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Thorns And A Few Roses








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

Helen Dunbar was exercising that doubtful economy, walking to save
car-fare, when she saw Mae Smith with her eyes fixed upon her in deadly
purpose making a bee-line across the street. If there was any one thing
more needed to complete her depression it was a meeting with Mae Smith.

She stopped and waited, trying to think what it was Mae Smith resembled
when she hurried like that. A penguin! that was it--Mae Smith walked
exactly like a penguin. But Helen did not smile at the comparison,
instead, she continued to look somberly and critically at the woman who
approached. When Helen was low spirited, as now, Mae Smith always rose
before her like a spectre. She saw herself at forty another such passe
newspaper woman trudging from one indifferent editor to another peddling
"space." And why not? Mae Smith had been young and good-looking once,
also a local celebrity in her way when she had signed a column in a
daily. But she had grown stale with the grind, and having no special
talent or personality had been easily replaced when a new Managing
Editor came. Now, though chipper as a sparrow, she was always in need of
a small loan.

As Helen stood on the corner, in her tailor-made, which was the last
word in simplicity and good lines, the time looked very remote when she,
too, would be peddling space in a $15 gown, that had faded in streaks,
but Helen had no hallucinations concerning her own ability. She knew
that she had no great aptitude for her work and realized that her
success was due more often to the fact that she was young, well-dressed,
and attractive than to any special talent. This was all very well now,
while she got results, but what about the day when her shoes spread
over the soles and turned over at the heels, and she bought her blouse
"off the pile?" When her dollar gloves were shabby and would not button
at the wrist? What about the day when she was too dispirited to dress
her hair becomingly, but combed it straight up at the back, so that her
"scolding locks" hung down upon her coat-collar, and her home-trimmed
hat rode carelessly on one ear?

All these things were characteristic of Mae Smith, who personified
unsuccessful, anxious middle-age. But there was one thing, she told
herself as she returned Mae Smith's effusive greeting, that never,
never, no matter how sordid her lot became, should there emanate from
her that indefinable odor of poverty--cooking, cabbage, lack of
ventilation, bad air--not if she had to hang her clothing out the window
by a string!

"I've been over to the Chronicle office," Mae Smith chattered. "Left
some fashion notes for the Sunday--good stuff--but I don't know whether
he'll use 'em; that kid that's holdin' down McGennigle's job don't buy
much space. He's got it in for me anyhow. I beat him on a convention
story when he was a cub. I was just goin' down to your office."

"Yes? I'm on the way to the doctor's."

"You don't look well, that's a fact. Sick?"

Helen smiled, faintly. "I do feel miserable. Like every one else I got
a drenching at the Thanksgiving Game."

"That's too bad," Mae Smith murmured absently. What was a cold compared
to the fact that she needed two dollars and a half? "Say, I wonder if I
could get a little loan for a few days? You know I bought this suit on
the installment plan and I'm two weeks behind on it. The collector was
around yesterday and said he'd have to take it back. I can't go around
gettin' fashion notes in my kimono, and the milkman wouldn't leave any
milk until I paid for the last ticket. I'm up against it and I thought
maybe--"

"How much do you want?"

"About two dollars and a half." The tense look faded instantly from Miss
Smith's face.

Helen did not mention, as she laid that amount in her eager hand, that
it was part of the money she had saved to buy a pair of long gloves.

"Thank you"--gaily--"ever so much obliged! I've got a corking idea in my
head for a Sunday special and just as soon as I write it and get paid--"

"No hurry," Helen answered with a quizzical smile, and she watched Mae
Smith clamber joyously on a street car to ride two blocks and spend the
fare that Helen had walked eight blocks to save.

The girl's spirits were low and her face showed depression when she
mounted the broad stone steps of the physician's city office and
residence, but when she came down the look had changed to a kind of
frozen fright.

She had not felt like herself for weeks, but she did not dream that it
was anything which time and a little medicine would not cure. Now, he
had told her that she must leave the city--stop her work at once.

He advised the South or West--particularly the West--some place where it
was high and dry. How lovely--and so simple! Just stop work and start!
Why didn't he say St. Petersburg or the Arctic circle. With no income
save what she earned from week to week they were equally impossible.

She had come in time, he had assured her, but she must not delay. Filled
with consternation, sick with dread and horror of what she saw before
her, Helen walked slowly to her hotel, the shabby place where she had
found board and lodging within her means. She loathed it, everything
about it--its faded tawdry splendor, the flashy, egotistical theatrical
folk who frequented it, the salaried mediocrities who were "permanent"
like herself, the pretentious, badly cooked food; but as she climbed the
yellowish marble steps she thought despairingly that even this would be
beyond her reach some day.

If only Freddie were alive! There was a lump in her throat as she
removed her hat and looked at her pale face in the old-fashioned bureau
mirror in her room. She might have gone to him in such an emergency as
this--she had saved money enough to have managed that. He had been a bad
son and an utterly indifferent brother, but surely he would not have
turned her out.

Her shoulders drooped and two tears slipped from beneath her lashes as
she sat on the edge of her narrow bed with her hands lying passively in
her lap. Tears were so weak and futile in a world where only action
counted that it was seldom they ever reached her eyes, though they
sometimes came close.

Practical as Helen's life had made her in most things, she was still
young enough to build high hopes on a romantic improbability. And
nothing was more improbable than that "Slim" Naudain, even if he had
lived, ever would have returned to make amends.

But she had thrown the glamour of romance about her scapegrace brother
from the day he had flung out of the house in ignominy, boasting with
the arrogance of inexperience that he would succeed and come back
triumphant, to fill them with envy and chagrin. She never had heard from
him directly since, but she had kept her childish, unreasoning faith
that he would make good his boast and compensate her for her share of
the fortune which it had cost to save him from his evil deeds.

She had not realized until Sprudell had told her of his death how
strongly she had counted upon him. He was the only one left to her of
her own blood, and had been the single means of escape that she could
see from the exhausting, uncongenial grind and the long, lonely hours in
the shabby hotel when her work was done. If the future had looked dark
and hopeless before, how much worse it seemed with illness staring her
in the face!

The money Freddie had left her would have gone a long way toward the
vacation after she had used the larger part of it to pay off a
long-standing obligation which her mother had incurred. The thought of
the money reminded her of the letter and photograph. She brushed her wet
cheeks with her hand and getting up took the soiled and yellowing
envelope from the bureau drawer, wondering again why his murderer had
sent it back.

The quick tears came once more as she read the ingenuous scrawl! What
centuries ago it seemed since she had written that! She bit her lip hard
but in spite of herself she cried--for her lost illusions--for her
mother--for that optimistic outlook upon life which never would come
back. She had learned much since that smiling "pitcher" was taken--what
"mortgages" mean, for instance--that poverty has more depressing depths
than the lack of servants and horses, and that "marrying well," as she
interpreted a successful marriage then, is seldom--outside of "fiction
and Pittsburgh"--for the girl who earns her own living. Young men who
inherit incomes or older men of affairs do not look in shops and offices
for their wives. Helen Dunbar had no hallucinations on this score.

Propinquity, clothes, social backing, the necessary adjuncts to
"marrying well," had not been among her advantages for many years. There
remained on her horizon only the friendly youths of mediocre attainments
that she met in her daily life. She liked them individually and
collectively in business, but socially, outside of the office, they made
no appeal.

Ill-health was a misfortune she never had considered. It was a new
spectre, the worst of all. If one were well one could always do
something even without much talent, but helpless, dependent--the dread
which filled her as she walked up and down the narrow confines of her
room was different from the vague fears of the inexperienced. Hers came
from actual knowledge and observation obtained in the wide scope of her
newspaper life. The sordid straits which reduce existence to a matter of
food and a roof, the ceaseless anxiety destroying every vestige of
personal charm, the necessity of asking for loans that both borrower
and lender know to be gifts--grudgingly given--accepted in mingled
bitterness and relief--Helen Dunbar had seen it all. The pictures which
rose before her were real. In her nervous state she imagined herself
some day envying even Mae Smith, who at least had health and
irrepressible spirits.

But there must be no more tears, she told herself at last. They were a
confession of weakness, they dissipated courage; and the handkerchief
which had been a moist ball dried in her hot hand. She said aloud to her
flushed reflection in the glass:

"Well," determinedly, "I've never thought myself a coward and I won't
act like one now. There's been many a thousand before me gone through
this experience without whining and I guess I can do the same. Until I'm
a sure enough down-and-outer I'll do the best I can. I must find a
cheaper room and buy an oil-stove. Ugh! the first step on the down
grade."

There was a rap upon the door and she lowered the shade a little so that
the bell-boy with her evening paper should not see her reddened eyes.
Instead of the paper he carried a long pasteboard box.

Flowers? How extraordinary--perhaps Peters; no, not Peters, as she read
the name of a side street florist on the box, he was not to be suspected
of any such economy as that. Roses--a dozen--a little too full blown to
last very long but lovely. T. Victor Sprudell's card fell out as she
took them from the box.





Next: Off His Range

Previous: The Ghost At The Banquet



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