Those of you who have dwelt—or even lingered—in Chicago, Illinois (this is not a humorous story), are familiar with the region known as the Loop. For those others of you to whom Chicago is a transfer point between New York and San Francisco there is presented this brief explanation:
The Loop is a clamorous, smoke-infested district embraced by the iron arms of the elevated tracks. In a city boasting fewer millions, it would be known familiarly as downtown. From Congress to Lake Street, from Wabash almost to the river, those thunderous tracks make a complete circle, or loop. Within it lie the retail shops, the commercial hotels, the theatres, the restaurants. It is the Fifth Avenue (diluted) and the Broadway (deleted) of Chicago. And he who frequents it by night in search of amusement and cheer is known, vulgarly, as a Loop-hound.
Jo Hertz was a Loop-hound. On the occasion of those sparse first nights granted the metropolis of the Middle West he was always present, third row, aisle, left. When a new loop café was opened Jo’s table always commanded an unobstructed view of anything worth viewing. On entering he was wont to say, “Hello, Gus,” with careless cordiality to the head waiter, the while his eye roved expertly from table to table as he removed his gloves. He ordered things under glass, so that his table, at midnight or thereabouts, resembled a hot-bed that favours the bell system. The waiters fought for him. He was the kind of man who mixes his own salad dressing. He liked to call for a bowl, some cracked ice, lemon, garlic, paprika, salt, pepper, vinegar, and oil and make a rite of it. People at near-by tables would lay down their knives and forks to watch, fascinated. The secret of it seemed to lie in using all the oil in sight and calling for more.
That was Jo—a plump and lonely bachelor of fifty. A plethoric, roving-eyed and kindly man, clutching vainly at the garments of a youth that had long slipped past him. Jo Hertz, in one of those pinch-waist belted suits and a trench coat and a little green hat, walking up Michigan Avenue of a bright winter’s afternoon, trying to take the curb with a jaunty youthfulness against which every one of his fat-encased muscles rebelled, was a sight for mirth or pity, depending on one’s vision.
The gay-dog business was a late phase in the life of Jo Hertz. He had been a quite different sort of canine. The staid and harassed brother of three unwed and selfish sisters is an under dog. The tale of how Jo Hertz came to be a Loop-hound should not be compressed within the limits of a short story. It should be told as are the photo plays, with frequent throwbacks and many cut-ins. To condense twenty-three years of a man’s life into some five or six thousand words requires a verbal economy amounting to parsimony.
At twenty-seven Jo had been the dutiful, hard-working son (in the wholesale harness business) of a widowed and gummidging mother, who called him Joey. If you had looked close you would have seen that now and then a double wrinkle would appear between Jo’s eyes—a wrinkle that had no business there at twenty-seven. Then Jo’s mother died, leaving him handicapped by a death-bed promise, the three sisters and a three-story-and-basement house on Calumet Avenue. Jo’s wrinkle became a fixture.
Death-bed promises should be broken as lightly as they are seriously made. The dead have no right to lay their clammy fingers upon the living.
“Joey,” she had said, in her high, thin voice, “take care of the girls.”
“I will, Ma,” Jo had choked.
“Joey,” and the voice was weaker, “promise me you won’t marry till the girls are all provided for.” Then as Joe had hesitated, appalled: “Joey, it’s my dying wish. Promise!”
“I promise, Ma,” he had said.
Whereupon his mother had died, comfortably, leaving him with a completely ruined life.
They were not bad-looking girls, and they had a certain style, too. That is, Stell and Eva had. Carrie, the middle one, taught school over on the West Side. In those days it took her almost two hours each way. She said the kind of costume she required should have been corrugated steel. But all three knew what was being worn, and they wore it—or fairly faithful copies of it. Eva, the housekeeping sister, had a needle knack. She could skim the State Street windows and come away with a mental photograph of every separate tuck, hem, yoke, and ribbon. Heads of departments showed her the things they kept in drawers, and she went home and reproduced them with the aid of a two-dollar-a-day seamstress. Stell, the youngest, was the beauty. They called her Babe. She wasn’t really a beauty, but some one had once told her that she looked like Janice Meredith (it was when that work of fiction was at the height of its popularity). For years afterward, whenever she went to parties, she affected a single, fat curl over her right shoulder, with a rose stuck through it.
Twenty-three years ago one’s sisters did not strain at the household leash, nor crave a career. Carrie taught school, and hated it. Eva kept house expertly and complainingly. Babe’s profession was being the family beauty, and it took all her spare time. Eva always let her sleep until ten.
This was Jo’s household, and he was the nominal head of it. But it was an empty title. The three women dominated his life. They weren’t consciously selfish. If you had called them cruel they would have put you down as mad. When you are the lone brother of three sisters, it means that you must constantly be calling for, escorting, or dropping one of them somewhere. Most men of Jo’s age were standing before their mirror of a Saturday night, whistling blithely and abstractedly while they discarded a blue polka-dot for a maroon tie, whipped off the maroon for a shot-silk, and at the last moment decided against the shot-silk in favor of a plain black-and-white, because she had once said she preferred quiet ties. Jo, when he should have been preening his feathers for conquest, was saying:
“Well, my God, I am hurrying! Give a man time, can’t you? I just got home. You girls have been laying around the house all day. No wonder you’re ready.”
He took a certain pride in seeing his sisters well dressed, at a time when he should have been reveling in fancy waistcoats and brilliant-hued socks, according to the style of that day, and the inalienable right of any unwed male under thirty, in any day. On those rare occasions when his business necessitated an out-of-town trip, he would spend half a day floundering about the shops, selecting handkerchiefs, or stockings, or feathers, or fans, or gloves for the girls. They always turned out to be the wrong kind, judging by their reception.
From Carrie, “What in the world do I want of a fan!”
“I thought you didn’t have one,” Jo would say.
“I haven’t. I never go to dances.”
Jo would pass a futile hand over the top of his head, as was his way when disturbed. “I just thought you’d like one. I thought every girl liked a fan. Just,” feebly, “just to—to have.”
“Oh, for pity’s sake!”
And from Eva or Babe, “I’ve got silk stockings, Jo.” Or, “You brought me handkerchiefs the last time.”
There was something selfish in his giving, as there always is in any gift freely and joyfully made. They never suspected the exquisite pleasure it gave him to select these things; these fine, soft, silken things. There were many things about this slow-going, amiable brother of theirs that they never suspected. If you had told them he was a dreamer of dreams, for example, they would have been amused.
Sometimes, dead-tired by nine o’clock, after a hard day down town, he would doze over the evening paper. At intervals he would wake, red-eyed, to a snatch of conversation such as, “Yes, but if you get a blue you can wear it anywhere. It’s dressy, and at the same time it’s quiet, too.” Eva, the expert, wrestling with Carrie over the problem of the new spring dress. They never guessed that the commonplace man in the frayed old smoking-jacket had banished them all from the room long ago; had banished himself, for that matter. In his place was a tall, debonair, and rather dangerously handsome man to whom six o’clock spelled evening clothes. The kind of man who can lean up against a mantel, or propose a toast, or give an order to a man-servant, or whisper a gallant speech in a lady’s ear with equal ease. The shabby old house on Calumet Avenue was transformed into a brocaded and chandeliered rendezvous for the brilliance of the city.
Beauty was here, and wit. But none so beautiful and witty as She. Mrs.—er—Jo Hertz. There was wine, of course; but no vulgar display. There was music; the soft sheen of satin; laughter. And he the gracious, tactful host, king of his own domain—
“Jo, for heaven’s sake, if you’re going to snore go to bed!”
“Why—did I fall asleep?”
“You haven’t been doing anything else all evening. A person would think you were fifty instead of thirty.”
And Jo Hertz was again just the dull, grey, commonplace brother of three well-meaning sisters.
Babe used to say petulantly, “Jo, why don’t you ever bring home any of your men friends? A girl might as well not have any brother, all the good you do.”
Jo, conscience-stricken, did his best to make amends. But a man who has been petticoat-ridden for years loses the knack, somehow, of comradeship with men. He acquires, too, a knowledge of women, and a distaste for them, equalled only, perhaps, by that of an elevator-starter in a department store.
Which brings us to one Sunday in May. Jo came home from a late Sunday afternoon walk to find company for supper. Carrie often had in one of her school-teacher friends, or Babe one of her frivolous intimates, or even Eva a staid guest of the old-girl type. There was always a Sunday night supper of potato salad, and cold meat, and coffee, and perhaps a fresh cake. Jo rather enjoyed it, being a hospitable soul. But he regarded the guests with the undazzled eyes of a man to whom they were just so many petticoats, timid of the night streets and requiring escort home. If you had suggested to him that some of his sisters’ popularity was due to his own presence, or if you had hinted that the more kittenish of these visitors were probably making eyes at him, he would have stared in amazement and unbelief.
This Sunday night it turned out to be one of Carrie’s friends.
“Emily,” said Carrie, “this is my brother, Jo.”
Jo had learned what to expect in Carrie’s friends. Drab-looking women in the late thirties, whose facial lines all slanted downward.
“Happy to meet you,” said Jo, and looked down at a different sort altogether. A most surprisingly different sort, for one of Carrie’s friends. This Emily person was very small, and fluffy, and blue-eyed, and sort of—well, crinkly looking. You know. The corners of her mouth when she smiled, and her eyes when she looked up at you, and her hair, which was brown, but had the miraculous effect, somehow, of being golden.
Jo shook hands with her. Her hand was incredibly small, and soft, so that you were afraid of crushing it, until you discovered she had a firm little grip all her own. It surprised and amused you, that grip, as does a baby’s unexpected clutch on your patronising forefinger. As Jo felt it in his own big clasp, the strangest thing happened to him. Something inside Jo Hertz stopped working for a moment, then lurched sickeningly, then thumped like mad. It was his heart. He stood staring down at her, and she up at him, until the others laughed. Then their hands fell apart, lingeringly.
“Are you a school-teacher, Emily?” he said.
“Kindergarten. It’s my first year. And don’t call me Emily, please.”
“Why not? It’s your name. I think it’s the prettiest name in the world.” Which he hadn’t meant to say at all. In fact, he was perfectly aghast to find himself saying it. But he meant it.
At supper he passed her things, and stared, until everybody laughed again, and Eva said acidly, “Why don’t you feed her?”
It wasn’t that Emily had an air of helplessness. She just made you feel you wanted her to be helpless, so that you could help her.
Jo took her home, and from that Sunday night he began to strain at the leash. He took his sisters out, dutifully, but he would suggest, with a carelessness that deceived no one, “Don’t you want one of your girl friends to come along? That little What’s-her-name—Emily, or something. So long’s I’ve got three of you, I might as well have a full squad.”
For a long time he didn’t know what was the matter with him. He only knew he was miserable, and yet happy. Sometimes his heart seemed to ache with an actual physical ache. He realised that he wanted to do things for Emily. He wanted to buy things for Emily—useless, pretty, expensive things that he couldn’t afford. He wanted to buy everything that Emily needed, and everything that Emily desired. He wanted to marry Emily. That was it. He discovered that one day, with a shock, in the midst of a transaction in the harness business. He stared at the man with whom he was dealing until that startled person grew uncomfortable.
“What’s the matter, Hertz?”
“You look as if you’d seen a ghost or found a gold mine. I don’t know which.”
“Gold mine,” said Jo. And then, “No. Ghost.”
For he remembered that high, thin voice, and his promise. And the harness business was slithering downhill with dreadful rapidity, as the automobile business began its amazing climb. Jo tried to stop it. But he was not that kind of business man. It never occurred to him to jump out of the down-going vehicle and catch the up-going one. He stayed on, vainly applying brakes that refused to work.
“You know, Emily, I couldn’t support two households now. Not the way things are. But if you’ll wait. If you’ll only wait. The girls might—that is, Babe and Carrie—”
She was a sensible little thing, Emily. “Of course I’ll wait. But we mustn’t just sit back and let the years go by. We’ve got to help.”
She went about it as if she were already a little match-making matron. She corralled all the men she had ever known and introduced them to Babe, Carrie, and Eva separately, in pairs, and en masse. She arranged parties at which Babe could display the curl. She got up picnics. She stayed home while Jo took the three about. When she was present she tried to look as plain and obscure as possible, so that the sisters should show up to advantage. She schemed, and planned, and contrived, and hoped; and smiled into Jo’s despairing eyes.
And three years went by. Three precious years. Carrie still taught school, and hated it. Eva kept house, more and more complainingly as prices advanced and allowance retreated. Stell was still Babe, the family beauty; but even she knew that the time was past for curls. Emily’s hair, somehow, lost its glint and began to look just plain brown. Her crinkliness began to iron out.
“Now, look here!” Jo argued, desperately, one night. “We could be happy, anyway. There’s plenty of room at the house. Lots of people begin that way. Of course, I couldn’t give you all I’d like to, at first. But maybe, after a while—”
No dreams of salons, and brocade, and velvet-footed servitors, and satin damask now. Just two rooms, all their own, all alone, and Emily to work for. That was his dream. But it seemed less possible than that other absurd one had been.
You know that Emily was as practical a little thing as she looked fluffy. She knew women. Especially did she know Eva, and Carrie, and Babe. She tried to imagine herself taking the household affairs and the housekeeping pocketbook out of Eva’s expert hands. Eva had once displayed to her a sheaf of aigrettes she had bought with what she saved out of the housekeeping money. So then she tried to picture herself allowing the reins of Jo’s house to remain in Eva’s hands.
And everything feminine and normal in her rebelled. Emily knew she’d want to put away her own freshly laundered linen, and smooth it, and pat it. She was that kind of woman. She knew she’d want to do her own delightful haggling with butcher and vegetable pedlar. She knew she’d want to muss Jo’s hair, and sit on his knee, and even quarrel with him, if necessary, without the awareness of three ever-present pairs of maiden eyes and ears.
“No! No! We’d only be miserable. I know. Even if they didn’t object. And they would, Jo. Wouldn’t they?”
His silence was miserable assent. Then, “But you do love me, don’t you, Emily?”
“I do, Jo. I love you—and love you—and love you. But, Jo, I—can’t.”
“I know it, dear. I knew it all the time, really. I just thought, maybe, somehow—”
The two sat staring for a moment into space, their hands clasped.
Then they both shut their eyes, with a little shudder, as though what they saw was terrible to look upon. Emily’s hand, the tiny hand that was so unexpectedly firm, tightened its hold on his, and his crushed the absurd fingers until she winced with pain.
That was the beginning of the end, and they knew it.
Emily wasn’t the kind of girl who would be left to pine. There are too many Jo’s in the world whose hearts are prone to lurch and then thump at the feel of a soft, fluttering, incredibly small hand in their grip. One year later Emily was married to a young man whose father owned a large, pie-shaped slice of the prosperous state of Michigan.
That being safely accomplished, there was something grimly humorous in the trend taken by affairs in the old house on Calumet. For Eva married. Of all people, Eva! Married well, too, though he was a great deal older than she. She went off in a hat she had copied from a French model at Field’s, and a suit she had contrived with a home dressmaker, aided by pressing on the part of the little tailor in the basement over on Thirty-first Street. It was the last of that, though. The next time they saw her, she had on a hat that even she would have despaired of copying, and a suit that sort of melted into your gaze. She moved to the North Side (trust Eva for that), and Babe assumed the management of the household on Calumet Avenue. It was rather a pinched little household now, for the harness business shrank and shrank.
“I don’t see how you can expect me to keep house decently on this!” Babe would say contemptuously. Babe’s nose, always a little inclined to sharpness, had whittled down to a point of late. “If you knew what Ben gives Eva.”
“It’s the best I can do, Sis. Business is something rotten.”
“Ben says if you had the least bit of—” Ben was Eva’s husband, and quotable, as are all successful men.
“I don’t care what Ben says,” shouted Jo, goaded into rage. “I’m sick of your everlasting Ben. Go and get a Ben of your own, why don’t you, if you’re so stuck on the way he does things.”
And Babe did. She made a last desperate drive, aided by Eva, and she captured a rather surprised young man in the brokerage way, who had made up his mind not to marry for years and years. Eva wanted to give her her wedding things, but at that Jo broke into sudden rebellion.
“No sir! No Ben is going to buy my sister’s wedding clothes, understand? I guess I’m not broke—yet. I’ll furnish the money for her things, and there’ll be enough of them, too.”
Babe had as useless a trousseau, and as filled with extravagant pink-and-blue and lacy and frilly things as any daughter of doting parents. Jo seemed to find a grim pleasure in providing them. But it left him pretty well pinched. After Babe’s marriage (she insisted that they call her Estelle now) Jo sold the house on Calumet. He and Carrie took one of those little flats that were springing up, seemingly over night, all through Chicago’s South Side.
There was nothing domestic about Carrie. She had given up teaching two years before, and had gone into Social Service work on the West Side. She had what is known as a legal mind—hard, clear, orderly—and she made a great success of it. Her dream was to live at the Settlement House and give all her time to the work. Upon the little household she bestowed a certain amount of grim, capable attention.
It was the same kind of attention she would have given a piece of machinery whose oiling and running had been entrusted to her care. She hated it, and didn’t hesitate to say so.
Jo took to prowling about department store basements, and household goods sections. He was always sending home a bargain in a ham, or a sack of potatoes, or fifty pounds of sugar, or a window clamp, or a new kind of paring knife. He was forever doing odd little jobs that the janitor should have done. It was the domestic in him claiming its own.
Then, one night, Carrie came home with a dull glow in her leathery cheeks, and her eyes alight with resolve. They had what she called a plain talk.
“Listen, Jo. They’ve offered me the job of first assistant resident worker. And I’m going to take it. Take it! I know fifty other girls who’d give their ears for it. I go in next month.”
They were at dinner. Jo looked up from his plate, dully. Then he glanced around the little dining room, with its ugly tan walls and its heavy, dark furniture (the Calumet Avenue pieces fitted cumbersomely into the five-room flat).
“Away? Away from here, you mean—to live?” Carrie laid down her fork. “Well, really, Jo! After all that explanation.”
“But to go over there to live! Why, that neighbourhood’s full of dirt, and disease, and crime, and the Lord knows what all. I can’t let you do that, Carrie.”
Carrie’s chin came up. She laughed a short little laugh. “Let me! That’s eighteenth-century talk, Jo. My life’s my own to live. I’m going.”
And she went.
Jo stayed on in the apartment until the lease was up. Then he sold what furniture he could, stored or gave away the rest, and took a room on Michigan Avenue in one of the old stone mansions whose decayed splendour was being put to such purpose.
Jo Hertz was his own master. Free to marry. Free to come and go. And he found he didn’t even think of marrying. He didn’t even want to come or go, particularly. A rather frumpy old bachelor, with thinning hair and a thickening neck. Much has been written about the unwed, middle-aged woman; her fussiness, her primness, her angularity of mind and body. In the male that same fussiness develops, and a certain primness, too. But he grows flabby where she grows lean.
Every Thursday evening he took dinner at Eva’s, and on Sunday noon at Stell’s. He tucked his napkin under his chin and openly enjoyed the home-made soup and the well-cooked meats. After dinner he tried to talk business with Eva’s husband, or Stell’s. His business talks were the old-fashioned kind, beginning:
“Well, now, looka here. Take, f’rinstance your raw hides and leathers.”
But Ben and George didn’t want to “take, f’rinstance, your raw hides and leathers.” They wanted, when they took anything at all, to take golf, or politics or stocks. They were the modern type of business man who prefers to leave his work out of his play. Business, with them, was a profession—a finely graded and balanced thing, differing from Jo’s clumsy, downhill style as completely as does the method of a great criminal detective differ from that of a village constable.
They would listen, restively, and say, “Uh-uh,” at intervals, and at the first chance they would sort of fade out of the room, with a meaning glance at their wives. Eva had two children now. Girls. They treated Uncle Jo with good-natured tolerance. Stell had no children. Uncle Jo degenerated, by almost imperceptible degrees, from the position of honoured guest, who is served with white meat, to that of one who is content with a leg and one of those obscure and bony sections which, after much turning with a bewildered and investigating knife and fork, leave one baffled and unsatisfied.
Eva and Stell got together and decided that Jo ought to marry.
“It isn’t natural,” Eva told him. “I never saw a man who took so little interest in women.”
“Me!” protested Jo, almost shyly. “Women!”
“Yes. Of course. You act like a frightened schoolboy.”
So they had in for dinner certain friends and acquaintances of fitting age. They spoke of them as “splendid girls.” Between thirty-six and forty. They talked awfully well, in a firm, clear way, about civics, and classes, and politics, and economics, and boards. They rather terrified Jo. He didn’t understand much that they talked about, and he felt humbly inferior, and yet a little resentful, as if something had passed him by. He escorted them home, dutifully, though they told him not to bother, and they evidently meant it. They seemed capable, not only of going home quite unattended, but of delivering a pointed lecture to any highwayman or brawler who might molest them.
The following Thursday Eva would say, “How did you like her, Jo?”
“Like who?” Jo would spar feebly.
“Now, don’t be funny, Jo. You know very well I mean the girl who was here for dinner. The one who talked so well on the emigration question.
“Oh, her! Why, I liked her all right. Seems to be a smart woman.”
“Smart! She’s a perfectly splendid girl.”
“Sure,” Jo would agree cheerfully.
“But didn’t you like her?”
“I can’t say I did, Eve. And I can’t say I didn’t. She made me think a lot of a teacher I had in the fifth reader. Name of Himes. As I recall her, she must have been a fine woman. But I never thought of her as a woman at all. She was just Teacher.”
“You make me tired,” snapped Eva impatiently. “A man of your age. You don’t expect to marry a girl, do you? A child!”
“I don’t expect to marry anybody,” Jo had answered.
And that was the truth, lonely though he often was.
The following spring Eva moved to Winnetka. Any one who got the meaning of the Loop knows the significance of a move to a north-shore suburb, and a house. Eva’s daughter, Ethel, was growing up, and her mother had an eye on society.
That did away with Jo’s Thursday dinner. Then Stell’s husband bought a car. They went out into the country every Sunday. Stell said it was getting so that maids objected to Sunday dinners, anyway. Besides, they were unhealthy, old-fashioned things. They always meant to ask Jo to come along, but by the time their friends were placed, and the lunch, and the boxes, and sweaters, and George’s camera, and everything, there seemed to be no room for a man of Jo’s bulk. So that eliminated the Sunday dinners.
“Just drop in any time during the week,” Stell said, “for dinner. Except Wednesday—that’s our bridge night—and Saturday. And, of course, Thursday. Cook is out that night. Don’t wait for me to phone.”
And so Jo drifted into that sad-eyed, dyspeptic family made up of those you see dining in second-rate restaurants, their paper propped up against the bowl of oyster crackers, munching solemnly and with indifference to the stare of the passer-by surveying them through the brazen plate-glass window.
And then came the War. The war that spelled death and destruction to millions. The war that brought a fortune to Jo Hertz, and transformed him, over night, from a baggy-kneed old bachelor, whose business was a failure, to a prosperous manufacturer whose only trouble was the shortage in hides for the making of his product—leather! The armies of Europe called for it. Harnesses! More harnesses! Straps! Millions of straps. More! More!
The musty old harness business over on Lake Street was magically changed from a dust-covered, dead-alive concern to an orderly hive that hummed and glittered with success. Orders poured in. Jo Hertz had inside information on the War. He knew about troops and horses. He talked with French and English and Italian buyers—noblemen, many of them—commissioned by their countries to get American-made supplies. And now, when he said to Ben or George, “Take f’rinstance your raw hides and leathers,” they listened with respectful attention.
And then began the gay-dog business in the life of Jo Hertz. He developed into a Loop-hound, ever keen on the scent of fresh pleasure. That side of Jo Hertz which had been repressed and crushed and ignored began to bloom, unhealthily. At first he spent money on his rather contemptuous nieces. He sent them gorgeous fans, and watch bracelets, and velvet bags. He took two expensive rooms at a downtown hotel, and there was something more tear-compelling than grotesque about the way he gloated over the luxury of a separate ice-water tap in the bathroom. He explained it.
“Just turn it on. Ice-water! Any hour of the day or night.”
He bought a car. Naturally. A glittering affair; in colour a bright blue, with pale blue leather straps and a great deal of gold fittings, and wire wheels. Eva said it was the kind of thing a soubrette would use, rather than an elderly business man. You saw him driving about in it, red-faced and rather awkward at the wheel. You saw him, too, in the Pompeian room at the Congress Hotel of a Saturday afternoon when doubtful and roving-eyed matrons in kolinsky capes are wont to congregate to sip pale amber drinks. Actors grew to recognise the semi-bald head and the shining, round, good-natured face looming out at them from the dim well of the parquet, and sometimes, in a musical show, they directed a quip at him, and he liked it. He could pick out the critics as they came down the aisle, and even had a nodding acquaintance with two of them.
“Kelly, of the Herald,” he would say carelessly. “Bean, of the Trib. They’re all afraid of him.”
So he frolicked, ponderously. In New York he might have been called a Man About Town.
And he was lonesome. He was very lonesome. So he searched about in his mind and brought from the dim past the memory of the luxuriously furnished establishment of which he used to dream in the evenings when he dozed over his paper in the old house on Calumet. So he rented an apartment, many-roomed and expensive, with a man-servant in charge, and furnished it in styles and periods ranging through all the Louises. The living room was mostly rose colour. It was like an unhealthy and bloated boudoir. And yet there was nothing sybaritic or uncleanly in the sight of this paunchy, middle-aged man sinking into the rosy-cushioned luxury of his ridiculous home. It was a frank and naïve indulgence of long-starved senses, and there was in it a great resemblance to the rolling eyed ecstasy of a schoolboy smacking his lips over an all-day sucker.
The War went on, and on, and on. And the money continued to roll in—a flood of it. Then, one afternoon, Eva, in town on shopping bent, entered a small, exclusive, and expensive shop on Michigan Avenue. Exclusive, that is, in price. Eva’s weakness, you may remember, was hats. She was seeking a hat now. She described what she sought with a languid conciseness, and stood looking about her after the saleswoman had vanished in quest of it. The room was becomingly rose-illumined and somewhat dim, so that some minutes had passed before she realised that a man seated on a raspberry brocade settee not five feet away—a man with a walking stick, and yellow gloves, and tan spats, and a check suit—was her brother Jo. From him Eva’s wild-eyed glance leaped to the woman who was trying on hats before one of the many long mirrors. She was seated, and a saleswoman was exclaiming discreetly at her elbow.
Eva turned sharply and encountered her own saleswoman returning, hat-laden. “Not to-day,” she gasped. “I’m feeling ill. Suddenly.” And almost ran from the room.
That evening she told Stell, relating her news in that telephone pidgin-English devised by every family of married sisters as protection against the neighbours and Central. Translated, it ran thus:
“He looked straight at me. My dear, I thought I’d die! But at least he had sense enough not to speak. She was one of those limp, willowy creatures with the greediest eyes that she tried to keep softened to a baby stare, and couldn’t, she was so crazy to get her hands on those hats. I saw it all in one awful minute. You know the way I do. I suppose some people would call her pretty. I don’t. And her colour! Well! And the most expensive-looking hats. Aigrettes, and paradise, and feathers. Not one of them under seventy-five. Isn’t it disgusting! At his age! Suppose Ethel had been with me!”
The next time it was Stell who saw them. In a restaurant. She said it spoiled her evening. And the third time it was Ethel. She was one of the guests at a theatre party given by Nicky Overton II. You know. The North Shore Overtons. Lake Forest. They came in late, and occupied the entire third row at the opening performance of “Believe Me!” And Ethel was Nicky’s partner. She was glowing like a rose. When the lights went up after the first act Ethel saw that her uncle Jo was seated just ahead of her with what she afterward described as a blonde. Then her uncle had turned around, and seeing her, had been surprised into a smile that spread genially all over his plump and rubicund face. Then he had turned to face forward again, quickly.
“Who’s the old bird?” Nicky had asked. Ethel had pretended not to hear, so he had asked again.
“My Uncle,” Ethel answered, and flushed all over her delicate face, and down to her throat. Nicky had looked at the blonde, and his eyebrows had gone up ever so slightly.
It spoiled Ethel’s evening. More than that, as she told her mother of it later, weeping, she declared it had spoiled her life.
Eva talked it over with her husband in that intimate, kimonoed hour that precedes bedtime. She gesticulated heatedly with her hair brush.
“It’s disgusting, that’s what it is. Perfectly disgusting. There’s no fool like an old fool. Imagine! A creature like that. At his time of life.”
There exists a strange and loyal kinship among men. “Well, I don’t know,” Ben said now, and even grinned a little. “I suppose a boy’s got to sow his wild oats some time.”
“Don’t be any more vulgar than you can help,” Eva retorted. “And I think you know, as well as I, what it means to have that Overton boy interested in Ethel.”
“If he’s interested in her,” Ben blundered, “I guess the fact that Ethel’s uncle went to the theatre with some one who wasn’t Ethel’s aunt won’t cause a shudder to run up and down his frail young frame, will it?”
“All right,” Eva had retorted. “If you’re not man enough to stop it, I’ll have to, that’s all. I’m going up there with Stell this week.”
They did not notify Jo of their coming. Eva telephoned his apartment when she knew he would be out, and asked his man if he expected his master home to dinner that evening. The man had said yes. Eva arranged to meet Stell in town. They would drive to Jo’s apartment together, and wait for him there.
When she reached the city Eva found turmoil there. The first of the American troops to be sent to France were leaving. Michigan Boulevard was a billowing, surging mass: Flags, pennants, banners crowds. All the elements that make for demonstration. And over the whole—quiet. No holiday crowd, this. A solid, determined mass of people waiting patient hours to see the khaki-clads go by. Three years of indefatigable reading had brought them to a clear knowledge of what these boys were going to.
“Isn’t it dreadful!” Stell gasped.
“Nicky Overton’s only nineteen, thank goodness.”
Their car was caught in the jam. When they moved at all it was by inches. When at last they reached Jo’s apartment they were flushed, nervous, apprehensive. But he had not yet come in. So they waited.
No, they were not staying to dinner with their brother, they told the relieved houseman.
Jo’s home has already been described to you. Stell and Eva, sunk in rose-coloured cushions, viewed it with disgust, and some mirth. They rather avoided each other’s eyes.
“Carrie ought to be here,” Eva said. They both smiled at the thought of the austere Carrie in the midst of those rosy cushions, and hangings, and lamps. Stell rose and began to walk about, restlessly. She picked up a vase and laid it down; straightened a picture. Eva got up, too, and wandered into the hall. She stood there a moment, listening. Then she turned and passed into Jo’s bedroom. And there you knew Jo for what he was.
This room was as bare as the other had been ornate. It was Jo, the clean-minded and simple-hearted, in revolt against the cloying luxury with which he had surrounded himself. The bedroom, of all rooms in any house, reflects the personality of its occupant. True, the actual furniture was panelled, cupid-surmounted, and ridiculous. It had been the fruit of Jo’s first orgy of the senses. But now it stood out in that stark little room with an air as incongruous and ashamed as that of a pink tarleton danseuse who finds herself in a monk’s cell. None of those wall-pictures with which bachelor bedrooms are reputed to be hung. No satin slippers. No scented notes. Two plain-backed military brushes on the chiffonier (and he so nearly hairless!). A little orderly stack of books on the table near the bed. Eva fingered their titles and gave a little gasp. One of them was on gardening.
“Well, of all things!” exclaimed Stell. A book on the War, by an Englishman. A detective story of the lurid type that lulls us to sleep. His shoes ranged in a careful row in the closet, with a shoe-tree in every one of them. There was something speaking about them. They looked so human. Eva shut the door on them, quickly. Some bottles on the dresser. A jar of pomade. An ointment such as a man uses who is growing bald and is panic-stricken too late. An insurance calendar on the wall. Some rhubarb-and-soda mixture on the shelf in the bathroom, and a little box of pepsin tablets.
“Eats all kinds of things at all hours of the night,” Eva said, and wandered out into the rose-coloured front room again with the air of one who is chagrined at her failure to find what she has sought. Stell followed her furtively.
“Where do you suppose he can be?” she demanded. “It’s”—she glanced at her wrist—”why, it’s after six!”
And then there was a little click. The two women sat up, tense. The door opened. Jo came in. He blinked a little. The two women in the rosy room stood up.
“Why—Eve! Why, Babe! Well! Why didn’t you let me know?”
“We were just about to leave. We thought you weren’t coming home.”
Joe came in, slowly.
“I was in the jam on Michigan, watching the boys go by.” He sat down, heavily. The light from the window fell on him. And you saw that his eyes were red.
And you’ll have to learn why. He had found himself one of the thousands in the jam on Michigan Avenue, as he said. He had a place near the curb, where his big frame shut off the view of the unfortunates behind him. He waited with the placid interest of one who has subscribed to all the funds and societies to which a prosperous, middle-aged business man is called upon to subscribe in war time. Then, just as he was about to leave, impatient at the delay, the crowd had cried, with a queer dramatic, exultant note in its voice, “Here they come! Here come the boys!”
Just at that moment two little, futile, frenzied fists began to beat a mad tattoo on Jo Hertz’s broad back. Jo tried to turn in the crowd, all indignant resentment. “Say, looka here!”
The little fists kept up their frantic beating and pushing. And a voice—a choked, high little voice—cried, “Let me by! I can’t see! You man, you! You big fat man! My boy’s going by—to war—and I can’t see! Let me by!”
Jo scrooged around, still keeping his place. He looked down. And upturned to him in agonised appeal was the face of little Emily. They stared at each other for what seemed a long, long time. It was really only the fraction of a second. Then Jo put one great arm firmly around Emily’s waist and swung her around in front of him. His great bulk protected her. Emily was clinging to his hand. She was breathing rapidly, as if she had been running. Her eyes were straining up the street.
“Why, Emily, how in the world!—”
“I ran away. Fred didn’t want me to come. He said it would excite me too much.”
“My husband. He made me promise to say good-bye to Jo at home.”
“Jo’s my boy. And he’s going to war. So I ran away. I had to see him. I had to see him go.”
She was dry-eyed. Her gaze was straining up the street.
“Why, sure,” said Jo. “Of course you want to see him.” And then the crowd gave a great roar. There came over Jo a feeling of weakness. He was trembling. The boys went marching by.
“There he is,” Emily shrilled, above the din. “There be is! There he is! There he—” And waved a futile little hand. It wasn’t so much a wave as a clutching. A clutching after something beyond her reach.
“Which one? Which one, Emily?”
“The handsome one. The handsome one. There!” Her voice quavered and died.
Jo put a steady hand on her shoulder. “Point him out,” he commanded. “Show me.” And the next instant. “Never mind. I see him.”
Somehow, miraculously, he had picked him from among the hundreds. Had picked him as surely as his own father might have. It was Emily’s boy. He was marching by, rather stiffly. He was nineteen, and fun-loving, and he had a girl, and he didn’t particularly want to go to France and—to go to France. But more than he had hated going, he had hated not to go. So he marched by, looking straight ahead, his jaw set so that his chin stuck out just a little. Emily’s boy.
Jo looked at him, and his face flushed purple. His eyes, the hard-boiled eyes of a Loop-hound, took on the look of a sad old man. And suddenly he was no longer Jo, the sport; old J. Hertz, the gay dog. He was Jo Hertz, thirty, in love with life, in love with Emily, and with the stinging blood of young manhood coursing through his veins.
Another minute and the boy had passed on up the broad street—the fine, flag-bedecked street—just one of a hundred service-hats bobbing in rhythmic motion like sandy waves lapping a shore and flowing on.
Then he disappeared altogether.
Emily was clinging to Jo. She was mumbling something, over and over.
“I can’t. I can’t. Don’t ask me to. I can’t let him go. Like that. I can’t.”
Jo said a queer thing.
“Why, Emily! We wouldn’t have him stay home, would we? We wouldn’t want him to do anything different, would we? Not our boy. I’m glad he enlisted. I’m proud of him. So are you glad.”
Little by little he quieted her. He took her to the car that was waiting, a worried chauffeur in charge. They said good-bye, awkwardly. Emily’s face was a red, swollen mass.
So it was that when Jo entered his own hallway half an hour later he blinked, dazedly, and when the light from the window fell on him you saw that his eyes were red.
Eva was not one to beat about the bush. She sat forward in her chair, clutching her bag rather nervously.
“Now, look here, Jo. Stell and I are here for a reason. We’re here to tell you that this thing’s got to stop.”
“You know very well what I mean. You saw me at the milliner’s that day. And night before last, Ethel. We’re all disgusted. If you must go about with people like that, please have some sense of decency.”
Something gathering in Jo’s face should have warned her. But he was slumped down in his chair in such a huddle, and he looked so old and fat that she did not heed it. She went on. “You’ve got us to consider. Your sisters. And your nieces. Not to speak of your own—”
But he got to his feet then, shaking, and at what she saw in his face even Eva faltered and stopped. It wasn’t at all the face of a fat, middle-aged sport. It was a face Jovian, terrible.
“You!” he began, low-voiced, ominous. “You!” He raised a great fist high. “You two murderers! You didn’t consider me, twenty years ago. You come to me with talk like that. Where’s my boy! You killed him, you two, twenty years ago. And now he belongs to somebody else.
Where’s my son that should have gone marching by to-day?” He flung his arms out in a great gesture of longing. The red veins stood out on his forehead. “Where’s my son! Answer me that, you two selfish, miserable women. Where’s my son!” Then, as they huddled together, frightened, wild-eyed. “Out of my house! Out of my house! Before I hurt you!”
They fled, terrified. The door banged behind them.
Jo stood, shaking, in the centre of the room. Then he reached for a chair, gropingly, and sat down. He passed one moist, flabby hand over his forehead and it came away wet. The telephone rang. He sat still.
It sounded far away and unimportant, like something forgotten. I think he did not even hear it with his conscious ear. But it rang and rang insistently. Jo liked to answer his telephone, when at home.
“Hello!” He knew instantly the voice at the other end.
“That you, Jo?” it said.
“How’s my boy?”
“Listen, Jo. The crowd’s coming over to-night. I’ve fixed up a little poker game for you. Just eight of us.”
“I can’t come to-night, Gert.”
“Can’t! Why not?”
“I’m not feeling so good.”
“You just said you were all right.”
“I am all right. Just kind of tired.”
The voice took on a cooing note. “Is my Joey tired? Then he shall be all comfy on the sofa, and he doesn’t need to play if he don’t want to. No, sir.”
Jo stood staring at the black mouth-piece of the telephone. He was seeing a procession go marching by. Boys, hundreds of boys, in khaki.
“Hello! Hello!” the voice took on an anxious note. “Are you there?”
“Jo, there’s something the matter. You’re sick. I’m coming right over.”
“Why not? You sound as if you’d been sleeping. Look here—”
“Leave me alone!” cried Jo, suddenly, and the receiver clacked onto the hook. “Leave me alone. Leave me alone.” Long after the connection had been broken.
He stood staring at the instrument with unseeing eyes. Then he turned and walked into the front room. All the light had gone out of it.
Dusk had come on. All the light had gone out of everything. The zest had gone out of life. The game was over—the game he had been playing against loneliness and disappointment. And he was just a tired old man. A lonely, tired old man in a ridiculous, rose-coloured room that had grown, all of a sudden, drab.