The Folly of Others/Sophia
HE sat in the front row of the balcony, looking down upon the stage, where the four principals of the comic opera were singing more or less in tune, while the chorus was filing on from the wings. The scene was intended to present a dazzling medley of color, mostly red and yellow. The four principals wore Spanish costumes and the chorus, composed of about thirty ladies of varying age, weight and charm, was attired à la toreador. At the beginning of the performance the matter-of-fact man had looked to see if the names of the toreadors appeared on the programme, and, finding they did not, had dropped it under his feet. He now sat leaning forward, his damp overcoat reposing on the rail before him and his short-sighted eyes peering through glasses at the undulating choral ranks.
His name was Larkins, his occupation stenographer in a wholesale clothing house, his weekly wage eighteen dollars. In person he was short, rotund, slightly bald and of a general drab color, which extended even to his clothes and his second-day discouraged collar. His round face, light, blinking eyes, short, stubby upper lip and small chin presented an excessively meek aspect. Yet Mr. Larkins did not look as though he expected to inherit the earth, but rather as if he had resigned himself to being cut off with a shilling.
Fate had largely handicapped him in the matter of expression, but it was plain that his interest in the operatic performance was not enjoyment. Neither was it the interest of a critic, for Mr. Larkins could not tell one tune from another nor flat from sharp. It might be guessed that he did not pretend even to be a connoisseur of feminine beauty. Yet as the four principals now advanced to the footlights, with the chorus in solid ranks banking them up and marking time vigorously with their white-stockinged legs, Mr. Larkins blinked harder than ever and drew in his lower lip tightly.
He saw her plainly, even without opera glasses. She was the third on the right in the second row of the chorus. He had not recognized her at first glance, for excellent reasons. Besides the toreador costume, which exactly resembled that of the other twenty-nine chorus ladies, she wore a tightly curled blond wig and a very rosy bloom. Her dark eyes—they were her best point—had been so liberally blackened that they looked like two holes in her face. But Mr. Larkins recognized his wife. As long as the quartette prolonged its finale and the chorus kept on marking time, pedally and vocally, Mr. Larkins could see only the blond head, violent pink cheeks and black eyes of the third chorus lady on the right, second rank. But when the principals retired from the center of the stage and the chorus began to march and counter-march, wheel, chassé and execute demi-voltes, caracols and what not, all the time singing hard, Mr. Larkins was enabled to observe the harmony which existed between the blond wig and pink cheeks and the scarlet velvet bolero and sky-blue knickerbockers of the toreador. She wore a black Tam o' Shanter over one ear, a tight sash with gilt fringe, buckled shoes and white stockings generously gartered above the knee. Mr. Larkins had plenty of opportunity to observe these details, for in due turn the particular toreador upon whom his interest was concentrated marched six or seven times across the stage, just inside the footlights. She walked very erect, with one hand on her belt, where reposed a gilt knife, and with short, staccato steps in time to the lively music. She looked straight ahead, and her smile never varied, whether she sang high or low or wheeled right or left.
As she crossed the stage each time the eyes of Mr. Larkins followed her retreat, and if he noted the other toreadors at all it was as a standard of comparison. He perceived that this particular toreador was a little stouter than some and obviously older than others. He saw also that her fixed smile made wrinkles in the paint on her cheeks, though this effect was general among the chorus singers.
She did not look exactly at ease, Mr. Larkins thought. The juvenility of her make-up and dress emphasized a certain squareness of figure, a heaviness in setting down her heels, a general settled look. And those white stockings seemed actually to shiver. Mr. Larkins was acutely conscious, as he gazed, that he was middle-aged, and that Sophia was one year younger. He thought of her as he had been used to see her in the evenings, in a gray and blue flannel wrapper, sitting with her sewing or a paper novel in the dining-room of their Harlem flat. In those evenings he had dozed on the other side of the dining-room table, after first kicking off his slippers and laying a newspaper over his face. It had been fairly comfortable, Mr. Larkins thought—but it had never satisfied Sophia.
For one thing, she had never been able to buy clothes enough and she had had to make her own dresses, which Mr. Larkins dimly understood was in some way a grievous wrong. She had been fond of showy things and had always been embroidering or beading or frilling something when she sewed in the evenings. Mr. Larkins thought that the spangled toreador's jacket looked like the things she used to make.
Sophia had always been proud of her figure and her voice, justly, Mr. Larkins thought. He had admired his wife very much, but as nature had denied him the gift of expression, and also because he was a man, he was not able to tell her so often enough to satisfy her. Sophia had yearned for a wider field, or as she put it, she wanted a change. As a result the Harlem flat had been given up; Mr. Larkins was living in one boarding-house andin another. In plain words, words which Mr. Larkins shrank from and yet quite understood, his wife had left him. And since that time, three months ago, though he had accepted the change in his lot very quietly, even the aspect of this matter-of-fact man had changed to match. He had grown a little older, a little more neutral and ineffective. These signs, however, were not perceptible to his employers, while it is doubtful if Mr. Larkins himself, in his tri-weekly performance of the melancholy rite of shaving, had observed them. He had never been much given to observing himself, nor, in fact, to thinking any more than he was obliged in the course of his business. Thus it had never occurred to him to blame Sophia for the fact that he was less comfortable in the boarding-house than he had been in the flat. He had, however, thought a good deal about her, though she had declined to see him or to write to him, except to say that she was earning enough to live on. She still, however, accepted a third of his salary. She had started with a little money earned by sewing at home for a dressmaker of her acquaintance and a large stock of confidence in herself. Though she had never confessed as much to Mr. Larkins, he suspected her of an intention to become a prima donna. He wondered now if she liked the preliminary steps and if she enjoyed wearing the toreador's dress. Then he stole a glance at his neighbors on either side to see if they were impressed.
"Tough old lot, ain't they?" said a young man behind him, as the chorus filed by twos across the stage. Mr. Larkins's round face took on a slight brickdust tinge.
He sat the performance out patiently. After it was over he left the theatre and walked to Sixth Avenue, where he took an uptown car. He was thinking as he went along of stories he had heard of the stage-door and of suppers which ladies of the chorus had been said to partake. He wondered if any one, struck by Sophia's charms, might invite her to supper, and if so, whether she would go. He did not think she would, but was conscious of some uncertainty. Sophia in knee-breeches and a Tam o' Shanter might be capable of anything.
"Tough old lot," Mr. Larkins found himself repeating as he mounted the steps of his boarding-house. He sighed and opened the door with his latchkey. The lights were out, and he had to climb three flights of stairs to his hall bedroom, back. When he had got into the room, shut the door, lighted the gas and let down his folding-bed, there was a space of four feet square left in front of the bureau. Here Mr. Larkins began to undress, after putting his overcoat, damp with snow, on a chair, and his hat on the sham mantelpiece. By the time he had got to his collar, had taken it off, examined it, decided he could not wear it another day and thrown it on the closet floor, an unwonted sensation had forced itself upon him. He had not been hungry at this hour of the night since he could remember, for he was almost always asleep by ten, but the unwonted dissipation had had its effect.
With his coat and waistcoat off, Mr. Larkins paused. He knew too well that it was impossible to get anything to eat from the boarding-house larder, even supposing this larder to have contained anything. The alternative before him was to dress again and go out into the sleety night in search of a sandwich or a sausage and beer, or to go hungry to bed and run the risk of sleeplessness. A dull pang of regret for the Harlem flat communicated itself from Mr. Larkins's stomach to his heart. Sophia always had some sort of cake or crackers in the house.
The thought of Sophia, the flat and the cake dwelt in Mr. Larkins's mind, and he sat down on the edge of the bed to consider them. After a little another idea occurred to him—in good time, for the room was cold and his nose was turning blue. He rose and opened the bottom drawer of his bureau, where among some papers, photographs and a silk handkerchief or two reposed a pasteboard box, tied with a blue ribbon. Slowly Mr. Larkins untied the knots of the ribbon and opened the box. It contained two generous slices of dark fruit-cake, heavily frosted.
The cake was a trifle dry, perhaps, for it had been made eleven years, three months and some odd days before. In fact, it was a part of Mr. Larkins's wedding-cake. He hesitated some little time over it, reflecting that Sophia might inquire about it—some day. But then again—she might not. Meantime, hunger was a positive fact, sleeplessness a contingent probability. Mr. Larkins reflected that he might be late at the office, or in case he lost his sleep he might make errors in his work. Again, if he went out he was liable to catch cold.
He ate the cake, therefore, solemnly, down to the last crumb, and put the empty box back in the drawer. As he did so, Mr. Larkins, though he was not an imaginative man, found the eyes of a certain photograph fixed upon him, and in his middle-aged solitude he blushed. If Sophia should ever find it out? Women were queer, and Sophia—Sophia was so romantic.
"I'll tell her the mice ate it," resolved Mr. Larkins guiltily, as he turned out the gas.