His Family

[310]CHAPTER XLIII

After John had gone away the house was very quiet. Only from the room upstairs there could be heard occasionally the faint clear cry of Deborah's child. And once again to Roger came a season of repose. He was far from unhappy. His disease, although progressing fast, gave him barely any pain; it rather made its presence felt by the manner in which it affected his mind. His inner life grew uneven. At times his thoughts were as in a fog, again they were amazingly clear and vistas opened far ahead. He could not control his thinking.

This bothered him at the office, in the work he still had to do. For some months he had been considering an offer from one of his rivals, a modern concern which wished to buy out his business together with that of three other firms and consolidate them all into one corporation. And Roger was selling, and it was hard; for the whole idea of bargaining was more distasteful than ever now. He had to keep reminding himself of Edith and her children.

At last it was over, his books were closed, and there was nothing left to be done. Nor did he care to linger. These rooms had meant but little to him; they had been but a place of transition from the old office far downtown, so full of memories of his youth, to the big corporation looming ahead, the huge impersonal clipping mill into which his business was to merge. And it came to his mind that New York was like that—no settled calm abiding place cherishing its memories, but only a town of transition, a great turbulent city of change, restlessly shaking off its past, tearing down and building anew, building higher, higher, higher, rearing to the very stars, and shouting,[311] "Can you see me now?" What was the goal of this mad career? What dazzling city would be here? For a time he stared out of his window as into a promised land. Slowly at last he rose from his desk. Clippings, clippings, clippings. He looked at those long rows of girls gleaning in items large and small the public reputations of all kinds of men and women, new kinds in a new nation seething with activities, sweeping on like some wide river swollen at flood season to a new America, a world which Roger would not know. And yet it would be his world still, for in it he would play a part.

"In their lives, too, we shall be there—the dim strong figures of the past."

From his desk he gathered a few belongings. Then he looked into John's small room, with the big gold motto over the desk: "This is no place for your troubles or mine." On the desk lay that small album, John's parting gift to Deborah's boy. Roger picked it up and walked out of the office. He had never liked good-byes.

In the elevator he noticed that his shoes needed shining, and when he reached the street below he stopped at the stand on the corner. The stocky Greek with bushy black hair, who had run the stand for many years, gave him a cheery greeting; for Roger had stopped there frequently—not that he cared about his shoes, but he had always liked to watch the crowds of people passing.

"No hurry, boss?"

"None," said Roger.

"Then I give a fine shine! Polish, too?"

"Yes, polish, too." And Roger settled back to watch.

"And put in new shoe strings," he added, with a whimsical smile.

Men and women, girls and boys by thousands passed him, pushing, hurrying, shuffling by. Girls tittering and nudging and darting quick side glances. Bobbing heads and figures, vigorous steps and dancing eyes. Life [312]bubbling over everywhere, in laughter, in sharp angry tones, in glad expectant chatter. Deborah's big family. Across the street was a movie between two lurid posters, and there was a dance hall overhead. The windows were all open, and faintly above the roar of the street he could hear the piano, drum, fiddle and horn. The thoroughfare each moment grew more tumultuous to his ears, with trolley cars and taxis, motor busses, trucks and drays. A small red motor dashed uptown with piles of evening papers; a great black motor hearse rushed by. In a taxi which had stopped in a jam, a man was kissing a girl in his arms, and both of them were laughing. The smart little toque of blue satin she wore was crushed to one side. How red were her lips as she threw back her head....

"Silk or cotton, boss? Which you like?" Roger glanced at the shoe strings and pondered.

"Silk," he grunted in reply. Idly for a moment he watched this busy little man. From whence had he come in far away Greece? What existence had he here, and what kind of life would he still have through those many years to come? A feeling half of sadness crept into Roger's heavy eyes as he looked at the man, at his smiling face and then at other faces in the multitudes sweeping past. The moment he tried to single them out, how doubly chaotic it became. What an ocean of warm desires, passions, vivid hopes and worries. Vaguely he could feel them pass. Often in the midst of his life, his active and self-centered life, Roger had looked at these crowds on the street and had thought these faces commonplace. But now at the end it was not so.

A woman with a baby carriage stopped directly in front of him and stood there anxiously watching for a chance to cross the street. And Roger thought of Deborah. Heavily he climbed down from his seat, paid the man and bade him good-night, and went home to see Deborah's baby.

[313]For a long time he sat by the cradle. Presently Deborah joined him, and soon they were laughing heartily at the astonishing jerks and kicks and grimaces of the tiny boy. He was having his bath and he hated it. But safe at last on his mother's lap, wrapped to his ears in a big soft towel, he grew very gay and contented and looked waggishly about.

There followed long lazy days of spring, as April drifted into May. Early in the morning Roger could hear through his window the cries of the vendors of flowers and fruits. And he listened drowsily. He rose late and spent most of the day in the house; but occasionally he went out for a stroll. And one balmy evening when groups of youths came trooping by, singing in close harmony, Roger called a taxi and went far down through the tenement streets to a favorite haunt of his, a little Syrian pawnshop, where after long delving he purchased a ring to put in the new collection that he had been making lately. He had nearly a dozen now.

Days passed. The house was still so quiet, Deborah was still upstairs. At last, one night upon leaving his study, he stopped uncertainly in the hall. He took more time than was his wont in closing up the house for the night, in trying all the windows, in turning out the various lights. Room after room he left in the dark. Then he went slowly up the stairs, his hand gratefully feeling those guiding points grown so familiar to his touch through many thousand evenings. His hand lingered on the banister and he stopped again to listen there.

He did not come downstairs again.

He was able to sleep but little at night. Turning restlessly on his bed, he would glance out of the window up at the beetling wall close by, tier on tier of apartments from which faint voices dropped out of the dark. Gradually as the night wore on, these voices would all die away into long mysterious silences—for to him at least such silences [314]had grown to be very mysterious. Alone in the hours that followed, even these modern neighbors and this strange new eager town pressing down upon his house seemed no longer strange to him nor so appallingly immense, seemed even familiar and small to him, as the eyes of his mind looked out ahead.

From his bed he could see on the opposite wall the picture Judith had given him, always so fresh and cool and dim with its deep restful tones of blue, of the herdsmen and the cattle on the dark mountain rim at dawn. And vaguely he wondered whether it was because he saw more clearly, or whether his mind in this curious haze could no longer see so well, that as he looked before him he felt no fear nor any more uncertainty. All his doubts had lifted, he was so sure of Judith now. As though she were coming to meet him, her image grew more vivid, with memories emerging out of all the years gone by. What memories, what vivid scenes! What intimate conversations they had, her voice so natural, close in his ear, as together they planned for their children.... Wistfully he would search the years for what he should soon tell his wife—until the drowsiness returned, and then again came visions.

But by day it was not so, for the life of the house would rouse him and at intervals hold his attention.

One evening a slight rustle, a faint fragrance in the room, made Roger suddenly open his eyes. And he saw Laura by his bed, her slender figure clad in blue silk, something white at her full bosom. He noticed her shapely shoulders, her glossy hair and moist red lips. She was smiling down at him.

"See what I've brought you, dear," she said. And she turned to a chair where, one on the other, tray after tray, was piled his whole collection of rings. At sight of them his eyes grew fixed; he could feel his pulse beat faster.

"[315]How did you ever find them?" he asked his daughter huskily.

"Oh, I had a long hunt all by myself. But I found them at last and I've brought them home. Shall we look them over a little while?"

"Yes," he said. She turned up the light, and came and sat down at the bedside with a tray of rings in her lap. One by one she held them up to his gaze, still smiling and talking softly on in that rich melodious voice of hers, of which he heard but snatches. How good it felt to be so gay. No solemn thoughts nor questionings, just these dusky glittering beauties here, deep soft gleams of color, each with its suggestion of memories for Roger, a procession of adventures reaching back into his life. He smiled and lay in silence watching, until at last she bent over him, kissed him softly, breathed a good-night and went out of the room. Roger followed her with his glance. He knew he would never see her again. How graceful of her to go like that.

He lay there thinking about her. In her large blue limousine he saw his gay young daughter speeding up the Avenue, the purple gleaming pavement reflecting studded lines of lights. And he thought he could see her smiling still. He recalled scattered fragments of her life—the first luxurious little ménage, and the second. How many more would there be? She was only in her twenties still. Uneasily he tried to see into the years ahead for her, and he thought he saw a lonely old age, childless, loveless, cynical, hard. But this fear soon fell from his mind. No, whatever happened, she would do it gracefully, an artist always, to the end. He sighed and gave up the effort. For he could not think of Laura as old, nor could he think of her any more as being a part of his family.

Edith came to him several times, and there was something in her face which gave him sharp forebodings. Making a great effort he tried to talk to her clearly.

"[316]It's hard to keep up with your children," he said. "It means keeping up with everything new. And you stay in your rut and then it's too late. Before you know it you are old."

But his words subsided in mutterings, and Roger wearily closed his eyes. For a glance up into Edith's face had shown him only pity there and no heed to his warning. He saw that she looked upon him as old and still upon herself as young, though he noticed the threads of gray in her hair.... Then he realized she had gone and that his chamber had grown dark. He must have been dreaming. Of what, he asked. He tried to remember. And suddenly out of the darkness, so harsh and clear it startled him, a picture rose in Roger's mind of a stark lonely figure, a woman in a graveyard cutting the grass on family graves. Where had he seen it? He could not recall. What had it to do with Edith? Was she not living in New York?... What had so startled him just now? Some thought, some vivid picture, some nightmare he could not recall.

His last talks were with Deborah. All through those days and the long nights, too, he kept fancying she was in the room, and it brought deep balm to his restless soul. He asked her to tell him about the schools, and Deborah talked to him quietly. She was going back to her work in the fall. She felt very humble about it—she told him she felt older now and she saw that her work was barely begun. But she was even happier than before. Her hand lay in his, and it tightened there. He opened his eyes and looked up into hers.

"All so strange," he muttered, "life." There was a sharp contracting of her wide and sensitive mouth.

"Yes, dear, strange!" she whispered.

"But I'm so glad you're going on." He frowned as he tried to be simple and clear, and make her feel he understood what she had set herself to do. "All people," he [317]said slowly, "never counted so much as now. And never so hungry—all—as now—for all of life—like children—children who should go to school. Your work will grow—I can see ahead. Never a time when every man and woman and child could grow so much—and hand it on—and hand it on—as you will do to your small son."

He felt her hand on his forehead, and for some moments nothing was said. Vaguely in glimpses Roger saw his small grandson growing up; and he pictured other children here, not her own but of her greater family, as the two merged into one. He felt that she would not grow old. Children, lives of children; work, dreams and aspirations. How bright it seemed as he stared ahead. Then he heard the cry of her baby.

"Shall I nurse him here?" he heard her ask. He pressed her hand in answer. And when again he opened his eyes she was by his side with the child at her breast. Its large round eyes, so pure and clear, gazed into his own for a long, long time.

"Now he's so sleepy," she whispered. "Would you like him beside you a moment?"

"Please."

He felt the faint scent of the tiny boy, and still those eyes looked into his. He forgot his daughter standing there; and as he watched, a sweet fresh sense of the mystery of this life so new stole deep into his spirit. All at once the baby fell asleep.

"Good-night, little brother," he whispered. "God grant the world be very kind." He could feel the mother lift it up, and he heard the door close softly.

Smiling he, too, fell asleep. And after that there were only dreams.


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