Adams had a restless morning, and toward noon he asked Miss Perry to call his daughter; he wished to say something to her.
“I thought I heard her leaving the house a couple of hours ago—maybe longer,” the nurse told him. “I'll go see.” And she returned from the brief errand, her impression confirmed by information from Mrs. Adams. “Yes. She went up to Miss Mildred Palmer's to see what she's going to wear to-night.”
Adams looked at Miss Perry wearily, but remained passive, making no inquiries; for he was long accustomed to what seemed to him a kind of jargon among ladies, which became the more incomprehensible when they tried to explain it. A man's best course, he had found, was just to let it go as so much sound. His sorrowful eyes followed the nurse as she went back to her rocking-chair by the window, and her placidity showed him that there was no mystery for her in the fact that Alice walked two miles to ask so simple a question when there was a telephone in the house. Obviously Miss Perry also comprehended why Alice thought it important to know what Mildred meant to wear. Adams understood why Alice should be concerned with what she herself wore “to look neat and tidy and at her best, why, of course she'd want to,” he thought—but he realized that it was forever beyond him to understand why the clothing of other people had long since become an absorbing part of her life.
Her excursion this morning was no novelty; she was continually going to see what Mildred meant to wear, or what some other girl meant to wear; and when Alice came home from wherever other girls or women had been gathered, she always hurried to her mother with earnest descriptions of the clothing she had seen. At such times, if Adams was present, he might recognize “organdie,” or “taffeta,” or “chiffon,” as words defining certain textiles, but the rest was too technical for him, and he was like a dismal boy at a sermon, just waiting for it to get itself finished. Not the least of the mystery was his wife's interest: she was almost indifferent about her own clothes, and when she consulted Alice about them spoke hurriedly and with an air of apology; but when Alice described other people's clothes, Mrs. Adams listened as eagerly as the daughter talked.
“There they go!” he muttered to-day, a moment after he heard the front door closing, a sound recognizable throughout most of the thinly built house. Alice had just returned, and Mrs. Adams called to her from the upper hallway, not far from Adams's door.
“What did she SAY?”
“She was sort of snippy about it,” Alice returned, ascending the stairs. “She gets that way sometimes, and pretended she hadn't made up her mind, but I'm pretty sure it'll be the maize Georgette with Malines flounces.”
“Didn't you say she wore that at the Pattersons'?” Mrs. Adams inquired, as Alice arrived at the top of the stairs. “And didn't you tell me she wore it again at the——”
“Certainly not,” Alice interrupted, rather petulantly. “She's never worn it but once, and of course she wouldn't want to wear anything to-night that people have seen her in a lot.”
Miss Perry opened the door of Adams's room and stepped out. “Your father wants to know if you'll come and see him a minute, Miss Adams.”
“Poor old thing! Of course!” Alice exclaimed, and went quickly into the room, Miss Perry remaining outside. “What's the matter, papa? Getting awful sick of lying on his tired old back, I expect.”
“I've had kind of a poor morning,” Adams said, as she patted his hand comfortingly. “I been thinking——”
“Didn't I tell you not to?” she cried, gaily. “Of course you'll have poor times when you go and do just exactly what I say you mustn't. You stop thinking this very minute!”
He smiled ruefully, closing his eyes; was silent for a moment, then asked her to sit beside the bed. “I been thinking of something I wanted to say,” he added.
“What like, papa?”
“Well, it's nothing—much,” he said, with something deprecatory in his tone, as if he felt vague impulses toward both humour and apology. “I just thought maybe I ought to've said more to you some time or other about—well, about the way things ARE, down at Lamb and Company's, for instance.”
“Now, papa!” She leaned forward in the chair she had taken, and pretended to slap his hand crossly. “Isn't that exactly what I said you couldn't think one single think about till you get ALL well?”
“Well——” he said, and went on slowly, not looking at her, but at the ceiling. “I just thought maybe it wouldn't been any harm if some time or other I told you something about the way they sort of depend on me down there.”
“Why don't they show it, then?” she asked, quickly. “That's just what mama and I have been feeling so much; they don't appreciate you.”
“Why, yes, they do,” he said. “Yes, they do. They began h'isting my salary the second year I went in there, and they've h'isted it a little every two years all the time I've worked for 'em. I've been head of the sundries department for seven years now, and I could hardly have more authority in that department unless I was a member of the firm itself.”
“Well, why don't they make you a member of the firm? That's what they ought to've done! Yes, and long ago!”
Adams laughed, but sighed with more heartiness than he had laughed. “They call me their 'oldest stand-by' down there.” He laughed again, apologetically, as if to excuse himself for taking a little pride in this title. “Yes, sir; they say I'm their 'oldest stand-by'; and I guess they know they can count on my department's turning in as good a report as they look for, at the end of every month; but they don't have to take a man into the firm to get him to do my work, dearie.”
“But you said they depended on you, papa.”
“So they do; but of course not so's they couldn't get along without me.” He paused, reflecting. “I don't just seem to know how to put it—I mean how to put what I started out to say. I kind of wanted to tell you—well, it seems funny to me, these last few years, the way your mother's taken to feeling about it. I'd like to see a better established wholesale drug business than Lamb and Company this side the Alleghanies—I don't say bigger, I say better established—and it's kind of funny for a man that's been with a business like that as long as I have to hear it called a 'hole.' It's kind of funny when you think, yourself, you've done pretty fairly well in a business like that, and the men at the head of it seem to think so, too, and put your salary just about as high as anybody could consider customary—well, what I mean, Alice, it's kind of funny to have your mother think it's mostly just—mostly just a failure, so to speak.”
His voice had become tremulous in spite of him; and this sign of weakness and emotion had sufficient effect upon Alice. She bent over him suddenly, with her arm about him and her cheek against his. “Poor papa!” she murmured. “Poor papa!”
“No, no,” he said. “I didn't mean anything to trouble you. I just thought——” He hesitated. “I just wondered—I thought maybe it wouldn't be any harm if I said something about how things ARE down there. I got to thinking maybe you didn't understand it's a pretty good place. They're fine people to work for; and they've always seemed to think something of me;—the way they took Walter on, for instance, soon as I asked 'em, last year. Don't you think that looked a good deal as if they thought something of me, Alice?”
“Yes, papa,” she said, not moving.
“And the work's right pleasant,” he went on. “Mighty nice boys in our department, Alice. Well, they are in all the departments, for that matter. We have a good deal of fun down there some days.”
She lifted her head. “More than you do at home 'some days,' I expect, papa!” she said.
He protested feebly. “Now, I didn't mean that—I didn't want to trouble you——”
She looked at him through winking eyelashes. “I'm sorry I called it a 'hole,' papa.”
“No, no,” he protested, gently. “It was your mother said that.”
“No. I did, too.”
“Well, if you did, it was only because you'd heard her.”
She shook her head, then kissed him. “I'm going to talk to her,” she said, and rose decisively.
But at this, her father's troubled voice became quickly louder: “You better let her alone. I just wanted to have a little talk with you. I didn't mean to start any—your mother won't——”
“Now, papa!” Alice spoke cheerfully again, and smiled upon him. “I want you to quit worrying! Everything's going to be all right and nobody's going to bother you any more about anything. You'll see!”
She carried her smile out into the hall, but after she had closed the door her face was all pity; and her mother, waiting for her in the opposite room, spoke sympathetically.
“What's the matter, Alice? What did he say that's upset you?”
“Wait a minute, mama.” Alice found a handkerchief, used it for eyes and suffused nose, gulped, then suddenly and desolately sat upon the bed. “Poor, poor, POOR papa!” she whispered.
“Why?” Mrs. Adams inquired, mildly. “What's the matter with him? Sometimes you act as if he weren't getting well. What's he been talking about?”
“Mama—well, I think I'm pretty selfish. Oh, I do!”
“Did he say you were?”
“Papa? No, indeed! What I mean is, maybe we're both a little selfish to try to make him go out and hunt around for something new.”
Mrs. Adams looked thoughtful. “Oh, that's what he was up to!”
“Mama, I think we ought to give it up. I didn't dream it had really hurt him.”
“Well, doesn't he hurt us?”
“Never that I know of, mama.”
“I don't mean by SAYING things,” Mrs. Adams explained, impatiently. “There are more ways than that of hurting people. When a man sticks to a salary that doesn't provide for his family, isn't that hurting them?”
“Oh, it 'provides' for us well enough, mama. We have what we need—if I weren't so extravagant. Oh, I know I am!”
But at this admission her mother cried out sharply. “'Extravagant!' You haven't one tenth of what the other girls you go with have. And you CAN'T have what you ought to as long as he doesn't get out of that horrible place. It provides bare food and shelter for us, but what's that?”
“I don't think we ought to try any more to change him.”
“You don't?” Mrs. Adams came and stood before her. “Listen, Alice: your father's asleep; that's his trouble, and he's got to be waked up. He doesn't know that things have changed. When you and Walter were little children we did have enough—at least it seemed to be about as much as most of the people we knew. But the town isn't what it was in those days, and times aren't what they were then, and these fearful PRICES aren't the old prices. Everything else but your father has changed, and all the time he's stood still. He doesn't know it; he thinks because they've given him a hundred dollars more every two years he's quite a prosperous man! And he thinks that because his children cost him more than he and I cost our parents he gives them—enough!”
“But Walter——” Alice faltered. “Walter doesn't cost him anything at all any more.” And she concluded, in a stricken voice, “It's all—me!”
“Why shouldn't it be?” her mother cried. “You're young—you're just at the time when your life should be fullest of good things and happiness. Yet what do you get?”
Alice's lip quivered; she was not unsusceptible to such an appeal, but she contrived the semblance of a protest. “I don't have such a bad time not a good DEAL of the time, anyhow. I've got a good MANY of the things other girls have——”
“You have?” Mrs. Adams was piteously satirical. “I suppose you've got a limousine to go to that dance to-night? I suppose you've only got to call a florist and tell him to send you some orchids? I suppose you've——”
But Alice interrupted this list. Apparently in a single instant all emotion left her, and she became businesslike, as one in the midst of trifles reminded of really serious matters. She got up from the bed and went to the door of the closet where she kept her dresses. “Oh, see here,” she said, briskly. “I've decided to wear my white organdie if you could put in a new lining for me. I'm afraid it'll take you nearly all afternoon.”
She brought forth the dress, displayed it upon the bed, and Mrs. Adams examined it attentively.
“Do you think you could get it done, mama?”
“I don't see why not,” Mrs. Adams answered, passing a thoughtful hand over the fabric. “It oughtn't to take more than four or five hours.”
“It's a shame to have you sit at the machine that long,” Alice said, absently, adding, “And I'm sure we ought to let papa alone. Let's just give it up, mama.”
Mrs. Adams continued her thoughtful examination of the dress. “Did you buy the chiffon and ribbon, Alice?”
“Yes. I'm sure we oughtn't to talk to him about it any more, mama.”
“Well, we'll see.”
“Let's both agree that we'll NEVER say another single word to him about it,” said Alice. “It'll be a great deal better if we just let him make up his mind for himself.”