Copyright
Fannie Hurst.

Gaslight Sonatas online

. (page 1 of 16)
Online LibraryFannie HurstGaslight Sonatas → online text (page 1 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


[Illustration: They walked, thus guided by an obsequious waiter, through a
light _confetti_ of tossed greetings.]


GASLIGHT SONATAS

BY

FANNIE HURST


1918


[Dedication: To my mother and my father]


CONTENTS


I. BITTER-SWEET

II. SIEVE OF FULFILMENT

III. ICE-WATER, PL - !

IV. HERS _NOT_ TO REASON WHY

V. GOLDEN FLEECE

VI. NIGHTSHADE

VII. GET READY THE WREATHS


GASLIGHT SONATAS


I

BITTER-SWEET


Much of the tragical lore of the infant mortality, the malnutrition, and
the five-in-a-room morality of the city's poor is written in statistics,
and the statistical path to the heart is more figurative than literal.

It is difficult to write stylistically a per-annum report of 1,327
curvatures of the spine, whereas the poor specific little vertebra of Mamie
O'Grady, daughter to Lou, your laundress, whose alcoholic husband once
invaded your very own basement and attempted to strangle her in the
coal-bin, can instantly create an apron bazaar in the church vestry-rooms.

That is why it is possible to drink your morning coffee without nausea for
it, over the head-lines of forty thousand casualties at Ypres, but to
push back abruptly at a three-line notice of little Tony's, your corner
bootblack's, fatal dive before a street-car.

Gertie Slayback was statistically down as a woman wage-earner; a typhoid
case among the thousands of the Borough of Manhattan for 1901; and her
twice-a-day share in the Subway fares collected in the present year of our
Lord.

She was a very atomic one of the city's four millions. But after all, what
are the kings and peasants, poets and draymen, but great, greater, or
greatest, less, lesser, or least atoms of us? If not of the least, Gertie
Slayback was of the very lesser. When she unlocked the front door to her
rooming-house of evenings, there was no one to expect her, except on
Tuesdays, which evening it so happened her week was up. And when she left
of mornings with her breakfast crumblessly cleared up and the box of
biscuit and condensed-milk can tucked unsuspectedly behind her camisole in
the top drawer there was no one to regret her.

There are some of us who call this freedom. Again there are those for whom
one spark of home fire burning would light the world.

Gertie Slayback was one of these. Half a life-time of opening her door upon
this or that desert-aisle of hall bedroom had not taught her heart how not
to sink or the feel of daily rising in one such room to seem less like a
damp bathing-suit, donned at dawn.

The only picture - or call it atavism if you will - which adorned Miss
Slayback's dun-colored walls was a passe-partout snowscape, night closing
in, and pink cottage windows peering out from under eaves. She could
visualize that interior as if she had only to turn the frame for the smell
of wood fire and the snap of pine logs and for the scene of two high-back
chairs and the wooden crib between.

What a fragile, gracile thing is the mind that can leap thus from nine
bargain basement hours of hairpins and darning-balls to the downy business
of lining a crib in Never-Never Land and warming No Man's slippers before
the fire of imagination.

There was that picture so acidly etched into Miss Slayback's brain that she
had only to close her eyes in the slit-like sanctity of her room and in the
brief moment of courting sleep feel the pink penumbra of her vision begin
to glow.

Of late years, or, more specifically, for two years and eight months,
another picture had invaded, even superseded the old. A stamp-photograph
likeness of Mr. James P. Batch in the corner of Miss Slayback's mirror,
and thereafter No Man's slippers became number eight-and-a-half C, and the
hearth a gilded radiator in a dining-living-room somewhere between the
Fourteenth Street Subway and the land of the Bronx.

How Miss Slayback, by habit not gregarious, met Mr. Batch is of no
consequence, except to those snug ones of us to whom an introduction is the
only means to such an end.

At a six o'clock that invaded even Union Square with heliotrope dusk, Mr.
James Batch mistook, who shall say otherwise, Miss Gertie Slayback, as
she stepped down into the wintry shade of a Subway kiosk, for Miss
Whodoesitmatter. At seven o'clock, over a dish of lamb stew _à la_ White
Kitchen, he confessed, and if Miss Slayback affected too great surprise and
too little indignation, try to conceive six nine-hour week-in-and-week-out
days of hair-pins and darning-balls, and then, at a heliotrope dusk, James
P. Batch, in invitational mood, stepping in between it and the papered
walls of a dun-colored evening. To further enlist your tolerance, Gertie
Slayback's eyes were as blue as the noon of June, and James P. Batch, in a
belted-in coat and five kid finger-points protruding ever so slightly and
rightly from a breast pocket, was hewn and honed in the image of youth. His
the smile of one for whom life's cup holds a heady wine, a wrinkle or two
at the eye only serving to enhance that smile; a one-inch feather stuck
upright in his derby hatband.

It was a forelock once stamped a Corsican with the look of emperor. It was
this hat feather, a cock's feather at that and worn without sense of humor,
to which Miss Slayback was fond of attributing the consequences of that
heliotrope dusk.

"It was the feather in your cap did it, Jimmie. I can see you yet, stepping
up with that innocent grin of yours. You think I didn't know you were
flirting? Cousin from Long Island City! 'Say,' I says to myself, I says, 'I
look as much like his cousin from Long Island City, if he's got one, as my
cousin from Hoboken (and I haven't got any) would look like my sister if I
had one.' It was that sassy little feather in your hat!"

They would laugh over this ever-green reminiscence on Sunday Park benches
and at intermission at moving pictures when they remained through it to see
the show twice. Be the landlady's front parlor ever so permanently rented
out, the motion-picture theater has brought to thousands of young city
starvelings, if not the quietude of the home, then at least the warmth and
a juxtaposition and a deep darkness that can lave the sub-basement throb of
temples and is filled with music with a hum in it.

For two years and eight months of Saturday nights, each one of them a
semaphore dropping out across the gray road of the week, Gertie Slayback
and Jimmie Batch dined for one hour and sixty cents at the White Kitchen.
Then arm and arm up the million-candle-power flare of Broadway, content,
these two who had never seen a lake reflect a moon, or a slim fir pointing
to a star, that life could be so manifold. And always, too, on Saturday,
the tenth from the last row of the De Luxe Cinematograph, Broadway's Best,
Orchestra Chairs, fifty cents; Last Ten Rows, thirty-five. The give of
velvet-upholstered chairs, perfumed darkness, and any old love story moving
across it to the ecstatic ache of Gertie Slayback's high young heart.

On a Saturday evening that was already pointed with stars at the
six-o'clock closing of Hoffheimer's Fourteenth Street Emporium, Miss
Slayback, whose blondness under fatigue could become ashy, emerged from the
Bargain-Basement almost the first of its frantic exodus, taking the place
of her weekly appointment in the entrance of the Popular Drug Store
adjoining, her gaze, something even frantic in it, sifting the passing
crowd.

At six o'clock Fourteenth Street pours up from its basements, down from its
lofts, and out from its five-and-ten-cent stores, shows, and arcades, in
a great homeward torrent - a sweeping torrent that flows full flush to the
Subway, the Elevated, and the surface car, and then spreads thinly into the
least pretentious of the city's homes - the five flights up, the two rooms
rear, and the third floor back.

Standing there, this eager tide of the Fourteenth Street Emporium, thus
released by the six-o'clock flood-gates, flowed past Miss Slayback.
White-nosed, low-chested girls in short-vamp shoes and no-carat gold
vanity-cases. Older men resigned that ambition could be flayed by a
yard-stick; young men still impatient of their clerkship.

It was into the trickle of these last that Miss Slayback bored her glance,
the darting, eager glance of hot eyeballs and inner trembling. She was
not so pathetically young as she was pathetically blond, a treacherous,
ready-to-fade kind of blondness that one day, now that she had found that
very morning her first gray hair, would leave her ashy.

Suddenly, with a small catch of breath that was audible in her throat, Miss
Slayback stepped out of that doorway, squirming her way across the tight
congestion of the sidewalk to its curb, then in and out, brushing this
elbow and that shoulder, worming her way in an absolutely supreme anxiety
to keep in view a brown derby hat bobbing right briskly along with the
crowd, a greenish-black bit of feather upright in its band.

At Broadway, Fourteenth Street cuts quite a caper, deploying out into Union
Square, an island of park, beginning to be succulent at the first false
feint of spring, rising as it were from a sea of asphalt. Across this park
Miss Slayback worked her rather frenzied way, breaking into a run when
the derby threatened to sink into the confusion of a hundred others, and
finally learning to keep its course by the faint but distinguishing fact of
a slight dent in the crown. At Broadway, some blocks before that highway
bursts into its famous flare, Mr. Batch, than whom it was no other, turned
off suddenly at right angles down into a dim pocket of side-street and into
the illuminated entrance of Ceiner's Café Hungarian. Meals at all hours.
Lunch, thirty cents. Dinner, fifty cents. Our Goulash is Famous.

New York, which expresses itself in more languages to the square block
than any other area in the world, Babylon included, loves thus to dine
linguistically, so to speak. To the Crescent Turkish Restaurant for its
Business Men's Lunch comes Fourth Avenue, whose antique-shop patois reads
across the page from right to left. Sight-seeing automobiles on mission and
commission bent allow Altoona, Iowa City, and Quincy, Illinois, fifteen
minutes' stop-in at Ching Ling-Foo's Chinatown Delmonico's. Spaghetti and
red wine have set New York racing to reserve its table d'hôtes. All except
the Latin race.

Jimmie Batch, who had first seen light, and that gaslight, in a block in
lower Manhattan which has since been given over to a milk-station for
a highly congested district, had the palate, if not the purse, of the
cosmopolite. His digestive range included _borsch_ and _chow maigne;
risotta_ and ham and.

To-night, as he turned into Café Hungarian, Miss Slayback slowed and drew
back into the overshadowing protection of an adjoining office-building. She
was breathing hard, and her little face, somehow smaller from chill, was
nevertheless a high pink at the cheek-bones.

The wind swept around the corner, jerking her hat, and her hand flew up to
it. There was a fair stream of passers-by even here, and occasionally
one turned for a backward glance at her standing there so frankly
indeterminate.

Suddenly Miss Slayback adjusted her tam-o'-shanter to its flop over her
right ear, and, drawing off a pair of dark-blue silk gloves from over
immaculately new white ones, entered Ceiner's Café Hungarian. In its light
she was not so obviously blonder than young, the pink spots in her
cheeks had a deepening value to the blue of her eyes, and a black velvet
tam-o'-shanter revealing just the right fringe of yellow curls is no mean
aid.

First of all, Ceiner's is an eating-place. There is no music except at five
cents in the slot, and its tables for four are perpetually set each with a
dish of sliced radishes, a bouquet of celery, and a mound of bread, half
the stack rye. Its menus are well thumbed and badly mimeographed. Who
enters Ceiner's is prepared to dine from barley soup to apple strudel. At
something after six begins the rising sound of cutlery, and already the
new-comer fears to find no table.

Off at the side, Mr. Jimmie Batch had already disposed of his hat and gray
overcoat, and tilting the chair opposite him to indicate its reservation,
shook open his evening paper, the waiter withholding the menu at this sign
of rendezvous.

Straight toward that table Miss Slayback worked quick, swift way, through
this and that aisle, jerking back and seating herself on the chair opposite
almost before Mr. Batch could raise his eyes from off the sporting page.

There was an instant of silence between them - the kind of silence that
can shape itself into a commentary upon the inefficacy of mere speech - a
widening silence which, as they sat there facing, deepened until, when she
finally spoke, it was as if her words were pebbles dropping down into a
well.

"Don't look so surprised, Jimmie," she said, propping her face calmly, even
boldly, into the white-kid palms. "You might fall off the Christmas tree."

Above the snug, four-inch collar and bow tie Mr. Batch's face was taking on
a dull ox-blood tinge that spread back, even reddening his ears. Mr. Batch
had the frontal bone of a clerk, the horn-rimmed glasses of the literarily
astigmatic, and the sartorial perfection that only the rich can afford not
to attain.

He was staring now quite frankly, and his mouth had fallen open. "Gert!" he
said.

"Yes," said Miss Slayback, her insouciance gaining with his discomposure,
her eyes widening and then a dolly kind of glassiness seeming to set in.
"You wasn't expecting me, Jimmie?"

He jerked up his head, not meeting her glance. "What's the idea of the
comedy?"

"You don't look glad to see me, Jimmie."

"If you - think you're funny."

She was working out of and then back into the freshly white gloves in a
betraying kind of nervousness that belied the toss of her voice. "Well, of
all things! Mad-cat! Mad, just because you didn't seem to be expecting me."

"I - There's some things that are just the limit, that's what they are.
Some things that are just the limit, that no fellow would stand from any
girl, and this - this is one of them."

Her lips were trembling now. "You - you bet your life there's some things
that are just the limit."

He slid out his watch, pushing back. "Well, I guess this place is too small
for a fellow and a girl that can follow him around town like a - like - "

She sat forward, grasping the table-sides, her chair tilting with her.
"Don't you dare to get up and leave me sitting here! Jimmie Batch, don't
you dare!"

The waiter intervened, card extended.

"We - we're waiting for another party," said Miss Slayback, her hands still
rigidly over the table-sides and her glance like a steady drill into Mr.
Batch's own.

There was a second of this silence while the waiter withdrew, and then Mr.
Batch whipped out his watch again, a gun-metal one with an open face.

"Now look here. I got a date here in ten minutes, and one or the other of
us has got to clear. You - you're one too many, if you got to know it."

"Oh, I do know it, Jimmie! I been one too many for the last four Saturday
nights. I been one too many ever since May Scully came into five hundred
dollars' inheritance and quit the Ladies' Neckwear. I been one too many
ever since May Scully became a lady."

"If I was a girl and didn't have more shame!"

"Shame! Now you're shouting, Jimmie Batch. I haven't got shame, and I don't
care who knows it. A girl don't stop to have shame when she's fighting for
her rights."

He was leaning on his elbow, profile to her. "That movie talk can't scare
me. You can't tell me what to do and what not to do. I've given you a
square deal all right. There's not a word ever passed between us that ties
me to your apron-strings. I don't say I'm not without my obligations to
you, but that's not one of them. No, sirree - no apron-strings."

"I know it isn't, Jimmie. You're the kind of a fellow wouldn't even talk to
himself for fear of committing hisself."

"I got a date here now any minute, Gert, and the sooner you - "

"You're the guy who passed up the Sixty-first for the Safety First
regiment."

"I'll show you my regiment some day."

"I - I know you're not tied to my apron-strings, Jimmie. I - I wouldn't have
you there for anything. Don't you think I know you too well for that?
That's just it. Nobody on God's earth knows you the way I do. I know you
better than you know yourself."

"You better beat it, Gertie. I tell you I'm getting sore."

Her face flashed from him to the door and back again, her anxiety almost
edged with hysteria. "Come on, Jimmie - out the side entrance before she
gets here. May Scully ain't the company for you. You think if she was,
honey, I'd - I'd see myself come butting in between you this way, like - like
a - common girl? She's not the girl to keep you straight. Honest to God
she's not, honey."

"My business is my business, let me tell you that."

"She's speedy, Jimmie. She was the speediest girl on the main floor, and
now that she's come into those five hundred, instead of planting it for a
rainy day, she's quit work and gone plumb crazy with it."

"When I want advice about my friends I ask for it."

"It's not her good name that worries me, Jimmie, because she 'ain't got
any. It's you. She's got you crazy with that five hundred, too - that's
what's got me scared."

"Gee! you ought to let the Salvation Army tie a bonnet under your chin."

"She's always had her eyes on you, Jimmie. 'Ain't you men got no sense for
seein' things? Since the day they moved the Gents' Furnishings across from
the Ladies' Neckwear she's had you spotted. Her goings-on used to leak down
to the basement, alrighty. She's not a good girl, May ain't, Jimmie. She
ain't, and you know it. Is she? Is she?"

"Aw!" said Jimmie Batch.

"You see! See! 'Ain't got the nerve to answer, have you?"

"Aw - maybe I know, too, that she's not the kind of a girl that would turn
up where she's not - "

"If you wasn't a classy-looking kind of boy, Jimmie, that a fly girl like
May likes to be seen out with, she couldn't find you with magnifying
glasses, not if you was born with the golden rule in your mouth and had
swallowed it. She's not the kind of girl, Jimmie, a fellow like you needs
behind him. If - if you was ever to marry her and get your hands on them
five hundred dollars - "

"It would be my business."

"It'll be your ruination. You're not strong enough to stand up under
nothing like that. With a few hundred unearned dollars in your pocket
you - you'd go up in spontaneous combustion, you would."

"It would be my own spontaneous combustion."

"You got to be drove, Jimmie, like a kid. With them few dollars you
wouldn't start up a little cigar-store like you think you would. You and
her would blow yourselves to the dogs in two months. Cigar-stores ain't the
place for you, Jimmie. You seen how only clerking in them was nearly your
ruination - the little gambling-room-in-the-back kind that you pick out.
They ain't cigar-stores; they're only false faces for gambling."

"You know it all, don't you?"

"Oh, I'm dealing it to you straight! There's too many sporty crowds loafing
around those joints for a fellow like you to stand up under. I found you in
one, and as yellow-fingered and as loafing as they come, a new job a week,
a - "

"Yeh, and there was some pep to variety, too."

"Don't throw over, Jimmie, what my getting you out of it to a decent job in
a department store has begun to do for you. And you're making good, too.
Higgins told me to-day, if you don't let your head swell, there won't be a
fellow in the department can stack up his sales-book any higher."

"Aw!"

"Don't throw it all over, Jimmie - and me - for a crop of dyed red hair and a
few dollars to ruin yourself with."

He shot her a look of constantly growing nervousness, his mouth pulled to
an oblique, his glance constantly toward the door.

"Don't keep no date with her to-night, Jimmie. You haven't got the
constitution to stand her pace. It's telling on you. Look at those fingers
yellowing again - looka - "

"They're my fingers, ain't they?"

"You see, Jimmie, I - I'm the only person in the world that likes you just
for what - you ain't - and hasn't got any pipe dreams about you. That's what
counts, Jimmie, the folks that like you in spite, and not because of."

"We will now sing psalm number two hundred and twenty-three."

"I know there's not a better fellow in the world if he's kept nailed to the
right job, and I know, too, there's not another fellow can go to the dogs
any easier."

"To hear you talk, you'd think I was about six."

"I'm the only girl that'll ever be willing to make a whip out of herself
that'll keep you going and won't sting, honey. I know you're soft and lazy
and selfish and - "

"Don't forget any."

"And I know you're my good-looking good-for-nothing, and I know, too, that
you - you don't care as much - as much for me from head to toe as I do for
your little finger. But I - I like you just the same, Jimmie. That - that's
what I mean about having no shame. I - do like you so - so terribly, Jimmie."

"Aw now - Gert!"

"I know it, Jimmie - that I ought to be ashamed. Don't think I haven't cried
myself to sleep with it whole nights in succession."

"Aw now - Gert!"

"Don't think I don't know it, that I'm laying myself before you pretty
common. I know it's common for a girl to - to come to a fellow like this,
but - but I haven't got any shame about it - I haven't got anything, Jimmie,
except fight for - for what's eating me. And the way things are between us
now is eating me."

"I - Why, I got a mighty high regard for you, Gert."

"There's a time in a girl's life, Jimmie, when she's been starved like I
have for something of her own all her days; there's times, no matter how
she's held in, that all of a sudden comes a minute when she busts out."

"I understand, Gert, but - "

"For two years and eight months, Jimmie, life has got to be worth while
living to me because I could see the day, even if we - you - never talked
about it, when you would be made over from a flip kid to - to the kind of a
fellow would want to settle down to making a little - two-by-four home for
us. A - little two-by-four all our own, with you steady on the job and
advanced maybe to forty or fifty a week and - "

"For God's sake, Gertie, this ain't the time or the place to - "

"Oh yes, it is! It's got to be, because it's the first time in four weeks
that you didn't see me coming first."

"But not now, Gert. I - "

"I'm not ashamed to tell you, Jimmie Batch, that I've been the making of
you since that night you threw the wink at me. And - and it hurts, this
does. God! how it hurts!"

He was pleating the table-cloth, swallowing as if his throat had
constricted, and still rearing his head this way and that in the tight
collar.

"I - never claimed not to be a bad egg. This ain't the time and the place
for rehashing, that's all. Sure you been a friend to me. I don't say
you haven't. Only I can't be bossed by a girl like you. I don't say May
Scully's any better than she ought to be. Only that's my business. You
hear? my business. I got to have life and see a darn sight more future for
myself than selling shirts in a Fourteenth Street department store."

"May Scully can't give it to you - her and her fast crowd."

"Maybe she can and maybe she can't."

"Them few dollars won't make you; they'll break you."

"That's for her to decide, not you."

"I'll tell her myself. I'll face her right here and - "

"Now, look here, if you think I'm going to be let in for a holy show
between you two girls, you got another think coming. One of us has got to
clear out of here, and quick, too. You been talking about the side door;
there it is. In five minutes I got a date in this place that I thought I
could keep like any law-abiding citizen. One of us has got to clear, and
quick, too. God! you wimmin make me sick, the whole lot of you!"

"If anything makes you sick, I know what it is. It's dodging me to fly
around all hours of the night with May Scully, the girl who put the tang in
tango. It's eating around in swell sixty-cent restaurants like this and - "

"Gad! your middle name ought to be Nagalene."

"Aw, now, Jimmie, maybe it does sound like nagging, but it ain't, honey.
It - it's only my - my fear that I'm losing you, and - and my hate for the
every-day grind of things, and - "

"I can't help that, can I?"

"Why, there - there's nothing on God's earth I hate, Jimmie, like I hate
that Bargain-Basement. When I think it's down there in that manhole I've
spent the best years of my life, I - I wanna die. The day I get out of it,


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryFannie HurstGaslight Sonatas → online text (page 1 of 16)