Edna Ferber.

Cheerful—By Request online

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and eyed it, speculatively, fearfully. It shrilled on in her very face,
and there seemed something taunting and vindictive about it. One long
ring, followed by a short one; a long ring, a short. "Ca-a-an't it?
Ca-a-an't it?"

"Something tells me I'm wrong," Martha Foote told herself, ruefully, and
reached for the blatant, snarling thing.

"Yes?"

"Mrs. Foote? This is Healy, the night clerk. Say, Mrs. Foote, I think
you'd better step down to six-eighteen and see what's - "

"I _am_ wrong," said Martha Foote.

"What's that?"

"Nothing. Go on. Will I step down to six-eighteen and - ?"

"She's sick, or something. Hysterics, I'd say. As far as I could make
out it was something about a noise, or a sound or - Anyway, she can't
locate it, and her maid says if we don't stop it right away - "

"I'll go down. Maybe it's the plumbing. Or the radiator. Did you ask?"

"No, nothing like that. She kept talking about a wail."

"A what!"

"A wail. A kind of groaning, you know. And then dull raps on the wall,
behind the bed."

"Now look here, Ed Healy; I get up at 6:30, but I can't see a joke
before ten. If you're trying to be funny! - "

"Funny! Why, say, listen, Mrs. Foote. I may be a night clerk, but I'm
not so low as to get you out at half past six to spring a thing like
that in fun. I mean it. So did she."

"But a kind of moaning! And then dull raps!"

"Those are her words. A kind of m - "

"Let's not make a chant of it. I think I get you. I'll be down there in
ten minutes. Telephone her, will you?"

"Can't you make it five?"

"Not without skipping something vital."

Still, it couldn't have been a second over ten, including shoes, hair,
and hooks-and-eyes. And a fresh white blouse. It was Martha Foote's
theory that a hotel housekeeper, dressed for work, ought to be as
inconspicuous as a steel engraving. She would have been, too, if it
hadn't been for her eyes.

She paused a moment before the door of six-eighteen and took a deep
breath. At the first brisk rat-tat of her knuckles on the door there had
sounded a shrill "Come in!" But before she could turn the knob the door
was flung open by a kimonoed mulatto girl, her eyes all whites. The girl
began to jabber, incoherently but Martha Foote passed on through the
little hall to the door of the bedroom.

Six-eighteen was in bed. At sight of her Martha Foote knew that she had
to deal with an over-wrought woman. Her hair was pushed back wildly from
her forehead. Her arms were clasped about her knees. At the left her
nightgown had slipped down so that one plump white shoulder gleamed
against the background of her streaming hair. The room was in almost
comic disorder. It was a room in which a struggle has taken place
between its occupant and that burning-eyed hag, Sleeplessness. The hag,
it was plain, had won. A half-emptied glass of milk was on the table by
the bed. Warmed, and sipped slowly, it had evidently failed to soothe. A
tray of dishes littered another table. Yesterday's dishes, their
contents congealed. Books and magazines, their covers spread wide as if
they had been flung, sprawled where they lay. A little heap of
grey-black cigarette stubs. The window curtain awry where she had stood
there during a feverish moment of the sleepless night, looking down upon
the lights of Grant Park and the sombre black void beyond that was Lake
Michigan. A tiny satin bedroom slipper on a chair, its mate, sole up,
peeping out from under the bed. A pair of satin slippers alone,
distributed thus, would make a nun's cell look disreputable. Over all
this disorder the ceiling lights, the wall lights, and the light from
two rosy lamps, beat mercilessly down; and upon the white-faced woman in
the bed.

She stared, hollow-eyed, at Martha Foote. Martha Foote, in the doorway,
gazed serenely back upon her. And Geisha McCoy's quick intelligence and
drama-sense responded to the picture of this calm and capable figure in
the midst of the feverish, over-lighted, over-heated room. In that
moment the nervous pucker between her eyes ironed out ever so little,
and something resembling a wan smile crept into her face. And what she
said was:

"I wouldn't have believed it."

"Believed what?" inquired Martha Foote, pleasantly.

"That there was anybody left in the world who could look like that in a
white shirtwaist at 6:30 A.M. Is that all your own hair?"

"Strictly."

"Some people have all the luck," sighed Geisha McCoy, and dropped
listlessly back on her pillows. Martha Foote came forward into the room.
At that instant the woman in the bed sat up again, tense, every nerve
strained in an attitude of listening. The mulatto girl had come swiftly
to the foot of the bed and was clutching the footboard, her knuckles
showing white.

"Listen!" A hissing whisper from the haggard woman in the bed. "What's
that?"

"Wha' dat!" breathed the coloured girl, all her elegance gone, her
every look and motion a hundred-year throwback to her voodoo-haunted
ancestors.

The three women remained rigid, listening. From the wall somewhere
behind the bed came a low, weird monotonous sound, half wail, half
croaking moan, like a banshee with a cold. A clanking, then, as of
chains. A s-s-swish. Then three dull raps, seemingly from within the
very wall itself.

The coloured girl was trembling. Her lips were moving, soundlessly. But
Geisha McCoy's emotion was made of different stuff.

"Now look here," she said, desperately, "I don't mind a sleepless night.
I'm used to 'em. But usually I can drop off at five, for a little while.
And that's been going on - well, I don't know how long. It's driving me
crazy. Blanche, you fool, stop that hand wringing! I tell you there's no
such thing as ghosts. Now you" - she turned to Martha Foote again - "you
tell me, for God's sake, what _is_ that!"

And into Martha Foote's face there came such a look of mingled
compassion and mirth as to bring a quick flame of fury into Geisha
McCoy's eyes.

"Look here, you may think it's funny but - "

"I don't. I don't. Wait a minute." Martha Foote turned and was gone. An
instant later the weird sounds ceased. The two women in the room looked
toward the door, expectantly. And through it came Martha Foote, smiling.
She turned and beckoned to some one without. "Come on," she said. "Come
on." She put out a hand, encouragingly, and brought forward the
shrinking, cowering, timorous figure of Anna Czarnik, scrub-woman on the
sixth floor. Her hand still on her shoulder Martha Foote led her to the
centre of the room, where she stood, gazing dumbly about. She was the
scrub-woman you've seen in every hotel from San Francisco to Scituate. A
shapeless, moist, blue calico mass. Her shoes turned up ludicrously at
the toes, as do the shoes of one who crawls her way backward, crab-like,
on hands and knees. Her hands were the shrivelled, unlovely members that
bespeak long and daily immersion in dirty water. But even had these
invariable marks of her trade been lacking, you could not have failed to
recognise her type by the large and glittering mock-diamond comb which
failed to catch up her dank and stringy hair in the back.

One kindly hand on the woman's arm, Martha Foote performed the
introduction.

"This is Mrs. Anna Czarnik, late of Poland. Widowed. Likewise childless.
Also brotherless. Also many other uncomfortable things. But the life of
the crowd in the scrub-girls' quarters on the top floor. Aren't you,
Anna? Mrs. Anna Czarnik, I'm sorry to say, is the source of the
blood-curdling moan, and the swishing, and the clanking, and the
ghost-raps. There is a service stairway just on the other side of this
wall. Anna Czarnik was performing her morning job of scrubbing it. The
swishing was her wet rag. The clanking was her pail. The dull raps her
scrubbing brush striking the stair corner just behind your wall."

"You're forgetting the wail," Geisha McCoy suggested, icily.

"No, I'm not. The wail, I'm afraid, was Anna Czarnik, singing."

"Singing?"

Martha Foote turned and spoke a gibberish of Polish and English to the
bewildered woman at her side. Anna Czarnik's dull face lighted up ever
so little.

"She says the thing she was singing is a Polish folk-song about death
and sorrow, and it's called a - what was that, Anna?"

"Dumka."

"It's called a dumka. It's a song of mourning, you see? Of grief. And of
bitterness against the invaders who have laid her country bare."

"Well, what's the idea!" demanded Geisha McCoy. "What kind of a hotel is
this, anyway? Scrub-girls waking people up in the middle of the night
with a Polish cabaret. If she wants to sing her hymn of hate why does
she have to pick on me!"

"I'm sorry. You can go, Anna. No sing, remember! Sh-sh-sh!"

Anna Czarnik nodded and made her unwieldy escape.

Geisha McCoy waved a hand at the mulatto maid. "Go to your room,
Blanche. I'll ring when I need you." The girl vanished, gratefully,
without a backward glance at the disorderly room. Martha Foote felt
herself dismissed, too. And yet she made no move to go. She stood there,
in the middle of the room, and every housekeeper inch of her yearned to
tidy the chaos all about her, and every sympathetic impulse urged her
to comfort the nerve-tortured woman before her. Something of this must
have shone in her face, for Geisha McCoy's tone was half-pettish,
half-apologetic as she spoke.

"You've no business allowing things like that, you know. My nerves are
all shot to pieces anyway. But even if they weren't, who could stand
that kind of torture? A woman like that ought to lose her job for that.
One word from me at the office and she - "

"Don't say it, then," interrupted Martha Foote, and came over to the
bed. Mechanically her fingers straightened the tumbled covers, removed a
jumble of magazines, flicked away the crumbs. "I'm sorry you were
disturbed. The scrubbing can't be helped, of course, but there is a
rule against unnecessary noise, and she shouldn't have been singing.
But - well, I suppose she's got to find relief, somehow. Would you
believe that woman is the cut-up of the top floor? She's a natural
comedian, and she does more for me in the way of keeping the other girls
happy and satisfied than - "

"What about me? Where do I come in? Instead of sleeping until eleven
I'm kept awake by this Polish dirge. I go on at the Majestic at four,
and again at 9.45 and I'm sick, I tell you! Sick!"

She looked it, too. Suddenly she twisted about and flung herself, face
downward, on the pillow. "Oh, God!" she cried, without any particular
expression. "Oh, God! Oh, God!"

That decided Martha Foote.

She crossed over to the other side of the bed, first flicking off the
glaring top lights, sat down beside the shaken woman on the pillows, and
laid a cool, light hand on her shoulder.

"It isn't as bad as that. Or it won't be, anyway, after you've told me
about it."

She waited. Geisha McCoy remained as she was, face down. But she did not
openly resent the hand on her shoulder. So Martha Foote waited. And as
suddenly as Six-eighteen had flung herself prone she twisted about and
sat up, breathing quickly. She passed a hand over her eyes and pushed
back her streaming hair with an oddly desperate little gesture. Her lips
were parted, her eyes wide.

"They've got away from me," she cried, and Martha Foote knew what she
meant. "I can't hold 'em any more. I work as hard as ever - harder.
That's it. It seems the harder I work the colder they get. Last week, in
Indianapolis, they couldn't have been more indifferent if I'd been the
educational film that closes the show. And, oh my God! They sit and
knit."

"Knit!" echoed Martha Foote. "But everybody's knitting nowadays."

"Not when I'm on. They can't. But they do. There were three of them in
the third row yesterday afternoon. One of 'em was doing a grey sock with
four shiny needles. Four! I couldn't keep my eyes off of them. And the
second was doing a sweater, and the third a helmet. I could tell by
the shape. And you can't be funny, can you, when you're hypnotised by
three stony-faced females all doubled up over a bunch of olive-drab?
Olive-drab! I'm scared of it. It sticks out all over the house. Last
night there were two young kids in uniform right down in the first row,
centre, right. I'll bet the oldest wasn't twenty-three. There they sat,
looking up at me with their baby faces. That's all they are. Kids. The
house seems to be peppered with 'em. You wouldn't think olive-drab could
stick out the way it does. I can see it farther than red. I can see it
day and night. I can't seem to see anything else. I can't - "

Her head came down on her arms, that rested on her tight-hugged knees.

"Somebody of yours in it?" Martha Foote asked, quietly. She waited. Then
she made a wild guess - an intuitive guess. "Son?"

"How did you know?" Geisha McCoy's head came up.

"I didn't."

"Well, you're right. There aren't fifty people in the world, outside my
own friends, who know I've got a grown-up son. It's bad business to have
them think you're middle-aged. And besides, there's nothing of the stage
about Fred. He's one of those square-jawed kids that are just cut out to
be engineers. Third year at Boston Tech."

"Is he still there, then?"

"There! He's in France, that's where he is. Somewhere - in France. And
I've worked for twenty-two years with everything in me just set, like an
alarm-clock, for the time when that kid would step off on his own. He
always hated to take money from me, and I loved him for it. I never went
on that I didn't think of him. I never came off with a half dozen
encores that I didn't wish he could hear it. Why, when I played a
college town it used to be a riot, because I loved every fresh-faced boy
in the house, and they knew it. And now - and now - what's there in it?
What's there in it? I can't even hold 'em any more. I'm through, I tell
you. I'm through!"

And waited to be disputed. Martha Foote did not disappoint her.

"There's just this in it. It's up to you to make those three women in
the third row forget what they're knitting for, even if they don't
forget their knitting. Let 'em go on knitting with their hands, but keep
their heads off it. That's your job. You're lucky to have it."

"Lucky?"

"Yes _ma'am_! You can do all the dumka stuff in private, the way Anna
Czarnik does, but it's up to you to make them laugh twice a day for
twenty minutes."

"It's all very well for you to talk that cheer-o stuff. It hasn't come
home to you, I can see that."

Martha Foote smiled. "If you don't mind my saying it, Miss McCoy, you're
too worn out from lack of sleep to see anything clearly. You don't know
me, but I do know you, you see. I know that a year ago Anna Czarnik
would have been the most interesting thing in this town, for you. You'd
have copied her clothes, and got a translation of her sob song, and made
her as real to a thousand audiences as she was to us this morning;
tragic history, patient animal face, comic shoes and all. And that's the
trouble with you, my dear. When we begin to brood about our own troubles
we lose what they call the human touch. And that's your business asset."

Geisha McCoy was looking up at her with a whimsical half-smile. "Look
here. You know too much. You're not really the hotel housekeeper, are
you?"

"I am."

"Well, then, you weren't always - "

"Yes I was. So far as I know I'm the only hotel housekeeper in history
who can't look back to the time when she had three servants of her own,
and her private carriage. I'm no decayed black-silk gentlewoman. Not me.
My father drove a hack in Sorgham, Minnesota, and my mother took in
boarders and I helped wait on table. I married when I was twenty, my man
died two years later, and I've been earning my living ever since."

"Happy?"

"I must be, because I don't stop to think about it. It's part of my job
to know everything that concerns the comfort of the guests in this
hotel."

"Including hysterics in six-eighteen?"

"Including. And that reminds me. Up on the twelfth floor of this hotel
there's a big, old-fashioned bedroom. In half an hour I can have that
room made up with the softest linen sheets, and the curtains pulled
down, and not a sound. That room's so restful it would put old Insomnia
himself to sleep. Will you let me tuck you away in it?"

Geisha McCoy slid down among her rumpled covers, and nestled her head in
the lumpy, tortured pillows. "Me! I'm going to stay right here."

"But this room's - why, it's as stale as a Pullman sleeper. Let me have
the chambermaid in to freshen it up while you're gone."

"I'm used to it. I've got to have a room mussed up, to feel at home in
it. Thanks just the same."

Martha Foote rose, "I'm sorry. I just thought if I could help - "

Geisha McCoy leaned forward with one of her quick movements and caught
Martha Foote's hand in both her own, "You have! And I don't mean to be
rude when I tell you I haven't felt so much like sleeping in weeks.
Just turn out those lights, will you? And sort of tiptoe out, to give
the effect." Then, as Martha Foote reached the door, "And oh, say! D'you
think she'd sell me those shoes?"

Martha Foote didn't get her dinner that night until almost eight, what
with one thing and another. Still as days go, it wasn't so bad as
Monday; she and Irish Nellie, who had come in to turn down her bed,
agreed on that. The Senate Hotel housekeeper was having her dinner in
her room. Tony, the waiter, had just brought it on and had set it out
for her, a gleaming island of white linen, and dome-shaped metal tops.
Irish Nellie, a privileged person always, waxed conversational as she
folded back the bed covers in a neat triangular wedge.

"Six-eighteen kinda ca'med down, didn't she? High toime, the divil. She
had us jumpin' yist'iddy. I loike t' went off me head wid her, and th'
day girl th' same. Some folks ain't got no feelin', I dunno."

Martha Foote unfolded her napkin with a little tired gesture. "You can't
always judge, Nellie. That woman's got a son who has gone to war, and
she couldn't see her way clear to living without him. She's better now.
I talked to her this evening at six. She said she had a fine afternoon."

"Shure, she ain't the only wan. An' what do you be hearin' from your
boy, Mis' Phut, that's in France?"

"He's well, and happy. His arm's all healed, and he says he'll be in it
again by the time I get his letter."

"Humph," said Irish Nellie. And prepared to leave. She cast an
inquisitive eye over the little table as she made for the
door - inquisitive, but kindly. Her wide Irish nostrils sniffed a
familiar smell. "Well, fur th' land, Mis' Phut! If I was housekeeper
here, an' cud have hothouse strawberries, an' swatebreads undher
glass, an' sparrowgrass, an' chicken, _an'_ ice crame, the way you
can, whiniver yuh loike, I wouldn't be a-eatin' cornbeef an' cabbage.
Not me."

"Oh, yes you would, Nellie," replied Martha Foote, quietly, and spooned
up the thin amber gravy. "Oh, yes you would."




XII


SHORE LEAVE

Tyler Kamps was a tired boy. He was tired from his left great toe to
that topmost spot at the crown of his head where six unruly hairs always
persisted in sticking straight out in defiance of patient brushing,
wetting, and greasing. Tyler Kamps was as tired as only a boy can be at
9.30 P.M. who has risen at 5.30 A.M. Yet he lay wide awake in his
hammock eight feet above the ground, like a giant silk-worm in an
incredible cocoon and listened to the sleep-sounds that came from the
depths of two hundred similar cocoons suspended at regular intervals
down the long dark room. A chorus of deep regular breathing, with an
occasional grunt or sigh, denoting complete relaxation. Tyler Kamps
should have been part of this chorus, himself. Instead he lay staring
into the darkness, thinking mad thoughts of which this is a sample:

"Gosh! Wouldn't I like to sit up in my hammock and give one yell! The
kind of a yell a movie cowboy gives on a Saturday night. Wake 'em up and
stop that - darned old breathing."

Nerves. He breathed deeply himself, once or twice, because it seemed,
somehow to relieve his feeling of irritation. And in that unguarded
moment of unconscious relaxation Sleep, that had been lying in wait for
him just around the corner, pounced on him and claimed him for its own.
From his hammock came the deep, regular inhalation, exhalation, with an
occasional grunt or sigh. The normal sleep-sounds of a very tired boy.

The trouble with Tyler Kamps was that he missed two things he hadn't
expected to miss at all. And he missed not at all the things he had been
prepared to miss most hideously.

First of all, he had expected to miss his mother. If you had known
Stella Kamps you could readily have understood that. Stella Kamps was
the kind of mother they sing about in the sentimental ballads; mother,
pal, and sweetheart. Which was where she had made her big mistake. When
one mother tries to be all those things to one son that son has a very
fair chance of turning out a mollycoddle. The war was probably all that
saved Tyler Kamps from such a fate.

In the way she handled this son of hers Stella Kamps had been as crafty
and skilful and velvet-gloved as a girl with her beau. The proof of it
is that Tyler had never known he was being handled. Some folks in
Marvin, Texas, said she actually flirted with him, and they were almost
justified. Certainly the way she glanced up at him from beneath her
lashes was excused only by the way she scolded him if he tracked up the
kitchen floor. But then, Stella Kamps and her boy were different,
anyway. Marvin folks all agreed about that. Flowers on the table at
meals. Sitting over the supper things talking and laughing for an hour
after they'd finished eating, as if they hadn't seen each other in
years. Reading out loud to each other, out of books and then going on
like mad about what they'd just read, and getting all het up about it.
And sometimes chasing each other around the yard, spring evenings, like
a couple of fool kids. Honestly, if a body didn't know Stella Kamps so
well, and what a fight she had put up to earn a living for herself and
the boy after that good-for-nothing Kamps up and left her, and what a
housekeeper she was, and all, a person'd think - well -

So, then, Tyler had expected to miss her first of all. The way she
talked. The way she fussed around him without in the least seeming to
fuss. Her special way of cooking things. Her laugh which drew laughter
in its wake. The funny way she had of saying things, vitalising
commonplaces with the spark of her own electricity.

And now he missed her only as the average boy of twenty-one misses the
mother he has been used to all his life. No more and no less. Which
would indicate that Stella Kamps, in her protean endeavours, had
overplayed the parts just a trifle.

He had expected to miss the boys at the bank. He had expected to miss
the Mandolin Club. The Mandolin Club met, officially, every Thursday and
spangled the Texas night with their tinkling. Five rather dreamy-eyed
adolescents slumped in stoop-shouldered comfort over the instruments
cradled in their arms, each right leg crossed limply over the left, each
great foot that dangled from the bony ankle, keeping rhythmic time to
the plunketty-plink-tinketty-plunk.

He had expected to miss the familiar faces on Main Street. He had even
expected to miss the neighbours with whom he and his mother had so
rarely mingled. All the hundred little, intimate, trivial, everyday
things that had gone to make up his life back home in Marvin,
Texas - these he had expected to miss.

And he didn't.

After ten weeks at the Great Central Naval Training Station so near
Chicago, Illinois, and so far from Marvin, Texas, there were two things
he missed.

He wanted the decent privacy of his small quiet bedroom back home.

He wanted to talk to a girl.

He knew he wanted the first, definitely. He didn't know he wanted the
second. The fact that he didn't know it was Stella Kamps' fault. She had
kept his boyhood girlless, year and year, by sheer force of her own love
for him, and need of him, and by the charm and magnetism that were hers.
She had been deprived of a more legitimate outlet for these emotions.
Concentrated on the boy, they had sufficed for him. The Marvin girls had
long ago given him up as hopeless. They fell back, baffled, their
keenest weapons dulled by the impenetrable armour of his impersonal
gaze.

The room? It hadn't been much of a room, as rooms go. Bare, clean,
asceptic, with a narrow, hard white bed and a maple dresser whose second
drawer always stuck and came out zig-zag when you pulled it; and a
swimmy mirror that made one side of your face look sort of lumpy, and


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Online LibraryEdna FerberCheerful—By Request → online text (page 18 of 20)