Simple Heart

“Kiss me, kid, I’m thirsty.” At the next table a girl let fall some white garments, which she folded with a prodigious effort, and offered in response two very wide and penitential eyes. The remark was not addressed to her. “Go on. Billie,” said the girl implied; “your face looks like a sore foot.” And a young man from the College, who came twice a week for his laundry, swung out of the door, bundle in hand, and whistled him self away. All the girls in the laundry, excepting the new one, just arrived, adored Billie and thought his manner quite distinguished. Certainly he is a nice man, reasoned they; for he always has a great deal of clothes to do. In any case, he was a gentleman ; and it was the common aim among the girls to attract, if not to ensnare him. Sadie, giving out the bundles at the first table, had obviously done both. Next to Sadie, on this particular morning, a stranger had taken the table, and was now at work folding the white clothing. Awkward enough at her task, the girls found her also unable to reciprocate the incidental pleasantries of the place. She could not sing, for example; nor could she talk. She is idiotic, they said. Rude questionings had evinced her idiocy, as well as that her name was Margery. Margery had come from the country, where she worked at things unmention able in this polite society ; and her name was reminiscent of nursery rhymes, which might be shrilled into her ear at any moment. The first morning fixed her place ; she was literally the Incumbrance. Thus, at the very outset, she was fated to be’unhappy. Phlegmatic and bulging, she could not move with alacrity, and drew epithets without end. Her dress, which probably would change later, was a single piece, buttoning in the back, down to the waist. It was red. Her speech, taught by the country folk, set her aside for mockery ; and so bewildered was she at the odd sayings hurled at her, that she left off speaking altogether. Presently they called her a goody-goody, and said she would make all her dates in heaven. To save herself, she worked incessantly, and did more than the most skilled of them.

 

But while she confessed to extraneous circumstances in her past life, she refused the intimate side; for she dreaded their derision, and hated their great guffaws of laughter. Her face told a few things, however. You might imagine, to look upon her great eyes, washed out by waters of blue, that now they did not shine so brightly as they used. By reproaching the girl, and looking hard at her, you might have read something of character in the way her eyelids hung tremulous, and sought to hide the blue-gray beneath, which chilled like ponds of water. Her astute companions learned soon enough that she was half-witted, but very delicate, unaccountably sensitive, and peculiar to the point of interest. At the sight of mixed candy, she always grew sick. By the end of a week she could stand it no longer. She spoke to the head man, and he said she worked mighty well ; she must continue. Back among the mawkish great, she vainly tried to think of a way to escape the jibes and insults, and ended by going to Sadie. Both girls lived at the same sorry house; both of them got six dollars each week, working side by side. But Sadie had made such a vital conquest in Billie that she could afford to be generous to the unhappy girl, especially when the flattery of confidences inspired her. She listened to all that the new girl had to say, and then gave vent to advice. “Come out of the stiff ; that’s the game, kid. Knock off your fine way of leadin’ the holy life. Too good for fun! R-r-r! What’s the use lettin’ everything get your goat. And here’s another tip.” “Yes,” said Margery. “You ought to put on a few decent clothes; slick up a little.” Rent cost them each three dollars at the end of every week. “You got to have a gentleman, like I’ve got,” continued Sadie. “Get on to some nice man like Billie — oh, kid, he’s got the cash ! — and you can dress swell then all right.” At all events, Margery had a friend in Sadie, but not one to raise mortals to the sky, and Margery might be dragged down. From Sadie she learned many instructive things ; how girls perform in certain exigencies, when and where. Also she learned that successful girls, in the long run, are no better than the opposite sex, and sometimes are necessarily worse. All these things were incomprehensible to Mar- gery. Vainly wondering, in the vacuity of her mind, she liked to hear of things disreputable that she might be glad to have escaped them; and she infinitely preferred her place of poverty, jeers, mock ery, and such hells, before a sacrifice of her soul to any commerce of virtue and vice. Not appetant by nature, being sluggish and half witted, nor lusting after the fine gowns of her companions, she wil fully chose thus further to alienate herself. Some may have admired her sort of stellar virtue, and pitied, while they tortured ; but with the poor exception, Sadie, she had no friends. There came into her life, however, another human element. It seems there is no simplicity or innocence which can escape affection, and now the passion began to burn in Margery. On the memorable day she had first heard the voice of Billie, calling upon Sadie for a kiss, she had trembled and was interested. Interest grew to wonder, to love. Billie was cavalier in spirit and dress, robust, physically magnetic, and withal very charming — such an one, in truth, whose presence intoxicates the frivolous. And Billie, without much trouble, managed to indulge their frivolities. Margery was not man-intoxicated like the rest of them ; it was the one Billie, incomparable, unmatchable, who gathered her unlettered affections. He came in the mornings, sometimes quite early, but more often late ; and Margery knew of his coming by the whistle he made, or the exotic sound of his car. Yet one thing distressed her. She had never spoken with Billie; he had not even watched her at work. Talking to Sadie, he would glance casually over the envious and eager ones about, and see none of them. While he chatted near her table, Margery cared only to see and hear him ; but, as time went on, she yearned secretly for recog nition. She began to plan, in her artless way, how she might accom plish this. In the days before, she had stood quite still in his presence, with difficulty able to breathe, and indefinably afraid. Now she would lift her pieces of white clothing till he looked ; or she would cough, and perhaps sing a little, if she dared. Billie came and went, but her courage ever failed her. Looking at him with a sort of passioned wonderment, her eyes fell when he seemed about to look her way. And it was all so foolish and impossible that she forsook the project.

 

Sometimes, during the interminable work-hours, she saw him pass, and pass upon the street. Once he looked in — but at Sadie — smiled, and hurried along. This was curious ; for the day before, and not very far away, she had seen Billie with a strange girl who had bright red lips. Of course it might mean, after all, that he did not care very much for Sadie. So she kept it a secret, and thought it over a long while. When Sadie beset her, in moments of unfriendli ness, she smiled and felt herself less culpable. About this time the girls observed a change in Margery. No longer did her face burn to crimson when they sang round her, or said their very worst. The stupid girl! Was she crazy? Often, when they watched her, nodding one to the other, they found her idle; if not idle, aimless in her movements. And they noticed, too, an evanes cent smile which lifted the corners of her drooping mouth ; they de tected her humming softly always the same monotone, and one which they did not know. In answer to questions, she spoke foolishly, evasively. The girls pointed to their heads, therefore, and agreed mu tually about the matter. Within, however, Margery suffered ; but it seemed quite the natural thing for her to suffer, though obtusely she felt the injustice of it. What seemed idiocy, in these moments, was in reality only a doltish sort of day-dreaming. She dreamed of Billie. In a flummerish manner, she had idealized him; and, sinking into a comatose state, she ruminated upon his last word, upon his last gesture and sound. He was a college man, she knew ; and although she had never seen his, nor any other college, she fancied he must know a great deal. How much, she often wondered, and tried to name studies he probably pursued. Sadie, she now recalled, had said he was to become a writer, and make books. Margery had read a few books, but that was before she came to the city ; and she could write a little, too, such trifles as a letter, for instance, but not books, not books.

 

One day Billie stood talking with Sadie, holding a small pad in his hand. He wrote in it with a pen ; and then he looked, as she thought, directly at herself. Her own eyes, at the time, were fast upon him, and she nearly fainted. Clutching the table she heard him say, “That’s a pretty skirt.” The remark was answered by a shrill laugh which Margery did not hear.

 

For days after, amid the whirr of drying-tubs and the knocking of machinery, Margery worked at a tremendous speed, absorbed in Billie’s confession. Pretty ! She had not dreamed it, no one had ever told her that before; but then no one was ever like Billie. When, during the toilful hours, she chanced upon any part of his clothing, she handled it with an overweening care, and imagined that, if he knew, he would like her ever so much more for it. Neither the clamor of the laundry, which rose perpetually, nor the screams of its jaded and jolly inmates, shot like fires to hurt her, could quite obliterate the memory of this precious behest. Pretty ! She dreamed of it at night ; and in the evenings at home — such as they were — gradually her eyes would lose their clear vision of the naked room, of the enfilading street. Recovering with effort, she would slip to the bureau, and from a little wicker basket take a crumpled handkerchief. It was one of Billie’s own, and his name was sewed into the hem. Weeks before, when two cars had crashed at the corner, and all the girls had swarmed to see, she stole it from* the incoming laundry. Now she looked upon it tenderly, confused that he himself had used it, and that the creases there had been made by his own hand. Two weeks after Billie’s confession, which Margery accepted as final, she stood folding the white garments at her table, when she heard a low voice calling her name. Trembling, she knew it was Billie. In a moment, close beside, she found her eyes fixed upon him; she could look, but in a kind of daze. He was smiling. “Sadie’s knocked me down to you,” he said. “How’s every thing?” Having no idea what he meant, she answered at random; for she knew how she ought to talk — she had listened a long time.

 

“All right — kid.” The last word caught in her throat. Billie looked into immense blue eyes. He looked at Sadie, who at once put an arm round the girl. There was nothing said. But in the back of the room they were singing: “And when I walk, I always walk Billie laughed, and opened his mouth to sing, but refrained when he looked back at Margery. She stood, flaccid and impervious to all etiquette, staring at him with meaningless eyes.

 

“Want to go canoeing, kid?” asked Billie. “Oh,” replied Margery, with a voice that shivered. “To-morrow night at — say at seven. Got me?” “Oh,” said Margery again, with a quick intake of breath. “The kid’ll be ready,” interposed Sadie, “I’ll rig her up.” Margery said little, she could not paddle, and it was left for Billie to do both. She reclined, facing him, so that she might watch the tendinous play of his fore arms, and better listen to his speech. Billie asked her many questions, which confused her, and some of them he asked over again; but Margery was too awed, too ineffably happy, to get beyond monosyllabic answers. Besides, she was not able to answer many of them. When they returned, Sadie waited for them in Margery’s room. Billie nodded his head. After this, the girls noticed that Billie came more often to the laundry. He began dropping in at odd moments, and always, when he came, he smiled to Margery and spoke a word or two. It was whispered in jeering tones that she had found a lover. The whispers seemed to confirm the one undying hope of the girl’s life. She acquiesced mutely, only to be laughed at for her presumption. Then, to hurt her further, they told it to Sadie. They must have lied ; for she came and swore at Margery, swore with all her might, and refused to speak with her thereafter. But within Margery’s simple heart faith had come to stay, and she believed utterly in Billie, though he merely spoke to her and smiled. The poor girl was at first struck down by the desertion of Sadie. It left her evenings, which sometimes had been quite happy ones with Sadie, all a void. So she locked herself in alone, and tried to find solace in Billie’s affection for her. She thought she could read love in his eyes, and also, did he not come very often to the laundry? To the simple girl, no more proof than this was needed; it was absolute; and she lived in secret ecstacies, satisfied with his love from afar.

 

Yet when she saw him come and stand for hours, it seemed”, talking to Sadie, her heart misgave her, and bled with agony. Surely, if Billie loved her. even half so much as she loved, he would come and talk to her, take her out again, and maybe let her try to paddle. She remembered, in the tenebrous void of her mind, that girls were always taken to places when they had lovers. Some times — oh, often — she knew that Sadie was talking to him about herself. What could she be saying? It must be something bad. In her sodden mind the words repeated themselves. Bad ! Had she ever done anything bad? “Not that,” prayed the girl, “not that; Billie knows I’m not bad.” And then, at other times, she was all but certain Billie laughed at her. Why? As she watched them talk, she often saw that Billie wrote on his little pad — wonderful thing, it was — and laughed with Sadie over it. Just now, before he wrote, was he looking at her. She could not remember. But what could he be writing? Sometimes she suspected he wrote only after watch ing her; and Sadie, one morning when she laughed at the book, turned round and looked at her. While she could not unravel this deluge of perplexities, and discover the truth, she yet knew that some awful actuality threatened their love with dissolution. Thinking one night, and searching for the reason, she thought of a plan. Next day she could not dismiss it. At length she con cluded it was the only way. Billie had said she was pretty, and hence there remained but one thing to do. The day was Friday, and by Monday it might be finished. Sadie was the first to notice it ; then the other girls came run ning with hoots of laughter. Margery looked at them dumbly : she was very tired. But she was no worse than they, and Sadie had advised it once. When Billie sees, she thought, their hoots will be nothing. Why, the stockings alone cost a dollar, and the whole suit had corresponding values. “Poor kid,” said Billie. after he had listened to Sadie awhile. “Too bad.”

 

But Margery plied her task, smiling; for Billie had seen, she was sure. And he had spoken with unusual fervor, with admiration. It was in June that Billie stopped coming. Without warning, without a word — and Margery had no premonitions of college clos ing — he stopped coming. Locked in her room during the warm nights following, she would sit in her nightgown, weeping softly and long, until the clock over the street sounded her bedtime at nine o’clock ; when she would set the alarm, and fall across her bed in dream-wrought slumber. In the end, grief changed to a sort of joy, in that Billie had deserted Sadie and not herself. And now that he hated Sadie, could it be that his love had fallen to her? The thought held her for hours, and days. Thus four months passed, and Billie appeared. Meanwhile, however, Sadie had been discharged. Turning from the strange girl who stood in her place, chewing gum, Billie called to Margery. She had expected to be called, and nothing more. In response to his question, which seemed indifferent, she said that Sadie had gone away — to the bad. Then he left the place. Watching him go, and drunk with the joy of seeing him again, Margery failed to notice that he left no laundry. But in the days that came after, she knew he was not to come again. Deprived of his calls, and knowing that he was now back, Margery looked day by day through the open door-way in the hope of seeing him pass. She was corrected many times. Someone who worked behind her said that she would lose her job. The thought so maddened her that she worked till the head man came and con gratulated her. On the streets, just a dozen steps away, she knew that Billie would pass ; and, try as she might, she could not always refrain from staring into the passers-by. No one really knew why she looked ; no one asked, nor cared. But only she could tell how many times his form had a place in the hurried throngs. Again she was corrected by the head man, who threatened to discharge her. One night as she sat dreaming on her trunk by the window, an idea came. In her little world of laundry and room and Billie, she needed few ideas. No use to her was thought when, by sinking to a state of almost somnambulance, she lived with Billie in a land of happiness. But the idea came, and thereafter, every afternoon wnen work-hours released her, she wandered about the everlasting streets, cherishing the hope that one day she wrould meet Billie. Nearly a year since she was driven to the city, plump and at least of a sound body ; but now the dimples were gone and tragic shadows seemed to be working outward from within her soul. Gradually, as time went on and she found herself getting weary of so much struggling to move along, she narrowed her course to one route which she took habitually. It led down Canal Street, beyond an old church which she loved because flowers grew in the yard like those she used to grow ; thence to the river, moving with a solemn and noiseless flow underneath the great bridge, where she ended her walk. At dusk, just after she saw the sun go down, she would return, and lock herself in her room for the night. Still only one thing made her life happy, in a little measure, and worth while. This was Billie. She could never quite believe he had forgotten her, though it was an age since she last saw him rushing by in his car, too fast ever to stop. She had recognized its peculiar whirr; and, mutely stopping where she was, she had strained after him till a corner blotted out the vision. Once, not long before this, Billie saw the expectant figure, and waved her, throwing a kiss with the tips of his fingers. Although he never stopped, such ecstatic moments as these repaid her for all the soli tary hours of grief and leaden despair. It was now approaching Christmas, a time which Margery, ages in the past, enjoyed as little children do. She had labored in the laundry since April, and one after the other of her friends — first Sadie, then Billie — had gone out of her life, except what of their spiritual substance she retained. For Sadie she began to care a little more, now that she was gone for all time ; and for Billie, her affec tion was a sort of mania. Love is not the word. Worshipping him as only the simple can, she found him some god-like conception that deserved her reverence, her dreams, her everything.

 

Christmas came and went, and the year began over again. Margery was the same unchangeable dreamer, perhaps worse, mop ing over white clothes, and finding solace in those which reminded her of Billie; the same girl, unless her appearance was now a trifle on the side of the jade. At her room, in a drawer to itself, she preserved the suit of clothes she had suffered to get, and which did not help her any. They had been got that Billie might find her worthy to take out again. Of course he had not done it, but that was probably Sadie’s fault. It was enough that he had seen and liked the suit. Did he know how she got it? The truth that Sadie had now lost him was far more relevant. As for herself, he could never let her go entirely when she treasured him so profoundly. That she worshipped him utterly, lived for him alone, and that the other girls had now quite forgotten, was surely a sign that the days would bring him back. During the weeks which came after Christmas, it was talked among the girls that, owing to the time, one might ask a lover to marry one. Leap year, with Margery, had been relegated by uncon scious processes to a past that was almost dead. Yet old memories of unbearable things began to stir within her. She listened dully to comments, jokes, and stories of strange experiences. She heard them speak of a reward the papers offered to the girl who should first secure a husband. Then they turned upon Margery. Looking blankly from one to the other of them, she marvelled how they all knew she would not lose her lover. Was it really true? And she wondered why they should laugh so shrilly at her. She was be wildered. Walking as usual, in the afternoon, Margery began retracing once more, and very slowly, all she could remember of Billie. Then, com ing to the end of her walk, she leaned over the water — it was the same water they had been together upon — and, as she communed with herself, she fancied that Billie was the man who paddled the canoe over there, and that she was the pretty young girl who faced him. What would Billie think, if he actually knew her soul? For the first time, the pain of irrepressible longing filled her. Suppose he should drive past now, in his big car. Would he stop? … or simply pass? . . . and pass?

 

Margery reached home late on this night, and went direct to Sadie’s old room. She knew very well it was empty; but some where, perhaps in the bureau, she could find a trace. At first the idea had borne upon her from afar, like some hideous torture by hope; then she had harbored it, and at the last had yielded to its insidious fascination. To begin with, the girls had started her; but suggestion, it appeared, striking the sympathetic will, might stir the very heart to madness. So Margery went to Sadie’s old room, look ing for Billie’s address. There was no doubt; she was certain. In the top drawer she found a card. She could read the name, the place, so clearly were they written. In her own room she wrote. It was not a long letter, but in the irregular scrawls over half a page, she epitomized the meaning of her soul. In a week the answer came. The girl recovered from the river, next day, at the foot of Canal Street, was identified in the course of time, to be sure, but not by the bit of paper in her bosom, which read : — “Forget it, girl; don’t make a fool of yourself.” Someone also found in her bosom a crumpled handkerchief.

 

Arthur Wilson.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s