THE WORKS OF KATHLEEN NORRIS
We need no gifts, whose thoughts and prayers maintain Through all the years a strong and stronger chain, Yet take the little gift, the visible sign Of the deep love between your heart and mine.
The marriage of Albert Bradley and Anne Polk Barrett was as close as anything comes, in these prosaic days, to a high adventure. Nancy's Uncle Thomas, a quiet, gentle old Southerner who wore tan linen suits when he came to New York, which was not often, and Bert's mother, a tiny Boston woman who had lived in a diminutive Brookline apartment since her three sons had struck out into the world for themselves, respectively assured the young persons that they were taking a grave chance. However different their viewpoint of life, old Mrs. Bradley and old Mr. Polk could agree heartily in that.
Of course there was much to commend the union. Nancy was beautiful, she came of gentlefolk, and she liked to assert that she was practical, she "had been a workin' woman for yeahs." This statement had reference to a comfortable and informal position she held with a private association for the relief of the poor. Nancy was paid fifteen dollars a week, seven of which she in turn paid to the pretty young widow, an old family friend only a few years older than herself, with whom she boarded. Mrs. Terhune was rich, in a modest way, and frequently refused the money entirely. But she took it often enough to make the blooming Nancy feel quite self-supporting, and as Nancy duly reported at the sunshiny office of the Southern Ladies' Helping Hand every morning, or almost every morning, the girl had some reason to feel that she had solved her financial and domestic problem.
Bert was handsome, too, and his mother knew everybody who was any body in Boston. If Nancy's grandfather Polk had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Maryland, why, Bert was the seventh of his name in direct descent, and it was in Bert's great-great- grandfather's home that several prominent citizens of Boston had assumed feathers and warpaint for a celebrated tea-party a great many years ago.
More than that, Bert was at a sensible age for matrimony, twenty- five, and Nancy, like all southern girls, had ripened early, and at twenty-two had several years of dancing and flirting behind her. There was nothing impulsive about the affair. The two had trotted about their adopted city for perhaps two years before Bert brought Nancy the enormous diamond that his mother had given him years ago for just this wonderful time. Circumstances had helped them to know each other well. Nancy knew the sort of play that made Bert stutter with enthusiasm as they walked home, and Bert knew that Nancy made adorable little faces when she tried on hats, and that her salary was fifteen dollars a week. At this time, and for some years later, Bert was only one of several renting agents employed by the firm of Pearsall and Pearsall, City Real Estate. He moved his office from one new office-building downtown to another, sometimes warmed by clanking new radiators, sometimes carrying a gasoline stove with him into the region of new plaster and paint. His name was not important enough to be included in the list of tenants in the vestibule, he was merely "Renting Office, Tenth Floor." And Nancy knew that when he had been a few months longer with Pearsall and Pearsall, they would pay him exactly thirteen hundred dollars a year.
That was the objection, money. Mother and Uncle Tom thought that that was not enough; Nancy and Bert worked it all out on paper, and thought it more than sufficient. They always had a splendid balance, on paper. Meanwhile, Mrs. Terhune went on refusing Nancy's board now and then, and slipping bank-notes into Nancy's purse now and then, and Bert continued to board with the southern gentlewomen to whom he had paid ten dollars a week for three years. He felt like a son in the Venables' house, by this time.
It was at the Venables' boarding-house, indeed, that he first had met the dark-eyed and vivacious Nancy, who was intimate with the faded daughters of the family, Miss Augusta and Miss Sally Anne. When Nancy's Uncle Thomas came to the city for one of his infrequent visits, she always placed him in Mrs. Venable's care.
Bert's first impression of her was of a supernaturally clever person, hopelessly surrounded by "beaux." She had so many admirers that even Miss Augusta, who had had a disappointment, warmed into half-forgotten coquetries while she amused Bert, for whom Miss Nancy had no time. They seemed to Bert, whose youth had known responsibility and hardship, a marvellously happy and light- hearted crowd. They laughed continuously, and they extracted from the chameleon city pleasures that were wonderfully innocent and fresh. It was as if these young exiles had brought from their southern homes something of leisure, something of spaciousness and pure sweetness that the more sophisticated youth of the city lacked. Their very speech, softly slurred and lazy, held a charm for Bert, used to his mother's and his aunts' crisp consonants. He called Nancy "my little southern girl" in his heart, from the hour he met her, and long afterward he told her that he had loved her all that time.
He could not free the cramped muscles of his spirit to meet her quite on her own ground; it was his fate sometimes to reach the laugh just as all the others grew suddenly serious, and as often he took their airy interest heavily, and chained them with facts, from which they fluttered like a flight of butterflies. But he had his own claim, and it warmed the very fibres of his lonely heart when he saw that Nancy was beginning to recognize that claim.
When they all went out to the theatre and supper, it was his pocket-book that never failed them. And what a night that was when, eagerly proffering the fresh bills to Lee Porter, who was giving the party, he looked up to catch a look of protest, and shame, and gratitude, in Nancy's lovely eyes!
"No, now, Lee, you shall not take it!" she laughed richly. Bert thought for a second that this was more than mere persiflage, for the expression on the girl's face was new. Later he reminded himself that they all used curious forms of speech. "I just was too tired to get up this morning," a girl who had actually gotten up would say, or someone would comment upon a late train: "The old train actually never did get here!"
After a while he took Nancy to lunch once or twice, and one day took her to the Plaza, where his mother happened to be staying with Cousin Mary Winthrop and Cousin Anna Baldwin, and his mother said that Nancy was a sweet, lovely girl. Bert had quite a thrill when he saw the familiar, beautiful face turned seriously and with pretty concern toward his mother, and he liked Nancy's composure among the rather formal older women. She managed her tea and her gloves and her attentions prettily, thought Bert. When he took her home at six o'clock he was conscious that he had passed an invisible barrier in their relationship; she knew his mother. They were of one breed.
But that night, when he went back to the hotel to dine, his mother drew him aside.
"Not serious, dear—between you and Miss Barrett, I mean?"
Bert laughed in pleasant confusion.
"Well, I—of course I admire her awfully. Everyone does. But I don't know that I'd have a chance with her." Suddenly and unbidden there leaped into his heart the glorious thought of possessing Nancy. Nancy—his wife, making a home and a life for unworthy him! He flushed deeply. His mother caught the abashed murmur, "...thirteen hundred a year!"
"Exactly!" she said incisively, almost triumphantly. But her eyes, closely watching his expression, were anxious. "I don't believe in having things made too easy for young persons," she added, smiling. "But that—that really is too hard."
"Yep. That's too hard," Bert agreed.
"It isn't fair to the girl to ask it," added his mother gently.
"That's true," Bert said a little heavily, after a pause. "It isn't fair—to Nancy."
The next night Nancy wondered why his manner was so changed, and why he spoke so bitterly of his work, and what was the matter with him anyway. She reflected that perhaps he was sorry his mother's visit was over. For two or three weeks he seemed restless and discontented, and equally unwilling to be included in the "Dutch treats," or to be left out of them. And then suddenly the bad mood passed, and Bert was his kind and appreciative and generous self again. Clark Belknap, also of Maryland, who had plenty of money and a charming personality and manner as well, began to show the familiar symptoms toward Nancy, and Bert told himself that Clark would be an admirable match for her. Also his Cousin Mary wrote him that his second cousin Dorothy Hayes Hamilton was going to be in New York for a few weeks, and asked him to take her about a little, and see that she had a nice time. Cousin Mary, as was usual, enclosed a generous check to insure the nice time, and little Dorothy proved to be a very rose of a girl, just as unspoiled as if her fortune had been half a dollar instead of half a million and full of pride in her big cousin, whose Harvard record she evidently knew by heart.
Bert willingly took her about, and they became good friends. He did not see much of Nancy now, and one of the times he did see her was unfortunate. He and Dorothy had been having tea at a roof- garden, after a long delightful day in Dorothy's car, and now he was to take her to her hotel. Just as he was holding the little pongee wrap, and Dorothy was laughing up at him from under the roses on her hat, he saw Nancy, going out between two older women. His look just missed hers; he knew she had seen him; had perhaps been watching him, but he could not catch her eye again.
It was a hot night, and Nancy looked a little pale and, although as trim and neat as usual, a little shabby. Her pretty hands in old gloves she had washed herself, her pretty eyes patiently fixed upon the faces of the women who were boring her in her youth and freshness with the business of sickness and poverty, her whole gentle, rather weary aspect, smote Bert's heart with a pain that was half a fierce joy. Never had he loved her in her gaiety and her indifference as he loved her now, when she looked so sweetly, so almost sorrowfully.
A week later he went to see her.
"Well, Mister Bert Bradley," she smiled at him, unfastening the string from the great box of roses that had simultaneously arrived from some other admirer, "I didn't know what to make of you! And who was the more-than-pretty little girl that you were squiring on the Waldorf roof last week?"
"Just my cousin, Dorothy Hamilton. She went back to Boston to-day. She's finished school, and had a year abroad, and now she isn't quite sure what she wants to do. How's Mr. Belknap?"
She narrowed her eyes at him mischievously.
"Don't you think you're smart! These are from him. He's very well. He took me to the theatre last night, and we had a wonderful time. Come with me into the kitchen, while I put these in water."
"Take good care of them!" Bert said witheringly. But she only laughed at him from the sink. He followed her into the small, hot, neat kitchen, with the clean empty pint bottle and the quarter- pint bottle turned upside down near the bright faucets, and the enamel handles of the gas stove all turned out in an even row. Bert remembered that the last time he had been here was a cold May morning, when he and Nancy had made countless hot cakes. He had met her at church, and walked home with her, and while they were luxuriously finishing the last of the hot cakes the others had burst in, with the usual harum-scarum plans for the day. But that was May, and now it was July, and somehow the bloom seemed to be gone from their relationship.
They talked pleasantly, and after awhile Mrs. Terhune came in and talked, too. She was distressed about some shares she held in a traction company and Bert was able to be of real service to her, taking a careful memorandum, and promising to see her about it in a day. "For I expect we'll see you round here in a day or two," she said with simple archness. She was well used to the demands of Nancy's beaux. Nancy looked particularly innocent and expectant at this, "Perhaps Mr. Bradley might come in and cheer you up, if I go off with Mrs. Featherstone for the week-end?" she suggested pleasantly. Mrs. Featherstone had been Virginia Belknap.
Bert presently bade her a cold good-bye. His reassurance to Mrs. Terhune was made the next day by telephone, and life became dark and dull to him. Certain things hurt him strangely—the sight of places where she had taken off the shabby gloves; and had seated herself happily opposite him for luncheon or tea; the sound of music she had hummed. He wanted to see her—not feverishly, nothing extreme, except that he wanted it every second of the time. A mild current of wanting to see Nancy underran all his days; he could control it, he decided, and to an extent he did. He ate and worked and even slept in spite of it. But it was always there, and it tired him, and made him feel old and sad.
And then they met; Bert idling through the September sweetness and softness and goldness of the park, Nancy briskly taking her business-like way from West Eightieth to East Seventy-second Street. What Nancy experienced in the next hour Bert could only guess, he knew that she was glad to see him, and that for some reason she was entirely off guard. For himself, he was like a thirsty animal that reaches trees, and shade, and the wide dimpling surface of clear waters. He had so often imagined meeting her, and had so longed to meet her, that he was actually a little confused, and wanted shakily to laugh, and to cling to her.
He walked to Seventy-second Street, with her and then to tea at a tiny place in Madison Avenue called the Prince Royal. And she settled herself opposite him, just as in his dreams—only so much more sweetly—and smiled at him from her dear faithful blue eyes, as she laid aside her gloves.
She was wearing a large diamond, surrounded by topazes. Bert knew that he had never seen this ring before, although it did not look like a new one. However, the age of the ring signified nothing. He wondered if Clark Belknap's mother had ever worn it, and if Clark had just given it to Nancy...
She was full of heavenly interest and friendliness. But when they were walking home she told him that she was so sorry—she couldn't ask him to dine, because she was going out. She asked him for the next day, but his board of directors was having a monthly meeting that night, and he had to be there. How about Saturday?
Saturday she was going out of town, a special meeting of the Red Cross. They hung there. Nancy was perhaps ashamed to go on through the list of days, Bert would not ungenerously force her. He left her, thrilled and yet dissatisfied. He looked back almost with envy to his state of a few hours earlier, when he had been hoping that he might meet her.
The week dragged by. The undercurrent of longing to see Nancy flowed on and on. Bert wanted nothing else—just Nancy. He had been spending the summer with a friend, at the friend's uptown house, but now he thought he would go out to the Venables, and show some interest in his newly-papered room and hear them speak of her.
He rang their bell with a thumping heart. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. She might even be here! Or they might tell him she was engaged to Clark Belknap of Maryland. ... Bert felt so sick at the thought that it seemed a fact. He wanted to run away.
Miss Augusta, red-eyed, opened the door. Beyond her he was somehow vaguely aware of darkness, and weeping, and the subdued rustling of gowns. Po' Nancy Barrett was here—he knew that? Well, didn't he know that the dea' old Colonel had passed away suddenly—Miss Augusta's tears flowed afresh. Nancy had come in unexpectedly to lunch, and the telegram from her aunt had come while she was there. "Tell Nancy Brother Edward passed on at five o'clock. Come home at once."
Bert listened dazedly, in the shabby old parlour with the scrolled flowery carpet, and the statues, and the square piano. He comforted Miss Augusta, he even put one arm about her. Was there something he could do?—he asked the forlorn, empty question merely as a matter of course.
"I don't suppose yo' could send some telegrams..." Miss Augusta said, blowing her nose damply. "Po' child, she hasn't got a brother, nor anyone to depend on now in the hour of her bitteh need!"
Bert's heart leaped.
"Just tell me!" he begged. "And what about trains, and arrangements? Will she go down? And clothes?—would she need something—"
This last item had been attended. Mama and Sis' Sally Anne had gone down town, po' child, she didn't want much. And yes, she was going down, to-morrow—that night, if it could be managed.
"But Nancy herself had better see yo'," Miss Augusta said disappearing. Bert waited, his heart thundering. Murmuring and tears came from some remote region. Then quietly and slowly Nancy, in new black, came in. And Bert knew that to the end of the world, as long as he should breathe, life would mean Nancy's life to him; and the world was only Nancy.
They sat down on the slippery horsehair, and talked softly and quickly. Ticket—train—telegrams—the little money that was necessary—he advised her about them all. He called her "Nancy" to-day, for the first time. He remembered afterward that she had called him nothing. She went to get Mrs. Venable, after a while, and later Sis' Sally Anne drew him aside and told him to make Nancy drink her good hot tea. She drank it, at his command. Clark Belknap came that evening; others came—all too late. Before the first of them, Bert had taken her to the train, had made her as comfortable as he could, had sat beside her, with her soft gloved hand tight in his, murmuring to her that she had so much to be thankful for—no pain, no illness, no real age. But she had left him, she said, her lip trembling and her eyes brimming again. He reminded her of her pretty, dependent step-mother, of the two little half-brothers who were just waiting for Nancy to come and straighten everything out.
"Yes—I've got to keep up for them!" she said, smiling bravely. And in a tense undertone she added, "You're wonderful to me!"
"And will you have some supper—just to break the evening?"
"I had tea." She leaned back, and shut her eyes. "I couldn't— eat!" she whispered pitifully. His response was to put his clean, folded handkerchief into her hand, and at that she opened the wet eyes, and smiled at him shakily.
"Just some soup—or a salad," he urged. "Will you promise me, Nancy?"
"I promise you I'll try," she said in parting.
Walking home with his head in a whirl, Bert said to himself: "This is the second of October. I'll give her six months. On the second of April I'll ask her."
However, he asked her on Christmas night, after the Venables' wonderful Christmas dinner, when they all talked of the Civil War as if it were yesterday, and when old laces, old jet and coral jewelry, and frail old silk gowns were much in evidence. They were sitting about the coal fire in the back drawing-room, when Nancy and Bert chanced to be alone. Mrs. Venables had gone to brew some punch, with Sis' Sally Anne's help. The other young men of the party were assisting them, Augusta had gone to the telephone.
Bert always remembered the hour. The room was warm, fragrant of spicy evergreen. There was a Rogers group on the marble mantle, and two Dresden china candlesticks that reflected themselves in the watery dimness of the mirror above. Nancy, slender and exquisite, was in unrelieved, lacy black; her hair was as softly black as her gown. Her white hands were locked in her lap. Something had reminded her of old Christmases, and she had told Bert of running in to her mother's room, early in the chilly morning, to shout "Christmas Gift!"
Not moving his sympathetic eyes from her Checking Page back In, Please Wait ... to town again, and his own pleasure in their visit was talking of Nancy; how wise, how sweet, how infinitely desirable she was. Dorothy had wanted Cousin Albert to come to her for Thanksgiving. No, a thousand thanks—but Miss Barrett was so much alone now. He must be near her. Dorothy kept her thoughts on the subject to herself, but he so far impressed his mother that her own hopes came to be his, she dreaded the thought of what might happen to her boy if that southern girl did not chance to care for him.
But the southern girl cared. She locked the lace-clad arms about his neck, on this memorable Christmas night and laid her cheek against his. "Are you sure you want me, Bert?" she whispered.
They had not much altered their positions when Mrs. Venables came back half an hour later, and a general time of kissing, crying and laughing began.
It was a happy time, untroubled by the thought of money that was soon to be so important. Bert's various aunts and cousins sent him checks, and Nancy's stepmother sent her all her own mother's linen and silver, and odd pieces of mahogany on which the freight charges were frightful, and laces and an oil portrait or two. The trousseau was helped from all sides, every week had its miracle; and the hats, and the embroidered whiteness, and the smart street suit and the adorable kitchen ginghams accumulated as if by magic. Bert's mother sent delightfully monogrammed bed and table-linen, almost weekly. Nancy said it was preposterous for poor people to start in with such priceless possessions!
Among the happy necessities of the time was the finding of a proper apartment. Nancy and Bert spent delightful Saturdays and Sundays wandering in quest of it; beginning half-seriously in February, when it seemed far too early to consider this detail, and continuing with augmented earnestness through the three succeeding months. Eventually they got both tired and discouraged, and felt dashed in the very opening of their new life, but finally the place was found, and they loved it instantly, and leased it without delay. It was in a new apartment house, in East Eleventh Street, four shiny and tiny rooms, on a fourth floor. Everything was almost too compact and convenient, Nancy thought; the ice box, gas stove, dumb-waiter, hanging light over the dining table, clothes line, and garbage chute, were already in place. It left an ambitious housekeeper small margin for original arrangement, but of course it did save money and time. The building was of pretty cream brick, clean and fresh, the street wide, and lined with dignified old brownstone houses, and the location perfect. She smothered a dream of wide old-fashioned rooms, quaintly furnished in chintzes and white paint. They had found no such enchanting places, except at exorbitant rents. Seventy-five dollars, or one hundred dollars, were asked for the simplest of them, and the plumbing facilities, and often the janitor service, were of the poorest. So Nancy abandoned the dream, and enthusiastically accepted the East Eleventh Street substitute, Bert becoming a tenant in the "George Eliot," at a rental of thirty-five dollars a month. Some of the old Barrett furniture was too large for the place, but what she could use Nancy arranged with exquisite taste: fairly dancing with pleasure over the sitting room, where her chair and Bert's were in place, and the little droplight lighted on the little table. In this room they were going to read Dickens out loud, on winter nights.
They were married on a hot April morning, a morning whose every second seemed to Nancy flooded with strange perfumes, and lighted with unearthly light. The sky was cloudless; the park bowered in fresh green; the streets, under new shadows, clean-swept and warm. Her gown was perfection, her new wide hat the most becoming she had ever worn; the girls, in their new gowns and hats, seemed so near and dear to her to-day. She was hardly conscious of Bert, but she remembered liking his big brother, who kissed her in so brotherly a fashion. Winter was over, the snow was gone at last, the trying and depressing rains and the cold were gone, too, and she and Bert were man and wife, and off to Boston for their honeymoon.
They had been married eleven days, and were loitering over a Sunday luncheon in their tiny home, when they first seriously discussed finances; not theoretical finances, but finances as bounded on one side by Bert's worn, brown leather pocket-book, and on the other by his bank-book, with its confusing entries in black and red ink.
Here on the table were seventeen dollars and eighty cents. Nancy had flattened the bills, and arranged the silver in piles, as they talked. This was Sunday; Bert would be paid on Saturday next. Could Nancy manage on that?
Nancy felt a vague alarm. But she had been a wage earner herself. She rose to the situation at once.
"Manage what, Bert? If you mean just meals, of course I can! But I won't have this much every week for meals ...?"
Bert took out a fountain pen, and reached for a blank envelope.
"Do you mind working it out?—I think it's such fun!"
"I love it!" Nancy brought her brightest face to the problem. "Now let's see—what have we? Exactly one hundred a month."
"Thirteen hundred a year," he corrected.
"Yes, but let's not count that extra hundred, Bee!" Nancy, like all women, had given her new husband a new name. "Let's save that and have it to blow in, all in a heap, for something special?"
"All right." Bert digressed long enough to catch the white hand and kiss it, and say: "Isn't it wonderful—our sitting here planning things together? Aren't we going to have FUN!"
"Rent, thirty-five," Nancy began, after an interlude. Bert, who had secured a large sheet of clean paper, made a neat entry, "Rent, $35."
"You make such nice, firm figures, mine are always wavy!" observed Nancy irrelevantly, at this. This led nowhere.
"Now one quarter of that rent ought to come out every week," Bert submitted presently. "Eight dollars and a half must be put aside every week."
"Out of this, too?" Nancy asked, touching the money on the table.
"Well, that's all that's left of half my salary, drawn in advance," Bert said, pondering. "Yes, you see—we pay a month in advance on the first!"
"And what have we besides this, Bee? Your Aunt Mary's check, and— and what else?"
"Aunt Mary's hundred, which will certainly take care of the freight bills," Bert calculated, "and that's all, except this."
"But, Bert—but, Bert—all that money we had in Boston?"
Bert pointed to the table.
"You behold the remainder."
"Weren't we the extravagant wretches!" mused Nancy. "Taxis—tea- parties—breakfast upstairs—silly pink silk stockings for Nancy, a silly pongee vest for Bert—"
"But oh, what a grand time!" her husband finished unrepentantly.
"Wasn't it!" Nancy agreed dreamily. But immediately she was businesslike again. "However, the lean years have set in," she announced. "I'll have to count on a dollar a week laundry—laundry and rent nine dollars and a half; piano and telephone at the rate of three dollars a month—that's a dollar and a half more; milk, a quart of milk and half a pint of cream a day, a dollar and seventy-five cents more; what does that leave, Bert?"
"It leaves twelve dollars and twenty-five cents," said Bert.
"But what about your lunches, dearest?"
"Gosh! I forgot them," Bert stated frankly. "I'll keep 'em under fifteen cents a day," he added, "call it a dollar a week!"
"You can't!" protested Nancy, with a look of despair.
"I can if I've got to. Besides, we'll be off places, Sundays, and I'll come home for lunch Saturday, and you'll feed me up."
"But, Bert," she began again presently, "I'll have to get ice, and car fares, and drugs, and soap, and thread, and butter, and bread, and meat, and salad-oil, and everything else in the world out of that eleven-fifty!" Bert was frowning hard.
"You can't have the whole eleven-fifty," he told her reluctantly, "I can walk one way, to Forty-Eighth Street, but I can't walk both. I'll have to have some car fare. And my office suit has got to be pressed about once every two weeks—"
"And newspapers!" added Nancy, dolefully. "Seven cents more!" And they both burst into laughter. "But, Bee," she said presently, ruffling his hair, as she sat on the arm of his chair, "really I do not know what we will do in case of dentist's bills, or illness, or when our clothes wear out. What do people do? Is thirty-five too much rent, or what?"
"I'm darned if I know what they do!" Bert mused.
They both were destined to learn how it was managed, and being young and healthy and in love, they learned easily, and with much laughter and delight. Bert's share was perhaps the easier, for although he manfully walked to his office, polished his own shoes, and ate a tiresome and unsatisfying lunch five days a week, he had his reward on the sixth and seventh days, when Nancy petted and praised him.
Her part was harder. She never knew what it was to be free from financial concern. She fretted and contrived until the misspending of five cents seemed a genuine calamity to her, She walked to cheap markets, and endured the casual scorn of cheap clerks. She ironed Bert's ties and pressed his trousers, saving car fares by walking, saving hospitality by letting her old friends see how busy and absorbed she was, saving food by her native skill and ingenuity.
But they lived royally, every meal was a triumph, every hour strangely bright. Of cooking meat, especially the more choice cuts, Nancy did little this year, but there was no appetizing combination of vegetables, soups, salads, hot breads, and iced drinks that she did not try. Bert said, and he meant it, that he had never lived so well in his life, and certainly the walls of the little apartment in the "George Eliot" were packed with joy. When their microscopic accounts balanced at the end of the week, they celebrated with a table-d'hete dinner down town—dinners from which they walked home gloriously happy, Nancy wondering over and over again HOW the restaurateurs could manage it, Bert, over his cigar, estimating carefully: "Well, Sweet, there wasn't much cost to that soup, delicious as it was, and I suppose they buy that sole down at the docks, in the early morning..."
When Nancy had learned that she could live without a telephone, and had cut down the milk bill, and limited Bert to one butter ball per meal, she found she could manage easily. In August they gave two or three dinners, and Nancy displayed her pretty table furnishings to "the girls," and gave them the secret of her iced tea. She told her husband that they got along because he was "so wonderful"; she felt that no financial tangle could resist Bert's neatly pencilled little calculations, but Bert praised only her— what credit to him that he did not complain, when he was the most fortunate man in the world?
They came to be proud of their achievement. Nancy had Buckley Pearsall, Bert's chief, and his wife, to dinner, and kindly Mrs. Pearsall could not enough praise the bride and her management. Later the Pearsalls asked the young Bradleys down to their Staten Island home for a week-end. "And think of the pure gain of not buying a thing for three days!" exulted Nancy, thereby convulsing her lord. She brought back late corn, two jars of Mrs. Pearsall's preserved peaches, a great box of grapes to be made into jelly, and a basket of tomatoes. Bert said that she was a grafter, but he knew as well as she that Nancy's pleasure in taking the gifts had given Mrs. Pearsall a genuine joy.
With none of the emergencies they had dreaded, and with many and unexpected pleasures, the first winter went by. Sometimes Bert got a theatre pass, sometimes old friends or kinspeople came to town, and Bert and Nancy went to one of the big hotels to dinner, and stared radiantly about at the bright lights, and listened to music again, and were whirled home in a taxicab.
"That party cost your Cousin Edith about twenty-five dollars," Nancy, rolling up her hair-net thoughtfully, would say late at night, with a suppressed yawn. "The dinner check was fourteen, and the tickets eight—it cost her more than twenty-five dollars! Doesn't that seem wicked, Bert? And all that delicious chicken that we hardly touched—dear me, what fun I could have with twenty-five dollars! There are so many things I'd like to buy that I never do; just silly things, you know—nice soaps and powders, and fancy cheeses and an alligator pear, and the kind of toilet water you love so—don't you remember you bought it in Boston when we honeymooned?"
Perhaps a shadow would touch Bert's watching face, and he would come to put an arm about her and her loosened cloud of hair.
"Poor old girl, it isn't much fun for you! Do you get tired of it, Nancy?"
"Bert," she said, one night in a mood of gravity and confidence that he loved, and had learned to watch for, "I never get tired. And sometimes I feel sure that the most wonderful happiness that ever is felt in this world comes to two people who love each other, and who have to make sacrifices for each other! I mean that. I mean that I don't think riches, or travel, or great gifts and achievements bring a greater happiness than ours. I think a king, dying," smiled Nancy, trying not to be too serious, "might wish that, for a while at least, he had been able to wear shabby shoes for the woman he loved, and had had years of poking about a great city with her, and talking and laughing and experimenting and working over their problem together!"
Bert kissed the thoughtful eyes, but did not speak.
"But just the same," Nancy presently went on, "sometimes I do get- -just a little frightened. I feel as if perhaps we had been a little too brave. When your cousins, and mine, ask us how we do it, and make so much of it, it makes me feel a little uneasy. Suppose we really aren't able to swing it ...?"
Bert knew how to meet this mood, and he never failed her. He put his arm about her, tonight, and gave her his sunniest smile.
"We could pay less rent, dear."
This fired Nancy. Of course they could. She had seen really possible places, in inaccessible neighbourhoods, which rented far more reasonably. She had seen quite sunny and clean flats for as little as fourteen and sixteen dollars a month. Her housekeeping abilities awakened to the demand. What did she and Bert care about neighbourhoods and the casual dictates of fashion? They were a world in themselves, and they needed no other company.
"Everyone said that we'd never get this far," Bert reminded her hearteningly. She was immediately reassured, and fell to enthusiastic planning for Christmas.
It was their first Christmas, and they spent it alone together. Bert and Nancy knew that they would not spend another Christmas alone, and the shadowy hope for April lent a new tone even to their gayety, and deepened the exquisite happiness of the dark, snowbound day. The tiny house was full of laughter, for Bert had given his wife all the little things she had from time to time whimsically desired. The fancy cheeses, and the perfumes and soaps, made her laugh and laugh as she unwrapped them. There were fuzzy wash-cloths—a particular fancy of hers—and new library paste and new hair-pins, and a can-opener that made her exclaim: "Bert, that was cute of you!" and even an alligator pear. A bewildered look came into Nancy's eyes as she went on investigating her bulging stocking—gloves, and silk hosiery, and new little enamelled pins for her collars, and the piano score of the opera she so loved—where had the money come from?
"My firm gave us each ten," Bert explained, grinning.
"And you spent it ALL on me!" Nancy said, stricken. "You poked about and got me every blessed thing I ever wanted in this world— you darling!"
"Why not?" he asked. "You're the only thing I have, Nance! And such LITTLE things, dear."
"It isn't the things—it's your thinking of them," Nancy said. "And eating wretched lunches while you planned them! You make me cry—and meanwhile, my beloved little chicken will roast himself dry!"
She rushed into her kitchen. Bert rushed after her; his days at home were a succession of interruptions for Nancy, no topic was too insignificant for their earnest discussion, and no pleasure too small to share. To-day the chief object of their interest was his mother's Christmas present to him, a check for fifty dollars, "for my boy's winter coat."
They looked at the slip of paper at regular intervals. To Bert it brought a pleasant thought of the thin, veiny hand that had penned it, the little silk-clad form and trimly netted gray hair. He remembered his mother's tiny sitting room, full of begonias and winter sunshine and photographs of the family, with a feeling that while mother could never again know rapturous happiness like his own, yet it was good to think of her as content and comfortable, with her tissue-wrapped presents from the three daughters-in-law lying on her table.
But to Nancy the check meant the future only: it meant her handsome Bert dressed at last in suitable fashion, in a "big, fuzzy, hairy coat." She pointed out various men's coats in the windows they passed that afternoon, and on the other young men who were walking with wives and babies.
But Bert had his own ideas. When Nancy met him down town a day or two later, to go pick the coat, she found him quite unmanageable. He said that there was no hurry about the coat—they were right here in the housekeeping things, why not look at fireless cookers? In the end they bought an ice-cream freezer, and a fireless cooker, and two pairs of arctic overshoes, and an enormous oval- shaped basket upon which the blushing Nancy dropped a surreptitious kiss when the saleswoman was not looking, and a warm blue sweater for Nancy, and, quite incidentally, an eighteen- dollar overcoat for Bert.
Nancy's lip trembled over this last purchase. They were nice overcoats, remarkable for the price, indeed—"marked down from twenty-five." But—but she had wanted him to spend every cent of the fifty dollars for a STUNNING coat! Bert laughed at her April face. He took her triumphantly to the fifty-cent luncheon and they talked over it for a blissful hour. And when she left him at the office door, Nancy consoled herself by drifting into one of the near-by second-hand bookshops, and buying him a tiny Keats, "Pepy's Diary" somewhat shabby as to cover, and George's "Progress and Poverty," at ten cents apiece. These books were piled at Bert's place that night, and gave him almost as much pleasure as the overcoat did.
And even Nancy had to confess that the disputed garment looked warm and thick, when it came home in its green box, and that it was "fun" to open the other packages, and find the sweater, looking so wooly and comfortable, and the big basket destined for so precious a freight! She and Bert laughed and chattered over the thick papers and strings that bound the freezer and the cooker, and made chocolate ice-cream for dinner on Sunday, and never ate their breakfast oatmeal without a rapturous appreciation of the cooker.
She was still the centre of his universe and her own when she walked with her hand on his arm, to the little hospital around the corner, on a sweet April morning. The slow coming of spring had brought her a new tenderness and a new dependence, and instinctively she felt that, when she came home again, she would be a new Nancy. The wistfulness that marks any conscious human change had been hers for many days now; she was not distrustful, she was not unhappy, but she was sobered and thoughtful.
"We HAVE been happy, haven't we, Bert?" she said, more than once.
"We always will be, my darling! You know that."
But she would only smile at him wisely, for reply. She was still happy, happier perhaps than ever. But she knew that she was no longer the mistress of her own happiness—it lay in other hands now.
So the universe was turned upside down for Nancy, and she lost, once and for all her position as its centre. The world, instead of a safe and cheerful place, became full of possible dangers for the baby, Albert the eighth. Nancy, instead of a self-reliant, optimistic woman, was only a weary, feeble, ignorant person who doubted her own power to protect this priceless treasure.
He was a splendid baby—that was part of the trouble. He was too splendid, he had never been equalled, and could never be replaced, and she would go stark, staring mad if anything happened to him! Nancy almost went mad, as it was. If the Cullinan Diamond had been placed in Nancy's keeping, rather than worry about it as she worried about Junior, she would have flung it gaily into the East River. But she could not dispose of the baby; her greatest horror was the thought of ever separating from him, the fear that some day Bert might want to send him, the darling, innocent thing, at fourteen, to boarding-school, or that there might be a war, and Junior might enlist!
She showed him to visiting friends in silence. When Nancy had led them in to the bedroom, and raised a shade so that the tempered sun light revealed the fuzzy head and shut eyes and rotund linen- swathed form of Junior, she felt that words were unnecessary. She never really saw the baby's face, she saw something idealized, haloed, angelic. In later year she used to say that none of the hundreds of snapshots Bert took of him really did the child justice. Junior had been the most exquisitely beautiful baby that any one ever saw, everyone said so.
When Bert got home at night, she usually had a request to make of him. Would he just LOOK at Junior? No, he was all RIGHT, only he had hardly wanted his three o'clock nursing, and he was sleeping so HARD—
And at this point, if she was tired—and she was always tired!— Nancy would break into tears. "Bert—hadn't we better ask Colver to come and see him?" she would stammer, eagerly.
Ten minutes later she would be laughing, as she served Bert his dinner. Of course he was all right, only, being alone with him all day, she got to worrying. And she was tired.
Poor Nancy, she was not to know rest or leisure for many years to come. She was clever, and as resolutely as she had solved their first, simple problem, she set about solving this new one. They had forty dollars a week with which to manage now, but the extra money seemed only a special dispensation to provide for the growing demands of Junior.
Junior needed a coach, a crib, new shirts—"he is getting immense, the darling!" was Nancy's one rapturous comment, when four of these were bought at sixty cents each. In November he needed two quarts of milk daily, and what his mother called "an ouncer" to take the top-milk safely from the bottle, and a small ice box for the carefully prepared bottles, and the bottles themselves. He always needed powder and safety-pins and new socks, and presently he had to have a coloured woman to do his washing, for Nancy was growing stronger and more interested in life in general, and came to the conclusion that he might safely be left for a few moments with Esmeralda, now and then.
He paid for these favours in his own way, and neither Bert nor Nancy ever felt that it was inadequate. When his sober fat face wrinkled into a smile of welcome to his father, Bert was moved almost to tears. When she wheeled him through the streets, royally benign after a full bottle, rosy-cheeked in his wooly white cap, Nancy felt almost too rich. Junior filled all the gaps in her life, it mattered not what she lacked while she had Junior.
The forty dollar income melted as quickly as the twenty-five dollar one, and far more mysteriously. Nancy would have felt once that forty dollars every week was riches, but between Junior's demands, and the little leakage of Esmeralda's wages, and her hearty lunch twice a week, and the milk, and the necessarily less- careful marketing, they seemed to be just where they were before.
"There must be some way of living that we can afford!" mused Nancy, one March morning at the breakfast table, when the world looked particularly bright to the young Bradleys. Junior, curly- headed, white-clad, and excited over a hard crust of toast, sat between his parents, who interrupted their meal to kiss his fat fists, the dewy back of his neck under the silky curls, and even the bare toes that occasionally appeared on the board.
This was Sunday, and for months it had been the custom to weigh Junior on Sunday, a process that either put Nancy and Bert into a boastful mood for the day, or reduced the one to tearful silence, and the other to apprehensive bravado. But now the baby was approaching his first anniversary, and it was perfectly obvious that his weight was no longer a matter of concern. He was so large, so tall, and so fat that one of Nancy's daily satisfactions was to have other mothers, in the park, ask her his age. She looked at him with fond complacency rather than apprehension now, feeling that every month and week of his life made him a little more sure of protracted existence, and herself a little more safe as his mother.
"How do you mean—afford?" Bert asked. "We pay our bills, and we're not in debt."
"When I say 'afford,'" Nancy answered, "I mean that we do not live without a frightful amount of worry and fuss about money. To just keep out of debt, and make ends meet, is not my idea of life!"
"It's the way lots of people live—if they're lucky," Bert submitted, picking Junior's damp crust from the floor, eyeing it dubiously, and substituting another crust in its place.
"Well, it's all wrong!" Nancy stated positively. "There should be a comfortable living for everyone in this world who works even half as hard as you do—and if any one wants to work harder, let him have the luxuries!"
"That's socialism, Nance."
She raised her pretty brows innocently.
"Is it? Well, I'm not a socialist. I guess I just don't understand."
She knew, as the weeks went by, that there were other things she could not understand. Toil as she might, from morning until night, there was always something undone. It puzzled her strangely.
Other women had even harder problems, what did THEY do? Few women had steady, clever husbands like Bert. Few had energy and enthusiasm like hers. But she was so tired, all the time, that even when the daily routine ran smoothly, and the marketing and Junior's naps and meals occurred on schedule time, the result hardly seemed worth while. She whisked through breakfast and breakfast dishes, whisked through the baby's bath, had her house in order when he awakened from his nap, wheeled him to market, wheeled him home for another bottle and another nap. Then it was time for her own meal, and there were a few more dishes, and some simple laundry work to do, and then again the boy was dressed, and the perambulator was bumped out of the niche below the stairs, and they went out again. The hardest hour of all, in the warm lengthening days of spring, was between five and six. Junior was tired and cross, dinner preparations were under way, the table must be set, one more last bottle warmed. When Bert came in, Nancy, flushed and tired, was ready, and he might play for a few minutes with Junior before he was tucked up. But the relaxation of the meal was trying to Nancy, and the last dishes a weary drag. She would go to her chair, when they were done, and sit stupidly staring ahead of her. Sometimes, in this daze, she would reach for the fallen sheets of the evening paper, and read them indifferently. Sometimes she merely battled with yawns, before taking herself wearily to bed.
"Can I get you your book, dear?" Bert might ask.
"No-o-o! Pm too sleepy. I put my head down on the bed beside Junior to-day, and I've been as heavy as lead ever since! Besides, I forgot to wash my hands, and they're dishwatery."
"What tires you so, do you suppose?"
"Oh, nothing special, and everything! I think watching the baby is very tiring. He never uses all my time, and yet I can't do anything else while I have him. And then he's getting so mischievous—he makes work!"
"What'll you do next year?" Bert questioned sometimes dubiously.
"Oh, we'll manage!" And with a sleepy smile, and a sleepy kiss, Nancy would trail away, only too grateful to reach her bed after the hard hours.
Bert had carefully calculated upon her spring wardrobe, and she became quite her animated self over the excitement of selecting new clothes. They left Esmeralda in charge of Junior, and made an afternoon of it, and dined down town in the old way. Over the meal Bert told her that he had made exactly three hundred dollars at a blow, in a commission, and that she and the boy were going to the country for six weeks.
This led to a wonderful hour, when they compared feelings, and reviewed their adventure. Nancy marvelled at the good fortune that followed them, "we are marvellously lucky, aren't we, Bert?" she asked, appreciatively. She had just spent almost a hundred dollars for her summer clothes and the boy's! And now they were really going to the blessed country, to be free for six weeks from planning meals and scraping vegetables and stirring cereals. Radiantly, they discussed mountains and beaches, even buying a newspaper, on the hot walk home, to pore over in search of the right place.
"The Old Hill House," on the north Connecticut line, seemed almost too good to be true. It was an unpretentious country hotel, and Nancy and Junior settled themselves in one of its hot, second- story rooms feeling almost guiltily happy. Nancy kissed Bert good- bye on the first Monday morning assuring him that she had NOTHING to do! To go down to meals, and they were good meals, without the slightest share in the work of preparing them, and to be able to wear dainty clothes without the ruinous contact with the kitchen, seemed too luxurious.
But she was not quite idle, none-the-less. Junior had to have his morning bath, after breakfast, and while he was in the tub, his mother washed six bottles in the hand-basin. Then, on a tiltish alcohol stove, Nancy had to boil his barley for twenty endless minutes. When the stove upset there was an additional half-hour's hard work, but even when it did not, it was usually ten o'clock before she went down to the kitchen for his two quarts of milk. Then came the usual careful work with the "ouncer," and the six filled bottles were put into Nancy's own small ice-box, to which one of the maids was then supposed to bring a small piece of ice. The left-over milk was taken back to the kitchen, and Nancy washed the little saucepan in her hand-basin, and put away stove and barley. By this time Junior was ready for another bottle, and when he went to sleep his mother went down to the laundry with an arm- full of small garments.
There was no other way. Labour was scarce in the village, and Nancy could get no one of the housemaids to take upon herself this daily task. Women from the outside were not allowed in the hotel laundry, and so the task fell naturally to the baby's mother. She assumed it gladly, but when the line of snowy linen was blowing free in the summer wind, and the cake of soap had been put on its special rafter, and the tubs were draining, Nancy usually went up to her bedroom, tiptoeing in because of the sleeper, and flung herself down for a heavy nap.
After luncheon she gathered in her linen and watched by the wideawake baby. Then they went down to the cool shade by the creek, and Junior threw stones, and splashed fat hands in the shallows, and his mother watched him adoringly. It never entered her head that she was anything but privileged to be able to slave for him. He was always and supremely worth while. Nancy's only terrors were that something would happen to rob her of the honour. She wanted no other company; Junior was her world, except when Saturday's noon train brought Bert. She told her husband, and meant it, that she was too happy; they did not need the world.
But sometimes the world intruded, and turned Nancy's hard-won philosophy to ashes. She did not want to be idle, and she did not want to be rich, but when she saw women younger than herself, in no visible way inferior, who were both, her calm was shattered for a time.
One day she and Bert wheeled the boy, in his small cart, down a pleasant unfamiliar roadway, and across a rustic bridge, and, smiling over their adventure, found themselves close to a low, wide-spreading Colonial house, with striped awnings shading its wide porches, and girls and men in white grouped about a dozen tea-tables. Tennis courts were near by, and several motor-cars stood beside the pebbled drive.
A gray-uniformed attendant came to them, civilly. Did they wish to see some member of the club! "Oh, it is a club then," Bert asked, a little too carelessly. "It is the Silver River Country Club, sir."
"Oh, well, we'll get out of here, then," Bert said good naturedly, as he turned the perambulator on the gravel under a hundred casual eyes. He and Nancy chatted quite naturally about their mistake, as they re-crossed the rustic bridge, and went up the unfamiliar roadway again. But a cloud lay over them for the rest of that day, and that night Nancy said:
"What must one have—or be—to belong to a thing like that, Bert?"
"To—oh, that club?" Bert answered, "Oh, it isn't so much. A hundred initiation, and a hundred a year, I suppose." "We could do that—some year," Nancy predicted.
"Well, it isn't only that. There's no use joining a country club," Bert said musingly, "unless you can do the thing decently. It means signing checks for tea, and cocktails, and keeping a car, and the Lord knows what! It means tennis rackets and golf sticks and tips and playing bridge for a stake. It all counts up!"
"Where do all those people get the money?" Nancy asked resentfully. "They looked common, to me!"
"We'll get there, never you fret!" Bert answered vaguely. But long after he was asleep his wife lay awake in the hot hotel bedroom, and thought darkly of fate. She came of gentle stock, and she would meet her lot bravely, but oh, how she longed for ease, for a little luxury, for coolness and darkness and silence and service, for frothy laces and the touch of silk!
Lights came up from the lawn before the hotel. It was Sunday night, and the young people were making the most of the precious week-end. Nancy heard a clock somewhere strike ten, and then the single stroke for the half-hour. She got up and sat beside the window; the night was insufferably close, with not a breath of air.
Junior sighed; his mother arose, stricken, and lighted a shaded lamp. Half-past-ten and she had forgotten his bottle!
When she carried it over to him, he was wide awake, his face sober, his aureole of bright hair damp with the heat. But at the sight of his playfellow his four new teeth came suddenly into sight. Here was "Mugger," the unfailing solace and cheer of his life. He gave her a beatific smile, and seized the bottle with a rapturous "glug." Bert was roused by her laughter, and the soft sound of kisses.
When the second boy came, in early December the Bradleys decided to move. They moved into a plain, old-fashioned flat, with two enormous rooms, two medium-sized, and two small ones, in an unfashionable street, and in a rather inaccessible block. There was a drug store at the corner opposite them, but the park was only a long block away, and the back rooms were flooded with sunshine. Nancy had only two flights of stairs to climb, instead of four, and plenty of room for the two cribs and the high chair. Also she had room for Elite, the coloured girl who put herself at the Bradleys' disposal for three dollars a week. Elite knew nothing whatever, but she had willing hands and willing feet. She had the sudden laugh of a maniac, but she held some strange power over the Bradley babies and they obeyed her lightest word.
They moved on the day after Christmas, when Edward Barrett Bradley was only three weeks old. Elite and Bert did the moving, and Nancy only laughed weakly at their experiences. Junior contracted chicken-pox during this time, and the family was quarantined on New Year's Eve.
Bert and his wife celebrated the occasion with a quart of oysters, eaten with hat-pins from a quart measure. The invalid slumbered in the same room, behind a screen. He was having a very light attack, and Nancy, who had been hanging over him all day, was reassured to-night, and in wild spirits. She laughed the tears into her eyes when Albert Senior, hearing the tentative horns at nine o'clock, telephoned the fish market for the wherewithal to celebrate. Bert had been hanging pictures, and was dirty and tired, but they got quite hysterical with merriment over their feast. The "new boy," as they called the baby, presently was brought in, and had his own meal, before the old-fashioned coal fire. Nancy sat dreaming over the small curved form.
"We'll think this is very funny, some day!" she said, dauntlessly.
Bert merely looked at her. But after a while he tried to tell her what he thought about it, and so made their third New Year memorable to her forever.
She settled down quickly, in the new quarters; some visionary, romancing phase of Nancy's character and Nancy's roses disappeared for a time. She baked and boiled, sewed on buttons, bandaged fingers, rose gallantly to the days' demands. She learned the economical value of soups and salads, and schooled herself, at least every other day, to leave the boys for an hour or two with Elite, and walk out for a little bracing solitude. Bert watched her in admiring amazement. His wife was a wonder!
Sometimes, on a cold afternoon, she walked down to meet Bert, and they went together to dinner. Their talk was practical now, of suits and rubber overshoes and milk bills. And Nancy was too tired to walk home; they went home in the rubber-scented dampness of a surface car.
Sometimes, as she went through the morning routine, the baths, bottles, dishes, the picking up, the disheartening conferences over the ice box, she wondered what had become of the old southern belle, Nancy Barrett, who had laughed and flirted and only a few years ago, who had been such a strong and pretty and confident egotist? There was no egotism left in Nancy now, she was only a busy woman in a world of busy women. She knew backache and headache, and moods of weary irritation. The cut of her gowns, the little niceties of table-service or of children's clothing no longer concerned her. She merely wanted her family comfortable, fed and housed and clothed, and well. Nancy could advise other women about the capable handling of children, before her firstborn was three years old.
They never went to "The Old Hill House" again, but they found a primitive but comfortable hotel in the Maine woods, for Ned's second summer, and for several summers after that. Here Nancy slept and tramped and rested happily, welcoming Bert rapturously every week-end. In near-by cabins, young matrons like herself were likewise solving the children's summer problem, she was never lonely, and the eight free, pine-scented weeks were cloudlessly happy. She told Bert that it was the only sensible solution for persons in moderate circumstances; old clothes, simple food, utter solitude.
"There are no comparisons to spoil things," Nancy said, contentedly. "I know I'm small-minded, Bert. But seeing things I can't have does upset me, somehow!"
Nevertheless, she accepted the invitation that came from Bert's cousin Dorothy, one autumn, for a week-end visit. Dorothy had married now, and had a baby. She was living in a rented "place," up near Rhinecliff, she wrote, and she wanted to see something of Cousin Bert.
Neither Bert nor Nancy could afterward remember exactly why they went. It was partly curiosity, perhaps; partly the strong lure exerted by Dorothy's casual intimation that "the car" would come for them, and that this particular week-end was "the big dance, at the club." Bert chanced to have a new suit, and Nancy had a charming blue taffeta that seemed to her good enough for any place or anybody.
The boys were asked, but they did not take them. Ned was almost two now, and Junior past three, and they behaved beautifully with Hannah, the quiet old Danish woman who had been with them since they came back from the woods, the year before. Nancy, full of excited anticipation, packed her suit-case daintily, and fluttered downstairs as happily as a girl, when a hundredth glance at the street showed the waiting motor at last.
Hawkes was the chauffeur. "To Mr. Bradley's office please, Hawkes," said Nancy. She could not think of anything friendly to say to him, as they wheeled through the streets. Bert kept them waiting, and once or twice she said "I can't think what's delaying Mr. Bradley." But Hawkes did not answer.
Presently Bert came out and greeted Nancy and Hawkes.
"But I thought Mrs. Benchley was coming into town to-day," Bert said. Dorothy was now Mrs. George Benchley. Hawkes spoke at last. "An old friend of Mrs. Benchley has unexpectedly arrived this morning, sir, and she has changed her mind." "Oh, all right," said Bert, grinning at Nancy as the pleasant drive began.
It was all wonderful; the bright autumn sunshine, the sense of freedom and leisure in the early afternoon, and the lovely roads they followed. Bert however, seemed to be thinking of his sons, and asked of them more than once. And Nancy could not rid herself of an uncomfortable suspicion that whoever Dorothy's old friend was, she had changed Dorothy's plans, and perhaps made the coming of the Bradleys untimely. Now and then husband and wife smiled at each other and said "This is fun!"
Dorothy's "place" was a beautiful estate, heavily wooded, wound with white driveways, and equipped with its own tennis courts, and its boathouse on the river. The house was enormous, and naturally had assumed none of the personality of its occupants, in this casual summer tenancy. There were countless rooms, all filled with tables and chairs and rugs and desks and bowls of flowers; and several maids came and went in the interest of the comfort of the house. There were seven or eight other guests besides the Bradleys, and they all seemed to know each other well. The unexpected guest was a young Mrs. Catlin affectionately mentioned by Dorothy in every other breath as "Elaine"; she and Dorothy had been taken to Europe together, after their schooldays, and had formed an intimacy then.
Dorothy came into the big hall to meet her cousin and his wife, and, with a little laugh, kissed Bert. She looked particularly young and lovely in what Nancy supposed to be a carefully-selected costume; later she realized that all Dorothy's clothes gave this impression. She said that the baby was out, when Nancy asked for him, and that Katharine would take care of them.
Katharine, an impassive maid, led them upstairs, and to the large room in which their suit cases already stood. Dorothy had said, "After you change, come down and have something to drink!" but Nancy had nothing prettier than the taffeta, except her evening gown, and as the sunshine was streaming into the room, she could not change to that. So she merely freshened her appearance, and wasted fifteen or twenty minutes in a close inspection of the room, before they went down. To her somewhat shy question Bert responded enthusiastically, "You look lovely!"
They went through empty open rooms, talking as naturally as they could, and smilingly joined the others on the porch. Tea and other drinks were being dispensed by Elaine, whose attention was meanwhile absorbed by two young men. Dorothy, lying almost flat in a wicker chair, with her small silk-shod ankles crossed, was lazily arguing some question of golf scores.
She introduced the new-comers, and as Bert, somewhat more at home in his cousin's house than his wife was, fell into conversation with the middle-aged man nearest him, Dorothy dutifully addressed herself to Nancy. They spoke of Bert's mother, and of Boston, and Dorothy asked Nancy if she liked tennis—or golfing—or yachting? There was to be quite a large dance at the club to-night, and an entertainment before it.
"Isn't Dorothy a wonder, Mrs. Bradley?" asked Elaine. "She's going to have twenty people to dinner, she runs this big house, she's got a baby not yet six months old, and she looks about sixteen!"
"You must have wonderful maids," suggested Nancy, smiling.
"I have!" said Dorothy amusedly, "They're crazy about me—I don't know why, because I work them like dogs. But of course we're away a lot, and then they always have parties," she added, "and they run things pretty much to suit themselves. But we have good meals, don't we, Elaine?" she asked, childishly.
"Heavenly!" said Elaine. Nancy, trying to appear brightly sympathetic, smiled again.
But she and Bert dressed for dinner almost silently, an hour later. It was all delightful and luxurious, truly, and they were most considerately and hospitably accepted by the entire establishment. But something was wrong. Nancy did not know what it was, and she did not want to risk a mere childish outburst, so easily construed into jealousy. Perhaps it WAS jealousy.
She found herself arguing, as she dressed. This sort of thing was not LIFE, after all. The quiet wife of an obscure man, rejoicing in her home and her children, had a thousand times more real pleasure. These well-dressed idle people didn't count, after all. ...
"Sort of nice of Dorothy to send Hawkes in for us," Bert said; "Did you hear her explain that she thought we'd be more comfortable with Hawkes, so she and Mrs. Catlin kept the younger man?"
"Considerate!" Nancy said, lifelessly.
"Isn't it a wonder she isn't spoiled?" Bert pursued.
"Really it is!"
"Benchley looks like an ass," Bert conceded. "But he's not so bad. He's in the firm now, you know, and Dorothy was just telling me that he's taken hold wonderfully."
"Isn't that nice?" Nancy said, mildly. She was struggling with her hair, which entirely refused to frame her face in its usual rich waves, and lay flat or split into unexpected partings despite her repeated efforts. "How's that now, Bert? "she asked, turning toward him with an arrangement half-completed.
"Well—that's all RIGHT—" he began uncertainly. Nancy, dropping the brown strands, and tossing the whole hot mass free, felt that she could burst into tears.
The dinner was an ordeal; her partner was unfortunately interested only in motor-cars, of which Nancy could find little that was intelligent to say. She felt like what she was, a humble relative out of her element. After dinner they were all packed into cars, and swept to the club.
Darkness and the sound of a comedian's voice in monologue warned them as they entered that the entertainment was begun; after much whispering, laughing and stumbling however, they were piloted to chairs, and for perhaps an hour and a half Nancy was quite alone, and much entertained. Then the lights went up, and the crowd surged noisily to and fro.
She lost sight of Bert, but was duly introduced to new people; and they spoke of the successful entertainment, and of the club-house. Nancy danced only once or twice, and until almost two o'clock sat talking, principally with a pleasant old lady, who had a daughter to chaperon.
Then the first departures began, and Nancy had a merry good-night from Dorothy, called over the latter's powdered shoulder as she danced, and went home. She was silent, as she undressed, but Bert, yawning, said that he had had a good time. He said that Dorothy had urged them to stay until Monday morning, but he did not see how he could make it. He hated to get started late at the office Monday morning. Nancy eagerly agreed.
"You do feel so?" he asked, in satisfaction. "Well, that settles it, then! We'll go home to-morrow."
And home they did go, on the following afternoon. Nancy, counting the hours, nevertheless enjoyed the delicious breakfast, when she had quite a spirited chat with one or two of the men guests, who were the only ones to appear. Then she and Bert walked into the village to church, and wandering happily home, were met by Dorothy in the car, and whirled to the club. Here the pleasant morning air was perfumed with strong cigars already, and while Bert played nine holes of golf, and covered himself with glory, Nancy won five rubbers of bridge, and gained the respect of Dorothy and Elaine at the same time. She was more like her spontaneous self at luncheon than at any other time during the visit, and driving home, agreed with Bert that, when you got to know them, Dorothy's set was not so bad!
"Her baby is frightfully ugly, but that doesn't matter so much, with a boy," said Nancy. "And I don't think that a woman like Elaine is so rude as she is stupid. They simply can't see anything else but their way of thinking, and dressing, and talking, and so they stare at you as if you were a Hottentot! I had a nice time, especially to-day—but never again!"
"Dorothy never did have any particular beau," Bert observed, "She just likes to dress in those little silky, stripy things, and have everyone praising her, all the time. She'll ask us again, sometime, when she remembers us."
But it was almost a year before Dorothy thought of her cousins again, and then the proud Nancy wrote her that the arrival of Anne Bradley was daily expected, and no plans could be made at present. Anne duly came, a rose of a baby, and Nancy said that luck came with her.
Certainly Anne was less than a week old when Bert told his wife that old Souchard, whose annoying personality had darkened all Bert's office days, had retired, gone back to Paris! And Bert was head man, "in the field." His salary was not what Souchard's had been, naturally, but the sixty dollars would be doubled, some weeks, by commissions; there would be lots of commissions, now! Now they could save, announced Nancy.
But they did not save. They moved again, to a pleasanter apartment, and Hannah did washing and cooking, and Grace came, to help with the children. Nancy began to make calls again, and had the children's pictures taken, for Grandmother Bradley, and sometimes gave luncheons, with cards to follow. She and Bert could go to the theatre again, and, if it was raining, could come home in a taxicab.
It was a modest life, even with all this prosperity. Nancy had still enough to do, mending piled up, marketing grew more complicated, and on alternate Thursdays and Sundays she herself had to fill Hannah's place, or Grace's place. They began to think that life would be simpler in the country, and instead of taking the children to the parks, as was their happy Sunday custom, they went now to Jersey, to Westchester, and to Staten Island.
The houses they passed, hundreds and hundreds of them, filled them with enthusiasm. Sunday was a pleasant day, in the suburbs. The youngsters, everywhere, were in white—frolicking about open garage doors, bareheaded on their bicycles, barefooted beside beaches or streams. Their mothers, also white-clad, were busy with agreeable pursuits—gathering roses, or settling babies for naps in shaded hammocks. Lawn mowers clicked in the hands of the white- clad men, or a group of young householders gathered for tennis, or for consultation about a motor-car.
Nancy and Bert began to tentatively ask about rents, to calculate coal and commutation tickets. The humblest little country house, with rank neglected grass about it, and a kitchen odorous of new paint and old drains, held a strange charm for them.
"They could LIVE out-of-doors!" said Nancy, of the children. "And I want their memories to be sweet, to be homelike and natural. The city really isn't the place for children!"
"I'd like it!" Bert said, for like most men he was simple in his tastes, and a vision of himself and his sons cutting grass, picking tomatoes and watering gooseberry bushes had a certain appeal. "I'd like to have the Cutters out for a week-end!" he suggested. Nancy smiled a little mechanically. She did not like Amy Cutter.
"And we could ask the Featherstones!" she remembered suddenly.
"Gosh! Joe Featherstone is the limit!" Bert said, mildly.
"Well, however!" Nancy concluded, hastily, "We COULD have people out, that's the main thing!"
For a year or two the Bradleys kept up these Sunday expeditions without accomplishing anything definite. But they accomplished a great amount of indirect happiness, ate a hundred picnic lunches, and accumulated ten times that many amusing, and inspiring, and pleasant, recollections. Bert carried the lovely Anne; Nancy had the thermos bottle and Anne's requirements in a small suit-case; and the boys had a neat cardboard box of lunch apiece.
And then some months after their seventh anniversary, Bert sold the Witcher Place.
This was the most important financial event of their lives. The Witcher Place had been so long in the hands of Bert's firm for sale that it had become a household word in the Bradley family, and in other families. Nobody ever expected to pocket the handsome commission that the owner and the firm between them had placed upon the deal, and to Nancy the thing was only a myth until a certain autumn Sunday, when she and Bert and the children were roaming about the Jersey hills, and stumbled upon the place.
There it was; the decaying mansion, the neglected avenue and garden, the acres and acres of idle orchard and field. The faded signposts identified it, "Apply to the Estate of Eliot Witcher."
"Bert, this isn't the Witcher Place!" exclaimed his wife.
Bert was as interested as she. They pushed open the old gate, and ate their luncheon that day sitting on the lawn, under the elms that the first Eliot Witcher had planted a hundred years ago. The children ran wild over the garden, Anne took her nap on the leaf- strewn side porch.
"Bert—they never want two hundred thousand dollars for just this!"
Bert threw away his cigar, and flung himself luxuriously down for a nap.
"They'll get it, Nance. Somebody'll develop a real estate deal here some day. They must have a hundred acres here. You'll see it- -'Witcher Park' or 'Witcher Manor.' The old chap who inherited it is as rich as Croesus, he was in the office the other day, he wants to sell.—Hello! I was in the office—garden—and so I said- -if you please—"
Bert was going to sleep. His wife laughed sympathetically as the staggering words stopped, and deep and regular breathing took their place. She sat on in the afternoon sunlight, looking dreamily about her, and trying to picture life here a hundred years ago; the gracious young mistress of the new mansion, the ringlets and pantalettes, the Revloutionary[sic] War still well remembered, and the last George on the throne. And now the house was cold and dead, and strange little boys, in sandals and sturdy galatea, were shouting in the stable.
Perhaps she was drowsy herself; she started awake, and touched Bert. An old man and a young man had come in the opened gate, and were speaking to her.
"I beg your pardon!" It was the young man. "But—but do you own this place?"
"No—just picnicking!" said Bert, wide awake.
"But it is for sale?" asked the old man. Bert got up, and brushed the leaves from his clothes, and the three men walked down the drive together. Nancy, half-comprehending, all-hoping looked after them. She saw Bert give the young man his card, and glance at the same time at the faded sign, as if he appealed to it to confirm his claim.
She hardly dared speak when he came back. Anne awoke, and the boys must be summoned for the home trip. Bert moved dreamily, he seemed dazed. Only once did he speak of the Witcher Place that night, and then it was to say:
"Perry—that's that old chap's name—said that he would be in this week, at the office. I'll bet he doesn't come."
"No, I don't suppose he will," Nancy said.
"I impressed it on his son that it meant—something, to me, to have him ask for me, if he DID come," said Bert, then.
"Bert, you'd better skip lunches, this week," Nancy suggested thoughtfully.
"I will—that's a good idea," he said. She noticed that he was more than usually gentle and helpful with the children, that night. Nancy felt his strain, and her own, and went through Monday sick with suspense.
"Nothing doing!" said Bert cheerfully, coming in on Monday evening. Tuesday went by—Wednesday went by. On Thursday Nancy had an especially nice dinner, because Bert's mother had come down, for a few days' visit. The two women were good friends, and Nancy was never so capable, brisk, and busy as when these sharp but approving eyes were upon her.
The elder Mrs. Bradley approved of the children heartily, and boasted about them and their clever mother when she went home. Bert's wife was so careful as to manners, so sensible about food and clothes, such a wonderful manager.
To-night Anne was in her grandmother's lap, commandingly directing the reading of a fairy-story. Whenever the plot seemed thin to Anne she threw in a casual demand for additional lions, dragons or giants, as her fancy dictated. Mrs. Bradley giving Nancy a tremendously amused and sympathetic smile, supplied these horrors duly, and the boys, supposedly eating their suppers at one end of the dining-room table, alternately laughed at Anne and agonized with her.
Nancy was superintending the boys, the elderly woman had a comfortable chair by the fire, and Hannah was slowly and ponderously setting the table. It was a pretty scene for Bert's eyes to find, as he came in, and he gave his mother and his wife a more than usually affectionate greeting.
Nancy followed him into their room, taking Anne. She was pleased that the children had been so sweet with their grandmother, pleased that her deep dish pie had come out so well, happy to be cosy and safe at home while the last heavy rains of October battened at the windows.
She had lowered Anne, already undressed, into her crib when Bert suddenly drew her away, and tipped up her face with his hand under her chin, and stared into her surprised eyes.
"Well, old girl, I got it! It was all settled inside of twenty minutes, at five o'clock!"
"The—? But Bert—-I don't understand—" Nancy stammered. And then suddenly, with a rush of awed delight, "Bert Bradley! Not the Witcher Place!"
"Yep!" Bert answered briefly. "He took it. It's all settled."
So the Bradleys had a bank account. And even before the precious money was actually paid them, and deposited in the bank, Nancy knew what they were going to do with it. There was only one sensible thing for young persons who were raising a family on a small salary to do. They must buy a country home.
No more city, no more rent-paying for Nancy and Bert. The bank account had just five figures. Nancy and Bert said that they could buy a lovely home anywhere for nine thousand, and have a whole thousand left for furniture and incidentals. They could begin to live!
A week later they began their hunt, and all through the white winter and the lovely spring they hunted. They asked friends about it, and read magazines, and the advertisements in the Sunday papers.
Unfortunately, however, in all the Saturdays and the Sundays they spent hunting for their home, they never saw anything that cost just nine thousand dollars. There were hundreds of places that cost sixty-five hundred or seven thousand. After that prices made a clean leap to ten thousand, to twelve thousand, to fourteen— "No, it's no use our looking at those!" said the young Bradleys, sighing.
They learned a great deal about houses, and some of their dreams died young. It was no use, the agents told Nancy, to think about a pretty, shabby, old farm-house, for those had been snapped up. If she found one, it would be a foolish investment, because it probably would be surrounded by unrestricted property. Restrictions were great things, and all developments had them in large or small degree. There were developments that obliged the purchaser of land to submit his building plans to a committee, before he could build.
Nancy laughed that she shouldn't care for THAT. And when restrictions interfered with her plans she very vigorously opposed them. She told Bert that she would not consider places that did not allow fences, and chickens, and dogs, and all the other pleasant country things.
Sometimes, in an economical mood, the Bradleys looked at the six and seven thousand dollar bargains. It had to be admitted that some of them were extremely nice. Nice neighbourhoods, young trees set out along the street—trees about the size of carriage whips— nice sunny bathroom, nice bedrooms—"we could change these papers," Nancy always said—good kitchen and closets, gas all ready to connect, and an open fireplace in the dining room. And so back to the front hall again, and to a rather blank moment when the agent obviously expected a definite decision, and the Bradleys felt unable to make it.
"What don't you like about the place?" the agent would ask.
"Well—" Bert would flounder. "I don't know. I'll talk it over with my wife!"
"Better decide to take it, Mr. Bradley," the agent, whoever he was, would urge seriously, "We're selling these places awfully fast, and when they're gone you won't find anything else like them. It's only because this chap that's been holding this property suddenly—"
"Yes, I know, you told me about his dropping dead," Bert would hastily remind him. "Well—I'll see. I'll let you know. Come on, kids!"
And the Bradley family would walk away, not too hastily, but without looking back.
"I don't know—but it was so like all the others," Nancy would complain, "It was so utterly commonplace! Now there, Bert, right in the village street, with the trees, is a lovely place, marked 'For Sale.' Do let's just pass it!"
"Darling girl, you couldn't touch that for twenty thousand. Right there by the track, too!"
"But it looks so homelike!"
"That old barn in the back looks sort of odd to me; they've got a sort of livery stable there in the back, Nance, you couldn't stand that!"
"No." Nancy's tone and manner would droop, she would go slowly by, discouraged and tired until another week end.
One day Bert told Nancy that a man named Rogers had been in the office, and had been telling him about a place called Marlborough Gardens. Usually Bert's firm did not touch anything small enough to interest him as a home, but in this case the whole development was involved, and the obliging Mr. Rogers chanced to mention to Bert that he had some bargains down there at the Gardens.
"There's nothing in it for him, you understand?" said Bert to his wife, "But he's an awfully decent fellow, and he got interested. I told him about what we'd been doing, and he roared. He says that we're to come down Sunday, and see what he's got, and if we don't like it he can at any rate give us some dope about the rest of the places."
"And where is it, Bert?"
"It's down on the Sound side of Long Island, thirty-seven minutes out of town, right on the water."
"Oh, Bert, it sounds wonderful?"
"He says that it's the most amazing thing that ever has been put on the market. He says that Morgan and Rockefeller both have put money into it, on the quiet."
"Well, if they can risk their little all, we can take a chance!" giggled Nancy.
"Of course that isn't generally known," Bert warned her, "but it just goes to show you that it's a BIG THING. He was telling me about this feller that had a gorgeous home just built there, and his wife's mother gets ill, and they all move to California. He said I could look at it, and that it would speak for itself."
"Did he say whether there were any trees?"
"He said this particular place had wonderful trees."
"And what's the price, Bee?"
Bert knew that this was his weak point.
"He didn't say, old girl."
Nancy looked rueful, her castle in the dust.
"Oh, BERT! It may be something awful!"
"No, it won't, for I'd just been telling him what we were looking at, don't you see!"
"Oh, that so?" Nancy was relieved. "But it will be the first thing I ask him," she predicted.
However, on Sunday she forgot to ask him. The circumstances were so unexpectedly pleasant as to banish from her head any pre- arranged plan of procedure. It was a glowing June day, soft, perfumed, and breezy. The Bradleys went to Butler's Hill, which was "our station," as Nancy said, and there the agent met them, with a car. He drove them himself the short mile from the railroad to Marlborough Gardens.
"Isn't it one of those frightfully smart developments?" Nancy asked, smiling uneasily.
"It's considered the finest home development on Long Island," the agent admitted readily, "The place I'm going to show you—I'm going to show you two or three—but the special place I want to show you, was built for a HOME. There isn't a finer building anywhere. Lansing, the man who built it, was a splendid fellow, with a lovely wife—lovely woman. But her mother lives in California, and she got to worrying—"
"Mr. Bradley told me," Nancy said sympathetically.
"Homes, and home-makers," pursued the agent, "That's what we need. The people we have here are all quiet, home-loving folks, we don't want show, we don't want display—"
"Well, that's our idea!" Bert approved. And he rather vexed his inconsistent wife by adding hardily, "Remember that my top figure is ten thousand, Rogers, will you?"
"Now, you wait and see what I have to show you, and then we'll talk turkey," the other man said goodnaturedly. Anne, sitting on her mother's lap beside him, gave him a sudden smile at the word she recognized.
He wheeled the car smoothly through the great gates of cement, looped with iron chains, that shut off the village herd from the sacred ground. Nancy gave Bert an ecstatic glance; this was wonderful! The scattered homes were all beautiful, all different. Some were actual mansions, with wide-spreading wings and half a dozen chimneys, but some were small and homelike, etched with the stretching fingers of new vines, and surrounded by park-like gardens. Even about the empty plots hedges had been planted, and underbrush raked away, and the effect was indescribably trim and orderly, "like England," said Nancy, who had never seen England.
As they slowly circled about, they caught glimpses of tennis courts, beyond the lawns and trees, glimpses of the blue water of the bay, glimpses of white, curving driveways. Here a shining motor-car stood purring, there men in white paused with arrested rackets, to glance up at the strangers from their tennis. Nancy looked at Bert and Bert at Nancy, and their eyes confessed that never in all the months of hunting had they seen anything like THIS!
Presently they came to the end of the road, and to a richly wooded plot that formed a corner to the whole tract. A garden had been planted, but it was neglected now, and weeds had pushed up here and there between the bricks of the path. The house was low and spreading, under great locust and elm trees, a shingled brown house, with two red chimneys and cottage casements. Over one hedge the Bradleys looked down at the pebbled beach that belonged to all the residents of Marlborough Gardens.
"Lansing called this place 'Holly Court,'" said the agent, leading them to the front porch door, to which he skillfully fitted a key, "That big holly bush there gave it its name; the bush is probably fifty years old. Step in, Mrs. Bradley!"