Ernest Poole.

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"engineering." At once she was interested. Rising on one elbow she
questioned him good-humoredly, for Deborah was fond of Bruce.

"Has he bought that automobile he wanted?"

"No," replied her father. "Edith said they couldn't afford it."

"Why not?"

"This time it's the dentist's bills. Young Betsy's teeth aren't
straightened yet - and as soon as she's been beautified they're going to put
the clamps on George."

"Poor Georgie," Deborah murmured. At the look of pain and disapproval on
her father's heavy face, she smiled quietly to herself. George, who was
Edith's oldest and the worry of her days, was Roger's favorite grandson.
"Has he been bringing home any more sick dogs?"

"No, this time it was a rat - a white one," Roger answered. A glint of dry
relish appeared in his eyes. "George brought it home the other night. He
had on a pair of ragged old pants."

"What on earth - "

"He had traded his own breeches for the rat," said Roger placidly.

"No! Oh, father! Really!" And she sank back laughing on the lounge.

"His school report," said Roger, "was quite as bad as ever."

"Of course it was," said Deborah. And she spoke so sharply that her father
glanced at her in surprise. She was up again on one elbow, and there was an
eager expression on her bright attractive face. "Do you know what we're
going to do some day? We're going to put the rat in the school," Deborah
said impatiently. "We're going to take a boy like George and study him till
we think we know just what interests him most. And if in his case it's
animals, we'll have a regular zoo in school. And for other boys we'll have
other things they really want to know about. And we'll keep them until five
o'clock - when their mothers will have to drag them away." Her father looked
bewildered.

"But arithmetic, my dear."

"You'll find they'll have learned their arithmetic without knowing it,"
Deborah answered.

"Sounds a bit wild," murmured Roger. Again to his mind came the picture of
hordes of little Italians and Jews. "My dear, if I had _your children_ to
teach, I don't think I'd add a zoo," he said. And with a breath of
discomfort he turned back to his reading. He knew that he ought to question
her, to show an interest in her work. But he had a deep aversion for those
millions of foreign tenement people, always shoving, shoving upward through
the filth of their surroundings. They had already spoiled his neighborhood,
they had flowed up like an ocean tide. And so he read his paper, frowning
guiltily down at the page. He glanced up in a little while and saw Deborah
smiling across at him, reading his dislike of such talk. The smile which he
sent back at her was half apologetic, half an appeal for mercy. And Deborah
seemed to understand. She went into the living room, and there at the piano
she was soon playing softly. Listening from his study, again the feeling
came to him of her fresh and abundant vitality. He mused a little enviously
on how it must feel to be strong like that, never really tired.

And while her father thought in this wise, Deborah at the piano, leaning
back with eyes half closed, could feel her tortured nerves relax, could
feel her pulse stop throbbing so and the dull aching at her temples little
by little pass away. She played like this so many nights. Soon she would be
ready for sleep.

* * * * *

After she had gone to bed, Roger rose heavily from his chair. By long habit
he went about the house trying the windows and turning out lights. Last he
came to the front door. There were double outer doors with a ponderous
system of locks and bolts and a heavy chain. Mechanically he fastened them
all; and putting out the light in the hall, in the darkness he went up the
stairs. He could so easily feel his way. He put his hand lightly, first on
the foot of the banister, then on a curve in it halfway up, again on the
sharper curve at the top and last on the knob of his bedroom door. And it
was as though these guiding objects came out to meet him like old friends.

In his bedroom, while he slowly undressed, his glance was caught by the
picture upon the wall opposite his bed, a little landscape poster done in
restful tones of blue, of two herdsmen and their cattle far up on a
mountainside in the hour just before the dawn, tiny clear-cut silhouettes
against the awakening eastern sky. So immense and still, this birth of the
day - the picture always gave him the feeling of life everlasting. Judith
his wife had placed it there.

From his bed through the window close beside him he looked up at the
cliff-like wall of the new apartment building, with tier upon tier of
windows from which murmurous voices dropped out of the dark: now soft, now
suddenly angry, loud; now droning, sullen, bitter, hard; now gay with
little screams of mirth; now low and amorous, drowsy sounds. Tier upon tier
of modern homes, all overhanging Roger's house as though presently to crush
it down.

But Roger was not thinking of that. He was thinking of his children - of
Edith's approaching confinement and all her anxious hunting about to find
what was best for her family, of Bruce and the way he was driving himself
in the unnatural world downtown where men were at each other's throats, of
Deborah and that school of hers in the heart of a vast foul region of
tenement buildings swarming with strange, dirty little urchins. And last he
thought of Laura, his youngest daughter, wild as a hawk, gadding about the
Lord knew where. She even danced in restaurants! Through his children he
felt flowing into his house the seething life of this new town. And
drowsily he told himself he must make a real effort, and make it soon, to
know his family better. For in spite of the storm of long ago which had
swept away his faith in God, the feeling had come to him of late that
somewhere, in some manner, he was to meet his wife again. He rarely tried
to think this out, for as soon as he did it became a mere wish, a hungry
longing, nothing more. So he had learned to let it lie, deep down inside of
him. Sometimes he vividly saw her face. After all, who could tell? And she
would want to hear of her children. Yes, he must know them better. Some day
soon he must begin.

Suddenly he remembered that Laura had not yet come home. With a sigh of
discomfort he got out of bed and went downstairs, re-lit the gas in the
hallway, unfastened the locks and the chain at the door. He came back and
was soon asleep. He must have dozed for an hour or two. He was roused by
hearing the front door close and a big motor thundering. And then like a
flash of light in the dark came Laura's rippling laughter.




CHAPTER III


On the next evening, Saturday, while Roger ate his dinner, Laura came to
sit with him. She herself was dining out. That she should have dressed so
early in order to keep him company had caused her father some surprise, and
a faint suspicion entered his mind that she had overdrawn at the bank, as
she had the last time she sat with him like this. Her manner certainly was
a bit strange.

But Roger put the thought aside. Whatever she wanted, Laura was worth it.
In a tingling fashion he felt what a glorious time she was having, what a
gorgeous town she knew. It was difficult to realize she was his own
daughter, this dashing stranger sitting here, playing idly with a knife and
caressing him with her voice and her eyes. The blue evening gown she was
wearing to-night (doubtless not yet paid for) made her figure even more
supple and lithe, set off her splendid bosom, her slender neck, her creamy
skin. Her hair, worn low over her temples, was brown with just a tinge of
red. Her eyes were black, with gleaming lights; her lips were warm and
rich, alive. He did not approve of her lips. Once when she had kissed him
Roger had started slightly back. For his daughter's lips were rouged, and
they had reminded him of his youth. He had asked her sister to speak to
her. But Deborah had told him she did not care to speak to people in that
way - "especially women - especially sisters," she had said, with a quiet
smile. All very well, he reflected, but somebody ought to take Laura in
hand.

She had been his favorite as a child, his pet, his tiny daughter. He
remembered her on his lap like a kitten. How she had liked to cuddle there.
And she had liked to bite his hand, a curious habit in a child. "I hurt
daddy!" He could still recollect the gay little laugh with which she said
that, looking up brightly into his face.

And here she was already grown, and like a light in the sober old house,
fascinating while she disturbed him. He liked to hear her high pitched
voice, gossiping in Deborah's room or in her own dainty chamber chatting
with the adoring maid who was dressing her to go out. He loved her joyous
thrilling laugh. And he would have missed her from the house as he would
have missed Fifth Avenue if it had been dropped from the city. For the
picture Roger had formed of this daughter was more of a symbol than of a
girl, a symbol of the ardent town, spending, wasting, dancing mad. It was
Laura who had kept him living right up to his income.

"Where are you dining to-night?" he asked.

"With the Raymonds." He wondered who they were. "Oh, Sarah," she added to
the maid. "Call up Mrs. Raymond's apartment and ask what time is dinner
to-night."

"Are you going to dance later on?" he inquired.

"Oh, I guess so," she replied. "On the Astor Roof, I think they said - "

Her father went on with his dinner. These hotel dances, he had heard, ran
well into Sunday morning. How Judith would have disapproved. He hesitated
uneasily.

"I don't especially care for this dancing into Sunday," he said. For a
moment he did not look up from his plate. When he did he saw Laura
regarding him.

"Oh, do you mind? I'm sorry. I won't, after this," she answered. And Roger
colored angrily, for the glint of amusement in Laura's mischievous black
eyes revealed quite unmistakably that she regarded both her father and his
feeling for the Sabbath as very dear and quaint and old. Old? Of course he
seemed old to _her_, Roger thought indignantly. For what was Laura but a
child? Did she ever think of anything except having a good time? Had she
ever stopped to think out her own morals, let alone anyone else's? Was she
any judge of what was old - or of _who_ was old? And he determined then and
there to show her he was in his prime. Impatiently he strove to remember
the names of her friends and ask her about them, to show a keen lively
interest in this giddy gaddy life she led. And when that was rather a
failure he tried his daughter next on books, books of the most modern kind.
Stoutly he lied and said he was reading a certain Russian novel of which he
had heard Deborah speak. But this valiant falsehood made no impression
whatever, for Laura had never heard of the book.

"I get so little time for reading," she murmured. And meanwhile she was
thinking, "As soon as he finishes talking, poor dear, I'll break the news."

Then Roger had an audacious thought. He would take her to a play, by
George! Mustering his courage he led up to it by speaking of a play Deborah
had seen, a full-fledged modern drama all centered upon the right of a
woman "to lead her own life." And as he outlined the story, he saw he had
caught his daughter's attention. With her pretty chin resting on one hand,
watching him and listening, she appeared much older, and she seemed
suddenly close to him.

"How would you like to go with me and see it some evening?" he inquired.

"See what, my love?" she asked him, her thoughts plainly far away; and he
looked at her in astonishment:

"That play I've just been speaking of!"

"Why, daddy, I'd love to!" she exclaimed.

"When?" he asked. And he fixed a night. He was proud of himself. Eagerly he
began to talk of opening nights at Wallack's. Roger and Judith, when they
were young, had been great first nighters there. And now it was Laura who
drew him out, and as he talked on she seemed to him to be smilingly trying
to picture it all.... "Now I'd better tell him," she thought.

"Do you remember Harold Sloane?" she asked a little strangely.

"No," replied her father, a bit annoyed at the interruption.

"Why - you've met him two or three times - "

"Have I?" The queer note in her voice made him look up. Laura had risen
from her chair.

"I want you to know him - very soon." There was a moment's silence. "I'm
going to marry him, dad," she said. And Roger looked at her blankly. He
felt his limbs beginning to tremble. "I've been waiting to tell you when we
were alone," she added in an awkward tone. And still staring up at her he
felt a rush of tenderness and a pang of deep remorse. Laura in love and
settled for life! And what did he know of the affair? What had he ever done
for her? Too late! He had begun too late! And this rush of emotion was so
overpowering that while he still looked at her blindly she was the first to
recover her poise. She came around the table and kissed him softly on the
cheek. And now more than ever Roger felt how old his daughter thought him.

"Who is he?" he asked hoarsely. And she answered smiling,

"A perfectly nice young man named Sloane."

"Don't, Laura - tell me! What does he do?"

"He's in a broker's office - junior member of the firm, Oh, you needn't
worry, dear, he can even afford to marry _me_."

They heard a ring at the front door.

"There he is now, I think," she said. "Will you see him? Would you mind?"

"See him? No!" her father cried.

"But just to shake hands," she insisted. "You needn't talk or say a word.
We've only a moment, anyway." And she went swiftly out of the room.

Roger rose in a panic and strode up and down. Before he could recover
himself she was back with her man, or rather her boy - for the fellow, to
her father's eyes, looked ridiculously young. Straight as an arrow,
slender, his dress suit irreproachable, the chap nevertheless was more than
a dandy. He looked hard, as though he trained, and his smooth and ruddy
face had a look of shrewd self-reliance. So much of him Roger fathomed in
the indignant cornered glance with which he welcomed him into the room.

"Why, good evening, Mr. Gale - glad to see you again, sir!" Young Sloane
nervously held out his hand. Roger took it and muttered something. For
several moments, his mind in a whirl, he heard their talk and laughter and
his own voice joining in. Laura seemed enjoying herself, her eyes brimming
with amusement over both her victims. But at last she had compassion,
kissed her father gaily and took her suitor out of the room.

Soon Roger heard them leave the house. He went into his study, savagely bit
off a cigar and gripped his evening paper as though he meant to choke it.
The maid came in with coffee. "Coffee? No!" he snapped at her. A few
moments later he came to his senses and found himself smoking fast and
hard. He heartily damned this fellow Sloane for breaking into the family
and asking poor Laura to risk her whole life - just for his own selfish
pleasure, his whim! Yes, "whim" was the very word for it! Laura's attitude,
too! Did she look at it seriously? Not at all! Quite plainly she saw her
career as one long Highland fling and dance, with this Harry boy as her
partner! Who had he danced with in his past? The fellow's past must be gone
into, and at once, without delay!

Here indeed was a jolt for Roger Gale, a pretty shabby trick of fate. This
was not what he had planned, this was a little way life had of jabbing a
man with surprises. For months he had been slowly and comfortably feeling
his way into the lives of his children, patiently, conscientiously. But
now without a word of warning in popped this young whipper-snapper, turning
the whole house upside down! Another young person to be known, another life
to be dug into, and with pick and shovel too! The job was far from
pleasant. Would Deborah help him? Not at all. She believed in letting
people alone - a devilish easy philosophy! Still, he wanted to tell her at
once, if only to stir her up a bit. He did not propose to bear this alone!
But Deborah was out to-night. Why must she always be out, he asked, in that
infernal zoo school? But no, it was not school to-night. She was dining out
in some café with a tall lank doctor friend of hers. Probably she was to
marry him!

"I'll have that news for breakfast!" Roger smote his paper savagely. Why
couldn't Laura have waited a little? Restlessly he walked the room. Then he
went into the hall, took his hat and a heavy stick which he used for his
night rambles, and walked off through the neighborhood. It was the first
Saturday evening of Spring, and on those quiet downtown streets he met
couples strolling by. A tall thin lad and a buxom girl went into a cheap
apartment building laughing gaily to themselves, and Roger thought of
Laura. A group of young Italians passed, humming "Trovatore," and it put
him in mind of the time when he had ushered at the opera. Would Laura's
young man be willing to usher? More like him to _tango_ down the aisle!

He reached Washington Square feeling tired but even more restless than
before. He climbed to the top of a motor 'bus, and on the lurching ride
uptown he darkly reflected that times had changed. He thought of the Avenue
he had known, with its long lines of hansom cabs, its dashing broughams and
coupés with jingling harness, livened footmen, everything sprucely
up-to-date. How the horses had added to the town. But they were gone, and
in their place were these great cats, these purring motors, sliding softly
by the 'bus. Roger had swift glimpses down into lighted limousines. In one
a big rich looking chap with a beard had a dressy young woman in his arms.
Lord, how he was hugging her! Laura would have a motor like that, kisses
like that, a life like that! She was the kind to go it hard! Ahead as far
as he could see was a dark rolling torrent of cars, lights gleaming by the
thousand. A hubbub of gay voices, cries and little shrieks of laughter
mingled with the blare of horns. He looked at huge shop windows softly
lighted with displays of bedrooms richly furnished, of gorgeous women's
apparel, silks and lacy filmy stuffs. And to Roger, in his mood of anxious
premonition, these bedroom scenes said plainly,

"O come, all ye faithful wives! Come let us adore him, and deck ourselves
to please his eye, to catch his eye, to hold his eye! For marriage is a
game these days!"

Yes, Laura would be a spender, a spender and a speeder too! How much money
had he, that chap? And damn him, what had he in his past? How Roger hated
the very thought of poking into another man's life! Poking where nobody
wanted him! He felt desperately alone. To-night they were dancing, he
recalled, not at a party in somebody's home, but in some flashy public
place where girls of her kind and fancy women gaily mixed together! How
mixed the whole city was getting, he thought, how mad and strange, gone out
of its mind, this city of his children's lives crowding in upon him!




CHAPTER IV


He breakfasted with Deborah late on Sunday morning. He had come down at the
usual hour despite his long tramp of the previous night, for he wanted to
tell her the news and talk it all out before Laura came down - because
Deborah, he hadn't a doubt, with her woman's curiosity had probed deep into
Laura's affairs in the many long talks they had had in her room. He had
often heard them there. And so, as he waited and waited and still his
daughter did not come, Roger grew distinctly annoyed; and when at last she
did appear, his greeting was perfunctory:

"What kept you out so late last night?"

"Oh, I was having a very good time," said Deborah contentedly. She poured
herself some coffee. "I've always wanted," she went on, "to see Laura
really puzzled - downright flabbergasted. And I saw her just like that last
night."

Roger looked up with a jerk of his head:

"You and Laura - together last night?"

"Exactly - on the Astor Roof." At her father's glare of astonishment a look
of quiet relish came over her mobile features. Her wide lips twitched a
little. "Well, why not?" she asked him. "I'm quite a dancer down at school.
And last night with Allan Baird - we were dining together, you know - he
proposed we go somewhere and dance. He's a perfectly awful dancer, and so I
held out as long as I could. But he insisted and I gave in, though I much
prefer the theater."

"Well!" breathed Roger softly. "So you hoof it with the rest!" His
expression was startled and intent. Would he ever get to know these girls?
"Well," he added with a sigh, "I suppose you know what you're about."

"Oh no, I don't," she answered. "I never know what I'm about. If you always
do, you miss so much - you get into a solemn habit of trying nothing till
you're sure. But to return to Laura. As we came gaily down the room we ran
right into her, you see. That's how Allan dances. And when we collided, I
smiled at her sweetly and said, 'Why, hello, dearie - you here too?" And
Deborah sipped her coffee. "I have never believed that the lower jaw of a
well-bred girl could actually drop open. But Laura's did. With a good
strong light, Allan told me, he could have examined her tonsils for her.
Rather a disgusting thought. You see until she saw me there, poor Laura had
me so thoroughly placed - my school-marm job, my tastes and habits,
everything, all cut and dried. She has never once come to my school, and in
every talk we've ever had there has always been some perfectly good and
absorbing reason why we should talk about Laura alone."

"There is now," said her father. He was in no mood for tomfoolery. His
daughter saw it and smiled a little.

"What is it?" she inquired. And then he let her have it!

"Laura wants to get married," he snapped.

Deborah caught her breath at that, and an eager excited expression swept
over her attractive face. She had leaned forward suddenly.

"Father! No! Which one?" she asked. "Tell me! Is it Harold Sloane?"

"It is."

"Oh, dad." She sank back in her chair. "Oh, dad," she repeated.

"What's the matter with Sloane?" he demanded.

"Oh, nothing, nothing - it's all right - "

"It is, eh? How do you know it is?" His anxious eyes were still upon hers,
and he saw she was thinking fast and hard and shutting him completely out.
And it irritated him. "What do you know of this fellow Sloane?"

"Oh, nothing - nothing - "

"Nothing! Humph! Then why do you sit here and say it's all right? Don't
talk like a fool!" he exclaimed. He waited, but she said no more, and
Roger's exasperation increased. "He has money enough apparently - and
they'll spend it like March hares!"

Deborah looked up at him:

"What did Laura tell you, dear?"

"Not very much. I'm only her father. She had a dinner and dance on her
mind."

But Deborah pressed her questions and he gave her brief replies.

"Well, what shall we do about it?" he asked.

"Nothing - until we know something more." Roger regarded her fiercely.

"Why don't you go up and talk to her, then?"

"She's asleep yet - "

"Never mind if she is! If she's going to marry a chap like that and ruin
her life it's high time she was up for her breakfast!"

While he scanned his Sunday paper he heard Deborah in the pantry. She
emerged with a breakfast tray and he saw her start up to Laura's room. She
was there for over an hour. And when she returned to his study, he saw her
eyes were shining. How women's eyes will shine at such times, he told
himself in annoyance.

"Well?" he demanded.

"Better leave her alone to-day," she advised. "Harold is coming some night
soon."

"What for?"

"To have a talk with you."

Her father smote his paper. "What did she tell you about him?" he asked.

"Not much more than she told you. His parents are dead - but he has a rich
widowed aunt in Bridgeport who adores him. They mean to be married the end
of May. She wants a church wedding, bridesmaids, ushers - the wedding
reception here, of course - "

"Oh, Lord," breathed Roger dismally.

"We won't bother you much, father dear - "

"You _will_ bother me much," he retorted. "I propose to be
bothered - bothered a lot! I'm going to look up this fellow Sloane - "

"But let's leave him alone for to-day." She bent over her father
compassionately. "What a night you must have had, poor dear." Roger looked
up in grim reproach.

"You like all this," he grunted. "You, a grown woman, a teacher too."

"I wonder if I do," she said. "I guess I'm a queer person, dad, a curious
family mixture - of Laura and Edith and mother and you, with a good deal of
myself thrown in. But it feels rather good to be mixed, don't you think?


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Online LibraryErnest PooleHis Family → online text (page 2 of 22)