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Dawn O'Hara the Girl Who Laughed

Edna Ferber

  Dawn O'Hara the Girl Who Laughed

  Edna Ferber

  This etext was prepared with the use of Calera WordScan Plus 2.0









  There are a number of things that are pleasanter than being sick in a New York boarding-house when one’s nearest dearest is a married sister up in far-away Michigan.

  Some one must have been very kind, for there were doctors, and a blue-and-white striped nurse, and bottles and things. There was even a vase of perky carnations— scarlet ones. I discovered that they had a trick of nodding their heads, saucily. The discovery did not appear to surprise me.

  “Howdy-do!” said I aloud to the fattest and reddest carnation that overtopped all the rest. “How in the world did you get in here?”

  The striped nurse (I hadn’t noticed her before) rose from some corner and came swiftly over to my bedside, taking my wrist between her fingers.

  “I’m very well, thank you,” she said, smiling, “and I came in at the door, of course.”

  “I wasn’t talking to you,” I snapped, crossly, “I was speaking to the carnations; particularly to that elderly one at the top—the fat one who keeps bowing and wagging his head at me.”

  “Oh, yes,” answered the striped nurse, politely, “of course. That one is very lively, isn’t he? But suppose we take them out for a little while now.”

  She picked up the vase and carried it into the corridor, and the carnations nodded their heads more vigorously than ever over her shoulder.

  I heard her call softly to some one. The some one answered with a sharp little cry that sounded like, “Conscious!”

  The next moment my own sister Norah came quietly into the room, and knelt at the side of my bed and took me in her arms. It did not seem at all surprising that she should be there, patting me with reassuring little love pats, murmuring over me with her lips against my check, calling me a hundred half-forgotten pet names that I had not heard for years. But then, nothing seemed to surprise me that surprising day. Not even the sight of a great, red-haired, red-faced, scrubbed looking man who strolled into the room just as Norah was in the midst of denouncing newspapers in general, and my newspaper in particular, and calling the city editor a slave-driver and a beast. The big, red-haired man stood regarding us tolerantly.

  “Better, eh?” said he, not as one who asks a question, but as though in confirmation of a thought. Then he too took my wrist between his fingers. His touch was very firm and cool. After that he pulled down my eyelids and said, “H’m.” Then he patted my cheek smartly once or twice. “You’ll do,” he pronounced. He picked up a sheet of paper from the table and looked it over, keen-eyed. There followed a clinking of bottles and glasses, a few low-spoken words to the nurse, and then, as she left the room the big red-haired man seated himself heavily in the chair near the bedside and rested his great hands on his fat knees. He stared down at me in much the same way that a huge mastiff looks at a terrier. Finally his glance rested on my limp left hand.

  “Married, h’m?”

  For a moment the word would not come. I could hear Norah catch her breath quickly. Then—“Yes,” answered I.

  “Husband living?” I could see suspicion dawning in his cold gray eye.

  Again the catch in Norah’s throat and a little half warning, half supplicating gesture. And again, “Yes,” said I.

  The dawn of suspicion burst into full glow.

  “Where is he?” growled the red-haired doctor. “At a time like this?”

  I shut my eyes for a moment, too sick at heart to resent his manner. I could feel, more than see, that Sis was signaling him frantically. I moistened my lips and answered him, bitterly.

  “He is in the Starkweather Hospital for the insane.”

  When the red-haired man spoke again the growl was quite gone from his voice.

  “And your home is—where?”

  “Nowhere,” I replied meekly, from my pillow. But at that Sis put her hand out quickly, as though she had been struck, and said:

  “My home is her home.”

  “Well then, take her there,” he ordered, frowning, “and keep her there as long as you can. Newspaper reporting, h’m? In New York? That’s a devil of a job for a woman. And a husband who … Well, you’ll have to take a six months’ course in loafing, young woman. And at the end of that time, if you are still determined to work, can’t you pick out something easier—like taking in scrubbing, for instance?”

  I managed a feeble smile, wishing that he would go away quickly, so that I might sleep. He seemed to divine my thoughts, for he disappeared into the corridor, taking Norah with him. Their voices, low-pitched and carefully guarded, could be heard as they conversed outside my door.

  Norah was telling him the whole miserable business. I wished, savagely, that she would let me tell it, if it must be told. How could she paint the fascination of the man who was my husband? She had never known the charm of him as I had known it in those few brief months before our marriage. She had never felt the caress of his voice, or the magnetism of his strange, smoldering eyes glowing across the smoke-dimmed city room as I had felt them fixed on me. No one had ever known what he had meant to the girl of twenty, with her brain full of unspoken dreams—dreams which were all to become glorious realities in that wonder-place, New York.

  How he had fired my country-girl imagination! He had been the most brilliant writer on the big, brilliant sheet—and the most dissolute. How my heart had pounded on that first lonely day when this Wonder-Being looked up from his desk, saw me, and strolled over to where I sat before my typewriter! He smiled down at me, companionably. I’m quite sure that my mouth must have been wide open with surprise. He had been smoking a cigarette an expensive-looking, gold-tipped one. Now he removed it from between his lips with that hand that always shook a little, and dropped it to the floor, crushing it lightly with the toe of his boot. He threw back his handsome head and sent out the last mouthful of smoke in a thin, lazy spiral. I remember thinking what a pity it was that he should have crushed that costly-looking cigarette, just for me.

  “My name’s Orme,” he said, gravely. “Peter Orme. And if yours isn’t Shaughnessy or Burke at least, then I’m no judge of what black hair and gray eyes stand for.”

  “Then you’re not,” retorted I, laughing up at him, “for it happens to be O’Hara—Dawn O’Hara, if ye plaze.”

  He picked up a trifle that lay on my desk—a pencil, perhaps, or a bit of paper—and toyed with it, absently, as though I had not spoken. I thought he had not heard, and I was conscious of feeling a bit embarrassed, and very young. Suddenly he raised his smoldering eyes to mine, and I saw that they had taken on a deeper glow. His white, even teeth showed in a half smile.

  “Dawn O’Hara,” said he, slowly, and the name had never sounded in the least like music before, “Dawn O’Hara. It sounds like a rose—a pink blush rose that is deeper pink at its heart, and very sweet.”

  He picked up the trifle with which he had
been toying and eyed it intently for a moment, as though his whole mind were absorbed in it. Then he put it down, turned, and walked slowly away. I sat staring after him like a little simpleton, puzzled, bewildered, stunned. That had been the beginning of it all.

  He had what we Irish call “a way wid him.” I wonder now why I did not go mad with the joy, and the pain, and the uncertainty of it all. Never was a girl so dazzled, so humbled, so worshiped, so neglected, so courted. He was a creature of a thousand moods to torture one. What guise would he wear to-day? Would he be gay, or dour, or sullen, or teasing or passionate, or cold, or tender or scintillating? I know that my hands were always cold, and my cheeks were always hot, those days.

  He wrote like a modern Demosthenes, with all political New York to quiver under his philippics. The managing editor used to send him out on wonderful assignments, and they used to hold the paper for his stuff when it was late. Sometimes he would be gone for days at a time, and when he returned the men would look at him with a sort of admiring awe. And the city editor would glance up from beneath his green eye-shade and call out:

  “Say, Orme, for a man who has just wired in about a million dollars’ worth of stuff seems to me you don’t look very crisp and jaunty.”

  “Haven’t slept for a week,” Peter Orme would growl, and then he would brush past the men who were crowded around him, and turn in my direction. And the old hot-and-cold, happy, frightened, laughing, sobbing sensation would have me by the throat again.

  Well, we were married. Love cast a glamour over his very vices. His love of drink? A weakness which I would transform into strength. His white hot flashes of uncontrollable temper? Surely they would die down at my cool, tender touch. His fits of abstraction and irritability? Mere evidences of the genius within. Oh, my worshiping soul was always alert with an excuse.

  And so we were married. He had quite tired of me in less than a year, and the hand that had always shaken a little shook a great deal now, and the fits of abstraction and temper could be counted upon to appear oftener than any other moods. I used to laugh, sometimes, when I was alone, at the bitter humor of it all. It was like a Duchess novel come to life.

  His work began to show slipshod in spots. They talked to him about it and he laughed at them. Then, one day, he left them in the ditch on the big story of the McManus indictment, and the whole town scooped him, and the managing editor told him that he must go. His lapses had become too frequent. They would have to replace him with a man not so brilliant, perhaps, but more reliable.

  I daren’t think of his face as it looked when he came home to the little apartment and told me. The smoldering eyes were flaming now. His lips were flecked with a sort of foam. I stared at him in horror. He strode over to me, clasped his fingers about my throat and shook me as a dog shakes a mouse.

  “Why don’t you cry, eh?” he snarled. Why don’t you cry!”

  And then I did cry out at what I saw in his eyes. I wrenched myself free, fled to my room, and locked the door and stood against it with my hand pressed over my heart until I heard the outer door slam and the echo of his footsteps die away.

  Divorce! That was my only salvation. No, that would be cowardly now. I would wait until he was on his feet again, and then I would demand my old free life back once more. This existence that was dragging me into the gutter—this was not life! Life was a glorious, beautiful thing, and I would have it yet. I laid my plans, feverishly, and waited. He did not come back that night, or the next, or the next, or the next. In desperation I went to see the men at the office. No, they had not seen him. Was there anything that they could do? they asked. I smiled, and thanked them, and said, oh, Peter was so absent-minded! No doubt he had misdirected his letters, or something of the sort. And then I went back to the flat to resume the horrible waiting.

  One week later he turned up at the old office which had cast him off. He sat down at his former desk and began to write, breathlessly, as he used to in the days when all the big stories fell to him. One of the men reporters strolled up to him and touched him on the shoulder, man-fashion. Peter Orme raised his head and stared at him, and the man sprang back in terror. The smoldering eyes had burned down to an ash. Peter Orme was quite bereft of all reason. They took him away that night, and I kept telling myself that it wasn’t true; that it was all a nasty dream, and I would wake up pretty soon, and laugh about it, and tell it at the breakfast table.

  Well, one does not seek a divorce from a husband who is insane. The busy men on the great paper were very kind. They would take me back on the staff. Did I think that I still could write those amusing little human interest stories? Funny ones, you know, with a punch in ‘em.

  Oh, plenty of good stories left in me yet, I assured them. They must remember that I was only twenty-one, after all, and at twenty-one one does not lose the sense of humor.

  And so I went back to my old desk, and wrote bright, chatty letters home to Norah, and ground out very funny stories with a punch in ‘em, that the husband in the insane asylum might be kept in comforts. With both hands I hung on like grim death to that saving sense of humor, resolved to make something of that miserable mess which was my life—to make something of it yet. And now—

  At this point in my musings there was an end of the low-voiced conversation in the hall. Sis tiptoed in and looked her disapproval at finding me sleepless.

  “Dawn, old girlie, this will never do. Shut your eyes now, like a good child, and go to sleep. Guess what that great brute of a doctor said! I may take you home with me next week! Dawn dear, you will come, won’t you? You must! This is killing you. Don’t make me go away leaving you here. I couldn’t stand it.”

  She leaned over my pillow and closed my eyelids gently with her sweet, cool fingers. “You are coming home with me, and you shall sleep and eat, and sleep and eat, until you are as lively as the Widow Malone, ohone, and twice as fat. Home, Dawnie dear, where we’ll forget all about New York. Home, with me.”

  I reached up uncertainly, and brought her hand down to my lips and a great peace descended upon my sick soul. “Home—with you,” I said, like a child, and fell asleep.



  Oh, but it was clean, and sweet, and wonderfully still, that rose-and-white room at Norah’s! No street cars to tear at one’s nerves with grinding brakes and clanging bells; no tramping of restless feet on the concrete all through the long, noisy hours; no shrieking midnight joy-riders; not one of the hundred sounds which make night hideous in the city. What bliss to lie there, hour after hour, in a delicious half-waking, half-sleeping, wholly exquisite stupor, only rousing myself to swallow egg-nogg No. 426, and then to flop back again on the big, cool pillow!

  New York, with its lights, its clangor, its millions, was only a far-away, jumbled nightmare. The office, with its clacking typewriters, its insistent, nerve-racking telephone bells, its systematic rush, its smoke-dimmed city room, was but an ugly part of the dream.

  Back to that inferno of haste and scramble and clatter? Never! Never! I resolved, drowsily. And dropped off to sleep again.

  And the sheets. Oh, those sheets of Norah’s! Why, they were white, instead of gray! And they actually smelled of flowers. For that matter, there were rosebuds on the silken coverlet. It took me a week to get chummy with that rosebud-and-down quilt. I had to explain carefully to Norah that after a half-dozen years of sleeping under doubtful boarding-house blankets one does not so soon get rid of a shuddering disgust for coverings which are haunted by the ghosts of a hundred unknown sleepers. Those years had taught me to draw up the sheet with scrupulous care, to turn it down, and smooth it over, so that no contaminating and woolly blanket should touch my skin. The habit stuck even after Norah had tucked me in between her fragrant sheets. Automatically my hands groped about, arranging the old protecting barrier.

  “What’s the matter, Fuss-fuss?” inquired Norah, looking on. “That down quilt won’t bite you; what an old maid you are!”

  “Don’t like blankets
next to my face,” I elucidated, sleepily, “never can tell who slept under ‘em last—”

  You cat!” exclaimed Norah, making a little rush at me. “If you weren’t supposed to be ill I’d shake you! Comparing my darling rosebud quilt to your miserable gray blankets! Just for that I’ll make you eat an extra pair of eggs.”

  There never was a sister like Norah. But then, who ever heard of a brother-in-law like Max? No woman—not even a frazzled-out newspaper woman—could receive the love and care that they gave me, and fail to flourish under it. They had been Dad and Mother to me since the day when Norah had tucked me under her arm and carried me away from New York. Sis was an angel; a comforting, twentieth-century angel, with white apron strings for wings, and a tempting tray in her hands in place of the hymn books and palm leaves that the picture-book angels carry. She coaxed the inevitable eggs and beef into more tempting forms than Mrs. Rorer ever guessed at. She could disguise those two plain, nourishing articles of diet so effectually that neither hen nor cow would have suspected either of having once been part of her anatomy. Once I ate halfway through a melting, fluffy, peach-bedecked plate of something before I discovered that it was only another egg in disguise.

  “Feel like eating a great big dinner to-day, Kidlet? “Norah would ask in the morning as she stood at my bedside (with a glass of egg-something in her hand, of course).

  “Eat!”—horror and disgust shuddering through my voice—“Eat! Ugh! Don’t s-s-speak of it to me. And for pity’s sake tell Frieda to shut the kitchen door when you go down, will you? I can smell something like ugh!—like pot roast, with gravy!” And I would turn my face to the wall.

  Three hours later I would hear Sis coming softly up the stairs, accompanied by a tinkling of china and glass. I would face her, all protest.

  “Didn’t I tell you, Sis, that I couldn’t eat a mouthful? Not a mouthf—um-m-m-m! How perfectly scrumptious that looks! What’s that affair in the lettuce leaf? Oh, can’t I begin on that divine-looking pinky stuff in the tall glass? H’m? Oh, please!”