THE MOUSE

A girl eager for thrills—and a mouse hungry for cheese! How the fate of the one awakened within the other a realization of self-centredness is told in this vignette of the flapper age.

LLEWELLYN HUGHES July 1 1926

THE MOUSE

A girl eager for thrills—and a mouse hungry for cheese! How the fate of the one awakened within the other a realization of self-centredness is told in this vignette of the flapper age.

LLEWELLYN HUGHES July 1 1926

THE MOUSE

A girl eager for thrills—and a mouse hungry for cheese! How the fate of the one awakened within the other a realization of self-centredness is told in this vignette of the flapper age.

LLEWELLYN HUGHES

THE bedroom, dimly lit by the little table-lamp with its ten-cent blue shade, was thick with the sultriness of a July evening, hushed and shadowy. To Elsie, sitting motionless in the upholstered chair beside the bed, it seemed hours since she had come home—late by reason of it being Monday and her appointment at the Plaza —and found the flat in darkness. She had

run at once for the doctor, telling his wife to be sure and send him the minute he came in—to Mrs. Jammes, apartment 6A.

And still he had not come. There was nothing to do except sit there, waiting. Too bad! With her hair all dressed and her fingers manicured for May Hervey’s party! For that regular extravagance at the Plaza she had parted with four dollars, and Elsie Jammes frowned as she unwillingly conceded the frustration of an eventful evening. To-morrow night, too, maybe? And Wednesday’s date with Harry? And Thursday; and that dance at the Selma club, Friday night? Just like ma to go and get sick in the midst of things! The chances were she hadn’t been able to fix that georgette, either. So she couldn’t go over to May’s anyway. Not in the chiffon. Pretty and all that, the way it had been altered, but she’d worn it there the last time. Her yellow silk was a mess!

She glanced at the bed. Ma was sleeping now. What could be the matter with her? Heart? She had been taken like this once before, lying there all night without saying a word, to be up and around the next morning, as if nothing had happened.

‘Tm a little easier now you’re home, Elsie. Still, you better get the doctor.”

But the queer way she had looked at her! Her eyes! Maybe, in the morning, she would be all right again.

Otherwise, Elsie reflected, she’d have to prepare her own breakfast. Bad enough having to get up at a quarter to eight without—! Well, if ma was real sick, she could manage on a cup of coffee, and get a good lunch downtown.

Strange, now she came to think of it, she didn’t feel hungry. Had had hardly anything to-day. Trying to save so as to get that imported scarf—if they’d only keep it for her. Look cute with the French hat she had bought last week! Of course, she could get the scarf easily if she didn’t have to give ma seven dollars every week out of her measly pay. Lot of money, seven dollars! May Hervey and Dot Pinson only gave their mothers five! But, then, some girls were mean like that—when you got to know them!

Through the open window a faint breeze wafted in nine tinny chimes from a clock in the adjacent apartment house. Elsie counted them, fancied she saw them cast long, pointing shadows on the bedroom wall. Arrested by the striking of the hour her disordered mind concentrated upon a single recollection. She had completely forgotten about Jimmy. She saw him clearly, standing by the corner drug-store, where he was to meet her and take her to May Hervey’s. Nineteen—a year older than herself— just a kid! She ought to let him know in some way. He wouldn’t come up. Ma didn’t like any of her friends.

“Smart Alecks. Think of nothing but themselves.”

No, he wouldn’t come up, and they didn’t have a telephone. Poor Jimmy! Perhaps, after last Thursday when she cut her date with him to go out with Harry, he wouldn’t wait long? But she ought to let him know. How could she manage it?

This difficulty swept Jimmy and the corner drug-store away, and Elsie Jammes was staring at the shadows on the wall. Dumbly, she watched their repetitive performances. They came, she saw, from the window curtains, one of which, near the top, was torn by a nail or something. It was the first time she had noticed it. Ma ought to have got her needle and sewed it. What would people over in the next apartment house think? Say they were povertystricken! What did ma do all day long, anyway, that she couldn’t just take a pair of scissors and snip off those shreds?

And that reminded Elsie. She w.shed ma wouldn’t use her nail scissors for sewing. Last Sunday night, when she came home late from Yonkers, she had seen them lying on top of that chiffon ma was altering. She would have spoken about it then, only it was so late and ma had gone to bed. But why didn’t ma—?

Below, in the alley, the funereal wail of an old cat was interrupted by the barking of a dog. Elsie shivered. What was the matter with her lately? Nervous as could be! Anyway, she hated dogs that barked loudly. The only ones she liked were those little Pekes and Poms carried by the girls she saw in the Plaza. With a Peke under her arm, and a limousine to step into, she’d be more of a society girl than any of them! If it wasn’t for ma, she would carry a cane to the office. The boss told her she was distinguished-looking. But ma, as usual—

A sharp reminder of her mother’s sickness terminated her fault-finding. It was depressingly hot and quiet. Again, the shadows captured her attention. What did they make her think of? Long, flowing, winding arms; vainly and monotonously trying to grasp at—nothing! No, after all, ma couldn’t really help herself. She didn’t know any better. Poor ma! Here in the flat all day, she never had a chance to see people—styles and things. Sweetest thing in the world, was ma! Elsie just loved going to church with her on Sundays. Only she didn’t dress smartly. The contrast between them was terrible! Trouble was, ma didn’t know how to wear her things. Those black silk stockings she had given her, for instance— What, thought Elsie Jammes very suddenly, if her mother were seriously ill? What if she were dying? To this premonition the shadows on the wall lent immediate support. They were like fingers! Long, grasping fingers! They seemed to be trying to curl themselves round the edge of the bed, to sweep it away into— nothingness! The explanation of their peculiar writhings was frightful. A hand —reaching from the beyond—from the grave—to take ma—!

Elsie remembered now, just before she had gone out on Sunday afternoon, that her mother had complained of her heart. But Harry and May had yelled for her to hurry. And this morning! Ma looked so poorly—getting breakfast—so pale and drawn-looking . . .

She’d have to take a room somewhere, mend her own clothes, cook her own meals! In the past all this had been done for her as automatically as the clocked ticked. In the morning:

“Elsie, dear, it’s time to get up. Breakfast is ready.” At night, rushing home from that hateful office, dashing into the bedroom to change and make herself look nice—for others—not for ma:

“Come, dear—dinner’s waiting.”

A hurried meal, and more hurried thanks: “Leave the dishes, ma. I’ll wash them when I get back. I’ll be late, though.”

How many times, Elsie Jammes asked herself, had she said that? And would she really have washed the dishes had ma

taken her at her word? Twelve, one o’clock, sometimes two in the morning!

“That you, Elsie?”

“It is!”

“There’s a glass of milk and some crackers in the kitchen, dear. Glad you’re back. Now don’t be long getting to bed.” “All right, ma. Don’t worry. Go to sleep.”

Elsie closed her eyes. What would she do without ma? What would compensate her if she died? Ma’s little savings? Her own seven dollars a week? Seven—

SHE was brought to attention! Quite audibly, in the sepulchral room, she heard a scraping noise. With a single, swift movement she brought her feet up under her. Only a little noise, but on possible repetition Elsie Jammes focussed a profound attention. Without moving her head, her eyes veered round in their sockets, directing themselves instinctively to an obscure corner.

The scratching was repeated. This time, nearer, and in a different place. Elsie’s protruding eyes came round in a little semi-circle. She felt—she knew it was a mouse. She wanted to spring for the door, slam it behind her, and call somebody. But the situation and its attending circumstances held her prisoner. She daren’t move. Then, her eyes, tuned to catch every infinitesimal movement on the floor, saw it! Just a very small mouse—she could see its palpitating nose and whiskers! It ran somewhere, spasmodically—Elsie’s body stiffened—tore-appear, quite fiendishly, under the bureau. It must have detected her, for it looked directly at her, sniffing the air, its little eyes bright with trepidation. The very incarnation of mischief and deviltry; creepy, squirming, furry!

From where she sat, she was unable to see the lower part of the kitchen door, but, by the wall, was a mouse-trap. Ma usually placed it there. Elsie prayed it was there now, and set, and that inside it was a piece of cheese. The best cheese. Fresh and pungent. She remained perfectly still. The mouse had vanished. If she clapped her hands, or coughed a little, it would run away somewhere. But only to return. No. she had better remain absolutely quiet, and hope, pray to Heaven the mouse would go in the trap, nibble the cheese, and get caught. She’d just let it stay there. No, she wouldn’t, either. She’d ring for the janitor, and he would carry the trap into the bath room and—

A sudden clack broke the silence of the room! For a second Elsie’s heart ceased to function. Then, she knew! The mouse was caught! It had gone poking round, smelled the cheese, and was caught. The relief was blissful. It was a miracle from Heaven in answer to her prayers, and Elsie Jammes released, in a comfortable exhalation, her pent-up anxieties. The crisis was past. Visualizing a mouse-trap, she now held it in the highest esteem. It was the most wonderful invention of man.

Governed by this reflection the design of a mouse-trap lost some of its horror for her. As a rule, Elsie couldn’t bear to look at a mouse-trap. It made her shudder. Now, however, she reviewed it more calmly, thankfully, particularly this one she couldn’t, actually, see. She imagined it there by the kitchen door, the trap-arm slanting upwards, the trap closed tight, and—she fancied dramatically—the mouse’s tail, curving out on the floor, pinned by the trap.

A little spasm of pity pricked her. Why wasn’t the mouse squeaking? Its tail must surely be paining. What would it do? It ought to try and pull its tail inside, in some way. But how? It couldn’t. Well, what was it doing? Would it nibble the cheese? It ought to. Now it was caught, now it was definitely and irrevocably imprisoned until the janitor came up in the morning to pick it up and laughingly put it in the wash-bowl, letting the faucet run, now its life was as good as ended, it ought, at least, to eat the cheese! The cheese was what it was really after, wasn’t it? Food. The desire for something to eat. Hunger had brought it out of its hole—or wherever it came from.

Elsie Jammes didn’t think it would eat the cheese. She imagined she could see it poking its sharp, quivering nose through the bars, hoping against hope it could squeeze through and run back to its hole, that terrible clack forever behind it. But it was useless. There was no escape. The mouse was done for!

Really, it hadn’t done any harm. What harm, after all, did a mouse do? It wasn’t as if it could eat a whole pound of cheese or gnaw a huge, great hole in a slipper. It merely nibbled things a weeny bit, that was all. Living its life in fear and trembling of cats, traps and men. And its death was a matter of hours, as sure, as inevitable as that the sun would rise in the morning.

Death! As Elsie’s eyes roved very slowly the word seemed to be written diagonally across the room. The window curtains now hung like shrouds. The shadows on the wall had returned to their grave. There wasn’t a sound. Ma, sleeping, wasn’t making the slightest . . . And Elsie couldn’t really detect her own breath; she didn’t appear to be inhaling, not even through her nose. Perhaps she

wasn’t? For a delirious instant she fancied the whole world was silent and that not a single thing was breathing, living.

But the awful stillness was broken by a faint squeak from the direction of the kitchen door. Elsie Jammes felt hysterical. A piteous, a woefully weak and tiny cry for help. Something in her breast responded, swelled into an unresisting persuasion, and before she knew what she was doing she was on her feet. As in a dream she crept noiselessly toward the kitchen door, stood statue-like when she saw the mouse-trap, then impelled by some mysterious hand, went forward. Her body, she knew, was numb; her face devoid of color. The mouse’s tail, projecting like a gray worm from under the trap-door, nauseated her. But she went on. With poised foot she pushed open the kitchen door, slid the mouse-trap nearer, and with the tip of her shoe pressed down on the slanting arm.

For a while nothing happened. Then, the tail was snakily drawn inside. Elsie, her heart beating alarmingly, had to steel herself to keep her toe on the trap-arm! Timidly, repentantly, a little be-whiskered mouse peeped out, sniffed round in quaking suspicion—suspicious now, even of liberty—came out a bit further, and, suddenly making up its mind, ran quickly and jerkily into the blessed darkness of the kitchen.

Amazed at what she had done, Elsie Jammes stood petrified, dazed by the sheer absurdity of her action. WThat had she done? Freed a horrid little mouse that was certain to return during the night, and the next night, and the next night, until it was eventually caught and drowned. Was she crazy? She clenched her hands to prevent, if possible, the release of a bubbling hysteria in her throat. Shocking her awakening sensibilities, came the hideous alarm of the doorbell.

HE doctor—to see ma!

Suddenly, an icy shiver ran down her spine. With a little scream she sprang for the bed, flung herself on her mother’s breast. Mrs. Jammes, opening her eyes, stared bewilderedly at her daughter.

“Oh, mother darling ... I don’t want you to . . . die!” She was sobbing, emotionally. “Mother! Mother! I’ve been so . . .! But I do love you, mother! More—more than anything in the world!”

“WThy, Elsie, sweetheart! I didn’t know you’d got home. Mother’s all right, dear. I feel much better now. I’ve been sleeping, I guess. Lordy! it's quite dark, too!”

“Oh, mother ...”

Mrs. Jammes kissed her daughter, feebly and tenderly. “There, there, darling. And my little pet hasn’t had her dinner or nothing. Never mind, sweetheart. Mother’s going to get up right away.”

“No, mother,” Elsie spoke passionately. “You lie right there—till you’re better. I’ll get dinner for both of us . . and breakfast . . . and . . . Oh, mother, mother darling . .!”