When she is at home—which is seldom—she has many visitors and strives, if possible, to see none of them.
“You know, I entertain so much,” she pleads in that vivid, whimsical way of hers that holds as much of sadness as mirth.
But this time, it being so early in the afternoon, she was caught unawares.
The girls—they were nothing but girls, three of them—found her out upon the lawn, sitting on a seat where the velvety green turf fell away in a steep hillside, and far beneath them they could see the river moving whitely beyond the trees. They halted there before her, happy but trembling, giggling but grave. They were gasping and incoherent, full of apologies and absurd tremors. It had taken their combined week’s savings to bribe the gardener. And they only wanted to know one thing: How had she achieved all this fame and splendour, by what magic process had she become that rarest of all living creatures, the funniest woman in the world?
It was an easy enough question to ask and, to them, hovering twittering upon high heels a trifle worn to one side, a simple one for her to answer. She looked at them in that humorous, kindly way of hers, looked at their silly, excited, made-up faces with noses sticking out stark, like handles, from a too-heavy application of purplish-white powder. Then her glance travelled down the velvety green slope to the bright river glancing and leaping beyond the shady trees.
Did she think of that other girl? Sitting there with that strange smile upon her face, the smile that is neither mirth nor sadness, but a poignant, haunting compound of both, did she remember her and the Urge that had always been upon her, racking her like actual pain, driving her with a whip of scorpions, flaying her on and on with a far more vivid sense of suffering than the actual beatings laid on by her mother’s heavy hand, the thing that found articulation in the words, “I must be famous, I must!”
She belonged in the rear of a batch of a dozen, and had never been properly named. The wind was blowing from the stockyards on the dark hour when she arrived. It penetrated even to the small airless chamber where she struggled for her first breath—one of a “flat” in the poorest tenement in the worst slum in Chicago. Huddled in smelly rags by a hastily summoned neighbour from the floor above, the newcomer raised her untried voice in a frail, reedy cry. Perhaps she did not like the smell that oozed in around the tightly closed window to combat the foul odours of the airless room. Whatever it was, this protest availed her nothing, for the neighbour hurriedly departed, having been unwilling from the first, and the mother turned away and lay close against the stained, discoloured wall, too apathetic, too utterly resigned to the fate life had meted out to her to accord this most unwelcome baby further attention. This first moment of her life might easily serve as the history of her babyhood.