MR. TOWERS CHANDLER WAS pressing his evening suit in his hall bedroom. One iron was heating on a small gas stove; the other was being pushed vigorously back and forth to make the desirable crease that would be seen later on extending in straight lines from Mr. Chandler’s patent leather shoes to the edge of his low-cut vest. So much of the hero’s toilet may be intrusted to our confidence. The remainder may be guessed by those whom genteel poverty has driven to ignoble expedient. Our next view of him shall be as he descends the steps of his lodging-house immaculately and correctly clothed; calm, assured, handsome – in appearance the typical New York young clubman setting out, slightly bored, to inaugurate the pleasures of the evening.
Chandler’s honorarium was $18 per week. He was employed in the office of an architect. He was twenty-two years old; he considered architecture to be truly an art; and he honestly believed – though he would not have dared to admit it in New York – that the Flatiron Building was inferior in design to the great cathedral in Milan.
Out of each week’s earnings Chandler set aside $1. At the end of each ten weeks with the extra capital thus accumulated, he purchased one gentleman’s evening from the bargain counter of stingy old Father Time. He arrayed himself in the regalia of millionaires and presidents; he took himself to the quarter where life is brightest and showiest, and there dined with taste and luxury. With ten dollars a man may, for a few hours, play the wealthy idler to perfection. The sum is ample for a well-considered meal, a bottle bearing a respectable label, commensurate tips, a smoke, cab fare and the ordinary etceteras.
This one delectable evening culled from each dull seventy was to Chandler a source of renascent bliss. To the society bud comes but one début; it stands alone sweet in her memory when her hair has whitened; but to Chandler each ten weeks brought a joy as keen, as thrilling, as new as the first had been. To sit among bon vivants under palms in the swirl of concealed music, to look upon the habitués of such a paradise and to be looked upon by them – what is a girl’s first dance and short-sleeved tulle compared with this?
Up Broadway Chandler moved with the vespertine dress parade. For this evening he was an exhibit as well as a gazer. For the next sixty-nine evenings he would be dining in cheviot and worsted at dubious table d’hôtes, at whirlwind lunch counters, on sandwiches and beer in his hall-bedroom. He was willing to do that, for he was a true son of the great city of razzle-dazzle, and to him one evening in the limelight made up for many dark ones.
Chandler protracted his walk until the Forties began to intersect the great and glittering primrose way, for the evening was yet young, and when one is of the beau monde only one day in seventy, one loves to protract the pleasure. Eyes bright, sinister, curious, admiring, provocative, alluring were bent upon him, for his garb and air proclaimed him a devotee to the hour of solace and pleasure.
At a certain corner he came to a standstill, proposing to himself the question of turning back toward the showy and fashionable restaurant in which he usually dined on the evenings of his especial luxury. Just then a girl scuddled lightly around the corner, slipped on a patch of icy snow and fell plump upon the sidewalk.
Chandler assisted her to her feet with instant and solicitous courtesy. The girl hobbled to the wall of the building, leaned against it, and thanked him demurely.
‘I think my ankle is strained,’ she said. ‘It twisted when I fell.’
‘Does it pain you much?’ inquired Chandler.
‘Only when I rest my weight upon it. I think I will be able to walk in a minute or two.’
‘If I can be of any further service,’ suggested the young man, ‘I will call a cab, or – ‘
‘Thank you,’ said the girl, softly but heartily. ‘I am sure you need not trouble yourself any further. It was so awkward of me. And my shoe heels are horridly common-sense; I can’t blame them at all.’
Chandler looked at the girl and found her swiftly drawing his interest. She was pretty in a refined way; and her eye was both merry and kind. She was inexpensively clothed in a plain black dress that suggested a sort of uniform such as shop girls wear. Her glossy dark-brown hair showed its coils beneath a cheap hat of black straw whose only ornament was a velvet ribbon and bow. She could have posed as a model for the self-respecting working girl of the best type.
A sudden idea came into the head of the young architect. He would ask this girl to dine with him. Here was the element that his splendid but solitary periodic feasts had lacked. His brief season of elegant luxury would be doubly enjoyable if he could add to it a lady’s society. This girl was a lady, he was sure – her manner and speech settled that. And in spite of her extremely plain attire he felt that he would be pleased to sit at table with her.
These thoughts passed swiftly through his mind, and he decided to ask her. It was a breach of etiquette, of course, but oftentimes wage-earning girls waived formalities in matters of this kind. They were generally shrewd judges of men; and thought better of their own judgment than they did of useless conventions. His ten dollars, discreetly expended, would enable the two to dine very well indeed. The dinner would no doubt be a wonderful experience thrown into the dull routine of the girl’s life; and her lively appreciation of it would add to his own triumph and pleasure.
‘I think,’ he said to her, with frank gravity,’that your foot needs a longer rest than you suppose. Now, I am going to suggest a way in which you can give it that and at the same time do me a favour. I was on my way to dine all by my lonely self when you came tumbling around the corner. You come with me and we’ll have a cozy dinner and a pleasant talk together, and by that time your game ankle will carry you home very nicely, I am sure.’
The girl looked quickly up into Chandler’s clear, pleasant countenance. Her eyes twinkled once very brightly, and then she smiled ingenuously.
‘But we don’t know each other – it wouldn’t be right, would it?’ she said, doubtfully.
‘There is nothing wrong about it,’ said the young man, candidly. ‘I’ll introduce myself – permit me – Mr. Towers Chandler. After our dinner, which I will try to make as pleasant as possible, I will bid you good-evening, or attend you safely to your door, whichever you prefer.’
‘But, dear me!’ said the girl, with a glance at Chandler’s faultless attire. ‘In this old dress and hat!’
‘Never mind that,’ said Chandler, cheerfully. ‘I’m sure you look more charming in them than any one we shall see in the most elaborate dinner toilette.’
‘My ankle does hurt yet,’ admitted the girl, attempting a limping step.’I think I will accept your invitation, Mr. Chandler. You may call me – Miss Marian.’
‘Come then, Miss Marian,’ said the young architect, gaily, but with perfect courtesy; ‘you will not have far to walk. There is a very respectable and good restaurant in the next block. You will have to lean on my arm – so – and walk slowly. It is lonely dining all by one’s self. I’m just a little bit glad that you slipped on the ice.’
When the two were established at a well-appointed table, with a promising waiter hovering in attendance, Chandler began to experience the real joy that his regular outing always brought to him.
The restaurant was not so showy or pretentious as the one further down Broadway, which he always preferred, but it was nearly so. The tables were well filled with prosperous-looking diners, there was a good orchestra, playing softly enough to make conversation a possible pleasure, and the cuisine and service were beyond criticism. His companion, even in her cheap hat and dress, held herself with an air that added distinction to the natural beauty of her face and figure. And it is certain that she looked at Chandler, with his animated but self-possessed manner and his kindling and frank blue eyes, with something not far from admiration in her own charming face.
Then it was that the Madness of Manhattan, the frenzy of Fuss and Feathers, the Bacillus of Brag, the Provincial Plague of Pose seized upon Towers Chandler. He was on Broadway, surrounded by pomp and style, and there were eyes to look at him. On the stage of that comedy he had assumed to play the one-night part of a butterfly of fashion and an idler of means and taste. He was dressed for the part, and all his good angels had not the power to prevent him from acting it.
So he began to prate to Miss Marian of clubs, of teas, of golf and riding and kennels and cotillions and tours abroad and threw out hints of a yacht lying at Larchmont. He could see that she was vastly impressed by this vague talk, so he endorsed his pose by random insinuations concerning great wealth, and mentioned familiarly a few names that are handled reverently by the proletariat. It was Chandler’s short little day, and he was wringing from it the best that could be had, as he saw it. And yet once or twice he saw the pure gold of this girl shine through the mist that his egotism had raised between him and all objects.
‘This way of living that you speak of,’ she said, ‘sounds so futile and purposeless. Haven’t you any work to do in the world that might interest you more?’
‘My dear Miss Marian,’ he exclaimed – ‘work! Think of dressing every day for dinner, of making half a dozen calls in an afternoon – with a policeman at every corner ready to jump into your auto and take you to the station, if you get up any greater speed than a donkey cart’s gait. We do-nothings are the hardest workers in the land.’
The dinner was concluded, the waiter generously fed, and the two walked out to the corner where they had met. Miss Marian walked very well now; her limp was scarcely noticeable.
‘Thank you for a nice time,’ she said, frankly. ‘I must run home now. I liked the dinner very much, Mr. Chandler.’
He shook hands with her, smiling cordially, and said something about a game of bridge at his club. He watched her for a moment, walking rather rapidly eastward, and then he found a cab to drive him slowly homeward.
In his chilly bedroom Chandler laid away his evening clothes for a sixty-nine days’ rest. He went about it thoughtfully.
‘That was a stunning girl,’ he said to himself. ‘She’s all right, too, I’d be sworn, even if she does have to work. Perhaps if I’d told her the truth instead of all that razzle-dazzle we might – but, confound it! I had to play up to my clothes.’
Thus spoke the brave who was born and reared in the wigwams of the tribe of the Manhattans.
The girl, after leaving her entertainer, sped swiftly cross-town until she arrived at a handsome and sedate mansion two squares to the east, facing on that avenue which is the highway of Mammon and the auxiliary gods. Here she entered hurriedly and ascended to a room where a handsome young lady in an elaborate house dress was looking anxiously out the window.
‘Oh, you madcap!’ exclaimed the elder girl, when the other entered. ‘When will you quit frightening us this way? It is two hours since you ran out in that rag of an old dress and Marie’s hat. Mamma has been so alarmed. She sent Louis in the auto to try to find you. You are a bad, thoughtless Puss.’
The elder girl touched a button, and a maid came in a moment.
‘Marie, tell mamma that Miss Marian has returned.’
‘Don’t scold, sister. I only ran down to Mme. Theo’s to tell her to use mauve insertion instead of pink. My costume and Marie’s hat were just what I needed. Every one thought I was a shopgirl, I am sure.’
‘Dinner is over, dear; you stayed so late.’
‘I know. I slipped on the sidewalk and turned my ankle. I could not walk, so I hobbled into a restaurant and sat there until I was better. That is why I was so long.’
The two girls sat in the window seat, looking out at the lights and the stream of hurrying vehicles in the avenue. The younger one cuddled down with her head in her sister’s lap.
‘We will have to marry some day,’ she said dreamily – ‘both of us. We have so much money that we will not be allowed to disappoint the public. Do you want me to tell you the kind of a man I could love, Sis?’
‘Go on, you scatterbrain,’ smiled the other.
‘I could love a man with dark and kind blue eyes, who is gentle and respectful to poor girls, who is handsome and good and does not try to flirt. But I could love him only if he had an ambition, an object, some work to do in the world. I would not care how poor he was if I could help him build his way up. But, sister dear, the kind of man we always meet – the man who lives an idle life between society and his clubs – I could not love a man like that, even if his eyes were blue and he were ever so kind to poor girls whom he met in the street.’
This story was originally published in The Four Million, a collection of short stories by O. Henry, in 1906.
Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art (www.moma.org).