The Adventures of Miss Volney
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
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  Poor Vey! through the one luxury of her pinched and lonely life, the one small extravagance to which in a moment of bitter sarcasm she had treated herself, she had lost the respect of the two men who were most intimately associated with her life, lost her position, and lost forever all hope of a realization of her dream of youthful love.

  Many a hard-working girl wastes more money in cheap gewgaws than this whole simple outfit had cost, but Vey's skill with the needle and her splendid physique had together given the garment the appearance of an imported costume.

  When she hung the dress away under a sheet on the wall of her one room that night she smiled bitterly, patted its silken folds and said aloud in the fashion acquired by people who live much alone of speaking to inanimate objects: "There, my pretty little reward-for-well-doing, you have made your bow to the great world, and now you must hang on the wall for a long, long time, for your poor little mistress has lost her situation."

  She did not dream that the "pretty little reward-for-well-doing," as she termed her own pathetic gift to herself, had been the cause of so much mischief.

  She lay awake many hours that night, trying to see into the darkly veiled future, trying to plan her wisest course of action. She shrank from the wearisome strife, the desolation of loneliness, the distasteful labor, that lay before her if she continued in the theatrical career. Without money, without influence or ambition, her opportunity for advancement beyond the drudgery of the business was poor indeed.

  She felt no desire for fame; the thought of a career was in no wise attractive to her. Yet she must support herself in some way, and she must keep her mind employed or go mad. She longed for some place, however small, which she might call home!

  She longed for means to cultivate the voice which had already begun to be recognized for its power, and the woman's desire for becoming apparel had taken a new hold upon her heart.

  She felt that it was the right of youth and beauty and virtue to be daintily attired, and now she knew that she was beautiful--knew it with bitterness of heart, as she thought of her starved childhood and neglected youth. Oh, if she had only been loved and petted, and tenderly cared for, like the happy young girls she was in the streets with their school books under their arms, how beautiful her life might have grown to be ere this--a fair, healthy vine twining about the walls of some sweet home. Now it was a dwarfed and puny root, struggling up through the dust of the street for a mere existence, and in danger of complete destruction from the careless feet that hurried by unheeding.

  "With just a little, ever so little, training," she said to herself, "I might have been a girl he could have loved; I might have been his wife!" and she fell into thinking of Jack a gain and living over all the hours of happiness she had known in his society--thoughts which she had vainly endeavored to shun ever since the receipt of that terrible letter; and in the agony of her recollections she found how true it was that--

Sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things.

  She had not slept at all when she arose to meet the long day which stared her in the face like a laughing fiend.

  She had decided to obtain a position in some theatrical company if possible. It opened the avenue to a musical education, and the cultivation of her talent in this art was the only pleasure in life now left her.

  She visited every theatrical manager in the city during the next ten days, and then only to meet with discouragement. The busy, overtaxed men who caused her so much delay had no idea that they were wasting the small fund of savings which lay between her and starvation. Even if they had known, they could scarcely have done differently. In a city like New York, the applicants for assistance are so many, the hours so freighted with conflicting duties, that it is impossible for one in a responsible position always to be the good Samaritan to pause and pour oil on all the wounded ones who lay by the wayside.

  Vey understood this, and waited upon their good pleasure and leisure with a patience which, nevertheless, grew into bitter despair ere long.

  She had youth, beauty, voice, presence and some experience to recommend her for the position she desired. But she had no money and no influential friends. The first manager to whom she presented herself dismissed her with a gruff refusal.

  The second and third expressed regret that they had no vacant place for her. Several urged her to seek some other vocation, yet could not advise her what to do.

  The last one, whose name Vey knew was worldwide in its fame as that of a successful manager, gave her the promise of a good position in his new company at once, but he made the same conditions of which her refusal had lost her the place she held in the other company. These conditions were made as calmly and in as matter-a-fact a manner as if he were speaking of the amount of salary, instead of the proposed sale of a soul.

  Vey went out upon the street with an angry despair in her heart. It seemed to her as if the whole forces of the world were arrayed against her.

  "God has forgotten me," she said to herself, "and the devil alone thinks of me!"

  During the ten days in which she had been out of employment she had quite exhausted her small store of savings on which her handsome but unfortunate costume had made a great inroad.

  She had taken barely sufficient food to sustain life, and now her room rent was be come due and she had but one dollar in the world. The dry goods establishments were all reducing their supplies of help because of the early exodus of people from the city to the country and shore. There was no hope of obtaining employment there, and she knew not what to do. She walked up past a prominent club, which Jack had told her had a revenue of $150,000 a year to keep up its splendid appointments, and she smiled bitterly as she thought how indignant any one of those club men would be should she ring the door bell of his residence and ask for $10 to assist her over her present time of need.

  And yet how small that sum would be compared to the amount he nightly threw away in unnecessary suppers at the club.

  She crossed over to Sixth Avenue, and walked down slowly and wearily, turning her face resolutely away from the restaurant windows, for she was beginning to feel the pangs of hunger to a painful degree, and again she said to herself: "God has forgotten me."

  Just as she spoke these words she heard her name spoken, and looked up to find herself face to face with Bella, who seized her by both hands and drew her arm within her own.

  Vey was sick and lonely, so starving in heart, as well as in body, that the sight and sound of a being who seemed glad to meet her almost intoxicated her senses. She moved mechanically along by Bella's side, feeling very faint and dizzy, and listening to her chatter in a sort of daze.

  "Well, well, well," Bella was saying, "I never expected to see you again; I thought you were lost or dead or something. And did that nice young man succeed in finding you?

  "Are you married to him? I suppose, of course, you are by this time; he was so much in love with you, and so distressed about you the day he came to see me. Do tell me where you were, and how it all ended, for I am wild with curiosity. When were you married?"

  "I am not married," Vey answered, in a strange voice, "and I don't know what you mean. Who came to inquire about me, and when? I did not know that anyone was interested in my whereabouts."

  "Oh, you sly one," laughed Bella, pinching her arm, "as if a woman does not always know when a man is in love with her. Why, it was just after you left our boarding house over on the West Side, you know, and it was that handsome blonde fellow that used to walk to the store with you--Jack, Jack Dayton, I believe his name was?"

  Vey's heart was in her throat, a thousand bells rang in her ears, a thousand stars flashed before her eyes. She reeled, and would have fallen if Bella had not grasped her tightly, and pinched her arm furiously.

  "Good gracious," cried the frightened young woman, "what is the matter? You are as white as death."

  The sound of Jack's name spoken suddenly, sent all the blood in Vey's body surging toward her passionate young heart, and almost caused it to cease beating.

  To a refined and intense nature love is religion, and the object is held in sacred holiness, apart from other beings.

  The heart which does not always thrill at the unexpected mention of the dearest of earthly names is not occupied by love. He has died or lies asleeping when that sound ceases to stir sudden ripples in the current of the emotions.

  In Vey's weak and nervous condition, the name which she had whispered over and over in the dark hours of the desolate nights to her suffering heart had grown to be as sacred as the mystic "Om" to the devout Buddhist.

  Uttered aloud and carelessly by the thoughtless lips of Bella, it shocked the sensitive ear of her heart like a blasphemy.

  But of this Bella was wholly unconscious. Incapable of a great passion herself, she was unable to understand it in another. She never thought of associating sentiment with Vey's faintness, but she saw with matter-of-fact eyes her companion was ill, and she half led, half dragged her into O'Neil's restaurant, near by, and seated her at a small table in a retired corner.

  A waiter who recognized in Bella the blonde young lady who always "feed" him so liberally when he served her, approached, and Bella ordered a savory lunch for two "with wine," and Vey, who was really ill from excitement, lack of proper food and loneliness, recalled the last time she was ever in this restaurant, with Jack on a Sunday afternoon and broke into a flood of tears and rose to make her escape. She felt that she could not, must not, sit in that same room with Bella who, as Jack had told her, was an unworthy girl. But when she tried to stand on her feet she reeled and grew so dizzy that she was obliged to sit down. Just then the waiter approached with the appetizing luncheon.

  Bella regarded her companion with curious eyes, wholly unconscious of the memories and emotions at war within her.

  "You are so tired you are kind of hysterical," she said, as Vey resumed her seat. "You had better eat something or take a little wine right away." By this time her feminine gaze had fastened itself upon the blond frizzes peeping forth under the brim of Vey's hat.

  "Well, I do declare," she cried, "if you haven't got on a wig! Well, I never!"

  Vey caught the savory odor of a salad which the waiter placed before her, and ravenous hunger asserted itself. She tasted it, and her resolve to go away was overcome by appetite's appeal to remain.

  "What in the world makes you wear a wig?" Bella persisted.

  "It was what I wore on the stage--" Vey began and then came to a sudden pause, but too late to conceal her secret.

  "The stage! You don't mean to tell me that you are an actress," almost screamed Bella, with staring eyes from which envy gleamed.

  The stage was Bella's idea of paradise, and she had vainly tried to gain admission to its charmed circle but her short figure, her baby face, her lack of motion and je ne sais quoi had debarred her form success in entering this world of her dreams.

  Now to think that the despised and prosaic Vey--the girl who had said that her ambition was to live in two rooms and take care of babies--to think that girl was on the stage, why it simply passed beyond human belief.

  "You don't mean to tell me that you are an actress?" Bella repeated, and Vey shook her head.

  "I was on the stage until a few days ago," she said wearily; "then I lost my place. I have just been trying to get another situation, but I have not succeeded. And now, I think, if you will excuse me, I will go, but first you must let me pay for half this luncheon.

  "Pshaw!" said Bella, with a wave of her hand, "sit down and finish it. I know you are hungry, and I am wild to hear how you came on the stage and all bout it. You must tell me the whole story, or I shall perish from curiosity."

  Vey, who had been hungering for human companionship even more than for food, felt a great longing to talk to somebody. The cynical thought came to her mind: "Suppose Bella is not a good girl, will I be harmed by talking to her for half an hour any more than I have been harmed by talking to bad men to-day? It is not my fault if the good people avoid me, and the bad ones seek me. It seems to me that only the bad people are good to me, while all the good people treat me badly." And almost smiling at her own paradoxical conceit, Vey began to relieve her overcharged heart of its burden by turning the faucet of speech.

  "I had trouble come to me--no matter what," she said wearily, "and I could not stay in the store, or at Mrs. Chester's any longer. I wanted to be lost to everybody I ever knew, and so I went away, and finally I got a place in the chorus." Then she proceeded to tell her companion of her experiences in the theatrical world up to date.

  Bella listened with excited interest, frequently interrupting her with questions and comments. When she had finished the story Bella looked her in the face with a puzzled expression, in which scorn and doubt were mingled.

  "I think you are the very biggest goose or the greatest liar in the world," she said bluntly, rising from the table and draining Vey's untouched glass of wine as she did so.

  "I am not a liar surely," Vey replied, and Bella felt the sincerity of her words.

  "Won't you come home with me?" she queried, as she drew on her long gloves. "You had better stay with me till you get settled. You know my uncle has gone to Europe, and he has left me in charge of his elegant apartments. I have plenty of room for you; and I have a friend--one of my uncle's friends rather--who has a large acquaintance among theatrical people, and he might help you to get a place. I expect he will call this evening."

  Vey thanked her, but declined. "I must go back to my own room," she said. "You are very kind, Bella, but I would rather not go with you. I must depend upon myself to find a situation. Here is my share of the lunch bill. Good-bye, Bella." Laying some pieces of silver on the table as she spoke, Vey hurried out before Bella could speak.

  Vey's sudden departure was caused by a series of wildly contending emotions which took possession of her as Bella offered her hospitality.

  To an innocent and uninitiated woman (although she would not confess it doubtless) there is often, if not always, a great fascination in the mystery surrounding the career of such a person as Bella. Once, however, let the evil veil of mystery be lifted, and she shrinks from the decaying skeleton within, and regrets that she ever came to know, even by observation, the frightful facts of such a life.

  Vey was perfectly innocent of any real knowledge of evil. She merely knew that Bella was said to be living a life unsanctioned by laws of God or man, and seemed happy and contended, while she herself, living a pure life, was unspeakably wretched and miserable.

  But she did not know the deception, the falsehood, the fear of discovery, the dread of consequences, the sordid aims, the crime, the coarse details, which would have made each day of Bella's life a living hell to a nature like her own.

  It might have been an excellent thing for Vey had she accepted Bella's offer and accompanied her home that afternoon. She would have seen one unpleasant phase of the life to which women like Bella are often subjected, and her ideas of the injustice of the world would at least have been modified.

  When Bella reached her apartments she was amazed to find her elegant furniture occupying the sidewalk, and to encounter an enraged and profane landlord in the doorway. He did not scruple to inform her in plain and not at all choice English that he had discovered her character, and that she would not remain a tenant of his during another twenty-four hours for any consideration.

  Bella threatened him with the law, which no doubt was on her side, but as she had no desire to publish her disgrace in the daily press she choked down her indignation, called a baggage express, and before the next sunset was comfortably settled in apartments as remote as possible from the locality she had just vacated so unceremoniously.

  Any woman in whose nature lurked a particle of refinement or sensitiveness, no matter how immoral her life, would have been crushed to the dust by this most humiliating experience. But Bella felt only a passing rage and anger at the trouble and inconvenience to which she had been subjected, and soon forgot both in the excitement of a new adventure which fate threw in her way.

  As Vey walked rapidly down Sixth Avenue, after she left Bella, a great longing took possession of her to see Jack once more.

  She knew where his office was, and in two hours' time he would be leaving it. She had walked past the building, down hear the City Hall, one time with Jack, and he had pointed out the window where his desk stood.

  The more she thought of it the more it grew upon her that she must see his face again. A plan suggested itself to her fevered brain, which she quickly carried into execution. Returning to her apartment, she selected the old plaid shawl which she had brought from Herringville, and then proceeded to the costumer who furnished her stage "make-ups."

  An hour later Jack Dayton came down the stairs from his office to the street. He passed by without observing an old apple woman. She was bent of form and leaned upon a cane for support, while upon the disengaged arm she carried a basket of apples. Her black hair streaked with gray, hung low over her eyes, and blue "goggle" glasses hid their expression from view. An old shawl almost entirely enveloped her stooping figure.

  As Jack Dayton passed her she started, and almost forgot her decrepitude as she hurried to thrust her wares in his way.

  He threw her a few pennies without pausing, and hurried away in the direction of Broadway, never dreaming that the woman he left behind him was the one for whom he had so vainly searched and advertised.

  Vey was in a high fever; her head was aching, her heart breaking, as she lay down upon her lonely couch that night. The day had been one of intense excitement. Her unsuccessful interviews with the managers, the unexpected meeting with Bella, and all its revival of memories, and lastly the sight of Jack's dear face had combined to overtax her already depleted strength.

  As she lost consciousness that night she was praying wildly to God for death to release her from suffering; and when she next awoke to a realization of her surroundings, she believed he had answered her prayer, for she was lying in a cool, roomy place, entirely strange to her. A soft hand was bathing her brow, and she looked up into a face of angelic serenity and sweetness, and wondered if this could be heaven.

The Adventures of Miss Volneyby Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
Tumwater, WA: The Ella Wheeler Wilcox Society, 2006.
Based on the printing by Street & Smith, c1900.

The Adventures of Miss Volney
by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
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