Bates lay staring at the green-shaded light on his desk and disgustedly he realized that he must have been sleeping there for hours on the leather couch in his office. His eyes were peppery, his mouth dry. He rose, staggering with the burden of drowsiness, and glanced at his watch. It was three in the morning.
“Idiot!” he said.
He wreathed to the window, twelve stories above the New York pavements. The stupidity that lay over his senses like uncombed wool was blown away as he exulted in the beauty of the city night. It was as nearly quiet now as Manhattan ever becomes. Stilled were the trolleys and the whang of steel beams in the new building a block away. One taxicab bumbled on the dark pavement beneath. Bates looked across a swamp of roofs to East River, to a line of topaz lights arching over a bridge. The sky was not dark but of a luminous blue — a splendid, aspiring, naked blue, in which the stars hung golden.
“But why shouldn’t I fall asleep here? I’ll finish the night on the couch, and get after the New Bedford specifications before breakfast. I’ve never spent twenty-four hours in the office before. I’ll do it!”
He said it with the pride of a successful man. But he ended, as he rambled back to the couch and removed his coat and shoes: “Still, I do wish there were somebody who cared a hang whether I came home or stayed away for a week!”
When the earliest stenographer arrived she found Bates at work. But often he was first at the office. No one knew of his discovery that before dawn the huckstering city is enchanted to blue and crocus yellow above shadowy roofs. He had no one who would ever encourage him to tell about it.
To Bates at thirty-five the world was composed of re-enforced concrete; continents and striding seas were office partitions and inkwells, the latter for signing letters beginning “In reply to your valued query of seventh inst.” Not for five years had he seen storm clouds across the hills or moths that flutter white over dusky meadows. To him the arc light was the dancing place for moths, and flowers grew not in pastures but in vases on restaurant tables. He was a city man and an office man. Papers, telephone calls, eight-thirty to six on the twelfth floor, were the natural features of life, and the glory and triumph of civilization was getting another traction company to introduce the Carstop Indicator.
But he belonged to the new generation of business men. He was not one of the race who boast that they have had “mighty little book learning,” and who cannot be pictured without their derby hats, whether they are working, motoring, or in bed. Bates was slender, immaculate, polite as a well-bred woman, his mustache like a penciled eyebrow; yet in decision he was firm as a chunk of flint.
When he had come to New York from college Bates had believed that he was going to lead an existence of polite society and the opera. He had in fourteen years been to the opera six times. He dined regularly with acquaintances at the Yale Club, he knew two men in his bachelor apartment building by their first names, and he attended subscription dances and was agreeable to young women who had been out for three years. But New York is a thief of friends. Because in one night at a restaurant you may meet twenty new people therefore in one day shall you also lose twenty older friends. You know a man and like him; he marries and moves to Great Neck; you see him once in two years. After thirty Bates was increasingly absorbed in the one thing that always wanted him, that appreciated his attention — the office.
He had gone from a motor company to the Carstop Indicator Company. He had spent a year in the Long Island City factory which manufactures the indicators for the Eastern trade. He had worked out an improvement in the automatic tripping device. At thirty-five he was a success. Yet he never failed when he was dining alone to wish that he was to call on a girl who was worth calling on.
After fourteen years of the candy-gobbling, cabaret-curious, nice-man-hunting daughters of New York, Bates had become unholily cautious. His attitude to the average debutante was that of an aviator to an anti-aircraft shell. And he was equally uncomfortable with older, more earnest women. They talked about economics. Bates had read a book all about economics shortly after graduation, but as he could never quite remember the title it didn’t help him much in earnest conversations. He preferred to talk to his stenographer. He mentioned neither wine suppers nor her large black eyes. “Has the draftsman sent over the blue prints for Camden?” he said. Or: “Might hurry up the McGulden correspondence.” That was real conversation. It got somewhere.
Then he began to talk to the girl in the building across the street.
That building was his scenery. He watched it as an old maid behind a lace curtain gapes at every passer-by on her village street. It had the charm of efficiency that is beginning to make American cities beautiful with a beauty that borrows nothing from French châteaux or English inns. The architect had supposed that he was planning neither a hotel nor a sparrow’s paradise, but a place for offices. He had left off the limestone supporting caps that don’t support anything, and the marble plaques which are touchingly believed to imitate armorial shields but which actually resemble enlarged shaving mugs. He had created a building as clean and straight and honest as the blade of a sword. It made Bates glad that he was a business man.
So much of the building opposite was of glass that the offices were as open to observation as the coops at a dog show. Bates knew by sight every man and woman in twenty rooms. From his desk he could not see the building, but when he was tired it was his habit to loaf by the window for a moment. He saw the men coming in at eight-thirty or nine, smoking and chatting before they got to work, settling at desks, getting up stiffly at lunch-time, and at closing hour, dulled to silence, snapping out the lights before they went home. When he worked late at night Bates was saved from loneliness by the consciousness of the one or two men who were sure to be centered under desk lights in offices across the way.
He sympathized with the office boy at whom the red-mustached boss was always snarling in the eleventh-floor office on the right, and was indignant at the boy he saw stealing stamps on the thirteenth. He laughed over a clerk on the eleventh changing into evening clothes at six — hopping on one leg to keep his trousers off the floor, and solemnly taking dress tie and collar from the top drawer of his desk. And it was a personal sorrow when tragedy came to his village; when the pretty, eager secretary of the manager in the twelfth-floor office exactly opposite was missing for several days, and one morning a funeral wreath was laid on her desk by the window.
The successor of the dead girl must have come immediately, but Bates did not notice her for a week. It was one of those weeks when he was snatched from Task A to Task B, and from B to hustle out C, when the salesman out on the road couldn’t sell milk to a baby, when the telephone rang or a telegram came just as Bates thought he had a clear moment, when he copied again every night the list of things he ought to have done day before yesterday, and his idea of heaven was a steel vault without telephone connection. But at the end of the storm he had nothing to do except to try to look edifyingly busy, and to amble round and watch the stenographers stenograph and the office boy be officious.
He sat primly lounging in the big chair by the window, smoking a panetela and unconsciously gazing at the building across the street. He half observed that the manager in the office just opposite was dictating to a new secretary, a slim girl in blue taffeta with crisp white collar and cuffs. She did not slop over the desk tablet, yet she did not sit grimly, like the oldish stenographer in the office just above her. She seemed at the distance to be unusually businesslike. In all the hive that was laid open to Bates’ observation she was distinguished by her erect, charming shoulders, her decisive step, as she was to be seen leaving the manager’s desk, going through the partition — which to Bates’ eye was an absurdly thin sheet of oak and glass — hastening to her typewriter, getting to work.
Bates forgot her; but at dusk, spring dusk, when he stood by his window, late at the office yet with nothing to do, enervated with soft melancholy because there was no place he wanted to go that evening, he noticed her again. Her chief and she were also staying late. Bates saw them talking; saw the chief sign a pile of correspondence, give it to her, nod, take his derby, yawn and plunge out into the general office, heading for the elevator. The secretary briskly carried away the correspondence. But she stopped at her desk beside a window. She pressed her eyes with her hand, passed it across them with the jerky motion of a medium coming out of a trance.
“Poor tired eyes!” Bates heard himself muttering.
No scent of blossoms nor any sound of eager birds reached the cement streets from the spring-flushed country, but there was restlessness in the eternal clatter, and as the darkening silhouette of the building opposite cut the reflected glow in the eastern sky his melancholy became a pain of emptiness. He yearned across to the keen-edged girl and imagined himself talking to her. In five minutes she was gone, but he remained at the window, then drooped slowly up to the Yale Club for dinner.
Doubtless Bates’ life was making him selfish, but that evening while he was being incredibly bored at a musical comedy he did think of her, and for a second hoped that her eyes were rested.
He looked for her next morning as soon as he reached the office, and was displeased with the entire arrangement of the heavenly bodies because the light wasn’t so good across there in the morning as in the afternoon.
Not till three o’clock was he certain that she was wearing what appeared to be a waist of corn-colored rough silk, and that for all her slight nervousness her throat was full and smooth. Last night he had believed her twenty-eight. He promoted her to twenty-three.
He sighed: “Capable-looking young woman. Wish my secretary were as interested in her work. She walks with — well, graceful. Now who can I get hold of for dinner tonight?”
He saw her coming in at nine o’clock; saw her unpin her hat and swiftly arrange her hair before her reflection in the ground glass of the partition. He saw her take morning dictation; bring customers in to the boss. He saw her slipping out to lunch, alone, at noon. He saw her quick, sure movements slacken as the afternoon became long and weary. He saw her preparing to go home at night, or staying late, even her straight shoulders hunched as she heavily picked out the last words on her typewriter. All through the day he followed her, and though he knew neither her name nor her origin, though he had never heard her voice, yet he understood this girl better than at marriage most men understand the women they marry.
The other people in her office treated her with respect. They bowed to her at morning, at night. They never teased her, as the fluffy telephone girl was teased. That interested Bates, but for many weeks she was no part of his life.
On an afternoon in early summer, when his hands were twitching and his eyeballs were hot coals from too-constant study of specifications, when everybody in the world seemed to be picking at his raw nerves and he longed for someone who would care for him, who would bathe his eyes and divert his mind from the rows of figures that danced blood-red against darkness as he closed his stinging lids, then he caught himself deliberately seeking the window, passionately needing a last glimpse of her as the one human being whom he really knew.
“Confound her, if she isn’t over there I’ll — well, I won’t go home till she is!”
She was by the window, reading a letter. She looked up, caught him staring at her. It was a very dignified Mr. Bates who plumped on his hat and stalked away. Obviously he would never do anything so low as to spy on offices across the street! The word stuck in his mind, and scratched it. Certainly he had never spied, he declared in a high manner as he fumbled at a steak minute that was exactly like all the ten thousand steaks minute he had endured at restaurants. Well, he’d take care that no one ever came in and misunderstood his reflective resting by the window. He would never glance at that building again!
And so at nine o’clock next morning, with three telegrams and an overdue letter from Birmingham Power and Traction unopened on his desk, he was peering across the street and admiring a new hat, a Frenchy cornucopia with fold above fold of pale-blue straw, which the girl was removing from her sleek hair.
There are several ways of stopping smoking. You can hide your tobacco in a drawer in the next room, and lock the drawer, and hide the key. You can keep a schedule of the number of times you smoke. You can refuse to buy cigarettes, and smoke only those you can cadge from friends. These methods are all approved by the authorities, and there is only one trouble with them — not one of them makes you stop smoking.
There are also numerous ways of keeping from studying the architecture of buildings across the street. You can be scornful, or explain to yourself that you don’t know anything about employees of other offices, and don’t want to know anything. You can relax by sitting on the couch instead of standing by the window. The only trouble with these mental exercises is that you continue to find yourself gaping at the girl across and —
And you feel like a spy when you catch her in self-betrayals that pinch your heart. She marches out of the manager’s office, cool, competent, strong, then droops by her desk and for a strained moment sits with thin fingers pressed to her pounding temples.
Every time she did that Bates forgot his coy games. His spirit sped across the canyon and hovered about her, roused from the nagging worries about business and steaks minute and musical comedies which had come to be his most precious concerns. With agitating clearness he could feel his finger tips caressing her forehead, feel the sudden cold of evaporation on his hand as he bathed the tired, cramped back of her neck with alcohol.
He gave up his highly gentlemanly effort not to spy. He wondered if perhaps there wasn’t something to all these metaphysical theories, if he wasn’t sending currents of friendship across to cheer her frail, brave spirit in its fight to be businesslike. He forgot that he was as visible at his window as she at hers. So it happened that one evening when he was frankly staring at the girl she caught him, and turned her head away with a vexed jerk.
Bates was hurt because he had hurt her. He who had regarded life only from the standpoint of Bates, bachelor, found himself thinking through her, as though his mind had been absorbed in hers. With a shock of pain he could feel her lamenting that it was bad enough to be under the business strain all day, without being exposed to ogling in her house of glass. He wanted to protect her — from himself.
For a week he didn’t once stand by the window, even to look down at the street, twelve stories below, which he had watched as from his mountain shack a quizzical hermit might con the life of the distant valley. He missed the view, and he was glad to miss it. He was actually giving up something for somebody. He felt human again.
Though he did not stand by the window it was surprising how many times a day he had to pass it, and how innocently he caught glimpses of the life across the way. More than once he saw her looking at him. Whenever she glanced up from work her eyes seemed drawn to his. But not flirtatiously, he believed. In the distance she seemed aloof as the small cold winter moon.
There was another day that was a whirl of craziness. Everybody wanted him at once. Telegrams crossed each other. The factory couldn’t get materials. Two stenographers quarreled, and both of them quit, and the typewriter agency from which he got his girls had no one to send him just then save extremely alien enemies who confounded typewriters with washing machines. When the office was quiet and there was only about seven more hours of work on his desk, he collapsed. His lax arms fell beside him. He panted slowly. His spinning head drooped and his eyes were blurred.
“Oh, buck up!” he growled.
He lifted himself to his feet, slapped his arms, found himself at the window. Across there she was going home. Involuntarily — looking for a greeting from his one companion in work — he threw up his arm in a wave of farewell.
She saw it. She stood considering him, her two hands up to her head as she pinned her hat. But she left the window without a sign. Suddenly he was snapping: “I’ll make you notice me! I’m not a noon-hour window flirt! I won’t stand your thinking I am!”
With a new energy of irritation he went back. Resting his eyes every quarter of an hour he sat studying a legal claim, making notes. It was eight — nine — ten. He was faint, yet not hungry. He rose. He was surprised to find himself happy. He hunted for the source of the glow, and found it. He was going to draw that frosty moon of a girl down to him.
In the morning when he came in he hastened to the window and waited till she raised her head. He waved — a quick, modest, amiable gesture. Every morning and evening after that he sent across his pleading signal. She never answered but she observed him and — well, she never pulled down the window shade.
His vacation was in July. Without quite knowing why, he did not want to go to the formal seaside hotel at which he usually spent three weeks in being polite to aunts in their nieces’ frocks, and in discovering that as a golfer he was a good small-boat sailor. He found himself heading for the Lebanon Valley, which is the valley of peace; and he discovered that yellow cream and wild blackberries and cowslips and the art of walking without panting still exist. He wore soft shirts and became tanned; he stopped worrying about the insolvency of the Downstate Interurban Company, and was even heard to laugh at the landlord’s stories.
At least a tenth of his thoughts were devoted to planning a vacation for the girl across. She should lie with nervous fingers relaxed among the long-starred grasses, and in the cornflower blue of the sky and comic plump white clouds find healing. After arranging everything perfectly he always reminded himself that she probably hadn’t been with her firm long enough to have earned more than a five-day vacation, and with etched scorn he pointed out that he was a fool to think about a girl of whom he knew only that:
She seemed to take dictation quickly.
She walked gracefully.
She appeared at a distance to have delicate oval cheeks.
She was between sixteen and forty.
She was not a man.
About Article Five, he was sure.
He was so strong-minded and practical with himself that by the end of his holidays the girl was cloudy in his mind. He was cured of sentimentalizing. He regarded with amusement his re-enforced-concrete romance, his moth dance under the arc light’s sterile glare. He would — oh, he’d call on Christine Parrish when he got back. Christine was the sister of a classmate of his; she danced well and said the right things about Park Avenue and the Washington Square Players.
He got back to town on Monday evening, just at closing time. He ran up to his office, to announce his return. He dashed into his private room — less dashingly to the window. The girl across was thumbing a book, probably finding a telephone number. She glanced up, raising a finger toward her lips. Then his hat was off, and he was bowing, waving. She sat with her half-raised hand suspended. Suddenly she threw it up in a flickering gesture of welcome.
Bates sat at his desk. The members of his staff as they came in to report — or just to be tactful and remind the chief of their valuable existence — had never seen him so cheerful. When they were gone he tried to remember what it was he had planned to do. Oh, yes; call up Christine Parrish. Let it go. He’d do it some other night. He went to the window. The girl was gone, but the pale ghost of her gesture seemed to glimmer in the darkening window.
He dined at the new Yale Club, and sat out on the roof after dinner with a couple of temporary widowers and Bunk Selby’s kid brother, who had graduated in the spring. The city beneath them flared like burning grass. Broadway was a streak of tawny fire; across the East River a blast furnace stuttered flames; the Biltmore and Ritz and Manhattan, the Belmont and Grand Central Station were palaces more mysterious in their flashing first stories, their masses of shadow, their splashes of white uplifted wall, than Venice on carnival night. Bates loved the hot beauty of his city; he was glad to be back; he didn’t exactly know why, but the coming fall and winter gave promise of endless conquest and happiness. Not since he had first come to the city had he looked forward so exultantly. Now, as then, the future was not all neatly listed, but chaotic and trembling with adventure.
All he said to the men smoking with him was “Good vacation — fine loaf.” Or, “Got any money on copper?”
But they looked at him curiously.
“You sound as though you’d had a corking time. What you been doing? Licking McLoughlin at tennis or something?”
Bunk Selby’s kid brother, not having been out of college long enough to have become reliable and stupid, ventured: “Say, Bunk, I bet your young friend Mr. Bates is in love!”
“Huh!” said Bunk with married fatness. “Batesy? Never! He’s the buds’ best bunker.”
At two minutes of nine the next morning Bates was at the window. To him entered his stenographer, bearing mail.
“Oh, leave it on the desk,” he complained.
At one minute past nine the girl across could be seen in the general office, coming out of the dimness to her window. He waved his arm. She sent back the greeting. Then she turned her back on him. But he went at his mail humming.
She always answered after that, and sometimes during the day she swiftly peered at him. It was only a curt, quick recognition, but when he awoke he looked forward to it. His rusty imagination creaking, he began to make up stories about her. He was convinced that whatever she might be she was different from the good-natured, commonplace women in his own office. She was a mystery. She had a family. He presented her with a father of lean distinction, hawk nose, classical learning — and the most alarming inability to stick to the job, being in various versions a bishop, a college president, and a millionaire who had lost his money.
He decided that she was named Emily, because Emily meant all the things that typewriters and filing systems failed to mean. Emily connoted lavender-scented chests, old brocade, and twilit gardens brimmed with dewy, damask roses, spacious halls of white paneling, and books by the fire. Always it was Bates who restored her to the spacious halls, the brocade, and the arms of her bishop-professor-millionaire father.
There was one trouble with his fantasy: He didn’t dare see her closer than across the street, didn’t dare hear her voice, for fear the first sacred words of the lady of the damask roses might be: “Say, listen! Are you the fella that’s been handing me the double O? Say, you got your nerve!”
Once when he was sailing out of the street entrance, breezy and prosperous, he realized that she was emerging across the way, and he ducked back into the hall. It was not hard to avoid her. The two buildings were great towns. There were two thousand people in Bates’ building, perhaps three thousand in hers; and in the streams that tumbled through the doorways at night the individual people were as unrecognizable as in the mad passing of a retreating brigade.
It was late October when he first definitely made out her expression, first caught her smile across the chill and empty air that divided them. In these shortening days the electric lights were on before closing time, and in their radiance he could see her more clearly than by daylight.
In the last mail came a letter from the home office, informing him with generous praise that his salary was increased a thousand a year. All the world knows that vice presidents are not like office boys; they do not act ignorantly when they get a raise. But it is a fact that, after galloping to the door to see whether anybody was coming in, Bates did a foxtrot three times about his desk. He rushed to the window. Four times he had to visit it before she glanced up. He caught her attention by waving the letter. Her face was only half toward him, but he could make out her profile, gilded by the light over her desk. He held out the letter and with his forefinger traced each line, as though he were reading it to her. When he had finished he clapped his hands and whooped.
The delicate still lines of her face wrinkled; her lips parted; she was smiling, nodding, clapping her hands.
“She — she — she understands things!” crowed Bates.
He had noted that often instead of going out she ate a box lunch at her desk, meditatively looking down to the street as she munched a cake; that on Friday — either the office busy day or the day when her week’s salary had almost run out — she always stayed in, and that she lunched at twelve. One Friday in early winter he had the housekeeper at his bachelor apartments prepare sandwiches, with coffee in a vacuum bottle. He knew that his subordinates, with their inevitable glad interest in any eccentricities of the chief, would wonder at his lunching in.
“None of their business, anyway!” he said feebly. But he observed to his stenographer: “What a rush! Guess I won’t go out for lunch.” He strolled past the desk of young Crackins, the bookkeeper, whom he suspected of being the office wit and of collecting breaks on the part of the boss as material for delicious scandal.
“Pretty busy, Crackins? Well, so am I. Fact, I don’t think I’ll go out to lunch. Just have a bite here.”
Having provided dimmers for the fierce light that beats about a glass-topped desk he drew a straight chair to the window and spread his feast on the broad sill at a few minutes after twelve. Emily was gnawing a doughnut and drinking a glass of milk. He bowed, but he inoffensively nibbled half a sandwich before he got over his embarrassment and ventured to offer her a bite. She was motionless, the doughnut gravely suspended in air. She sprang up — left the window.
“Curse it, double curse it! Fool! Beast! Couldn’t even let her eat lunch in peace! Intruding on her — spoiling her leisure.”
Emily had returned to the window. She showed him a small water glass. She half filled it with milk from her own glass, and diffidently held it out. He rose and extended his hand for it. Across the windy space he took her gift and her greeting.
He laughed; he fancied that she was laughing back, though he could see her face only as a golden blur in the thin fall sunshine. They settled down, sharing lunches. He was insisting on her having another cup of coffee when he was conscious that the door to his private room had opened, that someone was entering.
Frantically he examined a number of imaginary specks on his cup. He didn’t dare turn to see who the intruder was. He held up the cup, ran a finger round the edge and muttered “Dirty!” The intruder pattered beside him. Bates looked up at him innocently. It was Crackins, the office tease. And Crackins was grinning.
“Hair in the soup, Mr. Bates?”
“In the — Oh! Oh, yes. Hair in the soup. Yes. Dirty — dirty cup — have speak — speak housekeeper,” Bates burbled.
“Do you mind my interrupting you? I wanted to ask you about the Farmers’ Rail-line credit. They’re three weeks behind in payment —”
Did Bates fancy it or was Crackins squinting through the window at Emily? With an effusiveness that was as appropriate to him as a mandolin to an Irish contractor, Bates bobbed up and led Crackin back to the main office. He couldn’t get away for ten minutes. When he returned Emily was leaning against the window jamb and he saw her by a leaded casement in the bishop’s mansion, dreaming on hollyhocks and sundial below.
She pantomimed the end of her picnic; turned her small black lunch box upside down and spread her hands with a plaintive gesture of “All gone!” He offered her coffee, sandwiches, a bar of chocolate; but she refused each with a shy, quick shake of her head. She pointed at her typewriter, waved once, and was back at work.
As Christmas approached, as New York grew so friendly that men nodded to people who hadn’t had the flat next door for more than seven years, Bates wondered if Emily’s Christmas would be solitary. He tried to think of a way to send her a remembrance. He couldn’t. But on the day before he brought an enormous wreath to the office, and waited till he caught her eye. Not till four-thirty, when the lights were on, did he succeed. He hung the wreath at the window and bowed to her, one hand on his heart, the other out in salutation.
Snow flew through the cold void between them and among cliffs of concrete and steel ran the icy river of December air, but they stood together as a smile transfigured her face — face of a gold-wreathed miniature on warm old ivory, tired and a little sad, but tender with her Christmas smile.
She was gone, and he needed her. She had been absent a week now, this evening of treacherous melancholy. Winter had grown old and tedious and hard to bear; the snow that had been jolly in December was a filthy smear in February. Had there ever been such a thing as summer — ever been a time when the corners had not been foul with slush and vexatious with pouncing wind? He was tired of shows and sick of dances, and with a warm personal hatred he hated all the people from out of town who had come to New York for the winter and crowded the New Yorkers out of their favorite dens in tea rooms and grills.
And Emily had disappeared. He didn’t know whether she had a new job or was lying sick in some worn-carpeted room, unattended, desperate. And he couldn’t find out. He didn’t know her name.
Partly because he dreaded what might happen to her, partly because he needed her, he was nervously somber as he looked across to her empty window tonight. The street below was a crazy tumult, a dance of madmen on a wet pavement purple from arc lights — frenzied bells of surface cars, impatient motors, ripping taxis, home-hungry people tumbling through the traffic or standing bewildered in the midst of it, expecting to be killed, shivering and stamping wet feet. A late-working pneumatic riveter punctured his nerves with its unresting r-r-r-r-r — the grinding machine of a gigantic dentist. The sky was wild, the jagged clouds rushing in panic, smeared with the dull red of afterglow. Only her light, across, was calm — and she was not there.
“I can’t stand it! I’ve come to depend on her. I didn’t know I could miss anybody like this. I wasn’t living — then. Something has happened to me. I don’t understand! I don’t understand!” he said.
She was back next morning. He couldn’t believe it. He kept returning to make sure, and she always waved, and he was surprised to see how humbly grateful he was for that recognition. She pantomimed coughing for him, and with a hand on her brow indicated that she had had fever. He inquiringly laid his cheek on his hand in the universal sign for going to bed. She nodded — yes, she had been abed with a cold.
As he left the window he knew that sooner or later he must meet her, even if she should prove to be the sort who would say “Listen, kiddo!” He couldn’t risk losing her again. Only — well, there was no hurry. He wanted to be sure he wasn’t ridiculous. Among the people he knew the greatest rule of life was never to be ridiculous.
He had retired from the window in absurd envy because the men and girls in the office across were shaking Emily’s hand, welcoming her back. He began to think about them and about her office. He hadn’t an idea what the business of the office was — whether they sold oil stock or carrier pigeons or did blackmail. It was too modern to have lettering on the windows. There were blue prints to be seen on the walls, but they might indicate architecture, machinery — anything.
He began to watch her office mates more closely, and took the most querulous likes and dislikes. Her boss — he was a decent chap; but that filing girl, whom he had caught giggling at Emily’s aloof way, she was a back-alley cat, and Bates had a back-alley desire to slap her.
He was becoming a clumsy sort of mystic in his aching care for her. When he waved good-night he was sending her his deepest self to stand as an invisible power beside her all the dark night. When he watched the others in her office he was not a peering gossip; he was winning them over to affection for her.
But not too affectionate!
He disapproved of the new young man who went to work in the office opposite a week or two after Emily’s return. The new young man went about in his shirt sleeves, but the shirt seemed to be of silk, and he wore large intelligentsia tortoise-shell spectacles, and smoked a college sort of pipe in a dear-old-dormitory way. He had trained his molasses-colored locks till each frightened hair knew its little place and meekly kept it all day long. He was a self-confident, airy new young man, and apparently he was at least assistant manager. He was to be beheld talking easily to Emily’s chief, one foot up on a chair, puffing much gray smoke.
The new young man appeared to like Emily. He had his own stenographer in his coop ‘way over at the left, but he was always hanging about Emily’s desk, and she looked up at him brightly. He chatted with her at closing hour, and at such times her back was to the window; and across the street Bates discreditably neglected his work and stood muttering things about drowning puppies.
She still waved good-night to Bates, but he fancied that she was careless about it.
“Oh, I’m just the faithful old dog. Young chap comes along — I’m invited to the wedding! I bet I’ve been best man at more weddings than any other man in New York. I know the Wedding March better than the organist of St. Thomas’, and I can smell lost rings across the vestry. Of course. That’s all they want me for,” said Bates.
And he dictated a violent letter to the company which made the cards for the indicator, and bitterly asked the office boy if he could spare time from the movies to fill the inkwells during the next few months.
Once Emily and the new young man left the office together at closing time, and peering twelve stories down Bates saw them emerging, walking together down the street. The young man was bending over her, and as they were submerged in the crowd Emily glanced at him with a gay upward toss of her head.
The lonely man at the window above sighed. “Well — well, I wanted her to be happy. But that young pup — Rats! He’s probably very decent. Heavens and earth, I’m becoming a moral Peeping Tom! I hate myself! But — I’m going to meet her. I won’t let him take her away! I won’t!”
Easy to say, but like paralysis was Bates’ training in doing what other nice people do — in never being ridiculous. He despised queer people, socialists and poets and chaps who let others know they were in love.
Still thinking about it a week later he noticed no one about him as he entered a near-by tea room for lunch, and sat at a tiny, white, fussy table, with a paranoiac carmine rabbit painted in one corner of the bare top. He vaguely stared at a menu of walnut sandwiches, cream-cheese sandwiches, and chicken hash.
He realized that over the top of the menu he was looking directly at Emily, alone, at another dinky white table across the room.
Suppose she should think that he had followed her? That he was a masher? Horrible!
He made himself small in his chair, and to the impatient waitress modestly murmured: “Chicken hash, please; cuppa coffee.”
His fear melted as he made sure that Emily had not seen him. She was facing in the same direction as he, and farther down the room, so that her back was toward him, and her profile. She was reading a book while she neglectfully nibbled at a soft white roll, a nice-minded tea-room roll. He studied her hungrily.
She was older than he had thought, from her quick movements. She was twenty-seven, perhaps. Her smooth, pale cheeks, free of all padding or fat, all lax muscles of laziness, were silken. In everything she was fine; the product of breeding. She was, veritably, Emily!
He had never much noticed how women were dressed, but now he found himself valuing every detail: The good lines and simplicity of her blue frock with chiffon sleeves, her trim brown shoes, her unornamented small blue toque, cockily aside her head with military smartness. But somehow — It was her overcoat, on the back of her chair, that got him — her plain brown overcoat with bands of imitation fur; rather a cheap coat, not very warm. The inside was turned back, so that he saw the tiny wrinkles in the lining where it lay over her shoulders — wrinkles as feminine as the faint scent of powder — and discovered that she had patched the armhole. He clenched his fists with a pity for her poverty that was not pity alone but a longing to do things for her.
Emily was stirring, closing her book, absently pawing for her check as she snatched the last sentences of the story before going back to work. He had, so far, only picked juicy little white pieces out of the chicken hash, and had ignobly put off the task of attacking the damp, decomposed toast. And he was hungry. But he didn’t know what to do if in passing she recognized him.
He snatched his coat and hat and check, and galloped out, not looking back.
He went to a hotel and had a real lunch, alternately glowing because she really was the fine, fresh, shining girl he had fancied and cursing himself because he had not gone over and spoken to her. Wittily. Audaciously. Hadn’t he been witty and audacious to the Binghamton traction directors?
And — now that he knew her he wasn’t going to relinquish her to the windy young man with the owl spectacles!
At three-thirty-seven that afternoon without visible cause he leaped out of his chair, seized his hat, and hustled out through the office. He sedately entered the elevator. The elevator runner was a heavy, black-skirted amiable Irishwoman who remembered people. He wondered if he couldn’t say to her, “I am about to go across the street and fall in love.”
As for the first time in all his study of it he entered the building opposite, he was panting as though he had been smoking too much. His voice sounded thick as he said “Twelve out,” in the elevator.
Usually, revolving business plans, he walked through buildings unseeing, but he was as aware of the twelfth-floor hall, of the marble footboards, the floor like fruit cake turned to stone, wire-glass lights, alabaster bowls of the indirect lighting, as though he were a country boy new to this strange indoor world where the roads were tunnels. He was afraid, and none too clear why he should be afraid, of one slim girl.
He had gone fifty feet from the elevator before it occurred to him that he hadn’t the slightest idea where he was going.
He had lost his directions. There were two batteries of elevators, so that he could not get his bearings from them. He didn’t know on which side her office was. Trying to look as though he really had business here he rambled till he found a window at the end of a corridor. He saw the Times tower, and was straight again. Her office would be on the right. But — where?
He had just realized that from the corridor he couldn’t tell how many outside windows each office had. He had carefully counted from across the street and found that her window was the sixth from the right. But that might be in either the Floral Heights Development Company or the Alaska Belle Mining Corporation, S. Smith — it was not explained whether S. Smith was the Belle or the Corporation.
Bates stood still. A large, red, furry man exploded out of the Floral Heights office and stared at him. Bates haughtily retired to the window at the end of the corridor and glowered out. Another crushing thought had fallen on him. Suppose he did pick the right office? He would find himself in an enclosed waiting room. He couldn’t very well say to an office boy: “Will you tell the young lady in the blue dress that the man across the street is here?”
That would be ridiculous.
But he didn’t care a hang if he was ridiculous!
He bolted down the corridor, entered the door of the Alaska Belle Mining Corporation. He was in a mahogany and crushed-morocco boudoir of business. A girl with a black frock and a scarlet smile fawned, “Ye-es?” He wasn’t sure, but he thought she was a flirtatious person whom he had noted as belonging in an office next to Emily’s. He blundered: “C-could I see some of your literature?”
It was twenty minutes later when he escaped from a friendly young man — now gorgeous in a new checked suit, but positively known by Bates to have cleaned the lapels of his other suit with stuff out of a bottle two evenings before — who had tried to sell him stock in two gold mines and a ground-floor miracle in the copper line. Bates was made to feel as though he was betraying an old friend before he was permitted to go. He had to accept a library of choice views of lodes, smelters, river barges, and Alaskan scenery.
He decorously deposited the booklets one by one in the mail chute, and returned to his favorite corridor.
This time he entered the cream-and-blue waiting room of the Floral Heights Development Company. He had a wild, unformed plan of announcing himself as a building inspector and being taken through the office, unto the uttermost parts, which meant to Emily’s desk. It was a romantic plan and adventurous — and he instantly abandoned it at the sight of the realistic office boy, who had red hair and knickers and the oldest, coldest eye in the world.
“You people deal in suburban realty, don’t you?”
“I’d like to see the manager.” It would be Emily who would take him in!
“I may consider the purchase of a lot.”
“Oh, I thought you was that collector from the towel company.”
“Do I look it, my young friend?”
“You can’t tell, these days — the way you fellows spend your money on clothes. Well, say, boss, the old man is out, but I’ll chase Mr. Simmons out here.”
Mr. Simmons was, it proved, the man whom Bates disliked more than any other person living. He was that tortoise-spectacled, honey-haired, airy young man who dared to lift his eyes to Emily. He entered with his cut-out open; he assumed that he was Bates’ physician and confessor; he chanted that at Beautiful Floral Heights by the Hackensack, the hydrants gave champagne, all babies weighed fifteen pounds at birth, values doubled overnight, and cement garages grew on trees.
Bates escaped with another de-luxe library, which included a glossy postcard showing the remarkable greenness of Floral Heights grass and the redness and yellowness of “Bungalow erected for J. J. Keane.” He took the postcard back to his office and addressed it to the one man in his class whom he detested.
For four days he ignored Emily. Oh, he waved goodnight; there was no reason for hurting her feelings by rudeness. But he did not watch her through the creeping office hours. And he called on Christine Parrish. He told himself that in Christine’s atmosphere of leisure and the scent of white roses, in her chatter about the singles championship and Piping Rock and various men referred to as Bunk and Poodle and Georgie, he had come home to his own people. But when Christine on the davenport beside him looked demurely at him through the smoke of her cigarette he seemed to hear the frightful drum fire of the Wedding March, and he rushed to the protecting fireplace.
The next night when Emily, knife-clean Emily, waved good-by and exhaustedly snapped off her light Bates darted to the elevator and reached the street entrance before she appeared across the way. But he was still stiff with years of training in propriety. He stood watching her go down the street, turn the corner.
Crackins, the bookkeeper, blandly whistling as he left the building, was shocked to see Bates running out of the doorway, his arms revolving grotesquely, his unexercised legs stumbling as he dashed down a block and round the corner.
Bates reached her just as she entered the Subway kiosk and was absorbed in the swirl of pushing people. He put out his hand to touch her unconscious shoulder, then withdrew it shiveringly, like a cat whose paw has touched cold water.
She had gone two steps down. She did not know he was there.
“Emily!” he cried.
A dozen Subway hurriers glanced at him as they shoved past. Emily turned, half seeing. She hesitated, looked away from him again.
He dashed down, stood beside her.
“Two lovers been quarreling,” reflected an oldish woman as she plumped by them.
“I beg your pardon!” remonstrated Emily.
Her voice was clear, her tone sharp. These were the first words from his princess of the tower.
“I beg yours, but — I tried to catch your attention. I’ve been frightfully clumsy, but — You see, hang it, I don’t know your name, and when I— I happened to see you, I— I’d thought of you as ‘Emily.’”
Her face was still, her eyes level. She was not indignant, but she waited, left it all to him.
He desperately lied: “Emily was my mother’s name.”
“Oh! Then I can’t very well be angry, but —”
“You know who I am, don’t you? The man across the street from —”
“Yes. Though I didn’t know you at first. The man across is always so self-possessed!”
“I know. Don’t rub it in. I’d always planned to be very superior and amusing and that sort of stuff when I met you, and make a tremendous impression.”
Standing on the gritty steel-plated steps that led to the cavern of the Subway, jostled by hurtling people, he faltered on: “Things seem to have slipped, though. You see, I felt beastly lonely tonight. Aren’t you, sometimes?”
“We’d become such good friends — you know, our lunches together, and all.”
Her lips twitched, and she took pity on him with: “I know. Are you going up in the Subway? We can ride together, at least as far as Seventy-second.”
This was before the days of shuttles and H’s, when dozens of people knew their way about in the Subway, and one spoke confidently of arriving at a given station.
“No, I wasn’t going. I wanted you to come to dinner with me! Do, please! If you haven’t a date. I’m — I’m not really a masher. I’ve never asked a girl I didn’t know, like this. I’m really — Oh, hang it, I’m a solid citizen. Disgustingly so. My name is Bates. I’m g. m. of my office. If this weren’t New York we’d have met months ago. Please! I’ll take you right home after —”
Young women of the Upper West Side whose fathers were in Broad Street or in wholesale silk, young women with marquetry tables, with pictures in shadow boxes in their drawing rooms, and too many servants belowstairs, had been complimented when Bates took them to dinner. But this woman who worked, who had the tension wrinkle between her brows, listened and let him struggle.
“We can’t talk here. Please walk up a block with me,” he begged.
She came but she continued to inspect him. Once they were out of the hysteria of the Subway crowd, the ache of his embarrassment was relieved, and on a block of dead old brownstone houses embalmed among loft buildings he stopped and laughed aloud.
“I’ve been talking like an idiot. The crowd flustered me. And it was so different from the greeting I’d always planned. May I come and call on you sometimes, and present myself as a correct old bachelor, and ask you properly to go to dinner? Will you forgive me for having been so clumsy?”
She answered gravely: “No, you weren’t. You were nice. You spoke as though you meant it. I was glad. No one in New York ever speaks to me as though he meant anything — except giving dictation.”
He came close to saying: “What does the chump with the foolish spectacles mean?”
He saved himself by a flying mental leap as she went on: “And I like your laugh. I will go to dinner with you tonight if you wish.”
“Thank you a lot. Where would you like to go? And shall we go to a movie or something to kill time before dinner?”
“You won’t — I’m not doing wrong, am I? I really feel as if I knew you. Do you despise me for tagging obediently along when I’m told to?”
“Oh! Despise — You’re saving a solitary man’s life! Where —”
“Any place that isn’t too much like a tea room. I go to tea rooms twice a day. I am ashamed every time I see a boiled egg, and I’ve estimated that if the strips of Japanese toweling I’ve dined over were placed end to end they would reach from Elkhart to Rajputana.”
“I know. I wish we could go to a family dinner — not a smart one but an old-fashioned one, with mashed turnips, and Mother saying: ‘Now eat your nice parsnips; little girls that can’t eat parsnips can’t eat mince pie.’”
“Oh, there aren’t any families any more. You are nice!”
She was smiling directly at him, and he wanted to tuck her hand under his arm, but he didn’t, and they went to a movie till seven. They did not talk during it. She was relaxed, her small tired hands curled together in her lap. He chose the balcony of the Firenze Room in the Grand Royal Hotel for dinner, because from its quiet leisure you can watch gay people and hear distant music. He ordered a dinner composed of such unnecessary things as hors d’oeuvres, which she wouldn’t have in tea rooms. He did not order wine.
When the waiter was gone and they faced each other, with no walking, no movies, no stir of the streets to occupy them, they were silent. He was struggling enormously to find something to say, and finding nothing beyond the sound observation that winters are cold. She glanced over the balcony rail at a bouncing pink-and-silver girl dining below with three elephantishly skittish men in evening clothes. She seemed far easier than he. He couldn’t get himself to be masterful. He examined the crest on a fork and carefully scratched three triangles on the cloth, and ran his watch chain between his fingers, and told himself not to fidget, and arranged two forks and a spoon in an unfeasible fortification of his water glass, and delicately scratched his ear and made a knot in his watch chain, and dropped a fork with an alarming clang, and burst out:
“Er-r-r — Hang it, let’s be conversational! I find myself lots dumber than an oyster. Or a fried scallop.”
She laid her elbows on the table, smiled inquiringly, suggested: “Very well. But tell me who you are. And what does your office do? I’ve decided you dealt in Christmas mottoes. You have cardboard things round the walls.”
He was eloquent about the Carstop Indicator. The device was, it seemed, everything from a city guide to a preventive of influenza. All traction magnates who failed to introduce it were —
“Now I shall sell you a lot at Floral Heights,” she interrupted.
“Oh, you’re right. I’m office mad. But it really is a good thing. I handle the Eastern territory. I’m a graduate — now I shall be autobiographical and intimate and get your sympathy for my past — I come from Shef.— Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University. My father was a chemical engineer, and I wrote one poem, at the age of eleven, and I have an uncle in Sing Sing for forgery. Now you know all about me. And I want to know if you really are Emily?”
“I didn’t — er — exactly call you Emily because of my mother, but because the name means old gardens and a charming family. I have decided that your father was either a bishop or a Hartford banker.”
She was exploring hors d’oeuvres. She laid down her fork and said evenly: “No. My father was a mill superintendent in Fall River. He was no good. He drank and gambled and died. My mother was quite nice. But there is nothing romantic about me. I did have three years in college, but I work because I have to. I have no future beyond possibly being manager of the girls in some big office. I am very competent but not very pleasant. I am horribly lonely in New York, but that may be my fault. One man likes me — a man in my office. But he laughs at my business ambitions. I am not happy, and I don’t know what’s ahead of me, and some day I may kill myself — and I definitely do not want sympathy. I’ve never been so frank as this to anyone, and I oughtn’t to have been with you.”
She stopped dead, looked at the trivial crowd below, and Bates felt as though he had pawed at her soul.
Awkwardly kind he ventured: “You live alone?”
“Can’t you find some jolly girls to live with?”
“I’ve tried it. They got on my nerves. They were as hopeless as I was.”
“Haven’t you some livelier girl you can play with?”
“Only one. And she’s pretty busy. She’s a social worker. And where can we go? Concerts sometimes, and walks. Once we tried to go to a restaurant. You know — one of these Bohemian places. Three different drunken men tried to pick us up. This isn’t a very gentle city.”
“Emily — Emily — I say, what is your name?”
“It’s as unromantic as the rest of me: Sarah Pardee.”
“Look here, Miss Pardee, I’m in touch with a good many different sorts of people in the city. Lived here a good while, and classmates. Will you let me do something for you? Introduce you to people I know; families and —”
She laid down her fork, carefully placed her hands flat on the table, side by side, palms down, examined them, fitted her thumbs closer together, and declared: “There is something you can do for me.”
“Yes?” he thrilled.
“Get me a better job!”
He couldn’t keep from grunting as though he had quite unexpectedly been hit by something.
“The Floral Heights people are nice to work for, but there’s no future. Mr. Ransom can’t see a woman as anything but a stenographer. I want to work up to office manager of some big concern or something.”
“B-but — Of course I’ll be glad to do that, but don’t you want — How about the human side? Don’t you want to meet real New Yorkers?”
“Houses where you could drop in for tea on Sunday?”
“Girls of your own age, and dances, and —”
“No. I’m a business woman, nothing else. Shan’t be anything else, I’m afraid. Not strong enough. I have to get to bed at ten. Spartan. It isn’t much fun but it — oh, it keeps me going.”
“Very well. I shall do as you wish. I’ll telephone you by tomorrow noon.”
He tried to make it sound politely disagreeable, but it is to be suspected that he was rather plaintive, for a glimmer of a smile touched her face as she said: “Thank you. If I could just find an opening. I don’t know many employers here. I was in a Boston office for several years.”
This ending, so like a lecture on auditing and costs, concluded Bates’ quest for high romance.
He was horribly piqued and dignified, and he talked in an elevated manner of authors whom he felt he must have read, seeing that he had always intended to read them when he got time. Inside he felt rather sick. He informed himself that he had been a fool; that Emily — no, Miss Sarah Pardee!— was merely an enameled machine; and that he never wanted to see her again.
It was all of six minutes before he begged: “Did you like my waving good-night to you every evening?”
Dubiously: “Oh — yes.”
“Did you make up foolish stories about me as I did about you?”
“No. I’ll tell you.” She spoke with faint, measured emphasis. “I have learned that I can get through a not very appealing life only by being heartless and unimaginative — except about my work. I was wildly imaginative as a girl; read Keats, and Kipling of course, and pretended that every man with a fine straight back was Strickland Sahib. Most stenographers keep up making believe. Poor tired things, they want to marry and have children, and file numbers and vocabularies merely bewilder them. But I— well, I want to succeed. So — work. And keep clear-brained, and exact. Know facts. I never allow fancies to bother me in office hours. I can tell you precisely the number of feet and inches of sewer pipe at Floral Heights, and I do not let myself gurgle over the pigeons that come up and coo on my window sill. I don’t believe I shall ever be sentimental about anything again. Perhaps I’ve made a mistake. But — I’m not so sure. My father was full of the choicest sentiment, especially when he was drunk. Anyway, there I am. Not a woman, but a business woman.”
He took her home. At her suggestion they walked up, through the late-winter clamminess. They passed a crying child on a doorstep beside a discouraged delicatessen. He noted that she looked at the child with an instant of mothering excitement, then hastened on.
“I’m not angry at her now. But even if I did want to see her again, I never would. She isn’t human,” he explained to himself.
At her door — door of a smug semiprivate rooming house on West Seventy-fourth Street — as he tried to think of a distinguished way of saying good-by he blurted: “Don’t get too interested in the young man with spectacles. Make him wait till you study the genus New Yorker a little more. Your Mr. Simmons is amiable but shallow.”
“How did you know I knew Mr. Simmons?” she marveled. “How did you know his name?”
It was the first time she had been off her guard, and he was able to retreat with a most satisfactory “One notices! Good-night. You shall have your big job.”
He peeped back from two houses away. She must have gone in without one glance toward him.
He told himself that he was glad their evening was over. But he swooped down on the Yale Club and asked five several men what they knew about jobs for a young woman, who, he asserted entirely without authorization, was a perfect typist, speedy at taking dictation, scientific at filing carbons — and able to find the carbons after she had scientifically filed them!— and so charming to clients that before they even saw one of the selling force they were longing to hand over their money.
He telephoned about it to a friend in a suburb, which necessitated his sitting in a smothering booth and shouting: “No, no, no! I want Pelham, not Chatham!” After he had gone to bed he had a thought so exciting and sleep-dispelling that he got up, closed the windows, shivered, hulked into his bathrobe and sat smoking a cigarette, with his feet inelegantly up on the radiator. Why not make a place for Emily in his own office?
He gave it up reluctantly. The office wasn’t big enough to afford her a chance. And Emily — Miss Pardee — probably would refuse. He bitterly crushed out the light of the cigarette on the radiator, yanked the windows open and climbed back into bed. He furiously discovered that during his meditation the bed had become cold again. There were pockets of arctic iciness down in the lower corners.
“Urg!” snarled Bates.
He waved good morning to Emily next day, but brusquely, and she was casual in her answer. At eleven-seventeen, after the sixth telephone call, he had found the place. He telephoned to her.
“This is Mr. Bates, across the street.”
He leaped up and by pulling the telephone out to the end of its green tether he could just reach the window and see her at the telephone by her window.
He smiled, but he went on sternly: “If you will go to the Technical and Home Syndicate — the new consolidation of trade publications — and ask for Mr. Hyden — H-y-d-e-n — in the advertising department, he will see that you get a chance. Really big office. Opportunities. Chance to manage a lot of stenographers, big commercial-research department, maybe a shot at advertising soliciting. Please refer to me. Er-r-r.”
She looked across, saw him at the telephone, startled. Tenderness came over him in a hot wave.
But colorless was her voice as she answered “That’s very good of you.”
He cut her off with a decisive “Good luck!” He stalked back to his desk. He was curiously gentle and hesitating with his subordinates all that day.
“Wonder if the old man had a pal die on him?” suggested Crackins, the bookkeeper, to the filing girl. “He looks peaked. Pretty good scout, Batesy is, at that.”
A week later Emily was gone from the office across. She had not telephoned good-by. In a month Bates encountered Hyden, of the Technical Syndicate office, who informed him: “That Miss Pardee you sent me is a crackajack. Right on the job, and intelligent. I’ve got her answering correspondence — dictating. She’ll go quite a ways.”
That was all. Bates was alone. Never from his twelfth-floor tower did he see her face or have the twilight benediction of farewell.
He told himself that she was supercilious, that she was uninteresting, that he did not like her. He admitted that his office had lost its exciting daily promise of romance — that he was tired of all offices. But he insisted that she had nothing to do with that. He had surrounded her with a charm not her own.
However neatly he explained things to himself, it was still true that an empty pain like homesickness persisted whenever he looked out of his window — or didn’t look out but sat at his desk and wanted to. When he worked late he often raised his head with a confused sense of missing something. The building across had become just a building across. All he could see in it was ordinary office drudges doing commonplace things. Even Mr. Simmons of the esthetic spectacles no longer roused interesting rage. As for Emily’s successor, Bates hated her. She smirked, and her hair was a hurrah’s nest.
March had come in; the streets were gritty with dust. Bates languidly got himself to call on Christine Parrish again. Amid the welcome narcissus bowls and vellum-backed seats and hand-tooled leather desk fittings of the Parrish library he was roused from the listlessness that like a black fog had been closing in on him. He reflected that Christine was sympathetic, and Emily merely a selfish imitation of a man. But Christine made him impatient. She was vague. She murmured: “Oh, it must be thrilling to see the street railways in all these funny towns.” Funny towns! Huh! They made New York hustle. Christine’s mind was flabby. Yes, and her soft shining arms would become flabby too. He wanted — oh, a girl that was compact, cold-bathed.
As he plodded home the shivering fog that lay over him hid the future. What had he ahead? Lonely bachelorhood — begging mere boys at the club to endure a game of poker with him?
He became irritable in the office. He tried to avoid it. He was neither surprised nor indignant when he overheard Crackins confide to his own stenographer: “The old man has an ingrowing grouch. We’ll get him operated on. How much do you contribute, Countess? Ah, we thank you.”
He was especially irritable on a watery, bleary April day when every idiot in New York and the outlying districts telephoned him. He thought ill of Alexander Graham Bell. The factory wanted to know whether they should rush the Bangor order. He hadn’t explained that more than six times before. A purchasing agent from out of town called him up and wanted information about theater-ticket agencies and a tailor. The girl in the outside office let a wrong-number call get through to him, and a greasy voice bullied: “Is dis de Triumph Bottling Vorks? Vod? Get off de line! I don’t vant you! Hang up!”
“Well, I most certainly don’t want you!” snapped Bates. But it didn’t relieve him at all.
“Tr-r-r-r!” snickered the telephone bell.
Bates ignored it.
“Tr-r-r-r-. R-r-r-r! Tr-r-r-r!”
“Yeah!” snarled Bates.
“Sarah Pardee speaking.”
“Why — why, Emily! You sound busy, though. I won’t —”
“Wait! W-w-wait! For heaven’s sake! Is it really you? How are you? How are you? Terribly glad to hear your voice! How are you? We miss you —”
“Well, I do! Nobody to say good-night. Heard from Hyden; doing fine. Awfully glad. What — er — what —”
“Mr. Bates, will you take me out to dinner some time this week; or next?”
“Will you come tonight?”
“You have no engagement?”
“No, no! Expected to dine alone. Please come. Will you meet me — Shall we go up to the Belle Chic?”
“Please may we go to the Grand Royal again, and early, about six-thirty?”
“Of course. I’ll meet you in the lobby. Six-thirty. Good-by.”
He drew the words out lingeringly, but she cut him off with a crisp telephonic “G’-by.”
Afterward he called up an acquaintance and broke the dinner engagement he had had for four days. He lied badly, and the man told him about it.
In his idiotic, beatific glow it wasn’t for half an hour that the ugly thought crept grinning into his mind, but it persisted, squatting there, leering at him: “I wonder if she just wants me to get her another job?”
It served to quiet the intolerable excitement. In the Grand Royal lobby he greeted her with only a nod. . . . She was on time. Christine Parrish had a record minimum of twenty minutes late.
They descended the twisting stairs to the Firenze Room.
“Would you prefer the balcony or downstairs?” he said easily.
She had seemed unchanged. Above the same brown fur-trimmed coat, which he knew better than any other garment in the world, was the same self-contained inspection of the world. Standing on the stairs she caught the lapel of her coat with a nervous hand, twisted it, dropped her eyes, looked up pleadingly.
“Would I be silly if I asked for the same table we had before? We — oh, it’s good luck.”
“Of course we’ll have it.”
“That’s why I suggested dining early, so it wouldn’t be taken. I have something rather serious to ask your advice about.”
“Oh, not — not tragic. But it puzzles me.”
He was anxious as he followed her. Their table was untaken. He fussily took her coat, held her chair.
Her eyes became shrewdly clear again while he ordered dinner, and she said: “Will you please examine the crest on one of the forks?”
“Because you did last time. You were adorably absurd, and very nice, trying not to alarm the strange girl.”
He had obediently picked up a fork, but he flung it down and commanded: “Look here, what is this that puzzles you?”
Her hand drooping over the balcony rail by their table was visibly trembling. She murmured: “I have discovered that I am a woman.”
“I don’t quite —”
“I’ve tried to keep from telling you, but I can’t. I do — I do miss our good-nights and our lunches. I have done quite well at the Technical Syndicate, but I don’t seem to care. I thought I had killed all sentimentality in me. I haven’t. I’m sloppy-minded. No! I’m not! I don’t care! I’m glad.” A flush on her cheek like the rosy shadow of a wine glass on linen, she flung out: “I find I cared more for our silly games than I do for success. There’s no one across the way now to smile at me. There’s just a blank brick wall, with a horrible big garage sign, and I look at it before I go home nights. Oh, I’m a failure. I can’t go on — fighting — alone — always alone!”
He had caught both her hands. He was unconscious of waiters and other guests. But she freed herself.
“No! Please! Just let me babble. I don’t know whether I’m glad or sorry to find I haven’t any brains. None! No courage! But all I want — Will you dine with me once a month or so? Let me go Dutch —”
“Oh, my dear!”
“— and sometimes take me to the theater? Then I won’t feel solitary. I can go on working, and make good, and perhaps get over — Please! Don’t think I’m a Bernard Shaw superwoman pursuing a man. It’s just that — You were the first person to make me welcome in New York. Will you forgive —”
“Emily, please don’t be humble! I’d rather have you make me beg, as you used to.” He stopped, gasped and added quietly: “Emily, will you marry me?”
“But you said —”
“I know. I miss you. But you’re merely sorry for me. Honestly I’m not a clinger. I can stand alone — almost alone. It’s sweet of you, and generous, but I didn’t ask that. Just play with me sometimes.”
“But I mean it. Dreadfully. I’ve thought of you every hour. Will you marry me? Now!”
“How can I tell? A month ago I would have cut a girl who was so sloppy-minded that she would beg a man for friendship. I didn’t know! I didn’t know anything! But — No! No!”
“See here, Emily. Are you free? Can I depend on you? Are you still interested in young Simmons?”
“He calls on me.”
“Yes. That was when I discovered I was a woman. But not — not his woman!”
“Mine, then! Mine! Think, dear — it’s incredible, but the city didn’t quite get us. We’re still a man and a woman! What day is this? Oh, Wednesday. Listen. Thursday you go to the theater with me.”
“Friday you find an excuse and have to see someone at the Floral Heights Company, and you wave to me from across the street, so that my office will be blessed again; and we meet afterward and go to supper with my friends the Parrishes.”
“Saturday we lunch together, and walk clear through Van Cortlandt Park, and I become a masterful brute, and propose to you, and you accept me.”“Oh, yes, I suppose so. But that leaves Sunday. What do we do Sunday?”