The Middle Strata
Editor’s Note.—A Canadian writer who is attaining prominence in the literary field gives us here a story of the city. It is in these that he has done his best work.
“No, there is nothing the matter with you, Miss Deering, except that you are becoming rather too self centered. You need to get out of the rut you are in. Get some fresh impressions.”
“Now Doctor! Don’t tell me I must go in for society. I hate it you know. Can’t you give me a tonic or a pickme-up of some sort? I am so bored all the time, I know that I need something.’
“Medicine is the last thing I will prescribe. It is too bad that you have so much money and so few troubles. Have you ever felt any curiosity to see how the other half lives?”
“I have been slumming, of course, everyone goes.”
“I meant the great middle strata, when I said the other half. The submerged tenth is fairly well known. You really ought to investigate the middle ranks. It would be interesting. Suppose you think about my prescription which is a mild dose of the middle layer, then take it, and report say a week hence.”
“Doctor Brill shoved his prescription pad away and stirred in his chair. By those two movements he invariably signified that the consultation was at an end.
Miss Deering rose. Her pallid face wore its usual bored expression tinged, however, with just the faintest ray of interest which, by the look of her firmly closed lips, was doomed to an early death.
“How extraordinary you are, Doctor Brill. You will drive me to the taking
of those remarkable cures advertised in the papers.”
“I think not. I hope that you will not forget that I expect you to let me know how the cure is working, this day week. He bent his serious blue eyes upon her for a compelling instant shook her limp hand heartily, opened the door and the next instant had disappeared with a waiting patient.
Viola Deering stepped into her luxurious automobile and was whirled homeward. At first she was inclined to be annoyed with her man of medicine but his suggestion interested her after all. Suddenly she decided to vary her course a trifle and spent an amusing hour in one of the cheaper department stores, carrying an armful of bulky parcels to the automobile, herself.
Arrived at her home—outside, all pink brick, white enamel wood trim, real old Colonial door and knocker, diamond pane windows and filled inside with order, a somewhat' cold taste in decoration and furnishings, but comfortable in every detail, she summoned her housekeeper and gave orders for the week to follow. Then, still carrying her parcels almost jealously, she proceeded to her room.
She packed a small handbag and then arrayed herself in her recent purchases. Making sure that she could depart unobserved Miss Deering picked up her bag and tip-toed out of her own house as quietly as a dismissed domestic.
Two blocks away she boarded a street car and half an hour later was climbing the ricketty steps of a boarding house near the centre of the city, whose standing advertisement said that its
board was good and its terms reasonable, and to which Miss Deering knew that the social workers in her club often directed people.
The landlay, a stout woman of forty with a worried, choleric face, looked Miss Deering over appraisingly.
“Yes, I have a vacant room.” She said at last.
“Could I see it?”
The landlady seemed to consider, the while she stared at her would-be guest as if to read her past life, future prospects and financial and moral reliability in her face, ringless hands, ready-made suit, three-dollar hat and elegant handbag with silver fittings. Miss Deering had not paid sufficient attention to that detail. It did not harmonize with the rest of her aspect and her coolly superior manner was also much against her, had she known.
“Are you working?” demanded the landlady, pulling a bunch of keys out of her belt and half turning toward the gloomy stairs.
“No. I—that is, I am looking for work.”
“Oh. Well, you’ll have to pay in advance. Do you want a hall room?”
“I can’t say, until I see it.”
“It’s two flights up.”
They climbed the steep stairs. One horrified glance at the tiny cell known as the hall room, its bumpy bed, bureau on three castors, and decrepit wooden chair was enough for Viola. She decided to see a better room and, ten minutes later had paid a week’s board, and was in full possession of her new quarters.
She made a tour of the place, disgustedly examining every dusty corner, noting each untidy, unhealthful, uninspiring detail. She wondered how many hundreds of people had slept in the oldfashioned black walnut bed and if the bedding had ever been renovated, and contrasted the room with the poorest one she supplied her servants, and smiled.
That evening, she waited until she thought most of her fellow boarders would be assembled in the basement dining room and then descended. There
was a little hush as she entered. Every pair of eyes was frankly fixed upon her.
It was disconcerting to be kept standing there in the middle of a huddle of not immaculate tables. A few faint rays of the waning daylight struggled through the windows, which looked onto the bottom of a light well. The unshaded gasjets flared and smoked, the stale air reeked with oily food smells.
No one spoke to her and at last she decided to seat herself. She was drawing out a chair at the nearest table when a pert voice said “That seat’s taken !”
Miss Deering drew back, and there was a titter. Just then, Lena, the waitress, kicked open the kitchen door and entered, her tray laden with little round stoneware bowls of cabbage soup. She set them down and pulled out a chair at a vacant table in a corner. “You kin set here,” she said, and smiled.
The new guest felt warmed by it and took her seat with a feeling of genuine gratitude.
“Cabbage er tomatt—o soup?” inquired Lena, wiping a spoon on her apron.
“What’s yer name? Everybuddv’11 be askin’ me.”
“Oh, Miss Deering. Do you introduce people?”
“Law no! Don’t wait for that, here. W’y they just come up an’ talk an’ you do the same. Cabbage did you say?”
The room was again abuzz with talk. No one paid the least attention to the newcomer. The guests plied knives and forks and tongues industriously. They varied from a fine faced old gentleman of over eighty to a fluffy haired blonde chit of seventeen who was somebody’s typist during the day and another somebody’s “steady company” every evening.
Tn spite of the fact that adversity had compelled the old gentleman to live in Mrs. Black’s boarding house for over ten years he still possessed the courtesy
of another age and he smiled and nodded to those who spoke to him, with the air of a grand duke.
There was a smart appearing woman of about Miss Deering’s age who sat next to the old man. She complained a little of the fatigue of the day. Miss Deering observed that her eyes were heavy, her hand trembled as she lifted her teacup and she seemed to be forcing herself to eat. “The woman is tired to the point of utter exhaustion,” thought Viola.
“I hope you will be able to get some sleep tonight,” said the old gentleman.
“No chance. I’ve got to work.”
“You are not going back to the store ?”
“Already!” cried two voices at once from the next table.
“We don’t begin until next week. Gee! How I hate it. You look awful tired, Miss Glass. When are you going to get a rest?”
“When I die, I hope.” A laugh greeted this.
“You should get married, Miss Glass,” remarked a loudly dressed young man with red hair who was bolting his food at an alarming rate.
“That’s what everybody tells me. But I don’t see much hope for me with all these pretty girls here. Besides, who ever heard of an old maid getting married?”
“Cheer up, there’s hope yet.” This was from a pop-eyed dried-up looking woman who presided at what Lena called “the family table,” for it was sacred to the Burns family. Father, mild and colorless; mother, the speaker; daughter, Hilda, who was learning French and corresponding with a divinity student; sister Dodo, a student of music; Bob and Leslie, schoolboys, aged twelve and fourteen, and like all other boys.
The family dutifully applauded mother. The rest laughed only faintly, so Miss Deering concluded that Miss Glass was rather better liked than Mrs. Burns.
Mrs. Carpenter at a far table, raised her voice a trifle. “Miss Deems has got a ‘kise.’ ” There was a ripple and gen-
eral attention. “Miss Deems is English and says ‘kise’ for case; she’s a nurse,” explained Lena to Miss Deering whilst she removed the soup plate.
“At last!” said Mrs. Burns.
“Yes. At the King Hal Hotel. She was to give the man hot applications right away, the doctor said.”
“Oh his wife is there, so it is all right.”
“Of course. Well, it’s a good thing for Miss Deems. She has been idle so long. I hope the man stays sick a month,” said Miss Glass.
“Mercy on us, Miss Glass, you don’t wish him any ill fortune or anything, do you?” cried Mr. Carpenter.
“If some one has bad luck it means sood luck for somebody else. Life’s a see-saw.”
“What she meant was, Jim, that she hoped the man would fancy he was ill.”
“Not exactly, Mrs. Carpenter, fancying and being, are usually the same. Men are such babies anyhow.” Miss Glass got up and pushed her chair back in place.
“There’s another nawsty one!” exclaimed Mr. St'ruthers, the blonde Englishman who was writing a book.
Miss Deering watched Miss Glass’ superb figure out of sight, wondering meanwhile if she could possibly be as near collapse as she looked.
A large black haired woman came in. “Hello, everybody,” she said breezily.
“Good evening, Mrs. Mack,” said the family primly. The old gentleman nodded gravely, the red haired young man put out his hand and wrenched a chair out. “Hello, Carrie,” said lie. “How is the whole vile world?”
“Great! I feel fine; tired as a dog; going motoring with my friends tonight—away out in the country; going to dig up a lantern ’an’ see if I can’t locate some flowers. What we got for dinner? My, but I’m hungry. Hello Donnie! How’s Donnie! Heard you come in last night, you scalawag. Bet it was three o’clock if it was a second.”
“Aw now, Mrs. Mack!”
“Well, it was. I know, because that kid across the alley always starts to yell
about one and it had been at it for a couple of hours.”
“Um hum, it was a quarter after three,” said Mr. Samuels. “I was up and looked at my watch.”
“How did you know that I was there?”
“Seen your light, of course, you mutt.”
“Now I’ve got you! I didn’t have a match and couldn’t light the gas. I went to bed in the dark!”
“Say, Miss Welsh, I saw you out last night,” called Donnie to the little typist.
“Yes. Gee, you was all lit up in pink. Who was the fella you was with?”
“Friend of mine.”
“You want to be careful of him. I knew a fella once that looked just like him—he was a porch-climber.”
Most of these sallies were greeted with general laughter. Miss Deering noticed that conversation did not impede the speed with which they all ate, and that none of them seemed to be anxious to linger. Everyone looked tired but still nervously alert. Some were planning the evening’s entertainment. Nearly all talked of the theatres and ball games ; those who were in funds did not mention money, those who were not, bewailed its absence aloud.
As Miss Deering began on the roast, the family rose as one man and departed. Dodo and the boys stalked out, eyes straight ahead. Hilda and her mother nodded right and left, graciously. Mr. Burns picked his teeth and slouched in the rear, bored. Miss Deering pitied him, she at least was not bored, but she knew very well she would have indigestion after this greasy meal.
After the Burns’ had disappeared the room became noisier. Mr. and Mrs. Carpenter were laughing hilariously at a joke being told sotto voce by Mr. Ewing, the confirmed bachelor who was reported, Lena said, to have lots of money but was awfully queer. Mrs. Mack was making shameless love to Donnie, the handsome but dissipated young salesman, while the red-haired
young man leaned back in his chair and regarded them with amused, halfshut eyes.
Donnie was not at all deceived by Mrs. Mack’s pretence of the maternal. He teased her by pretending to look upon her as a son looks to a mother, and his impudence was almost shocking. Viola watched the little farce, and felt contempt, then amusement, then suddenly she understood and while she bit her lip to keep from laughing at the funny side, her cold heart ached for Mrs. Mack.
The landlady bustled in and sat down opposite her new guest. The most of the boarders ignored her as completely as she ignored them. Miss Deering she favored with a nod. “ Well,” she said fretfully to the room at large, “the Burns’ are going to leave me.”
“Really?” cried Miss Welsh and her chum added, “I thought they were fixtures here.”
“Nothing is a fixture in this world. Lena, this soup is too salty. It’s the queerest thing how that cook will oversalt everything. Yes, they are going.”
“Where to?” Mrs. Mack took her hand off Donnie’s arm and turned around.
“Oh, they are going to live in somebody’s house while the somebody is away.”
“I shouldn’t like it, myself.”
“I would, if it is were a nice house.”
Donnie and the red-haired young man took their leave, and the bald Englishman followed. Mis. Mack’s air of gayety fell from her like a garment. She attacked the remainder of her dinner and did not look up again. The old man stalked stiffly out of the room, his cane held before him, for the hall was dark.
There was a clatter on the stairs, three sporty looking young men and three slender, overdressed, girls came in and seated themselves noisily.
There was a faint rustling at the door. An old, white-haired woman in a very dirty white waist and a very dirty black satin skirt came slowly in, catching at the edges of the tables as
she passed. She wore an uncertain smile as if she pled, half laughlingly, for indulgence. She was almost blind.
The landlady watched her safely into her chair and then turned away. Everyone looked at her but no one took the trouble to speak, for she was a little deaf and her old brain did not work quickly. One was apt to have to repeat an inane remark several times, so what was the use? It is easier to let old people alone.
Miss Deering waited in vain for a finger bowl, then, remembering that the others had concluded without, she excused herself and went upstairs.
There were lights under a few doors. Someone was worrying a disjointed tune out of a mandolin, Donnie’s fine bass voice was singing the latest ragtime hit, and as Viola reached her door the flat notes of a tuneless piano in the parlor tinkled upward. She was fond of music, but she hated noise, so she shut her door with a bang, something she had not done in as long as she could remember. “Heavens ! How soon one becomes middle class!” Her room was stuffy, a peculiar odor, half kerosene and half carbolic acid, pervaded everything. She lit the gas and her aristocratic nostrils trembled with disgust. She was sorely tempted to return to her own cheerful library but decided against it.
She had nothing to read, and there was nothing interesting or even restful in her room. Somewhere a child was crying weakly. It disturbed Miss Deering so that at last she was forced to don her street things and venture forth.
There was no where in particular to go. The stores were closed, the churches dark, and there was no park within walking distance. She wondered how people who had to live in Mrs. Black’s boarding house the year around, managed to keep from going mad every evening. For the first time she realized how lonely life can be, and turned her steps into a quiet street, pondering as she walked.
Two girls passed her arm in arm. She recognized Miss Welsh as one of
them for she was speaking. “I just sung out, “that chair’s taken,” I wasn’t going to have any old maid with a face like a quince, seated at my table.”
“I don’t blame you. An old maid is no good to herself or anybody else. They are all as selfish as they can be.” Miss Deering realized that she was the subject of their conversation and too, that for the most part, she was no good to herself or to anyone else. She turned this new idea over and over, could it be that the old self she had discarded that day was the unnatural one and this other, dressed in ugly garments and thrilling through and through with pity for the old blind woman, and foolish, overworked, heart starved Mrs Mack was her better self?
At last she noticed that it was nearlv ten o’clock. She had wandered a long wav away from the boarding house and was very tired. There was a lunch room at hand, in fact, it was the clock in its window that had startled her.
White enamel letters below the name announced that ladies were served. Why not go in for a cup of coffee?
Miss Deering hesitated only a second then opened the door and went in. There was a long counter, three young Greeks presided behind it and a row of rather shabby young men perched variously on stools before it. Several wore their hats.
At the rear of the room were some small tables and two women were seated at one of them. Their presence was all that saved Viola Deering from mounting a stool at the counter.
She ordered coffee and crullers, genuinely tired from physical exertion for the first time in years. The coffee came in an enormous china cup that resembled a hollow cobble stone. The waiter had put milk into it unbidden, as a matter of course. Viola helped herself to a spoonful of coarse ‘ sugar and thought it all amazingly good.
She looked around her with the livliest interest. To be sure, there was dirt in the corners but on the surface, things were surprisingly clean, and the prices on the flyspecked bill-of-fare, incredibly cheap.
A young man came in, swung himself to a stool, threw his hat onto a peg and gave his order all in a breathless moment.
“Adam and Eve on a raft!” yelled the waiter to the cook behind the swing doors. “Stack o’ wheats!” shrieked another. Miss Deering wondered just what these things would be but she forgot to watch to see, in her interest in another newcomer.
He was a young man, very shabbily dressed, he walked slowly and in every line of his face was the unmistakable sign of consumption. He took a stool and listlessly drank a cup of coffee and ate some pancakes. It was noticeable that he did not twine his legs around the stool in the hearty manner of the others.
“How you feelin’, Bill?” inquired one of the waiters.
“Eine, I don’t think. The doc says I ought to light out for Colorado before the con gets me.’
“Who, me? Oh, my yes! In my private car.” He paid for his meal and with a gasping, “So long,” went out.
The men on the stools looked after him, some indifferently, but most with pity. The Greeks shook their heads at each other. Then, one more emphatic than the others, observed that it was a blanked shame about Bill. “Here he works like a son-of-a-gun since he was so high. Father, he is dead; mother sick; five, six kids, all girls. Bill has to buy them shoes, send ’em to school, and do everything, it’s all up to him. He gets sick, but he’s got to work or they all starve, naturally he gets worse. Now look at him. It’s a damn shame. Things are not even in this life. Look at those rich fellers that roll in money, and then look at Bill.”
“Why don’t he make the kids get jobs,” asked a messenger-boy practical-
“Him ! Them girls is to be ladies— only !”
The messenger-boy made a grimace and demanded custard pie.
Miss Deering finished her coffee and beckoned the sympathetic Greek. “Sit down,” she said, “I want you to tell me all about that young man with consumption. ^ Do you know his name and where he lives?”
The Greek, after a prolonged stare, «•ave her all the information she asked. She made a few notes on a scrap of soiled wrapping paper, with the Greek’s stubby pencil, and then she paid for her coffee and left.
“Who’s your frien’?” asked one of the others as Viola opened the door.
“Her? T dnnno. One of them ugly old maid angels, maybe.”
Verily, the middle strata was frankness and carelessness itself!
“Old maid.” How sour she must look, that everybody knew it. But about Bill, should she follow the sensible rule and thoroughly investigate his case, or, should she carry out the plan born in a moment?
In a stationary store she purchased writing materials, from her coat pocket
came her check-book and under the coldly incurious eye of the saleswoman Miss Deering wrote a check and a note which said: “Accept this in payment of a debt which you know nothing about. I expect you to leave for Colorado within three days.
“Very cordially yours,
P.S.—I have instructed my bankers to give vou no information about myself.”
Miss Deering wrote a brief letter to her bankers making good her postcript, posted both letters and took a car to Mrs. Black’s boarding house. It was after eleven o’clock when she opened the door.
All was quiet, the gas in the hall was turned low, the faded/ red carpet looked warm and mellow, the old walls, in their dim, dingy paper seemed to be brooding upon all their ears had heard in all the countless days of their long lives. Somewhere a board creaked, and the sounds from the city penetrated faintly.
Viola ran up the stairs as lightly as a girl. Mrs. Black was coming down and they met upon the landing. Miss Deering’s face was Wight with a smile, and the landlady, surprised out of herself, returned it. “You look happy, Miss Deering, have you found work so soon?”
“Yes! The best work! Oh I am so happy.”
Mrs. Black smiled again. “I am glad. Goodnight and sweet dreams.”
Viola undressed in a glow, humming a tune. She could have danced, she
felt so happy. Once in bed, she painted the darkness with her rosy plans.
“I’m not going to be an old maid. I’ll be a bachelor girl. I’ll stay here a week and do all I can, then I’ll report to Doctor Brill. To think that I wa«s ever bored. Oh, it’s great to have money to use. I wish I had known long ago how fine it is to help people in the middle strata. Won’t Bill be surprised?”
“Tomorrowr I will make friends with the old gentleman and the poor, half blind old lady. I’ll do something for them without their knowing it. Miss Glass is going to get a rest if I have to buy her store and dismiss her from her place.
“Yes, I’ll stop being a sour old maid with a sour face and a bored soul. I’m going to get busy, and slangy and alive | I have been shirking out of my job which is, I verily believe, playing deputy Providence. I’m going to need a card index to keep track of my people. Hum, hum, I’m so deliciously tired. How I shall sleep. I wonder what we will have for breakfast, I’m almost hungry.
“Doctor Brill knew what I needed. . . . He is a wizard. ... I
must endow a cot in his hospital . .
. poor Bill ... six little girls . . . he wants them to be ladies . .
what will he think . . . when
he gets my note? ... He had beautiful eyes ... I noticed . . . Not an old maid . . . face
like a quince. ... a big bachelor girl brother to . . . the . .
Miss Deering was asleep.