From “Lifted Masks: Stories“
First published in The Delineator, 1912. Illustrated by W. I. Scott
The old man held the picture up before him and surveyed it with admiring but disapproving eye. “No one that comes along this way’ll have the price for it,” he grumbled. “It’ll just set here ‘till doomsday.”
It did seem that the picture failed to fit in with the rest of the shop. A persuasive young fellow who claimed he was closing out his stock let the old man have it for what he called a song. It was only a little out-of-the-way store which subsisted chiefly on the framing of pictures. The old man looked around at his views of the city, his pictures of cats and dogs and gorgeous young women, his flaming bits of landscape. “Don’t belong in here,” he fumed, “any more ‘an I belong in Congress.”
And yet the old man was secretly proud of his acquisition. He seemed all at once to be lifted from his realm of petty tradesman to that of patron of art. There was a hidden dignity in his scowling as he shuffled about pondering the least ridiculous place for the picture.
It is not fair to the picture to try repainting it in words, for words reduce it to a lithograph. It was a bit of a pine forest, through which there exuberantly rushed an unspoiled little mountain stream. Chromos and works of art may deal with kindred subjects. There is just that one difference of dealing with them differently. “It ain’t what you see, so much as what you can guess is there,” was the thought it brought to the old man who was dusting it. “Now this frame ain’t three feet long, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if that timber kept right on for a hundred miles. I kind of suspect it’s on a mountain—looks cool enough in there to be on a mountain. Wish I was there. Bet they never see no such days as we do in Chicago. Looks as though a man might call his soul his own—out there.”
He began removing some views of Lincoln Park and some corpulent Cupids in order to make room in the window for the new picture. When he went outside to look at it he shook his head severely and hastened in to take away some ardent young men and women, some fruit and flowers and fish which he had left thinking they might “set it off.” It was evident that the new picture did not need to be “set off.” “And anyway,” he told himself, in vindication of entrusting all his goods to one bottom, “I might as well take them out, for the new one makes them look so kind of sick that no one would have them, anyhow.” Then he went back to mounting views with the serenity of one who stands for the finer things.
His clamorous little clock pointed to a quarter of six when he finally came back to the front of the store. It was time to begin closing up for the night, but for the minute he stood there watching the crowd of workers coming from the business district not far away over to the boarding-house region, a little to the west. He watched them as they came by in twos and threes and fours: noisy people and worn-out people, people hilarious and people sullen, the gaiety and the weariness, the acceptance and the rebellion of humanity—he saw it pass. “As if any of them could buy it,” he pronounced severely, adding, contemptuously, “or wanted to.”
The girl was coming along by herself. He watched her as she crossed to his side of the street, thinking it was too bad for a poor girl to be as tired as that. She was dressed like many of the rest of them, and yet she looked different—like the picture and the chromo. She turned an indifferent glance toward the window, and then suddenly she stood there very still, and everything about her seemed to change. “For all the world,” he told himself afterward, “as if she’d found a long-lost friend, and was ‘fraid to speak for fear it was too good to be true.”
She did seem afraid to speak—afraid to believe. For a minute she stood there right in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at the picture. And when she came toward the window it was less as if coming than as if drawn. What she really seemed to want to do was to edge away; yet she came closer, as close as she could, her eyes never leaving the picture, and then fear, or awe, or whatever it was made her look so queer gave way to wonder—that wondering which is ready to open the door to delight. She looked up and down the street as one rubbing one’s eyes to make sure of a thing, and then it all gave way to a joy which lighted her pale little face like—“Well, like nothing I ever saw before,” was all the old man could say of it. “Why, she’d never know if the whole fire department was to run right up here on the sidewalk,” he gloated. Just then she drew herself up for a long breath. “See?” he chuckled, delightedly. “She knows it has a smell!” She looked toward the door, but shook her head. “Knows she can’t pay the price,” he interpreted her. Then, she stepped back and looked at the number above the door. “Coming again,” he made of that; “ain’t going to run no chances of losing the place.” And then for a long time she stood there before the picture, so deeply and so strangely quiet that he could not translate her. “I can’t just get the run of it,” was his bewildered conclusion. “I don’t see why it should make anybody act like that.” And yet he must have understood more than he knew, for suddenly he was seeing her through a blur of tears.
As he began shutting up for the night he was so excited about the way she looked when she finally turned away that it never occurred to him to be depressed about her inability to pay the price.
He kept thinking of her, wondering about her, during the next day. At a little before six he took up his station near the front window. Once more the current of workers flowed by. “I’m an old fool,” he told himself, irritated at the wait; “as if it makes any difference whether she comes or not—when she can’t buy it, anyhow. She’s just as big a fool as I am—liking it when she can’t have it, only I’m the biggest fool of all—caring whether she likes it or not.” But just then the girl passed quickly by a crowd of girls who were ahead of her and came hurrying across the street. She was walking fast, and looked excited and anxious. “Afraid it might be gone,” he said—adding, grimly: “Needn’t worry much about that.”
She came up to the picture as some people would enter a church. And yet the joy which flooded her face is not well known to churches. “I’ll tell you what it’s like”—the old man’s thoughts stumbling right into the heart of it—“it’s like someone that’s been wandering round in a desert country all of a sudden coming on a spring. She’s thirsty—she’s drinking it in—she can’t get enough of it. It’s—it’s the water of life to her!” And then, ashamed of saying a thing that sounded as if it were out of a poem, he shook his shoulders roughly as if to shake off a piece of sentiment unbecoming his age and sex.
He went to the door and watched her as she passed away. “I’ll bet she’d never tip the scale to one hundred pounds,” he decided. “Looks like a good wind could blow her away.” She stooped a little and just as she passed from sight he saw that she was coughing.
Then the old man made what he prided himself was a great deduction. “She’s been there, and she wants to go back. This kind of takes her back for a minute, and when she gets the breath of it she ain’t so homesick.”
All through those July days he watched each night for the frail-looking little girl who liked the picture of the pines. She would always come hurrying across the street in the same eager way, an eagerness close to the feverish. But the tenseness would always relax as she saw the picture. “She never looks quite so wilted down when she goes away as she does when she comes,” the old man saw. “Upon my soul, I believe she really goes there. It’s—oh, Lord”—irritated at getting beyond his depth—“I don’t know!”
He never called it anything now but “Her Picture.” One day at just ten minutes of six he took it out of the window. “Seems kind of mean,” he admitted, “but I just want to find out how much she does think of it.”
And when he found out he told himself that of all the mean men God had ever let live, he was the meanest. The girl came along in the usual hurried, anxious fashion. And when she saw the empty window he thought for a minute she was going to sink right down there on the sidewalk. Everything about her seemed to give way—as if something from which she had been drawing had been taken from her. The luminousness gone from her face, there were cruel revelations. “Blast my soul!” the old man muttered angrily, not far from tearfully. She looked up and down the noisy, dirty, parched street, then back to the empty window. For a minute she just stood there—that was the worst minute of all. And then—accepting—she turned and walked slowly away, walked as the too-weary and the too-often disappointed walk.
It was with not wholly steady hand that the old man hastened to replace the picture, all the while telling himself what he thought of himself: more low-down than the cat who plays with the mouse, meaner than the man who’d take the bone from the dog, less to be loved than the man who would kick over the child’s play-house, only to be compared with the brute who would snatch the cup of water from the dying—such were the verdicts he pronounced. He thought perhaps she would come back, and stayed there until almost seven, waiting for her, though pretending it was necessary that he take down and then put up again the front curtains. All the next day he was restless and irritable. As if to make up to the girl for the contemptible trick he had played he spent a whole hour that afternoon arranging a tapestry background for the picture. “She’ll think,” he told himself, “that this was why it was out, and won’t be worried about its being gone again. This will just be a little sign to her that it’s here to stay.”
He began his watch that night at half-past five. After fifteen minutes the thought came to him that she might be so disheartened she would go home by another street. He became so gloomily certain she would do this that he was jubilant when he finally saw her coming along on the other side—coming purposelessly, shorn of that eagerness which had always been able, for the moment, to vanquish the tiredness. But when she came to the place where she always crossed the street she only stood there an instant and then, a little more slowly, a little more droopingly, walked on. She had given up! She was not coming over!
But she did come. After she had gone a few steps she hesitated again and this time started across the street. “That’s right,” approved the old man, “never give up the ship!”
She passed the store as if she were not going to look in; she seemed trying not to look, but her head turned—and she saw the picture. First her body seemed to stiffen, and then something—he couldn’t make out whether or not it was a sob—shook her, and as she came toward the picture on her white, tired face were the tears.
“Don’t you worry,” he murmured affectionately to her retreating form, “it won’t never be gone again.”
The very next week he was put to the test. The kind of lady who did not often pass along that street entered the shop and asked to see the picture in the window. He looked at her suspiciously. Then he frowned at her, as he stood there, fumbling. Her picture! What would she think? What would she do? Then a crafty smile stole over his face and he walked to the window and got the picture. “The price of this picture, madame,” he said, haughtily, “is forty dollars,”—adding to himself, “That’ll fix her.”
But the lady made no comment, and stood there holding the picture up before her. “I will take it,” she said, quietly.
He stared at her stupidly. Forty dollars! Then it must be that the picture was better than the young man had known. “Will you wrap it, please?” she asked. “I will take it with me.”
He turned to the back of the store. Forty dollars!—he kept repeating it in dazed fashion. And they had raised the rent on him, and the papers said coal would be high that winter—those facts seemed to have something to do with forty dollars. Forty dollars!—it was hammering at him, overwhelmed him, too big a sum to contend with. With long, grim stroke he tore off the wrapping paper; stoically he began folding it. But something was the matter. The paper would not go on right. Three times he took it off, and each time he could not help looking down at the picture of the pines. And each time the forest seemed to open a little farther; each time it seemed bigger—bigger even than forty dollars; it seemed as if it knew things—things more important than even coal and rent. And then the strangest thing of all happened: the forest faded away into its own shadowy distances, and in its place was a noisy, crowded, sun-baked street, and across the street was eagerly hurrying an anxious little girl, a frail little wisp of a girl who probably should not be crossing hot, noisy streets at all—then a light in tired eyes, a smile upon a worn face, relief as from a cooling breeze—and anyway, suddenly furious at the lady, furious at himself—“he’d be gol-darned if it wasn’t her picture!”
He walked firmly back to the front of the store.
“I forgot at first,” he said, brusquely, “that this picture belongs to someone else.”
The lady looked at him in astonishment. “I do not understand,” she said.
“There’s nothing to understand,” he fairly shouted, “except that it belongs to someone else!”
She turned away, but came back to him. “I will give you fifty dollars for it,” she said, in her quiet way.
“Madame,” he thundered at her, “you can stand there and offer me five hundred dollars, and I’m here to tell you that this picture is not for sale. Do you hear?”
“I certainly do,” replied the lady, and walked from the store.
He was a long time in cooling off. “I tell you,” he stormed to a very blue Lake Michigan he was putting into a frame, “it’s hers—it’s hers—and anybody that comes along here with any nonsense is just going to hear from me!”
In the days which followed he often thought to go out and speak to her, but perhaps the old man had a restraining sense of values. He planned some day to go out and tell her the picture was hers, but that seemed a silly thing to tell her, for surely she knew it anyway. He worried a good deal about her cough, which seemed to be getting worse, and he had it all figured out that when cold weather came he would have her come in where it was warm, and take her look in there. He felt that he knew all about her, and though he did not know her name, though he had never heard her speak one word, in some ways he felt closer to her than to any one else in the world.
Yet if the old man had known just how it was with the girl it is altogether unlikely that he would have understood. It would have mystified and disappointed him had he known that she had never seen a pine forest or a mountain in her life. Indeed there was a great deal about the little girl which the old man, together with almost all the rest of the world, would not have understood.
Not that the surface facts about her were either incomprehensible or interesting. The tale of her existence would sound much like that of a hundred other girls in the same city. Inquiry about her would have developed the facts that she did typewriting for a land company, that she did not seem to have any people, and lived at a big boarding-house. At the boarding-house they would have told you that she was a nice little thing, quiet as a mouse, and that it was too bad she had to work, for she seemed more than half sick. There the story would have rested, and the real things about her would not have been touched.
She worked for the Chicago branch of a big Northwestern land company. They dealt in the lands of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The things she sat at her typewriter and wrote were of the wonders of that great country: the great timber lands, the valleys and hills, towering mountain peaks and rushing rivers. She typewrote “literature” telling how there was a chance for every man out there, how the big, exhaustless land was eager to yield of its store to all who would come and seek. Day after day she wrote those things telling how the sick were made well and the poor were made rich, how it was a land of indescribable wonders which the feeble pen could not hope to portray.
And the girl with whom almost everything in life had gone wrong came to think of Out There as the place where everything was right. It was the far country where there was no weariness nor loneliness, the land where one did not grow tired, where one never woke up in the morning too tired to get up, where no one went to bed at night too tired to go to sleep. The street-cars did not ring their gongs so loud Out There, the newsboys had pleasant voices, and there were no elevated trains. It was a pure, high land which knew no smoke nor dirt, a land where great silences drew one to the heart of peace, where the people in the next room did not come in and bang things around late at night. Out There was a wide land where buildings were far apart and streets were not crowded. Even the horses did not grow tired Out There. Oh, it was a land where dreams came true—a beautiful land where no one ate prunes, where the gravy was never greasy and the potatoes never burned. It was a land of flowers and birds and lovely people—a land of wealth and health and many smiles.
Her imagination made use of it all. She knew how men were reclaiming the desert of Idaho, of the tremendous undeveloped wealth of what had been an almost undiscovered State. She thrilled to the poetry of irrigation. Often when hot and tired and dusty her fancy would follow the little mountain stream from its birth way up in the clouds, her imagination rushing with it through sweetening forest and tumbling with it down cooling rocks until finally strong, bold, wise men guided it to the desert which had yearned for it through all the years, and the grateful desert smiled rich smiles of grain and flowers. She could make it more like a story than any story in any book. And she could always breathe better in thinking of the pine forests of Oregon. There was something liberating—expanding—in just the thought of them. She dreamed cooling dreams about them, dreams of their reaching farther than one’s fancy could reach, big widening dreams of their standing there serene in the consciousness of their own immensity. They stood to her for a beautiful idea: the idea of space, of room—room for everybody, and then much more room! Even one’s understanding grew big as one turned to them.
And she loved to listen for the Pacific Ocean, coming from incomprehensible distances and unknowable countries, now rushing with passion to the wild coast of Oregon, again stealing into the Washington harbours. She loved to address the letters to Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma—all those pulsing, vivid cities of a country of big chances and big beauty. She loved to picture Seattle, a city builded upon many hills—how wonderful that a city should be builded upon hills!—in Chicago there was nothing that could possibly be thought of as a hill. And she loved to shut her eyes and let the great mountain peak grow in the distance, as one could see it from Portland—how noble a thing to see a mountain peak from a city! Sometimes she trembled before that consciousness of a mountain. Often when so tired she scarcely knew what she was doing she found she was saying her prayers to a mountain. Indeed, Out There seemed the place to send one’s prayers—for was it not a place where prayers were answered?
During that summer when the West was overrun with tourists who grumbled about everything from the crowded trains to the way in which sea-foods were served, this little girl sat in one of the hot office buildings of Chicago and across the stretch of miles drew to herself the spirit of that country of coming days. Thousands rode in Pullman cars along the banks of the Columbia—saw, and felt not; she sat before her typewriter in a close, noisy room and heard the cooling rush of waters and got the freeing message of the pines. In some rare moments when she rose from the things about her to the things of which she dreamed she possessed the whole great land, and as the sultry days sapped of her meagre strength, and the bending over the typewriter cramped an already too cramped chest she clung with a more and more passionate tenacity to the bigness and the beauty and rightness of things Out There. And it was so kind to her—that land of deep breaths and restoring breezes. It never shut her out. It always kept itself bigger and more wonderful than one could ever hope to fancy it.
And the night she found the picture she knew that it was all really so. That was why it was so momentous a night. The picture was a dream visualised—a dreamer vindicated. They had pictures in the office, of course—some pictures trying to tell of that very kind of a place. But those were just pictures; this proved it, told what it meant. It told that she had been right, and there was joy in knowing that she had known. She clung to the picture as one would to that which proves as real all one has long held dear, loved it as the dreamer loves that which secures him in his dreaming.
She came to think of it as her own abiding place. Often when too tired for long wings of fancy she would just sink down in the deep, cool shadows of the pines, beside the little river which one knew so well was the gift of distant snows. It rested her most of all; it quieted her.
She smiled sometimes to think how no one in the office knew about it, wondered what they would think if they knew. Often she would find someone in the office looking at her strangely. She used to wonder about it a little.
And then one day Mr. Osborne sent for her to come into his office. He acted so queerly. As she came in and sat down near his desk he swung his chair around and sat there with his back to her. After that he got up and walked to the window.
The head stenographer had complained of her cough. She said she did not think it right either to the girl or to the rest of them for her to be there. She said she hated to speak of it, but could not stand it any longer. That had been the week before, and ever since he had been putting it off. But now he could put it off no longer; the head stenographer was valuable, and besides he knew that she was right.
And so he told her—this was all he could think of just then—that they were contemplating some changes in the office, and for a time would have less desk room. If he sent her machine to her home, would she be willing to do her work there for a while? Hers was the kind of work that could be done at home.
She was sorry, for she wondered if she could find a place in her room for the typewriter, and it did not seem there would be air enough there to last her all day long. And she had grown fond of the office, with its “literature” and pictures and maps and the men who had just come from Out There coming in every once in a while. It was a bond—a place to touch realities. But of course there was nothing for her to do but comply, and she made no comment on the arrangement.
She pushed her chair back and rose to go. “Are you alone in the world?” he asked abruptly then,
“Yes; I—oh yes.”
It was too much for him. “How would you like,” he asked recklessly, “to have me get you transportation out West?”
She sank back in her chair. Every particle of colour had left her face. Her deep eyes had grown almost wild. “Oh,” she gasped—“you can’t mean—you don’t think—”
“You wouldn’t want to go?”
“I mean”—it was but a whisper—“it would be—too wonderful.”
“You would like it then?”
She only nodded; but her lips were parted, her eyes glowing. He wondered why he had never seen before how different looking and—yes, beautiful, in a strange kind of way—she was.
“I see you have a cold,” he said, “and I think you would get along better out there. I’ll see if I can fix up the transportation, and get something with our people in one of the towns that would be good for you.”
She leaned back in her chair and sat there smiling at him. Something in the smile made him say, abruptly: “That’s all; you may go now, and I’ll send a boy with your machine.”
She walked through the streets as one who had already found another country. More than one turned to look at her. She reached her room at last and pulling her one little chair up to the window sat staring out across the alley at the brick wall across from her. But she was not seeing a narrow alley and a high brick wall. She was seeing rushing rivers and mighty forests and towering peaks. She leaned back in her chair—an indulgence less luxurious than it sounds, as the chair only reached the middle of her back—and looked out at the high brick wall and saw a snow-clad range of hills. But she was tired; this tremendous idea was too much for her; the very wonder of it was exhausting. She lay down on her bed—radiant, but languid. Soon she heard a rush of waters. At first it was only someone filling the bath-tub, but after a while it was the little stream which flowed through her forest. And then she was not lying on a lumpy bed; she was sinking down under pine trees—all so sweet and still and cool. But an awful thing was happening!—the forest was on fire—it was choking and burning her! She awoke to find smoke from the building opposite pouring into her room; flies were buzzing about, and her face and hands were hot.
She did little work in the next few days. It was hard to go on with the same work when waiting for a thing which was to make over one’s whole life. The stress of dreams changing to hopes caused a great languor to come over her. And her chair was not right for her typewriter, and the smoke came in all the time. Strangely enough Out There seemed farther away. Sometimes she could not go there at all; she supposed it was because she was really going.
At the close of the week she went to the office with her work. She was weak with excitement as she stepped into the elevator. Would Mr. Osborne have the transportation for her? Would he tell her when she was to go?
But she did not see Mr. Osborne at all. When she asked for him the clerk just replied carelessly that he was not there. She was going to ask if he had left any message for her, but the telephone rang then and the man to whom she was talking turned away. Someone was sitting at her old desk, and they did not seem to be making the changes they had contemplated; everyone in the office seemed very busy and uncaring, and because she knew her chin was trembling she turned away.
She had a strange feeling as she left the office: as if standing on ground which quivered, an impulse to reach out her hand and tell someone that something must be done right away, a dreadful fear that she was going to cry out that she could not wait much longer.
All at once she found that she was crossing the street, and saw ahead the little art store with the wonderful picture which proved it was all really so. In the same old way, her step quickened. It would show her again that it was all just as she had thought it was, and if that were true, then it must be true also that Mr. Osborne was going to get her the transportation. It would prove that everything was all right.
But a cruel thing happened. It failed her. It was just as beautiful—but something a long way off, impossible to reach. Try as she would, she could not get into it, as she used to. It was only a picture; a beautiful picture of some pine trees. And they were very far away, and they had nothing at all to do with her.
Through the window, at the back of the store, she saw the old man standing with his back to her. She thought of going in and asking to sit down—she wanted to sit down—but perhaps he would say something cross to her—he was such a queer looking old man—and she knew she would cry if anything cross was said to her. That he had watched for her each night, that he had tried and tried to think of a way of finding her, that he would have been more glad to see her than to see anyone in the world, would have been kinder to her than anyone on earth would have been—those were the things she did not know. And so—more lonely than she had ever been before—she turned away.
On Monday she felt she could wait no longer. It did not seem that it would be safe. She got ready to go to see Mr. Osborne, but the getting ready tired her so that she sat a long time resting, looking out at the high brick wall beyond which there was nothing at all. She was counting the blocks, thinking of how many times she would have to cross the street. But just then it occurred to her that she could telephone.
When she came back upstairs she crept up on the bed and lay there very still. The boy had said that Mr. Osborne was away and would be gone two weeks. No one in the office had heard him say anything about her transportation.
All through the day she lay there, and what she saw before her was a narrow alley and a high brick wall. She had lost her mountains and her forests and her rivers and her lakes. She tried to go out to them in the same old way—but she could not get beyond the high brick wall. She was shut in. She tried to draw them to her, but they could not come across the wall. It shut them out. She tried to pray to the great mountain which one could see from Portland. But even prayers could get no farther than the wall.
Late that afternoon, because she was so shut in that she was choking, because she was consumed with the idea that she must claim her country now or lose it forever, she got up and started for the picture. It was a long, long way to go, and dreadful things were in between—people who would bump against her, hot, uneven streets, horses that might run over her—but she must make the journey. She must make it because the things that she lived on were slipping from her—and she was choking—sinking down—and all alone.
Step by step, never knowing just how her foot was going to make the next step, sick with the fear that people were going to run into her—the streets going up and down, the buildings round and round, she did go; holding to the window casings for the last few steps—each step a terrible chasm which she was never sure she was going to be able to cross—she was there at last. And in the window as she stood there, swayingly, was a dark, blurred thing which might have been anything at all. She tried to remember why she had come. What was it—? And then she was sinking down into an abyss.
That the hemorrhage came then, that the old man came out and found her and tenderly took her in, that he had her taken where she should have been taken long before, that the doctors said it was too late, and that soon their verdict was confirmed—those are the facts which would seem to tell the rest of the story. But deep down beneath facts rests truth, and the truth is that this is a story with the happiest kind of a happy ending. What facts would call the breeze from an electric fan was in truth the gracious breath of the pines. And when the nurse said “She’s going,” she was indeed going, but to a land of great spaces and benign breezes, a land of deep shadows and rushing waters. For a most wondrous thing had happened. She had called to the mountain, and the mountain had heard her voice; and because it was so mighty and so everlasting it drew her to itself, across high brick walls and past millions of hurrying, noisy people—oh, a most triumphant flight! And the mountain said—“I give you this whole great land. It is yours because you have loved it so well. Hills and valleys and rivers and forests and lakes—it is all for you.” Yes, the nurse was quite right; she was going: going for a long sweet sleep beneath trees of many shadows, beside clear waters which had come from distant snows—really going “Out There.”