"Miser'ble"

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search


"Miser'ble"

By JAMES OPPENHEIM
Author of "Idle Wives," etc.

Illustrations by Harry Townsend

JUST at dawn, and before the sun was up, a young couple paused at the western edge of Washington Square Park. They paused because the girl was startled by the promise of spring. A faint radiance of gold was in the eastern sky, beyond the housetops, beyond the river. Back of them, and even overhead, the night was fading; but the earth seemed darker than the heavens. Among the trees arc-lights still burned with sprawling shadows; and like four walls of the square, the rows of houses were still asleep.

In the center of the park, where the fountain was playing, stood a row of tar ovens, with dusky flames, and smoke curling up into the air like incense. The silhouettes of workmen passed black before the fires. There was an immense and utter hush of life, though three or four birds sang, and east and west a dim rumble gave warning of the city's awakening. The dawn had wonder in it, golden wonder, as if the whole city were going to rise up and gather on the roofs and sing to the new-born sun.

"Are n't you glad," said Vic, in a trembling and softly musical voice, "that we did n't take a taxi, Tim?"

"Why?" he asked.

"Because we never would have seen this from a taxi."

"Oh." He suppressed a yawn.

"Look!" she cried eagerly. "One by one—"

Among the branches, one after the other, the lights were going out, leaving a strange vacancy.

"The lamplighter is turning off the lights," she said.

They were silent. Then she spoke again:

"It's all so fresh, and new, as if the world had been made this morning."

He looked at her quickly. She looked enchanting at the moment; bareheaded, her hair as black as a raven; her black eyes with vertical high lights; the high forehead only half hidden; the lips of natural red; the fine ivory-colored complexion. The lips, parting, revealed teeth that were unusual; excellent biters, the eye-teeth as sharp as fangs. And over her sloping shoulders was thrown an opera-coat that had hints of leopard skin in its color scheme. Withal, she was adorable; and even as she stood there, dreaming, no least motion of hers was without its intimate grace and meaning.

He forgot he was tired.

"How old are you, Vic?" he asked.

"As if you did n't know! Huh!"

"Tell me again. Come."

"Twenty-two."

He looked straight at her, and spoke irrelevantly:

"I 've never seen a more beautiful dawn."

"Nor I," she said, looking toward the east.

"Such black night, with two suns rising right beneath it!"

"Two suns?" She turned and stared at him.

"Two devil suns."

"You think you 're smart," she said.

"I think you 're—bewitching."

"If you tease me any more—"

"What, then?"

"We 'll go home."

"All right," he said sternly. "Come ahead. After dancing all night like mad in that hot glare, it's about time we did."

"Ah, Tim," she said, with a soft silvery laugh, "please let's sit down on a bench and watch the sun rise! Honest, I'm not tired. It's so good, this fresh air and the sky and the quiet after the dancing! Come on, Tim, please!"

He grumbled, but they found a bench facing east, and sat down. In silence they sat there. By imperceptible degrees the air grew lighter, and a new stir trembled about them. A rosiness was in the eastern sky.

The perfume in the air mingled for him with the delicate perfume she used, and again he glanced at her. Her face was troubled, the eyes large with unreleased tears.

"What's the matter, Vic?"

"Oh, Tim," she said helplessly, laying her hand in his, "I'm just miser'ble!"

"Nice little hand!" he murmured, and pressed his lips to it. Then she withdrew it. "What is the matter? Money?"

She laughed ripplingly.

"No, beast, not money, though heaven knows I 've got a plentiful lack of it. I worked just three days this week; and now that that picture is finished, there may n't be another in a fortnight. Hm! the movies!"

"You were better off at home, my Iowa blackbird."

"Better off there! I should say not!" she said, with contempt. "Fighting with my father, and being the belle of the town, and just aching to do something—and nothing to do but look pretty!"

"And when did you look pretty?"

"Oh, they thought I did."

"Provincials!" he muttered. "But here, lost and alone in a great, wicked city—"

"This city is my city," she broke in proudly. "I love every stone in it, and all the people, too."

"Then there's hope for me," he muttered. "I'm one of the people."

"You 're one of the—animals. And you 're conceited—and handsome."

"Thank you," he said.

He was handsome, with his mirthful blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and large dark head.

"But I'd rather be a poor movie 'super' here than the belle of Lotonia; for if I were in Lotonia now, I would not be seeing the sunrise with a penniless artist in Washington Square, that place of ill repute."

"And if you were in Lotonia," he continued, "I'd be asleep now, getting healthy, instead of being a low night-lifer."

"Yes," she flashed, "a lot you care! I suppose you think that blonde is pretty!"

"What blonde?" he asked innocently.

"What blonde! Why don't you marry her?"

"I can't afford it," he said.

"But she has money, and you know it."

"Has she? Oh."

"If there's one thing I hate in a man," said Vic, "it's conceit."

"Am I conceited, O Rose of Lotonia, Iowa?"

"Yes." She burst out laughing. "The worst of it is, Tim," she said, squeezing his hand, "I like it—in you."

"A good way to cure me!" he grumbled.

"What are they waiting for?" she asked.

"Who?"

"The people who give the sun his cue, so he can rise. This is the slowest sunrise I 've ever attended."

"The watched pot never boils," he murmured.

They were silent. Again she withdrew her hand, lowered her face.

"I'm miser'ble!" she muttered. "Tim, I 've never been so unhappy in my life."

"You are, for a fact!" he said, astonished. "Now, say, Vic, come, you 've got to tell me. Don't you tell me everything?"

"Yes," she said, staring at him; "I really do. There is n't another soul in the world I tell my secrets to. But why do I tell you? You just mock at me and scold me—beast!"

He smiled at her and leaned near.

"But you just tell me, anyway, don't you, Vixen?"

She smiled back at him.

"Give me your hand."

He gave it, and she promptly inserted his first finger in her mouth and bit sharply. The teeth were indeed excellent biters.

"Ye gods!" he cried, wringing his hand. "You little demon!"

"Now," she said, "behave yourself."

"Hm!" he said darkly. "Now I see why you call me Tim."

"Why?" she asked.

"Vic-Tim."

She was amazed; her lips parted.

"Did you only guess that now?"

"Why?" he cried in wonder. "Did you do it on purpose?"

She shook with long rolls of laughter.

"Oh, goody! goody! And I thought you were so much cleverer than I! Goody! Such a stupid! It took him a whole month to find it out! Goody! Bless his heart!"

He collapsed.

"Well," he said grimly, "conceit is vain. The balloon has been pricked."

Her face saddened again, and she looked downward solemnly.

"Oh, Tim," she sighed, "I'm just miser'ble!"

"You are," he said seriously. "Come, please tell me."

"Well," she said shyly, "it's about Mr. Oakley."

"What about Mr. Oakley?"

Her eyes filled with tears again.

"Don't you think, Tim—"

"Think what?"

"That—that I ought to marry Mr. Oakley?"

"What do you mean," he asked fiercely—"marry that old man?"

"But he's not old," she insisted.

"He's forty-four, and you 're twenty-two. He's twice as old as you are. He's old enough to be your father. What do you mean, anyway?"

"Well," she said, "I like men to be old."

"So that you can be a child all your life, and be taken care of and petted and spoiled. Will you never grow up? Mr. Oakley, huh! Has that old man been bothering you again?"

"Bothering? What do you mean?"

"Talking to you, getting on his knees, acting like a ninny. I suppose that dance you sat out with him—come on, tell me the worst."

"I knew you'd scold me," she said meekly.

"Come, come, what did he say?"

"Please, Tim, I just know I'm a fool; but he was crying."

"The poor simp'! He? Both of you! Did you cry, too?"

She looked away, murmuring:

"A little bit."

"There you both sat crying in the middle of the festivities! By all the gods! I wonder which one is the greater idiot!" He leaned nearer, in deadly earnest. "You did n't make any promises, did you, Vic?"

"Well, not exactly. I said, I supposed if he felt it had to be, it had to be."

"Not exactly!" He was exasperated. "I suppose if you two got a marriage license, and the preacher pronounced you man and wife, you'd feel you were n't exactly man and wife. You 're engaged to be married to Henry Oakley."

Color fled from her cheeks.

"I'm not," she said breathlessly.

"You are. Did he kiss you?"

She looked shocked.

"Why, no. He does n't kiss me. He would n't dare."

He paused a moment, then threw up his head, and burst into hilarious laughter.

"Would n't dare! Yo-ho! Is this to be a kissless marriage?"

"I don't see anything funny about it," said Vic, sharply.

"Funny? It's about as funny as murder. You don't know what you 're doing. Just throwing yourself away on a widower. And I suppose you think you are fit to take care of his child?"

She was very meek indeed. She shook her head sadly.

"I knew you would scold me, Tim."

"Then why do you do such things?" he asked roughly.

She looked at him beseechingly, and took his hand.

"Ah, now, please, Tim, won't you try to understand?" She could not see for tears. "He's been so good to me; he's been better to me than any one else in New York."

"No one else been good to you?"

"Not like Mr. Oakley. You know, you have n't. You 're never good to me—really. You just scold me and make fun of me, and call me names—"

"And this poor old man? He?"

"He has been good to me." Her voice broke. "He's taken me out and let me alone and bought me things; and he turns pale if I get angry or if I'm sick. He never crosses me—"

"Can you talk with him for half an hour without dying?"

"No," she said simply; "that's just it. That's why I make him take me to theater, so I won't have to talk to him."

"And there's a man to marry!"

"I'm not marrying for conversation."

"No; it's as I said, you 're marrying to be taken care of. Lets you alone, ye gods! There's a man for you! Half the time he treats you like a child, and the other half as if you were a queen. And that pleases you! To be petted and then knelt to! But he never treats you as if you were a woman. Are n't you ashamed of yourself?"

"A little," she admitted. "But you need n't get so mean about it. And I'm not quite as bad as you say."

"You 're worse. You have a heart of mush—except when it comes to me. Huh!" he snorted, "I suppose if I were a doddering old man, too old to eat meat, you'd feel so sorry for me you'd marry me for the asking."

"No," she said seriously; "you—never. I know you, Mr. Tim. And a man of forty-four is n't a doddering old man, either."

"Come, don't you feel sorry for him?"

"Why—why should n't I feel sorry for him?" Again her eyes were blinded. "Poor fellow! You don't know how lonely he is, a widower, living all alone, and no one to love him. And his child neglected. When he talks about it, I'm all in."

"I suppose his child will be less neglected after you marry him! I can just see you taking care of a child!"

"Well," she said weakly, "we can get a governess."

"Oh, can we!" he exclaimed. "Don't you see the man is selfish?"

"Selfish? He is n't. That I know."

"He is. He wants to be loved, so he's willing to spoil a young girl's life in order to feel comfortable. What will you get out of it?"

"I knew it," she said humbly.

"Knew what?"

"You'd scold me."

He sat back helpless; then he lowered his voice:

"Vic, listen." He took her hand and pressed it. "Really, now, I 'll ask you just one thing, and then I won't bother you any longer."

"Won't bother me?" she cried, alarmed. "What will you do?"

"Go home and stay."

"And you won't see me any more?"

"Can't you see that that is impossible?"

"No, I can't."

"But you 'll have him to tell your secrets to."

"No, I must have you."

"Even after you are married?"

"Of course."

Laughter burst from him.

"Well, you are—you are—what? Heaven help me!"

"Tim," she said anxiously, drawing nearer him, "you did n't mean that, did you? You know you must n't speak that way. I won't stand for it. I 'll take it in earnest; and never see you again—"

"All right," he said softly. "We won't talk of it—now. But, really, Vic, answer me: do you or don't you love him?"

Her eyes widened.

"No, I don't love him."

"And yet you will marry him?"

"But you know, Tim," she said exquisitely, "I'm just the same as you are: I can't love."

"Can't?"

"We artists can't really love. We just take fancies."

"Oh, that's it!"

"You see, we only love ourselves."

"Something in that," he muttered. "We 're just like Narcissus."

"Who was Narcissus?"

"Oh, he was the Greek lad who looked into the stream, and fell in love with his own face there, and so he fell in. But a flower grew out of him. That flower was art. Hm! So you can't ever love?"

"That's a lovely story," said Vic, musing. "Perfectly lovely. Dear Narcissus!"

"Is n't it, Narcissa?"

"You 're mean!" She laughed softly.

They were silent.

"So," he said, with curious ripples in his voice, "you don't think I can love."

"I know you can't. You love your work, that's all." She laughed archly. "But you 've met your match in me. I'm the same as you are."

"Perhaps that's why we get along so well together," he said.

"So well!" she exclaimed. "We can't talk five minutes without fighting."

He looked at her; there were little demon-gleams in her black eyes; there was a teasing expression about the lips.

"Good Lord!" he exclaimed, low, "you are—bewitching!"

She was startled and a little alarmed.

"Tim, did n't I really look pretty last night?"

He looked at her sharply.

"Pretty? You? With such an insipid face?"

"But, really!"

"You look—execrable."

"What do you mean?" she asked soberly.

"Mean? If you were pretty, Vic, I would n't have anything to do with you. A man can't have any fun with a pretty woman. She's always vain, and queens it over him, and makes him a slave. But you see a plain woman—"

"Yes, a plain woman—"

"Well, a plain woman, if she wants to have a man, must try to please him. She treats him decently. He can talk with her. I can talk with you, you see."

She was deeply hurt.

"Am I really so plain? Of course I know I'm not so beautiful—"

"—And how can a woman who has a bulbous nose—"

"Bulbous?" She felt of it.

"Why, the end simply mushrooms out."

"Yes." She breathed sharply. "I always knew that nose was wrong. Now you 've made me perfectly miser'ble! I could just cry, you beast!"

There were, indeed, tears in her voice.

"Why can't you accept yourself as you are?" he said. "Why do you want to be something you 're not?"

"But at the movies and in Lotonia—"

"Humbug! You believe those people! Bad taste, that's all."

"Tim!"

She was silent, biting her lips. He turned aside to conceal his smile of cruelty.

"Anyway—" she began in a whisper.

"Anyway, what?"

She suppressed a sob.

"Anyway, Mr. Oakley thinks I'm beautiful."

He gave a shout of laughter.

"Mr. Oakley! That doddering old man!

"He's not so doddering."

"He's withered."

"He's not. Anyway, he never insults a person, as you do."

"Aw," he said as cooingly as a mother with a baby, "did I hurt the little heart?" He took her hand, and smoothed it down. "Was the man naughty? Did he say bad things to the little girl? Was her heart all broken?"

"Yes, it was," she said sadly.

"Bad man! Poor little broken heart! Nice Mr. Oakley, that never said bad things to the little girl! Nice Mr. Oakley!"

She drew her hand away sharply.

"Oh, if—"

"If what?"

"If I only had a mirror! I just want to see if you know it all."

"But are n't you plain?"

"I don't think I'm so very plain."

"No," he said, "you could be worse."

"Now I know!" she exclaimed.

"Know what?"

"You think that blonde is pretty!"

"Why, she is. Any one can see that. That white skin, faintly flushed with red—"

"With rouge. Huh! any one can do that!"

"With red. Those cerulean eyes, so sharply incised, almost enameled; that golden hair—"

"Golden!" she exclaimed. "Golden? You call that golden? And you call yourself an artist! It's a dowdy yellow."

"Golden as ripe corn."

"You 've never seen ripe corn in your life."

"I saw her hair."

"Well, if that s your taste, all right. But I always looked up to you, and thought you a real artist."

"And I always looked up to you, and thought you a real woman."

"A plain woman."

"No," he said, with a touch of bitterness, "I'm serious now. I thought you a real woman, Vic, and not what you are showing yourself."

She spoke angrily:

"What am I showing myself?"

"A fool."

"Take that back!"

"When you take back your foolishness."

"No. Take that back."

"Now, look here, Vic," he broke out, "if you marry Mr. Oakley, you know it's just because he will take care of you. He simply caters to your weakness, your love of finery and ease and good suppers and theater and luxury."

"Well, all right," she exclaimed. "What of it? I know perfectly well I 'll never be a good actress; I'm doing it to keep on here in New York, because I don't want to go home. There 's no career for me here. And I know, I really know, I'm simply incapable of loving. I was engaged twice, and broke off both of them. And I like Mr. Oakley. . . . And that's all there is to it."

"If that's it," he said, "all right. Go and marry him, I congratulate you."

Copious tears began to run down her face. He stared at her.

"Now, what in the name of all the gods is the matter?"

"Oh, Tim," she sobbed. "I'm perfectly miser'ble."

"Why?"

"I knew—I just knew you would scold me, Tim."

"Why should n't I?"

She lowered her face.

"But you did n't have to call me plain, too, and you did n't have to—"

"Have to what?"

"Call that blonde, a beauty; and besides—"

"What?"

"There!" She sobbed aloud. "I'm too perfectly miser'ble!"

He sat back and watched her; then he began to laugh softly; then his laughter became a rumble; then it became a roar.

She stared at him through tears.

"Where—where is it so funny? You just let me go and marry him, and don't care a bit."

"So you 're the girl who can't love? Ninny!"

"What do you mean?"

"Ninny! Nincompoop! Idiot! Empty-head!"

"Tim!"

"Why, you stupid," he exclaimed, seizing her hands, "can't you see?"

"See what?" She was greatly alarmed.

"You 're head over heels in love."

"With Mr. Oakley?"

"No," he said; "with me."

She gasped, and turned pale.

"But," she began, "I thought you and I could n't love. We 're artists. You said so yourself."

"Maybe we 're not artists, then."

"But I won't love you!" She tried to take her hands away, but unsuccessfully. "I won't! All the other fool women do, and you just laugh at them."

"At them, yes; but I won't laugh at Mr. Oakley. I 'll waylay him; I 'll knock him down; I 'll murder him."

"But, Tim—"

He drew nearer, and their eyes met.

"But, Vic-"

Slowly color came to her cheeks, her eyes grew radiant, her soul seemed to unfold in her face like an opening blossom.

"Oh, are n't we the stupids!" she murmured.

Then they kissed.


Dawn was singing. The trees were full of birds; radiance ran around them. Truly it seemed now as if the whole city had risen up and gathered on the roofs to sing to the new-born sun.

Vic looked up at the world and laughed.

"We sat down here to see the sunrise," she cried, "and look, look, the sun is high in the sky!"

He drew her near again.

"I saw the sunrise, though," he mured devoutly. "I was watching your face."

A shadow crossed that face.

"A plain face, Tim," she whispered.

"Plain? About as plain as

. . . the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium."

The shadow fled. Spring sang in her, and flushed her cheeks. The sun gleamed in her eyes, and lit the moist red of her lips. With adorable, delicate gesture, she put two fingers to her mouth, and bent her head a little, and threw him a kiss.

"After this—after this," she almost sang, "I'm going to call you Tory."

"Why Tory?"

"It comes better after Vic than Tim does."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1932, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.