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THE WOMAN IN THE ALCOVE ***




Produced by David Widger from page images generously
provided by the Internet Archive









THE WOMAN IN THE ALCOVE

By Jennette Lee

Illustrated by A. I. Keller And Arthur E. Becher

Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York

1914

[Illustration: 0008]

[Illustration: 0009]

Copyright, 1914, by CHARLES SCRIBNER’S SONS

Published September, 1914

TO

GERALD STANLEY LEE


I


“Room after room,

I hunt the house through

We inhabit together.

Heart, fear nothing, for, heart, thou shalt find her -

Next time, herself! - not the trouble behind her

Left in the curtain, the couch’s perfume!

As she brushed it, the cornice-wreath blossomed anew;

Yon looking-glass gleamed at the wave of her feather.


II



“Yet the day wears

And door succeeds door;

I try the fresh fortune -

Range the wide house from the wing to the centre.

Still the same chance! She goes out as I enter.

Spend my whole day in the quest, - who cares?

But ‘tis twilight, you see - with such suites to explore,

Such closets to search, such alcoves to importune.”




I


ELDRIDGE WALCOTT paused in front of the great building; he looked
up and hesitated and went in. He crossed the marble lobby and passed
through the silent, swinging doors on the opposite side and stepped into
a softly lighted café. He had never been in Merwin’s before, though he
had often heard of it, and he was curious as to what it would be like.
There was a sound of music somewhere and low voices and the tinkle of
silver and glass behind the little green curtains. He entered an alcove
at the left and sat down. The restfulness of the place soothed him, and
he sat listening to the distant music and looking out between the parted
curtains of the alcove to the room with its little tables filling the
space beyond the green-curtained alcoves on either side and the people
seated at the tables. They were laughing and eating and talking and
drinking from delicate cups or turning slender-stemmed glasses in their
fingers as they talked. Beyond the tables rose a small platform; a woman
had just mounted it and was bowing to the scattered tables. The sound of
voices ceased an instant and hands clapped faintly here and there. The
woman on the platform bowed again and looked at the accompanist,
who struck the opening bars. It was a light, trivial song with more
personality than art in the singing of it, and the audience applauded
perfunctorily, hardly breaking off its talk to acknowledge that it was
done. The woman stepped down from the platform and joined a group at a
table near by, and waiters moved among the tables, refilling cups and
glasses and taking orders.

A waiter paused by the alcove where Eldridge Walcott was sitting and
pushed back the little curtain and looked in and waited. Eldridge took
up the card on the table before him; he fingered it a little awkwardly
and laid it down: “Bring me cigars,” he said.

The waiter scribbled on a card and passed on. When he had completed the
alcoves on the left he turned and went back along the right, pausing
before each one and bending forward to listen and take the order on his
card. As he approached the third alcove he pushed back the curtain that
half concealed it at the back and bent forward. When he passed on the
curtain did not fall into place; it remained caught on the back of
the seat. From where Eldridge sat he could see the woman seated in the
alcove. She was alone, her back to him, her head a little bent as if in
thought.

He glanced at her carelessly and along the row of green curtains to the
tables beyond. It was all much as he had imagined it - a place where one
could spend time and money without too much exertion. It was the money
part of it that interested Eldridge. His client had asked him to look
into it for him as an investment, and he had decided on this informal
way of appraising it. To-morrow he was to go over the books and
accounts. The owners wanted a stiff price for the goodwill. It was
probably worth what they were asking he decided as he watched the
careless, happy crowd. People who came here were not thinking how much
they could save.... It was not the sort of place he should care to come
to often himself. Life to Eldridge was a serious, drab affair compared
with Merwin’s. He liked to think how much he could save; and when he had
saved it he liked to invest it where it would breed more.... He might
take a few shares of the capital stock himself - his client had suggested
it.

The waiter brought the cigars and Eldridge lighted one and leaned back,
smoking and enjoying the relaxed air of the place. He could understand
dimly how people liked this sort of thing and would come day after day
for music and talk and the purposelessness of it all; it was a kind of
huge, informal club with a self-elected membership.

As a prospective investor the charm of it pleased him. They ought to be
able to make a good thing of it. He fell to making little calculations;
it was part of his power as a successful man of business that he
understood detail and the value of small things.

He was not a financier, but he handled small interests well and he had
built up a comfortable fortune. From being in debt before he married,
he had advanced slowly until now his investments made a good showing.
He could probably live on the income to-morrow if he chose.... He blew a
little ring of smoke.... His investments and what they were mounting
to was a kind of epic poem to Eldridge’s slow-moving mind.... Yes - he
would take a few shares of the café stock. He looked thoughtfully at
his cigar and calculated how many, and what they would be worth.... The
music had taken the form of a young boy with a violin who stood absorbed
in his playing, a kind of quick fervor in his face and figure. The
voices had ceased and only now and then a cup clicked.

Eldridge lifted his eyes from the cigar. The woman in the alcove had
moved nearer the end of the seat and was watching the boy, her lips
parted on a half smile.

The cigar dropped from Eldridge’s fingers. He stared at the
woman - stared - and stirred vaguely.

She turned a little and Eldridge reached out his hand and drew a quick
curtain between them.

Through the slit he could still see the figure of the woman, her head
thrown a little back, her eyes following the bow of music as it rose and
fell, and the lips smiling in happy content - He drew a quick breath.

Slowly a deep flush came into his face - How dared Rosalind come here! It
was a respectable place - of course - but how dared she spend her time and
money - his money and time that belonged to her home and her children - in
a place like this?... Her hands were folded in her lap, and her eyes
followed the music.

She had barely touched the glass on the table before her, he noted, or
the plate of little biscuit. She seemed to sit in a dream.... His mind
whirled. Six hours before he had said good-by to her at the breakfast
table - a plain, drab woman in shabby clothes, with steel-rimmed
spectacles that looked at him with a little line between the eyes
and reminded him that he needed to order coal for the range and a new
clothes-line.... He had ordered the coal, but he recalled suddenly that
he had forgotten the clothes-line; he had intended to see if he could
get one cheaper at a wholesale place he knew of; his memory held the
clothes-line fast in the left lobe of his brain while the grey matter of
the right lobe whirled excitedly about the woman in the alcove.

[Illustration: 0025]

She had raised a lorgnette to her eyes and was looking at the boy
violinist, a little, happy, wistful smile on her lips.... Eldridge had
not seen her smile like that for years. His left lobe abandoned the
clothes-line and recalled to him when it was he saw the little smile,
half wistful, half happy, on her face.... They were standing by the
gate, and he was saying good night; the moon had just come up, and there
was a fragrant bush beside the path that gave out the smell of spring;
the left lobe yielded up fragrance and moonlight and the little wistful
smile while his quick eye followed the lorgnette; it had dropped to
her lap, and her hands were folded on it.... Rosalind - ! A gold
lorgnette - and draperies, soft, gauzy lines and folds of silk - and a hat
on her shining, lifted hair, like a vague coronet! Eldridge Walcott held
his cigar grimly between his teeth; the cigar had gone out - both lobes
had ceased to whirl.... A kind of frozen light held his face. His hand
groped for his hat. Why should he not step across the aisle and sit down
in the chair opposite her and confront her? - the green curtains would
shut them in.... Both lobes stared at the thought and held it tight - to
face Rosalind, a grey, frightened woman in her finery, behind the little
green curtains! He shook himself loose and stood up. Softly his hand
drew back the curtain, and he stepped out. They were clapping the boy
violinist, who had played to the end, and Eldridge moved toward the
swinging doors and passed out and stood in the lobby. He wiped his
forehead.... A sound of moving chairs came from behind the doors, and
he crossed the lobby quickly and plunged into the crowd. It was five
o’clock, and the streets were filled with people hurrying home. Eldridge
turned against the tide and crossed a side street and pressed east, his
feet seeming to find a way of their own. He was not thinking where he
would go - except that it must be away from her. He could not face her
yet - Who _was_ she? There was the drab woman of the morning, waiting for
him to come home with the clothesline, and there was the woman of the
alcove, splendid, gentle, with the little smile and the gold
lorgnette.... Rosalind - Fifteen years he had lived with her, and he had
known her ten years before that - there was nothing _queer_ about
Rosalind! He lifted his head a little proudly - The woman he had just
left was very beautiful! It struck him for the first time that she was
beautiful, and he half stopped.

He walked more slowly, taking it in - Rosalind was not beautiful; she
had not been beautiful - even as a girl - only pretty, with a kind of
freshness and freedom about her and something in her eyes that he
had not understood - It was the look that had drawn him - He was always
wondering about it. Sometimes he saw it in the night - as if it flitted
when he woke. He had not thought of it for years. Something in the
woman’s shoulder and the line of her head was like it. But the woman
was very _beautiful!_ - Suppose it were not Rosalind after all! He gave a
quick breath, and his feet halted and went on. Then a thought surged at
him, and he walked fast - he almost ran. No - No - ! It was as if he put
his hands over his ears to shut it out. Other women - but not _his_ wife!
She had children - _three_ children! He tried to think of the children
to steady himself. He pictured her putting them to bed at night, bending
above Tommie and winding a flannel bandage tight around his throat for
croup; he could see her quite plainly, the quick, efficient fingers and
firm, roughened hands drawing the bed-clothes in place and tucking them
in.... The woman’s hands had rested so quietly in her lap! Were they
rough? - She had worn gloves - he remembered now - soft gloves, like the
color in her gown.... He stared at the gloves - they were long - they came
to the elbow - yes, there was a kind of soft, lacy stuff that fell away
from them - yes, they were long gloves.... They must have cost - -

He tried to think what the gloves must have cost, but he had nothing to
go by. Rosalind had never worn such gloves, nor his mother or sisters.
Only women who were very rich wore gloves like that - or women - -

He faced the thought at last. He had come out where the salt air struck
him; the town and its lights had fallen behind; there was the marsh
to cross, and he was on a long beach, the wind in his face, the water
rolling up in spray and sweeping slowly back - He strode forward, his
head to the wind.... There was no one that she knew - no man.... How
should she know any one that he did not know!

She was never away.... But was he - sure! How did he know what went
on - all day... half past seven till seven at night? In the evenings she
mended the children’s clothes and he looked over the paper. Sometimes
they talked about things and planned how they could get along. Rosalind
was a good manager. He saw her sitting beside the lamp, in her cheap
dress, her head bent over the figures, working it out with him - and he
saw the woman in the alcove - the clothes she wore - he drew back before
it - more than the whole family spent in a year!... The gloves alone
might have bought her Sunday suit - Sunday was, after all, the only day
he knew where she was - in church with him and, in the afternoon, lying
down in her room while he took the children for a walk.... He was a good
father - he set his teeth to it defiantly, against the wind. She
could not accuse _him_ of neglect.... Suddenly a hurt feeling stirred
somewhere deep down - He did not look at it; he did not know it was
there. But the first shock had passed. He was not bewildered any
more. He could think steadily, putting point to point, building up the
“case”.... Then, suddenly, he would see her in the great spectacles,
reminding him of the clothes-line - and his “case” collapsed like a
foolish little card house.... Not Rosalind - other women, perhaps - but
not Rosalind.... He turned slowly back, the wind behind him urging him
on. He would go home - to her. Perhaps when he saw her he should know
what to think.... But perhaps she had not yet come home. If he hurried
he might get there before her and face her as she came in. He hurried
fast, he almost ran, and when he reached the streets he signalled a cab;
he had not used a cab for years; it would cost a dollar, at least - He
looked out at the half-deserted street - the crowd had thinned. He
held his watch where the light of the street arc flashed across
it - six-thirty. Half an hour before his usual time. He paid the fare
and went quickly up the steps.... The children were talking in the
dining-room. There was no other sound. He opened the door and looked in.
She was standing by the table looking at Tommie’s coat - There was a
rent in the shoulder and the face bent above it had a look of quiet
patience - The grey-drab hair was parted exactly in the middle and combed
smoothly down; the eyes behind the spectacles looked up - with the little
line between them. When she saw who it was she glanced for a moment at
the clock and then back at him - “Did you bring the clothesline?” she
asked.

He stared at her a moment - at her plain, cheap dress and homely face.
Then he turned away. “I - forgot,” he said.




II


WHEN supper was done and the children in bed she moved about the room
for a few minutes putting things to rights. Eldridge, sitting by the
table, held his newspaper in his hand and now and then he rustled it and
turned it over; his eyes did not leave the little black printed marks,
but his real eyes were not following the marks; they were watching the
woman; they tried to dart upon her in her plainness and make her speak.
There was something monstrous to him - that they should be here together,
in this room - he could have touched her with his hand as she moved past
him - yet they were a thousand miles apart. He cleared his throat; he
would force her, accuse her, make her reveal what was going on behind
the earnest-looking glasses.... He turned the paper and began another
page.... If he were another man he might spring at her - take her by the
throat - force her back - back against the wall - and _make_ her speak! She
had finished tidying the room and came over to the table, the torn coat
in her hand; she was looking down at the frayed threads in the rent, the
little line between her eyes; he did not look up or move; he could hear
her breathing - then she gave a little sigh and laid the coat on the
table.... She was leaving the room. His eyes leaped after her and came
back.

When she returned she spread the roll of pieces on the table and
selected one, slipping it in beneath the rent; he could see - without
taking his eyes from the page - he could see the anxious, faintly red
knuckles and her fingers fitting the piece in place with deft, roughened
tips. She had a kind of special skill at mending, making old things new.
When they were first married it had been one of their little jokes - how
lucky she was to have married a poor man. He had kissed her fingers one
day - he recalled it - when she had shown him the little skilful darn
in his coat; he had called it a kind of poem and he had kissed her. It
seemed almost shameless to him, behind his paper - the foolishness was
shameless - of kissing her for that....

She was sewing swiftly now with the short, still movements that came and
went like breaths; her head was bent over the coat and he could see the
parting of her hair; he dropped his eye to it for a minute and rustled
the paper and turned it vaguely. “I was in at Merwin’s this afternoon,”
he said.

The needle paused a dart - and went on rhythmically, in and out. “Did you
like it?” she asked. She had not lifted her head from her work.

He turned a casual page and read on - “Oh, so-so.” It was the sort of
absent-minded talk they often had - a kind of thinking out loud without
interest in one another.

“It is a popular place, isn’t it?”

She was smoothing the edges of the patch thoughtfully; there was a
little smile on her lip.

He folded his paper. “I’m going to bed,” he announced.

She glanced quickly at the clock and resumed her work. “I must finish
this. He hasn’t any other to wear.” The needle went in and out.

Eldridge rose and stretched himself above her. He looked down at her - at
the swift-moving hands and grey closeness of her dress. He would like to
take her in his hands and crush out of her the thoughts - make her speak
out the thoughts that followed the swift-going needle; he did not know
that he wanted this - he was only feeling over and over, in some deep,
angry place - “What the devil was she doing there? What the - - ”

He moved about the room a minute and ‘went out. The woman by the table
sewed on. A bolt shot in the front hall and Eldridge’s feet mounted the
stairs slowly. Then the room was quiet - only the clock and the needle.

Presently the needle stopped - the woman’s hands lay folded in her lap.
The figure was motionless, the head bent - only across her face moved the
little smile.... The clock travelled round and whirred its warning note
and struck, and she only stirred a little, as if a breath escaped her,
and took up her work, looking at it blindly.

A sound came in the hall and she looked up.

He stood in the doorway, his old dressing-gown wrapped around him, his
hands gaunt, with the little hairs at the wrist uncovered by cuffs.

She looked at him, smiling absently. There was something almost
beautiful in her face as she lifted it to him - “When are you coming to
bed?” he asked harshly.

“Why, right now, Eldridge - I must have been dreaming.” She gathered up
the work from her lap. “I hope I haven’t kept you awake.”

He stood looking at her a minute. Then he wheeled about without
response. His feet beneath the bath gown moved awkwardly. But the
spine in the bath gown had a cold, dignified, offended look - a kind of
grotesque stateliness - as it disappeared through the doorway.

The woman looked after it, the little, gathering smile still on her
face. Then she turned toward the lamp and put it out, and the radiant
smile close to the lamp became a part of the dark.




III


BY morning it had become a dream.

Eldridge was late and he hurried from the house and hurried all the
morning to catch up. By luncheon time he was in another world. He
took plenty of time for his luncheon; it was one of the things he
had learned - to eat his luncheon slowly and take time to digest it.
Sometimes he read the paper, sometimes he dropped into a moving-picture
show for a few minutes afterward. But to-day he did neither. He sat
in the restaurant - it was a crowded restaurant, all America coming and
going - and he watched it idly. He had a rested, comfortable feeling,
as if he had escaped some calamity. It seemed foolish now, as he looked
back - a kind of fever in the blood that had twisted the commonest things
into queer shape. He looked back over it dispassionately - it was the
woman in Merwin’s who had started it, of course; there _was_ something
about her - something like Rosalind - curiously like her - it was like
what Rosalind _might_ have been, more than what she was - a kind of
spirited-up Rosalind! He smiled grimly.

He called for his check; and while he waited he saw her again, the
figure of the woman - not in the restaurant - but in a kind of vision - in
the alcove behind the curtain, her head a little bent, her hands folded
quietly in her lap... who _was_ she - ? His heart gave a sudden twist and
stopped - He had never felt like this about - any one - had he? He looked
down at a red check, with its stamped black figures, and fumbled in his
pocket - and brought out a coin and laid it beside the check and stared
at it.... The check and the coin slipped away and he stared at the
marble top. Suppose he saw her - again... some time.... Two coins
reappeared on the table and he picked them up. Then he put back one and
felt for his hat and went out.... The traffic shrieked at him and people
jostled him with their elbows and hurried him, and he jostled back and
woke up and shook off the queerness and went about his work.... He was
forty-one years old and his property was all well invested. It had never
occurred to him that he could be different from himself.... He read
in the paper of people who did things - did things different from
themselves, suddenly - people who squandered fortunes in a day, or
murdered and ran away from business - and their wives - people who
committed suicide. Vicariously, he knew all about how queer men could
be... and his chief experience with it all, with this world that his
newspaper rolled before him every day, was a kind of wonder that people
would do such things and a knowledge, deeper than faith or conviction,
that Eldridge Walcott would never do any of them. He explained such
men - if he explained them at all - by saying that they must have a screw
loose somewhere. Perhaps he thought of men, vaguely, as put together
with works inside, carefully adjusted and screwed in place, warranted,
with good usage, to run so long; certainly it had not occurred to him
that a man could change much after he was forty years old.

He went back to business refreshed, more refreshed than his luncheon
often left him. He thought of Rosalind, now and then, with a kind of
thankfulness - Rosalind waiting for him at night with the children, life
moving on in the same comfortable way. He had even a moment’s flash
of thankfulness to the unknown woman that she had made him see how
comfortable he was, how much he had to be thankful for in his quiet
life. It was a profitable afternoon - the best stroke of business in
six months; and he flattered himself that he handled it well. He felt
unusually alive, alert. On the way home he passed a florist’s and
half stopped, looking down at a beautiful plant that flamed on a bench
outside the door; he did not know what it was; they were all “plants” to
him, except roses - he knew a rose - this was not a rose; he looked at it
a moment and hurried on.... She would think it strange if he brought her
anything like a plant.

The idea grew with him the next day and the next. Why should he not give
her something? She deserved it. There seemed always some good reason
why her clothes were the last to be bought and the plainest and
shabbiest - and a woman’s clothes could always be made over.... Suppose
she had a new suit - something that was really good - Suppose he got it
for her - would she be in the least like that - other - one - ? He had long
ago abandoned the idea that there was a real resemblance between
them. He knew now that he must have been overwrought, excited in some
mysterious way - the woman herself seemed to have excited him.

The wrong that he had done Rosalind - even in his thought - made him
tender of her. He did not buy a crimson flower to take home to her. But


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