Open main menu

The Gay Cockade/Wait--For Prince Charming

 

WAIT—FOR PRINCE CHARMING

Kington Knox was not conscious of any special meanness of spirit. He was a lawyer and a good one. He was fifty, and wore his years with an effect of youth. He exercised persistently and kept his boyish figure. He had keen, dark eyes, and silver in his hair. He was always well groomed and well dressed, and his income provided him with the proper settings. His home in the suburb was spacious and handsome and presided over by a handsome and socially successful wife. His office was presided over by Mary Barker, who was his private secretary. She was thirty-five and had been in his office for fifteen years. She had come to him an unformed girl of twenty; she was now a perfect adjunct to his other office appointments. She wore tailored frocks, her hair was exquisitely dressed in shining waves, her hands were white and her nails polished, her slender feet shod in unexceptional shoes.

Nannie Ashburner, who was also in the office and who now and then took Knox's dictation, had an immense admiration for Mary. "I wish I could wear my clothes as you do," she would say as they walked home together.

"Clothes aren't everything."

"Well, they are a lot."

"I would give them all to be as young as you are."

"You don't look old, Mary."

"Of course I take care of myself," said Mary, "but if I were as young as you I'd begin over again."

"How do you mean 'begin,' Mary?"

But Mary was not communicative. "Oh, well, I'd have some things that I might have had and can't get now," was all the satisfaction that she gave Nannie.

It was through Mary that Nannie had obtained her position in Kingdon Knox's office. Mary had boarded with Nannie's mother for five years. Nannie was fourteen when Mary came. She had finished high school and had had a year in a business college, and then Mrs. Ashburner had asked Mary if there was any chance for her in Kingdon Knox's office.

Mary had considered it, but had seemed to hesitate. "We need another typist, but I am not sure it is the place for her."

"Why not?"

Mary did not say why. "I wish she didn't have to work at all. She ought to get married."

"Dick McDonald wants her. But she's too young, Mary."

"You were married at nineteen."

"Yes, and a lot I got out of it." Mrs. Ashburner was sallow and cynical. "I kept boarders to make a living for my husband, Mary; and since he died I've kept boarders to make a living for Nannie and me."

"But Dick gets good wages."

"Well, he can wait till he saves something."

"Don't make him wait too long."

It was against her better judgment that Mary Barker spoke to her employer about Nannie. "I should want her to help me. She is not expert enough to take your dictation, but she could relieve me of a lot of detail."

"Well, let me have a look at her," Kingdon Knox had said.

So Nannie had come to be looked over, and she had blushed a little and had been rather breathless as she had talked to Mr. Kingdon, and he had been aware of the vividness of her young beauty; for Nannie had red hair that curled over her ears, and her skin was warm ivory, and her eyes were gray.

Her clothes were not quite up to the office standard, but Knox, having hired her, referred the matter to Mary. "You might suggest that she cut out thin waists and high heels," he had said; "you know what I like."

Mary knew, and Nannie's first month's salary had been spent in the purchase of a serge one-piece frock.

Mrs. Ashburner had rebelled at the expense. But Mary had been firm. "Mr. Knox won't have anybody around the office who looks slouchy or sloppy. It will pay in the end."

Nannie thought Mr. Knox wonderful. "He says that he wants me to work hard so that I can handle some of his letters."

"When did he tell you that?"

"Last night, while you were taking testimony in the library."

The office library was lined with law books. There were a handsome long mahogany table, green covered, and six handsome mahogany chairs. Mary, shut in with three of Knox's clients and a consulting partner, had had a sense of uneasiness. It was after hours. Nannie was waiting for her in the outer office. Everybody else had gone home except Knox, who was waiting for his clients.

Mary remembered how, when she was Nannie's age, she had often sat in that outer office after hours, and Knox had talked to her. He had been thirty-five and she, twenty. He had a wife and a handsome home; she had nothing but a hall room. And he had made her feel that she was very necessary to him. "I don't know how we should ever get along without you," he had said.

He had said other things.

It was because he had spoken of her lovely hair that she had kept it brushed and shining. It was because his eyes had followed her pencil that she had rubbed cold cream on her hands at night and had looked well after her nails. It was because she had learned his taste that she wore simple but expensive frocks. It was because of her knowledge that nothing escaped him that she shod her pretty feet in expensive shoes.

He had set standards for her, and she had followed them. And now he would set standards for Nannie!

She spoke abruptly. "Is Dick McDonald coming to-night?"

"Yes. He has had a raise, Mary. He telephoned——"

The two girls were in Mary's room. Dinner was over and Mary had slipped on a Chinese coat of dull blue and had settled down for an evening with her books. Mary's room was charming. In fifteen years she had had gifts of various kinds from Knox. They had always been well chosen and appropriate. Nothing could have been in better taste as an offering from an employer to an employee than the embossed leather book ends and desk set, the mahogany reading lamp with its painted parchment shade, the bronze Buddha, the antique candlesticks, the Chelsea teacups, the Sheffield tea caddy. Mary's comfortable salary had permitted her to buy the book shelves and the tea table and the mahogany day bed. There was a lovely rug which Mrs. Knox had sent her on the tenth anniversary of her association with the office. Mrs. Knox looked upon Mary as a valuable business asset. She invited her once a year to dinner.

Nannie wore her blue serge one-piece frock and a new winter hat. The hat was a black velvet tam.

"You need something to brighten you up," Mary said; "take my beads."

The beads were jade ones which Mr. Knox had brought to Mary when he came back from a six months' sojourn in the Orient. Mary had looked after the office while he was away. He had clasped the beads about her neck. "Bend your head while I put them on, Mary," he had commanded. He had been at his desk in his private office while she sat beside him with her note-book. And when he had clasped the beads and she had lifted her head, he had said with a quick intake of his breath: "I've been a long time away from you, Mary."

Nannie with the jade beads and her red hair and her velvet tam was rather rare and wonderful. "Dick is going to take me to the show to celebrate. He's got tickets to Jack Barrymore."

"Dick is such a nice boy," said Mary. "I'm glad you are going to marry him, Nannie."

"Who said I was going to marry him?"

"That's what he wants, Nannie, and you know it."

"Mr. Knox says it is a pity for a girl like me to get married."

Mary's heart seemed to stop beating. She knew just how Knox had said it.

She spoke quietly. "I think it would be a pity for you not to marry, Nannie."

"I don't see why. You aren't married, Mary."

"No."

"And Mr. Knox says that unless a girl can marry a man who can lift her up she had better stay single."

The same old arguments! "What does he mean by 'lift her up,' Nannie?"

"Well"—Nannie laughed self-consciously—"he says that any one as pretty and refined as I might marry anybody; that I must be careful not to throw myself away."

"Would it be throwing yourself away to marry Dick?"

"It might be. He looked all right to me before I went into the office. But after you've seen men like Mr. Knox—well, our kind seem—common."

Mrs. Ashburner was calling that Dick McDonald was down-stairs. Nannie, powdering her nose with Mary's puff, was held by the earnestness of the other woman's words.

"Let Dick love you, Nannie. He's such a dear."

Dick was, Nannie decided before the evening was over, a dear and a darling. He had brought her a box of candy and something else in a box. Mrs. Ashburner had shown him into the dining-room, which she and Nannie used as a sitting-room when the meals were over. The boarders occupied the parlor and were always in the way.

"Say, girlie, see here," Dick said as he brought out the box; and Nannie had gazed upon a ring which sparkled and shone and which looked, as Dick said proudly, "like a million dollars."

"I wanted you to have the best." His arm went suddenly around her. "I always want you to have the best, sweetheart."

He kissed her in his honest, boyish fashion, and she took the ring and wore it; and they went to the play in a rosy haze of happiness, and when they came home he kissed her again.

"The sooner you get out of that office the better," he said. "We'll get a little flat, and I've saved enough to furnish it."

Nannie was lighting the lamp under the percolator. Mrs. Ashburner had left a plate of sandwiches on one end of the dining-room table. Nannie was young and Mrs. Ashburner was old-fashioned. Her daughter was not permitted to eat after-the-theatre suppers in restaurants. "You can always have something here."

"Don't let's settle down yet," Nannie said, standing beside the percolator like a young priestess beside an altar. "There's plenty of time——"

"Plenty of time for what?" asked her lover. "We've no reason to wait, Nannie."

So Dick kissed her, and she let him kiss her. She loved him, but she would make no promises as to the important day. Dick went away a bit puzzled by her attitude. He wanted her at once in his home. It hurt him that she did not seem to care to come to him.

It was a cold night, with white flakes falling, and the policeman on the beat greeted Dick as he passed him. "It is a nice time in the morning for you to be getting home."

"Oh, hello, Tommy! I'm going to be married. How's that?"

"Who's the girl?"

"Nannie Ashburner."

"That little redhead?"

"You're jealous, Tommy."

"I am; she'll cook sausages for you when you come home on cold nights, and kiss you at your front door, and set the talking machine going, with John McCormack shouting love songs as you come in."

Dick laughed. "Some picture, Tommy. And a lot you know about it. Why don't you get married and try it out?"

Tommy, who was tall and ruddy and forty, plus a year or two, gave a short laugh. "I might find somebody to cook the sausages, but there's only one that I'd care to kiss."

"So that's it. She turned you down, Tommy?"

"She did, and we won't talk about it."

"Oh, very well. Good-night, Tommy."

"Good-night."

So Dick passed on, and Tommy Jackson beat his hands against his breast as he made his way through the whirling snow, his footsteps deadened by the frozen carpet which the storm had spread.

Mary Barker was delighted when Nannie told of her engagement to Dick. She talked it over with Mrs. Ashburner. "It will be the best thing for her."

Mrs. Ashburner was not sure. "I've drudged all my life and I hate to see her drudge."

"She won't have it as hard as you have had it," Mary said. "Dick will always make a good income."

"She will have a harder time than you've had, Mary," said Mrs. Ashburner, and her eyes swept the pretty room wistfully. "Many a time when I've been down in my steaming old kitchen I have thought of you up here in your blue coat and your pretty slippers, with your hair shining, and I've wished to heaven that I had never married."

"Things haven't been easy for you," said Mary gently.

"They have been harder than nails, Mary. You've escaped all that."

"Yes." Mary's eyes did not meet Mrs. Ashburner's. "I have escaped—that."

Nannie and her mother slept in the back parlor of the boarding-house. They had single beds and it was in the middle of the night that Mrs. Ashburner said: "Are you awake, Nannie?"

"Yes, I am."

"Well, I can't seem to get to sleep. Maybe it's the coffee and maybe it's because I have you on my mind. I keep thinking that I hate to have you get married, honey."

"Oh, mother, don't you like Dick?"

"Yes. It ain't that. But it's nice for you in the office and you don't have to slave."

Nannie sat up in bed, and the light from the street lamp shone in and showed her wide-eyed, with her hair in a red glory. "I shan't slave," she said. "I told Dick."

"Men don't know." Mrs. Ashburner spoke with a sort of weary bitterness. "They'll promise anything."

"And I am not going to be married in a hurry, mother. Dick's got to wait for me if he wants me."

It sounded very worldly-minded and decisive and Mrs. Ashburner gained an envious comfort in her daughter's declaration. She had never set herself against a man's will in that way. Perhaps, after all, Nannie would make a success of marriage.

But Nannie was not so resolute as her words might have seemed to imply. Long after her mother slept she lay awake in the dark and thought of Dick, of the break in his voice when he had made his plea, the light in his eyes when he had won a response, his flaming youth, his fine boy's reverence for her own youth and innocence. It would be—rather wonderful, she whispered to her heart, and fell asleep, dreaming.

The next morning was very cold, and Nannie, coming early into Kingdon Knox's office to take his letters, was in a glow after her walk through the snowy streets. Her cheeks were red, her eyes sparkled, and the ring on her finger sparkled.

Knox at once noticed the ring. "So that's it," he said, and leaned back in his chair. "Let's talk about it a little."

They talked about it more than a little, and the burden of Kingdon Knox's argument was that it was a pity. She was too young and pretty to marry a poor man and live in a funny little flat and do her own work and spoil her nails with dishwashing. "Personally, I think it's rather dreadful. A waste of you, if you want the truth."

Poor Nannie, listening, saw her castles falling. It would be rather dreadful—dishwashing and a gas stove and getting meals.

"He is awfully in love with me," she managed to say at last.

"And you?" He leaned forward a little. Nannie was aware of the feeling of excitement which he could always rouse in her. When he spoke like that she saw herself as something rather perfect and princesslike.

"Wait—for Prince Charming," he said.

Nannie was sure that when Prince Charming came he would be like Mr. Knox; younger perhaps, but with that same lovely manner.

"Of course," Mr. Knox said gently, "I suppose I ought not to advise, but if I were you"—he touched the sparkling ring—"I should give it back to him."

So after several absorbing talks with her employer on the subject, Nannie gave the ring back, and when poor Dick passed his friend the policeman on his way home he stopped and told his story.

"They are all like that," Tommy said, "but if I were you I wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."

Dick brightened. "Wouldn't you?"

"Not if I had to carry her off under my arm," said Tommy between his teeth.

"But I can't carry her off, Tommy—and she won't go."

"She'll go if you ain't afraid of her," Tommy told him with solemn emphasis. "I was afraid."

They were under the street lamp, and Dick stared at him in astonishment. "I didn't know you were afraid of anything."

"I didn't know it either," was Tommy's grim response, "until I met her. But I've known it ever since."

"Well, it's hard luck."

"It is hardest at Christmas time," said Tommy, "and my beat ain't the best one to make me cheerful. There are too many stores. And dolls in the windows. And drums. And horns. And Santa Claus handing out things to kids. And I've got to see it, with money just burning in my pocket to buy things and to have a tree of my own and a turkey in my oven and a table with some one who cares at the other end. And all I'll get out of the merry season is a table d'hôte at Nitti's and a box of cigars from the boys."

"Ain't women the limit, Tommy?"

"Well"—Tommy's tone held a note of forced cheerfulness—"that little redhead must have had some reason for not wanting you, Dick. Maybe we men ain't worth it."

"Worth what?"

"Marrying. A woman's got a square deal coming to her, and she doesn't always get it."

"She'd get it with you, and she'd get it with me; you know that, Tommy."

"She might," said Tommy pessimistically, "if the good Lord helped us."

Nannie on the day after her break with Dick was blushingly aware of the bareness of her third finger as she took Kingdon Knox's dictation. When he had finished his letters, Knox smiled at her. "So you gave it back," he said.

"Yes."

"Good little girl. You'll find something much better if you wait. And I don't want you wasted." He opened a drawer and took out a long box. He opened it and lifted a string of beads. They were of carved ivory, and matched the cream of Nannie's complexion. They were strung strongly on a thick thread of scarlet silk, and there was a scarlet tassel at the end.

"They are for you," he said. "It is my first Christmas present to you; but I hope it won't be the last."

Nannie's heart beat so that she could almost hear it. "Oh, thank you," she said breathlessly; "they're so beautiful."

But she did not know how rare they were, nor how expensive until she wore them in Mary's room that night.

"Where did you get them, Nannie?"

"Mr. Knox gave them to me."

There was dead silence, then Mary said: "Nannie, you ought not to take them."

"Why not?"

"They cost such an awful lot, Nannie. They look simple, but they aren't. The carving is exquisite."

"Well, he gave you beads, Mary."

Mary's face was turned away. "It was different. I have been such a long time in the office."

"I don't think it is much different, and I don't see how I can give them back, Mary."

Mary did not argue, but when a little later Nannie told of her broken engagement, Mary said sharply: "But, Nannie—why?"

"Well, mother doesn't care much for the idea. She—she thinks a girl is much better off to keep on at the office."

Mary was lying in her long chair under the lamp. She had a cushion under her head, and her hand shaded her eyes. "Did—Mr. Knox have anything to do with it?"

"What makes you ask that, Mary?"

"Did he?"

"Well, yes. You know what I told you; he thinks I'd be—wasted."

"On Dick?"

"Yes."

Mary lay for a long time with her hand over her eyes; then she said: "If you don't marry Dick, what about your future, Nannie?"

"There's time enough to think about that. And—and I can wait."

"For what?"

Nannie blushed and laughed a little. "Prince Charming."

After that there was a silence, out of which Nannie asked: "Does your head ache, Mary?"

"A little."

"Can't I get you something?"

"No. After I've rested a bit I'll take a walk."

Mary's walk led her by the lighted shop windows. The air was keen and cold and helped her head. But it did not help her heart. She had a sense of suffocation when she thought of Nannie.

She stopped in front of one of the shops. There were dolls in the window, charming, round-eyed, ringleted. One of them was especially captivating, with fat blond curls, fat legs, blue silk socks and slippers, crisp frills and a broad blue hat.

"How I should have loved her when I was a little girl," was Mary's thought as she stood looking in. Then: "How a child of my own would have loved her."

She made up her mind that she would buy the doll—in the morning when the shop opened. It was a whimsical thing to do, to give herself a doll at her time of life. But it would be in a sense symbolic. She had no child to which to give it; she would give it to the child who was once herself.

She came home with a lighter heart and with the knowledge of what she had to do. She put on her blue house coat and sat down to her desk with its embossed leather fittings, and there under the lovely, lamp which Kingdon Knox had given her she wrote to Nannie.

She gave the letter to Nannie the next morning. "I want you to read it when you are all alone. Then tear it up. It must always be just between you and me, Nannie."

Nannie read the letter in the lunch hour. She got her lunch at a cafeteria and there was a rest room. It was very quiet and she had a corner to herself. She wondered what Mary had to say to her, and why she didn't talk it out instead of writing about it.

But Mary had felt that she could not trust herself to speak. There would have been Nannie's eyes to meet, questions to answer; and this meant so much. Paper and pen were impersonal.


"It isn't easy to talk such things out, Nannie. I should never have written this if I had not realized last night that your feet were following the path which my own have followed for fifteen years. And I knew that you were envying me and wanting to be like me; and I am saying what I shall say in this letter so that I may save you, Nannie.

"When I first came into Mr. Knox's office I was young like you, and I had a lover, young and fine like Dick, and he satisfied me. We had our plans—of a home and the happiness we should have together. If I had married him, I should now have sons and daughters growing up about me, and when Christmas came there would be a tree and young faces smiling, and my husband, smiling.

"But Mr. Knox talked to me as he talked to you. He told me, too, to wait—for Prince Charming. He told me I was too fine to be wasted. He hinted that the man I was planning to marry was a plain fellow, not good enough for me. He talked and I listened. He opened vistas. I saw myself raised to a different sphere by some man like Mr. Knox—just as well groomed, just as distinguished, just as rich and wonderful.

"But such men don't come often into the lives of girls like you and me, Nannie. I know that now. I did not know it then. But Mr. Knox should have known it. Yet he held out the hope; and at last he robbed me of my future, of the little home, my fine, strong husband. He robbed me of my woman's heritage of a child in my arms.

"And in return he gave me—nothing. I have found in the years that I have been with him that he likes to be admired and looked up to by pretty women. He likes to mold us into something exquisite and ornamental, he likes to feel that he has molded us. He likes to see our blushes. All these years that I have been with him, he has liked to feel that I looked upon him as the ideal toward which all my girlish dreams tended.

"He is not in love with me, and I am not in love with him. But he has always known that if he had been free and had wooed me, I should have felt that King Cophetua had come to the beggar maid. Yet, too late, I can see that if he had been free he would never have wooed me. His ambition would have carried him up and beyond anything I can ever hope to be, and he would have sought some woman of his own circle who would have contributed to his material success.

"And now he is trying to spoil your life, Nannie—to make you discontented with your future with Dick. You look at him and see in your life some day a Prince Charming. But I tell you this, Nannie, that Prince Charming will never come. And after a time all you will have to show for the years that you have spent in the office will be just a pretty room, a few bits of wood and leather and bronze in exchange for warm, human happiness, clinging hands, a husband like Dick, who adores you, who comes home at night, eager—for you!

"You can have all this—and I have lost it. And there isn't much ahead of me. I shan't always be ornamental, and then Mr. Knox will let me drop out of his life, as he has let others drop out. And there'll be loneliness and old age and—nothing else.

"Oh, Nannie, I want you to marry Dick. I want you to know that all the rest is dust and ashes. I feel tired and old; and when I think of your youth, and beauty, I want Dick to have it, not Mr. Knox, who will flatter and—forget.

"Tear this letter up, Nannie. It hasn't been easy to write. I don't want anybody but you to read it."


But Nannie did not tear it up.

She tucked it in her bag and went to telephone to Dick.

And would he meet her on the corner under the street lamp that night when she came home from the office? She had something to tell him.

Dick met Nannie, and presently they pursued their rapturous way. A little later Tommy Jackson passed by. Something caught his eye.

A bit of white paper.

He stooped and picked it up. It was Mary's letter to Nannie. Nannie had cried into her little handkerchief while she talked to Dick, and in getting the handkerchief out of the bag the letter had come with it and had dropped unnoticed to the ground.

It had been years since Tommy had seen any of Mary's writing. A sentence caught his eye, and he read straight through. After all, there are things permitted an officer of the law which might be unseemly in the average citizen.

And when he had read, Tommy began to say things beneath his breath. And the chances are that had Kingdon Knox appeared at that moment things would have fared badly with him.

But it was Mary Barker who came. She had under her arm in a paper parcel the fat doll with the blond curls and the blue socks. She did not see Tommy until she was almost upon him.

Then she said: "What are you doing here, Tommy?"

"Why shouldn't I be here?"

"This isn't your beat."

"It has been my beat since two weeks ago. I've seen you go by every night, Mary."

She stood looking up at him. And he looked down at her; and so, of course, their gaze met, and something that she saw in Tommy's eyes made Mary's overflow.

"Mary, darling," said Tommy tenderly.

"You said you wouldn't forgive me."

"That was fifteen years ago."

"Tommy, I'm sorry."

Tommy stood very straight as became an officer of the law with, the eyes of the world upon him.

"May," he said, "I just read your letter to Nannie. She dropped it. If I'd known the things in that letter fifteen years ago I'd have stayed on my job until I got you. But I thought you didn't care."

"I thought so too," said Mary.

"But the letter told me that you wanted a husband's loving heart and a strong arm," said Tommy, "and, please God, you are going to have them, Mary. And now you run along, girl, dear. I can't be making love when I'm on duty. But I'll come and kiss you at nine."

So Mary ran along, and her heart sang. And when she got home she unwrapped the fat doll and kissed every curl of her, and she set her under the lovely lamp; and then she got a long box and put something in it and wrapped it and addressed it to Kingdon Knox.

And after that she went to the window and stood there, watching until she saw Tommy coming.

And the next morning when Kingdon Knox found the long box on his desk, addressed in Mary's handwriting, he thought it was a Christmas present, and he opened it, smiling.

But his smile died as he read the note which lay on top of a string of jade beads:

 

"I am sending them back, Mr. Knox, with my resignation. I should never have taken them. But somehow you made me feel that I was a sort of fairy princess, and that jade beads belonged to me, and everything beautiful, and that some day life would bring them. But life isn't that, and you knew it and I didn't. Life is just warm human happiness, and a home, and work for those we love. And so, after all, I am going to marry Tommy. And Nannie is going to marry Dick. In a way it is a happy ending, and in a way it isn't, because I've grown away from the kind of life I must live with Tommy, and I am afraid that in some ways I am not fitted for it. But Tommy says that I am silly to be afraid. And in the future I am going to trust Tommy."


And so Mary went out of Kingdon Knox's life. And on Christmas Day at the head of a great table, with servants to the right of him and servants to the left, he carved a mammoth turkey; and there was silver shining, and glass sparkling and lovely women smiling, all in honor of the merry season.

But Kingdon Knox was not merry as he thought of the jade beads and of Mary's empty desk.