THE PRICE SHE PAID
David Graham Phillips
HENRY GOWER was dead at sixty-one—the end of a lifelong fraud which never had been suspected, and never would be. With the world, with his acquaintances and neighbors, with his wife and son and daughter, he passed as a generous, warm-hearted, good-natured man, ready at all times to do anything to help anybody, incapable of envy or hatred or meanness. In fact, not once in all his days had he ever thought or done a single thing except for his own comfort. Like all intensely selfish people who are wise, he was cheerful and amiable, because that was the way to be healthy and happy and to have those around one agreeable and in the mood to do what one wished them to do. He told people, not the truth, not the unpleasant thing that might help them, but what they wished to hear. His family lived in luxurious comfort only because he himself was fond of luxurious comfort. His wife and his daughter dressed fashionably and went about and entertained in the fashionable, expensive way only because that was the sort of life that gratified his vanity. He lived to get what he wanted; he got it every day and every hour of a life into which no rain ever fell; he died, honored, respected, beloved, and lamented.
The clever trick he had played upon his fellow beings came very near to discovery a few days after his death. His widow and her son and daughter-in-law and daughter were in the living-room of the charming house at Hanging Rock, near New York, alternating between sorrowings over the dead man and plannings for the future. Said the widow:
"If Henry had only thought what would become of us if he were taken away!"
"If he had saved even a small part of what he made every year from the time he was twenty-six—for he always made a big income," said his son, Frank.
"But he was so generous, so soft-hearted!" exclaimed the widow. "He could deny us nothing."
"He couldn't bear seeing us with the slightest wish ungratified," said Frank.
"He was the best father that ever lived!" cried the daughter, Mildred.
And Mrs. Gower the elder and Mrs. Gower the younger wept; and Mildred turned away to hide the emotion distorting her face; and Frank stared gloomily at the carpet and sighed. The hideous secret of the life of duplicity was safe, safe forever.
In fact, Henry Gower had often thought of the fate of his family if he should die. In the first year of his married life, at a time when passion for a beautiful bride was almost sweeping him into generous thought, he had listened for upward of an hour to the eloquence of a life insurance agent. Then the agent, misled by Gower's effusively generous and unselfish expressions, had taken a false tack. He had descanted upon the supreme satisfaction that would be felt by a dying man as he reflected how his young widow would be left in affluence. He made a vivid picture; Gower saw—saw his bride happier after his death than she had been during his life, and attracting a swarm of admirers by her beauty, well set off in becoming black, and by her independent income. The generous impulse then and there shriveled to its weak and shallow roots. With tears in his kind, clear eyes he thanked the agent and said:
"You have convinced me. You need say no more. I'll send for you in a few days."
The agent never got into his presence again. Gower lived up to his income, secure in the knowledge that his ability as a lawyer made him certain of plenty of money as long as he should live. But it would show an utter lack of comprehension of his peculiar species of character to imagine that he let himself into the secret of his own icy-heartedness by ceasing to think of the problem of his wife and two children without him to take care of them. On the contrary, he thought of it every day, and planned what he would do about it—to-morrow. And for his delay he had excellent convincing excuses. Did he not take care of his naturally robust health? Would he not certainly outlive his wife, who was always doctoring more or less? Frank would be able to take care of himself; anyhow, it was not well to bring a boy up to expectations, because every man should be self-supporting and self-reliant. As for Mildred, why, with her beauty and her cleverness she could not but make a brilliant marriage. Really, there was for him no problem of an orphaned family's future; there was no reason why he should deny himself any comfort or luxury, or his vanity any of the titillations that come from social display.
That one of his calculations which was the most vital and seemed the surest proved to be worthless. It is not the weaklings who die, after infancy and youth, but the strong, healthy men and women. The weaklings have to look out for themselves, receive ample warning in the disastrous obvious effects of the slightest imprudence. The robust, even the wariest of them, even the Henry Gowers, overestimate and overtax their strength. Gower's downfall was champagne. He could not resist a bottle of it for dinner every night. As so often happens, the collapse of the kidneys came without any warning that a man of powerful constitution would deem worthy of notice. By the time the doctor began to suspect the gravity of his trouble he was too far gone.
Frank, candidly greedy and selfish—"Such a contrast to his father!" everyone said—was married to the prettiest girl in Hanging Rock and had a satisfactory law practice in New York. His income was about fifteen thousand a year. But his wife had tastes as extravagant as his own; and Hanging Rock is one of those suburbs of New York where gather well-to-do middle-class people to live luxuriously and to delude each other and themselves with the notion that they are fashionable, rich New Yorkers who prefer to live in the country "like the English." Thus, Henry Gower's widow and daughter could count on little help from Frank—and they knew it.
"You and Milly will have to move to some less expensive place than Hanging Rock," said Frank—it was the living-room conference a few days after the funeral.
Mildred flushed and her eyes flashed. She opened her lips to speak—closed them again with the angry retort unuttered. After all, Frank was her mother's and her sole dependence. They could hope for little from him, but nothing must be said that would give him and his mean, selfish wife a chance to break with them and refuse to do anything whatever.
"And Mildred must get married," said Natalie. In Hanging Rock most of the girls and many of the boys had given names taken from Burke's Peerage, the Almanac de Gotha, and fashionable novels.
Again Mildred flushed; but her eyes did not flash, neither did she open her lips to speak. The little remark of her sister-in-law, apparently so harmless and sensible, was in fact a poisoned arrow. For Mildred was twenty-three, had been "out" five years, and was not even in the way to become engaged. She and everyone had assumed from her lovely babyhood that she would marry splendidly, would marry wealth and social position. How could it be otherwise? Had she not beauty? Had she not family and position? Had she not style and cleverness? Yet—five years out and not a "serious" proposal. An impudent poor fellow with no prospects had asked her. An impudent rich man from fashionable New York had hung after her—and had presently abandoned whatever dark projects he may have been concealing and had married in his own set, "as they always do, the miserable snobs," raved Mrs. Gower, who had been building high upon those lavish outpourings of candy, flowers, and automobile rides. Mildred, however, had accepted the defection more philosophically. She had had enough vanity to like the attentions of the rich and fashionable New Yorker, enough good sense to suspect, perhaps not definitely, what those attentions meant, but certainly what they did not mean. Also, in the back of her head had been an intention to refuse Stanley Baird, if by chance he should ask her. Was there any substance to this intention, sprung from her disliking the conceited, self-assured snob as much as she liked his wealth and station? Perhaps not. Who can say? At any rate, may we not claim credit for our good intentions—so long as, even through lack of opportunity, we have not stultified them?
With every natural advantage apparently, Mildred's failure to catch a husband seemed to be somehow her own fault. Other girls, less endowed than she, were marrying, were marrying fairly well. Why, then, was Mildred lagging in the market?
There may have been other reasons, reasons of accident—for, in the higher class matrimonial market, few are called and fewer chosen. There was one reason not accidental; Hanging Rock was no place for a girl so superior as was Mildred Gower to find a fitting husband. As has been hinted, Hanging Rock was one of those upper-middle-class colonies where splurge and social ambition dominate the community life. In such colonies the young men are of two classes—those beneath such a girl as Mildred, and those who had the looks, the manners, the intelligence, and the prospects to justify them in looking higher socially—in looking among the very rich and really fashionable. In the Hanging Rock sort of community, having all the snobbishness of Fifth Avenue, Back Bay, and Rittenhouse Square, with the added torment of the snobbishness being perpetually ungratified—in such communities, beneath a surface reeking culture and idealistic folderol, there is a coarse and brutal materialism, a passion for money, for luxury, for display, that equals aristocratic societies at their worst. No one can live for a winter, much less grow up, in such a place without becoming saturated with sycophantry. Thus, only by some impossible combination of chances could there have been at Hanging Rock a young man who would have appreciated Mildred and have had the courage of his appreciation. This combination did not happen. In Mildred's generation and set there were only the two classes of men noted above. The men of the one of them which could not have attracted her accepted their fate of mating with second-choice females to whom they were themselves second choice. The men of the other class rarely appeared at Hanging Rock functions, hung about the rich people in New York, Newport, and on Long Island, and would as soon have thought of taking a Hanging Rock society girl to wife as of exchanging hundred-dollar bills for twenty-five-cent pieces. Having attractions acceptable in the best markets, they took them there. Hanging Rock denounced them as snobs, for Hanging Rock was virtuously eloquent on the subject of snobbishness—we human creatures being never so effective as when assailing in others the vice or weakness we know from lifelong, intimate, internal association with it. But secretly the successfully ambitious spurners of that suburban society were approved, were envied. And Hanging Rock was most gracious to them whenever it got the chance.
In her five years of social life Mildred had gone only with the various classes of fashionable people, had therefore known only the men who are full of the poison of snobbishness. She had been born and bred in an environment as impregnated with that poison as the air of a kitchen-garden with onions. She knew nothing else. The secret intention to refuse Stanley Baird, should he propose, was therefore the more astonishing—and the more significant. From time to time in any given environment you will find some isolated person, some personality, with a trait wholly foreign and out of place there. Now it is a soft voice and courteous manners in a slum; again it is a longing for a life of freedom and equality in a member of a royal family that has known nothing but sordid slavery for centuries. Or, in the petty conventionality of a prosperous middle- or upper-class community you come upon one who dreams—perhaps vaguely but still longingly—of an existence where love and ideas shall elevate and glorify life. In spite of her training, in spite of the teaching and example of all about her from the moment of her opening her eyes upon the world, Mildred Gower at twenty-three still retained something of these dream flowers sown in the soil of her naturally good mind by some book or play or perhaps by some casually read and soon forgotten article in magazine or newspaper. We have the habit of thinking only weeds produce seeds that penetrate and prosper everywhere and anywhere. The truth is that fine plants of all kinds, vegetable, fruit, and flower of rarest color and perfume, have this same hardiness and fecundity. Pull away at the weeds in your garden for a while, and see if this is not so. Though you may plant nothing, you will be amazed at the results if you but clear a little space of its weeds—which you have been planting and cultivating.
Mildred—woman fashion—regarded it as a reproach upon her that she had not yet succeeded in making the marriage everyone, including herself, predicted for her and expected of her. On the contrary, it was the most savage indictment possible of the marriageable and marrying men who had met her—of their stupidity, of their short-sighted and mean-souled calculation, of their lack of courage—the courage to take what they, as men of flesh and blood wanted, instead of what their snobbishness ordered. And if Stanley Baird, the nearest to a flesh-and-blood man of any who had known her, had not been so profoundly afraid of his fashionable mother and of his sister, the Countess of Waring— But he was profoundly afraid of them; so, it is idle to speculate about him.
What did men see when they looked at Mildred Gower? Usually, when men look at a woman, they have a hazy, either pleasant or unpleasant, sense of something feminine. That, and nothing more. Afterward, through some whim or some thrust from chance they may see in her, or fancy they see in her, the thing feminine that their souls—it is always "soul"—most yearns after. But just at first glance, so colorless or conventionally colored is the usual human being, the average woman—indeed every woman but she who is exceptional—creates upon man the mere impression of pleasant or unpleasant petticoats. In the exceptional woman something obtrudes. She has astonishing hair, or extraordinary eyes, or a mouth that seems to draw a man like a magnet; or it is the allure of a peculiar smile or of a figure whose sinuosities as she moves seem to cause a corresponding wave-disturbance in masculine nerves. Further, the possession of one of these signal charms usually causes all her charms to have more than ordinary potency. The sight of the man is so bewitched by the one potent charm that he sees the whole woman under a spell.
Mildred Gower, of the medium height and of a slender and well-formed figure, had a face of the kind that is called lovely; and her smile, sweet, dreamy, revealing white and even teeth, gave her loveliness delicate animation. She had an abundance of hair, neither light nor dark; she had a fine clear skin. Her eyes, gray and rather serious and well set under long straight brows, gave her a look of honesty and intelligence. But the charm that won men, her charm of charms, was her mouth—mobile, slightly pouted, not too narrow, of a wonderful, vividly healthy and vital red. She had beauty, she had intelligence. But it was impossible for a man to think of either, once his glance had been caught by those expressive, inviting lips of hers, so young, so fresh, with their ever-changing, ever-fascinating line expressing in a thousand ways the passion and poetry of the kiss.
Of all the men who had admired her and had edged away because they feared she would bewitch them into forgetting what the world calls "good common sense"—of all those men only one had suspected the real reason for her physical power over men. All but Stanley Baird had thought themselves attracted because she was so pretty or so stylish or so clever and amusing to talk with. Baird had lived intelligently enough to learn that feminine charm is never general, is always specific. He knew it was Mildred Gower's lips that haunted, that frightened ambitious men away, that sent men who knew they hadn't a ghost of a chance with her discontentedly back to the second-choice women who alone were available for them. Fortunately for Mildred, Stanley Baird, too wise to flatter a woman discriminatingly, did not tell her the secret of her fascination. If he had told her, she would no doubt have tried to train and to use it—and so would inevitably have lost it.
To go on with that important conference in the sitting-room in the handsome, roomy house of the Gowers at Hanging Rock, Frank Gower eagerly seized upon his wife's subtly nasty remark. "I don't see why in thunder you haven't married, Milly," said he. "You've had every chance, these last four or five years."
"And it'll be harder now," moaned her mother. "For it looks as though we were going to be wretchedly poor. And poverty is so repulsive."
"Do you think," said Mildred, "that giving me the idea that I must marry right away will make it easier for me to marry? Everyone who knows us knows our circumstances." She looked significantly at Frank's wife, who had been wailing through Hanging Rock the woeful plight of her dead father-in-law's family. The young Mrs. Gower blushed and glanced away. "And," Mildred went on, "everyone is saying that I must marry at once—that there's nothing else for me to do." She smiled bitterly. "When I go into the street again I shall see nothing but flying men. And no man would come to call unless he brought a chaperon and a witness with him."
"How can you be so frivolous?" reproached her mother.
Mildred was used to being misunderstood by her mother, who had long since been made hopelessly dull by the suffocating life she led and by pain from her feet, which never left her at ease for a moment except when she had them soaking in cold water. Mrs. Gower had been born with ordinary feet, neither ugly nor pretty and entirely fit for the uses for which nature intended feet. She had spoiled them by wearing shoes to make them look smaller and slimmer than they were. In steady weather she was plaintive; in changeable weather she varied between irritable and violent.
Said Mildred to her brother: "How much—JUST how much is there?"
"I can't say exactly," replied her brother, who had not yet solved to his satisfaction the moral problem of how much of the estate he ought to allow his mother and sister and how much he ought to claim for himself—in such a way that the claim could not be disputed.
Mildred looked fixedly at him. He showed his uneasiness not by glancing away, but by the appearance of a certain hard defiance in his eyes. Said she:
"What is the very most we can hope for?"
A silence. Her mother broke it. "Mildred, how CAN you talk of those things—already?"
"I don't know," replied Mildred. "Perhaps because it's got to be done."
This seemed to them all—and to herself—a lame excuse for such apparent hardness of heart. Her father had always been SENDER-HEARTED—HAD NEVER SPOKEN OF MONEY, OR ENCOURAGED HIS FAMILY IN SPEAKING OF IT.
A LONG AND PAINFUL SILENCE. THEN, THE WIDOW ABRUPTLY:
"YOU'RE SURE, Frank, there's NO insurance?"
"Father always said that you disliked the idea," replied her son; "that you thought insurance looked like your calculating on his death."
Under her husband's adroit prompting Mrs. Gower had discovered such a view of insurance in her brain. She now recalled expressing it—and regretted. But she was silenced. She tried to take her mind of the subject of money. But, like Mildred, she could not. The thought of imminent poverty was nagging at them like toothache. "There'll be enough for a year or so?" she said, timidly interrogative.
"I hope so," said Frank.
Mildred was eying him fixedly again. Said she: "Have you found anything at all?"
"He had about eight thousand dollars in bank," said Frank. "But most of it will go for the pressing debts."
"But how did HE expect to live?" urged Mildred.
"Yes, there must have been SOMETHING," said her mother.
"Of course, there's his share of the unsettled and unfinished business of the firm," admitted Frank.
"How much will that be?" persisted Mildred.
"I can't tell, offhand," said Frank, with virtuous reproach. "My mind's been on—other things."
Henry Gower's widow was not without her share of instinctive shrewdness. Neither had she, unobservant though she was, been within sight of her son's character for twenty-eight years without having unconfessed, unformed misgivings concerning it. "You mustn't bother about these things now, Frank dear," said she. "I'll get my brother to look into it."
"That won't be necessary," hastily said Frank. "I don't want any rival lawyer peeping into our firm's affairs."
"My brother Wharton is the soul of honor," said Mrs. Gower, the elder, with dignity. "You are too young to take all the responsibility of settling the estate. Yes, I'll send for Wharton to-morrow."
"It'll look as though you didn't trust me," said Frank sourly.
"We mustn't do anything to start the gossips in this town," said his wife, assisting.
"Then send for him yourself, Frank," said Mildred, "and give him charge of the whole matter."
Frank eyed her furiously. "How ashamed father would be!" exclaimed he.
But this solemn invoking of the dead man's spirit was uneffectual. The specter of poverty was too insistent, too terrible. Said the widow:
"I'm sure, in the circumstances, my dear dead husband would want me to get help from someone older and more experienced."
And Frank, guilty of conscience and an expert in the ways of conventional and highly moral rascality, ceased to resist. His wife, scenting danger to their getting the share that "rightfully belongs to the son, especially when he has been the brains of the firm for several years," made angry and indiscreet battle for no outside interference. The longer she talked the firmer the widow and the daughter became, not only because she clarified suspicions that had been too hazy to take form, but also because they disliked her intensely. The following day Wharton Conover became unofficial administrator. He had no difficulty in baffling Frank Gower's half-hearted and clumsy efforts to hide two large fees due the dead man's estate. He discovered clear assets amounting in all to sixty-three thousand dollars, most of it available within a few months.
"As you have the good-will of the firm and as your mother and sister have only what can be realized in cash," said he to Frank, "no doubt you won't insist on your third."
"I've got to consider my wife," said Frank. "I can't do as I'd like."
"You are going to insist on your third?" said Conover, with an accent that made Frank quiver.
"I can't do otherwise," said he in a dogged, shamed way.
"Um," said Conover. "Then, on behalf of my sister and her daughter I'll have to insist on a more detailed accounting than you have been willing to give—and on the production of that small book bound in red leather which disappeared from my brother-in-law's desk the afternoon of his death."
A wave of rage and fear surged up within Frank Gower and crashed against the seat of his life. For days thereafter he was from time to time seized with violent spasms of trembling; years afterward he was attributing premature weaknesses of old age to the effects of that moment of horror. His uncle's words came as a sudden, high shot climax to weeks of exasperating peeping and prying and questioning, of sneer and insinuation. Conover had been only moderately successful at the law, had lost clients to Frank's father, had been beaten when they were on opposite sides. He hated the father with the secret, hypocritical hatred of the highly moral and religious man. He despised the son. It is not often that a Christian gentleman has such an opportunity to combine justice and revenge, to feed to bursting an ancient grudge, the while conscious that he is but doing his duty.
Said Frank, when he was able to speak: "You have been listening to the lies of some treacherous clerk here."
"Don't destroy that little book," proceeded Conover tranquilly. "We can prove that you took it."
Young Gower rose. "I must decline to have anything further to say to you, sir," said he. "You will leave this office, and you will not be admitted here again unless you come with proper papers as administrator."
Conover smiled with cold satisfaction and departed. There followed a series of quarrels—between Frank and his sister, between Frank and his mother, between Frank's wife and his mother, between Mildred and her mother, between the mother and Conover. Mrs. Gower was suspicious of her son; but she knew her brother for a pinchpenny, exacting the last drop of what he regarded as his own. And she discovered that, if she authorized him to act as administrator for her, he could—and beyond question would—take a large share of the estate. The upshot was that Frank paid over to his mother and sister forty-seven thousand dollars, and his mother and her brother stopped speaking to each other.
"I see that you have turned over all your money to mother," said Frank to Mildred a few days after the settlement.
"Of course," said Mildred. She was in a mood of high scorn for sordidness—a mood induced by the spectacle of the shameful manners of Conover, Frank, and his wife.
"Do you think that's wise?" suggested Frank.
"I think it's decent," said Mildred.
"Well, I hope you'll not live to regret it," said her brother.
Neither Mrs. Gower nor her daughter had ever had any experience in the care of money. To both forty-seven thousand dollars seemed a fortune—forty-seven thousand dollars in cash in the bank, ready to issue forth and do their bidding at the mere writing of a few figures and a signature on a piece of paper. In a sense they knew that for many years the family's annual expenses had ranged between forty and fifty thousand, but in the sense of actuality they knew nothing about it—a state of affairs common enough in families where the man is in absolute control and spends all he makes. Money always had been forthcoming; therefore money always would be forthcoming.
The mourning and the loss of the person who had filled and employed their lives caused the widow and the daughter to live very quietly during the succeeding year. They spent only half of their capital. For reasons of selfish and far-sighted prudence which need no detailing Frank moved away to New York within six months of his father's death and reduced communication between himself and wife and his mother and sister to a frigid and rapidly congealing minimum. He calculated that by the time their capital was consumed they would have left no feeling of claim upon him or he feeling of duty toward them.
It was not until eighteen months after her father's death, when the total capital was sunk to less than fifteen thousand dollars, that Mildred awakened to the truth of their plight. A few months at most, and they would have to give up that beautiful house which had been her home all her life. She tried to grasp the meaning of the facts as her intelligence presented them to her, but she could not. She had no practical training whatever. She had been brought up as a rich man's child, to be married to a rich man, and never to know anything of the material details of life beyond what was necessary in managing servants after the indifferent fashion of the usual American woman of the comfortable classes. She had always had a maid; she could not even dress herself properly without the maid's assistance. Life without a maid was inconceivable; life without servants was impossible.
She wandered through the house, through the grounds. She said to herself again and again: "We have got to give up all this, and be miserably poor—with not a servant, with less than the tenement people have." But the words conveyed no meaning to her. She said to herself again and again: "I must rouse myself. I must do something. I must—must—must!" But she did not rouse, because there was nothing to rouse. So far as practical life was concerned she was as devoid of ideas as a new-born baby.
There was but the one hope—marriage, a rich marriage. It is the habit of men who can take care of themselves and of women who are securely well taken care of to scorn the woman or the helpless-bred man who marries for money or even entertains that idea. How little imagination these scorners have! To marry for a mere living, hardly better than one could make for oneself, assuredly does show a pitiful lack of self-reliance, a melancholy lack of self-respect. But for men or women all their lives used to luxury and with no ability whatever at earning money—for such persons to marry money in order to save themselves from the misery and shame that poverty means to them is the most natural, the most human action conceivable. The man or the woman who says he or she would not do it, either is a hypocrite or is talking without thinking. You may in honesty criticize and condemn a social system that suffers men and women to be so crudely and criminally miseducated by being given luxury they did not earn. But to condemn the victims of that system for acting as its logic compels is sheer folly or sheer phariseeism.
Would Mildred Gower have married for money? As the weeks fled, as the bank account dwindled, she would have grasped eagerly at any rich man who might have offered himself—no matter how repellent he might have been. She did not want a bare living; she did not want what passes with the mass of middle-class people for comfort. She wanted what she had—the beautiful and spacious house, the costly and fashionable clothing, the servants, the carriages and motors, the thousand and one comforts, luxuries, and vanities to which she had always been used. In the brain of a young woman of poor or only comfortably off family the thoughts that seethed in Mildred Gower's brain would have been so many indications of depravity. In Mildred Gower's brain they were the natural, the inevitable, thoughts. They indicated everything as to her training, nothing as to her character. So, when she, thinking only of a rich marriage with no matter whom, and contrasting herself with the fine women portrayed in the novels and plays, condemned herself as shameless and degraded, she did herself grave injustice.
But no rich man, whether attractive or repulsive, offered. Indeed, no man of any kind offered. Instead, it was her mother who married.
A widower named James Presbury, elderly, with an income of five to six thousand a year from inherited wealth, stumbled into Hanging Rock to live, was impressed by the style the widow Gower maintained, believed the rumor that her husband had left her better off than was generally thought, proposed, and was accepted. And two years and a month after Henry Gower's death his widow became Mrs. James Presbury—and ceased to veil from her new husband the truth as to her affairs.
Mildred had thought that, than the family quarrels incident to settling her father's estate, human nature could no lower descend. She was now to be disillusioned. When a young man or a young woman blunders into a poor marriage in trying to make a rich one, he or she is usually withheld from immediate and frank expression by the timidity of youth. Not so the elderly man or woman. As we grow older, no matter how timidly conventional we are by nature, we become, through selfishness or through indifference to the opinion of others or through impatience of petty restraint, more and more outspoken. Old Presbury discovered how he had tricked himself four days after the wedding. He and his bride were at the Waldorf in New York, a-honeymooning.
The bride had never professed to be rich. She had simply continued in her lifelong way, had simply acted rich. She well knew the gaudy delusions her admirer was entertaining, and she saw to it that nothing was said or done to disturb him. She inquired into his affairs, made sure of the substantiality of the comparatively small income he possessed, decided to accept him as her best available chance to escape becoming a charge upon her anything but eager and generous relatives. She awaited the explosion with serenity. She cared not a flip for Presbury, who was a soft and silly old fool, full of antiquated compliments and so drearily the inferior of Henry Gower, physically and mentally, that even she could appreciate the difference, the descent. She rather enjoyed the prospect of a combat with him, of the end of dissimulating her contempt. She had thought out and had put in arsenal ready for use a variety of sneers, jeers, and insults that suggested themselves to her as she listened and simpered and responded while he was courting.
Had the opportunity offered earlier than the fourth day she would have seized it, but not until that fourth morning was she in just the right mood. She had eaten too much dinner the night before, and had followed it after two hours in a stuffy theater with an indigestible supper. He liked the bedroom windows open at night; she liked them closed. After she fell into a heavy sleep, he slipped out of bed and opened the windows wide—to teach her by the night's happy experience that she was entirely mistaken as to the harmfulness of fresh winter air. The result was that she awakened with a frightful cold and a splitting headache. And as the weather was about to change she had shooting pains like toothache through her toes the instant she thrust them into her shoes. The elderly groom, believing he had a rich bride, was all solicitude and infuriating attention. She waited until he had wrought her to the proper pitch of fury. Then she said—in reply to some remark of his:
"Yes, I shall rely upon you entirely. I want you to take absolute charge of my affairs."
The tears sprang to his eyes. His weak old mouth, rapidly falling to pieces, twisted and twitched with emotion. "I'll try to deserve your confidence, darling," said he. "I've had large business experience—in the way of investing carefully, I mean. I don't think your affairs will suffer in my hands."
"Oh, I'm sure they'll not trouble you," said she in a sweet, sure tone as the pains shot through her feet and her head. "You'll hardly notice my little mite in your property." She pretended to reflect. "Let me see—there's seven thousand left, but of course half of that is Millie's."
"It must be very well invested," said he. "Those seven thousand shares must be of the very best."
"Shares?" said she, with a gentle little laugh. "I mean dollars."
Presbury was about to lift a cup of cafe au lait to his lips. Instead, he turned it over into the platter of eggs and bacon.
"We—Mildred and I," pursued his bride, "were left with only forty-odd thousand between us. Of course, we had to live. So, naturally, there's very little left."
Presbury was shaking so violently that his head and arms waggled like a jumping-jack's. He wrapped his elegant white fingers about the arms of his chair to steady himself. In a suffocated voice he said: "Do you mean to say that you have only seven thousand dollars in the world?"
"Only half that," corrected she. "Oh, dear, how my head aches! Less than half that, for there are some debts."
She was impatient for the explosion; the agony of her feet and head needed outlet and relief. But he disappointed her. That was one of the situations in which one appeals in vain to the resources of language. He shrank and sank back in his chair, his jaw dropped, and he vented a strange, imbecile cackling laugh. It was not an expression of philosophic mirth, of sense of the grotesqueness of an anti-climax. It was not an expression of any emotion whatever. It was simply a signal from a mind temporarily dethroned.
"What are you laughing at?" she said sharply.
His answer was a repetition of the idiotic sound.
"What's the matter with you?" demanded she. "Please close your mouth."
It was a timely piece of advice; for his upper and false teeth had become partially dislodged and threatened to drop upon the shirt-bosom gayly showing between the lapels of his dark-blue silk house-coat. He slowly closed his mouth, moving his teeth back into place with his tongue—a gesture that made her face twitch with rage and disgust.
"Seven thousand dollars," he mumbled dazedly.
"I said less than half that," retorted she sharply.
"And I—thought you were—rich."
A peculiar rolling of the eyes and twisting of the lips gave her the idea that he was about to vent that repulsive sound again. "Don't you laugh!" she cried. "I can't bear your laugh—even at its best."
Suddenly he galvanized into fury. "This is an outrage!" he cried, waving his useless-looking white fists. "You have swindled me—SWINDLED me!"
Her head stopped aching. The pains in her feet either ceased or she forgot them. In a suspiciously calm voice she said: "What do you mean?"
"I mean that you are a swindler!" he shouted, banging one fist on the table and waving the other.
She acted as though his meaning were just dawning upon her. "Do you mean," said she tranquilly, "that you married me for money?"
"I mean that I thought you a substantial woman, and that I find you are an adventuress."
"Did you think," inquired she, "that any woman who had money would marry YOU?" She laughed very quietly. "You ARE a fool!"
He sat back to look at her. This mode of combat in such circumstances puzzled him.
"I knew that you were rich," she went on, "or you would not have dared offer yourself to me. All my friends were amazed at my stooping to accept you. Your father was an Irish Tammany contractor, wasn't he?—a sort of criminal? But I simply had to marry. So I gave you my family and position and name in exchange for your wealth—a good bargain for you, but a poor one for me."
These references to HIS wealth were most disconcerting, especially as they were accompanied by remarks about his origin, of which he was so ashamed that he had changed the spelling of his name in the effort to clear himself of it. However, some retort was imperative. He looked at her and said:
"Swindler and adventuress!"
"Don't repeat that lie," said she. "You are the adventurer—despite the fact that you are very rich."
"Don't say that again," cried he. "I never said or pretended I was rich. I have about five thousand a year—and you'll not get a cent of it, madam!"
She knew his income, but no one would have suspected it from her expression of horror. "What!" she gasped. "You dared to marry ME when you were a—beggar! Me—the widow of Henry Gower! You impudent old wreck! Why, you haven't enough to pay my servants. What are we to live on, pray?"
"I don't know what YOU'LL live on," replied he. "I shall live as I always have."
"A beggar!" she exclaimed. "I—married to a beggar." She burst into tears. "How men take advantage of a woman alone! If my son had been near me! But there's surely some law to protect me. Yes, I'm sure there is. Oh, I'll punish you for having deceived me." Her eyes dried as she looked at him. "How dare you sit there? How dare you face me, you miserable fraud!"
Early in her acquaintance with him she had discovered that determining factors in his character were sensitiveness about his origin and sensitiveness about his social position. On this knowledge of his weaknesses was securely based her confidence that she could act as she pleased toward him. To ease her pains she proceeded to pour out her private opinion of him—all the disagreeable things, all the insults she had been storing up.
She watched him as only a woman can watch a man. She saw that his rage was not dangerous, that she was forcing him into a position where fear of her revenging herself by disgracing him would overcome anger at the collapse of his fatuous dreams of wealth. She did not despise him the more deeply for sitting there, for not flying from the room or trying to kill her or somehow compelling her to check that flow of insult. She already despised him utterly; also, she attached small importance to self-respect, having no knowledge of what that quality really is.
When she grew tired, she became quiet. They sat there a long time in silence. At last he ran up the white flag of abject surrender by saying:
"What'll we live on—that's what I'd like to know?"
An eavesdropper upon the preceding violence of upward of an hour would have assumed that at its end this pair must separate, never to see each other again voluntarily. But that idea, even as a possibility, had not entered the mind of either. They had lived a long time; they were practical people. They knew from the outset that somehow they must arrange to go on together. The alternative meant a mere pittance of alimony for her; meant for him social ostracism and the small income cut in half; meant for both scandal and confusion.
Said she fretfully: "Oh, I suppose we'll get along, somehow. I don't know anything about those things. I've always been looked after—kept from contact with the sordid side of life."
"That house you live in," he went on, "does it belong to you?"
She gave him a contemptuous glance. "Of course," said she. "What low people you must have been used to!"
"I thought perhaps you had rented it for your bunco game," retorted he. "The furniture, the horses, the motor—all those things—do they belong to you?"
"I shall leave the room if you insult me," said she.
"Did you include them in the seven thousand dollars?"
"The money is in the bank. It has nothing to do with our house and our property."
He reflected, presently said: "The horses and carriages must be sold at once—and all those servants dismissed except perhaps two. We can live in the house."
She grew purple with rage. "Sell MY carriages! Discharge MY servants! I'd like to see you try!"
"Who's to pay for keeping up that establishment?" demanded he.
She was silent. She saw what he had in mind.
"If you want to keep that house and live comfortably," he went on, "you've got to cut expenses to the bone. You see that, don't you?"
"I can't live any way but the way I've been used to all my life," wailed she.
He eyed her disgustedly. Was there anything equal to a woman for folly?
"We've got to make the most of what little we have," said he.
"I tell you I don't know anything about those things," repeated she. "You'll have to look after them. Mildred and I aren't like the women you've been used to. We are ladies."
Presbury's rage boiled over again at the mention of Mildred. "That daughter of yours!" he cried. "What's to be done about her? I've got no money to waste on her."
"You miserable Tammany THING!" exclaimed she. "Don't you dare SPEAK of my daughter except in the most respectful way."
And once more she opened out upon him, wreaking upon him all her wrath against fate, all the pent-up fury of two years—fury which had been denied such fury's usual and natural expression in denunciations of the dead bread-winner. The generous and ever-kind Henry Gower could not be to blame for her wretched plight; and, of course, she herself could not be to blame for it. So, until now there had been no scapegoat. Presbury therefore received the whole burden. He, alarmed lest a creature apparently so irrational, should in wild rage drive him away, ruin him socially, perhaps induce a sympathetic court to award her a large part of his income as alimony, said not a word in reply. He bade his wrath wait. Later on, when the peril was over, when he had a firm grip upon the situation—then he would take his revenge.
They gave up the expensive suite at the Waldorf that very day and returned to Hanging Rock. They alternated between silence and the coarsest, crudest quarrelings, for neither had the intelligence to quarrel wittily or the refinement to quarrel artistically. As soon as they arrived at the Gower house, Mildred was dragged into the wrangle.
"I married this terrible man for your sake," was the burden of her mother's wail. "And he is a beggar—wants to sell off everything and dismiss the servants."
"You are a pair of paupers," cried the old man. "You are shameless tricksters. Be careful how you goad me!"
Mildred had anticipated an unhappy ending to her mother's marriage, but she had not knowledge enough of life or of human nature to anticipate any such horrors as now began. Every day, all day long the vulgar fight raged. Her mother and her stepfather withdrew from each other's presence only to think up fresh insults to fling at each other. As soon as they were armed they hastened to give battle again. She avoided Presbury. Her mother she could not avoid; and when her mother was not in combat with him, she was weeping or wailing or railing to Mildred.
It was at Mildred's urging that her mother acquiesced in Presbury's plans for reducing expenses within income. At first the girl, even more ignorant than her mother of practical affairs, did not appreciate the wisdom, not to say the necessity, of what he wished to do, but soon she saw that he was right, that the servants must go, that the horses and carriages and the motors must be sold. When she was convinced and had convinced her mother, she still did not realize what the thing really meant. Not until she no longer had a maid did she comprehend. To a woman who has never had a maid, or who has taken on a maid as a luxury, it will seem an exaggeration to say that Mildred felt as helpless as a baby lying alone in a crib before it has learned to crawl. Yet that is rather an understatement of her plight. The maid left in the afternoon. Mildred, not without inconveniences that had in the novelty their amusing side, contrived to dress that evening for dinner and to get to bed; but when she awakened in the morning and was ready to dress, the loss of Therese became a tragedy. It took the girl nearly four hours to get herself together presentably—and then, never had she looked so unkempt. With her hair, thick and soft, she could do nothing.
"What a wonderful person Therese was!" thought she. "And I always regarded her as rather stupid." Her mother, who had not had a maid until she was about thirty and had never become completely dependent, fared somewhat better, though, hearing her moans, you would have thought she was faring worse.
Mildred's unhappiness increased from day to day, as her wardrobe fell into confusion and disrepair. She felt that she must rise to the situation, must teach herself, must save herself from impending dowdiness and slovenliness. But her brain seemed to be paralyzed. She did not know how or where to begin to learn. She often in secret gave way to the futility of tears.
There were now only a cook and one housemaid and a man of all work—all three newcomers, for Presbury insisted—most wisely—that none of the servants of the luxurious, wasteful days would be useful in the new circumstances. He was one of those small, orderly men who have a genius for just such situations as the one he now proceeded to grapple with and solve. In his pleasure at managing everything about that house, in distributing the work among the three servants, in marketing, and, in inspecting purchases and nosing into the garbage-barrel, in looking for dust on picture-frames and table-tops and for neglected weeds in the garden walks—in this multitude of engrossing delights he forgot his anger over the trick that had been played upon him. He still fought with his wife and denounced her and met insult with insult. But that, too, was one of his pleasures. Also, he felt that on the whole he had done well in marrying. He had been lonely as a bachelor, had had no one to talk with, or to quarrel with, nothing to do. The marriage was not so expensive, as his wife had brought him a house—and it such a one as he had always regarded as the apogee of elegance. Living was not dear in Hanging Rock, if one understood managing and gave time to it. And socially he was at last established.
Soon his wife was about as contented as she had ever been in her life. She hated and despised her husband, but quarreling with him and railing against him gave her occupation and aim—two valuable assets toward happiness that she had theretofore lacked. Her living—shelter, food, clothing enough—was now secure. But the most important factor of all in her content was the one apparently too trivial to be worthy of record. From girlhood she could not recall a single day in which she had not suffered from her feet. And she had been ashamed to say anything about it—had never let anyone, even her maid, see her feet, which were about the only unsightly part of her. None had guessed the cause of her chronic ill-temper until Presbury, that genius for the little, said within a week of their marriage:
"You talk and act like a woman with chronic corns."
He did not dream of the effect this chance thrust had upon his wife. For the first time he had really "landed." She concealed her fright and her shame as best she could and went on quarreling more viciously than ever. But he presently returned to the attack. Said he:
"Your feet hurt you. I'm sure they do. Now that I think of it, you walk that way."
"I suppose I deserve my fate," said she. "When a woman marries beneath her she must expect insult and low conversation."
"You must cure your feet," said he. "I'll not live in the house with a person who is made fiendish by corns. I think it's only corns. I see no signs of bunions."
"You brute!" cried his wife, rushing from the room.
But when they met again, he at once resumed the subject, telling her just how she could cure herself—and he kept on telling her, she apparently ignoring but secretly acting on his advice. He knew what he was about, and her feet grew better, grew well—and she was happier than she had been since girlhood when she began ruining her feet with tight shoes.
Six months after the marriage, Presbury and his wife were getting on about as comfortably as it is given to average humanity to get on in this world of incessant struggle between uncomfortable man and his uncomfortable environment. But Mildred had become more and more unhappy. Her mother, sometimes angrily, again reproachfully—and that was far harder to bear—blamed her for "my miserable marriage to this low, quarrelsome brute." Presbury let no day pass without telling her openly that she was a beggar living off him, that she would better marry soon or he would take drastic steps to release himself of the burden. When he attacked her before her mother, there was a violent quarrel from which Mildred fled to hide in her room or in the remotest part of the garden. When he hunted her out to insult her alone, she sat or stood with eyes down and face ghastly pale, mute, quivering. She did not interrupt, did not try to escape. She was like the chained and spiritless dog that crouches and takes the shower of blows from its cruel master.
Where could she go? Nowhere. What could she do? Nothing. In the days of prosperity she had regarded herself as proud and high spirited. She now wondered at herself! What had become of the pride? What of the spirit? She avoided looking at her image in the glass—that thin, pallid face, those circled eyes, the drawn, sick expression about the mouth and nose. "I'm stunned," she said to herself. "I've been stunned ever since father's death. I've never recovered—nor has mother." And she gave way to tears—for her father, she fancied; in fact, from shame at her weakness and helplessness. She thought—hoped—that she would not be thus feeble and cowardly, if she were not living at home, in the house she loved, the house where she had spent her whole life. And such a house! Comfort and luxury and taste; every room, every corner of the grounds, full of the tenderest and most beautiful associations. Also, there was her position in Hanging Rock. Everywhere else she would be a stranger and would have either no position at all or one worse than that of the utter outsider. There, she was of the few looked up to by the whole community. No one knew, or even suspected, how she was degraded by her step-father. Before the world he was courteous and considerate toward her as toward everybody. Indeed, Presbury's natural instincts were gentle and kindly. His hatred of Mildred and his passion for humiliating her were the result of his conviction that he had been tricked into the marriage and his inability to gratify his resentment upon his wife. He could not make the mother suffer; but he could make the daughter suffer—and he did. Besides, she was of no use to him and would presently be an expense.
"Your money will soon be gone," he said to her. "If you paid your just share of the expenses it would be gone now. When it is gone, what will you do?"
She was silent.
"Your mother has written to your brother about you."
Mildred lifted her head, a gleam of her former spirit in her eyes. Then she remembered, and bent her gaze upon the ground.
"But he, like the cur that he is, answered through a secretary that he wished to have nothing to do with either of you."
Mildred guessed that Frank had made the marriage an excuse.
"Surely some of your relatives will do something for you. I have my hands full, supporting your mother. I don't propose to have two strapping, worthless women hanging from my neck."
She bent her head lower, and remained silent.
"I warn you to bestir yourself," he went on. "I give you four months. After the first of the year you can't stay here unless you pay your share—your third."
"You hear what I say, miss?" he demanded.
"Yes," replied she.
"If you had any sense you wouldn't wait until your last cent was gone. You'd go to New York now and get something to do."
"What?" she asked—all she could trust herself to speak.
"How should I know?" retorted he furiously. "You are a stranger to me. You've been educated, I assume. Surely there's something you can do. You've been out six years now, and have had no success, for you're neither married nor engaged. You can't call it success to be flattered and sought by people who wanted invitations to this house when it was a social center."
He paused for response from her. None came.
"You admit you are a failure?" he said sharply.
"Yes," said she.
"You must have realized it several years ago," he went on. "Instead of allowing your mother to keep on wasting money in entertaining lavishly here to give you a chance to marry, you should have been preparing yourself to earn a living." A pause. "Isn't that true, miss?"
He had a way of pronouncing the word "miss" that made it an epithet, a sneer at her unmarried and unmarriageable state. She colored, paled, murmured:
"Then, better late than never. You'll do well to follow my advice and go to New York and look about you."
"I'll—I'll think of it," stammered she.
And she did think of it. But in all her life she had never considered the idea of money-making. That was something for men, and for the middle and lower classes—while Hanging Rock was regarded as most noisomely middle class by fashionable people, it did not so regard itself. Money-making was not for ladies. Like all her class, she was a constant and a severe critic of the women of the lower orders who worked for her as milliners, dressmakers, shop-attendants, cooks, maids. But, as she now realized, it is one thing to pass upon the work of others; it is another thing to do work oneself. She— There was literally nothing that she could do. Any occupation, even the most menial, was either beyond her skill or beyond her strength, or beyond both.
Suddenly she recalled that she could sing. Her prostrate spirit suddenly leaped erect. Yes, she could sing! Her voice had been praised by experts. Her singing had been in demand at charity entertainments where amateurs had to compete with professionals. Then down she dropped again. She sang well enough to know how badly she sang—the long and toilsome and expensive training that lay between her and operatic or concert or even music-hall stage. Her voice was fine at times. Again—most of the time—it was unreliable. No, she could not hope to get paying employment even as a church choir-singer. Miss Dresser who sang in the choir of the Good Shepherd for ten dollars a Sunday, had not nearly so good a voice as she, but it was reliable.
"There is nothing I can do—nothing!"
All at once, with no apparent bridge across the vast chasm, her heart went out, not in pity but in human understanding and sisterly sympathy, to the women of the pariah class at whom, during her stops in New York, she had sometimes gazed in wonder and horror. "Why, we and they are only a step apart," she said to herself in amazement. "We and they are much nearer than my maid or the cook and they!"
And then her heart skipped a beat and her skin grew cold and a fog swirled over her brain. If she should be cast out—if she could find no work and no one to support her—would she— "O my God!" she moaned. "I must be crazy, to think such thoughts. I never could! I'd die first—DIE!" But if anyone had pictured to her the kind of life she was now leading—the humiliation and degradation she was meekly enduring with no thought of flight, with an ever stronger desire to stay on, regardless of pride and self-respect—if anyone had pictured this to her as what she would endure, what would she have said? She could see herself flashing scornful denial, saying that she would rather kill herself. Yet she was living—and was not even contemplating suicide as a way out!
A few days after Presbury gave her warning, her mother took advantage of his absence for his religiously observed daily constitutional to say to her:
"I hope you didn't think I was behind him in what he said to you about going away?"
Mildred had not thought so, but in her mother's guilty tone and guiltier eyes she now read that her mother wished her to go.
"It'd be awful for me to be left here alone with him," wailed her mother insincerely. "Of course we've got no money, and beggars can't be choosers. But it'd just about kill me to have you go."
Mildred could not speak.
"I don't know a thing about money," Mrs. Presbury went on. "Your father always looked after everything." She had fallen into the way of speaking of her first husband as part of some vague, remote past, which, indeed, he had become for her. "This man"—meaning Presbury—"has only about five thousand a year, as you know. I suppose that's as small as he says it is. I remember our bills for one month used to be as much or more than that." She waved her useless, pretty hands helplessly. "I don't see HOW we are to get on, Mildred!"
Her mother wished her to go! Her mother had fallen under the influence of Presbury—her mother, woman-like, or rather, ladylike, was of kin to the helpless, flabby things that float in the sea and attach themselves to whatever they happen to lodge against. Her mother wished her to go!
"At the same time," Mrs. Presbury went on, "I can't live without somebody here to stand between me and him. I'd kill him or kill myself."
Mildred muttered some excuse and fled from the room, to lock herself in.
But when she came forth again to descend to dinner, she had resolved nothing, because there was nothing to resolve. When she was a child she leaned from the nursery window one day and saw a stable-boy drowning a rat that was in a big, oval, wire cage with a wooden bottom. The boy pressed the cage slowly down in the vat of water. The rat, in the very top of the cage, watched the floor sink, watched the water rise. And as it watched it uttered a strange, shrill, feeble sound which she could still remember distinctly and terribly. It seemed to her now that if she were to utter any sound at all, it would be that one.
ON the Monday before Thanksgiving, Presbury went up to New York to look after one of the little speculations in Wall Street at which he was so clever. Throughout the civilized world nowadays, and especially in and near the great capitals of finance, there is a class of men and women of small capital and of a character in which are combined iron self-restraint, rabbit-like timidity, and great shrewdness, who make often a not inconsiderable income by gambling in stocks. They buy only when the market is advancing strongly; they sell as soon as they have gained the scantest margin of profit. They never permit themselves to be tempted by the most absolute certainty of larger gains. They will let weeks, months even, go by without once risking a dollar. They wait until they simply cannot lose. Tens of thousands every year try to join this class. All but the few soon succumb to the hourly dazzling temptations the big gamblers dangle before the eyes of the little gamblers to lure them within reach of the merciless shears.
Presbury had for many years added from one to ten thousand a year to his income by this form of gambling, success at which is in itself sufficient to stamp a man as infinitely little of soul. On that Monday he, venturing for the first time in six months, returned to Hanging Rock on the three-thirty train the richer by two hundred and fifty dollars—as large a "killing" as he had ever made in any single day, one large enough to elevate him to the rank of prince among the "sure-thing snides." He said nothing about his luck to his family, but let them attribute his unprecedented good humor to the news he brought and announced at dinner.
"I met an old friend in the street this afternoon," said he. "He has invited us to take Thanksgiving dinner with him. And I think it will be a dinner worth while—the food, I mean, and the wine. Not the guests; for there won't be any guests but us. General Siddall is a stranger in New York."
"There are Siddalls in New York," said his wife; "very nice, refined people—going in the best society."
Presbury showed his false teeth in a genial smile; for the old-fashioned or plate kind of false teeth they were extraordinarily good—when exactly in place. "But not my old friend Bill Siddall," said he. "He's next door to an outlaw. I'd not have accepted his invitation if he had been asking us to dine in public. But this is to be at his own house—his new house—and a very grand house it is, judging by the photos he showed me. A regular palace! He'll not be an outlaw long, I guess. But we must wait and see how he comes out socially before we commit ourselves."
"Did you accept for me, too?" asked Mrs. Presbury.
"Certainly," said Presbury. "And for your daughter, too."
"I can't go," said Mildred. "I'm dining with the Fassetts."
The family no longer had a servant in constant attendance in the dining-room. The maid of many functions also acted as butler and as fetch-and-carry between kitchen and butler's pantry. Before speaking, Presbury waited until this maid had withdrawn to bring the roast and the vegetables. Then he said:
"You are going, too, miss." This with the full infusion of insult into the "miss."
Mildred was silent.
"Bill Siddall is looking for a wife," proceeded Presbury. "And he has Heaven knows how many millions."
"Do you think there's a chance for Milly?" cried Mrs. Presbury, who was full of alternating hopes and fears, both wholly irrational.
"She can have him—if she wants him," replied Presbury. "But it's only fair to warn her that he's a stiff dose."
"Is the money—CERTAIN?" inquired Mildred's mother with that shrewdness whose rare occasional displays laid her open to the unjust suspicion of feigning her habitual stupidity.
"Yes," said Presbury amiably. "It's nothing like yours was. He's so rich he doesn't know what to do with his income. He owns mines scattered all over the world. And if they all failed, he's got bundles of railway stocks and bonds, and gilt-edged trust stocks, too. And he's a comparatively young man—hardly fifty, I should say. He pretends to be forty."
"It's strange I never heard of him," said Mrs. Presbury.
"If you went to South America or South Africa or Alaska, you'd hear of him," said Presbury. He laughed. "And I guess you'd hear some pretty dreadful things. When I knew him twenty-five years ago he had just been arrested for forging my father's name to a check. But he got out of that—and it's all past and gone. Probably he hasn't committed any worse crimes than have most of our big rich men. Bill's handicap has been that he hadn't much education or any swell relatives. But he's a genius at money-making." Presbury looked at Mildred with a grin. "And he's just the husband for Mildred. She can't afford to be too particular. Somebody's got to support her. I can't and won't, and she can't support herself."
"You'll go—won't you, Mildred?" said her mother. "He may not be so bad."
"Yes, I'll go," said Mildred. Her gaze was upon the untouched food on her plate.
"Of course she'll go," said Presbury. "And she'll marry him if she can. Won't you, miss?"
He spoke in his amiably insulting way—as distinguished from the way of savagely sneering insult he usually took with her. He expected no reply. She surprised him. She lifted her tragic eyes and looked fixedly at him. She said:
"Yes, I'll go. And I'll marry him if I can."
"I told him he could have you," said Presbury. "I explained to him that you were a rare specimen of the perfect lady—just what he wanted—and that you, and all your family, would be grateful to anybody who would undertake your support."
Mrs. Presbury flushed angrily. "You've made it perfectly useless for her to go!" she cried.
"Calm yourself, my love," said her husband. "I know Bill Siddall thoroughly. I said what would help. I want to get rid of her as much as you do—and that's saying a great deal."
Mrs. Presbury flamed with the wrath of those who are justly accused. "If Mildred left, I should go, too," cried she.
"Go where?" inquired her husband. "To the poorhouse?"
By persistent rubbing in Presbury had succeeded in making the truth about her poverty and dependence clear to his wife. She continued to frown and to look unutterable contempt, but he had silenced her. He noted this with a sort of satisfaction and went on:
"If Bill Siddall takes her, you certainly won't go there. He wouldn't have you. He feels strongly on the subject of mothers-in-law."
"Has he been married before?" asked Mrs. Presbury.
"Twice," replied her husband. "His first wife died. He divorced the second for unfaithfulness."
Mildred saw in this painstaking recital of all the disagreeable and repellent facts about Siddall an effort further to humiliate her by making it apparent how desperately off she was, how she could not refuse any offer, revolting though it might be to her pride and to her womanly instincts. Doubtless this was in part the explanation of Presbury's malicious candor. But an element in that candor was a prudent preparing of the girl's mind for worse than the reality. That he was in earnest in his profession of a desire to bring about the match showed when he proposed that they should take rooms at a hotel in New York, to give her a chance to dress properly for the dinner. True, he hastened to say that the expense must be met altogether out of the remnant of Mildred's share of her father's estate, but the idea would not have occurred to him had he not been really planning a marriage.
Never had Mildred looked more beautiful or more attractive than when the three were ready to sally forth from the Manhattan Hotel on that Thanksgiving evening. At twenty-five, a soundly healthy and vigorous twenty-five, it is impossible for mind and nerves, however wrought upon, to make serious inroads upon surface charms. The hope of emancipation from her hideous slavery had been acting upon the girl like a powerful tonic. She had gained several pounds in the three intervening days; her face had filled out, color had come back in all its former beauty to her lips. Perhaps there was some slight aid from art in the extraordinary brilliancy of her eyes.
Presbury inventoried her with a succession of grunts of satisfaction. "Yes, he'll want you," he said. "You'll strike him as just the show piece he needs. And he's too shrewd not to be aware that his choice is limited."
"You can't frighten me," said Mildred, with a radiant, coquettish smile—for practice. "Nothing could frighten me."
"I'm not trying," replied Presbury. "Nor will Siddall frighten you. A woman who's after a bill-payer can stomach anything."
"Or a man," said Mildred.
"Oh, your mother wasn't as bad as all that," said Presbury, who never lost an opportunity.
Mrs. Presbury, seated beside her daughter in the cab, gave an exclamation of rage. "My own daughter insulting me!" she said.
"Such a thought did not enter my head," protested Mildred. "I wasn't thinking of anyone in particular."
"Let's not quarrel now," said Presbury, with unprecedented amiability. "We must give Bill a spectacle of the happy family."
The cab entered the porte-cochere of a huge palace of white stone just off Fifth Avenue. The house was even grander than they had anticipated. The wrought-iron fence around it had cost a small fortune; the house itself, without reference to its contents, a large fortune. The massive outer doors were opened by two lackeys in cherry-colored silk and velvet livery; a butler, looking like an English gentleman, was waiting to receive them at the top of a short flight of marble steps between the outer and the inner entrance doors. As Mildred ascended, she happened to note the sculpturing over the inner entrance—a reclining nude figure of a woman, Cupids with garlands and hymeneal torches hovering about her.
Mildred had been in many pretentious houses in and near New York, but this far surpassed the grandest of them. Everything was brand new, seemed to have been only that moment placed, and was of the costliest—statuary, carpets, armor, carved seats of stone and wood, marble staircase rising majestically, tapestries, pictures, drawing-room furniture. The hall was vast, but the drawing-room was vaster. Empty, one would have said that it could not possibly be furnished. Yet it was not only full, but crowded-chairs and sofas, hassocks and tete-a-tetes, cabinets, tables, pictures, statues, busts, palms, flowers, a mighty fireplace in which, behind enormous and costly andirons, crackled enormous and costly logs. There was danger in moving about; one could not be sure of not upsetting something, and one felt that the least damage that could be done there would be an appallingly expensive matter.
Before that cavernous fireplace posed General Siddall. He was a tiny mite of a man with a thin wiry body supporting the head of a professional barber. His black hair was glossy and most romantically arranged. His black mustache and imperial were waxed and brilliantined. There was no mistaking the liberal use of dye, also. From the rather thin, very sharp face looked a pair of small, muddy, brown-green eyes—dull, crafty, cold, cruel. But the little man was so insignificant and so bebarbered and betailored that one could not take him seriously. Never had there been so new, so carefully pressed, so perfectly fitting evening clothes; never a shirt so expensively got together, or jeweled studs, waistcoat buttons and links so high priced. From every part of the room, from every part of the little man's perfumed and groomed person, every individual article seemed to be shrieking, "The best is not too good for Bill Siddall!"
Mildred was agreeably surprised—she was looking with fierce determination for agreeable surprises—when the costly little man spoke, in a quiet, pleasant voice with an elusive, attractive foreign accent.
"My, but this is grand—grand, General Siddall!" said Presbury in the voice of the noisy flatterer. "Princely! Royal!"
Mildred glanced nervously at Siddall. She feared that Presbury had taken the wrong tone. She saw in the unpleasant eyes a glance of gratified vanity. Said he:
"Not so bad, not so bad. I saw the house in Paris, when I was taking a walk one day. I went to the American ambassador and asked for the best architect in Paris. I went to him, told him about the house—and here it is."
"Decorations, furniture, and all!" exclaimed Presbury.
"No, just the house. I picked up the interiors in different parts of Europe—had everything reproduced where I couldn't buy outright. I want to enjoy my money while I'm still young. I didn't care what it cost to get the proper surroundings. As I said to my architect and to my staff of artists, I expected to be cheated, but I wanted the goods. And I got the goods. I'll show you through the house after dinner. It's on this same scale throughout. And they're putting me together a country place—same sort of thing." He threw back his little shoulders and protruded his little chest. "And the joke of it is that the whole business isn't costing me a cent."
"Not a cent less than half a dozen or a dozen millions," said Presbury.
"Not so much as that—not quite," protested the delightedly sparkling little general. "But what I meant was that, as fast as these fellows spend, I go down-town and make. Fact is, I'm a little better off than I was when I started in to build."
"Well, you didn't get any of MY money," laughed Presbury. "But I suppose pretty much everybody else in the country must have contributed."
General Siddall smiled. Mildred wondered whether the points of his mustache and imperial would crack and break of, if he should touch them. She noted that his hair was roached absurdly high above the middle of his forehead and that he was wearing the tallest heels she had ever seen. She calculated that, with his hair flat and his feet on the ground, he would hardly come to her shoulder—and she was barely of woman's medium height. She caught sight of his hands—the square, stubby hands of a working man; the fingers permanently slightly curved as by the handle of shovel and pick; the skin shriveled but white with a ghastly, sickening bleached white, the nails repulsively manicured into long white curves. "If he should touch me, I'd scream," she thought. And then she looked at Presbury—and around her at the evidences of enormous wealth.
The general—she wondered where he had got that title—led her mother in to dinner, Presbury gave her his arm. On the way he found opportunity to mutter:
"Lay it on thick! Flatter the fool. You can't offend him. Tell him he's divinely handsome—a Louis Fourteen, a Napoleon. Praise everything—napkins, tablecloth, dishes, food. Rave over the wine."
But Mildred could not adopt this obviously excellent advice. She sat silent and cold, while Presbury and her mother raved and drew out the general to talk of himself—the only subject in the whole world that seemed to him thoroughly worth while. As Mildred listened and furtively observed, it seemed to her that this tiny fool, so obviously pleased by these coarse and insulting flatteries, could not possibly have had the brains to amass the vast fortune he apparently possessed. But presently she noted that behind the personality that was pleased by this gross fawning and bootlicking there lay—lay in wait and on guard—another personality, one that despised these guests of his, estimating them at their true value and using them contemptuously for the gratification of his coarse appetites. In the glimpse she caught of that deeper and real personality, she liked it even less than she liked the one upon the surface.
It was evidence of superior acumen that she saw even vaguely the real Bill Siddall, the money-maker, beneath the General William Siddall, raw and ignorant and vulgar—more vulgar in his refinement than the most shocking bum at home and at ease in foul-smelling stew. Every man of achievement hides beneath his surface—personality this second and real man, who makes the fortune, discovers the secret of chemistry, fights the battle, carries the election, paints the picture, commits the frightful murder, evolves the divine sermon or poem or symphony. Thus, when we meet a man of achievement, we invariably have a sense of disappointment. "Why, that's not the man!" we exclaim. "There must be some mistake." And it is, indeed, not the man. Him we are incapable of seeing. We have only eyes for surfaces; and, not being doers of extraordinary deeds, but mere plodders in the routines of existence, we cannot believe that there is any more to another than there is to ourselves. The pleasant or unpleasant surface for the conventional relations of life is about all there is to us; therefore it is all there is to human nature. Well, there's no help for it. In measuring our fellow beings we can use only the measurements of our own selves; we have no others, and if others are given to us we are as foozled as one knowing only feet and inches who has a tape marked off in meters and centimeters.
It so happened that in her social excursions Mildred had never been in any of the numerous homes of the suddenly and vastly rich of humble origin. She was used to—and regarded as proper and elegant—the ordinary ostentations and crudities of the rich of conventional society. No more than you or I was she moved to ridicule or disdain by the silliness and the tawdry vulgarity of the life of palace and liveried lackey and empty ceremonial, by the tedious entertainments, by the displays of costly and poisonous food. But General Siddall's establishment presented a new phase to her—and she thought it unique in dreadfulness and absurdity.
The general had had a home life in his youth—in a coal-miner's cabin near Wilkes-Barre. Ever since, he had lived in boarding-houses or hotels. As his shrewd and rapacious mind had gathered in more and more wealth, he had lived more and more luxuriously—but always at hotels. He had seen little of the private life of the rich. Thus he had been compelled to get his ideas of luxury and of ceremonial altogether from the hotel-keepers and caterers who give the rich what the more intelligent and informed of the rich are usually shamed by people of taste from giving themselves at home.
She thought the tablecloth, napkins, and gaudy gold and flowery cut glass a little overdone, but on the whole not so bad. She had seen such almost as grand at a few New York houses. The lace in the cloth and in the napkins was merely a little too magnificent. It made the table lumpy, it made the napkins unfit for use. But the way the dinner was served! You would have said you were in a glorified palace-hotel restaurant. You looked about for the cashier's desk; you were certain a bill would be presented after the last course.
The general, tinier and more grotesque than ever in the great high-backed, richly carved armchair, surveyed the progress of the banquet with the air of a god performing miracles of creation and passing them in review and giving them his divine endorsement. He was well pleased with the enthusiastic praises Presbury and his wife lavished upon the food and drink. He would have been better pleased had they preceded and followed every mouthful with a eulogy. He supplemented their compliments with even more fulsome compliments, adding details as to the origin and the cost.
"Darcy"—this to the butler—"tell the chef that this fish is the best yet—really exquisite." To Presbury: "I had it brought over from France—alive, of course. We have many excellent fish, but I like a change now and then. So I have a standing order with Prunier—he's the big oyster- and fish-man of Paris—to send me over some things every two weeks by special express. That way, an oyster costs about fifty cents and a fish about five or six dollars."
To Mrs. Presbury: "I'll have Darcy make you and Miss Presbury—excuse me, Miss Gower—bouquets of the flowers afterward. Most of them come from New York—and very high really first-class flowers are. I pay two dollars apiece for my roses even at this season. And orchids—well, I feel really extravagant when I indulge in orchids as I have this evening. Ten dollars apiece for those. But they're worth it."
The dinner was interminably long—upward of twenty kinds of food, no less than five kinds of wine; enough served and spoiled to have fed and intoxicated a dozen people at least. And upon every item of food and drink the general had some remarks to make. He impressed it upon his guests that this dinner was very little better than the one served to him every night, that the increase in expense and luxury was not in their honor, but in his own—to show them what he could do when he wished to make a holiday. Finally the grand course was reached. Into the dining-room, to the amazement of the guests, were rolled two great restaurant joint wagons. Instead of being made of silver-plated nickel or plain nickel they were of silver embossed with gold, and the large carvers and serving-spoons and forks had gold-mounted silver handles. When the lackeys turned back the covers there were disclosed several truly wonderful young turkeys, fattened as if by painstaking and skillful hand and superbly browned.
Up to that time the rich and costly food had been sadly medium—like the wines. But these turkeys were a genuine triumph. Even Mildred gave them a look of interest and admiration. In a voice that made General Siddall ecstatic Presbury cried:
"GOD bless my soul! WHERE did you get those beauties, old man!"
"Paris," said Siddall in a voice tremulous with pride and self-admiration. You would have thought that he had created not merely the turkeys, but Paris, also. "Potin sends them over to me. Potin, you know, is the finest dealer in groceries, fruit, game, and so on in the world. I have a standing order with him for the best of—everything that comes in. I'd hate to tell you what my bill with Potin is every month—he only sends it to me once a year. Really, I think I ought to be ashamed of myself, but I reason that, if a man can afford it, he's a fool to put anything but the best into his stomach."
"You're right there!" mumbled Presbury. His mouth was full of turkey. "You HAVE got a chef, General!"
"He ought to cook well. I pay him more than most bank-presidents get. What do you think of those joint wagons, Mrs. Presbury?"
"They're very—interesting," replied she, a little nervous because she suspected they were some sort of vulgar joke.
"I knew you'd like them," said the general. "My own idea entirely. I saw them in several restaurants abroad—only of course those they had were just ordinary affairs, not fit to be introduced into a gentleman's dining-room. But I took the idea and adapted it to my purposes—and there you are!"
"Very original, old man," said Presbury, who had been drinking too much. "I've never seen it before, and I don't think I ever shall again. Got the idea patented?"
But Siddall in his soberest moment would have been slow to admit a suspicion that any of the human race, which he regarded as on its knees before him, was venturing to poke fun at him. Drunk as he now was, the openest sarcasm would have been accepted as a compliment. After a gorgeous dessert which nobody more than touched—a molded mousse of whipped and frozen cream and strawberries—"specially sent on to me from Florida and costing me a dollar apiece, I guess"—after this costly wonder had disappeared fruit was served. General Siddall had ready a long oration upon this course. He delivered it in a disgustingly thick tone. The pineapple was an English hothouse product, the grapes were grown by a costly process under glass in Belgium. As for the peaches, Potin had sent those delicately blushing marvels, and the charge for this would be "not less than a louis apiece, sir—a louis d'or—which, as you no doubt know, is about four dollars of Uncle Sam's money."
The coffee—"the Queen of Holland may have it on her PRIVATE table—MAY, I say—but I doubt if anyone else in the world gets a smell of it except me"—the coffee and the brandy came not a moment too soon. Presbury was becoming stupefied with indigestion; his wife was nodding and was wearing that vague, forced, pleasant smile which stands propriety-guard over a mind asleep; Mildred Gower felt that her nerves would endure no more; and the general was falling into a besotted state, spilling his wine, mumbling his words. The coffee and the brandy revived them all somewhat. Mildred, lifting her eyes, saw by way of a mirrored section of the enormous sideboard the English butler surveying master and guests with slowly moving, sneering glance of ineffable contempt.
In the drawing-room again Mildred, requested by Siddall and ordered by Presbury, sang a little French song and then—at the urging of Siddall—"Annie Laurie." Siddall was wiping his eyes when she turned around. He said to Presbury:
"Take your wife into the conservatory to look at my orchids. I want to say a word to your stepdaughter."
Mildred started up nervously. She saw how drunk the general was, saw the expression of his face that a woman has to be innocent indeed not to understand. She was afraid to be left alone with him. Presbury came up to her, said rapidly, in a low tone:
"It's all right. He's got a high sense of what's due a respectable woman of our class. He isn't as drunk as he looks and acts."
Having said which, he took his wife by the arm and pushed her into the adjoining conservatory. Mildred reseated herself upon the inlaid piano-bench. The little man, his face now shiny with the sweat of drink and emotion, drew up a chair in front of her. He sat—and he was almost as tall sitting as standing. He said graciously:
"Don't be afraid, my dear girl. I'm not that dangerous."
She lifted her eyes and looked at him. She tried to conceal her aversion; she feared she was not succeeding. But she need not have concerned herself about that. General Siddall, after the manner of very rich men, could not conceive of anyone being less impressed with his superiority in any way than he himself was. For years he had heard only flatteries of himself—his own voice singing his praises, the fawning voices of those he hired and of those hoping to get some financial advantage. He could not have imagined a mere woman not being overwhelmed by the prospect of his courting her. Nor would it have entered his head that his money would be the chief, much less the only, consideration with her. He had long since lost all point of view, and believed that the adulation paid his wealth was evoked by his charms of person, mind, and manner. Those who imagine this was evidence of folly and weak-mindedness and extraordinary vanity show how little they know human nature. The strongest head could not remain steady, the most accurate eyes could not retain their measuring skill, in such an environment as always completely envelops wealth and power. And the much-talked-of difference between those born to wealth and power and those who rise to it from obscurity resolves itself to little more than the difference between those born mad and those who go insane.
Looking at the little man with the disagreeable eyes, so dull yet so shrewd, Mildred saw that within the drunkard who could scarcely sit straight upon the richly upholstered and carved gilt chair there was another person, coldly sober, calmly calculating. And she realized that it was this person with whom she was about to have the most serious conversation of her life thus far.
The drunkard smiled with a repulsive wiping and smacking of the thin, sensual lips. "I suppose you know why I had you brought here this evening?" said he.
Mildred looked and waited.
"I didn't intend to say anything to-night. In fact, I didn't expect to find in you what I've been looking for. I thought that old fool of a stepfather of yours was cracking up his goods beyond their merits. But he wasn't. My dear, you suit me from the ground up. I've been looking you over carefully. You were made for the place I want to fill."
Mildred had lowered her eyes. Her face had become deathly pale. "I feel faint," she murmured. "It is very warm here."
"You're not sickly?" inquired the general sharply. "You look like a good solid woman—thin but wiry. Ever been sick? I must look into your health. That's a point on which I must be satisfied."
A wave of anger swept through her, restoring her strength. She was about to speak—a rebuke to his colossal impudence that he would not soon forget. Then she remembered, and bit her lips.
"I don't ask you to decide to-night," pursued he, hastening to explain this concession by adding: "I don't intend to decide, myself. All I say is that I am willing—if the goods are up to the sample."
Mildred saw her stepfather and her mother watching from just within the conservatory door. A movement of the portiere at the door into the hall let her know that Darcy, the butler, was peeping and listening there. She stood up, clenched her hands, struck them together, struck them against her temples, crossed the room swiftly, flung herself down upon a sofa, and burst into tears. Presbury and his wife entered. Siddall was standing, looking after Mildred with a grin. He winked at Presbury and said:
"I guess we gave her too much of that wine. It's all old and stronger than you'd think."
"My daughter hardly touched her glasses," cried Mrs. Presbury.
"I know that, ma'am," replied Siddall. "I watched her. If she'd done much drinking, I'd have been done, then and there."
"I suspect she's upset by what you've been saying, General," said Presbury. "Wasn't it enough to upset a girl? You don't realize how magnificent you are—how magnificent everything is here."
"I'm sorry if I upset her," said the general, swelling and loftily contrite. "I don t know why it is that people never seem to be able to act natural with me." He hated those who did, regarding them as sodden, unappreciative fools.
Mrs. Presbury was quieting her daughter. Presbury and Siddall lighted cigars and went into the smoking—and billiard-room across the hall. Said Presbury:
"I didn't deceive you, did I, General?"
"She's entirely satisfactory," replied Siddall. "I'm going to make careful inquiries about her character and her health. If those things prove to be all right I'm ready to go ahead."
"Then the thing's settled," said Presbury. "She's all that a lady should be. And except a cold now and then she never has anything the matter with her. She comes of good healthy stock."
"I can't stand a sickly, ailing woman," said Siddall. "I wouldn't marry one, and if one I married turned out to be that kind, I'd make short work of her. When you get right down to facts, what is a woman? Why, a body. If she ain't pretty and well, she ain't nothing. While I'm looking up her pedigree, so to speak, I want you to get her mother to explain to her just what kind of a man I am."
"Certainly, certainly," said Presbury.
"Have her told that I don't put up with foolishness. If she wants to look at a man, let her look at me."
"You'll have no trouble in that way," said Presbury.
"I DID have trouble in that way," replied the general sourly. "Women are fools—ALL women. But the principal trouble with the second Mrs. Siddall was that she wasn't a lady born."
"That's why I say you'll have no trouble," said Presbury.
"Well, I want her mother to talk to her plainer than a gentleman can talk to a young lady. I want her to understand that I am marrying so that I can have a WIFE—cheerful, ready, and healthy. I'll not put up with foolishness of any kind."
"I understand," said Presbury. "You'll find that she'll meet all your conditions."
"Explain to her that, while I'm the easiest, most liberal-spending man in the world when I'm getting what I want, I am just the opposite when I'm not getting what I pay for. If I take her and if she acts right, she'll have more of everything that women want than any woman in the world. I'd take a pride in my wife. There isn't anything I wouldn't spend in showing her off to advantage. And I'm willing to be liberal with her mother, too."
Presbury had been hoping for this. His eyes sparkled. "You're a prince, General," he said. "A genuine prince. You know how to do things right."
"I flatter myself I do," said the general. "I've been up and down the world, and I tell you most of the kings live cheap beside me. And when I get a wife worth showing of, I'll do still better. I've got wonderful creative ability. There isn't anything I can't and won't buy."
Presbury noted uneasily how cold and straight, how obviously repelled and repelling the girl was as she yielded her fingers to Siddall at the leave-taking. He and her mother covered the silence and ice with hot and voluble sycophantry. They might have spared themselves the exertion. To Siddall Mildred was at her most fascinating when she was thus "the lady and the queen." The final impression she made upon him was the most favorable of all.
In the cab Mrs. Presbury talked out of the fullness of an overflowing heart. "What a remarkable man the general is!" said she. "You've only to look at him to realize that you're in the presence of a really superior person. And what tact he has!—and how generous he is!—and how beautifully he entertains! So much dignity—so much simplicity—so much—"
"Fiddlesticks!" interrupted Presbury. "Your daughter isn't a damn fool, Mrs. Presbury."
Mildred gave a short, dry laugh.
Up flared her mother. "I mean every word I said!" cried she. "If I hadn't admired and appreciated him, I'd certainly not have acted as I did. I couldn't stoop to such hypocrisy."
"Fiddlesticks!" sneered Presbury. "Bill Siddall is a horror. His house is a horror. His dinner was a horror. These loathsome rich people! They're ruining the world—as they always have. They're making it impossible for anyone to get good service or good food or good furniture or good clothing or good anything. They don't know good things, and they pay exorbitant prices for showy trash, for crude vulgar luxury. They corrupt taste. They make everyone round them or near them sycophants and cheats. They substitute money for intelligence and discrimination. They degrade every fine thing in life. Civilization is built up by brains and hard work, and along come the rich and rot and ruin it!"
Mildred and her mother were listening in astonishment. Said the mother:
"I'd be ashamed to confess myself such a hypocrite."
"And I, madam, would be ashamed to be such a hypocrite without taking a bath of confession afterward," retorted Presbury.
"At least you might have waited until Mildred wasn't in hearing," snapped she.
"I shall marry him if I can," said Mildred.
"And blissfully happy you'll be," said Presbury. "Women, ladies—true ladies, like you and your mother—have no sensibilities. All you ask is luxury. If Bill Siddall were a thousand times worse than he is, his money would buy him almost any refined, delicate lady anywhere in Christendom."
Mrs. Presbury laughed angrily. "YOU, talking like this—you of all men. Is there anything YOU wouldn't stoop to for money?"
"Do you think I laid myself open to that charge by marrying you?" said Presbury, made cheerful despite his savage indigestion by the opportunity for effective insult she had given him and he had promptly seized. "I am far too gallant to agree with you. But I'm also too gallant to contradict a lady. By the way, you must be careful in dealing with Siddall. Rich people like to be fawned on, but not to be slobbered on. You went entirely too far."
Mrs. Presbury, whom indigestion had rendered stupid, could think of no reply. So she burst into tears. "And my own daughter sitting silent while that man insults her mother!" she sobbed.
Mildred sat stiff and cold.
"It'll be a week before I recover from that dinner," Presbury went on sourly. "What a dinner! What a villainous mess! These vulgar, showy rich! That champagne! He said it cost him six dollars a bottle, and no doubt it did. I doubt if it ever saw France. The dealers rarely waste genuine wine on such cattle. The wine-cellars of fine houses the world through are the laughing-stock of connoisseurs—like their picture-galleries and their other attempts to make money do the work of taste. I forgot to put my pills in my bag. I'll have to hunt up an all-night drug-store. I'd not dare go to bed without taking an antidote for that poison."
But Presbury had not been altogether improvident. He had hoped great things of Bill Siddall's wine-cellar—this despite an almost unbroken series of bitter disillusionments and disappointments in experience with those who had the wealth to buy, if they had had the taste to select, the fine wines he loved. So, resolving to indulge himself, he had put into his bag his pair of gout-boots.
This was a device of his own inventing, on which he prided himself. It consisted of a pair of roomy doe-skin slippers reenforced with heavy soles and provided with a set of three thin insoles to be used according as the state of his toes made advisable. The cost of the Presbury gout-boot had been, thanks to patient search for a cheap cobbler, something under four dollars—this, when men paid shoe specialists twenty, thirty, and even forty dollars a pair for gout-boots that gave less comfort. The morning after the dinner at which he had drunk to drown his chagrin and to give him courage and tongue for sycophantry, he put on the boots. Without them it would have been necessary to carry him from his room to a cab and from cab to train. With them he was able to hobble to a street-car. He tried to distract his mind from his sufferings by lashing away without ceasing at his wife and his step-daughter.
When they were once more at home, and the mother and daughter escaped from him, the mother said:
"I was glad to see that you put up with that wretch, and didn't answer him back."
"Of course," said Mildred. "He's mad to be rid of me, but if I offended him he might snatch away this chance."