CLAIRE WALLIS November 15 1934


CLAIRE WALLIS November 15 1934




THE VOICE of the girl at the desk phone was discreetly low.

"Did you have a good week?” The question was rhetorical, as flat as the multiplication table.

"Oh, so-so,” replied the man two miles uptown. "Their accounts were in pretty bad shape, but we ought to wind things up out there in a few days.”

"It’s nicer to have you in town all week,” she murmured, a hint of warmth creeping into her voice.

"You bet! See you soon, Vicky. Same time, as usual?” "As usual,” Sarah McVickers echoed, letting the phone slide from her thin brown fingers into its cradle.

As usual. Suddenly she wanted to fling the phone across the office and follow it with the pad of tabulations and the row of heavy reference books upon her desk. She trembled with the sudden explosion of emotion that came with what those tw'o casual words implied. As usual, in another hour she would lock her desk, dab her tired face with cleansing lotion, daub on rouge and powder and go to meet Roger Curtis halfway uptown between their offices—as usual. They would dine at Conti’s as usual, consuming the usual hors d’oeuvres and mounds of spaghetti over a spotted tablecloth with the radio blaring in their ears. Once Conti’s had been a gay, rosy adventure where waiters smiled indulgently at their indifference to food. Now it was only a good, handy place to get a fifty-cent dinner.

As usual they would window-shop along the avenue, or drop into an early movie. Or they would take the bus out to Roger’s brother’s in the country and Roger would fall asleep on the way, his square-cut chin sunk in his muflier nodding to bus rhythm. As usual—oh, it was all wrong! She snapjx'd the point from her favorite red pencil.

IT HAD NOT BEEN this way at first, over twro years ago.

Then their own little home had seemed very near. They had spent Sundays in the suburbs going through houses, and had picked one—privately, of course—with gables and gardens and garage. Sarah had planned it all down to the last mirror and self-wringing mop. Her hope chest, swelled by betrothal showers, overflowed with silks and laces and embroidered linens. Nothing was too good for a bride. With her new engagement ring flashing conspicuously, she and Roger went giggling through the furniture shops at lunch time. They bought some Royal Doulton coffee cups and a prayer rug at an auction. Getting married was fun, a big adventure in living.

Then things began to happen. The depression cut off any chance of help from Sarah’s parents back home. There was Roger’s mother too, dependent first upon Paul, Roger’s brother, and now upon him.

"No matter what hapjx'ns, I shall have to keep on sending mother money,” Roger had explained in one of their saner moments.

"But of course, dear, you must do your part,” Sarah had agreed.

"Maybe Paul will be able to help more.”

"And if I keep my job. . . ”

But Paul, with three babies in a row and as many salary cuts, could not help. And then came a new ruling in the Acme Agency, from whose payroll Sarah drew a statistician’s salary. No more married girls. At first she thought it would not be hard to find a new firm that did not discriminate. But worn-out shoe leather and patience both resigned her to holding tight to the position that, in spite of two cuts, continued to supply her with lounging pyjamas, permanent waves and a comfortable room at the Co-operative Club. The little stone house on Lantern Lane grew dimmer and dimmer in the distance. They would just have to wait.

And now Conti’s was a habit. Roger was a habit. Their love was a habit—almost.

Tears of frustration started to her eyes. Through them the numerals, usually so tame under her colored pencils, broke into a wild dance of derision, thumbing their noses at her and daring her to marshal them into orderly columns again. It was no use. She shoved them away. What did it matter if 356 housewives in Twin Oaks found Blossom Soap too mild for their clothes, or that the heavy buyers of sterling silver were shifting classes? What really mattered was that Roger and she could not get married. What was wrong with the world? With the tumbled, economic scheme of things that was keeping them apart, wasting their young years, wearing thin their shining cloak of romance? For romance, like a fairy godmother, had attended their first meeting. There had been no hesitation, no doubt. Time

itself had stood still that breath-taking moment when love leaped up between them.

Love should be like that, as sudden and inevitable as a sunrise.

Roger, between kisses, had breathed incoherent prayers of thanks that he had met Sarah before he had stepped off the deep end with someone else. He did not name Dinah Merchant of course, but Sarah knew. From the heights of her bliss, Sarah looked down pityingly upon girls whose affairs were coming on so slowly, on Fran’s desperate and ill-concealed attempts to land Pete MacLean; on Kay and Lotta running nip and tuck with Ches Lambert; on Selena and Phil drifting into a comfortable understanding and a hearthand-slippers marriage. Dull affairs all of them, not the glorified thing that had happened to her and Roger.

Now she was not so condescending. Most of the old crowd were married and, if not completely happy, were seeing through what Roger and she, with all their love, had not been able to bring about.

Sarah placed the Blossom Soap tabulations on top of a macaroni survey in her basket of unfinished work. She must get out of the office and walk off this disturbance, calm down to the gait of patience that Roger had acquired.

"Gosh, Sarah, don’t let it get you like that !” he had said more than once. "We’ve just got to wait until things iron out. So what’s the use of complaining about it? We can talk until we run out of words and where do we get?”

"Right on the fence,” sputtered Sarah, “and I don’t believe you care.”

"Care!” Roger had growled the last time, sweeping her into his arms with genuine loverly gusto. "I’ll show you how much I care. There !... There !... There !... Oh, Vicky darling, I want you so much I’d pull down the stars or—or jump over the moon if it would do any good.” Which was a rather fancy flight of poesy for the sober young accountant, Roger Curtis.

SARAEI SMILED into her compact mirror. Roger was such a dear, so sweet and solid and dependable. Her heart warmed at the memory of that moment, the almost holy look in Roger’s grey eyes under the long lock of hair that always fell out of place wrhen he got excited. He was right. They must sit tight and wait for a break—modemese for miracle. And miracles do not happen nowadays. Manna does not fall upon the newly married’s dinner table, nor do loaves and fishes multiply in their kitchens.

She turned into the parkway where trees still hoarded balances of autumn gold. Lines of smart, shining cars before the apartment houses were gathering up the van of afternoon bridge-players—smug young matrons intent on scores, and dinners, and children with behavior problems. That is where she should have been. She wondered idly what rent they were getting now for those cute apartments in the Bentley. Roger and she had looked at them after the house and car had been blue-pencilled from their plans. They were so tricky with their sunken bathtubs, electric hair driers, and a dining table that disappeared in the w’all.

They had almost signed up for one of the smallest when. . .

She bit her lip. She tried to be reasonable about Paul. He could not help losing that last job, and he could not help the fact that he had embarked on a programme of a lightweight wife, a flock of girl babies, and a big, rambling country house before the depression had shaken the why and wherefore out of things. And of course, as Roger always carefully pointed out, Paul had put of! his marriage almost a year in order to see him through college. Still. . .

“Hi, Vicky!”

She jumped at the crisp voice from the melon-shaped roadster at the curb. The girl at the wheel with her wind-swept contour fell so completely into the general outline of modernity that Sarah registered sincere admiration. She really had nothing against Dinah Merchant except that everything came so easily to her—everything except Roger. Dinah had not concealed that any too well in spite of her casual air of good comradeship. Dinah was something of a fool but a good sport in spite of her money.

“Hi, yourself! How' tomorrow-ish you look !”

“It’s the girl, not the clothes. Hop in, if you have the time. I have to pick up dad.”

Sarah sank into the pliant cushions. “Drop me at the Liberty Building then. I’m meeting Roger and he hates to wait.” “Then—why does he do it?” Dinah’s words dropped like pebbles, each one hard and distinct with meaning.

Sarah flushed. She knew' that Dinah referred to their prolonged engagement—not a pleasant topic. But that w'as Dinah, as careless w'ith words as with dollars.

“Or are you two married?” She swung the wheel with one finger and the big car leaped into traflic. “I’ve just come home from Eden Rock and I haven’t caught up with the local tidbits.” “No, w'e’re not married— yet.” Sarah tried to sound casual. “But—”

“If I were going to marry Roger Curtis,” interrupted Dinah, a sybilline note in her voice, “there w'ould be no buts, nor not yets, nor perhapses about it. Wake up, my lass! Don’t be a dog in the manger, or somebody will snatch your bone.”

SARAH’S CHEEKS flamed. This was too much, even from Dinah. She had tried to be friendly, as friendly as any woman can be to the idol who has occupied the niche before her. But to be called a dog in the manger. . .

“Dinah Merchant, you make me wish I had the rabies,” she exploded. “It’s simple arithmetic for you to take all you want out of life—”

“Don’t rub it in, Sarah. I didn’t, remember that. Maybe I should have tried harder.”

“—and what do you know' about pinching pennies? About matters like rent, insurance, and riding in bumpy busesand—and—”

“And wearing last year’s dowdy little numbers?” Dinah laughed and shot a wicked side glance that took in Sarah’s smart tweeds, the soft French gloves and the hat with the ten-dollar dent in the crow-n. “Oh no, my dear, you can’t fool me. I know real love w'hen I see it. I should. I live with it enough,” she ended bitterly.

Real love. Did this disappointed, spoiled girl who probably for the first time in her life had not been able to have her whim wrapped and tied and taken home and charged to father, dare to criticize the quality of her love? Why, she would cut off her right hand, she would throw herself from the bridge they were crossing if it would give Roger happiness. She would even give him over to Dinah. . .

“Everything but marry him on tw'o cents and a never mind the future,” appended Dinah with unholy intuition. Sarah squirmed. Dinah had hit the nail on the head. “Well,” she heard herself saying, “since you’ve forced me to tell you, that is exactly w hat wre are doing. Roger and I are being married, very quietly, of course, a week from tomorrow.” She felt no amazement. The words had been lving like the piece of a puzzle at one side of her mind waiting

to be said, they fitted so perfectly into the pattern of their problem. It was so simple and easy that she drew' a long breath of relief and relaxed in her cushions.

“Well, I’m glad to hear it. Roger is too good a man to be kept out of circulation except permanently. He’s so -so darn good, Sarah, that he makes every man I meet seem like a Don Juan or a gay Lothario. I just hope you realize how lucky you are.”

Sarah needed no telling. Her heart within her was singing. “We are going to be married, we are going to be married at last. Nothing can stop us. Nothing in the world is big enough to stop us.”

Sarah could even feel sorry for Dinah who thought she had w-anted Roger, though she doubted if Dinah were as much in love as she appeared. It was ironic, however, that it had to be Dinah who had show'n her the w'ay.

Her cheeks were flaming banners, her shining eyes torches proclaiming her love to Roger waiting in the Liberty Building doorway. He looked worried, Sarah thought, as she grasped his arm and double-stepped to his long stride. They went to Conti’s though the finest hotel or a lunch wagon would have been the same to her in her triumphant mood.

“Roger, ask me quick what I did today?”

Roger tried to smile. “No telling. Dumped a load of Blossom Soap in the harbor, probably.”

“Just to see the bubbles?” giggled Sarah. “No, silly, try again.”

“I give up. Well, what did you do, Rastus?”

“I set the date for our wedding.”

“Old stuff. For two years come Whitsuntide this time, I suppose?”

“No, sir ! For just one week come tomorrow.”

“It’s impossible.”

“It isn’t. Why, there’s nothing to prevent us from walking out this minute and looking up a marrying parson somewhere. Only I threw in one week as a sop to the conventions.”

“Vicky, don’t talk nonsense. I can’t take it tonight. I—”

“But, Roger darling, it isn’t nonsense. It’s the most sensible thing I have ever done. We’ve been sitting like two bumps on a log waiting and waiting—for what? For maple guest rooms and electric whosises and enamel what-nots and chromium gadgets, when the only thing we need we have so much of that—that we’re millionaires in love, Roger.”

THE SERIOUS young man smiled appreciatively and covert'd her fluttering brown hands with his big one. “You’re the world’s best, Vicky sweet. I wish we could wake up and find it all true. But honestly, darling, you are talking in your sleep. You’ve never seen real poverty, close up, as I have. Wait—let me talk. Your folks have always had enough if not plenty. They were able to send you to college and pay their bills without scrimping. Even during the depression they’ve had enough to eat and their own roof safe over their heads. But I’ve been ixx>r. I’ve seen my mother come home from a day’s work with her poor feet bulging in cheap shoes, to scrub and cook and sew until midnight. I’ve seen her suffer for want of a doctor. I’ve seen her pretty teeth neglected, her figure get stooped. If I ever had to see you the same way, see that lovely hair grow dull and lifeless—”

“Roger, stop! You’re positively maudlin. I know it has been hard for you, poor dear, but things don’t work out that way these days. Your poor mother was different. She had no training—a widow with two little boys—”

“Yes, but it would not have been that way if father and she had had a good start. They had nothing.”

“But love.”

“I tell you, Sarah, poverty is not romantic. Get that out of your head.”

“Just the same, I am going to take a chance on it—unless, of course, you have been casting about for a rich mate like— Dinah Merchant.”

“Why bring that up? I’m satisfied. Only—”

“Listen, Roger, let’s get down to facts. We can leave the office early next Saturday and get it over with in ten minutes. That will give us the week-end to get settled. No flowers or veils or weepy parents, or presents to be reciprocated for in the next five years. Nothing but ‘Do you take?’ and ‘I do.’ I’ll resign the following Monday, and, Roger— I’ve just been thinking. I know’ a little street that is full of tiny houses that aren’t a bit bad, really. They’re more private than a makeshift apartment, and I imagine the rent is dirt cheap.”

“I’ll concede the dirt.”

“You could walk to the office and we wouldn’t need much furniture. Think of it, Roger, we’d be together every day. We’d eat and talk and joke and work together—”

“Vicky, stop it! You’ll have me mad. We can’t do it, girl. I may even have to give up my room at the club. I had a phone call from Paul today.”

The light died in Sarah’s face.

“What did he want? More money?”

“I don’t know. I wasn’t in. But the message said to get in touch with him immediately. Their phone has been disconnected, so—”

“So that’s an out, thank goodness!” Sarah tried to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

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“No, I’ll have to go out there tonight. I was hoping you might want to go with m^.” His eyes pleaded. They had never quarrelled about Paul. But Sarah knew that Roger was not unaware of her self-control.

“Oh, Roger, don’t go! You know how it will be. Paul will want another loan and you won’t be able to refuse him. I know you.” She had been a witness to so many of those scenes, Marian and she dawdling over the Sunday dinner table, Paul fidgety and finally managing to get Roger off by himself. They would show up an hour later, Roger worried, Paul sheepish but relieved. She had finally stopped going before the thin thread of her patience snapped.

“You wouldn’t want me to leave my own brother and his family to starve, would you, Vicky?”

“They wouldn’t. There are a lot of things they could do if they wanted to.”

“I don’t know about that. The last time I was out there things looked pretty bad. All they had for dinner was vegetable soup.”

“Because Marian was probably too lazy to fix anything else.”

“Marian doesn’t do so badly for a girl who never had any experience with a house and children.” Roger drew viciously on the tablecloth with his fork.

“How many girls have these days? She’s no exception.”

“Vicky, don’t be so bitter, darling. I never heard you talk this way before.” He added two eyes to the moon face on the table.

“Because I’ve never said before half what was in my mind about Paul and Marian, because they were your family and you


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loved them and I loved you. But I’m tired, Roger, tired and sick of waiting and waiting with no end in sight. Just as long as you put your hand in your pocket, Paul and Marian will be sending you SOS phone calls instead of digging their own way out. And you and I will keep on getting older and stuffier—”

“So, I’m getting old and stuffy, am I?” Roger jabbed a sardonic mouth on his masterpiece.

“I didn’t say that.”

“You did—and plenty more. What’s j eating you, Sarah? You're so sorry for yourself that it’s not even funny.”

Sarah's lips trembled. She could not trust herself to speak.

“And perhaps you think I don’t worry too.” He was punctuating his words with curls now. “There isn’t a night that I don’t plan and figure.”

“I hope you figure out Paul’s interest while you are about it.”

“Vicky !”

Roger threw down his fork. The hurt in his eyes made her ashamed, but she could not back down now. She wanted him to think.

They finished their cigarettes in silence. Roger held her coat and paid the check. At the revolving door he hesitated.

“Well, what about it? Are you going out there with me?”

“No.” Sarah’s voice was very small but very determined.

“All right. I’ll have to leave you now if I want to catch that early bus. It’s good-by then.”



Why did he have to freeze up like that?

“Nothing—only, please try to keep in mind what—what I said. Don't let Paul wreck everything for us again. Remember, we’re going to be married next week, no matter what happens.”

Roger laughed, a terrible laugh with an edge on it like a new razor blade.

“Don’t be optimistic!” he called as he hopped a moving bus.

SARAH DID NOT call that power optimism which activated her during the next mad days. She called it love. And from its deep well she was forced to draw often for courage to go on alone with her

plans. For Roger was missing. Between counting plushy monogrammed bath towels and insignificant cocktail napkins, the whole idea suddenly struck her as being so fantastic that she l'aughed aloud at her dilemma. She had resigned herself to a reluctant bridegroom but not to an absent one. Even when phone calls to his office and club failed to locate him she had not fretted—too much. He had probably had to dip in again for Paul and was ashamed to face her. But he’d come around by Friday, especially if she ignored it.

And so with the zeal of an acolyte she speeded her plans. Long lists that had nothing to do with Blossom Soap or macaroni cluttered her desk. Things to buy, things to do, people to consult; chintzes, movers, measurements, announcements. She had found the little house in the back street at a rent so low that her gasp of astonishment brought the agent to quick assurances of paint, paper and thorough extermination. Sarah called it the Rabbit ¡Tole, and a love for it akin to the love she had once possessed for her ugliest doll stirred within her. If they painted the front door blue, put up a brass knocker, made window boxes and hung yellow curtains, they would be able to forget the neighbors, the noises and the smells.

Thus she whistled to herself as she tackled the furniture problem. But first there was a matter of cancelling an order for her new fur coat and a visit to a certain jeweller’s. Strange how little two people actually need for comfort. Two chairs to sit on, a table to eat from, a bed to sleep in, some shelves for books and hooks for clothes. The little house, still smelling of fresh paper and paint, received its new possessions gracefully. It was coming up in the world.

And so Friday came again—her wedding eve if Roger had not forgotten it. She waited all morning for the phone to ring—as usual. After today Roger and she would exchange the old habits for a new set. She was not rebellious now. It was habits, she told herself, that made up the warp of life, kept the fabric sturdy no matter what the pattern.

A last minute trip to the five-and-ten took up her last lunch hour. It was while she was rushing back to the office with her arms full of flimsily wrapped parcels, that she saw them—Roger and Dinah Merchant. They were leaving a smart florist shop and Roger was carrying packages and a long florist's box. There was nothing casual in their being together. In fact it was with a definite air of going places that they settled themselves in Dinah’s car and were swallowed up by north-moving traffic.

So that was it. Roger and Dinah.

She felt as if someone had suddenly disconnected her from some vitalizing current of energy. Her feet refused to move, her knees were fluid, her stomach a vacuum. Then, with the instinct of a wounded animal she fled to the only secret spot she knew where she could examine her hurt alone. As she fumbled for the keyhole in the door of the Rabbit Hole, a chalked face, the work of a schoolboy, grinned at her. It brought back the memory of that last night at Conti's and the dam of her tears broke.

In the tiny living room, sitting on a barrel of dishes, Sarah fought for happiness. Explanations rushed in to fill the void into which her life seemed to have fallen. Roger had been hurt, he was teaching her a lesson he was disappointed in her. Dinah had, made one last effort to buy his love ; she had caught him on the rebound. Roger loved his family more than he did her; he was tired of her; he did not want to be married. Round and round they whirled like the recurring figures on a merry-go-round. Then she thrust them aside. She had almost forgotten. Love like theirs could not be killed with such feeble thrusts of fate, even if any or all of them were true. There must be an answer somewhere, and suddenly she knew who could give it to her.

TT WAS ALMOST dusk as she turned the

key in the lock and hurried to catch the early bus out to the country. The large, sprawling house lay dark except for a dim, high light showing through the fanlight over the finger-marked door. 11 was opened

by the oldest little girl, a child of five with a dress much too short and a dirty face.

She didn’t seem surprised to see Sarah.

“Mother’s upstairs,” she said. “She just woke up.”

Two more dirty little faces framed in straight light bobs peeped over the banister. She picked her way up the stairs, gathering toys as she went. What a house ! A voice called, “Who is it?” and Sarah followed it, to find Marian in bed looking plump and complacent in a faded silk bed jacket. There was a heavy fragrance of roses in the stuffy room.

“Marian, you’ve been ill?” Sarah was only half contrite.

“Oh, it’s an illness you soon forget. Didn’t Roger tell you? We’re going to call him Roger. He really looks like him.” She pulled back a blanket and Sarah saw a small, silky black head with a red puckered face that in some ridiculous way did look like a small version of Roger’s.

“The darling! If I had only known sooner—when did it happen?”

“Monday.” Marian threw her a curious look. “Roger’s another old close-mouth just like Paul. But oh, Sarah, what a man! He has been like a mother to me. Sweet and thoughtful. Paul was nearly frantic last week when the call came—a real job, Sarah, out in Long Valley—and I was so near my time. There was no money for nurses or even for the telephone. But once Roger came, everything was all right. He sent Paul on his way Sunday night, found a woman to come in through the day, and waited until it was all over Monday night. He’s been hopping back and forth all week like a fussy old hen. . . There’s nothing wrong between you two, is there?”

Sarah buried her face over the baby’s curled fist.

“No,” she said.

“Well, I’m glad. He met that Merchant girl today while he was doing some errands for me, and she insisted on bringing roses and driving him home. I started to tease him and he got so cross. Then this afternoon, late, he rushed back to town without any explanation. . . No, Peggy, you mustn’t jump on mother's bed. Aunt Sarah’ll show the baby. Would you mind, Sarah? And if he’s wet—”

Mind? Sarah would have adopted a full orphanage in the ecstasy of her deliverance from fear and doubt. Marian had supplied the answer. Roger was still hers. She bustled about on feet winged with expectancy. She was giving the children their supper of hot cereal and raisins when the front door slammed.

“It’s daddy; I know his bang,” cried Peggy. The three tumbled over themselves like puppies to reach him first. Sarah followed them up the stairs, laughing at the practised way in which Paul slung one on his back and one under each arm, and supporting little Peggy’s rear so she would not slide off.

She left them at the door of Marian’s room. She could not intrude upon this gay family reunion. The little girls, dumped unceremoniously, were hopping on one foot, clamoring for daddy’s attention. Paul had enveloped Marian and the baby in a huge bear hug.

She heard his big voice booming, “Darling! Are you sure you’re all right?” and Marian’s answer, softer than usual: “Fine. It's a habit. He looks like Roger, doesn’t he, Paul?” Then Paul: “He looks like a shrivelled up apple. I’ll never get used to it. Silly! Dear girl.”

Then she turned away, tears blurring her sight. If poverty had touched this house it had left no lasting hurt. She bumped into something tall and solid that had been standing behind her.

“Roger! Don’t spoil the picture,” she whispered flippantly to hide her emotion. “God’s greatest gift, fourth reprint.”

ROGER’S ARMS went about her, his handkerchief wiped her eyes. He led her to the top stairstep.

“They’ve got the right idea,” he said. “I can see that now. It isn’t money. Vicky dear, I have a confession to make. Things

were so confused out here all week that I forgot all about—”


“No, goose! About getting married tomorrow. It wasn’t until I met Dinah Merchant this afternoon and she asked me about it.”

“Oh, Roger, that’s just too good !” Sarah pounded him in her hilarity. “So Dinah had to remind you of your wedding day.”

“Oh, I didn’t let her know she was telling me anything, don’t worry. I played up the anxious bridegroom all right. And was I anxious? Especially when I could not get hold of you. Well, are we all set for the big sporting event of the season?”

Sarah nodded.

“The bride has been saving her blushes all week.”

“I couldn’t get the license without you, but I did get—hold up your left hand.” He

was fumbling in his pocket "Let’s try this ring. Why, where’s the other one, the diamond?”

“I—Roger, promise you won’t be too cross?”

“You lost it?”

“No. I traded it. For a month’s rent, for rugs and chairs and pillows and pots and pans. Roger, you have no idea how much that ring brought. I even got a coffee table and an umbrella jar and an alarm clock, and I have twenty-two dollars left. Funny. That ring was supposed to hold us together, but I think it was really keeping us apart.”

Roger folded her in his arms.

“Maybe I’m an old so-and-so, but I’m a dam lucky one. Do you mind? We’ll get a new ring just as soon as things pick up.”

“Oh, I’ll wait for our twenty-fifth anniversary. If you love enough you don’t need rings, nor very much of anything else.”