GARDEN CITY NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY 1920
I. THE MATERNAL FEMININE 3 II. APRIL 25TH, AS USUAL 36 III. OLD LADY MANDLE 76 IV. YOU'VE GOT TO BE SELFISH 113 V. LONG DISTANCE 148 VI. UN MORSO DOO PANG 157 VII. ONE HUNDRED PER CENT 201 VIII. FARMER IN THE DELL 230 IX. THE DANCING GIRLS 280
THE MATERNAL FEMININE
Called upon to describe Aunt Sophy you would have to coin a term or fall back on the dictionary definition of a spinster. "An unmarried woman," states that worthy work, baldly, "especially when no longer young." That, to the world, was Sophy Decker. Unmarried, certainly. And most certainly no longer young. In figure she was, at fifty, what is known in the corset ads as a "stylish stout." Well dressed in blue serge, with broad-toed health shoes and a small, astute hat. The blue serge was practical common sense. The health shoes were comfort. The hat was strictly business. Sophy Decker made and sold hats, both astute and ingenuous, to the female population of Chippewa, Wisconsin. Chippewa's East-End set bought the knowing type of hat, and the mill hands and hired girls bought the naive ones. But whether lumpy or possessed of that indefinable thing known as line, Sophy Decker's hats were honest hats.
The world is full of Aunt Sophys, unsung. Plump, ruddy, capable women of middle age. Unwed, and rather looked down upon by a family of married sisters and tolerant, good-humoured brothers-in-law, and careless nieces and nephews.
"Poor Aunt Soph," with a significant half smile. "She's such a good old thing. And she's had so little in life, really."
She was, undoubtedly, a good old thing—Aunt Soph. Forever sending a spray of sweeping black paradise, like a jet of liquid velvet, to this pert little niece in Seattle; or taking Adele, sister Flora's daughter, to Chicago or New York, as a treat, on one of her buying trips. Burdening herself, on her business visits to these cities, with a dozen foolish shopping commissions for the idle women folk of her family. Hearing without partisanship her sisters' complaints about their husbands, and her sisters' husbands' complaints about their wives. It was always the same.
"I'm telling you this, Sophy. I wouldn't breathe it to another living soul. But I honestly think, sometimes, that if it weren't for the children—"
There is no knowing why they confided these things to Sophy instead of to each other, these wedded sisters of hers. Perhaps they held for each other an unuttered distrust or jealousy. Perhaps, in making a confidante of Sophy, there was something of the satisfaction that comes of dropping a surreptitious stone down a deep well and hearing it plunk, safe in the knowledge that it has struck no one and that it cannot rebound, lying there in the soft darkness. Sometimes they would end by saying, "But you don't know what it is, Sophy. You can't. I'm sure I don't know why I'm telling you all this."
But when Sophy answered, sagely, "I know; I know"—they paid little heed, once having unburdened themselves. The curious part of it is that she did know. She knew as a woman of fifty must know who, all her life, has given and given and in return has received nothing. Sophy Decker had never used the word inhibition in her life. I doubt if she knew what it meant. When you are busy copying French models for the fall trade you have little time or taste for Freud. She only knew (without in the least knowing she knew) that in giving of her goods, of her affections, of her time, of her energy, she found a certain relief. Her own people would have been shocked if you had told them that there was about this old maid aunt something rather splendidly Rabelaisian. Without being at all what is known as a masculine woman she had, somehow, acquired the man's viewpoint, his shrewd value sense. She ate a good deal, and enjoyed her food. She did not care for those queer little stories that married women sometimes tell, with narrowed eyes, but she was strangely tolerant of what is known as sin. So simple and direct she was that you wondered how she prospered in a line so subtle as the millinery business.
You might have got a fairly true characterization of Sophy Decker from one of fifty people: from a dapper salesman in a New York or Chicago wholesale millinery house; from Otis Cowan, cashier of the First National Bank of Chippewa; from Julia Gold, her head milliner and trimmer; from almost any one, in fact, except a member of her own family. They knew her least of all, as is often true of one's own people. Her three married sisters—Grace in Seattle, Ella in Chicago, and Flora in Chippewa—regarded her with a rather affectionate disapproval from the snug safety of their own conjugal ingle-nooks.
"I don't know. There's something—well—common about Sophy," Flora confided to Ella. Flora, on shopping bent and Sophy, seeking hats, had made the five-hour run from Chippewa to Chicago together. "She talks to everybody. You should have heard her with the porter on our train. Chums! And when the conductor took our tickets it was a social occasion. You know how packed the seven fifty-two is. Every seat in the parlour car taken. And Sophy asking the coloured porter about how his wife was getting along—she called him William—and if they were going to send her west, and all about her. I wish she wouldn't."
Aunt Sophy undeniably had a habit of regarding people as human beings. You found her talking to chambermaids and delivery boys, and elevator starters, and gas collectors, and hotel clerks—all that aloof, unapproachable, superior crew. Under her benign volubility they bloomed and spread and took on colour as do those tight little Japanese paper water-flowers when you cast them into a bowl. It wasn't idle curiosity in her. She was interested. You found yourself confiding to her your innermost longings, your secret tribulations, under the encouragement of her sympathetic, "You don't say!" Perhaps it was as well that sister Flora was in ignorance of the fact that the men millinery salesmen at Danowitz & Danowitz, Importers, always called Miss Decker Aunt Soph, as, with one arm flung about her plump blue serge shoulder, they revealed to her the picture of their girl in the back flap of their bill-folder.
Flora, with a firm grip on Chippewa society, as represented by the East-End set, did not find her position enhanced by a sister in the millinery business in Elm Street.
"Of course it's wonderful that she's self-supporting and successful and all," she told her husband. "But it's not so pleasant for Adele, now that she's growing up, having all the girls she knows buying their hats of her aunt. Not that I—but you know how it is."
H. Charnsworth Baldwin said yes, he knew. But perhaps you, until you are made more intimately acquainted with Chippewa, Wisconsin; with the Decker girls of twenty years ago; with Flora's husband, H. Charnsworth Baldwin; and with their children Adele and Eugene, may feel a little natural bewilderment.
The Deckers had lived in a sagging old frame house (from which the original paint had long ago peeled in great scrofulous patches) on an unimportant street in Chippewa. There was a worm-eaten russet apple tree in the yard; an untidy tangle of wild-cucumber vine over the front porch; and an uncut brush of sunburnt grass and weeds all about. From May until September you never passed the Decker place without hearing the plunketty-plink of a mandolin from somewhere behind the vines, accompanied by a murmur of young voices, laughter, and the creak-creak of the hard-worked and protesting hammock hooks. Flora, Ella, and Grace Decker had more beaux and fewer clothes than any other girls in Chippewa. In a town full of pretty young things they were, undoubtedly, the prettiest; and in a family of pretty sisters (Sophy always excepted) Flora was the acknowledged beauty. She was the kind of girl whose nose never turns red on a frosty morning. A little, white, exquisite nose, purest example of the degree of perfection which may be attained by that vulgarest of features. Under her great gray eyes were faint violet shadows which gave her a look of almost poignant wistfulness. If there is a less hackneyed way to describe her head on its slender throat than to say it was like a lovely flower on its stalk, you are free to use it. Her slow, sweet smile gave the beholder an actual physical pang. Only her family knew she was lazy as a behemoth, untidy about her person, and as sentimental as a hungry shark. The strange and cruel part of it was that, in some grotesque, exaggerated way, as a cartoon may be like a photograph, Sophy resembled Flora. It was as though Nature, in prankish mood, had given a cabbage the colour and texture of a rose, with none of its fragile reticence and grace.
It was a manless household. Mrs. Decker, vague, garrulous, and given to ice-wool shawls, referred to her dead husband, in frequent reminiscence, as poor Mr. Decker. Mrs. Decker dragged one leg as she walked—rheumatism, or a spinal affection. Small wonder, then, that Sophy, the plain, with a gift for hat-making, a knack at eggless cake-baking, and a genius for turning a sleeve so that last year's style met this year's without a struggle, contributed nothing to the sag in the centre of the old twine hammock on the front porch.
That the three girls should marry well, and Sophy not at all, was as inevitable as the sequence of the seasons. Ella and Grace did not manage badly, considering that they had only their girlish prettiness and the twine hammock to work with. But Flora, with her beauty, captured H. Charnsworth Baldwin. Chippewa gasped. H. Charnsworth Baldwin drove a skittish mare to a high-wheeled yellow runabout (this was twenty years ago); had his clothes made at Proctor Brothers in Milwaukee, and talked about a game called golf. It was he who advocated laying out a section of land for what he called links, and erecting a club house thereon.
"The section of the bluff overlooking the river," he explained, "is full of natural hazards, besides having a really fine view."
Chippewa—or that comfortable, middle-class section of it which got its exercise walking home to dinner from the store at noon, and cutting the grass evenings after supper—laughed as it read this interview in the Chippewa Eagle.
"A golf course," they repeated to one another, grinning. "Conklin's cow pasture, up the river. It's full of natural—wait a minute—what was?—oh, yeh, here it is—hazards. Full of natural hazards. Say, couldn't you die!"
For H. Charnsworth Baldwin had been little Henry Baldwin before he went East to college. Ten years later H. Charnsworth, in knickerbockers and gay-topped stockings, was winning the cup in the men's tournament played on the Chippewa golf-club course, overlooking the river. And his name, in stout gold letters, blinked at you from the plate-glass windows of the office at the corner of Elm and Winnebago:
NORTHERN LUMBER AND LAND COMPANY. H. CHARNSWORTH BALDWIN, PRES.
Two blocks farther down Elm Street was another sign, not so glittering, which read:
MISS SOPHY DECKER Millinery
Sophy's hat-making, in the beginning, had been done at home. She had always made her sisters' hats, and her own, of course, and an occasional hat for a girl friend. After her sisters had married Sophy found herself in possession of a rather bewildering amount of spare time. The hat trade grew so that sometimes there were six rather botchy little bonnets all done up in yellow paper pyramids with a pin at the top, awaiting their future wearers. After her mother's death Sophy still stayed on in the old house. She took a course in millinery in Milwaukee, came home, stuck up a home-made sign in the parlour window (the untidy cucumber vines came down), and began her hat-making in earnest. In five years she had opened a shop on a side street near Elm; had painted the old house, installed new plumbing, built a warty stucco porch, and transformed the weedy, grass-tangled yard into an orderly stretch of green lawn and bright flower-beds. In ten years she was in Elm Street, and the Chippewa Eagle ran a half column twice a year describing her spring and fall openings. On these occasions Aunt Sophy, in black satin, and marcel wave, and her most relentless corsets was, in all the superficial things, not a pleat, or fold, or line, or wave behind her city colleagues. She had all the catch phrases:
"This is awfully good this year."
"Here's a sweet thing. A Mornet model.... Well, but my dear, it's the style—the line—you're paying for, not the material."
"I've got the very thing for you. I had you in mind when I bought it. Now don't say you can't wear henna. Wait till you see it on."
When she stood behind you as you sat, uncrowned and expectant before the mirror, she would poise the hat four inches above your head, holding it in the tips of her fingers, a precious, fragile thing. Your fascinated eyes were held by it, and your breath as well. Then down it descended, slowly, slowly. A quick pressure. Her fingers firm against your temples. A little sigh of relieved suspense.
"That's wonderful on you!... You don't! Oh, my dear! But that's because you're not used to it. You know how you said, for years, you had to have a brim, and couldn't possibly wear a turban, with your nose, until I proved to you that if the head-size was only big ... Well, perhaps this needs just a lit-tle lift here. Ju-u-ust a nip. There! That does it."
And that did it. Not that Sophy Decker ever tried to sell you a hat against your judgment, taste, or will. She was too wise a psychologist and too shrewd a business woman for that. She preferred that you go out of her shop hatless rather than with an unbecoming hat. But whether you bought or not you took with you out of Sophy Decker's shop something more precious than any hatbox ever contained. Just to hear her admonishing a customer, her good-natured face all aglow:
"My dear, always put on your hat before you get into your dress. I do. You can get your arms above your head, and set it right. I put on my hat and veil as soon's I get my hair combed."
In your mind's eye you saw her, a stout, well-stayed figure in tight brassiere and scant petticoat, bare-armed and bare-bosomed, in smart hat and veil, attired as though for the street from the neck up and for the bedroom from the shoulders down.
The East-End set bought Sophy Decker's hats because they were modish and expensive hats. But she managed, miraculously, to gain a large and lucrative following among the paper-mill girls and factory hands as well. You would have thought that any attempt to hold both these opposites would cause her to lose one or the other. Aunt Sophy said, frankly, that of the two, she would have preferred to lose her smart trade.
"The mill girls come in with their money in their hands, you might say. They get good wages and they want to spend them. I wouldn't try to sell them one of those little plain model hats. They wouldn't understand 'em, or like them. And if I told them the price they'd think I was trying to cheat them. They want a velvet hat with something good and solid on it. Their fathers wouldn't prefer caviar to pork roast, would they? It's the same idea."
Her shop windows reflected her business acumen. One was chastely, severely elegant, holding a single hat poised on a slender stick. In the other were a dozen honest arrangements of velvet and satin and plumes.
At the spring opening she always displayed one of those little toques completely covered with violets. No one ever bought a hat like that. No one ever will. That violet-covered toque is a symbol.
"I don't expect 'em to buy it," Sophy Decker explained. "But everybody feels there should be a hat like that at a spring opening. It's like a fruit centre-piece at a family dinner. Nobody ever eats it but it has to be there."
The two Baldwin children—Adele and Eugene—found Aunt Sophy's shop a treasure trove. Adele, during her doll days, possessed such boxes of satin and velvet scraps, and bits of lace, and ribbon and jet as to make her the envy of all her playmates. She used to crawl about the floor of the shop workroom and under the table and chairs like a little scavenger.
"What in the world do you do with all that truck, child?" asked Aunt Sophy. "You must have barrels of it."
Adele stuffed another wisp of tulle into the pocket of her pinafore. "I keep it," she said.
When she was ten Adele had said to her mother, "Why do you always say 'Poor Sophy'?"
"Because Aunt Sophy's had so little in life. She never has married, and has always worked."
Adele considered that. "If you don't get married do they say you're poor?"
"Then I'll get married," announced Adele. A small, dark, eerie child, skinny and rather foreign looking.
The boy, Eugene, had the beauty which should have been the girl's. Very tall, very blond, with the straight nose and wistful eyes of the Flora of twenty years ago. "If only Adele could have had his looks," his mother used to say. "They're wasted on a man. He doesn't need them but a girl does. Adele will have to be well-dressed and interesting. And that's such hard work."
Flora said she worshipped her children. And she actually sometimes still coquetted heavily with her husband. At twenty she had been addicted to baby talk when endeavouring to coax something out of someone. Her admirers had found it irresistible. At forty it was awful. Her selfishness was colossal. She affected a semi-invalidism and for fifteen years had spent one day a week in bed. She took no exercise and a great deal of baking soda and tried to fight her fat with baths. Fifteen or twenty years had worked a startling change in the two sisters, Flora the beautiful, and Sophy the plain. It was more than a mere physical change. It was a spiritual thing, though neither knew nor marked it. Each had taken on weight, the one, solidly, comfortably; the other, flabbily, unhealthily. With the encroaching fat Flora's small, delicate features seemed, somehow, to disappear in her face, so that you saw it as a large white surface bearing indentations, ridges, and hollows like one of those enlarged photographs of the moon's surface as seen through a telescope. A self-centred face, and misleadingly placid. Aunt Sophy's large, plain features, plumply padded now, impressed you as indicating strength, courage, and a great human understanding.
From her husband and her children Flora exacted service that would have chafed a galley-slave into rebellion. She loved to lie in bed, in a lavender bed-jacket with ribbons, and be read to by Adele or Eugene, or her husband. They all hated it.
"She just wants to be waited on, and petted, and admired," Adele had stormed one day, in open rebellion, to her Aunt Sophy. "She uses it as an excuse for everything and has, ever since 'Gene and I were children. She's as strong as an ox." Not a very ladylike or daughterly speech, but shockingly true.
Years before a generous but misguided woman friend, coming in to call, had been ushered in to where Mrs. Baldwin lay propped up in a nest of pillows.
"Well, I don't blame you," the caller had gushed. "If I looked the way you do in bed I'd stay there forever. Don't tell me you're sick, with all that lovely colour!"
Flora Baldwin had rolled her eyes ceilingward. "Nobody ever gives me credit for all my suffering and ill-health. And just because all my blood is in my cheeks."
Flora was ambitious, socially, but too lazy to make the effort necessary for success in that direction.
"I love my family," she would say. "They fill my life. After all, that's a profession in itself—being a wife and mother."
She showed her devotion by taking no interest whatever in her husband's land schemes; by forbidding Eugene to play football at school for fear he might be injured; by impressing Adele with the necessity for vivacity and modishness because of what she called her unfortunate lack of beauty.
"I don't understand it," she used to say in the child's very presence. "Her father's handsome enough, goodness knows; and I wasn't such a fright when I was a girl. And look at her! Little, dark, skinny thing."
The boy Eugene grew up a very silent, handsome shy young fellow. The girl dark, voluble, and rather interesting. The husband, more and more immersed in his business, was absent from home for long periods; irritable after some of these home-comings; boisterously high-spirited following other trips. Now growling about household expenses and unpaid bills; now urging the purchase of some almost prohibitive luxury. Any one but a nagging, self-absorbed, and vain woman such as Flora would have marked these unmistakable signs. But Flora was a taker, not a giver. She thought herself affectionate because she craved affection unduly. She thought herself a fond mother because she insisted on having her children with her, under her thumb, marking their devotion as a prisoner marks time with his feet, stupidly, shufflingly, advancing not a step.
Sometimes Sophy the clear-eyed and level-headed, seeing this state of affairs, tried to stop it.
"You expect too much of your husband and children," she said one day, bluntly, to her sister.
"I!" Flora's dimpled hands had flown to her breast like a wounded thing. "I! You're crazy! There isn't a more devoted wife and mother in the world. That's the trouble. I love them too much."
"Well, then," grimly, "stop it for a change. That's half Eugene's nervousness—your fussing over him. He's eighteen. Give him a chance. You're weakening him. And stop dinning that society stuff into Adele's ears. She's got brains, that child. Why, just yesterday, in the workroom she got hold of some satin and a shape and turned out a little turban that Angie Hatton—"
"Do you mean to tell me that Angie Hatton saw my Adele working in your shop! Now, look here, Sophy. You're earning your living, and it's to your credit. You're my sister. But I won't have Adele associated in the minds of my friends with your hat store, understand. I won't have it. That isn't what I sent her away to an expensive school for. To have her come back and sit around a millinery workshop with a lot of little, cheap, shoddy sewing girls! Now understand, I won't have it! You don't know what it is to be a mother. You don't know what it is to have suffered. If you had brought two children into the world—"
So then, it had come about, during the years between their childhood and their youth, that Aunt Sophy received the burden of their confidences, their griefs, their perplexities. She seemed, somehow, to understand in some miraculous way, and to make the burden a welcome one.
"Well, now, you tell Aunt Sophy all about it. Stop crying, Della. How can Aunt Sophy hear when you're crying! That's my baby. Now, then."
This when they were children. But with the years the habit clung and became fixed. There was something about Aunt Sophy's house—the old frame house with the warty stucco porch. For that matter, there was something about the very shop downtown, with its workroom in the rear, that had a cozy, homelike quality never possessed by the big Baldwin house. H. Charnsworth Baldwin had built a large brick mansion, in the Tudor style, on a bluff overlooking the Fox River, in the best residential section of Chippewa. It was expensively and correctly furnished. The hall consol alone was enough to strike a preliminary chill to your heart.
The millinery workroom, winter days, was always bright and warm and snug. The air was a little close, perhaps, and heavy, but with a not unpleasant smell of dyes, and stuffs, and velvet, and glue, and steam, and flatiron, and a certain heady scent that Julia Gold, the head trimmer, always used. There was a sociable cat, white with a dark gray patch on his throat and a swipe of it across one flank that spoiled him for style and beauty but made him a comfortable-looking cat to have around. Sometimes, on very cold days, or in the rush reason, the girls would not go home to dinner or supper, but would bring their lunches and cook coffee over a little gas heater in the corner. Julia Gold, especially, drank quantities of coffee. Aunt Sophy had hired her from Chicago. She had been with her for five years. She said Julia was the best trimmer she had ever had. Aunt Sophy often took her to New York or Chicago on her buying trips. Julia had not much genius for original design, or she would never have been content to be head milliner in a small-town shop. But she could copy a fifty-dollar model from memory down to the last detail of crown and brim. It was a gift that made her invaluable.
The boy, Eugene, used to like to look at Julia Gold. Her hair was very black and her face was very white, and her eyebrows met in a thick, dark line. Her face, as she bent over her work, was sullen and brooding, but when she lifted her head suddenly, in conversation, you were startled by a vivid flash of teeth, and eyes, and smile. Her voice was deep and low. She made you a little uncomfortable. Her eyes seemed always to be asking something. Around the work table, mornings she used to relate the dream she had had the night before. In these dreams she was always being pursued by a lover. "And then I woke up, screaming." Neither she nor the sewing girls knew what she was revealing in these confidences of hers. But Aunt Sophy, the shrewd, somehow sensed it.
"You're alone too much, evenings. That's what comes of living in a boarding house. You come over to me for a week. The change will do you good, and it'll be nice for me, too, having somebody to keep me company."
Julia often came for a week or ten days at a time. Julia, about the house after supper, was given to those vivid splashy kimonos with big flowers embroidered on them. They made her hair look blacker and her skin whiter by contrast. Sometimes Eugene or Adele or both would drop in and the four would play bridge. Aunt Sophy played a shrewd and canny game, Adele a rather brilliant one, Julia a wild and disastrous hand, always, and Eugene so badly that only Julia would take him on as a partner. Mrs. Baldwin never knew about these evenings.
It was on one of these occasions that Aunt Sophy, coming unexpectedly into the living room from the kitchen where she and Adele were foraging for refreshments after the game, beheld Julia Gold and Eugene, arms clasped about each other, cheek to cheek. They started up as she came in and faced her, the woman defiantly, the boy bravely. Julia Gold was thirty (with reservations) at that time, and the boy not quite twenty-one.
"How long?" said Aunt Sophy, quietly. She had a mayonnaise spoon and a leaf of lettuce in her hand at the time, and still she did not look comic.
"I'm crazy about her," said Eugene. "We're crazy about each other. We're going to be married."
Aunt Sophy listened for the reassuring sound of Adele's spoons and plates in the kitchen. She came forward. "Now, listen—" she began.
"I love him," said Julia Gold, dramatically. "I love him!"
Except that it was very white and, somehow, old looking, Aunt Sophy's face was as benign as always. "Now, look here, Julia, my girl. That isn't love and you know it. I'm an old maid, but I know what love is when I see it. I'm ashamed of you, Julia. Sensible woman like you. Hugging and kissing a boy like that, and old enough to be his mother, pretty near."
"Now, look here, Aunt Soph! I'm fond of you but if you're going to talk that way—Why, she's wonderful. She's taught me what it means to really—"
"Oh, my land!" Aunt Sophy sat down, looking, suddenly, very sick and old.
And then, from the kitchen, Adele's clear young voice: "Heh! What's the idea! I'm not going to do all the work. Where's everybody?"
Aunt Sophy started up again. She came up to them and put a hand—a capable, firm, steadying hand on the arm of each. The woman drew back but the boy did not.
"Will you promise me not to do anything for a week? Just a week! Will you promise me? Will you?"
"Are you going to tell Father?"
"Not for a week if you'll promise not to see each other in that week. No, I don't want to send you away, Julia, I don't want to—You're not a bad girl. It's just—he's never had—at home they never gave him a chance. Just a week, Julia. Just a week, Eugene. We can talk things over then."
Adele's footsteps coming from the kitchen.
"I promise," said Eugene. Julia said nothing.
"Well, really," said Adele, from the doorway, "you're a nervy lot, sitting around while I slave in the kitchen. 'Gene, see if you can open the olives with this fool can opener. I tried."
There is no knowing what she expected to do in that week, Aunt Sophy; what miracle she meant to perform. She had no plan in her mind. Just hope. She looked strangely shrunken and old, suddenly. But when, three days later, the news came that America was to go into the war she knew that her prayers were answered.
Flora was beside herself. "Eugene won't have to go. He isn't quite twenty-one, thank God! And by the time he is it will be over. Surely." She was almost hysterical.
Eugene was in the room. Aunt Sophy looked at him and he looked at Aunt Sophy. In her eyes was a question. In his was the answer. They said nothing. The next day Eugene enlisted. In three days he was gone. Flora took to her bed. Next day Adele, a faint, unwonted colour marking her cheeks, walked into her mother's bedroom and stood at the side of the recumbent figure. Her father, his hands clasped behind him, was pacing up and down, now and then kicking a cushion that had fallen to the floor. He was chewing a dead cigar, one side of his face twisted curiously over the cylinder in his mouth so that he had a sinister and crafty look.
"Charnsworth, won't you please stop ramping up and down like that! My nerves are killing me. I can't help it if the war has done something or other to your business. I'm sure no wife could have been more economical than I have. Nothing matters but Eugene, anyway. How could he do such a thing! I've given my whole life to my children—"
H. Charnsworth kicked the cushion again so that it struck the wall at the opposite side of the room. Flora drew her breath in between her teeth as though a knife had entered her heart.
Adele still stood at the side of the bed, looking at her mother. Her hands were clasped behind her, too. In that moment, as she stood there, she resembled her mother and her father so startlingly and simultaneously that the two, had they been less absorbed in their own affairs, must have marked it.
The girl's head came up, stiffly. "Listen. I'm going to marry Daniel Oakley."
Daniel Oakley was fifty, and a friend of her father's. For years he had been coming to the house and for years she had ridiculed him. She and Eugene had called him Sturdy Oak because he was always talking about his strength and endurance, his walks, his golf, his rugged health; pounding his chest meanwhile and planting his feet far apart. He and Baldwin had had business relations as well as friendly ones.
At this announcement Flora screamed and sat up in bed. H. Charnsworth stopped short in his pacing and regarded his daughter with a queer look; a concentrated look, as though what she had said had set in motion a whole maze of mental machinery within his brain.
"When did he ask you?"
"He's asked me a dozen times. But it's different now. All the men will be going to war. There won't be any left. Look at England and France. I'm not going to be left." She turned squarely toward her father, her young face set and hard. "You know what I mean. You know what I mean."
Flora, sitting up in bed, was sobbing. "I think you might have told your mother, Adele. What are children coming to! You stand there and say, 'I'm going to marry Daniel Oakley.' Oh, I am so faint ... all of a sudden ... get the spirits of ammonia...."
Adele turned and walked out of the room. She was married six weeks later. They had a regular pre-war wedding—veil, flowers, dinner, and all. Aunt Sophy arranged the folds of her gown and draped her veil. The girl stood looking at herself in the mirror, a curious half-smile twisting her lips. She seemed slighter and darker than ever.
"In all this white, and my veil, I look just like a fly in a quart of milk," she said, with a laugh. Then, suddenly, she turned to her aunt who stood behind her and clung to her, holding her tight, tight. "I can't!" she gasped. "I can't! I can't!"
Aunt Sophy held her off and looked at her, her eyes searching the girl.
"What do you mean, Della? Are you just nervous or do you mean you don't want to marry him? Do you mean that? Then what are you marrying for? Tell me! Tell your Aunt Sophy."
But Adele was straightening herself and pulling out the crushed folds of her veil. "To pay the mortgage on the old homestead, of course. Just like the girl in the play." She laughed a little. But Aunt Sophy did not laugh.
"Now look here, Delia. If you're—"
But there was a knock at the door. Adele caught up her flowers. "It's all right," she said.
Aunt Sophy stood with her back against the door. "If it's money," she said. "It is! It is, isn't it! Listen. I've got money saved. It was for you children. I've always been afraid. I knew he was sailing pretty close, with his speculations and all, since the war. He can have it all. It isn't too late yet. Adele! Della, my baby."
"Don't, Aunt Sophy. It wouldn't be enough, anyway. Daniel has been wonderful, really. Don't look like that. I'd have hated being poor, anyway. Never could have got used to it. It is ridiculous, though, isn't it? Like one of those melodramas, or a cheap movie. I don't mind. I'm lucky, really, when you come to think of it. A plain little black thing like me."
"But your mother—"
"Mother doesn't know a thing."
Flora wept mistily all through the ceremony but Adele was composed enough for two.
When, scarcely a month later, Baldwin came to Sophy Decker, his face drawn and queer, Sophy knew.
"How much?" she said.
"Thirty thousand will cover it. If you've got more than that—"
"I thought Oakley—Adele said—"
"He did, but he won't any more, and this thing's got to be met. It's this damned war that's done it. I'd have been all right. People got scared. They wanted their money. They wanted it in cash."
"Speculating with it, were you?"
"Oh, well, a woman doesn't understand these business deals."
"No, naturally," said Aunt Sophy, "a butterfly like me."
"Sophy, for God's sake don't joke now. I tell you this will cover it, and everything will be all right. If I had anybody else to go to for the money I wouldn't ask you. But you'll get it back. You know that."
Aunt Sophy got up, heavily, and went over to her desk. "It was for the children, anyway. They won't need it now."
He looked up at that. Something in her voice. "Who won't? Why won't they?"
"I don't know what made me say that. I had a dream."
"Oh, well, we're all nervous. Flora has dreams every night and presentiments every fifteen minutes. Now, look here, Sophy. About this money. You'll never know how grateful I am. Flora doesn't understand these things but I can talk to you. It's like this—"
"I might as well be honest about it," Sophy interrupted. "I'm doing it, not for you, but for Flora, and Delia—and Eugene. Flora has lived such a sheltered life. I sometimes wonder if she ever really knew any of you. Her husband, or her children. I sometimes have the feeling that Delia and Eugene are my children—were my children."
When he came home that night Baldwin told his wife that old Soph was getting queer. "She talks about the children being hers," he said.
"Oh, well, she's awfully fond of them," Flora explained. "And she's lived her little narrow life, with nothing to bother her but her hats and her house. She doesn't know what it means to suffer as a mother suffers—poor Sophy."
"Um," Baldwin grunted.
When the official notification of Eugene's death came from the War Department Aunt Sophy was so calm that it might have appeared that Flora had been right. She took to her bed now in earnest, did Flora, and they thought that her grief would end in madness. Sophy neglected everything to give comfort to the stricken two.
"How can you sit there like that!" Flora would rail. "How can you sit there like that! Even if you weren't his mother surely you must feel something."
"It's the way he died that comforts me," said Aunt Sophy.
"What difference does that make! What difference does that make!"
This is the letter that made a difference to Aunt Sophy. You will have to read it to understand, though you are likely to skip letters on the printed page. You must not skip this.
AMERICAN RED CROSS (CROIX ROUGE AMERICAINE)
MY DEAR MRS. BALDWIN:
I am sure you must have been officially notified, by now, by the U.S. War Dept. of the death of your son Lieut. Eugene H. Baldwin. But I want to write you what I can of his last hours. I was with him much of that time as his nurse. I'm sure it must mean much to a mother to hear from a woman who was privileged to be with her boy at the last.
Your son was brought to our hospital one night badly gassed from the fighting in the Argonne Forest. Ordinarily we do not receive gassed patients, as they are sent to a special hospital near here. But two nights before the Germans wrecked this hospital, so many gassed patients have come to us.
Your son was put in the officers' ward where the doctors who examined him told me there was absolutely no hope for him, as he had inhaled the gas so much that it was only a matter of a few hours. I could scarcely believe that a man so big and strong as he was could not pull through.
The first bad attack he had, losing his breath and nearly choking, rather frightened him, although the doctor and I were both with him. He held my hand tightly in his, begging me not to leave him, and repeating, over and over, that it was good to have a woman near. He was propped high in bed and put his head on my shoulder while I fanned him until he breathed more easily. I stayed with him all that night, though I was not on duty. You see, his eyes also were badly burned. But before he died he was able to see very well. I stayed with him every minute of that night and have never seen a finer character than he showed during all that dreadful fight for life. He had several bad sinking attacks that night and came through each one simply because of his great will power and fighting spirit. After each attack he would grip my hand and say, "Well, we made it that time, didn't we, nurse? And if you'll only stay with me we'll win this fight." At intervals during the night I gave him sips of black coffee which was all he could swallow. Each time I gave it to him he would ask me if I had had some. That was only one instance of his thoughtfulness even in his suffering. Toward morning he asked me if he was going to die. I could not tell him the truth. He needed all his strength. I told him he had one chance in a thousand. He seemed to become very strong then, and sitting bolt upright in bed and shaking his fist, he said: "Then by the Lord I'll fight for it!" We kept him alive for three days, and actually thought we had won when on the third day....
But even in your sorrow you must be very proud to have been the mother of such a son....
I am a Wisconsin girl—Madison. When this is over and I come home will you let me see you so that I may tell you more than I can possibly write?
It was in March, six months later, that Marian King came. They had hoped for it, but never expected it. And she came. Four people were waiting in the living room of the big Baldwin house overlooking the river. Flora and her husband, Adele and Aunt Sophy. They sat, waiting. Now and then Adele would rise, nervously, and go to the window that faced the street. Flora was weeping with audible sniffs. Baldwin sat in his chair frowning a little, a dead cigar in one corner of his mouth. Only Aunt Sophy sat quietly, waiting.
There was little conversation. None in the last five minutes. Flora broke the silence, dabbing at her face with her handkerchief as she spoke.
"Sophy, how can you sit there like that? Not that I don't envy you. I do. I remember I used to feel sorry for you. I used to say, 'Poor Sophy.' But you unmarried ones are the happiest, after all. It's the married woman who drinks the cup to the last bitter drop. There you sit, Sophy, fifty years old, and life hasn't even touched you. You don't know how cruel life is."
Suddenly, "There!" said Adele. The other three in the room stood up and faced the door. The sound of a motor stopping outside. Daniel Oakley's hearty voice: "Well, it only took us five minutes from the station. Pretty good."
Footsteps down the hall. Marian King stood in the doorway. They faced her, the four—Baldwin and Adele and Flora and Sophy. Marian King stood a moment, uncertainly, her eyes upon them. She looked at the two older women with swift, appraising glance. Then she came into the room, quickly, and put her two hands on Aunt Sophy's shoulders and looked into her eyes straight and sure.
"You must be a very proud woman," she said. "You ought to be a very proud woman."
APRIL 25TH, AS USUAL
Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster always cleaned house in September and April. She started with the attic and worked her purifying path down to the cellar in strict accordance with Article I, Section 1, Unwritten Rules for House Cleaning. For twenty-five years she had done it. For twenty-five years she had hated it—being an intelligent woman. For twenty-five years, towel swathed about her head, skirt pinned back, sleeves rolled up—the costume dedicated to house cleaning since the days of What's-Her-Name mother of Lemuel (see Proverbs)—Mrs. Brewster had gone through the ceremony twice a year.
Furniture on the porch, woollens on the line, mattresses in the yard—everything that could be pounded, beaten, whisked, rubbed, flapped, shaken, or aired was dragged out and subjected to one or all of these indignities. After which, completely cowed, they were dragged in again and set in their places. Year after year, in attic and in cellar, things had piled up higher and higher—useless things, sentimental things; things in trunks; things in chests; shelves full of things wrapped up in brown-paper parcels.
And boxes—oh, above all, boxes: pasteboard boxes, long and flat, square and oblong, each bearing weird and cryptic pencillings on one end; cryptic, that is, to any one except Mrs. Brewster and you who have owned an attic. Thus "H's Fshg Tckl" jabberwocked one long, slim box. Another stunned you with "Cur Ted Slpg Pch." A cabalistic third hid its contents under "Sip Cov Pinky Rm." To say nothing of such curt yet intriguing fragments as "Blk Nt Drs" and "Sun Par Val." Once you had the code key they translated themselves simply enough into such homely items as Hosey's fishing tackle, canvas curtains for Ted's sleeping porch, slip covers for Pinky's room, black net dress, sun-parlour valance.
The contents of those boxes formed a commentary on normal American household life as lived by Mr. and Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster, of Winnebago, Wisconsin. Hosey's rheumatism had prohibited trout fishing these ten years; Ted wrote from Arizona that "the li'l' ol' sky" was his sleeping-porch roof and you didn't have to worry out there about the neighbours seeing you in your pyjamas; Pinky's rose-cretonne room had lacked an occupant since Pinky left the Winnebago High School for the Chicago Art Institute, thence to New York and those amazingly successful magazine covers that stare up at you from your table—young lady, hollow chested (she'd need to be with that decolletage), carrying feather fan. You could tell a Brewster cover at sight, without the fan. That leaves the black net dress and the sun-parlour valance. The first had grown too tight under the arms (Mrs. Brewster's arms); the second had faded.
Now, don't gather from this that Mrs. Brewster was an ample, pie-baking, ginghamed old soul who wore black silk and a crushed-looking hat with a palsied rose atop it. Nor that Hosea C. Brewster was spectacled and slippered. Not at all. The Hosea C. Brewsters, of Winnebago, Wisconsin, were the people you've met on the veranda of the Moana Hotel at Honolulu, or at the top of Pike's Peak, or peering into the restless heart of Vesuvius. They were the prosperous Middle-Western type of citizen who runs down to Chicago to see the new plays and buy a hat, and to order a dozen Wedgwood salad plates at Field's.
Mrs. Brewster knew about Dunsany and georgette and alligator pears; and Hosea Brewster was in the habit of dropping around to the Elks' Club, up above Schirmer's furniture store on Elm Street, at about five in the afternoon on his way home from the cold-storage plant. The Brewster place was honeycombed with sleeping porches and sun parlours and linen closets, and laundry chutes and vegetable bins and electric surprises, as your well-to-do Middle-Western house is likely to be.
That house had long ago grown too large for the two of them—physically, that is. But as the big frame house had expanded, so had they—in tolerance and understanding and humanness—until now, as you talked with them, you felt that here was room and to spare of sun-filled mental chambers, and shelves well stored with experience; and pantries and bins and closets for all your worries and confidences.
But the attic! And the cellar! The attic was the kind of attic every woman longs for who hasn't one and every woman loathes who has. "If I only had some place to put things in!" wails the first. And, "If it weren't for the attic I'd have thrown this stuff away long ago," complains the second. Mrs. Brewster herself had helped plan it. Hardwood floored, spacious, light, the Brewster attic revealed to you the social, aesthetic, educational, and spiritual progress of the entire family as clearly as if a sociologist had charted it.
* * * * *
Take, for example (before we run down to the cellar for a minute), the crayon portraits of Gran'ma and Gran'pa Brewster. When Ted had been a junior and Pinky a freshman at the Winnebago High School the crayon portraits had beamed down upon them from the living-room wall. To each of these worthy old people the artist had given a pair of hectic pink cheeks. Gran'ma Brewster especially, simpering down at you from the labyrinthian scrolls of her sextuple gold frame, was rouged like a soubrette and further embellished with a pair of gentian-blue eyes behind steel-bowed specs. Pinky—and in fact the entire Brewster household—had thought these massive atrocities the last word in artistic ornament. By the time she reached her sophomore year, Pinky had prevailed upon her mother to banish them to the dining room. Then, two years later, when the Chicago decorator did over the living room and the dining room, the crayons were relegated to the upstairs hall.
Ted and Pinky, away at school, began to bring their friends back with them for the vacations. Pinky's room had been done over in cream enamel and rose-flowered cretonne. She said the chromos in the hall spoiled the entire second floor. So the gold frames, glittering undimmed, the cheeks as rosily glowing as ever, found temporary resting place in a nondescript back chamber known as the sewing room. Then the new sleeping porch was built for Ted, and the portraits ended their journeying in the attic.
One paragraph will cover the cellar. Stationary tubs, laundry stove. Behind that, bin for potatoes, bin for carrots, bins for onions, apples, cabbages. Boxed shelves for preserves. And behind that Hosea C. Brewster's bete noir and plaything, tyrant and slave—the furnace. "She's eating up coal this winter," Hosea Brewster would complain. Or: "Give her a little more draft, Fred." Fred, of the furnace and lawn mower, would shake a doleful head. "She ain't drawin' good. I do' know what's got into her."
By noon of this particular September day—a blue-and-gold Wisconsin September day—Mrs. Brewster had reached that stage in the cleaning of the attic when it looked as if it would never be clean and orderly again. Taking into consideration Miz' Merz (Miz' Merz by-the-day, you understand) and Gussie, the girl, and Fred, there was very little necessity for Mrs. Brewster's official house-cleaning uniform. She might have unpinned her skirt, unbound her head, rolled down her sleeves, and left for the day, serene in the knowledge that no corner, no chandelier, no mirror, no curlicue so hidden, so high, so glittering, so ornate that it might hope to escape the rag or brush of one or the other of this relentless and expert crew.
Every year, twice a year, as this box, that trunk or chest was opened and its contents revealed, Miz' Merz would say: "You keepin' this, Miz' Brewster?"
"That? Oh, dear, yes!" Or: "Well—I don't know. You can take that home with you if you want it. It might make over for Minnie."
Yet, why in the name of all that's ridiculous did she treasure the funeral wheat wreath in the walnut frame? Nothing is more passe than a last summer's hat, yet the leghorn and pink-cambric-rose thing in the tin trunk was the one Mrs. Brewster had worn when a bride. Then the plaid kilted dress with the black velvet monkey jacket that Pinky had worn when she spoke her first piece at the age of seven—well, these were things that even the rapacious eye of Miz' Merz (by-the-day) passed by unbrightened by covetousness.
The smell of soap and water, and cedar, and moth balls, and dust, and the ghost of a perfumery that Pinky used to use pervaded the hot attic. Mrs. Brewster, head and shoulders in a trunk, was trying not to listen and not to seem not to listen to Miz' Merz's recital of her husband's relations' latest flagrancy.
"'Families is nix,' I says. 'I got my own fam'ly to look out fur,' I says. Like that. 'Well,' s's he, 'w'en it comes to that,' s's he, 'I guess I got some—'" Punctuated by thumps, spatterings, swashings, and much heavy breathing, so that the sound of light footsteps along the second-floor hallway, a young, clear voice calling, then the same footsteps, fleeter now, on the attic stairway, were quite unheard.
* * * * *
Pinky's arms were around her mother's neck and for one awful moment it looked as if both were to be decapitated by the trunk lid, so violent had been Mrs. Brewster's start of surprise.
Incoherent little cries, and sentences unfinished:
"Pinky! Why—my baby! We didn't get your telegram. Did you—"
"No; I didn't. I just thought I—Don't look so dazed, mummy—You're all smudged, too—what in the world!" Pinky straightened her hat and looked about the attic. "Why, mother! You're—you're house cleaning!" There was a stunned sort of look on her face. Pinky's last visit home had been in June, all hammocks, and roses, and especially baked things, and motor trips into the country.
"Of course. This is September. But if I'd known you were coming—Come here to the window. Let mother see you. Is that the kind of hat they're—why, it's a winter one, isn't it? Already! Dear me, I've just got used to the angle of my summer one. You must telephone father."
Miz' Merz, damply calicoed, rose from a corner and came forward, wiping a moist and parboiled hand on her skirt. "Ha' do, Pinky. Ain't forgot your old friends, have you?"
"It's Mrs. Merz!" Pinky put her cool, sweet fingers into the other woman's spongy clasp. "Why, hello, Mrs. Merz! Of course when there's house cleaning—I'd forgotten all about house cleaning—that there was such a thing, I mean."
"It's got to be done," replied Miz' Merz, severely.
Pinky, suddenly looking like one of her own magazine covers (in tailor clothes), turned swiftly to her mother. "Nothing of the kind," she said, crisply. She looked about the hot, dusty, littered room. She included and then banished it all with one sweeping gesture. "Nothing of the kind. This is—this is an anachronism."
"Mebbe so," retorted Miz' Merz with equal crispness. "But it's got to be cleaned just the same. Yessir; it's got to be cleaned."
They smiled at each other then, the mother and daughter. They descended the winding attic stairs happily, talking very fast and interrupting each other.
Mrs. Brewster's skirt was still pinned up. Her hair was bound in the protecting towel. "You must telephone father. No, let's surprise him. You'll hate the dinner—built around Miz Merz; you know—boiled. Well, you know what a despot she is."
It was hot for September, in Wisconsin. As they came out to the porch Pinky saw that there were tiny beads of moisture under her mother's eyes and about her chin. The sight infuriated her somehow. "Well, really, mother!"
Mrs. Brewster unpinned her skirt and smoothed it down; and smiled at Pinky, all unconscious that she looked like a plump, pink Sister of Mercy with that towel bound tightly about her hair. With a swift movement Pinky unpinned the towel, unwound it, dabbed with it tenderly at her mother's chin and brow, rolled it into a vicious wad, and hurled it through the open doorway.
"Now just what does that mean?" said Mrs. Brewster, equably. "Take off your hat and coat, Pinky, but don't treat them that way—unless that's the way they're doing in New York. Everything is so informal since the war." She had a pretty wit of her own, Mrs. Brewster.
Of course Pinky laughed then, and kissed her mother and hugged her hard. "It's just that it seems so idiotic—your digging around in an attic in this day and age! Why, it's—it's—" Pinky could express herself much more clearly in colours than in words. "There is no such thing as an attic. People don't clean them any more. I never realized before—this huge house. It has been wonderful to come back to, of course. But just you and dad." She stopped. She raised two young fists high in impotent anger. "Do you like cleaning the attic?"
"Why, no. I hate it."
"Then why in the world—"
"I've always done it, Pinky. And while they may not be wearing attics in New York, we haven't taken them off in Winnebago. Come on up to your room, dear. It looks bare. If I'd known you were coming—the slip covers—"
"Are they in the box in the attic labelled 'Slp Cov Pinky Rm'?" She succeeded in slurring it ludicrously.
It brought an appreciative giggle from Mrs. Brewster. A giggle need not be inconsistent, with fifty years, especially if one's nose wrinkles up delightfully in the act. But no smile curved the daughter's stern young lips. Together they went up to Pinky's old room (the older woman stopped to pick up the crumpled towel on the hall floor). On the way they paused at the door of Mrs. Brewster's bedroom, so cool, so spacious, all soft grays and blues.
Suddenly Pinky's eyes widened with horror. She pointed an accusing forefinger at a large, dark object in a corner near a window. "That's the old walnut desk!" she exclaimed.
"I know it."
The girl turned, half amused, half annoyed. "Oh, mother dear! That's the situation in a nutshell. Without a shadow of doubt there's an eradicable streak of black walnut in your gray-enamel make-up."
"Eradicable! That's a grand word, Pinky. Stylish! I never expected to meet it out of a book. And, fu'thermore, as Miz' Merz would say, I didn't know there was any situation."
"I meant the attic. And it's more than a situation. It's a state of mind."
Mrs. Brewster had disappeared into the depths of her clothes closet. Her voice sounded muffled. "Pinky, you're talking the way they did at that tea you gave for father and me when we visited New York last winter." She emerged with a cool-looking blue kimono. "Here. Put this on. Father'll be home at twelve-thirty, for dinner, you know. You'll want a bath, won't you, dear?"
"Yes. Mummy, is it boiled—honestly?—on a day like this?"
"With onions," said Mrs. Brewster, firmly.
Fifteen minutes later Pinky, splashing in a cool tub, heard the voice of Miz' Merz high-pitched with excitement and a certain awful joy: "Miz' Brewster! Oh, Miz' Brewster! I found a moth in Mr. Brewster's winter flannels!"
"Oh!" in choked accents of fury from Pinky; and she brought a hard young fist down in the water—spat!—so that it splashed ceiling, hair, and floor impartially.
Still, it was a cool and serene young daughter who greeted Hosea Brewster as he came limping up the porch stairs. He placed the flat of the foot down at each step instead of heel and ball. It gave him a queer, hitching gait. The girl felt a sharp little constriction of her throat as she marked that rheumatic limp. "It's the beastly Wisconsin winters," she told herself. Then, darting out at him from the corner where she had been hiding: "S'prise! S'prise!"
His plump blond face, flushed with the unwonted heat, went darkly red. He dropped his hat. His arms gathered her in. Her fresh young cheek was pressed against his dear prickly one. So they stood for a long minute—close.
"Need a shave, dad."
"Well, gosh, how did I know my best girl was coming!" He held her off. "What's the matter, Pink? Don't they like your covers any more?"
"Not a thing, Hosey. Don't get fresh. They're decorating my studio—you know—plasterers and stuff. I couldn't work. And I was lonesome for you."
Hosea Brewster went to the open doorway and gave a long whistle with a little quirk at the end. Then he came back to Pinky in the wide-seated porch swing. "You know," he said, his voice lowered confidentially, "I thought I'd take mother to New York for ten days or so. See the shows, and run around and eat at the dens of wickedness. She likes it for a change."
Pinky sat up, tense. "For a change? Dad, I want to talk to you about that. Mother needs—"
Mrs. Brewster's light footstep sounded in the hall. She wore an all-enveloping gingham apron. "How did you like your surprise, father?" She came over to him and kissed the top of his head. "I'm getting dinner so that Gussie can go on with the attic. Everything's ready if you want to come in. I didn't want to dish up until you were at the table, so's everything would be hot." She threw a laughing glance at Pinky.
But when they were seated, there appeared a platter of cold, thinly sliced ham for Pinky, and a crisp salad, and a featherweight cheese souffle, and iced tea, and a dessert coolly capped with whipped cream.
"But, mother, you shouldn't have—" feebly.
"There are always a lot of things in the house. You know that. I just wanted to tease you."
Father Brewster lingered for an unwonted hour after the midday meal. But two o'clock found him back at the cold-storage plant. Pinky watched him go, a speculative look in her eyes.
She visited the attic that afternoon at four, when it was again neat, clean, orderly, smelling of soap and sunshine. Standing there in the centre of the big room, freshly napped, smartly coifed, blue-serged, trim, the very concentrated essence of modernity, she eyed with stern deliberation the funeral wheat wreath in its walnut frame; the trunks; the chests; the boxes all shelved and neatly inscribed with their "H's Fshg Tckl" and "Blk Nt Drs."
"Barbaric!" she said aloud, though she stood there alone. "Medieval! Mad! It has got to be stopped. Slavery!" After which she went downstairs and picked golden glow for the living-room vases and scarlet salvia for the bowl in the dining room.
Still, as one saw Mrs. Brewster's tired droop at supper that night, there is no denying that there seemed some justification for Pinky's volcanic remarks.
Hosea Brewster announced, after supper, that he and Fred were going to have a session with the furnace; she needed going over in September before they began firing up for the winter.
"I'll go down with you," said Pinky.
"No, you stay up here with mother. You'll get all ashes and coal dust."
But Pinky was firm. "Mother's half dead. She's going straight up to bed, after that darned old attic. I'll come up to tuck you in, mummy."
And though she did not descend to the cellar until the overhauling process was nearly completed she did come down in time for the last of the scene. She perched at the foot of the stairs and watched the two men, overalled, sooty, tobacco-wreathed, and happy. When, finally, Hosea Brewster knocked the ashes out of his stubby black pipe, dusted his sooty hands together briskly, and began to peel his overalls, Pinky came forward.
She put her hand on his arm. "Dad, I want to talk to you."
"Careful there. Better not touch me. I'm all dirt. G'night, Fred."
"Listen, dad. Mother isn't well."
He stopped then, with one overall leg off and the other on, and looked at her. "Huh? What d'you mean—isn't well? Mother." His mouth was open. His eyes looked suddenly strained.
"This house—it's killing her. She could hardly keep her eyes open at supper. It's too much for her. She ought to be enjoying herself—like other women. She's a slave to the attic and all those huge rooms. And you're another."
"Yes. A slave to this furnace. You said yourself to Fred, just now, that it was all worn out, and needed new pipes or something—I don't know what. And that coal was so high it would be cheaper using dollar bills for fuel. Oh, I know you were just being funny. But it was partly true. Wasn't it? Wasn't it?"
"Yeh, but listen here, Paula." He never called her Paula unless he was terribly disturbed, "About mother—you said—"
"You and she ought to go away this winter—not just for a trip, but to stay. You"—she drew a long breath and made the plunge—"you ought to give up the house."
"Permanently. Mother and you are buried alive here. You ought to come to New York to live. Both of you will love it when you are there for a few days. I don't mean to come to a hotel. I mean to take a little apartment, a furnished apartment at first, to see how you like it—two rooms and kitchenette, like a playhouse."
Hosey Brewster looked down at his own big bulk, then around the great furnace room. "Oh, but listen—"
"No, I want you to listen first. Mother's worn out, I tell you. It isn't as if she were the old-fashioned kind; she isn't. She loves the theatres, and pretty hats, and shoes with buckles, and lobster, and concerts."
He broke in again: "Sure; she likes 'em for a change. But for a steady diet—Besides, I've got a business to 'tend to. My gosh! I've got a business to—"
"You know perfectly well that Wetzler practically runs the whole thing—or could, if you'd let him." Youth is cruel like that, when it wants its way.
He did not even deny it. He seemed suddenly old. Pinky's heart smote her a little. "It's just that you've got so used to this great barracks you don't know how unhappy it's making you. Why, mother said to-day that she hated it. I asked about the attic—the cleaning and all—and she said she hated it."
"Did she say that, Paula?"
He dusted his hands together, slowly, spiritlessly. His eyes looked pained and dull. "She did, h'm? You say she did?" He was talking to himself, and thinking, thinking.
Pinky, sensing victory, left him. She ran lightly up the cellar stairs, through the first-floor rooms, and up to the second floor. Her mother's bedroom door was open.
A little mauve lamp shed its glow upon the tired woman in one of the plump, gray-enamel beds. "No, I'm not sleeping. Come here, dear. What in the world have you been doing in the cellar all this time?"
"Talking to dad." She came over and perched herself on the side of the bed. She looked down at her mother. Then she bent and kissed her. Mrs. Brewster looked incredibly girlish with the lamp's rosy glow on her face and her hair, warmly brown and profuse, rippling out over the pillow. Scarcely a thread of gray in it. "You know, mother, I think dad isn't well. He ought to go away."
As if by magic the youth and glow faded out of the face on the pillow. As she sat up, clutching her nightgown to her breast, she looked suddenly pinched and old. "What do you mean, Pinky! Father—but he isn't sick. He—"
"Not sick. I don't mean sick exactly. But sort of worn out. That furnace. He's sick and tired of the thing; that's what he said to Fred. He needs a change. He ought to retire and enjoy life. He could. This house is killing both of you. Why in the world don't you close it up, or sell it, and come to New York?"
"But we do. We did. Last winter—"
"I don't mean just for a little trip. I mean to live. Take a little two-room apartment in one of the new buildings—near my studio—and relax. Enjoy yourselves. Meet new men and women. Live! You're in a rut—both of you. Besides, dad needs it. That rheumatism of his, with these Wisconsin winters—"
"But California—we could go to California for—"
"That's only a stop-gap. Get your little place in New York all settled, and then run away whenever you like, without feeling that this great hulk of a house is waiting for you. Father hates it; I know it."
"Did he ever say so?"
"Well, practically. He thinks you're fond of it. He—"
Slow steps ascending the stairs—heavy, painful steps. The two women listened in silence. Every footfall seemed to emphasize Pinky's words. The older woman turned her face toward the sound, her lips parted, her eyes anxious, tender.
"How tired he sounds," said Pinky; "and old. And he's only—why, dad's only fifty-eight."
"Fifty-seven," snapped Mrs. Brewster, sharply, protectingly.
Pinky leaned forward and kissed her. "Good-night, mummy dear. You're so tired, aren't you?"
Her father stood in the doorway.
"Good-night, dear. I ought to be tucking you into bed. It's all turned around, isn't it? Biscuits and honey for breakfast, remember."
So Pinky went off to her own room (sans slp cov) and slept soundly, dreamlessly, as does one whose work is well done.
* * * * *
Three days later Pinky left. She waved a good-bye from the car platform, a radiant, electric, confident Pinky, her work well done.
"Au 'voir! The first of November! Everything begins then. You'll love it. You'll be real New Yorkers by Christmas. Now, no changing your minds, remember."
And by Christmas, somehow, miraculously, there were they, real New Yorkers; or as real and as New York as any one can be who is living in a studio apartment (duplex) that has been rented (furnished) from a lady who turned out to be from Des Moines.
When they arrived, Pinky had four apartments waiting for their inspection. She told them this in triumph, and well she might, it being the winter after the war, when New York apartments were as scarce as black diamonds and twice as costly.
Father Brewster, on hearing the price, emitted a long, low whistle and said: "How many rooms did you say?"
"Two—and a kitchenette, of course."
"Well, then, all I can say is the furniture ought to be solid gold for that; inlaid with rubies and picked out with platinum."
But it wasn't. In fact, it wasn't solid anything, being mostly of a very impermanent structure and style. Pinky explained that she had kept the best for the last. The thing that worried Father Brewster was that, no matter at what hour of the day they might happen to call on the prospective lessor, that person was always feminine and hatted. Once it was eleven in the morning. Once five in the afternoon.
"Do these New York women wear hats in the house all the time?" demanded Hosea Brewster, worriedly. "I think they sleep in 'em. It's a wonder they ain't bald. Maybe they are. Maybe that's why. Anyway, it makes you feel like a book agent."
He sounded excited and tired, "Now, father!" said Mrs. Brewster, soothingly.
They were in the elevator that was taking them up to the fourth and (according to Pinky) choicest apartment. The building was what is known as a studio apartment, in the West Sixties. The corridors were done in red flagstones, with gray-tone walls. The metal doors were painted gray.
Pinky was snickering. "Now she'll say: 'Well, we've been very comfortable here.' They always do. Don't look too eager."
"No fear," put in Hosey Brewster.
"It's really lovely. And a real fireplace. Everything new and good. She's asking two hundred and twenty-five. Offer her one seventy-five. She'll take two hundred."
"You bet she will," growled Hosea.
She answered the door—hatted; hatted in henna, that being the season's chosen colour. A small, dark foyer, overcrowded with furniture; a studio living room, bright, high-ceilinged, smallish; one entire side was window. There were Japanese prints, and a baby grand piano, and a lot of tables, and a davenport placed the way they do it on the stage, with its back to the room and its arms to the fireplace, and a long table just behind it, with a lamp on it, and books, and a dull jar thing, just as you've see it in the second-act library.
Hosea Brewster twisted his head around and up to gaze at the lofty ceiling. "Feel's if I was standing at the bottom of a well," he remarked.
But the hatted one did not hear him. "No; no dining room," she was saying, briskly. "No, indeed. I always use this gate-legged table. You see? It pulls out like this. You can easily seat six—eight, in fact."
"Heaven forbid!" in fervent sotto voce from Father Brewster.
"It's an enormous saving in time and labour."
"The—kitchen!" inquired Mrs. Brewster.
The hat waxed playful. "You'll never guess where the kitchen is!" She skipped across the room. "You see this screen?" They saw it. A really handsome affair, and so placed at one end of the room that it looked a part of it. "Come here." They came. The reverse side of the screen was dotted with hooks, and on each hook hung a pot, a pan, a ladle, a spoon. And there was the tiny gas range, the infinitesimal ice chest, the miniature sink. The whole would have been lost in one corner of the Brewster's Winnebago china closet.
"Why, how—how wonderful!" breathed Mrs. Brewster.
"Isn't it? So complete—and so convenient. I've cooked roasts, steaks, chops, everything right here. It's just play."
A terrible fear seized upon Father Brewster. He eyed the sink and the tiny range with a suspicious eye. "The beds," he demanded, "where are the beds?"
She opened the little oven door and his heart sank. But, "They're upstairs," she said. "This is a duplex, you know."
A little flight of winding stairs ended in a balcony. The rail was hung with a gay mandarin robe. Two more steps and you were in the bedroom—a rather breathless little bedroom, profusely rose-coloured, and with whole battalions of photographs in flat silver frames standing about on dressing table, shelf, desk. The one window faced a gray brick wall.
They took the apartment. And thus began a life of ease and gayety for Mr. and Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster, of Winnebago, Wisconsin.
* * * * *
Pinky had dinner with them the first night, and they laughed a great deal, what with one thing and another. She sprang up to the balcony, and let down her bright hair, and leaned over the railing, a la Juliet, having first decked Hosey out in a sketchy but effective Romeo costume consisting of a hastily snatched up scarf over one shoulder, Pinky's little turban, and a frying pan for a lute. Mother Brewster did the Nurse, and by the time Hosea began his limping climb up the balcony, the turban over one eye and the scarf winding itself about his stocky legs, they ended by tumbling in a heap of tearful laughter.
After Pinky left there came upon them, in that cozy little two-room apartment, a feeling of desolation and vastness, and a terrible loneliness such as they had never dreamed of in the great twelve-room house in Winnebago. They kept close to each other. They toiled up the winding stairs together and stood a moment on the balcony, feigning a light-heartedness that neither of them felt.
They lay very still in the little stuffy rose-coloured room, and the street noises of New York came up to them—a loose chain flapping against the mud guard of a taxi; the jolt of a flat-wheeled Eighth Avenue street car; the roar of an L train; laughter; the bleat of a motor horn; a piano in the apartment next door, or upstairs, or down.
She thought, as she lay there, choking, of the great, gracious gray-and-blue room at home, many-windowed, sweet-smelling, quiet. Quiet!
He thought, as he lay there, choking, of the gracious gray-blue room at home, many-windowed, sweet-smelling, quiet. Quiet!
Then, as he had said that night in September: "Sleeping, mother?"
"N-no. Not yet. Just dozing off."
"It's the strange beds, I guess. This is going to be great, though. Great!"
"My, yes!" agreed Mrs. Brewster, heartily.
They awoke next morning unrefreshed. Pa Brewster, back home in Winnebago, always whistled mournfully, off key, when he shaved. The more doleful his tune the happier his wife knew him to be. Also, she had learned to mark his progress by this or that passage in a refrain. Sometimes he sang, too (also off key), and you heard his genial roar all over the house. The louder he roared, and the more doleful the tune, the happier his frame of mind. Milly Brewster knew this. She had never known that she knew it. Neither had he. It was just one of those subconscious bits of marital knowledge that make for happiness and understanding.
When he sang "The Dying Cowboy's Lament" and came to the passage, "Oh, take me to the churchyard and lay the sod o-o-over me," Mrs. Brewster used to say: "Gussie, Mr. Brewster'll be down in ten minutes. You can start the eggs."
* * * * *
In the months of their gay life in Sixty-Seventh Street Hosey Brewster never once sang "The Dying Cowboy's Lament," nor whistled "In the Sweet By-and-By." No; he whistled not at all, or when he did, gay bits of jazz heard at the theatre or in a restaurant the night before. He deceived no one, least of all himself. Sometimes his voice would trail off into nothingness, but he would catch the tune and toss it up again, heavily, as though it were a physical weight.
Theatres! Music! Restaurants! Teas! Shopping! The gay life!
"Enjoying yourself, Milly?" he would say.
"Time of my life, father."
She had her hair dressed in those geometrical undulations without which no New York audience feels itself clothed. They saw Pinky less frequently as time went on and her feeling of responsibility lessened. Besides, the magazine covers took most of her day. She gave a tea for her father and mother at her own studio, and Mrs. Brewster's hat, slippers, gown, and manner equalled in line, style, cut, and texture those of any other woman present, which rather surprised her until she had talked to five or six of them.
She and Hosey drifted together and compared notes. "Say, Milly," he confided, "they're all from Wisconsin—or approximately; Michigan, and Minnesota, and Iowa, and around. Far's I can make out there's only one New Yorker, really, in the whole caboodle of 'em."
"That kind of plain little one over there—sensible looking, with the blue suit. I was talking to her. She was born right here in New York, but she doesn't live here—that is, not in the city. Lives in some place in the country, in a house."
A sort of look came into Mrs. Brewster's eyes. "Is that so? I'd like to talk to her, Hosey. Take me over."
She did talk to the quiet little woman in the plain blue suit. And the quiet little woman said: "Oh, dear, yes!" She ignored her r's fascinatingly, as New Yorkers do. "We live in Connecticut. You see, you Wisconsin people have crowded us out of New York; no breathing space. Besides, how can one live here? I mean to say—live. And then the children—it's no place for children, grown up or otherwise. I love it—oh, yes, indeed. I love it. But it's too difficult."
Mrs. Brewster defended it like a true Westerner. "But if you have just a tiny apartment, with a kitchenette—"
The New York woman laughed. There was nothing malicious about her. But she laughed. "I tried it. There's one corner of my soul that's still wrinkled from the crushing. Everything in a heap. Not to speak of the slavery of it. That—that deceitful, lying kitchenette."
This was the first woman who Mrs. Brewster had talked to—really talked to—since leaving Winnebago. And she liked women. She missed them. At first she had eyed wonderingly, speculatively, the women she saw on Fifth Avenue. Swathed luxuriously in precious pelts, marvellously coifed and hatted, wearing the frailest of boots and hose, exhaling a mysterious, heady scent, they were more like strange, exotic birds than women.
The clerks in the shops, too—they were so remote, so contemptuous. When she went into Gerretson's, back home, Nellie Monahan was likely to say: "You've certainly had a lot of wear out of that blue, Mrs. Brewster. Let's see, you've had it two—three years this spring? My land! Let me show you our new taupes."
* * * * *
Pa Brewster had taken to conversing with the doorman. That adamantine individual, unaccustomed to being addressed as a human being, was startled at first, surly and distrustful. But he mellowed under Hosey's simple and friendly advances. They became quite pals, these two—perhaps two as lonely men as you could find in all lonely New York.
"I guess you ain't a New Yorker, huh?" Mike said.
"Th' most of the folks in th' buildin' ain't."
"Ain't!" Hosea Brewster was startled into it. "They're artists, aren't they? Most of 'em?"
"No! Out-of-town folks, mostly, like you. West—Iowa an' Californy an' around there. Livin' here, though. Seem t' like it better'n where they come from. I dunno."
Hosey Brewster took to eying them as Mrs. Brewster had eyed the women. He wondered about them, these tight, trim men, rather short of breath, buttoned so snugly into their shining shoes and their tailored clothes, with their necks bulging in a fold of fat above the back of their white linen collars. He knew that he would never be like them. It wasn't his square-toed shoes that made the difference, or his gray hat, or his baggy trousers. It was something inside him—something he lacked, he thought. It never occurred to him that it was something he possessed that they did not.
"Enjoying yourself, Milly?"
"I should say I am, father."
"That's good. No housework and responsibility to this, is there?"
She hated the toy gas stove, and the tiny ice chest, and the screen pantry. All her married life she had kept house in a big, bounteous way: apples in barrels; butter in firkins; flour in sacks; eggs in boxes; sugar in bins; cream in crocks. Sometimes she told herself, bitterly, that it was easier to keep twelve rooms tidy and habitable than one combination kitchen-dining-and-living room.
"Chops taste good, Hosey?"
"Grand. But you oughtn't to be cooking around like this. We'll eat out to-morrow night somewhere, and go to a show."
"You're enjoying it, aren't you, Hosey, h'm?"
"It's the life, mother! It's the life!"
* * * * *
His ruddy colour began to fade. He took to haunting department store kitchenware sections. He would come home with a new kind of cream whipper, or a patent device for the bathroom. He would tinker happily with this, driving a nail, adjusting a screw. At such times he was even known to begin to whistle some scrap of a doleful tune such as he used to hum. But he would change, quickly, into something lively. The price of butter, eggs, milk, cream, and the like horrified his Wisconsin cold-storage sensibilities. He used often to go down to Fulton Market before daylight and walk about among the stalls and shops, piled with tons of food of all kinds. He would talk to the marketmen, and the buyers and grocers, and come away feeling almost happy for a time.
Then, one day, with a sort of shock, he remembered a farmer he had known back home in Winnebago. He knew the farmers for miles around, naturally, in his business. This man had been a steady butter-and-egg acquaintance, one of the wealthy farmers in that prosperous Wisconsin farming community. For his family's sake he had moved into town, a ruddy, rufous-bearded, clumping fellow, intelligent, kindly. They had sold the farm with a fine profit and had taken a box-like house on Franklin Street. He had nothing to do but enjoy himself. You saw him out on the porch early, very early summer mornings.
You saw him ambling about the yard, poking at a weed here, a plant there. A terrible loneliness was upon him; a loneliness for the soil he had deserted. And slowly, resistlessly, the soil pulled at him with its black strength and its green tendrils down, down, until he ceased to struggle and lay there clasped gently to her breast, the mistress he had thought to desert and who had him again at last, and forever.
"I don't know what ailed him," his widow had said, weeping. "He just seemed to kind of pine away."
* * * * *
It was one morning in April—one soft, golden April morning—when this memory had struck Hosey Brewster. He had been down at Fulton Market. Something about the place—the dewy fresh vegetables, the crates of eggs, the butter, the cheese—had brought such a surge of homesickness over him as to amount to an actual nausea. Riding uptown in the Subway he had caught a glimpse of himself in a slot-machine mirror. His face was pale and somehow shrunken. He looked at his hands. The skin hung loose where the little pads of fat had plumped them out.
"Gosh!" he said. "Gosh, I—"
He thought, then, of the red-faced farmer who used to come clumping into the cold-storage warehouse in his big boots and his buffalo coat. A great fear swept over him and left him weak and sick.
The chill grandeur of the studio-building foyer stabbed him. The glittering lift made him dizzy, somehow, this morning. He shouldn't have gone out without some breakfast perhaps. He walked down the flagged corridor softly; turned the key ever so cautiously. She might still be sleeping. He turned the knob gently, gently; tiptoed in and, turning, fell over a heavy wooden object that lay directly in his path in the dim little hall.
A barked shin. A good, round oath.
"Hosey! What's the matter? What—" She came running to him. She led him into the bright front room.
"What was that thing? A box or something, right there in front of the door. What the—"
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Hosey. You sometimes have breakfast downtown. I didn't know—"
Something in her voice—he stopped rubbing the injured shin to look up at her. Then he straightened slowly, his mouth ludicrously open. Her head was bound in a white towel. Her skirt was pinned back. Her sleeves were rolled up. Chairs, tables, rugs, ornaments, were huddled in a promiscuous heap. Mrs. Hosea C. Brewster was cleaning house.
"Milly!" he began, sternly. "And that's just the thing you came here to get away from. If Pinky—"
"I didn't mean to, father. But when I got up this morning there was a letter—a letter from the woman who owns this apartment, you know. She asked if I'd go to the hall closet—the one she reserved for her own things, you know—and unlock it, and get out a box she told me about, and have the hall boy express it to her. And I did, and—look!"
Limping a little he followed her. She turned on the light that hung in the closet. Boxes—pasteboard boxes—each one bearing a cryptic pencilling on the end that stared out at you. "Drp Stud Win," said one; "Sum Slp Cov Bedrm," another; "Toil. Set & Pic Frms."
Mrs. Brewster turned to her husband, almost shamefacedly, and yet with a little air of defiance. "It—I don't know—it made me—not homesick, Hosey. Not homesick, exactly; but—well, I guess I'm not the only woman with a walnut streak in her modern make-up. Here's the woman—she came to the door with her hat on, and yet—"
Truth—blinding, white-hot truth—burst in upon him. "Mother," he said—and he stood up, suddenly robust, virile, alert—"mother, let's go home."
Mechanically she began to unpin the looped-back skirt. "When?"
"But, Hosey! Pinky—this flat—until June—"
"Now! Unless you want to stay. Unless you like it here in this—this make-believe, double-barrelled, duplex do-funny of a studio thing. Let's go home, mother. Let's go home—and breathe."
In Wisconsin you are likely to find snow in April—snow or slush. The Brewsters found both. Yet on their way up from the station in 'Gene Buck's flivver taxi they beamed out at it as if it were a carpet of daisies.
At the corner of Elm and Jackson streets Hosey Brewster stuck his head out of the window. "Stop here a minute, will you, 'Gene?"
They stopped in front of Hengel's meat market, and Hosey went in. Mrs. Brewster leaned back without comment.
Inside the shop. "Well, I see you're back from the East," said Aug Hengel.
"We thought you'd given us the go-by, you stayed away so long."
"No, sir-ree! Say, Aug, give me that piece of bacon—the big piece. And send me up some corned beef to-morrow for corned beef and cabbage. I'll take a steak along for to-night. Oh, about four pounds. That's right."
It seemed to him that nothing less than a side of beef could take out of his mouth the taste of those fiddling little lamb chops and the restaurant fare of the past six months.
* * * * *
All through the winter Fred had kept up a little heat in the house, with an eye to frozen water pipes. But there was a chill upon the place as they opened the door now. It was late afternoon. The house was very still, with the stillness of a dwelling that has long been uninhabited. The two stood there a moment, peering into the darkened rooms. Then Hosea Brewster strode forward, jerked up this curtain, that curtain with a sharp snap, flap! He stamped his feet to rid them of slush. He took off his hat and threw it high in the air and opened his arms wide and emitted a whoop of sheer joy and relief.
"Welcome home! Home!"
She clung to him. "Oh, Hosey, isn't it wonderful? How big it looks! Huge!"
"Land, yes." He strode from hall to dining room, from kitchen to library. "I know how a jack-in-the-box feels when the lid's opened. No wonder it grins and throws out its arms."
They did little talking after that. By five o'clock he was down in the cellar. She heard him making a great sound of rattling and bumping and shaking and pounding and shovelling. She smelled the acrid odour of his stubby black pipe.
"Hosey!"—from the top of the cellar stairs. "Hosey, bring up a can of preserves when you come."
"Can of preserves."
"Any kind you like."
"Can I have two kinds?"
He brought up quince marmalade and her choicest damson plums. He put them down on the kitchen table and looked around, spatting his hands together briskly to rid them of dust. "Sh's burning pretty good now. That Fred! Don't any more know how to handle a boiler than a baby does. Is the house getting warmer?"
He clumped into the dining room, through the butler's pantry, but he was back again in a wink, his eyes round. "Why, say, mother! You've got out the best dishes, and the silver, and the candles, and all. And the tablecloth with the do-dads on it. Why—"
"I know it." She opened the oven door, took out a pan of biscuits and slid it deftly to one side. "It seems as if I can't spread enough. I'm going to use the biggest platters, and I've put two extra boards in the table. It's big enough to seat ten. I want everything big, somehow. I've cooked enough potatoes for a regiment, and I know it's wasteful, and I don't care. I'll eat in my kitchen apron, if you'll keep on your overalls. Come on."
He cut into the steak—a great, thick slice. He knew she could never eat it, and she knew she could never eat it. But she did eat it all, ecstatically. And in a sort of ecstatic Nirvana the quiet and vastness and peace of the big old frame house settled down upon them.
The telephone in the hall rang startlingly, unexpectedly.
"Let me go, Milly."
"But who in the world! Nobody knows we're—"
He was at the telephone. "Who? Who? Oh." He turned: "It's Miz' Merz. She says her little Minnie went by at six and saw a light in the house. She—Hello! What?... She says she wants to know if she's to save time for you at the end of the month for the April cleaning."
Mrs. Brewster took the receiver from him: "The twenty-fifth, as usual, Miz' Merz. The twenty-fifth, as usual. The attic must be a sight."
OLD LADY MANDLE
Old lady Mandle was a queen. Her demesne, undisputed, was a six-room flat on South Park Avenue, Chicago. Her faithful servitress was Anna, an ancient person of Polish nativity, bad teeth, and a cunning hand at cookery. Not so cunning, however, but that old lady Mandle's was more artful still in such matters as meat-soups, broad noodles, fish with egg sauce, and the like. As ladies-in-waiting, flattering yet jealous, admiring though resentful, she had Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser, themselves old ladies and erstwhile queens, now deposed. And the crown jewel in old lady Mandle's diadem was my son Hugo.