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Pages (PDF): 261
Publication Date: 1921
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Alice Adams is a young woman with ambitions to marry above her status. To do so, she must lie about her family's economic status to the young man who is courting her. Meanwhile her mother is pushing her unambitious husband into ventures that he really doesn't want to venture into; and the prodigal son is getting into debt. It all culminates in a crash when lies are found out and truths revealed.
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The patient, an old-fashioned man, thought the nurse made a mistake in keeping both of the windows open, and her sprightly disregard of his protests added something to his hatred of her. Every evening he told her that anybody with ordinary gumption ought to realize that night air was bad for the human frame. “The human frame won't stand everything, Miss Perry,” he warned her, resentfully. “Even a child, if it had just ordinary gumption, ought to know enough not to let the night air blow on sick people yes, nor well people, either! 'Keep out of the night air, no matter how well you feel.' That's what my mother used to tell me when I was a boy. 'Keep out of the night air, Virgil,' she'd say. 'Keep out of the night air.'”
“I expect probably her mother told her the same thing,” the nurse suggested.
“Of course she did. My grandmother——”
“Oh, I guess your GRANDmother thought so, Mr. Adams! That was when all this flat central country was swampish and hadn't been drained off yet. I guess the truth must been the swamp mosquitoes bit people and gave 'em malaria, especially before they began to put screens in their windows. Well, we got screens in these windows, and no mosquitoes are goin' to bite us; so just you be a good boy and rest your mind and go to sleep like you need to.”
“Sleep?” he said. “Likely!”
He thought the night air worst of all in April; he hadn't a doubt it would kill him, he declared. “It's miraculous what the human frame WILL survive,” he admitted on the last evening of that month. “But you and the doctor ought to both be taught it won't stand too dang much! You poison a man and poison and poison him with this April night air——”
“Can't poison you with much more of it,” Miss Perry interrupted him, indulgently. “To-morrow it'll be May night air, and I expect that'll be a lot better for you, don't you? Now let's just sober down and be a good boy and get some nice sound sleep.”
She gave him his medicine, and, having set the glass upon the center table, returned to her cot, where, after a still interval, she snored faintly. Upon this, his expression became that of a man goaded out of overpowering weariness into irony.
“Sleep? Oh, CERTAINLY, thank you!”
However, he did sleep intermittently, drowsed between times, and even dreamed; but, forgetting his dreams before he opened his eyes, and having some part of him all the while aware of his discomfort, he believed, as usual, that he lay awake the whole night long. He was conscious of the city as of some single great creature resting fitfully in the dark outside his windows. It lay all round about, in the damp cover of its night cloud of smoke, and tried to keep quiet for a few hours after midnight, but was too powerful a growing thing ever to lie altogether still. Even while it strove to sleep it muttered with digestions of the day before, and these already merged with rumblings of the morrow. “Owl” cars, bringing in last passengers over distant trolley-lines, now and then howled on a curve; faraway metallic stirrings could be heard from factories in the sooty suburbs on the plain outside the city; east, west, and south, switch-engines chugged and snorted on sidings; and everywhere in the air there seemed to be a faint, voluminous hum as of innumerable wires trembling overhead to vibration of machinery underground.
In his youth Adams might have been less resentful of sounds such as these when they interfered with his night's sleep: even during an illness he might have taken some pride in them as proof of his citizenship in a “live town”; but at fifty-five he merely hated them because they kept him awake. They “pressed on his nerves,” as he put it; and so did almost everything else, for that matter.
He heard the milk-wagon drive into the cross-street beneath his windows and stop at each house. The milkman carried his jars round to the “back porch,” while the horse moved slowly ahead to the gate of the next customer and waited there. “He's gone into Pollocks',” Adams thought, following this progress. “I hope it'll sour on 'em before breakfast. Delivered the Andersons'. Now he's getting out ours. Listen to the darn brute! What's HE care who wants to sleep!” His complaint was of the horse, who casually shifted weight with a clink of steel shoes on the worn brick pavement of the street, and then heartily shook himself in his harness, perhaps to dislodge a fly far ahead of its season. Light had just filmed the windows; and with that the first sparrow woke, chirped instantly, and roused neighbours in the trees of the small yard, including a loud-voiced robin. Vociferations began irregularly, but were soon unanimous.
“Sleep? Dang likely now, ain't it!”
Night sounds were becoming day sounds; the far-away hooting of freight-engines seemed brisker than an hour ago in the dark. A cheerful whistler passed the house, even more careless of sleepers than the milkman's horse had been; then a group of coloured workmen came by, and although it was impossible to be sure whether they were homeward bound from night-work or on their way to day-work, at least it was certain that they were jocose. Loose, aboriginal laughter preceded them afar, and beat on the air long after they had gone by.
The sick-room night-light, shielded from his eyes by a newspaper propped against a water-pitcher, still showed a thin glimmering that had grown offensive to Adams. In his wandering and enfeebled thoughts, which were much more often imaginings than reasonings, the attempt of the night-light to resist the dawn reminded him of something unpleasant, though he could not discover just what the unpleasant thing was. Here was a puzzle that irritated him the more because he could not solve it, yet always seemed just on the point of a solution. However, he may have lost nothing cheerful by remaining in the dark upon the matter; for if he had been a little sharper in this introspection he might have concluded that the squalor of the night-light, in its seeming effort to show against the forerunning of the sun itself, had stimulated some half-buried perception within him to sketch the painful little synopsis of an autobiography.
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