. You say you like the looks of me; I liked the looks of you, and I do right now, Marjorie; never better. You pay your half the room for a week while you're not here; that's square; now you show up, hear I'm going to Sennen's. I say want to come along? You say, who with? I say, two men want to take me; I'll spare you one. I do it; he takes you into town and gives you a good time and you knock him and everybody else but one, who probably didn't have any pep in him. Now what'd Jake do or Sam Troufrie, or whoever they all were, when I wasn't looking?"

"Nothing different from when you were looking," Marjorie rejoined steadily.

"Oh!" said Clara, and braided her hair thoughtfully for a minute, gazing away.

Marjorie's mind took one of those recesses which one requires between tensest struggles. How beautiful Clara was, she observed; what wonderful smooth, dark skin; how graceful and rounded her naked neck and arms and her slender, perfectly proportioned legs in her black culottes and stockings. Marjorie was thinking of men and, with regard to them, she appreciated that never had she known a girl who must be more desirable, physically, than Clara Seeley.

"What did they do to you different from what you're used to?" Clara formed her query at last and met Marjorie's eyes squarely; and Marjorie could not answer. So Clara said, "I know. A few from your bunch have had their arms around me. Not to-night; a couple of 'em tried to but all space was under lease. But they have and sometimes they've sort of drowsed, dancing—forgotten themselves, as it was; I mean forgotten me, Molly, the manicure girl. So they held me in those moments like they would a girl friend of theirs from home—like they would you. Tight enough but nothin' back of it, Marjorie; no bite! I know what you mean. That's what you're here for; to get the snap, ain't it? Honest? Then what're you sore about? Aren't you here to play the real game?"

"What game?"

"Oh, my game," said Clara. "And your game—when you're away from home and mamma and papa; any girl's game who's got a decent looking face and a figure that ain't actually repulsive. Hell—'scuse me, Marjorie, but I never did take serious the first four or five commandments—do you suppose there's a man born who wouldn't 'get' a good-looking girl if he could? You been brought up at home, I understand; Evanston. How many of you happened?"

Marjorie flushed slightly. "Just me," she told. "I never had any brothers or sisters."

"So papa and mamma both had all their time to give to you. Of course, that don't make it more simple for you, though I do understand that even your nice little boys have been treatin' you nice home girls some rough lately. Even the society columns been talkin' about it; and the 'chaperone'; you been checkin' your corsets between leavin' mother and startin' the waltz with Willy. Naughty, naughty! And you been motorin' out after dark in a Packard roadster all alone in a seat beside a boy who you ain't known more than all your life and who wouldn't do nothin' to himself, if he actually did anything to you, but have to skip the State and force his family to sell out and move. They're all duds when they're out with you, and you know it; you go through the motions of playin' with fire and actin' up reckless; but you know those boys ain't actually goin' to do any damage to you. If they were, you'd have begun to suspect it, wearin' that dress, before my friends begun judgin' by appearance to-night. What'd you want me to tell 'em?"

"Nothing," said Marjorie, humbly.

"Kid," cried Clara, with sudden emotion and clasping her roommate's hand. "You're up against something you ain't told to me. That's all right! Gawd, I don't mean to jump on you; just the opposite, dearie. I've had all the advantages in this game. Nine of us, where I come from—seven grew up, too; or growin'. A few miles over that way," she nodded vaguely west and cityward, as she let go of Marjorie's hand. "Ever hear of Augusta Street? Oh, sure you have, if you come from Evanston; Northwestern Settlement's on it. Well, the Selitz family—that's us—used to be just off Augusta; and I don't believe there was a bunch that visitin' ladies used to get more worked up about than us. We had two rooms to live in—the six or seven of us, I forget exactly how many we had around then—when somebody dropped in with the idea that it was terrible. Terrible? Hell, we'd just moved out of one that I could remember, all right; and those two were still lookin' mighty wide to me. Then they started that talk that a man mustn't beat up his woman; who'd they want a man to take on when he got soused,—a cop? And that sex education stuff! Excuse me, Marjorie; I just gotta laugh. I musta been about twelve, I think, when some one slipped me one of those little white books for girls with nice pink apple blossoms on the covers and startin' out with all about the pollination of flowers.

"I don't know who that woman was or where she come from—she was too innocent for the settlement, I think now, as I recall it; but I do remember she sort-a blushed and whispered to me as though I was to get a sort-a shock when I read it; told me to come to her, if there was anything puzzled me. Well, she was right; I never had anything puzzle me like that book—talkin' about flowers and birds and animals for nine-tenths the way through and then workin' up to a whisper of what, if you was a good guesser, you'd see was meant to be girls and men. And me—well, where do you suppose I'd have been by that time, if I hadn't started, when I was a kid, 'bout eight chapters beyond where that book blushed itself to death? Gawd, I don't remember a time when I didn't know what men was after. But that book did do me some good tonight."

"How?" asked Marjorie, still meekly.

"When I was watchin' you; how could anybody get your way? I was wonderin'; and what was you thinkin' a man was thinkin' about when he grabbed you? Then I remembered that book and began thinkin' it must have printed what was information for somebody; and I guessed it was for you. Of course, most of it was harmless, but it had one whopper of a lie toward the end that wouldn't have done a thing to me if I'd been simp enough to believe it. I mean the part that talked about a girl keeping herself pure and avoiding impure men for the reward of getting some time a pure one, as if there was such. There ain't no such animal; there's just one sort of man; when you think there's two, the difference is in the places you see 'em."

"Then why—why," Marjorie stammered, "do you have anything to do with them; why do you let them—touch you? Why do you go out with them and——" she stopped.

Clara laughed. "Do I pet and kiss comin' home in a cab? Oh, don't worry none about me, dearie. I know more about that stuff—the woman pays—than the one that wrote it. At the same time, when a man does show you a swell time and spend his money, you don't get anywhere by being yourself an absolute dead beat. Sam knows just exactly the distance I step, and knows there's just exactly no chance of my stretching it with him. You better go to bed now, Marjorie; say, ain't the paper on this room swell and this carpet and all this"—Clara gestured vaguely but indicatively of the wide, pleasant spaciousness of the room—"just for you and me."

And Clara continued serenely undressing; and in a minute she was in bed. "Never mind 'bout the light," she murmured comfortably. "Whole Commonwealth-Edison Company—couldn't keep—me awake—if it was—camped on ceiling." And she was asleep actually asleep, Marjorie saw when she crept over by Clara's bed and looked down at her tranquil face.

Marjorie put out the light and opened wide one of the windows; she made no start toward bed but stood near the open window staring down on Clearedge Street, while her thought leaped to Mrs. Russell's apartment where, for all she knew or might suppose, her father had returned; it leaped, her thought, to her mother sleeping, undoubtedly as serenely as Clara, in her compartment on the train rushing to New York; it leaped, for less vivid instants of imagination, to Billy, to Gregg; to Rinderfeld; to Mr. Saltro; and then, abandoning its jumping from individual to individual, it set before her a new cosmogony.

What a simple now-I-lay-me-down-to-sleep world she had stepped from, she thought, as she reckoned how all her life she had gone to bed, never with anything seriously worrying her or threatening her until a few weeks ago; what a world of romance and childish beliefs had been that centered about her room around the corner of the hall from mamma's and papa's; in that world, you thought of a good, able man wooing you to take you for wife, to work for you, win you a home, not at the start but yet eventually more prosperous than your father's; you thought of yourself winning "better" social position, your children—for in certain connections you imagined more than you yourself might carry out—becoming companions of children of people whom you had only begun to know; you fancied your husband becoming president, possibly of the United States or at least of a great Chicago railroad or bank or business corporation, and consequently you fancied yourself in the White House or with a great Lake Forest estate.

Then Marjorie remembered that her father had be come president of a great corporation to-day; he could have his estate and perhaps would have been arranging for one now for her mother and her, if Doctor Grantham hadn't had a slow-thinking girl in his office the night Mrs. Russell telephoned for help; and she, Marjorie, would be with her mother, happily rushing off to Europe again or she would be at home in her room, dreaming of the dignity of the new Hale estate.

Would she exchange places with that girl she had been? She had told Gregg "no" even before she had left home and now, at the end of her first day as an inhabitant of the building, the number of which Mr. Dantwill had so emphatically leaded over, she cried to herself "no" again. Here she had come to escape her protected life, the life which all men she had known from Billy to Rinderfeld, and including even the casual Mr. Dantwill, had wished her to continue to know, and to know that alone. Of course, this first excursion from it had hurt her; but already she was liking the sting of her hurts; certainly she was not going to quit and run back because of them; no, what was unknown and forbidden to her she was to explore.

And already she found herself smiling at memory of herself with her best friend, Clara of Evanston, discussing what they had considered difficulties and what had formed for them "realities"; and she imagined Clara of Augusta and Clearedge Streets, overhearing them; and she tried to think what Clara would say. She went over to look down on Clara Selitz' face in sleep; beautiful it was; softer a little, but no less strong and resolute; she had to carry character with her all the time, that girl, Marjorie realized; and she had, till she had achieved what truthfully was a "fine" face; it made insipid Marjorie's image of her friends' faces which she had called "fine." And she knew she had made no mistake in picking from that drug-store window, Clara Seeley.

Marjorie shivered and ceased regret for her lost world or perhaps—to borrow Gregg's phrase—her world which never was; and she returned to contemplation of Clara's with, not two sorts of men, but just one.