Edited for the first time as Norris intended it, this masterpiece of American literary naturalism is fully contextualized in the introduction and explanatory notes by Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. and Gwendolyn Jones.
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A Story of Chicago
By Frank Norris
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
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AT EIGHT O'CLOCK IN the inner vestibule of the Auditorium Theatre by the window of the box office, Laura Dearborn, her younger sister Page, and their aunt — Aunt Wess' — were still waiting for the rest of the theatre-party to appear. A great, slow-moving press of men and women in evening dress filled the vestibule from one wall to another. A confused murmur of talk and the shuffling of many feet arose on all sides, while from time to time, when the outside and inside doors of the entrance chanced to be open simultaneously, a sudden draught of air gushed in, damp, glacial, and edged with the penetrating keenness of a Chicago evening at the end of February.
The Italian Grand Opera Company gave one of the most popular pieces of its repertoire on that particular night, and the Cresslers had invited the two sisters and their aunt to share their box with them. It had been arranged that the party should assemble in the Auditorium vestibule at a quarter of eight; but by now the quarter was gone and the Cresslers still failed to arrive.
"I don't see," murmured Laura anxiously for the last time, "what can be keeping them. Are you sure Page that Mrs. Cressler meant here — inside?"
She was a tall young girl of about twenty-two or three, holding herself erect and with fine dignity. Even beneath the opera cloak it was easy to infer that her neck and shoulders were beautiful. Her almost extreme slenderness was, however, her characteristic; the curves of her figure, the contour of her shoulders, the swell of hip and breast were all low; from head to foot one could discover no pronounced salience. Yet there was no trace, no suggestion of angularity. She was slender as a willow shoot is slender — and equally graceful, equally erect.
Next to this charming tenuity, perhaps her paleness was her most noticeable trait. But it was not a paleness of lack of colour. Laura Dearborn's pallour was in itself a colour. It was a tint rather than a shade, like ivory; a warm white, blending into an exquisite, delicate brownness towards the throat. Set in the middle of this paleness of brow and cheek, her deep brown eyes glowed lambent and intense. They were not large, but in some indefinable way they were important. It was very natural to speak of her eyes, and in speaking to her, her friends always found that they must look squarely into their pupils. And all this beauty of pallid face and brown eyes was crowned by, and sharply contrasted with, the intense blackness of her hair, abundant, thick, extremely heavy, continually coruscating with sombre, murky reflections, tragic, in a sense vaguely portentous, — the coiffure of a heroine of romance, doomed to dark crises.
On this occasion at the side of the topmost coil, a white aigrette scintillated and trembled with her every movement. She was unquestionably beautiful. Her mouth was a little large, the lips firm set, and one would not have expected that she would smile easily; in fact, the general expression of her face was rather serious.
"Perhaps," continued Laura, "they would look for us outside." But Page shook her head. She was five years younger than Laura, just turned seventeen. Her hair, dressed high for the first time this night, was brown. But Page's beauty was no less marked than her sister's. The seriousness of her expression, however, was more noticeable. At times it amounted to undeniable gravity. She was straight, and her figure, all immature as yet, exhibited hardly any softer outlines than that of a boy.
"No, no," she said, in answer to Laura's question. "They would come in here; they wouldn't wait outside — not on such a cold night as this. Don't you think so, Aunt Wess'?"
But Mrs. Wessels, a lean, middle-aged little lady, with a flat, pointed nose, had no suggestions to offer. She disengaged herself from any responsibility in the situation and, while waiting, found a vague amusement in counting the number of people who filtered in single file through the wicket where the tickets were presented. A great, stout gentleman in evening dress, perspiring, his cravatte limp, stood here, tearing the checks from the tickets, and without ceasing, maintaining a continuous outcry that dominated the murmur of the throng:
"Have your tickets ready, please! Have your tickets ready."
"Such a crowd," murmured Page. "Did you ever see — and every one you ever knew or heard of. And such toilettes!"
With every instant the number of people increased; progress became impossible, except an inch at a time. The women were, almost without exception, in light-coloured gowns, white, pale blue, Nile green, and pink, while over these costumes were thrown opera cloaks and capes of astonishing complexity and elaborateness. Nearly all were bare-headed, and nearly all wore aigrettes; a score of these, a hundred of them, nodded and vibrated with an incessant agitation over the heads of the crowd and flashed like mica flakes as the wearers moved. Everywhere the eye was arrested by the luxury of stuffs, the brilliance and delicacy of fabrics, laces as white and soft as froth, crisp, shining silks, suave satins, heavy gleaming velvets, and brocades and plushes, nearly all of them white — violently so — dazzling and splendid under the blaze of the electrics. The gentlemen, in long, black overcoats, and satin mufflers, and opera hats; their hands under the elbows of their women-folk, urged or guided them forward, distressed, preoccupied, adjuring their parties to keep together; in their white-gloved fingers they held their tickets ready. For all the icy blasts that burst occasionally through the storm doors, the vestibule was uncomfortably warm, and into this steam-heated atmosphere a multitude of heavy odours exhaled — the scent of crushed flowers, of perfume, of sachet, and even — occasionally — the strong smell of damp seal-skin.
Outside it was bitterly cold. All day a freezing wind had blown from off the Lake, and since five in the afternoon a fine powder of snow had been falling. The coachmen on the boxes of the carriages that succeeded one another in an interminable line before the entrance of the theatre, were swathed to the eyes in furs. The spume and froth froze on the bits of the horses, and the carriage wheels crunching through the dry, frozen snow gave off a shrill staccato whine. Yet for all this, a crowd had collected about the awning on the sidewalk, and even upon the opposite side of the street, peeping and peering from behind the broad shoulders of policemen — a crowd of miserables, shivering in rags and tattered comforters, who found, nevertheless, an unexplainable satisfaction in watching this prolonged defile of millionaires.
So great was the concourse of teams, that two blocks distant from the theatre they were obliged to fall into line, advancing only at intervals, and from door to door of the carriages thus immobilised ran a score of young men, their arms encumbered with pamphlets, shouting: "Score books, score books and librettos; score books with photographs of all the artists."
However, in the vestibule the press was thinning out. It was understood that the overture had begun. Other people who were waiting like Laura and her sister had been joined by their friends and had gone inside. Laura, for whom this opera night had been an event, a thing desired and anticipated with all the eagerness of a girl who had lived for twenty-two years in a second-class town of central Massachusetts, was in great distress. She had never seen Grand Opera, she would not have missed a note, and now she was in a fair way to lose the whole overture.
"Oh, dear," she cried. "Isn't it too bad. I can't imagine why they don't come."
Page, more metropolitan, her keenness of appreciation a little lost by two years of city life and fashionable schooling, tried to reassure her.
"You won't lose much," she said. "The air of the overture is repeated in the first act — I've heard it once before."
"If we even see the first act," mourned Laura. She scanned the faces of the late comers anxiously. Nobody seemed to mind being late. Even some of the other people who were waiting, chatted calmly among themselves. Directly behind them two men, their faces close together, elaborated an interminable conversation, of which from time to time they could overhear a phrase or two.
"— and I guess he'll do well if he settles for thirty cents on the dollar. I tell you, dear boy, it was a smash!"
"Never should have tried to swing a corner. The short interest was too small and the visible supply was too great."
Page nudged her sister and whispered: "That's the Helmick failure they're talking about, those men. Landry Court told me all about it. Mr. Helmick had a corner in corn, and he failed to-day, or will fail soon, or something."
But Laura, preoccupied with looking for the Cresslers, hardly listened. Aunt Wess', whose count was confused by all these figures murmured just behind her, began over again, her lips silently forming the words, "sixty-one, sixty-two, and two is sixty-four." Behind them the voice continued:
"They say Porteous will peg the market at twenty-six."
"Well he ought to. Corn is worth that."
"Never saw such a call for margins in my life. Some of the houses called eight cents."
Page turned to Mrs. Wessels: "By the way, Aunt Wess'; look at that man there by the box office window, the one with his back towards us, the one with his hands in his overcoat pockets. Isn't that Mr. Jadwin? The gentleman we are going to meet to-night. See who I mean?"
"Who? Mr. Jadwin? I don't know. I don't know, child. I never saw him, you know."
"Well I think it is he," continued Page. "He was to be with our party to-night. I heard Mrs. Cressler say she would ask him. That's Mr. Jadwin, I'm sure. He's waiting for them, too."
"Oh, then ask him about it, Page," exclaimed Laura. "We're missing everything."
But Page shook her head:
"I only met him once, ages ago; he wouldn't know me. It was at the Cresslers, and we just said 'How do you do.' And then maybe it isn't Mr. Jadwin."
"Oh, I wouldn't bother, girls," said Mrs. Wessels. "It's all right. They'll be here in a minute. I don't believe the curtain has gone up yet."
But the man of whom they spoke turned around at the moment and cast a glance about the vestibule. They saw a gentleman of an indeterminate age — judged by his face he might as well have been forty as thirty-five. A heavy mustache touched with grey covered his lips. The eyes were twinkling and good-tempered. Between his teeth he held an unlighted cigar.
"It is Mr. Jadwin," murmured Page, looking quickly away. "But he don't recognise me."
Laura also averted her eyes.
"Well, why not go right up to him and introduce ourself, or recall yourself to him?" she hazarded.
"Oh, Laura, I couldn't," gasped Page. "I wouldn't for worlds."
"Couldn't she, Aunt Wess'?" appealed Laura. "Wouldn't it be all right?"
But Mrs. Wessels, ignoring forms and customs, was helpless. Again she withdrew from any responsibility in the matter.
"I don't know anything about it," she answered. "But Page oughtn't to be bold."
"Oh, bother; it isn't that," protested Page. "But it's just because — I don't know, I don't want to — Laura, I should just die," she exclaimed with abrupt irrelevance, "and besides, how would that help any?" she added.
"Well, we're just going to miss it all," declared Laura decisively. There were actual tears in her eyes. "And I had looked forward to it so."
"Well," hazarded Aunt Wess', "you girls can do just as you please. Only I wouldn't be bold."
"Well, would it be bold if Page, or if — if I were to speak to him? We're going to meet him anyways in just a few minutes."
"Better wait, hadn't you, Laura," said Aunt Wess', "and see. Maybe he'll come up and speak to us."
"Oh, as if!" contradicted Laura. "He don't know us, — just as Page says. And if he did, he wouldn't. He wouldn't think it polite."
"Then I guess, girlie, it wouldn't be polite for you."
"I think it would," she answered. "I think it would be a woman's place. If he's a gentleman, he would feel that he just couldn't speak first. I'm going to do it," she announced suddenly.
"Just as you think best, Laura," said her aunt.
But nevertheless Laura did not move, and another five minutes went by.
Page took advantage of the interval to tell Laura about Jadwin. He was very rich, but a bachelor, and had made his money in Chicago real estate. Some of his holdings in the business quarter of the city were enormous; Landry Court had told her about him. Jadwin, unlike Mr. Cressler, was not opposed to speculation. Though not a member of the Board of Trade, he nevertheless at very long intervals took part in a "deal" in wheat, or corn, or provisions. He believed that all corners were doomed to failure, however, and had predicted Helmick's collapse six months ago. He had influence, was well known to all Chicago people, what he said carried weight, financiers consulted him, promoters sought his friendship, his name on the board of directors of a company was an all-sufficing endorsement; in a word, a "strong" man.
"I can't understand," exclaimed Laura distrait, referring to the delay on the part of the Cresslers. "This was the night, and this was the place, and it is long past the time. We could telephone to the house, you know," she said, struck with an idea, "and see if they've started, or what has happened."
"I don't know — I don't know," murmured Mrs. Wessels vaguely. No one seemed ready to act upon Laura's suggestion, and again the minutes passed.
"I'm going," declared Laura again, looking at the other two, as if to demand what they had to say against the idea.
"I just couldn't," declared Page flatly.
"Well," continued Laura, "I'll wait just three minutes more, and then if the Cresslers are not here I will speak to him. It seems to me to be perfectly natural, and not at all bold."
She waited three minutes, and the Cresslers still failing to appear, temporised yet further, for the twentieth time repeating:
"I don't see — I can't understand."
Then, abruptly drawing her cape about her, she crossed the vestibule and came up to Jadwin.
As she approached she saw him catch her eye. Then, as he appeared to understand that this young woman was about to speak to him, she noticed an expression of suspicion, almost of distrust, come into his face. No doubt he knew nothing of this other party who were to join the Cresslers in the vestibule. Why should this girl speak to him? Something had gone wrong, and the instinct of the man, no longer very young, to keep out of strange young women's troubles betrayed itself in the uneasy glance that he shot at her from under his heavy eyebrows. But the look faded as quickly as it had come. Laura guessed that he had decided that in such a place as this he need have no suspicions. He took the cigar from his mouth, and she, immensely relieved, realised that she had to do with a man who was a gentleman. Full of trepidation as she had been in crossing the vestibule, she was quite mistress of herself when the instant came for her to speak, and it was in a steady voice and without embarrassment that she said:
"I beg your pardon, but I believe this is Mr. Jadwin."
He took off his hat, evidently a little nonplussed that she should know his name, and by now she was ready even to browbeat him a little should it be necessary.
"Yes, yes," he answered, now much more confused than she, "my name is Jadwin."
"I believe," continued Laura steadily, "we were all to be in the same party to-night with the Cresslers. But they don't seem to come, and we — my sister and my aunt and I — don't know what to do."
She saw that he was embarrassed, convinced, and the knowledge that she controlled the little situation, that she could command him, restored her all her equanimity.
"My name is Miss Dearborn," she continued. "I believe you know my sister Page."
By some trick of manner she managed to convey to him the impression that if he did not know her sister Page, that if for one instant he should deem her to be bold, he would offer a mortal affront. She had not yet forgiven him that stare of suspicion when first their eyes had met; he should pay her for that yet.
"Miss Page, — your sister, — Miss Page Dearborn? Certainly I know her," he answered. "And you have been waiting, too? What a pity!" And he permitted himself the awkwardness of adding: "I did not know that you were to be of our party."
Excerpted from The Pit by Frank Norris. Copyright © 2016 Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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