He awoke next morning from rosy scenes of dream to a steamy atmosphere that
smelled of soapsuds and dirty clothes, and that was vibrant with the jar and
jangle of tormented life. As he came out of his room he heard the slosh of water,
a sharp exclamation, and a resounding smack as his sister visited her irritation
upon one of her numerous progeny. The squall of the child went through him like
a knife. He was aware that the whole thing, the very air he breathed, was
repulsive and mean. How different, he thought, from the atmosphere of beauty
and repose of the house wherein Ruth dwelt. There it was all spiritual. Here it
was all material, and meanly material.
"Come here, Alfred," he called to the crying child, at the same time thrusting his
hand into his trousers pocket, where he carried his money loose in the same
large way that he lived life in general. He put a quarter in the youngster's hand
and held him in his arms a moment, soothing his sobs. "Now run along and get
some candy, and don't forget to give some to your brothers and sisters. Be sure
and get the kind that lasts longest."
His sister lifted a flushed face from the wash-tub and looked at him.
"A nickel'd ha' ben enough," she said. "It's just like you, no idea of the value of
money. The child'll eat himself sick."
"That's all right, sis," he answered jovially. "My money'll take care of itself. If you
weren't so busy, I'd kiss you good morning."
He wanted to be affectionate to this sister, who was good, and who, in her way,
he knew, loved him. But, somehow, she grew less herself as the years went by,
and more and more baffling. It was the hard work, the many children, and the
nagging of her husband, he decided, that had changed her. It came to him, in a
flash of fancy, that her nature seemed taking on the attributes of stale
vegetables, smelly soapsuds, and of the greasy dimes, nickels, and quarters she
took in over the counter of the store.
"Go along an' get your breakfast," she said roughly, though secretly pleased. Of
all her wandering brood of brothers he had always been her favorite. "I declare I
WILL kiss you," she said, with a sudden stir at her heart.
With thumb and forefinger she swept the dripping suds first from one arm and
then from the other. He put his arms round her massive waist and kissed her wet
steamy lips. The tears welled into her eyes - not so much from strength of feeling
as from the weakness of chronic overwork. She shoved him away from her, but
not before he caught a glimpse of her moist eyes.