It was after he had decided to enter the art class that Eugene paid his first visit to his family. Though they were only a hundred miles away, he had never felt like going back, even at Christmas. Now it seemed to him he had something definite to proclaim. He was going to be an artist; and as to his work, he was getting along well in that. Mr. Mitchly appeared to like him. It was to Mr. Mitchly that he reported daily with his collections and his unsatisfied bills. The collections were checked up by Mr. Mitchly with the cash, and the unpaid bills certified. Sometimes Eugene made a mistake, having too much or too little, but the "too much" was always credited against the "too little," so that in the main he came out even. In money matters there was no tendency on Eugene's part to be dishonest. He thought of lots of things he wanted, but he was fairly well content to wait and come by them legitimately. It was this note in him that appealed to Mitchly. He thought that possibly something could be made of Eugene in a trade way.
He left the Friday night preceding Labor Day, the first Monday in September, which was a holiday throughout the city. He had told Mr. Mitchly that he thought of leaving Saturday after work for over Sunday and Monday, but Mr. Mitchly suggested that he might double up his Saturday's work with Thursday's and Friday's if he wished, and go Friday evening.
"Saturday's a short day, anyhow," he said. "That would give three days at home and still you wouldn't be behind in your work."
Eugene thanked his employer and did as suggested. He packed his bag with the best he had in the way of clothes, and journeyed homeward, wondering how he would find things. How different it all was! Stella was gone. His youthful unsophistication had passed. He could go home as a city man with some prospects. He had no idea of how boyish he looked – how much the idealist he was – how far removed from hard, practical judgment which the world values so highly.
When the train reached Alexandria, his father and Myrtle and Sylvia were at the depot to greet him – the latter with her two year old son. They had all come down in the family carryall, which left one seat for Eugene. He greeted them warmly and received their encomiums on his looks with a befitting sense of humility.
"You're bigger," his father exclaimed. "You're going to be a tall man after all, Eugene. I was afraid you had stopped growing."
"I hadn't noticed that I had grown any," said Eugene.
"Ah, yes," put in Myrtle. "You're much bigger, Gene. It makes you look a little thinner. Are you good and strong?"
"I ought to be," laughed Eugene. "I walk about fifteen or twenty miles a day, and I'm out in the air all the time. If I don't get strong now I never will."
Sylvia asked him about his "stomach trouble." About the same, he told her. Sometimes he thought it was better, sometimes worse. A doctor had told him to drink hot water in the morning but he didn't like to do it. It was so hard to swallow the stuff.
While they were talking, asking questions, they reached the front gate of the house, and Mrs. Witla came out on the front porch. Eugene, at sight of her in the late dusk, jumped over the front wheel and ran to meet her.
"Little ma," he exclaimed. "Didn't expect me back so soon, did you?"
"So soon," she said, her arms around his neck. Then she held him so, quite still for a few moments. "You're getting to be a big man," she said when she released him.
He went into the old sitting room and looked around. It was all quite the same – no change. There were the same books, the same table, the same chairs, the same pulley lamp hanging from the center of the ceiling. In the parlor there was nothing new, nor in the bed rooms or the kitchen. His mother looked a little older – his father not. Sylvia had changed greatly – being slightly "peaked" in the face compared to her former plumpness; it was due to motherhood, he thought. Myrtle seemed a little more calm and happy. She had a real "steady" now, Frank Bangs, the superintendent of the local furniture factory. He was quite young, good-looking, going to be well-off some day, so they thought. "Old Bill," one of the big horses, had been sold. Rover, one of the two collies, was dead. Jake the cat had been killed in a night brawl somewhere.
Somehow, as Eugene stood in the kitchen watching his mother fry a big steak and make biscuits and gravy in honor of his coming, he felt that he did not belong to this world any more. It was smaller, narrower than he had ever thought. The town had seemed smaller as he had come through its streets, the houses too; and yet it was nice. The yards were sweet and simple, but countrified. His father, running a sewing machine business, seemed tremendously limited. He had a country or small town mind. It struck Eugene as curious now, that they had never had a piano. And Myrtle liked music, too. As for himself, he had learned that he was passionately fond of it. There were organ recitals in the Central Music Hall, of Chicago, on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, and he had managed to attend some after his work. There were great preachers like Prof. Swing and the Rev. H. W. Thomas and the Rev. F. W. Gunsaulus and Prof. Saltus, liberal thinkers all, whose public services in the city were always accompanied by lovely music. Eugene had found all these men and their services in his search for life and to avoid being lonely. Now they had taught him that his old world was no world at all. It was a small town. He would never come to this any more.
After a sound night's rest in his old room he went down the next day to see Mr. Caleb Williams at the Appeal office, and Mr. Burgess, and Jonas Lyle, and John Summers. As he went, on the court house square he met Ed Mitchell and George Taps and Will Groniger, and four or five others whom he had known in school. From them he learned how things were. It appeared that George Anderson had married a local girl and was in Chicago, working out in the stock yards. Ed Waterbury had gone to San Francisco. The pretty Sampson girl, Bessie Sampson, who had once gone with Ted Martinwood so much, had run away with a man from Anderson, Indiana. There had been a lot of talk about it at the time. Eugene listened.
It all seemed less, though, than the new world that he had entered. Of these fellows none knew the visions that were now surging in his brain. Paris – no less – and New York – by what far route he could scarcely tell. And Will Groniger had got to be a baggage clerk at one of the two depots and was proud of it. Good Heavens!
At the office of the Appeal things were unchanged. Somehow Eugene had had the feeling that two years would make a lot of difference, whereas the difference was in him only. He was the one who had undergone cataclysmic changes. He had a been a stove polisher, a real estate assistant, a driver and a collector. He had known Margaret Duff, and Mr. Redwood, of the laundry, and Mr. Mitchly. The great city had dawned on him; Verestchagin, and Bouguereau, and the Art Institute. He was going on at one pace, the town was moving at another one – a slower, but quite as fast as it had ever gone.
Caleb Williams was there, skipping about as of yore, cheerful, communicative, interested. "I'm glad to see you back, Eugene," he declared, fixing him with the one good eye which watered. "I'm glad you're getting along – that's fine. Going to be an artist, eh? Well, I think that's what you were cut out for. I wouldn't advise every young fellow to go to Chicago, but that's where you belong. If it wasn't for my wife and three children I never would have left it. When you get a wife and family though – " he paused and shook his head. "I gad! You got to do the best you can." Then he went to look up some missing copy.
Jonas Lyle was as portly, phlegmatic and philosophic as ever. He greeted Eugene with a solemn eye in which there was inquiry. "Well, how is it?" he asked.
Eugene smiled. "Oh, pretty good."
"Not going to be a printer, then?"
"No, I think not."
"Well, it's just as well, there're an awful lot of them."
While they were talking John Summers sidled up.
"How are you, Mr. Witla?" he inquired.
Eugene looked at him. John was certainly marked for the grave in the near future. He was thinner, of a bluish-grey color, bent at the shoulders.
"Why, I'm fine, Mr. Summers," Eugene said.
"I'm not so good," said the old printer. He tapped his chest significantly. "This thing's getting the best of me."
"Don't you believe it," put in Lyle. "John's always gloomy. He's just as good as ever. I tell him he'll live twenty years yet."
"No, no," said Summers, shaking his head, "I know."
He left after a bit to "go across the street," his customary drinking excuse.
"He can't last another year," Lyle observed the moment the door was closed. "Burgess only keeps him because it would be a shame to turn him out. But he's done for."
"Anyone can see that," said Eugene. "He looks terrible."
So they talked.
At noon he went home. Myrtle announced that he was to come with her and Mr. Bangs to a party that evening. There were going to be games and refreshments. It never occurred to him that in this town there had never been dancing among the boys and girls he moved with, and scarcely any music. People did not have pianos – or at least only a few of them.
After supper Mr. Bangs called, and the three of them went to a typical small town party. It was not much different from the ones Eugene had attended with Stella, except that the participants were, in the main, just that much older. Two years make a great deal of difference in youth. There were some twenty-two young men and women all crowded into three fair sized rooms and on a porch, the windows and doors leading to which were open. Outside were brown grass and some autumn flowers. Early crickets were chirping, and there were late fire-flies. It was warm and pleasant.
The opening efforts to be sociable were a little stiff. There were introductions all around, much smart badinage among town dandies, for most of them were here. There were a number of new faces – girls who had moved in from other towns or blossomed into maturity since Eugene had left.
"If you'll marry me, Madge, I'll buy you a nice new pair of seal skin earrings," he heard one of the young bloods remark.
Eugene smiled, and the girl laughed back. "He always thinks he's so cute."
It was almost impossible for Eugene to break through the opening sense of reserve which clogged his actions at everything in the way of social diversion. He was a little nervous because he was afraid of criticism. That was his vanity and deep egotism. He stood about, trying to get into the swing of the thing with a bright remark or two. Just as he was beginning to bubble, a girl came in from one of the other rooms. Eugene had not met her. She was with his prospective brother-in-law, Bangs, and was laughing in a sweet, joyous way which arrested his attention. She was dressed in white, he noticed, with a band of golden brown ribbon pulled through the loops above the flounces at the bottom of her dress. Her hair was a wonderful ashen yellow, a great mass of it – and laid in big, thick braids above her forehead and ears. Her nose was straight, her lips were thin and red, her cheek-bones faintly but curiously noticeable. Somehow there was a sense of distinction about her – a faint aroma of personality which Eugene did not understand. It appealed to him.
Bangs brought her over. He was a tight, smiling youth, as sound as oak, as clear as good water.
"Here's Miss Blue, Eugene. She's from up in Wisconsin, and comes down to Chicago occasionally. I told her you ought to know her. You might meet up there sometime."
"Say, but that's good luck, isn't it?" smiled Eugene. "I'm sure I'm glad to know you. What part of Wisconsin do you come from?"
"Blackwood," she laughed, her greenish-blue eyes dancing.
"Her hair is yellow, her eyes are blue, and she comes from Blackwood," commented Bangs. "How's that?" His big mouth, with its even teeth, was wide with a smile.
"You left out the blue name and the white dress. She ought to wear white all the time."
"Oh, it does harmonize with my name, doesn't it?" she cried. "At home I do wear white mostly. You see I'm just a country girl, and I make most of my things."
"Did you make that?" asked Eugene.
"Of course I did."
Bangs moved away a little, looking at her as if critically. "Well, that's really pretty," he pronounced.
"Mr. Bangs is such a flatterer," she smiled at Eugene. "He doesn't mean any thing he says. He just tells me one thing after another."
"He's right," said Eugene. "I agree as to the dress, and it fits the hair wonderfully."
"You see, he's lost, too," laughed Bangs. "That's the way they all do. Well, I'm going to leave you two. I've got to get back. I left your sister in the hands of a rival of mine."
Eugene turned to this girl and laughed his reserved laugh. "I was just thinking what was going to become of me. I've been away for two years, and I've lost track of some of these people."
"I'm worse yet. I've only been here two weeks and I scarcely know anybody. Mrs. King takes me around everywhere, but it's all so new I can't get hold of it. I think Alexandria is lovely."
"It is nice. I suppose you've been out on the lakes?"
"Oh, yes. We've fished and rowed and camped. I have had a lovely time but I have to go back tomorrow."
"Do you?" said Eugene. "Why I do too. I'm going to take the four-fifteen."
"So am I!" she laughed. "Perhaps we can go together."
"Why, certainly. That's fine. I thought I'd have to go back alone. I only came down for over Sunday. I've been working up in Chicago."
They fell to telling each other their histories. She was from Blackwood, only eighty-five miles from Chicago, and had lived there all her life. There were several brothers and sisters. Her father was evidently a farmer and politician and what not, and Eugene gleaned from stray remarks that they must be well thought of, though poor. One brother-in-law was spoken of as a banker; another as the owner of a grain elevator; she herself was a school teacher at Blackwood – had been for several years.
Eugene did not realize it, but she was fully five years older than himself, with the tact and the superior advantage which so much difference in years brings. She was tired of school-teaching, tired of caring for the babies of married sisters, tired of being left to work and stay at home when the ideal marrying age was rapidly passing. She was interested in able people, and silly village boys did not appeal to her. There was one who was begging her to marry him at this moment, but he was a slow soul up in Blackwood, not actually worthy of her nor able to support her well. She was hopefully, sadly, vaguely, madly longing for something better, and as yet nothing had ever turned up. This meeting with Eugene was not anything which promised a way out to her. She was not seeking so urgently – nor did she give introductions that sort of a twist in her consciousness. But this young man had an appeal for her beyond anyone she had met recently. They were in sympathetic accord, apparently. She liked his clear, big eyes, his dark hair, his rather waxen complexion. He seemed something better than she had known, and she hoped that he would be nice to her.
The rest of that evening Eugene spent not exactly with, but near Miss Blue – Miss Angela Blue, as he found her name to be. He was interested in her not so much from the point of view of looks, though she was charming enough, but because of some peculiarity of temperament which lingered with him as a grateful taste might dwell on the palate. He thought her young; and was charmed by what he considered her innocence and unsophistication. As a matter of fact she was not so much young and unsophisticated as an unconscious simulator of simplicity. In the conventional sense she was a thoroughly good girl, loyal, financially honest, truthful in all commonplace things, and thoroughly virtuous, moreover, in that she considered marriage and children the fate and duty of all women. Having had so much trouble with other peoples' children she was not anxious to have any, or at least many, of her own. Of course, she did not believe that she would escape with what seemed to be any such good fortune. She fancied that she would be like her sisters, the wife of a good business or professional man; the mother of three or four or five healthy children; the keeper of an ideal middle class home; the handmaiden of her husband's needs. There was a deep current of passion in her which she had come to feel would never be satisfied. No man would ever understand, no man at least whom she was likely to meet; but she knew she had a great capacity to love. If someone would only come along and arouse that – be worthy of it – what a whirlwind of affection she would return to him! How she would love, how sacrifice! But it seemed now that her dreams were destined never to be fulfilled, because so much time had slipped by and she had not been courted by the right one. So here she was now at twenty-five, dreaming and longing – the object of her ideals thus accidentally brought before her, and no immediate consciousness that that was the case.
It does not take sexual affinity long to manifest itself, once its subjects are brought near to each other. Eugene was older in certain forms of knowledge, broader in a sense, potentially greater than she would ever comprehend; but nevertheless, swayed helplessly by emotion and desire. Her own emotions, though perhaps stronger than his, were differently aroused. The stars, the night, a lovely scene, any exquisite attribute of nature could fascinate him to the point of melancholy. With her, nature in its largest aspects passed practically unnoticed. She responded to music feelingly, as did Eugene. In literature, only realism appealed to him; for her, sentiment, strained though not necessarily unreal, had the greatest charm. Art in its purely æsthetic forms meant nothing at all to her. To Eugene it was the last word in the matter of emotional perception. History, philosophy, logic, psychology, were sealed books to her. To Eugene they were already open doors, or, better yet, flowery paths of joy, down which he was wandering. Yet in spite of these things they were being attracted toward each other.
And there were other differences. With Eugene convention meant nothing at all, and his sense of evil and good was something which the ordinary person would not have comprehended. He was prone to like all sorts and conditions of human beings – the intellectual, the ignorant, the clean, the dirty, the gay, the sorrowful, white, yellow, black. As for Angela, she had a distinct preference for those who conducted themselves according to given standards of propriety. She was brought up to think of those people as best who worked the hardest, denied themselves the most, and conformed to the ordinary notions of right and wrong. There was no questioning of current standards in her mind. As it was written socially and ethically upon the tables of the law, so was it. There might be charming characters outside the pale, but they were not admitted to association or sympathy. To Eugene a human being was a human being. The ruck of misfits or ne'er-do-wells he could laugh joyously with or at. It was all wonderful, beautiful, amusing. Even its grimness and tragedy were worth while, although they hurt him terribly at times. Why, under these circumstances, he should have been so thoroughly attracted to Angela remains a mystery. Perhaps they complemented each other at this time as a satellite complements a larger luminary – for Eugene's egoism required praise, sympathy, feminine coddling; and Angela caught fire from the warmth and geniality of his temperament.
On the train next day Eugene had nearly three hours of what he deemed most delightful talk with her. They had not journeyed far before he had told her how he had traveled this way, on this train, at this hour, two years before; how he had walked about the streets of the big city, looking for a place to sleep, how he had got work and stayed away until he felt that he had found himself. Now he was going to study art and then to New York or Paris, and do magazine illustrating and possibly paint pictures. He was truly your flamboyant youth of talent when he got to talking – when he had a truly sympathetic ear. He loved to boast to someone who really admired him, and he felt that he had admiration here. Angela looked at him with swimming eyes. He was really different from anything she had ever known, young, artistic, imaginative, ambitious. He was going out into a world which she had longed for but never hoped to see – that of art. Here he was telling her of his prospective art studies, and talking of Paris. What a wonderful thing!
As the train neared Chicago she explained that she would have to make an almost immediate connection with one which left over the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul, for Blackwood. She was a little lonely, to tell the truth, a little sick at heart, for the summer vacation was over and she was going back to teach school. Alexandria, for the two weeks she had been there visiting Mrs. King (formerly a Blackwood girl and school-day chum of hers), was lovely. Her girlhood friend had tried to make things most pleasant and now it was all over. Even Eugene was over, for he said nothing much of seeing her again, or had not so far. She was wishing she might see more of this world he painted in such glowing colors, when he said:
"Mr. Bangs said that you come down to Chicago every now and then?"
"I do," she replied. "I sometimes come down to go to the theatres and shop." She did not say that there was an element of practical household commercialism in it, for she was considered one of the best buyers in the family and that she was sent to buy by various members of the family in quantities. From a practical household point of view she was a thoroughbred and was valued by her sisters and friends as someone who loved to do things. She might have come to be merely a family pack horse, solely because she loved to work. It was instinct to do everything she did thoroughly, but she worked almost exclusively in minor household matters.
"How soon do you expect to come down again?" he asked.
"Oh, I can't tell. I sometimes come down when Opera is on in the winter. I may be here around Thanksgiving."
"Not before that?"
"I don't think so," she replied archly.
"That's too bad. I thought maybe I'd see you a few times this fall. When you do come I wish you could let me know. I'd like to take you to the theatre."
Eugene spent precious little money on any entertainment, but he thought he could venture this. She would not be down often. Then, too, he had the notion that he might get a rise one of these days – that would make a difference. When she came again he would be in art school, opening up another field for himself. Life looked hopeful.
"That's so nice of you," she replied. "And when I come I'll let you know. I'm just a country girl," she added, with a toss of her head, "and I don't get to the city often."
Eugene liked what he considered the guileless naïveté of her confessions – the frankness with which she owned up to simplicity and poverty. Most girls didn't. She almost made a virtue out of these thing – at least they were charming as a confession in her.
"I'll hold you to that," he assured her.
"Oh, you needn't. I'll be glad to let you know."
They were nearing the station. He forgot, for the moment that she was not as remote and delicate in her beauty as Stella, that she was apparently not as passionate temperamentally as Margaret. He saw her wonderfully dull hair and her thin lips and peculiar blue eyes, and admired her honesty and simplicity. He picked up her grip and helped her to find her train. When they came to part he pressed her hand warmly, for she had been very nice to him, so attentive and sympathetic and interested.
"Now remember!" he said gaily, after he had put her in her seat in the local.
"I won't forget."
"You wouldn't mind if I wrote you now and then?"
"Not at all. I'd like it."
"Then I will," he said, and went out.
He stood outside and looked at her through the train window as it pulled out. He was glad to have met her. This was the right sort of girl, clean, honest, simple, attractive. That was the way the best women were – good and pure – not wild pieces of fire like Margaret; nor unconscious, indifferent beauties like Stella, he was going to add, but couldn't. There was a voice within him that said that artistically Stella was perfect and even now it hurt him a little to remember. But Stella was gone forever, there was no doubt about that.
During the days that followed he thought of the girl often. He wondered what sort of a town Blackwood was; what sort of people she moved with, what sort of a house she lived in. They must be nice, simple people like his own in Alexandria. These types of city bred people whom he saw – girls particularly – and those born to wealth, had no appeal for him as yet. They were too distant, too far removed from anything he could aspire to. A good woman such as Miss Blue obviously was, must be a treasure anywhere in the world. He kept thinking he would write to her – he had no other girl acquaintance now; and just before he entered art school he did this, penning a little note saying that he remembered so pleasantly their ride; and when was she coming? Her answer, after a week, was that she expected to be in the city about the middle or the end of October and that she would be glad to have him call. She gave him the number of an aunt who lived out on the North Side in Ohio Street, and said she would notify him further. She was hard at work teaching school now, and didn't even have time to think of the lovely summer she had had.
"Poor little girl," he thought. She deserved a better fate. "When she comes I'll surely look her up," he thought, and there was a lot that went with the idea. Such wonderful hair!