First Mrs. Parker would show you the double parlours. You would not dare to interrupt her description of their advantages and of the merits of the gentleman who had occupied them for eight years. Then you would manage to stammer forth the confession that you were neither a doctor nor a dentist. Mrs. Parker’s manner of receiving the admission was such that you could never afterward entertain the same feeling toward your parents, who had neglected to train you up in one of the professions that fitted Mrs. Parker’s parlours.
Next you ascended one flight of stairs and looked at the second- floor-back at $8. Convinced by her second-floor manner that it was worth the $12 that Mr. Toosenberry always paid for it until he left to take charge of his brother’s orange plantation in Florida near Palm Beach, where Mrs. McIntyre always spent the winters that had the double front room with private bath, you managed to babble that you wanted something still cheaper.
If you survived Mrs. Parker’s scorn, you were taken to look at Mr. Skidder’s large hall room on the third floor. Mr. Skidder’s room was not vacant. He wrote plays and smoked cigarettes in it all day long. But every room-hunter was made to visit his room to admire the lambrequins. After each visit, Mr. Skidder, from the fright caused by possible eviction, would pay something on his rent.
Then–oh, then–if you still stood on one foot, with your hot hand clutching the three moist dollars in your pocket, and hoarsely proclaimed your hideous and culpable poverty, nevermore would Mrs. Parker be cicerone of yours. She would honk loudly the word” Clara,” she would show you her back, and march downstairs. Then Clara, the coloured maid, would escort you up the carpeted ladder that served for the fourth flight, and show you the Skylight Room. It occupied 7×8 feet of floor space at the middle of the hall. On each side of it was a dark lumber closet or storeroom.
In it was an iron cot, a washstand and a chair. A shelf was the dresser. Its four bare walls seemed to close in upon you like the sides of a coffin. Your hand crept to your throat, you gasped, you looked up as from a well–and breathed once more. Through the glass of the little skylight you saw a square of blue infinity.
“Two dollars, suh,” Clara would say in her half-contemptuous, half- Tuskegeenial tones.
One day Miss Leeson came hunting for a room. She carried a typewriter made to be lugged around by a much larger lady. She was a very little girl, with eyes and hair that had kept on growing after she had stopped and that always looked as if they were saying: “Goodness me ! Why didn’t you keep up with us?”
Mrs. Parker showed her the double parlours. “In this closet,” she said, “one could keep a skeleton or anaesthetic or coal ”
“But I am neither a doctor nor a dentist,” said Miss Leeson, with a shiver.
Mrs. Parker gave her the incredulous, pitying, sneering, icy stare that she kept for those who failed to qualify as doctors or dentists, and led the way to the second floor back.
“Eight dollars?” said Miss Leeson. “Dear me! I’m not Hetty if I do look green. I’m just a poor little working girl. Show me something higher and lower.”
Mr. Skidder jumped and strewed the floor with cigarette stubs at the rap on his door.
“Excuse me, Mr. Skidder,” said Mrs. Parker, with her demon’s smile at his pale looks. “I didn’t know you were in. I asked the lady to have a look at your lambrequins.”
“They’re too lovely for anything,” said Miss Leeson, smiling in exactly the way the angels do.
After they had gone Mr. Skidder got very busy erasing the tall, black-haired heroine from his latest (unproduced) play and inserting a small, roguish one with heavy, bright hair and vivacious features.
“Anna Held’ll jump at it,” said Mr. Skidder to himself, putting his feet up against the lambrequins and disappearing in a cloud of smoke like an aerial cuttlefish.
Presently the tocsin call of “Clara!” sounded to the world the state of Miss Leeson’s purse. A dark goblin seized her, mounted a Stygian stairway, thrust her into a vault with a glimmer of light in its top and muttered the menacing and cabalistic words “Two dollars!”
“I’ll take it!” sighed Miss Leeson, sinking down upon the squeaky iron bed.
Every day Miss Leeson went out to work. At night she brought home papers with handwriting on them and made copies with her typewriter. Sometimes she had no work at night, and then she would sit on the steps of the high stoop with the other roomers. Miss Leeson was not intended for a sky-light room when the plans were drawn for her creation. She was gay-hearted and full of tender, whimsical fancies. Once she let Mr. Skidder read to her three acts of his great (unpublished) comedy, “It’s No Kid; or, The Heir of the Subway.”
There was rejoicing among the gentlemen roomers whenever Miss Leeson had time to sit on the steps for an hour or two. But Miss Longnecker, the tall blonde who taught in a public school and said, “Well, really!” to everything you said, sat on the top step and sniffed. And Miss Dorn, who shot at the moving ducks at Coney every Sunday and worked in a department store, sat on the bottom step and sniffed. Miss Leeson sat on the middle step and the men would quickly group around her.
Especially Mr. Skidder, who had cast her in his mind for the star part in a private, romantic (unspoken) drama in real life. And especially Mr. Hoover, who was forty-five, fat, flush and foolish. And especially very young Mr. Evans, who set up a hollow cough to induce her to ask him to leave off cigarettes. The men voted her “the funniest and jolliest ever,” but the sniffs on the top step and the lower step were implacable.