English Literature

One Woman’s Life by Robert Herrick

One Woman's Life by Robert Herrick.jpg

PART ONE

THE WEST SIDE


I

THE NEW HOME

“Is that the house!” Milly Ridge exclaimed disapprovingly.

Her father, a little man, with one knee bent against the unyielding, newly varnished front door, glanced up apprehensively at the figures painted on the glass transom above. In that block of little houses, all exactly alike, he might easily have made a mistake. Reassured he murmured over his shoulder,—”Yes—212—that’s right!” and he turned the key again.

Milly frowning petulantly continued her examination of the dirty yellow brick face of her new home. She could not yet acquiesce sufficiently in the fact to mount the long flight of steps that led from the walk to the front door. She looked on up the street, which ran straight as a bowling-alley between two rows of shabby brick houses,—all low, small, mean, unmistakably cheap,—thrown together for little people to live in. West Laurence Avenue was drab and commonplace,—the heart, the crown, the apex of the commonplace. And the girl knew it…. The April breeze, fluttering carelessly through the tubelike street, caught her large hat and tipped it awry. Milly clutched her hat savagely, and something like tears started to her eyes.

“What did you expect, my dear?” Grandmother Ridge demanded with a subtle undercut of reproof. The little old lady, all in black, with a neat bonnet edged with white, stood on the steps midway between her son and her granddaughter, and smiled icily at the girl. Milly recognized that smile. It was more deadly to her than a curse—symbol of mocking age. She tossed her head, the sole retort that youth was permitted to give age.

Indeed, she could not have described her disappointment intelligibly. All she knew was that ever since their hasty breakfast in the dirty railroad station beside the great lake her spirits had begun to go down, and had kept on dropping as the family progressed slowly in the stuffy street-car, mile after mile, through this vast prairie wilderness of brick buildings. She knew instinctively that they were getting farther and farther from the region where “nice people” lived. She had never before been in this great city, yet something told her that they were journeying block by block towards the outskirts,—the hinterland of the sprawling city. (Only Milly didn’t know the word hinterland.) She had gradually ceased to reply to her father’s cheerful comments on the features of the West Side landscape. And now she was very near tears.

She was sixteen—it was the spring of ’86. Ever since her mother’s death, two years before, the family had done “light housekeeping” in three rooms in St. Louis. This 212 West Laurence Avenue, Chicago, was to be her first home—this slab of a dirty yellow wall!

“There!” her father muttered with satisfaction, as, after a last twist of key and thump of knee, he effected an entrance. Grandma Ridge moved up the flight of steps, the girl following reluctantly.

“See, mother,” little Horatio Ridge said, jingling his keys, “it’s fresh and clean!”

The new varnish smelt poignantly. The fresh paint clung insidiously to the feet.

“And it’s light too, mother, isn’t it?” He turned quickly from the cavernous gloom of the rear rooms and pointed to a side window in the hall where one-sixteenth of the arc of the firmament was visible between the brick walls of the adjoining houses.

“The dining-room’s downstairs—that makes it roomier,” he continued, throwing open at random a door. “There’s more room than you’d think from the outside.”

Milly and her grandmother peered downwards into the black hole from which came a mouldy odor.

“Oh, father, why did you come ‘way out here!” Milly wailed.

“Why not?” Horatio retorted defensively. “You didn’t expect a house on the lake front, did you?”

Just what she had expected from this new turn in the family destiny was not clear to herself. But ever since it had been decided that they were to have a house of their own in Chicago—her father having at last secured a position that promised some permanence—the girl’s buoyant imagination had begun to soar, and out of all the fragments of her experience derived by her transient residence in Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Omaha—not to mention St. Louis—she had created a wonderful composite—the ideal American home, architecturally ambitious, suburban in tone. In some of the cities where she had lived the Ridges had tarried as long as three years, and each time, since she was a very little girl in short dresses and had left Indianapolis crying over the doll in her arms, she had believed they were permanently settled: this was to be their home for always.

Her mother had had the same forlorn, homesick hope, but each time it was doomed to disappointment. Always they had had to move on,—to make a new circle of temporary acquaintances, to learn the ropes of new streets and shops and schools all over again. Always it was “business” that did the mischief,—the failure of “business” here or the hope of better “business” somewhere else that had routed them out of their temporary shelter. Horatio Ridge was “travelling” for one firm or another in drugs and chemicals: he was of an optimistic and sanguine temperament. Milly’s mother, less hopeful by nature, had gradually succumbed under the perpetual tearing up of her thin roots, and finally faded away altogether in the light housekeeping phase of their existence in St. Louis.

Milly was sanguine like her father, and she had the other advantage of youth over her mother. So she had hoped again—overwhelmingly—of Chicago. But as she gazed at the row of pallid houses and counted three “To rent” signs in the cobwebby front windows opposite, she knew in her heart that this was not the end—not this, for her! It was another shift, another compromise to be endured, another disappointment to be overcome.

“Well, daughter, what d’ye think of your new home?” Little Horatio’s blustering tone betrayed his timidity before the passionate criticism of youth. Milly turned on him with flashing blue eyes.

“I think, my dear,” her grandmother announced primly, “that instead of finding fault with your father’s selection of a home, you had better look at it first.”

Grandma Ridge was a tiny lady, quite frail, with neat bands of iron-gray hair curling over well-shaped ears. Her voice was soft and low,—the kind of voice which her generation described as “ladylike.” But Milly knew what lay beneath its gentle surface. Milly did not love her grandmother. Milly’s mother had not loved the little old lady. It was extremely doubtful if any one had ever loved her. Mrs. Ridge embodied unpleasant duties; she was a vessel of unwelcome reproof that could be counted upon to spill over at raw moments, like this one.

“You’ll like it first rate, Milly,” her father continued robustly, “once you get settled in it. It’s a great bargain, the real estate man said so, almost new and freshly painted and papered. It’s close to the cars and Hoppers'”—Hoppers’ was the Chicago firm that had offered Horatio his latest opportunity. “And I don’t care about travelling all over Illinois to get to my work….”

Curiosity compelled Milly to follow the others up the narrow stairs that reached from the hall to the floor above. Milly was a tall, well-developed girl for sixteen, already quite as large as her father and enough of a woman physically to bully the tiny grandmother when she wished to. Her face was now prettily suffused with color due to her resentment, and her blue eyes moist with unshed tears. She glanced into the small front chamber which had been decorated with a pink paper and robin’s-egg blue paint.

“Pretty, ain’t it?” Horatio observed, seeking his crumb of appreciation.

“It’s a very nice home, Horatio—I’m sure you displayed excellent taste in your choice,” his mother replied.

“Pretty? … It’s just awful!” Milly burst forth, unable to control herself longer. She felt that she should surely die if she were condemned to sleep in that ugly chamber even for a few months. Yet the house was on the whole a better one than any that the peripatetic Ridges had thus far achieved. It was fully as good as most of those that her acquaintances lived in. But it cruelly shamed Milly’s expectations.

“It’s perfectly horrid,—a nasty, cheap, ugly little box, and ‘way out here on the West Side.” Somehow Milly had already divined the coming degradation of the West Side. “I don’t see how you can tell father such stories, grandma…. He ought to have waited for us before he took a house.”

With that she turned her back on the whole affair and whisked down the narrow stairs, leaving her elders to swallow their emotions while inspecting the tin bath-tub in the closet bath-room.

“Milly has her mother’s temper,” Mrs. Ridge observed sourly.

“She’ll come ’round all right,” Horatio replied hopefully.

Milly squirmed, but on the whole she “took her medicine” as well as most human beings….

Meantime she stood before the dusty window in the front room eyeing the dirty street, dabbing the tears from her eyes with her handkerchief, welling with resentment at her fate.


Years later she remembered the fierce emotions of that dreary April day when she had first beheld the little block house on West Laurence Avenue, recalling vividly her rage of rebellion at her father and her fate, the hot disgust in her soul that she should be forced to endure such mean surroundings. “And,” she would say then to the friend to whom she happened to be giving a vivacious account of the incident, “it was just as mean and ugly and depressing as I thought it…. I can see the place now—the horror of that basement dining-room and the smells! My dear, it was just common West Side, you know.”

But how did Milly Ridge at sixteen perceive all this? What gave her the sense of social distinctions,—of place and condition,—at her age, with her limited, even if much-travelled experience of American cities? To read this mystery will be to understand Milly Ridge—and something of America as well.

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