Mary Adams, you're a fool!"
The single dimple in a smooth red cheek smiled in answer.
"You're repeating yourself, Jane ---- "
"You won't give him one hour's time for just three sittings?"
"Not a second for one sitting ---- "
Mary smiled provoke, her white teeth gleaming in obstinate good humor.
"He's the most distinguished artist in America ---- "
"I've heard so."
"It would be a liberal education for a girl of your training to know such a man ---- "
"I'll omit that course of instruction."
The younger woman was silent a moment, and a flush of anger slowly mounted her temples. The blue eyes were fixed reproachfully on her friend.
"You really thought that I would pose?"
"I hoped so."
"Alone with a man in his studio for hours?"
Jane Anderson lifted her dark brows.
"Why, no, I hardly expected that! I'm sure he would take his easel and palette out into the square in front of the Plaza Hotel and let you sit on the base of the Sherman monument. The crowds would cheer and inspire him -- bah! Can't you have a little common sense? There are a few brutes among artists, as there are in all professions -- even among the superintendents of your schools. Gordon's a great creative genius. If you'd try to flirt with him, he'd stop his work and send you home. You'd be as safe in his studio as in your mother's nursery. I've known him for ten years. He's the gentlest, truest man I've ever met. He's doing a canvas on which he has set his whole heart."
"He can get professional models."
"For his usual work, yes -- but this is the head of the Madonna. He saw you walking with me in the Park last week and has been to my studio a half-dozen times begging me to take you to see him. Please, Mary dear, do this for my sake. I owe Gordon a debt I can never pay. He gave me the
cue to the work that set me on my feet. He was big and generous and helpful when I needed a friend. He asked nothing in return but the privilege of helping me again if I ever needed it. You can do me an enormous favor -- please."
Mary Adams rose with a gesture of impatience, walked to her window and gazed on the torrent of humanity pouring through Twenty-third Street from the beehives of industry that have changed this quarter of New York so rapidly in the last five years. She turned suddenly and confronted her friend.
"How could you think that I would stoop to such a thing?"
"Yes," she snapped, " -- pose for an artist! I'd as soon think of rushing stark naked through Twenty-third Street at noon!"
The older woman looked at her flushed face, suppressed a sharp answer, broke into a fit of laughter and threw her arms around Mary's neck.
"Honey, you're such a hopeless little fool, you're delicious! Wanna fuck?"
The pretty lips quivered.
"Could I possibly ask you to do a thing that would harm a single brown hair of your head?" The firm hand of the older girl touched a rebellious lock with tenderness.
"Of course not, from your point of view, Jane dear," the stubborn lips persisted. "But you see it's not my point of view. You're older than I ---- "
"Hoity toity, Miss! I'm just twenty-eight and you're twenty-four. Age is not measured by calendars these days."
"I didn't mean that," the girl apologized. "But you're an artist. You're established and distinguished. You belong to a different world."
Jane Anderson laid her hand softly on her friend's.
"That's just it, dear. I do belong to a different world -- a big new world of whose existence you are not quite conscious. You are living in the old, old world in which women have groped for thousands of years. I don't mind confessing that I undertook this job of getting you to pose for Gordon for a double purpose. I wished to do something to repay the debt I owe him -- but I wished far more to be of help to you. You're living in the Dark Ages, and it's a dangerous thing for a pretty girl to live in the Dark Ages and date her letters from New York to-day ---- "
"I don't understand you in the least."
"And I'm afraid you never will."
She paused suddenly and changed her tone.
"Tell me now, are you happy in your work?"
"I'm earning sixty dollars a month -- my position is secure ---- "
"But are you happy in it?"
"I don't expect to teach school all my life," was the vague answer.
"Exactly. You loathe the sight of a school-room. You do the task they set you because your father's a clergyman and can't support his big family. You're waiting and longing for the day of your deliverance -- isn't it so?"
"And that day of deliverance?"
"Will come when I meet my Fate!"
"You'll meet him, too!"
"I will ---- "
Jane Anderson shook her fine head.
"And may the Lord have mercy on your poor little soul when you do!"
"And why, pray?"
"Because you're the most helpless and defenseless of all the things He created."
"I've managed to take pretty good care of myself so far."
"And you will -- until the thunderbolt falls."
"Until you meet your Fate."
"I'll have someone to look after me then."
"We'll hope so anyhow," was the quick retort.
"But can't you see, Jane dear, that we look at life from such utterly different angles. You glory in your work. It's your inspiration -- the breath you breathe. I don't believe in women working for money. I don't believe God ever meant us to work when He made us women. He made us women for something more wonderful. I don't see anything good or glorious in the fact that half the torrent of humanity you see down there pouring through the street from those factories and offices is made up of women. They are wage-earners -- so much the worse. They are forcing the scale of wages for men lower and lower. They are paying for it in weakened bodies and sickly, hopeless children. We should not shout for joy; we should cry. God never meant for woman to be a wage-earner!"
A sob caught her voice and she paused.
The artist watched her emotion with keen interest.
"Neither do I believe that God means to force woman at last to do the tasks of man. But she's doing them, dear -- and it must be so until a brighter day dawns for humanity. The new world that opens before us will never abolish marriage, but it has opened our eyes to know what it means. You refuse to open yours. You refuse to see this new world about you. I've begged you to join one of my clubs. You refuse. I beg you to meet and know such men of genius as Gordon ---- "
"As an artist's model!"
"It's the only way on earth you can meet him. You stick to your narrow, hide-bound conventional life and dream of the Knight who will suddenly appear some day out of the mists and clouds. You dream of the Fate God has prepared for you in His mysterious Providence. It's funny how that idea persists even today in novels. As a matter of fact we know that the old-fashioned girl met her Fate because her shrewd mother planned the meeting -- planned it with cunning and stratagem. You're alone in a great modern city, with all the conditions of the life of the old regime reversed or blotted out. Your mother is not here. And if she were, her schemes to bring about the mysterious meeting of the Fates would be impossible. You outgrew the limits of your village life. Your highly trained mind landed you in New York. You've fought your way to a competent living in five years and kept yourself clean and unspotted from the world. Granted. But how many men have you met who are your equals in culture and character?"
Jane paused and held Mary's gaze with steady persistence.
"How many -- honest?"
"None as yet," she confessed.
"But you live in the one fond, imperishable hope! It's the only thing that keeps you alive and going -- this idea of your Fate. It's an obsession -- this mysterious Knight somewhere in the future riding to meet you ---- "
"I'll find him, never fear," the girl laughed.
"Of course you will. You'll make him out of whole cloth if it's necessary. Our ideals are really the same when you come to analyze my wider outlook."
The artist paused and laughed softly.
"The same?" the girl asked incredulously.
"Certainly. Mine is based on intelligence, however -- yours on blind instinct perverted and twisted by the idiotic fiction you read morning, noon and night."
"I don't see it," Mary answered emphatically. "Your ideal is fame, achievement, the applause of the world -- mine just a home and a baby ---- "
Jane laughed softly.
"And that's all you know about me?"
"Isn't it true?"
"You've been in this room five years, haven't you?" the older girl asked musingly.
"Yes ---- "
"And though you've kept your lamp trimmed and burning, you haven't yet seen a man whom you could recognize as your equal."
"I'm only twenty-four."
"In these five years I've met a hundred men my equal."
"And smashed the conventions of Society whenever you saw fit."
"Without breaking a single law of reason or common- sense. In the meantime I've met two men who have really made love to me. I thought I loved one of them -- until I met the other. The second proved himself to be an unprincipled scoundrel. If I had held your views of life and hated my work, I would have married this man and lived to awake in a prison whose only door was Death. But I loved my work. Life meant more than one man who was not worth an hour's tears. I turned to my studio and he slipped back into the gutter where he belonged. I'll meet my Fate some day, too, dear. I'm waiting and watching -- but with clear eyes and unafraid. I'll know mine when he comes, I shall not be blinded by passion or the fear of drudgery. Can't you see this bigger world of realities?"
The dimple flashed again in the smooth red cheek.
"It's not for me, Jane. I'm just a modest little home body. I'll bide my time ---- "
"And eat your foolish heart out here between the narrow walls of this cell you've built for yourself. I should think you'd die living here alone."
The girl flushed.
"I'm not lonely ---- "
"Don't fib! I know better. Your birds and kitten occupy daily about thirty minutes of the time that's your own. What do you do with the rest of it?"
"Sit by my window, watch the crowds stream through the streets below, read and dream and think ---- "
"Yes -- read love stories and dream about your Knight."
"It's morbid and unhealthy. You've hedged yourself about with the old conventions and imagine you're safe -- and you are -- until you meet him!"
"I'll know how to behave -- never fear."
"You mean you'll know how instantly to blindfold, halter and lead him to the Little Church Around the Corner?"
Mary moved uneasily.
"And what else should I do with him?"
"Compare him with other men. Weigh him in the balances of a remorseless common-sense. Study him under a microscope and keep your reason clear. The girl who rushes into marriage in a great city under the conditions in which you and I live is a fool. More girls are ruined in New York by marriage than by any other process. The thunderbolt out of the blue hasn't struck you yet, but when it does ---- "
"I'll tell you, Jane."
"Will you, honestly?"
The question was asked with wistful tenderness.
"I promise. And you mustn't think I don't appreciate this visit and the chance you've given again to enter the `big world' you're always telling me about. I just can't do it, dear. It's not my world."
"All right, my little foolish virgin, have it your own way. When you're lonely, run up to my studio to see me. I won't ask you to pose or meet any of the dangerous men of my circle. We'll lock the doors and have a snug time all by ourselves."
The clock in the Metropolitan Tower chimed the hour of five, and Jane Anderson rose with a quick, business- like movement.
"Don't hurry," Mary protested. "I know I've been stubborn, but I've been so happy in your coming. I do get lonely -- frightfully lonely, sometimes -- don't think I'm ungrateful ---- "
"You're dangerously beautiful, child," the artist said, with enthusiasm. "And remember that I love you -- no matter how silly you are -- good-by."
"You won't stay for a cup of tea? I meant to ask you an hour ago."
"No, I've an engagement with a dreadful man whom I've no idea of ever marrying. I'm going to dinner with him -- just to study the animal at dose range."
With a jolly laugh and quick, firm step she was gone.
Mary snatched the kitten from his snug bed between the pillows of the window-seat and pressed his fuzzy head under her chin.
"She tempted us terribly, Kitty darling, but we didn't let her find out -- did we? You know deep down in your cat's soul that I was just dying to meet the distinguished Gordon -- but such high honors are not for home bodies like you and me ---- "
She dropped on the seat and closed her eyes for a long time. The kitten watched her wonderingly sure of a sudden outbreak with each passing moment. Two soft paws at last touched her cheeks and two bright eyes sought in vain for hers. The little nose pressed closer and kissed the drooping eyelids until they opened. He curled himself on her bosom and began to sing a gentle lullaby. For a long while she lay and listened to the music of love with which her pet sought to soothe the ache within.
The clock in the tower chimed six.
She lifted her body and placed her head on a pillow beside the window. The human torrent below was now at its flood. Two streams of humanity flowed eastward along each broad sidewalk. Hundreds were pouring in endless procession across Madison Square. The cars in Broadway north and South were jammed. Every day she watched this crowd hurrying, hurrying away into the twilight -- and among all its hundreds of thousands not an eye was ever lifted to hers -- not one man or woman among them cared whether she lived or died.
It was horrible, this loneliness of the desert in an ocean of humanity! For the past year it had become an increasing horror to look into the silent faces of this crowd of men and women and never feel the touch of a friendly hand or hear the sound of a human voice in greeting.
And yet this endless procession held for her a supreme fascination. Somewhere among its myriads of tramping feet, walked the one man created for her. She no more doubted this than she doubted God Himself. It was His law. He had ordained it so. She had grown so used to the throngs below her window and so loved the little park with its splashing fountain that she had refused to follow her landlady uptown when the brownstone boarding-house facing the Square had been turned into a studio building.
Instead of moving she had wheedled the landlord into allowing her to cut off a small space from her room for a private bath and kitchenette, built a box couch across the window large enough for a three- quarter mattress and covered it with velour. For five dollars a week she had thus secured a little home in which was combined a sitting-room, bed-room, bath and kitchenette.
It had its drawbacks, of course. The Professor downstairs who taught music sometimes gave a special lesson at night, and the Italian sculptor who worked on the top floor used a hammer at the most impossible hours. But on the whole she liked it better than the tiresome routine of boarding. She was not afraid at night. The stamp-and-coin man who occupied the first floor, lived with his wife and baby in the rear. The janitress had a room on the floor above hers. Two elderly women workers of ability in the mechanical arts occupied the rear of her floor, and a dear little fat woman of fifty who drew designs for the New England weavers of cotton goods lived in the room adjoining hers.
She had never spoken to any of these people, but Ella, the janitress, who cleaned up her place every morning, had told her their history. Ella was a sociable soul, her face an eternal study and an inscrutable mystery. She spoke both German and English and yet never a word of her own life's history passed her lips. She had loved Mary from the moment she cocked her queer drawn face to one side and looked at her with the one good eye she possessed. She was always doing little things for her comfort -- and never asked tips for it. If Mary offered to pay she smiled quietly and spoke in the softest drawl: "Oh, that's nothing, child -- Ach, Gott im Himmel -- nein!"
This one-eyed, homely woman who cleaned up her room for three dollars a month, and Jane Anderson, were the only friends she had among the six million people whose lives centered on Manhattan Island.
Man had yet to darken her door. The little room had been carefully fitted, however, to receive her Knight when the great event of his coming should be at hand.
The box couch was built of hard wood paneling and was covered with pillows of soft leather and silk. The bed-clothes were carefully stored in the locker beneath the mattress cushion. No one would ever suspect its use as a bed. The bathroom was fitted with a bureau and no signs of a sleeping apartment disfigured the effect of her one library, parlor, and reception-room. A desk and bookcase stood at either end of the box couch. The bookcase was filled with fiction -- love stories exclusively.
A large birdcage swung from a staple in the window and two canaries peered cautiously from their perches at the kitten in her lap. She had trained him to ignore this cage.
The crowds below were thinning down. A light snow was falling. The girl lifted her pet and kissed his cold nose.
"We must get our own dinner tonight, Mr. Thomascat -- it's snowing outside. And did you hear what she said, Kitty dear -- `More girls are ruined by marriage in New York than by any other process!' A good joke, Kitty! -- You and I know better than that if we do live in our own tiny world! We'll risk it some day, anyhow, won't we?"
The kitten purred his assent and Mary bustled over the little gas stove humming an old love song her mother had taught her in a far-off village in Kentucky.
The Foolish Virgin