The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 16

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3660710The Breath of Scandal — Chapter 16Edwin Balmer


MARJORIE set out for Clearedge Street before nine the next morning and, determined to make this expedition wholly as a free agent, she left home on foot and took the elevated train cityward from Evanston. For five or six miles she gazed from the car window down upon pleasant, rectangular back yards with fresh, green grass and occasional spots of yellow crocus and with budding lilac and bridal wreath bushes set against the rear and sides of seven and eight and nine-room houses of brick and frame and stucco, with garages associated; and now and then there came into sight larger, and usually older, dwellings of ten or twelve rooms, with wider lawns and gardens.

Red and yellow and dun flat buildings loomed here and there; even in Evanston were blocks of apartments, but the flat did not prevail. Most of the Evanston apartments, and most of those in the northern fringe of Chicago, were of six rooms or larger, and they offered sufficient space physically to permit, if they could not be said to foster, an approximation of the "home" life which Marjorie considered normal. But soon, not only the green back yards and the lilac-girt houses disappeared, but also the six-room, six-flat semidetached structures ran into solid blocks of smaller, residential suites side by side in uniform strata. What back yards these buildings boasted were preëmpted by newly washed sheets, pillow cases and underwear and stockings flapping in the April breeze; for though the day was Thursday, these people honored the tradition of Monday wash day more in the breach than in the observance; and necessarily, as they were obliged to take turns—or paid persons for them took their turns—at the washtubs in the basements above which, seriatim, they dwelt.

"Wilson Avenue!" the guard called when the train next slowed and, in a minute, Marjorie was down on the street in the midst of the most ultra-modern and challenging, the most ominous or the most hopeful—according to your point of view—but at any rate, by far the most prophetic section of Chicago, and that one with which Marjorie Hale, by her birth and upbringing, was least equipped to cope.

Almost within her own memory—and well within the clear recollection of her mother—Wilson Avenue was a country road with patches of woods and wide, meadowy vacant lots, swampy in wet weather, where violets and strawberries, "cat-tails" and black-eyed Susans grew wild on the edges of the grass lawns surrounding the first, suburban homes of Sheridan Park. The old steam branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad—a twelve-mile spur from the Chicago Union Station to Evanston—had small occasion to halt its commutation trains there. Neighboring to the south, and cityward, was the little suburban settlement of Buena Park, where the children of Eugene Field's verse were growing up and girding themselves for their redoubtable defense of the Waller lot. Old American families lived here, and where the trains stopped at Argyle Park and Edgewater, a few miles further out from the city and where Corinna Winfield had lived before she married Charles Hale, were other families of Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York State upbringing and tradition and, particularly, from such old Puritan towns as Salem. The impulse of the pioneer as well as the blood of the Puritan descended to them who built their separated, independent homes and preferred few neighbors and feared not the coming of children. In one house the caller would see the sword of a Sheridan cavalryman in its sheath on the wall; in the next, where the father had been too young to have ridden in the Shenandoah, the Harvard oar which he had pulled against Yale hung over the hall mantel. These people thought in terms of American families of English descent in Chicago and Boston and New York; it was the age when Mrs. Potter Palmer reigned in Chicago society and when to be received at the castellated Palmer mansion on Lake Shore Drive was the proof of position; when the Chicago newspapers boasted of triumphant marriages of Chicago girls to English noblemen and heralded that the leader of Chicago society was received at the English court and was entertained at English castles. This all supplied to girls like Corinna Winfield, on the fringe of Chicago "society," a perfectly definite and orderly scheme of social advancement, starting from where you were and progressing through acquaintanceship with older and more established families here, through older families in Newport and New York and on to England. She was simply following this scheme when she married Charles Hale, a young man not of superior social position but certain to be more successful than her own father and certain to be able, with her, to win higher place; and this was the scheme of life which consciously, or subconsciously, underlay every effort in Marjorie's upbringing and in accordance with which Corinna Hale had moved the family to Evanston. For, from her point of view, which she also made Marjorie's, the old section of suburban homes north and south of Wilson Avenue was being "ruined."

The trouble was that the immigrants crowding Chicago—the Italians, Bohemians, Swedes and Danes, Germans, Ruthenians, Croatians, Poles, Magyar, Irish, French, Jews—the vigorous, vital, enterprising peoples who a generation ago supplied you with servants, laborers, bootblacks and tradesmen and who kept themselves conveniently and picturesquely in foreign colonies, "slums" and ghettos, were forgetting their proper "place." For their children were growing up; and these new Americans felt small need for the old-world associations to which their fathers, feeling themselves at a disadvantage in a strange land, had clung, comforted by the sound of their native speech and encouraged by papers printed in the old language. These were the children who had learned American in the public schools and, for the most part, refused to speak their fathers' tongue; eagerly they fitted themselves for and boldly entered trades, businesses and professions never aspired to by their fathers; they succeeded, mixed again and met and married outside their own race and struck out for the American community which lay along the lake north of the city.

To accommodate them, an elevated railroad, with electric trains running at intervals of minutes, paralleled the rusty rails of the old suburban spur and, instead of slighting Wilson Avenue, it made a terminal in a meadow there; and upon the old American families, each in its separate home at intervals along the oak-wooded shore, the Chicago melting-pot began to pour. To the end of those elevated rails also traveled boys and girls and husbands and wives come to Chicago from Frankfort, Manistee and a hundred other little towns up the Michigan shore; from Lafayette, De Kalb, Ottumwa, Lincoln and LaCrosse and the thousand other little cities and villages of the surrounding States. These may actually predominate in the present population of Wilson Avenue but, in so far as their tradition is that of the American pioneer in his isolated, independent home, dark and quiet at an early hour of night, they have exchanged it for the more delightful customs of the new Americans, bred in the city, whose inherited instinct is a composite not of Anglo-Saxon frontier rigors but of continental reflexes brought from centuries lived in European walled towns. They built up the modern Wilson Avenue,—and by "Wilson Avenue" the Chicagoan means a wide district north and south, which the actual avenue bisects from the lake west,—making it the exaltation, not of the kitchen and the sitting room, but of the inn and the street; not of the sewing room and the meetinghouse, but of the shop and the theater.

Marjorie Hale could thrill to the gayness, the lilt and élan of such life when she met it in Paris on the Rue de Rivoli and the Boulevard des Italiens, in Brussels on Boulevard Adolph Max and when she found it in Milan, in Prague and Rome. The "continental" abroad pleased and exhilarated her; but here in Chicago, where people were so aptly learning the art of living in a city, it offended her; for her Chicago should be a sort of transplanted New England and these people, seizing on a section which satisfactorily had been progressing before, were transforming it into new almost-anything-else. They disregarded all her conceptions of social advancement; they not only failed to understand the scheme to which she had been born, but they seemed even to be unaware of its existence in their absorption in ends and aims of their own toward which they were striving by rules they were making for themselves.

Of course, Marjorie did not think this out; it reached her through feelings as she responded, in spite of herself, to the allure and exuberance of the smart display in the shop windows, to the enlivenment of a splendid theater front and the luxuriance of a tea room which would have been the envy of her Rumpelmeyer's of the Rue de Rivoli. They all were new as, in that neighborhood where twenty-five years have heaped values of millions upon the meadows of violets and black-eyed Susans, everything is to-day's and to-morrow's creation. Nothing which was conspicuous either obviously possessed a past or—by imitation of old architecture—brooded on the past of other places. The people apparently brooded not at all on their pasts, whatever they might have been.

It was morning, and though these streets are not at their best early in the day, Marjorie was sensitive to the animation of the people passing her; and she was particularly unwilling to feel energized by them, especially by the girls and the women from nowhere that she knew and headed to nothing that she could discern. But too undeniably they possessed something which she and her own friends, who fitted into her scheme of things, had not; they displayed positive qualities which—to their minds, at least—not only compensated for whatever lacks she might find but which endowed them with a sensation of a certain advantage of her, as they noticed her. It irritated Marjorie that they recognized her instantly as different from themselves and, by a glance, could set her apart from them,—and not above them; not obviously below them, either. They seemed to Marjorie—these girls, living in flats and hotels and rented rooms, in restaurants and cafeterias, many of whom were on their way to work—to strike a sort of balance in their valuations of Marjorie and themselves, conceding to her traits they had not and conscious of their possession of an attribute she wanted.

She could not define it, but it was something freer, certainly, and something which engendered confidence; Marjorie felt she had never been in the atmosphere of such aggressive confidence. It was in her attempt to reassert her own superiority that she thought again, definitely, of Mrs. Russell and reminded herself that it was on a street a little farther along that Mrs. Russell lived. It was not until the instant later that Marjorie aggregated with this the fact that her father also had been involved there.

She turned to Clearedge Street and as she neared Mrs. Russell's number, she felt her feet and her hands become light and unsteady in her excitement; she could not think now what she was doing or recall even the exact details of the procedure she had planned during the night. Though she was on the odd-number side of the street, she crossed over to the opposite walk to look up at the third-floor apartment. A woman, or some one, was behind the curtains, Marjorie was sure, as she abruptly recrossed the street and entered the vestibule where Billy and she had rung and waited so long.

White daylight was now illuminating the cream and pale-green tiling and the glass-paneled inner door with the pale-green curtain at which she had stared under the yellow glow of the electric bulb that night. There was the row of three brass-lipped letter boxes with the buttons beside them, with the cards of the tenants of the first and second floor and, on top, the card with the name of Mrs. Russell. The sight made Marjorie sicken, but she pressed the third button.

Almost immediately—in contrast with that night—the buzzer at the lock announced that the catch was being released and she pushed open the door and climbed the stairs up which Billy and Gregg and she had run. But her sensations now suddenly jumped from repeating her terrors of that night; and she thought of her father treading this stair carpet on previous occasions, sometimes with Mrs. Russell beside him—doubtless—and sometimes arriving alone; and her mind attacked wretched details such as whether he carried a key to the door below and to that ahead or whether he had always rung to be admitted.

The door at the top swung back when Marjorie reached the third floor and, catching breath as she looked in, she confronted a large, competent-looking matron of gray-haired fifty.

"Come in!" this woman instantly invited and Marjorie entered and let the matron close the door. Marjorie glanced toward the bedroom where her father had been carried after he was shot; for a moment she was in the grip of her emotions when she found him there unconscious and apparently dying; then they let go of her and her mind, without bidding, jumped again.

"Who are you?" she demanded of the woman.

"Who did you come to see?" the matron returned. There was almost nothing distinctive about her; just woman, about a hundred and sixty pounds in a brown, "stout" size, ready-made suit; broad sensible shoes; big hands, clean but marked by work. Her face was commonplace, except for a little more set to her mouth than ordinary and a bit of glint of I'm-used-to-relying-on-myself in her gray eyes. On second glance, those eyes did not seem to Marjorie to accord with the rest of her at all.

"Is Mrs. Russell here?" Marjorie asked her.

"No; who shall I say called?"

"Mrs. Russell still lives here?"


"Then I'll come back," Marjorie announced, staring about. There was the desk in which she had discovered her father's picture and the letters from him; she could breathe the close air here no longer. She flung back the entrance door and stepped out, the woman making not the slightest objection.

Not until she was again on the street and had fled some distance away from that building did Marjorie connect her impressions of the woman sufficiently to become convinced that the matron was no mere friend of Mrs. Russell's nor co-tenant nor was she in the apartment on any ordinary employment. She was a sort of sentinel, Marjorie was sure, waiting for some one not a girl like Marjorie Hale.

Looking up, she noticed a sign on the front of a six-flat building—or a structure which originally must have been six-apartments—which proclaimed:

"Rooms to rent; also rooms with bath and kitchenette."

Marjorie halted and then started up the short walk toward the entrance, but the effect of her call at Mrs. Russell's was too strong upon her; she merely noted the number on Clearedge and went on. Farther along were similar signs, and the streets crossing Clearedge and parallel to it supplied her a dozen addresses. The second step of her purpose for this morning should lead her directly into one of these apartments, but she welcomed the sight of a real-estate agent's sign to give her excuse for delay.

It was a large, square office room which she entered, with a cashier's cage on one side near the gold-lettered plate-glass window, and on the other, behind a counter, a row of desks with men seated before them, each desk bearing a little brass standard displaying a "Mr." somebody-or-other. From the second desk, a light-haired, thin-featured man of about twenty-five—presumably "Mr. Dantwill"—arose languidly and, slightly adjusting his bow tie in his soft collar while he looked over Marjorie, he advanced to the counter.

"Room to rent?" he repeated after her question, evidently desiring a moment's more time to estimate the purposes of this applicant. "We do not list rooms to rent; but we have buildings with single-room apartments."

"What's the difference between a room and a single-room apartment?" inquired Marjorie, unexpectedly amused.

Mr. Dantwill's calm, pale blue eyes continued to regard her serenely. "Single-room apartments run from sixteen dollars weekly up."

"Up?" said Marjorie, ceasing to smile. "How far, please?"

"I guess we can accommodate you," Mr. Dantwill rejoined with composure, "any distance."

Marjorie laughed and glanced at her list of addresses. "Would you be good enough to give me some idea as to whether these are rooms, please, or single-room apartments?"

He took her memorandum. "You seem to have listed rooms, chiefly," he announced and smiled, evidently feeling a smile was indicated; with equal willingness to fit his expression to an occasion, he would have groaned, Marjorie felt. He glanced up and down her once more with complete dispassion and then, looking behind him as though to make sure no one else was watching, he asked, "Do you want to know about some of these?"

Marjorie nodded, diverted by this narrow-faced young man who had the air of one so aged in experience.

"All right," said Mr. Dantwill and, picking up a pencil, with sudden force he drew it through the fourth address she had written; then he drew the pencil back through it, raised the point to his lips, wet it, and vehemently leaded over her writing.

Marjorie felt herself flushing hotly when he looked up at her. The number, she remembered, was on Clearedge Street about two blocks from Mrs. Russell's flat; what would Mr. Dantwill have done—she wondered—if she had brought to him the number 4689? What was the matter at this number he had so emphatically obliterated? Something worse than the matter at 4689? Well, what was worse?

"Thank you very much," she whispered to Mr. Dantwill and abruptly recovering her list, she turned and left the office.

For suddenly she realized that, by erasing that address, Mr. Dantwill had told her exactly what she wanted—though she had not been conscious of the want. For she had approached Mr. Dantwill, in the ordinary way, to learn from him which was the best place on her list; but she did not want to go to the best; she wanted to go to a place not recommended, if she was to end her epoch of protection during which she had been kept so ignorant of life that she not only had failed to suspect the secret of her father's but had utterly failed to comprehend it when, by accident, she had discovered it.

And she realized that Mr. Dantwill, in obliterating that address through which she might meet knowledge of the forbidden, was continuing what men had been doing to her all her life,—protecting her, keeping her from what they knew and would not have her know. But here she was because she meant, now, to know; so surely the most stupid act possible was for her to step from her protected home to another protected and approved shelter merely in another locality.

From the sidewalk, glancing back through the plate glass, she saw Mr. Dantwill still at the counter and gazing after her, although another woman was standing before him and trying to get his attention; and Marjorie hurried on.

Retracing her way to Clearedge Street, she found the forbidden number to be—as she recollected—a six-apartment building, recently made over into the sort of hostelry which, in France, Marjorie would have denominated a pension. Here in Chicago she did not know what to call it; evidently it was not exactly a hotel, neither was it a boarding house. If she did not know what to name it, neither did its proprietor seem to; for it bore no designation at all on the front except the street number and the sign "Rooms to Rent." Inside the door was nothing but the ordinary flat vestibule with six letter boxes surviving from the epoch when but six families domiciled the premises; but five of the card spaces were empty and in the sixth was the name "J. A. Cordeen."

A bell was below this, but Marjorie did not ring, for the door to the hall stood wide and, inside, was open a door to the front room on the right which, from its position and decoration, evidently had once been the "living room" of the first floor flat south, but now, from its furniture, was a sort of office.

Marjorie walked in.

A "day bed" of the familiar pseudo-couch pattern was against the wall directly opposite the door; beside it was a row of neat, mahogany drawers, quite as suggestive of domestic as of any business use and giving Marjorie the impression that upon occasions, if not customarily, some one slept in this room; but filing cabinets in mahogany—which almost covered the spot on the wall paper where an upright piano had once stood—a telephone and a large mahogany roll-top desk, with its back to the door, created the office atmosphere. At the desk was sitting a trim, alert-looking red-haired woman of about forty. She did not look up at once but finished reading a typewritten letter which she held; she placed it with her other mail and, when she glanced up, it was with a complete dismissal of what she had been doing and with a wholeness of attention to the fresh matter in hand which made Marjorie appreciate that, whatever else this woman might be, she attended to business first.

"I've come to see about a room," Marjorie addressed her.

The woman's glance over her applicant was quick but amazingly comprehensive; Marjorie felt not only her clothing estimated but a shrewd guess made at her underclothing; not only the new cleanness of her gloves observed but the fact that, upon her gloved fingers, she wore no rings.

"Single or double?"

"Single, please," said Marjorie, meeker before this woman than she meant to be. "You're Mrs. Cordeen?"

"I'm Jen Cordeen," the woman replied as though, if Marjorie knew anything about the neighborhood, she must know her; so instantly Jen Cordeen discerned that Marjorie was certainly a stranger. "Where're you from?"

"Evanston," Marjorie replied truthfully before she thought; but Jen Cordeen did not press for more personal details; she was all incisiveness and action; she had a broad, capable face, firm and not unpleasing, and white, slightly separated teeth; she had a firm, healthy looking body with strong, well-developed shoulders and evident busts and small hips constrained under her tailored skirt. Her hair, contrasting with her clear, almost white skin, was of that henna shade of red which generally goes with energy, and the hue of her hair was, Marjorie thought, natural; probably she had darkened her brows but, perhaps, naturally they were of that deep, lustrous red. It would have been difficult to find a more vital contrast to the languid Mr. Dantwill, who had crossed out Jen Cordeen's address, but her reaction, like his, seemed to be to refrain from gratuitous questionings.

She picked up a couple of keys and Marjorie noticed with admiration her capable, broad hands.

"Come upstairs," she said and led Marjorie up the center flight of carpeted stairs to the second floor where two closed doors confronted them.

Jen Cordeen unlocked the one to the north which, originally, must have communicated with a living room similar in dimensions to the present office on the other side below; but here a partition had been built in, blocking off the room from the entrance door so as to permit use of the inside hall without entering the front room. There was a door through the partition toward the front and Jen Cordeen, opening this, displayed a clean and attractive room with twin mahogany four-poster beds close together, a woman's dressing table and a man's dressing stand, two wardrobes and two chairs and a bookcase, empty. It had a blue imitation Chinese rug in good condition and heavy, expensive paper on the walls,—a tapestry-like paper of good design with gray herons standing in pale brown grasses. The three windows, all in the front, faced west over the street.

"I have this one double; I have one single—third floor, this side, that used to be a maid's room," Jen Cordeen said, making it plain by her tone that she would not waste time by showing this caller the single room.

"How much is this room?" Marjorie asked.

"Fifteen a week for two. There's a bath," Jen Cordeen half opened the door and displayed it. "Have you got a friend?"


"I've got a girl who's been waiting for some one to split this room with her. She asked if anybody else came single to let her know. Her name——" she hesitated for a fraction of a second, "is Clara Seeley. Looked like a real nice girl; she's demonstrating here this week, she said. You'll find her at the drug store, two blocks that way, one down."

The idea of rooming with a girl to be found here startled Marjorie when first put to her so calmly; but, for the purpose which brought her here, how could she start better than by making a friend at once? What harm, at any rate, in looking at Clara Seeley?

Arranging with Jen Cordeen to "hold" the room for half an hour, Marjorie went to the drug store described to her.

It was, as are most of the extraordinary establishments which we still call drug stores, an emporium for a multitude of wares far more conspicuous than medicines and to-day the most conspicuous, beyond any rivalry, was face powder. For, in a sort of booth, arranged just within a front window, a dark-haired, handsome girl, with a remarkably well developed figure displayed in a tight, black, knitted dress, was "demonstrating."

When Marjorie had worked her way into the circle about the window, she looked at the girl before paying attention to what she was doing. She had such marvelous hair, for one attraction; black, it was, of the most living, healthy hues of black Marjorie had ever seen; her brows were as black as her long, beautiful lashes. Her eyes, too, seemed black before she looked up; but that was because the pupils were large; now they contracted and Marjorie saw the iris was of the clearest and warmest and softest of browns. Her skin was smooth and soft-looking and clear and dark, where she had left it free from powder; she was an Italian, Marjorie thought at this first glance at her; for she had the almost perfect symmetry of oval face and the delicate bowing of full-blooded lips which one sees in a beautiful Italian girl. But she was taller than an Italian was likely to be and, in the breadth of her cheek bones and also in her shoulders, were marks of a larger race; and her manner did not make Marjorie class her with Italians. She had a bold, easy-going, amused air which the crowd found attractive as they watched her polish her perfect, oval nails with paste from a pink box; from an elaborate jar she scooped cold cream to rub on her cheek; she rubbed it off, almost immediately, with conspicuous completeness, and applied powder—and she smiled with those delicate, dark lips showing flashes of white, perfect teeth. She was fascinating when she smiled and looked at one as she did at Marjorie with an "amused at me? Well, I don't mind" air. She was remarkable, too, in that, when repeating her demonstration, she never made a single move mechanically or appeared bored; she began it again with eagerness, like an artist, with grace and enthusiasm always fresh for each new circle of spectators.

"I'm not amused at you," Marjorie wanted to say when the girl, noticing that she remained, gazed at her again. "I want to ask you to room with me," Marjorie completed to herself; and then the Marjorie Hale, who was the daughter of Corinna Winfield Hale, reasserted herself. "Are you mad, planning to invite a girl out of a drug-store window to share a room with you?"

Yet, if the room was to be at that forbidden address of Jen Cordeen's, who better to have for your first friend than this smiling, I-take-care-of-myself girl in this window? Did she know what was the matter with Jen Cordeen's, Marjorie wondered, and was she meaning to take a room there, anyway? Or had no Mr. Dantwill warned her?

The girl, having again rubbed off the cream from her face and applied powder, gazed straight at Marjorie once more and smiled as if to say, "All right; you're welcome to more amusement from if want it." And Marjorie had either to go on or to go in and explain; so, after another moment, she went in and took her first opportunity to talk to Clara Seeley.

Of course Marjorie did not begin with direct overtures about Jen Cordeen's; she started only with casual words about face creams; but Clara Seeley discerned that she was interested in more than cosmetics; and Marjorie liked her for her discernment and the way she showed it when gradually, as though both were interested in powders and cold creams, Clara Seeley drew her off to a quiet part of the store.

"What's the matter?" Clara demanded then practically and directly. "Say, was I makin' some play I couldn't realize from my side of the window? Something you sort-a want to tell me? If that's so, shoot; I want to know; you can't hurt my feelin's."

"Oh, no," Marjorie denied.

"Then it must be somethin' 'bout yourself. Say, you're down here without carfare; or the bottom's dropped out the family safe-deposit box and father can't put up no more margins and you're lookin' over demonstratin' as a job."

"That's nearer it," Marjorie confessed, liking this girl for her warmth as well as her quickness. And she thought as they stood there and talked, if she required at present a home under conditions new and different, here surely was a girl about as opposite as possible to herself; yet here was a girl who, if directness of eyes on yours and steadiness of lip meant anything, was straight as any girl Marjorie Hale knew.

When Marjorie imagined any of her own friends standing, as she had stood, in Mrs. Russell's flat and later in Rinderfeld's office, asking why her father had done as he had, Marjorie could imagine them only stunned as she had been, and she could imagine Rinderfeld treating them only as he had treated her. But she could not imagine this Clara Seeley as so stunned, or Rinderfeld or any other man treating her like a child. Marjorie had never before thought what distinguished such a girl from herself; but she thought now, "She's one who knows and who's always known what's been kept from me." And she thought if she searched all the city, she could not find a better companion than this girl for her exploration.

An hour and a half later, entering her father's home in Evanston with receipt in her pocket for one week's rent in advance for half of Room 12, signed by J. A. Cordeen—receipt for the other half of Room 12 reposing in the pocket of the skin-tight, black, knitted dress of Clara Seeley, wiping cold cream from her face before an admiring group at a drug-store window—Marjorie Hale inquired for her mother and learned that she had gone out; her father, of course, was in. He was having a remarkably good day and had been dressed for an hour; he was not resting, for Martin had heard him telephoning a minute or so ago.

Marjorie could ask for no better opportunity; so she went to her room only to leave her hat and gloves and to straighten herself a little before knocking at her father's door.