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BOOK I CHAPTER I SUSAN’S DILEMMA
“I know I ’ave enemies,” said Susan bitterly; “I know I am hated in this low neighbourhood. But I don’t see what them should hate me for, for I never interfere wid any of them.”

“Them hate y’u because you are better than them, and because y’u don’t mix with them,” sagaciously answered Catherine, her second sister.

“That they will never get me to do,” snapped Susan. “I wouldn’t mix with a lot of people who are not my companions, even if them was covered from top to toe with gold. It is bad enough that I have to live near them, but further than that I am not going. It is ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ with me, an’ that is all.”

“Then them will always hate you,”, said Catherine, “and if them can injure y’u them will try to do it.”

Catherine referred to most of the people living in the immediate vicinity, between Susan and whom a fierce feud had existed for some months. It was born of envy and nurtured by malice, and Susan knew that well. She dressed better than most of the girls in the lane, she lived in a “front house,” while most of them had to be content with ordinary yard-rooms. She frequently went for rides on the electric cars, whereas they could only afford such pleasure on Sundays and on public holidays. She carried herself with an air of social superiority which was gall and wormwood to the envious; and often on walking through the lane she had noticed the contemptuous looks of those whom, with greater contempt, she called the common folks and treated with but half-concealed disdain. On the whole, she had rather enjoyed the hostility of these people, for it was in its way a tribute to her own importance. But now a discomforting development had taken place in the manner in which the dislike of the neighbourhood habitually showed itself.

This evening Susan sat by one of the windows of the little house in which she lived, and which opened on the lane. It contained two tiny rooms: the inner apartment was her bedroom, her two sisters sleeping with her; the outer one was a sitting-room by day and a bedroom at night, when it was occupied by her father and mother. The house had originally been painted white and green, but the dust of Kingston had discoloured the painting somewhat; hence its appearance was now shabby and faded, though not as much so as that of the other buildings on either side of it. Opposite was an ancient fence dilapidated and almost black; behind this fence were two long ranges of rooms, in which people of the servant classes lived. The comparison between these and Susan’s residence was all in favour of the latter; and as this house overlooked the lane, and was detached from the buildings in the yard to which it belonged, its rental value was fairly high and its occupants were supposed to be of a superior social position.

The gutters on both sides of the lane ran with dirty soap-water, and banana skins, orange peel and bits of brown paper were scattered over the roughly macadamized ground. Lean dogs reclined in the centre of the patch, or prowled about seeking scraps of food which they never seemed to find. In the daytime, scantily-clad children played in the gutters; a few slatternly women, black and brown, drawled out a conversation with one another as they lounged upon the doorsteps; all during the long hours of the sunlight the sound of singing was heard as some industrious housewives washed the clothes of their families and chanted hymns as they worked; and now and then a cab or cart passed down the lane, disturbing for a little while the peaceful tenor of its way.

There were no sidewalks, or rather, there were only the vestiges of sidewalks to be seen. For the space which had been left for these by the original founders of the city had more or less been appropriated by householders who thought that they themselves could make excellent use of such valuable territory. Here a house was partly built on what was once a portion of the sidewalk; there a doorstep marked the encroachment that had taken place on public property; between these an empty space showed that the owner of the intermediate yard had not as yet been adventurous enough to extend his fence beyond its proper limits. Most of the houses that opened on the lane were of one storey, and built of wood, with foundations of red brick. An air of slow decay hung over nearly all of them, though now and then you saw a newly painted building which looked a little out of place in such surroundings.

Susan saw that hers was by no means the shabbiest of these houses, and Susan knew that she was the finest-looking young woman in that section of the lane in which she lived. It was her physical attractions that had helped her to comparative prosperity. In the euphemistic language of the country, she was “engaged” to a young man who was very liberal with his money; he came to see her two or three times a week; and though of late he had not seemed quite so ardent as before, Susan had not troubled to inquire the reason of his shortened visits. He had never hitherto failed on a Friday night to bring for her her weekly allowance, and that she regarded as a sufficiently substantial proof of his continued affection.

But now she felt that she must take some thought of the future. Thrice during the current week she had been openly laughed at by Mother Smith, a peculiarly objectionable old woman who lived about a hundred yards farther up the lane. Mother Smith had passed her house, and, looking up at the window, had uttered with a malignant air of triumph, “If you can’t catch Quaco, you can catch his shirt.” Meaningless as the words might have appeared to the uninitiated, Susan had immediately divined their sinister significance. She knew that Mother Smith had a daughter of about her own age, whose challenging attractiveness had always irritated her. Because Maria, though black, was comely, Susan had made a point of ignoring Maria’s existence; she had never thought of Maria as a possible rival, however, so confident was she of her ascendancy over her lover, and so certain was she that Maria could never be awarded the prize for style and beauty if Susan Proudleigh happened to be near. Still, there could be no mistaking the triumphant insolence of Mother Smith’s glance or the meaning of her significant words.

Tom’s growing coldness now found an explanation. The base plot hatched against her stood revealed in all its hideous details. What was she to do? She did not want to quarrel with Tom outright, and so perhaps frighten him away for ever. That perhaps was precisely what her enemies were hoping she would do. After thinking over the matter and finding herself unable to decide what course of action to adopt, she had put the problem before her family; and her aunt, Miss Proudleigh, happening to come in just then, she also had been invited to give her opinion and suggest a plan.

Susan soon began to realize that she could not expect much wisdom from their united counsel. They all knew that she was not liked by the neighbours; unfortunately, Mother Smith’s design was a factor in the situation which seemed to confuse them utterly. They had gone over the ground again and again. Catherine had said the last word, and it was the reverse of helpful. For a little while they sat in silence, then Susan mechanically repeated Catherine’s words, “If them can injure me, them will try to do it.”

“They does dislike you, Susan,” agreed her aunt, by way of continuing the conversation, “an’ if them can hurt you, them will do it. But, after all, the Lord is on your side.” This remark proved to Susan that at such a crisis as this her family was worse than hopeless. She turned impatiently from the window and faced Miss Proudleigh.

“I don’t say the Lord is not on my side,” she exclaimed; “but Mother Smith is against me, an’ the devil is on her side, an’ if I am not careful Mother Smith will beat me.”

As no one answered, she went on, “Mother Smith wouldn’t talk like she is talking if she didn’t know what she was talking about. She want Tom for Maria, her big-mouth daughter. She an’ Maria tryin’ to take Tom from me—I know it. But, Lord! I will go to prison before them do it!” She had risen while speaking, and her clenched hands and gleaming eyes showed clearly that she was not one over whom an easy victory could be obtained.

She was of middle height, slimly built, and of dark brown complexion. Her lips were thin and pouting, her chin rather salient; her nose stood out defiantly, suggesting a somewhat pugnacious disposition. Her hair, curly but fairly long, was twisted into several plaits and formed a sort of turban on her head; her eyes, large, black, and vivacious, were the features of which she was proudest, for she knew the uses to which they could be put. As her disposition was naturally lively, these eyes of hers usually seemed to be laughing. But just now they were burning and flashing with anger; and those who knew Susan well did not care to cross her when one of these moods came on.

Her father saw her wrath and trembled; then immediately cast about in his mind for some word of consolation that might appease his daughter. He was a tall, thin man, light brown in complexion, and possessed of that inability to arrive at positive decisions which is sometimes described as a judicial frame of mind. He was mildly fond of strong liquors; yet even when under their influence he managed to maintain a degree of mental uncertitude, a sort of intellectual sitting on the fence, which caused his friends to believe that his mental capacity was distinctly above the average. By these friends he was called Schoolmaster, and he wore the title with dignity. By way of living up to it he usually took three minutes to say what another person would have said in one. That is to say, he delighted in almost endless circumlocution.

It was even related of Mr. Proudleigh that, one night, no lamp having yet been lit, he surreptitiously seized hold of a bottle he found on a table and took a large sip from it, thinking the liquor it contained was rum. It happened to be kerosene oil; but such was his self-control that, instead of breaking into strong language as most other men would have done, he muttered that the mistake was very regrettable, and was merely sad and depressed during the remainder of the evening. Such a man, it is clear, was not likely to allow his feelings to triumph over his judgment, though upon occasion, and when it suited his interests, he was ready to agree with the stronger party in any argument. Though he now felt somewhat alarmed by Susan’s suspicions, and knew it was a matter of the first importance that Tom, her lover, and especially Tom’s wages, should be retained as an asset in the family, he could not quite agree that Susan had very good cause for serious apprehension as yet. Up to now he had said very little; he was convinced that he had not sufficient evidence before him on which to pronounce a judgment. He thought, too, that his hopeful way of looking at the situation might help her at this moment; so, his mild, lined face wearing a profoundly deliberative expression, he gave his opinion.

“I don’t think you quite right, Susan,” he observed; “but, mind, I don’t say y’u is wrong. Mother Smit is a woman I don’t like at all. But de Scripture told us, judge not lest we be not judged, an’ perhaps Mother Smit don’t mean you at all when she talk about Quaco.”

On hearing this, Susan’s mother, a silent, elderly black woman with a belligerent past, screwed up her mouth by way of expressing her disapproval of her husband’s point of view. Mrs. Proudleigh was a firm believer in the unmitigated wickedness of her sex, but judged it best to say nothing just then. Susan, however, annoyed by the perverseness of her father, burst out with:

“Then see here, sah, if she don’t mean me an’ my young man, who can she mean? Don’t Mother Smith always say I am forward? Don’t she pass the house this morning an’ throw her words on me? Don’t Maria call out ‘Look at her’ when I was passing her yard yesterday? Tut, me good sah, don’t talk stupidness to me! If you don’t have nothing sensible to say, you better keep you’ mouth quiet. I am going to Tom’s house to-night, to-night. And Tom will ’ave to tell me at once what him have to do with Maria.”

“I will go with you,” said Catherine promptly. She was a sturdy young woman of nineteen years of age, and not herself without a sneaking regard for Tom. Hence, on personal as well as on financial grounds, she objected to Tom’s being taken possession of by Maria and Maria’s mother.

The old man, rather fearing that Susan’s wrath might presently be turned against himself, discreetly refrained from making any further remark; but his sister, an angular lady of fifty, with a great reputation for intelligence and militant Christianity, seeing that Susan’s mind was fully made up as to Maria’s guilt, and being herself in the habit of passing severe comment on the conduct of the absent, determined to support her niece.

“But some female are really bad!” she observed, as if in a soliloquy. “Some female are really bad. Now here is poor Susan not interfering wid anybody. She got her intended. He take his own foot an’ he walk down the lane, an’ he fall in love with her. It is true she don’t marry him yet, but she is engaged. She is engage, and therefore it is an unprincipled sin for any other female to trouble her intended an’ take him away from her. If Maria want a young man, why don’t she go an’ look for one? Why she an’ her mother want to trouble Susan’s one poor lamb, when there is ninety and nine others to pick an’ choose from? Really some female is wicked!”

A speech like this, coming from a woman whose lack of physical charms was more than made up for by strength of moral character, was naturally hailed with great approval by Susan, Catherine, and their mother. The old man himself, never willing to be permanently in a minority, now went so far as to admit that the whole affair was “very provocating,” and added that if he was a younger man he would do several things of a distinctly heroic and dangerous character.

But all this, though in its way very encouraging, was not exactly illuminating. It only brought Susan back to the point from which she had started. “What am I to do?” she asked for the last time, reduced to despair, and sinking back into her seat despondently.

“If I was you,” said Catherine at last deliberately, “I would catch hold of Maria, and beat her till she bawl.”

This advice appealed to Susan; it corresponded with the wish of her own heart. But she doubted the efficacy of physical force in dealing with a difficult and delicate situation. No: a beating would not do; besides, in the event of an encounter, it might be Maria who would do the beating! Susan saw plainly that no word of a helpful nature would be forthcoming from any of the anxious group, who usually appealed to her for advice and assistance. So when Miss Proudleigh was again about to give some further opinions on the general wickedness of females, she got up abruptly, saying that she was going round to Tom’s house to see him. Catherine rose to accompany her, and after putting on their hats the two girls left the room.


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