The (so-called) Vallambrosa Apartment-House is not an apartment-house. It is composed of two old-fashioned, brownstone-front residences welded into one. The parlor floor of one side is gay with the wraps and head-gear of a modiste; the other is lugubrious with the sophistical promises and grisly display of a painless dentist. You may have a room there for two dollars a week or you may have one for twenty dollars. Among the Vallambrosa’s roomers are stenographers, musicians, brokers, shop-girls, space-rate writers, art students, wire-tappers, and other people who lean far over the banister-rail when the door-bell rings.
This treatise shall have to do with but two of the Vallambrosians—though meaning no disrespect to the others.
At six o’clock one afternoon Hetty Pepper came back to her third-floor rear $3.50 room in the Vallambrosa with her nose and chin more sharply pointed than usual. To be discharged from the department store where you have been working four years, and with only fifteen cents in your purse, does have a tendency to make your features appear more finely chiselled.
And now for Hetty’s thumb-nail biography while she climbs the two flights of stairs.
She walked into the Biggest Store one morning four years before with seventy-five other girls, applying for a job behind the waist department counter. The phalanx of wage-earners formed a bewildering scene of beauty, carrying a total mass of blond hair sufficient to have justified the horseback gallops of a hundred Lady Godivas.
The capable, cool-eyed, impersonal, young, bald-headed man whose task it was to engage six of the contestants, was aware of a feeling of suffocation as if he were drowning in a sea of frangipanni, while white clouds, hand-embroidered, floated about him. And then a sail hove in sight. Hetty Pepper, homely of countenance, with small, contemptuous, green eyes and chocolate-colored hair, dressed in a suit of plain burlap and a common-sense hat, stood before him with every one of her twenty-nine years of life unmistakably in sight.
“You’re on!” shouted the bald-headed young man, and was saved. And that is how Hetty came to be employed in the Biggest Store. The story of her rise to an eight-dollar-a-week salary is the combined stories of Hercules, Joan of Arc, Una, Job, and Little-Red-Riding-Hood. You shall not learn from me the salary that was paid her as a beginner. There is a sentiment growing about such things, and I want no millionaire store-proprietors climbing the fire-escape of my tenement-house to throw dynamite bombs into my skylight boudoir.
The story of Hetty’s discharge from the Biggest Store is so nearly a repetition of her engagement as to be monotonous.
In each department of the store there is an omniscient, omnipresent, and omnivorous person carrying always a mileage book and a red necktie, and referred to as a “buyer.” The destinies of the girls in his department who live on (see Bureau of Victual Statistics)—so much per week are in his hands.
This particular buyer was a capable, cool-eyed, impersonal, young, bald-headed man. As he walked along the aisles of his department he seemed to be sailing on a sea of frangipanni, while white clouds, machine-embroidered, floated around him. Too many sweets bring surfeit. He looked upon Hetty Pepper’s homely countenance, emerald eyes, and chocolate-colored hair as a welcome oasis of green in a desert of cloying beauty. In a quiet angle of a counter he pinched her arm kindly, three inches above the elbow. She slapped him three feet away with one good blow of her muscular and not especially lily-white right. So, now you know why Hetty Pepper came to leave the Biggest Store at thirty minutes’ notice, with one dime and a nickel in her purse.
This morning’s quotations list the price of rib beef at six cents per (butcher’s) pound. But on the day that Hetty was “released” by the B. S. the price was seven and one-half cents. That fact is what makes this story possible. Otherwise, the extra four cents would have—
But the plot of nearly all the good stories in the world is concerned with shorts who were unable to cover; so you can find no fault with this one.
Hetty mounted with her rib beef to her $3.50 third-floor back. One hot, savory beef-stew for supper, a night’s good sleep, and she would be fit in the morning to apply again for the tasks of Hercules, Joan of Arc, Una, Job, and Little-Red-Riding-Hood.
In her room she got the granite-ware stew-pan out of the 2×4-foot china—er—I mean earthenware closet, and began to dig down in a rat’s-nest of paper bags for the potatoes and onions. She came out with her nose and chin just a little sharper pointed.
There was neither a potato nor an onion. Now, what kind of a beef-stew can you make out of simply beef? You can make oyster-soup without oysters, turtle-soup without turtles, coffee-cake without coffee, but you can’t make beef-stew without potatoes and onions.
But rib beef alone, in an emergency, can make an ordinary pine door look like a wrought-iron gambling-house portal to the wolf. With salt and pepper and a tablespoonful of flour (first well stirred in a little cold water) ’twill serve—’tis not so deep as a lobster à la Newburg nor so wide as a church festival doughnut; but ’twill serve.
Hetty took her stew-pan to the rear of the third-floor hall. According to the advertisements of the Vallambrosa there was running water to be found there. Between you and me and the water-meter, it only ambled or walked through the faucets; but technicalities have no place here. There was also a sink where housekeeping roomers often met to dump their coffee grounds and glare at one another’s kimonos.
At this sink Hetty found a girl with heavy, gold-brown, artistic hair and plaintive eyes, washing two large “Irish” potatoes. Hetty knew the Vallambrosa as well as any one not owning “double hextra-magnifying eyes” could compass its mysteries. The kimonos were her encyclopedia, her “Who’s What?” her clearinghouse of news, of goers and comers. From a rose-pink kimono edged with Nile green she had learned that the girl with the potatoes was a miniature-painter living in a kind of attic—or “studio,” as they prefer to call it—on the top floor. Hetty was not certain in her mind what a miniature was; but it certainly wasn’t a house; because house-painters, although they wear splashy overalls and poke ladders in your face on the street, are known to indulge in a riotous profusion of food at home.
The potato girl was quite slim and small, and handled her potatoes as an old bachelor uncle handles a baby who is cutting teeth. She had a dull shoemaker’s knife in her right hand, and she had begun to peel one of the potatoes with it.
Hetty addressed her in the punctiliously formal tone of one who intends to be cheerfully familiar with you in the second round.
“Beg pardon,” she said, “for butting into what’s not my business, but if you peel them potatoes you lose out. They’re new Bermudas. You want to scrape ’em. Lemme show you.”
She took a potato and the knife, and began to demonstrate.
“Oh, thank you,” breathed the artist. “I didn’t know. And I did hate to see the thick peeling go; it seemed such a waste. But I thought they always had to be peeled. When you’ve got only potatoes to eat, the peelings count, you know.”
“Say, kid,” said Hetty, staying her knife, “you ain’t up against it, too, are you?”
The miniature artist smiled starvedly.
“I suppose I am. Art—or, at least, the way I interpret it—doesn’t seem to be much in demand. I have only these potatoes for my dinner. But they aren’t so bad boiled and hot, with a little butter and salt.”
“Child,” said Hetty, letting a brief smile soften her rigid features, “Fate has sent me and you together. I’ve had it handed to me in the neck, too; but I’ve got a chunk of meat in my, room as big as a lap-dog. And I’ve done everything to get potatoes except pray for ’em. Let’s me and you bunch our commissary departments and make a stew of ’em. We’ll cook it in my room. If we only had an onion to go in it! Say, kid, you haven’t got a couple of pennies that’ve slipped down into the lining of your last winter’s sealskin, have you? I could step down to the corner and get one at old Giuseppe’s stand. A stew without an onion is worse’n a matinée without candy.”
“You may call me Cecilia,” said the artist. “No; I spent my last penny three days ago.”
“Then we’ll have to cut the onion out instead of slicing it in,” said Hetty. “I’d ask the janitress for one, but I don’t want ’em hep just yet to the fact that I’m pounding the asphalt for another job. But I wish we did have an onion.”
In the shop-girl’s room the two began to prepare their supper. Cecilia’s part was to sit on the couch helplessly and beg to be allowed to do something, in the voice of a cooing ring-dove. Hetty prepared the rib beef, putting it in cold salted water in the stew-pan and setting it on the one-burner gas-stove.
“I wish we had an onion,” said Hetty, as she scraped the two potatoes.
On the wall opposite the couch was pinned a flaming, gorgeous advertising picture of one of the new ferry-boats of the P. U. F. F. Railroad that had been built to cut down the time between Los Angeles and New York City one-eighth of a minute.
Hetty, turning her head during her continuous monologue, saw tears running from her guest’s eyes as she gazed on the idealized presentment of the speeding, foam-girdled transport.
“Why, say, Cecilia, kid,” said Hetty, poising her knife, “is it as bad art as that? I ain’t a critic; but I thought it kind of brightened up the room. Of course, a manicure-painter could tell it was a bum picture in a minute. I’ll take it down if you say so. I wish to the holy Saint Potluck we had an onion.”
But the miniature miniature-painter had tumbled down, sobbing, with her nose indenting the hard-woven drapery of the couch. Something was here deeper than the artistic temperament offended at crude lithography.
Hetty knew. She had accepted her rôle long ago. How scant the words with which we try to describe a single quality of a human being! When we reach the abstract we are lost. The nearer to Nature that the babbling of our lips comes, the better do we understand. Figuratively (let us say), some people are Bosoms, some are Hands, some are Heads, some are Muscles, some are Feet, some are Backs for burdens.
Hetty was a Shoulder. Hers was a sharp, sinewy shoulder; but all her life people had laid their heads upon it, metaphorically or actually, and had left there all or half their troubles. Looking at Life anatomically, which is as good a way as any, she was preordained to be a Shoulder. There were few truer collar-bones anywhere than hers.
Hetty was only thirty-three, and she had not yet outlived the little pang that visited her whenever the head of youth and beauty leaned upon her for consolation. But one glance in her mirror always served as an instantaneous pain-killer. So she gave one pale look into the crinkly old looking-glass on the wall above the gas-stove, turned down the flame a little lower from the bubbling beef and potatoes, went over to the couch, and lifted Cecilia’s head to its confessional.
“Go on and tell me, honey,” she said. “I know now that it ain’t art that’s worrying you. You met him on a ferry-boat, didn’t you? Go on, Cecilia, kid, and tell your—your Aunt Hetty about it.”
But youth and melancholy must first spend the surplus of sighs and tears that waft and float the barque of romance to its harbor in the delectable isles. Presently, through the stringy tendons that formed the bars of the confessional, the penitent—or was it the glorified communicant of the sacred flame—told her story without art or illumination.
“It was only three days ago. I was coming back on the ferry from Jersey City. Old Mr. Schrum, an art dealer, told me of a rich man in Newark who wanted a miniature of his daughter painted. I went to see him and showed him some of my work. When I told him the price would be fifty dollars he laughed at me like a hyena. He said an enlarged crayon twenty times the size would cost him only eight dollars.
“I had just enough money to buy my ferry ticket back to New York. I felt as if I didn’t want to live another day. I must have looked as I felt, for I saw him on the row of seats opposite me, looking at me as if he understood. He was nice-looking, but oh, above everything else, he looked kind. When one is tired or unhappy or hopeless, kindness counts more than anything else.
“When I got so miserable that I couldn’t fight against it any longer, I got up and walked slowly out the rear door of the ferry-boat cabin. No one was there, and I slipped quickly over the rail and dropped into the water. Oh, friend Hetty, it was cold, cold!
“For just one moment I wished I was back in the old Vallambrosa, starving and hoping. And then I got numb, and didn’t care. And then I felt that somebody else was in the water close by me, holding me up. He had followed me, and jumped in to save me.
“Somebody threw a thing like a big, white doughnut at us, and he made me put my arms through the hole. Then the ferry-boat backed, and they pulled us on board. Oh, Hetty, I was so ashamed of my wickedness in trying to drown myself; and, besides, my hair had all tumbled down and was sopping wet, and I was such a sight.
“And then some men in blue clothes came around; and he gave them his card, and I heard him tell them he had seen me drop my purse on the edge of the boat outside the rail, and in leaning over to get it I had fallen overboard. And then I remembered having read in the papers that people who try to kill themselves are locked up in cells with people who try to kill other people, and I was afraid.
“But some ladies on the boat took me downstairs to the furnace-room and got me nearly dry and did up my hair. When the boat landed, he came and put me in a cab. He was all dripping himself, but laughed as if he thought it was all a joke. He begged me, but I wouldn’t tell him my name nor where I lived, I was so ashamed.”
“You were a fool, child,” said Hetty, kindly. “Wait till I turn the light up a bit. I wish to Heaven we had an onion.”
“Then he raised his hat,” went on Cecilia, “and said: ‘Very well. But I’ll find you, anyhow. I’m going to claim my rights of salvage.’ Then he gave money to the cab-driver and told him to take me where I wanted to go, and walked away. What is ‘salvage,’ Hetty?”
“The edge of a piece of goods that ain’t hemmed,” said the shop-girl. “You must have looked pretty well frazzled out to the little hero boy.”
“It’s been three days,” moaned the miniature-painter, “and he hasn’t found me yet.”
“Extend the time,” said Hetty. “This is a big town. Think of how many girls he might have to see soaked in water with their hair down before he would recognize you. The stew’s getting on fine—but oh, for an onion! I’d even use a piece of garlic if I had it.”
The beef and potatoes bubbled merrily, exhaling a mouth-watering savor that yet lacked something, leaving a hunger on the palate, a haunting, wistful desire for some lost and needful ingredient.
“I came near drowning in that awful river,” said Cecilia, shuddering.
“It ought to have more water in it,” said Hetty; “the stew, I mean. I’ll go get some at the sink.”
“It smells good,” said the artist.
“That nasty old North River?” objected Hetty. “It smells to me like soap factories and wet setter-dogs—oh, you mean the stew. Well, I wish we had an onion for it. Did he look like he had money?”
“First, he looked kind,” said Cecilia. “I’m sure he was rich; but that matters so little. When he drew out his bill-folder to pay the cab-man you couldn’t help seeing hundreds and thousands of dollars in it. And I looked over the cab doors and saw him leave the ferry station in a motor-car; and the chauffeur gave him his bearskin to put on, for he was sopping wet. And it was only three days ago.”
“What a fool!” said Hetty, shortly.
“Oh, the chauffeur wasn’t wet,” breathed Cecilia. “And he drove the car away very nicely.”
“I mean you,” said Hetty. “For not giving him your address.”
“I never give my address to chauffeurs,” said Cecilia, haughtily.
“I wish we had one,” said Hetty, disconsolately.
“For the stew, of course—oh, I mean an onion.”
Hetty took a pitcher and started to the sink at the end of the hall.
A young man came down the stairs from above just as she was opposite the lower step. He was decently dressed, but pale and haggard. His eyes were dull with the stress of some burden of physical or mental woe. In his hand he bore an onion—a pink, smooth, solid, shining onion as large around as a ninety-eight-cent alarm-clock.
Hetty stopped. So did the young man. There was something Joan of Arc-ish, Herculean, and Una-ish in the look and pose of the shop-lady—she had cast off the rôles of Job and Little-Red-Riding-Hood. The young man stopped at the foot of the stairs and coughed distractedly. He felt marooned, held up, attacked, assailed, levied upon, sacked, assessed, panhandled, browbeaten, though he knew not why. It was the look in Hetty’s eyes that did it. In them he saw the Jolly Roger fly to the masthead and an able seaman with a dirk between his teeth scurry up the ratlines and nail it there. But as yet he did not know that the cargo he carried was the thing that had caused him to be so nearly blown out of the water without even a parley.
“Beg your pardon,” said Hetty, as sweetly as her dilute acetic acid tones permitted, “but did you find that onion on the stairs? There was a hole in the paper bag; and I’ve just come out to look for it.”
The young man coughed for half a minute. The interval may have given him the courage to defend his own property. Also, he clutched his pungent prize greedily, and, with a show of spirit, faced his grim waylayer.
“No,” he said huskily, “I didn’t find it on the stairs. It was given to me by Jack Bevens, on the top floor. If you don’t believe it, ask him. I’ll wait until you do.”
“I know about Bevens,” said Hetty, sourly. “He writes books and things up there for the paper-and-rags man. We can hear the postman guy him all over the house when he brings them thick envelopes back. Say—do you live in the Vallambrosa?”
“I do not,” said the young man. “I come to see Bevens sometimes. He’s my friend. I live two blocks west.”
“What are you going to do with the onion?—begging your pardon,” said Hetty.
“I’m going to eat it.”
“Yes: as soon as I get home.”
“Haven’t you got anything else to eat with it?”
The young man considered briefly.
“No,” he confessed; “there’s not another scrap of anything in my diggings to eat. I think old Jack is pretty hard up for grub in his shack, too. He hated to give up the onion, but I worried him into parting with it.”
“Man,” said Hetty, fixing him with her world-sapient eyes, and laying a bony but impressive finger on his sleeve, “you’ve known trouble, too, haven’t you?”
“Lots,” said the onion owner, promptly. “But this onion is my own property, honestly come by. If you will excuse me, I must be going.”
“Listen,” said Hetty, paling a little with anxiety. “Raw onion is a mighty poor diet. And so is a beef-stew without one. Now, if you’re Jack Bevens’ friend, I guess you’re nearly right. There’s a little lady—a friend of mine—in my room there at the end of the hall. Both of us are out of luck; and we had just potatoes and meat between us. They’re stewing now. But it ain’t got any soul. There’s something lacking to it. There’s certain things in life that are naturally intended to fit and belong together. One is pink cheese-cloth and green roses, and one is ham and eggs, and one is Irish and trouble. And the other one is beef and potatoes with onions. And still another one is people who are up against it and other people in the same fix.”
The young man went into a protracted paroxysm of coughing. With one hand he hugged his onion to his bosom.
“No doubt; no doubt,” said he, at length. “But, as I said, I must be going, because—”
Hetty clutched his sleeve firmly.
“Don’t be a Dago, Little Brother. Don’t eat raw onions. Chip it in toward the dinner and line yourself inside with the best stew you ever licked a spoon over. Must two ladies knock a young gentleman down and drag him inside for the honor of dining with ’em? No harm shall befall you, Little Brother. Loosen up and fall into line.”
The young man’s pale face relaxed into a grin.
“Believe I’ll go you,” he said, brightening. “If my onion is good as a credential, I’ll accept the invitation gladly.”
“It’s good as that, but better as seasoning,” said Hetty. “You come and stand outside the door till I ask my lady friend if she has any objections. And don’t run away with that letter of recommendation before I come out.”
Hetty went into her room and closed the door. The young man waited outside.
“Cecilia, kid,” said the shop-girl, oiling the sharp saw of her voice as well as she could, “there’s an onion outside. With a young man attached. I’ve asked him in to dinner. You ain’t going to kick, are you?”
“Oh, dear!” said Cecilia, sitting up and patting her artistic hair. She cast a mournful glance at the ferry-boat poster on the wall.
“Nit,” said Hetty. “It ain’t him. You’re up against real life now. I believe you said your hero friend had money and automobiles. This is a poor skeezicks that’s got nothing to eat but an onion. But he’s easy-spoken and not a freshy. I imagine he’s been a gentleman, he’s so low down now. And we need the onion. Shall I bring him in? I’ll guarantee his behavior.”
“Hetty, dear,” sighed Cecilia, “I’m so hungry. What difference does it make whether he’s a prince or a burglar? I don’t care. Bring him in if he’s got anything to eat with him.”
Hetty went back into the hall. The onion man was gone. Her heart missed a beat, and a gray look settled over her face except on her nose and cheek-bones. And then the tides of life flowed in again, for she saw him leaning out of the front window at the other end of the hall. She hurried there. He was shouting to some one below. The noise of the street overpowered the sound of her footsteps. She looked down over his shoulder, saw whom he was speaking to, and heard his words. He pulled himself in from the window-sill and saw her standing over him.
Hetty’s eyes bored into him like two steel gimlets.
“Don’t lie to me,” she said, calmly. “What were you going to do with that onion?”
The young man suppressed a cough and faced her resolutely. His manner was that of one who had been bearded sufficiently.
“I was going to eat it,” said he, with emphatic slowness; “just as I told you before.”
“And you have nothing else to eat at home?”
“Not a thing.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“I am not working at anything just now.”
“Then why,” said Hetty, with her voice set on its sharpest edge, “do you lean out of windows and give orders to chauffeurs in green automobiles in the street below?”
The young man flushed, and his dull eyes began to sparkle.
“Because, madam,” said he, in accelerando tones, “I pay the chauffeur’s wages and I own the automobile—and also this onion—this onion, madam.”
He flourished the onion within an inch of Hetty’s nose. The shop-lady did not retreat a hair’s-breadth.
“Then why do you eat onions,” she said, with biting contempt, “and nothing else?”
“I never said I did,” retorted the young man, heatedly. “I said I had nothing else to eat where I live. I am not a delicatessen store-keeper.”
“Then why,” pursued Hetty, inflexibly, “were you going to eat a raw onion?”
“My mother,” said the young man, “always made me eat one for a cold. Pardon my referring to a physical infirmity; but you may have noticed that I have a very, very severe cold. I was going to eat the onion and go to bed. I wonder why I am standing here and apologizing to you for it.”
“How did you catch this cold?” went on Hetty, suspiciously.
The young man seemed to have arrived at some extreme height of feeling. There were two modes of descent open to him—a burst of rage or a surrender to the ridiculous. He chose wisely; and the empty hall echoed his hoarse laughter.
“You’re a dandy,” said he. “And I don’t blame you for being careful. I don’t mind telling you. I got wet. I was on a North River ferry a few days ago when a girl jumped overboard. Of course, I—”
Hetty extended her hand, interrupting his story.
“Give me the onion,” she said.
The young man set his jaw a trifle harder.
“Give me the onion,” she repeated.
He grinned, and laid it in her hand.
Then Hetty’s infrequent, grim, melancholy smile showed itself. She took the young man’s arm and pointed with her other hand to the door of her room.
“Little Brother,” she said, “go in there. The little fool you fished out of the river is there waiting for you. Go on in. I’ll give you three minutes before I come. Potatoes is in there, waiting. Go on in, Onions.”
After he had tapped at the door and entered, Hetty began to peel and wash the onion at the sink. She gave a gray look at the gray roofs outside, and the smile on her face vanished by little jerks and twitches.
“But it’s us,” she said, grimly, to herself, “it’s us that furnished the beef.”