Elia W. Peattie.

The Precipice online

. (page 6 of 23)
Online LibraryElia W. PeattieThe Precipice → online text (page 6 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

eyes - eyes which had hitherto been lit only with the fires of hate. As
she walked the gray streets in the performance of her tasks, weary and
bewildered though she often was, she was sustained by the new discovery
of that ancient truth that nothing human can be foreign to the person of
good will. Neither dirt nor hate, distrust, fear, nor deceit should be
permitted to blind her to the essential similarity of all who were
"bound together in the bundle of life."

It was not surprising that at this time she should begin writing short
articles for the women's magazines on the subjects which presented
themselves to her in her daily work. Her brief, spontaneous, friendly
articles, full of meat and free from the taint of bookishness, won favor
from the first. She soon found her evenings occupied with her somewhat
matter-of-fact literary labors. But this work was of such a different
character from that which occupied her in the daytime that so far from
fatiguing her it gave an added zest to her days.

She was not fond of idle evenings. Sitting alone meant thinking, and
thought meant an unconquerable homesickness for that lonely man back in
Silvertree from whom she had parted peremptorily, and toward whom she
dared not make any overtures. Sometimes she sent him an article clipped
from the magazines or newspapers dealing with some scientific subject,
and once she mailed him a number of little photographs which she had
taken with her own camera and which might reveal to him, if he were
inclined to follow their suggestions, something of the life in which she
was engaged. But no recognition of these wordless messages came from
him. He had been unable to forgive her, and she beat down the question
that would arise as to whether she also had been at fault. She was under
the necessity of justifying herself if she would be happy. It was only
after many months had passed that she learned how a heavy burden may
become light by the confession of a fault.

Meantime, she was up early each morning; she breakfasted with the most
alert residents of the Caravansary; then she took the street-car to
South Chicago and reported at a dismal office. Here the telephone served
to put her into communication with her superior at Settlement House. She
reported what she had done the day before (though, to be sure, a written
report was already on its way), she asked advice, she talked over ways
and means. Then she started upon her daily rounds. These might carry
her to any one of half a dozen suburbs or to the Court of Domestic
Relations, or over on the West Side of the city to the Juvenile Court.
She appeared almost daily before some police magistrate, and not long
after her position was assumed, she was called upon to give evidence
before the grand jury.

"However do you manage it all?" Honora asked one evening when Kate had
been telling a tale of psychically sinister import. "How can you bring
yourself to talk over such terrible and revolting subjects as you have
to, before strange men in open court?"

"A nice old man asked me that very question to-day as I was coming out
of the courtroom," said Kate. "He said he didn't like to see young women
doing such work as I was doing. 'Who will do it, then?' I asked. 'The
men,' said he. 'Do you think we can leave it to them?' I asked. 'Perhaps
not,' he admitted. 'But at least it could be left to older women.' 'They
haven't the strength for it,' I told him, and then I gave him a notion
of the number of miles I had ridden the day before in the street-car-it
was nearly sixty, I believe. 'Are you sure it's worth it?' he asked. He
had been listening to the complaint I was making against a young man who
has, to my knowledge, completely destroyed the self-respect of five
girls - and I've known him but a short time. You can make an estimate of
the probable number of crimes of his if it amuses you. 'Don't you think
it's worth while if that man is shut up where he can't do any more
mischief?' I asked him. Of course he thought it was; but he was still
shaking his head over me when I left him. He still thought I ought to be
at home making tidies. I can't imagine that it ever occurred to him that
I was a disinterested economist in trying to save myself from waste."

She laughed lightly in spite of her serious words.

"Anyway," she said, "I find this kind of life too amusing to resign. One
of the settlement workers was complaining to me this morning about the
inherent lack of morals among some of our children. It appears that the
Harrigans - there are seven of them - commandeered some old clothes that
had been sent in for charitable distribution. They poked around in the
trunks when no one was watching and helped themselves to what they
wanted. The next day they came to a party at the Settlement House togged
up in their plunder. My friend reproved them, but they seemed to be
impervious to her moral comments, so she went to the mother. 'Faith,'
said Mrs. Harrigan, 'I tould them not to be bringing home trash like
that. "It ain't worth carryin' away," says I to them.'"

About this time Kate was invited to become a resident of Hull House. She
was touched and complimented, but, with a loyalty for which there was,
perhaps, no demand, she remained faithful to her friends at the
Caravansary. She was loath to take up her residence with a group which
would have too much community of interest. The ladies at Mrs. Dennison's
offered variety. Life was dramatizing itself for her there. In Honora
and Marna and Mrs. Barsaloux and those quiet yet intelligent
gentlewomen, Mrs. Goodrich and Mrs. Applegate, in the very servants
whose pert individualism distressed the mid-Victorian Mrs. Dennison,
Kate saw working those mysterious world forces concerning which she was
so curious. The frequent futility of Nature's effort to throw to the top
this hitherto unutilized feminine force was no less absorbing than the
success which sometimes attended the impulsion. To the general and
widespread convulsion, the observer could no more be oblivious than to
an earthquake or a tidal wave.


Kate had not seen Lena Vroom for a long time, and she had indefinitely
missed her without realizing it until one afternoon, as she was
searching for something in her trunk, she came across a package of
Lena's letters written to her while she was at Silvertree. That night at
the table she asked if any one had seen Lena recently.

"Seen her?" echoed David Fulham. "I've seen the shadow of her blowing
across the campus. She's working for her doctor's degree, like a lot of
other silly women. She's living by herself somewhere, on crackers and
cheese, no doubt."

"Would she really be so foolish?" cried Kate. "I know she's devoted to
her work, but surely she has some sense of moderation."

"Not a bit of it," protested the scientist. "A person of mediocre
attainments who gets the Ph.D. bee in her bonnet has no sense
of any sort. I see them daily, men and women, - but women
particularly, - stalking about the grounds and in and out of classes,
like grotesque ghosts. They're staggering under a mental load too heavy
for them, and actually it might be a physical load from its effects.
They get lop-sided, I swear they do, and they acquire all sorts of
miserable little personal habits that make them both pitiable and
ridiculous. For my part, I believe the day will come when no woman will
be permitted to try for the higher degrees till her brain has been
scientifically tested and found to be adequate for the work."

"But as for Lena," said Kate, "I thought she was quite a wonder at her

"Up to a certain point," admitted Fulham, "I've no doubt she does very
well. But she hasn't the capacity for higher work, and she'll be the
last one to realize it. My advice to you, Miss Barrington, is to look up
your friend and see what she is doing with herself. You haven't any of
you an idea of the tragedies of the classroom, and I'll not tell them to
you. But they're serious enough, take my word for it."

"Yes, do look her up, Kate," urged Honora.

"It's hard to manage anything extra during the day," said Kate. "I must
go some evening."

"Perhaps Cousin Mary could go with you," suggested Honora. Honora threw
a glance of affectionate admiration at her young cousin, who had
blossomed out in a bewitching little frock of baby blue, and whose eyes
reflected the color.

She was, indeed, an entrancing thing, was "Blue-eyed Mary." The
tenderness of her lips, the softness of her complexion, the glamour of
her glance increased day by day, and without apparent reason. She seemed
to be more eloquent, with the sheer eloquence of womanly emotion.
Everything that made her winning was intensified, as if Love, the
Master, had touched to vividness what hitherto had been no more than a
mere promise.

What was the secret of this exotic florescence? She went out only to
University affairs with Honora or Kate, or to the city with Marna
Cartan. Her interests appeared to be few; and she was neither a writer
nor a receiver of letters. Altogether, the sources of that hidden joy
which threw its enchantment over her were not to be guessed.

But what did it all matter? She was an exhilarating companion - and what
a contrast to poor Lena! That night, lying in bed, Kate reproached
herself for her neglect of her once so faithful friend. Lena might be
going through some severe experience, alone and unaided. Kate determined
to find out the truth, and as she had a half-holiday on Saturday, she
started on her quest.

Lena, it transpired, had moved twice during the term and had neglected
to register her latest address. So she was found only after much
searching, and twilight was already gathering when Kate reached the
dingy apartment in which Lena had secreted herself. It was a rear room
up three flights of stairs, approached by a long, narrow corridor which
the economical proprietor had left in darkness. Kate rapped softly at
first; then, as no one answered, most sharply. She was on the point of
going away when the door was opened a bare crack and the white, pinched
face of Lena Vroom peered out.

"It's only Kate, Lena!" Then, as there was no response: "Aren't you
going to let me in?"

Still Lena did not fling wide the door.

"Oh, Kate!" she said vaguely, in a voice that seemed to drift from a
Maeterlinckian mist. "How are you?"

"Pretty sulky, thank you. Why don't you open the door, girl?"

At that Lena drew back; but she was obviously annoyed. Kate stepped into
the bare, unkempt room. Remnants of a miserable makeshift meal were to
be seen on a rickety cutting-table; the bed was unmade; and on the desk,
in the center of the room, a drop-lamp with a leaking tube polluted the
air. There was a formidable litter of papers on a great table, and
before it stood a swivel chair where Lena Vroom had been sitting
preparing for her degree.

Kate deliberately took this all in and then turned her gaze on her

"What's the use, girl?" she demanded with more than her usual
abruptness. "What are you doing it all for?"

Lena threw a haggard glance at her.

"We won't talk about that," she said in that remote, sunken voice. "I
haven't the strength to discuss it. To be perfectly frank, Kate, you
mustn't visit me now. You see, I'm studying night and day for the

"The - "

"Yes, inquisition. You see, it isn't enough that my thesis should be
finished. I can't get my degree without a last, terrible ordeal. Oh,
Kate, you can't imagine what it is like! Girls who have been through it
have told me. You are asked into a room where the most important members
of the faculty are gathered. They sit about you in a semicircle and for
hours they hurl questions at you, not necessarily questions relating to
anything you have studied, but inquiries to test your general
intelligence. It's a fearful experience."

She sank on her unmade cot, drawing a ragged sweater about her
shoulders, and looked up at Kate with an almost furtive gaze. She always
had been a small, meagre creature, but now she seemed positively
shriveled. The pride and plenitude of womanhood were as far from her
realization as they could be from a daughter of Eve. Sexless, stranded,
broken before an undertaking too great for her, she sat there in the
throes of a sudden, nervous chill. Then, after a moment or two, she
began to weep and was rent and torn with long, shuddering sobs.

"I'm so afraid," she moaned. "Oh, Kate, I'm so terribly, terribly
afraid! I know I'll fail."

Kate strangled down, "The best thing that could happen to you"; and said
instead, "You aren't going about the thing in the best way to succeed."

"I've done all I could," moaned her friend. "I've only allowed myself
four hours a night for sleep; and have hardly taken out time for meals.
I've concentrated as it seems to me no one ever concentrated before."

"Oh, Lena, Lena!" Kate cried compassionately. "Can it really be that you
have so little sense, after all? Oh, you poor little drowned rat, you."
She bent over her, pulled the worn slippers from her feet, and thrust
her beneath the covers.

"No, no!" protested Lena. "You mustn't, Kate! I've got to get at my

"Say another word and I'll throw them out of the window," cried Kate,
really aroused. "Lie down there."

Lena began again to sob, but this time with helpless anger, for Kate
looked like a grenadier as she towered there in the small room and it
was easy to see that she meant to be obeyed. She explored Lena's
cupboard for supplies, and found, after some searching, a can of soup
and the inevitable crackers. She heated the soup, toasted the crackers,
and forced Lena to eat. Then she extinguished the lamp, with its
poisonous odor, and, wrapping herself in her cloak threw open the window
and sat in the gloom, softly chatting about this and that. Lena made no
coherent answers. She lay in sullen torment, casting tearful glances at
her benevolent oppressor.

But Kate had set her will to conquer that of her friend and Lena's
hysteric opposition was no match for it. Little by little the tense form
beneath the blankets relaxed. Her stormily drawn breath became more
even. At last she slept, which gave Kate an opportunity to slip out to
buy a new tube for the lamp and adjust it properly. She felt quite safe
in lighting it, for Lena lay in complete exhaustion, and she took the
liberty of looking over the clothes which were bundled into an
improvised closet on the back of the door. Everything was in wretched
condition. Buttons and hooks were lacking; a heap of darning lay
untouched; Lena's veil, with which she attempted to hide the ruin of her
hat, was crumpled into the semblance of a rain-soaked cobweb; and her
shoes had gone long without the reassurance of a good blacking.

Kate put some irons over the stove which served Lena as a cooking-range,
and proceeded on a campaign of reconstruction. It was midnight when she
finished, and she was weary and heartsick. The little, strained face on
the pillow seemed to belong to one whom the furies were pursuing. Yet
nothing was pursuing her save her own fanatical desire for a thing
which, once obtained, would avail her nothing. She had not personality
enough to meet life on terms which would allow her one iota of
leadership. She was discountenanced by her inherent drabness:
beaten by the limits of her capacity. When Kate had ordered the
room, - scrupulously refraining from touching any of Lena's papers, - she
opened the window and, putting the catch on the door, closed it softly
behind her.

* * * * *

Kate's frequent visits to Lena, though brief, were none too welcome.
Even the food she brought with her might better, in Lena's estimation,
be dispensed with than that the all-absorbing reading and research
should be interrupted. Finally Kate called one night to find Lena gone.
She had taken her trunk and oil-stove and the overworked gas-lamp and
had stolen away. To ferret her out would have been inexcusable.

"It shows how changed she is," Kate said to Honora. "Fancy the old-time
Lena hiding from me!"

"You must think of her as having a run of fever, Kate. Whatever she does
must be regarded as simply symptomatic," said Honora, understandingly.
"She's really half-mad. David says the graduates are often like
that - the feminine ones."

Kate tried to look at it in a philosophic way, but her heart yearned and
ached over the poor, infatuated fugitive. The February convocation was
drawing near, and with it Lena's dreaded day of examination. The night
before its occurrence, the conversation at the Caravansary turned to the
candidates for the honors.

"There are some who meet the quiz gallantly enough," David Fulham
remarked. "But the majority certainly come like galley slaves scourged
to their dungeon. Some of them would move a heart of stone with their
sufferings. Honora, why don't you and Miss Barrington look up your
friend Miss Vroom once more? She's probably needing you pretty badly."

"I don't mind being a special officer, Mr. Fulham," said Kate, "and
it's my pride and pleasure to make child-beaters tremble and to arrest
brawny fathers, - I make rather a specialty of six-foot ones, - but really
I'm timid about going to Lena's again. She has given me to understand
that she doesn't want me around, and I'm not enough of a pachyderm to
get in the way of her arrows again."

But David Fulham couldn't take that view of it.

"She's not sane," he declared. "Couldn't be after such a course as she's
been putting herself through. She needs help."

However, neither Kate nor Honora ventured to offer it. They spent the
evening together in Honora's drawing-room. The hours passed more rapidly
than they realized, and at midnight David came stamping in. His face
was white.

"You haven't been to the laboratory, David?" reproached his wife.
"Really, you mustn't. I thought it was agreed between us that we'd act
like civilized householders in the evening." She was regarding him with
an expression of affectionate reproof.

"I've been doing laboratory work," he said shortly, "but it wasn't in
the chemical laboratory. Wickersham and I hunted up your friend - and we
found her in a state of collapse."

"No!" cried Kate, starting to her feet.

"I told you, didn't I?" returned David. "Don't I know them, the geese?
We had to break in her door, and there she was sitting at her
study-table, staring at her books and seeing nothing. She couldn't talk
to us - had a temporary attack of severe aphasia, I suppose. Wickersham
said he'd been anxious about her for weeks - she's been specializing with
him, you know."

"What did you do with her?" demanded Honora.

"Bundled her up in her outside garments and dragged her out of doors
between us and made her walk. She could hardly stand at first. We had to
hold her up. But we kept right on hustling her along, and after a time
when the fresh air and exercise had got in their work, she could find
the right word when she tried to speak to us. Then we took her to a
restaurant and ordered a beefsteak and some other things. She wanted to
go back to her room - said she had more studying to do; but we made it
clear to her at last that it wasn't any use, - that she'd have to stand
or fall on what she had. She promised us she wouldn't look at a book,
but would go to bed and sleep, and anybody who has the hardihood to wish
that she wins her degree may pray for a good night for her."

Honora was looking at her husband with a wide, shining gaze.

"How did you come to go to her, David?" she asked admiringly. "She
wasn't in any of your classes."

"Now, don't try to make out that I'm benevolent, Honora," Fulham said
petulantly. "I went because I happened to meet Wickersham on the
Midway. She's been hiding, but he had searched her out and appealed to
me to go with him. What I did was at his request."

"But she'll be refreshed in the morning," said Honora. "She'll come out
all right, won't she?"

"How do I know?" demanded Fulham. "I suppose she'll feel like a man
going to execution when she enters that council-room. Maybe she'll stand
up to it and maybe she'll not. She'll spend as much nervous energy on
the experience as would carry her through months of sane, reasonable
living in the place she ought to be in - that is to say, in a millinery
store or some plain man's kitchen."

"Oh, David!" said Honora with gentle wifely reproach.

But Fulham was making no apologies.

"If we men ill-treated women as they ill-treat themselves," he said,
"we'd be called brutes of the worst sort."

"Of course!" cried Kate. "A person may have some right to ill-treat
himself, but he never has any right to ill-treat another."

"If we hitched her up to a plough," went on Fulham, not heeding, "we
shouldn't be overtaxing her physical strength any more than she
overtaxes her mental strength when she tries - the ordinary woman, I
mean, like Miss Vroom - to keep up to the pace set by men of
first-rate caliber."

He went up to bed on this, still disturbed, and Honora and Kate, much
depressed, talked the matter over. But they reached no conclusion. They
wanted to go around the next morning and help Lena, - get her breakfast
and see that she was properly dressed, - but they knew they would be
unwelcome. Later they heard that she had come through the ordeal after a
fashion. She had given indications of tremendous research. But her eyes,
Wickersham told Kate privately, looked like diseased oysters, and it was
easy to see that she was on the point of collapse.

Kate saw nothing of her until the day of convocation, though she tried
several times to get into communication with her. There must have been
quite two hundred figures in the line that wound before the President
and the other dignitaries to receive their diplomas; and the great hall
was thronged with interested spectators. Kate could have thrilled with
pride of her _alma mater_ had not her heart been torn with sympathy for
her friend whose emaciated figure looked more pathetic than ever before.
Now and then a spasmodic movement shook her, causing her head to quiver
like one with the palsy and her hands to make futile gestures. And
although she was the most touching and the least joyous of those who
went forward to victory, she was not, after all, so very exceptional.

Kate could not help noticing how jaded and how spent were many of the
candidates for the higher degrees. They seemed to move in a tense
dream, their eyes turning neither to right nor left, and the whole of
them bent on the one idea of their dear achievement. Although there were
some stirring figures among them, - men and women who seemed to have come
into the noble heritage which had been awaiting them, - there were more
who looked depleted and unfit. It grew on Kate, how superfluous
scholarship was when superimposed on a feeble personality. The colleges
could not make a man, try as they might. They could add to the capacity
of an endowed and adventurous individual, but for the inept, the
diffident, their learning availed nothing. They could cram bewildered
heads with facts and theories, but they could not hold the mediocre back
from their inevitable anticlimax.

"A learned derelict is no better than any other kind," mused Kate
compassionately. She resolved that now, at last, she would command
Lena's obedience. She would compel her to take a vacation, - would find
out what kind of a future she had planned. She would surround her with
small, friendly offices; would help her to fit herself out in new
garments, and would talk over ways and means with her.

She went the next day to the room where Lena's compassionate professors
had found her that night of dread and terror before her examination. But
she had disappeared again, and the landlady could give no information
concerning her.


The day was set. Marna was to sing. It seemed to the little group of
friends as if the whole city palpitated with the fact. At any rate, the
Caravansary did so. They talked of little else, and Mary Morrison wept
for envy. Not that it was mean envy. Her weeping was a sort of tribute,
and Marna felt it to be so.

"You're going to be wonderful," Mary sobbed. "The rest of us are merely
young, or just women, or men. We can't be anything more no matter how
hard we try, though we keep feeling as if we were something more. But
you're going to SING! Oh, Marna!"

Time wore on, and Marna grew hectic with anticipation. Her lips were too
red, her breath came too quickly; she intensified herself; and she
practiced her quivering, fitful, passionate songs with religious
devotion. So many things centered around the girl that it was no wonder

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryElia W. PeattieThe Precipice → online text (page 6 of 23)