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When Jack Dayton had left Vey Volney that day at Mrs. Chester's it was with his brain and blood in wild confusion and excitement.
Her recognition of Bella had rankled in his mind during his brief absence from her, and he had wondered how she could have associated with such a girl constantly in the cloak department and remain so guileless ass he seemed. He wondered if that innocent air could be assumed. It hurt his heart cruelly to even suspect her, yet she was town bred and he had seen much deceit masquerading in the guise of innocence.
He had tasted just enough of the forbidden fruit of life to be egotistical in regard to his knowledge of the world. He liked to think he had worn out the best motives of his heart, and he said a great deal about being blase. It is the masculine folly of the times to pose as an ennuie.
Our callow youths love to imagine themselves past all sensation, and the man or woman who confesses to any vital interest in life is considered a crank, and happiness is held to be "bad form."
Jack Dayton believed that he was thoroughly acquainted with himself and with the world. The fact was he knew little of either.
He had grown strangely fond of this young girl and he had thought it possible to love her if they were thrown much longer together.
He said to himself that she would be far better as a wife than any city-bred girl. She was very handsome, and with a little culture and polish she would be beautiful. Her words were few but well chosen, and her repose of manner the perfection of grace. Her fresh young mind, unspoiled by teachers, was full of original wit and rare possibilities.
It would be a great happiness to a man to see her develop into an accomplished woman--far greater than to take an already accomplished woman for a wife.
But now he decided to study the girl very carefully before he committed himself.
Her sudden and unexpected greeting in the hall had surprised and shocked him. Alarmed at his own emotions, he had fled from her; and an hour later in a hotel reading room he had penned her that fatal letter.
"I will test her," he said, man like. "If she is the good girl I thought her she will resent this letter in a blaze of indignation. I will make my peace with her and teach her to be more prudent about her associates and in her actions, and at the same time I will teach her to love her husband. Yes, by Jove, I will marry her within six months if I find she is all right. If she doesn't know how men regard these things she ought to learn. A certain amount of knowledge of evil is necessary to a really pure woman.
"And if she isn't all right--well, then we may as well enjoy a Bohemian Utopia awhile, I suppose. We won't be alone in it here in New York, I'll wager a year's income. We'll have plenty of company."
So the letter was sent to the poor, desolate-hearted, homeless little girl, whose parents even had not desired her, whose brothers and friends were glad to be rid of the trouble and expense of her, and whose only rightful protector--the man she loved--now turned against her.
He felt a sense of relief when a whole week passed and brought no word from her. She was angry, he thought, and he would find an interesting time in making peace with her, and explaining the crooks and turns of this wicked old world to her. There is nothing a man so enjoys as being the first to reveal some phase of wickedness to a curious, wondering woman. He thought it all out, just how he would have to tell Vey all his suspicions, and their causes in the daily lives of people all about him, and then he pictured to himself her severe humiliation, her tearfulness and her happy gratitude when he asked her to be his wife.
He hastened back with eagerness, only to find that Mrs. Chester had gone with all the lady boarders. He ascertained Mrs. Chester's whereabouts after a vast amount of trouble, to learn that Miss Volney had left no word, no address. Mrs. Chester had been too anxious and troubled about her own affairs to inquire into Miss Volney's plans.
Then he proceeded to the dry goods establishment where the young girl had been employed, but he received the astonishing intelligence that she had disappeared entirely with a week's wages due her.
Thoroughly alarmed, Mr. Dayton set about to institute a search for Vey, but it was like seeking the proverbial needle in the hay-mow.
Finally he even went so far as to call upon Bella to ask if she knew anything of her former associate in the cloak-room.
She knew nothing of Vey, she said, had never seen her since she herself left the old "treadmill," as she designated the store.
She did not think Vey had gone into any folly. "She was not smart enough," Bella declared, "for any adventures. She was a queer sort of girl that I never quite understood; she had strange notions, but did not seem at all inclined to get the most out of life. She seemed satisfied with her position and had no ambitions."
So Jack went away with no further idea of Vey than when he came. His next move was to advertise in all the papers, in the personal column, but no response ever came. He could not understand the mystery of her disappearance. His masculine vanity forbade the idea that she had gone astray, since she had refused the temptation offered by himself. And yet, what other explanation could be given? He puzzled over the problem many a sleepless night, and always as he walked the streets by daylight or gaslight his eyes were ever watching for the fair face in its aureole of glorious hair. The most reasonable supposition that occurred to his mind was that Vey felt herself unworthy of his love and had gone away in secrecy rather than convince him of the truth. It pained him to think she was not an innocent girl, but the circumstances of her disappearance all seemed to point toward that unpleasant fact.
* * * * * *
There is no more susceptible time in the life of an ordinary young man than when his heart has been tossed by a blow from the bat of fate. Any skillful catcher can secure it as it falls.
Jack Dayton, who possessed a fine baritone voice, was called upon to take part in some Christmas festivities in the church where he occasionally attended divine service. The daughter of the wealthiest pew-holder in the church sang contralto, and it became necessary that she and Mr. Dayton should be thrown much together during the holiday season.
After that he accepted her invitation to call, glad to fill in some way the lonesome gap left in his life by the disappearance of Vey.
Gertrude Seymour was a pretty, conversational girl, who wore handsome costumes and made the most of her fine brunette coloring and tall, if somewhat awkward, figure. Thoroughly well schooled, and possessed of all the fashionable accomplishments, she was at the same time wholly lacking in originality of mind and utterly devoid of that nameless power of interesting people which is often called magnetism for lack of any other definition.
Despite her excellent social position, her wealth and her fair share of good looks, she had never received a proposal in her twenty-three years of life, and when Jack Dayton dawned upon her horizon like a bright star of hope she exerted ever particle of tact and finesse in her power to invent excuses for frequent interviews, and she wore her most becoming garments and sang her sweetest songs to interest him. Not that she was desperately infatuated with him, but that she desired to be settled in life; and his appearance and manners were pleasing to her withal, and a certain melancholy air he sometimes carried about him appealed to the romance in her nature.
Woman is by instinct a natural comforter and consoler of man. It is the mother impulse in them, and the man who wears a mournful or mysterious mien appeals to the maternal side of their nature.
Gertrude Seymour was, of course, unconscious that Jack was merely committing parricide in her presence by killing Father Time, who had wearied him unmercifully of late. But her father lent sudden interest to the situation by stoutly objecting to the frequent calls of a "penniless adventurer," as he termed Jack, upon his daughter. Jack was in the front parlor and overheard the loud voice of the infuriated father when the servant announced the caller for Miss Gertrude. He walked boldly to the folding doors, threw them open, and stood facing the angry father in a blaze of manly pride and dignity.
"Sir," he said, "I am no penniless adventurer; I am a man of honor, every whit as good as you are, sir. I consider myself your equal in every respect save that of years and riches, and time will bring me both, I dare say, as he brought them to you. I have come to your house as an honest man comes, with no unworthy thoughts of crafty purposes, and I cannot sit silent and hear myself maligned, even under your own roof, sir."
By this time Gertrude was in tears, and the irate old gentleman stood staring and listening, with wonder and admiration mingled in his expression. And as Jack ceased speaking he approached him, held out his hand, and said with a half smile:
"Young fellow, I like your spirit. You are game. I was mistaken in you. I shall be glad to see you here at any time, sir. Take a seat and make yourself at home."
* * * * * *
When Vey left Mrs. Chester's boarding house she walked rapidly toward the east until she reached First Avenue, and East River barred further progress.
She had only once been as far as East River before, but she remembered that it seemed quite out of the world to her then, and she had heard the salesgirls say that rents were cheap in that locality.
She had no definite plans, but her one idea was to get away from all her recent associations--to flee where no one could find her. She knew that First Avenue was a locality unfrequented by any of the boarders at Mrs. Chester's, and she applied at the first house where she saw a sign of "Rooms to Rent."
In a plainly furnished room on the third floor she deposited her bundle, took the key, and paid in advance the $2 which the landlady named as the price per week. She did not care to look further--she only wanted a place to return to at night, and it mattered little where it was.
She went out upon the street and walked to and fro and up and down, without object or aim, the entire day. It seemed to her that some terrible monster lay in wait to seize her the moment she should cease action.
The day died out and the lamps were lighted, and the passers-by on the street began to be mainly masculine and to stare boldly at the solitary figure walking slowly, with such a pale, set look upon her face. Presently a policeman touched her arm and said most unkindly: "What are you doing out here alone, Miss; it's getting late and you'd better turn in." Then for the first time she realized that the night had come, and she retraced her steps back to First Avenue and crawled into her bed to fall into a heavy, dreamless slumber.
It was late when she awoke the next day and she was very faint. She had eaten nothing since breakfast the morning previous. She went down to the street and entered a restaurant, where she partook of a light meal, and then stole back to her lonely room. The desolation of it was maddening, and her heart was rousing from that first lethargy which often comes with a great blow into the succeeding agony.
Life in all its terrible emptiness and solitude stretched before her like an endless desert.
She could never go back to the store again. She must forever avoid all places associated with his memory, so far as possible; and she must give him no clue by which to trace her.
"He has killed me--I am dead," she told herself.
Yes, in the dark, still watches of that night she cried out: "Jack, Jack, I cannot live away from you. I will come--I will come. It shall be even as you say." And she arose and groped about for a light, and found pencil and paper and sat down to write him her acceptance of his proposition.
"What does anything matter now?" she muttered to herself. "He thinks evil of me, and it might as well be true. I do not care for goodness just for its own sake--I only cared for his respect. Now that is lost nothing matters. I may as well find what happiness I can in his love.
She wrote a weird scrawl bidding him to do as he had suggested, and addressed it to the Parker House, Boston. Then, when she saw the address, a great horror seized upon her and she tore the letter into fragments, and broke into the first wild tears she had shed.
"Father-Mother-God-Jack-oh, somebody, somebody help me! I am so alone, so alone!" she cried, "and I do not know what to do."
She thought of the river, of the Sound, both so near, where she might end her unhappy, homeless lot, with no one to care. It seemed such an easy thing to do--she could creep down to the water in the darkness, and no one would know until her bloated and disfigured body was fished ashore.
The only thing which hindered her from self-destruction was the thought that this was almost always the end of evil-doers--women who were sick of sin.
"He will surely believe me a wicked girl if I do that," she said, and this consciousness saved her.
Early the next morning she began her aimless tramp, and the clocks were striking 12 when she found herself in front of one of the large theaters. A sudden thought occurred to her. There was no way in which she could so effectually sink her identity as in a theatrical life. She had seen such scores of girls who all looked precisely alike marching about the stage in some of the theaters where she had been with Jack.
He had once spoken of the lives of these girls with great commiseration.
"I can imagine no more dreary or hopeless career," he had said, "than that of the chorus girls. They work hard, are poorly paid, and are as utterly lost to the world and society as a rain-drop in the ocean."
Bella, on the contrary, who was always discussing stage matters, assured her that they were quite as well paid for their evening labors as a salesgirl for her entire day's work.
Vey thought of all this as she stood in front of the theater. It seemed to her in a hard working life of excitement like that she might best be forgotten and forget. She went in and asked for the manager. He was above and in a few minutes would be disengaged. She waited, saw him, and made known her errand. "What part do you want to take?" he asked, watching her with half-closed eyes. "Anything," she answered, listlessly. "I am willing to be a ladies' maid, if need be. I want work--that is all--and want it here, if possible." The manager's eyes noted the superb yet delicate outlines of the young girls' figure and her handsome, well-formed features.
"You may come again to-morrow at the same hour," he said.
So Vey was engaged to take part in the chorus. She gave her name as May Adams, thus ending forever, as she supposed, her career as Vey Volney. She was obliged to wear tights and scant skirts, but her modesty and sense of personal pride were buried with Vey Volney, so she did not care. She only asked to be occupied and apart from the scenes of her few brief months of happiness. It seemed to her that the flaming sword of pain was brandished by the cruel hand of fate about those old scenes, and the very thought of ever seeing any of the faces associated with that time made her heartsick and faint.
One day she encountered on the street an old gentleman who had been a boarder at Mrs. Chester's for a brief time. She had never exchanged a word with him, and did not even know his name.
Yet the sight of him brought back all the old hours with Jack in cruel distinctness before her heart's eager vision. She hard his gay laugh, saw his bright face, felt the support of his arm as in their pedestrian tours together, and even the odor of those first flowers he had sent floated back to her, until she dropped her veil over her face to conceal the thickly falling tears.
The old man passed on his way, wholly unconscious that his plain and care-lined countenance had power to stir any human heart with such keen pain. Sometimes when a human heart is making a brave effort to forget it seems as if memory assumed the attitude of an outraged fiend, and stood ever awaiting its opportunity to cast the poisoned arrow of a reminder.
Scarcely had Vey recovered form the misery of recollection caused by the sight of the old man's face when a new agony was prepared for her.
As she marched mechanically in the final great spectacular scene of the play one night she passed so near one of the boxes that a man's laughter struck her ear like an echo from the silvery past. She glanced in the direction of the box and saw Jack Dayton leaning over a dark-eyed girl and laughing and talking gayly, while she listened with absorbed interest. There were other people in the box, but Vey saw only those two. The sight hurt her heart with the most exquisite torture. She bit her lip to keep from screaming as she passed on her way, but as she neared one of the wings she felt her strength giving way, and barely made her exit from the stage before she fell in a dead swoon.
"Her belt was too tight," the tire woman told the manager behind the scenes, and as he gazed down on the girl's inanimate figure he thought she was the most perfectly formed woman he had ever seen, and resolved to give her a chance to distinguish herself. He had noticed the are quality of her voice, and she seemed to throw more pathos and passion into her singing than even the star of the company could do.
Vey had been in the chorus eighteen months when her manager one day sent for her. Each month had been a century of desolation and strength-consuming sorrow and loneliness. She made no acquaintance among her companions. She came among them for rehearsal and for the evening exhibition, and performed her duties and disappeared as utterly at the falling of the curtain on the last act as if the grave closed over her.
Having known the companionship of a man whom she loved, she found no temptation to counterfeit the sterling gold of that true happiness by the cheap tinsel of common flirtation, in which many of her associates indulged. A pure and passionate love, however unhappy and hopeless in its result, is the greatest of all safeguards against temptation for a true-minded woman.
In spite of Jack Dayton's ignoble conduct, he was the ideal man to Vey. She blamed herself wholly in the matter which had caused their separation. And she could not bring herself to make any acquaintance which would reflect in the least degree upon her life, which she meant to consecrate to his memory. In consequence her existence was a prolonged agony of desolation.
She seldom spoke with any human being, save the stage manager, from one week's end to another, and the Sabbath was a day of dreaded torture to her, since its monotony was not even broken by her employment.
Once she tried attending divine service. As her natural instincts were all refined, her tastes led her toward one of the most elegant and aristocratic houses of worship near Fifth Avenue. She stood unnoticed in the aisle for an embarrassing period of time, while the austere usher seated the fashionably attired owners of pews in their proper places. Finally, seated near the door alone she sat through a sermon which dealt with the ethical bearing of some of the special dogmas of the creed of that denomination, and her heart grew lonelier and lonelier in its desolation, and hungrier and hungrier for love and sympathy.
Had she gone to that same church one week earlier she might have heard a sermon full of peace and strength for sad souls like her own. But it seemed as if fate was mocking her, and turned even her pitiful attempt to obtain religious consolation into a sarcasm.
She did not understand what the big man in the white surplice was talking about, and the people all around her seemed like inhabitants of another sphere and so far, far removed from a lonely girl like her.
A great fear of heaven stole over her as she sat there. She thought of eternities of life beyond in a world which that congregation represented. It seemed to her that God was a big man seated somewhere on a throne far, far away, and dealing out terrible truths in the same austere and emphatic manner in which the clergyman spoke. The attentive, haughty-faced, well-bred congregation were the people who would be angels in his kingdom no doubt, and they would pay no more attention to her there than here, and when they all arose and joined in the singing which some invisible choir began, the thought of spending an eternity among those conditions so impressed and terrified her that she stole out into the free air and shook off the nightmare of fear which filled her by walking down to the Grand Central depot and watching the people pour out of the incoming trains. It gave her a passing feeling of excitement, as if she was expecting some one; as if she had some living human interest in life outside of her own sad self; and somehow she felt that this was what she needed far more than the possible hope of a future existence in a conventional heaven.
All Vey's early religious training had been of the most unsatisfactory and vague kind. She had been taught to believe the Bible and to respect the ministers of the gospel. In her lonely life, and with her strange, weird imagination, she had built up a temple of fear and placed God therein, a being to dread rather than to love. Unfortunately, her occasional attendance at church had strengthened rather than mitigated this feeling. The thought of death was horrible to her, and bitterness took root in her heart between her sorrow and loneliness in this life and her dread of the next.
With no one to whom she could utter her thoughts or from whom she could receive more sensible views, her mind grew warped and her ideas distorted. And with dwelling ever upon her few months of happiness she came to be well nigh the victim of melancholy madness--that most difficult phase of insanity--and the great cit pulsed on about her and no one knew or cared that her heart was breaking.
When she responded to her manager's summons, se found him alone. "Sit down," he said kindly. "I sent for you because I wanted to tell you how well pleased I am with--your voice and deportment."
"Indeed? Thank you," she answered, mechanically.
"You have the qualities of greatness," he said, "within you if they were brought out. Properly trained and coached and advertised you could be made one of the greatest stars in your line. You could command the salary of a princess in a year's time at farthest." He paused.
"Well?" Vey asked quietly, for she knew he had not finished. Then the worthy manager proceeded tot ell her that all this and more he would do for her, paying expenses and widely advertising her, on a condition which no honest woman could accept.
It was Evil tempting Goodness again, as in that day on the mount when Satan, the father of evil, tempted Christ, the spirit of goodness, to fall down and worship him.
Vey arose with a weary sigh.
"It is useless for us to waste further time," she said. "I will go now."
"You refuse, then?" he asked, with an ugly scowl. "I shall cut down your salary in that case and give you the poorest place in the whole cast. You had better accept my offer; very few girls would be foolish enough to refuse such a chance.
Vey looked him straight in the eyes.
"My dear sir," she said in a low voice, which trembled slightly; "I was once tempted to do wrong by the man I loved. I had no home, no friends, no one but him to care for. Yet I fled from him, went out into the lonesome world to keep my soul from soil. Do you think I would sell it now, for gold or glory?
"You can reduce my salary if you like, sir. I do not care for this life I am leading, only that it keeps my mind occupied and helps me to live apart from those I no longer wish to see. I like the study of the music--that alone gives me pleasure. I have suffered the worst possible sorrow and loneliness and danger that can come to any living creature. There is no harm that you could do me now that would not seem small and trivial compared to what I have passed through. I am not worth your anger, sir, or your thoughts in any way."
She was white and grave, but there was no anger in her face. She knew the world now thoroughly and these things only wearied her.
Her tempted turned away without a word. Her grave face, her direct gaze, her sad voice, gave him a sensation of shame. Yet two weeks later he cursed himself for a fool in having let the girl slip through his grasp.
And this was the cause. The very day following her conversation with the manager Vey passed Bella on Broadway.
Her former assistant in the cloak-room was magnificently attired, and she was laughing up in the face of one of New York's wealthiest young Wall street brokers.
Scores of people gazed upon and admired the dashing woman who surged along with the crowd, and Vey heard many exclamations of praise for her beauty and elegance.
Bella was a perfectly natural blonde with hair like fresh straw, and the tints of the sea shell in her skin. She was not obliged to artificialize in the least, and now attired in rich dark furs and a Frenchy black bonnet aglitter with jet, she was one of the handsomest women on Broadway during the fashionable hour of promenading, despite her short figure and lack of size.
A great sense of the injustice of the world, and a mighty anger at Fate, book possession of Vey. She looked down upon her plain ulster, her cheap dress, her inexpensive muff made by her own hands, and her heart surged with bitter, wrathful emotions.
"This is the payment which virtue receives," she said. "Yonder goes the world's payment for vice."
Alas, it is too true. Oh! pure-souled, good women of our great cities; oh, noble men striving to stem the tide of immorality, have you ever thought what an excellent idea a prize for virtue would be? When you walk through some large factory or extensive retail establishment where scores of pretty young girls are employed, have you ever thought of the struggle through which many of them are passing to retain their honor?
The tempter ever stands ready with his costly gifts for the one who yields to vice. Often the very men who employ them will encourage their vicious tendencies by gifts of jewels and fine apparel, as in the case of Bella. But who seeks out the virtuous ones and recompenses them?
Virtue is its own reward, you say. Yet to the lonely and desolate Vey, homeless, poor and alone, the reward seemed terribly meager compared to the costly garments, comforts, and attentions which Bella received at the world's hands.
If some good woman who had seen her in the cloak-room during those long months had cared to interest herself in the life of a girl who served her with such grace and courtesy, how much sorrow she might have averted.
If in all the vast city of New York, or the great world outside, there had been one woman to whom she could appeal for friendship, advice, or sympathy--but there was not one.
I have sometimes thought what a grand charity it would be could the good women of the large cities organize themselves into a secret society to investigate the daily private life, the temptations and struggles of working girls. Every case where virtue had triumphed over one temptation should be reported to this society, and some useful and beautiful gift voted to the worthy girl.
The great majority of men in the world belong to a society which votes premiums for vice. Poor or unprotected girls are watched, and each thoughtless act which could tend toward viciousness is noted down mentally, and tempting rewards are offered and readily paid for their continuance in the broad way. Even a few misdirected women belong to this organization, and night and day its work goes on all about us.
Why, then should not we, who seek to protect the virtue of young girls, be willing to work as faithfully and pay as high rewards? Perhaps if we went about this work in so practical a manner there would be less need for "homes for fallen women."
A curious impulse seized upon Vey in a half sarcastic mood to reward herself for her own strength.
"I will treat myself to a fine costume," she said, "since no one else appreciates my worth sufficiently to do so."
She had saved quite a little sum through her economical mode of life and her patient industry. She bought the first silk dress she had ever owned, cut and made it with her own deft hands, trimmed it in the latest fashion, made a little bonnet to match, and with fresh gloves and boots, sallied forth one of those mild, spring-like days which come so often in late winter in New York to promenade in the fresh air. She had no fear of being recognized by any former acquaintance, for she had cropped her own luxuriant hair close to her head, and always appeared now with the blonde wig which comprised an important part of her stage "makeup." No one would recognize the fashionably attired blonde woman as Vey Volney, the salesgirl.
At least so she thought. Her manager met her near Union Square. His face grew white with rage, and he ground his teeth in frenzy at his own folly.
"A nice yarn that of fleeing from temptation," he sneered. "But she never paid for that costume out of the salary I give her, that's certain."
Another paid of eyes beside the manager's saw and drew similar conclusions.
Jack Dayton stood just inside the door at Brentano's, looking at the great human caravan as they walked slowly by. Despite the fashionable silk gown he knew the outlines of her matchless form; despite the blonde wig he knew her handsome young face. He turned away sick at heart, with his worst and hitherto vague fears confirmed.
That stylish costume and the masses of what he supposed bleached hair branded her as lost in his eyes.
When Vey reached her lodgings that evening she found a note from her manager, saying that her services were no longer required by the company. And that evening Jack Dayton asked Gertrude Seymour to be his wife.
The Adventures of Miss Volneyby Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
Tumwater, WA: The Ella Wheeler Wilcox Society, 2006.
Based on the printing by Street & Smith, c1900.
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