At the head of her own breakfast table,--a breakfast table charmingly littered with dark-blue china and shining glass, and made springlike by a great bowl of daisies,--Mary Venable sat alone, trying to read her letters through a bitter blur of tears. She was not interested in her letters, but something must be done, she thought desperately, to check this irresistible impulse to put her head down on the table and cry like a child, and uninteresting letters, if she could only force her eyes to follow the lines of them, and her brain to follow the meaning, would be as steadying to the nerves as anything else.
Cry she would not; for every reason. Lizzie, coming in to carry away the plates, would see her, for one thing. It would give her a blazing headache, for another. It would not help her in the least to solve the problem ahead of her, for a third and best. She must think it out clearly and reasonably, and--and--Mary's lip began to quiver again, she would have to do it all alone. Mamma was the last person in the world who could help her, and George wouldn't.
For of course the trouble was Mamma again, and George--
Mary wiped her eyes resolutely, finished a glass of water, drew a deep great breath. Then she rang for Lizzie, and carried her letters to the shaded, cool little study back of the large drawing-room. Fortified by the effort this required, she sank comfortably into a deep chair, and began to plan sensibly and collectedly. Firstly, she reread Mamma's letter.
Mary had seen this letter among others at her plate, only an hour ago. A deep sigh, reminiscent of the recently suppressed storm, caught her unawares as she remembered how happy she and George had been over their breakfast until Mamma's letter was opened. Mary had not wanted to open it, suggesting carelessly that it might wait until later; she could tell George if there was anything in it. But George had wanted to hear it read immediately, and of course there had been something in it. There usually was something unexpected in Mamma's letters. In this one she broke the news to her daughter and son-in-law that she hated Milwaukee, she didn't like Cousin Will's house, children, or self, she had borrowed her ticket money from Cousin Will, and she was coming home on Tuesday.
Mary had gotten only this far when George, prefacing his remarks with a forcible and heartfelt "damn," had said some very sharp and very inconsiderate things of Mamma. He had said--But no, Mary wouldn't go over that. She would not cry again.
The question was, what to do with Mamma now. They had thought her so nicely settled with Cousin Will and his motherless boys, had packed her off to Milwaukee only a fortnight ago with such a generous check to cover incidental expenses, had felt that now, for a year or two at least, she was anchored. And in so many ways it seemed a special blessing, this particular summer, to have Mamma out of the way,-- comfortable and happy, but out of the way. For Mary had packed her three babies and their nurse down to the cottage at Beach Meadow for the summer, and she and George had determined--with only brief weekend intervals to break it--to try staying in the New York house all summer.
Ordinarily Mary, too, would have been at Beach Meadow with the children, seeing George only in the rare intervals when he could run up from town, two or three times a season perhaps, and really rather more glad than otherwise to have Mamma with her. But this promised to be a trying and overworked summer for him, and Mary herself was tired from a winter of close attention to her nursery, and to them both the plan seemed a most tempting chance for jolly little dinners together, Sunday and evening trips in the motor, roof-garden shows and suppers. They had had too little of each other's undivided society in the three crowded years that had witnessed the arrival of the twins and baby Mary, there had been infantile illnesses, Mary's own health had been poor, Mamma had been with them, nurses had been with them, doctors had been constantly coming and going, nothing had been normal. Both Mary and George had thought and spoken a hundred times of that one first, happy year of their marriage, and they wanted to bring back some of its old free charm now. So the children, with Miss Fox, who was a "treasure" of a trained nurse, and Myra, whose Irish devotion was maternal in its intensity, were sent away to the seaside, and they were living on the beach all day, and sleeping in the warm sea air all night, and hardier and browner and happier every time they rushed screaming out to welcome mother and daddy and the motor-car for a brief visit. And Mamma was with Cousin Will. Or at least she had been--
Well, there was only one thing certain, Mary decided,--Mamma could not come to them. That would spoil all the summer they had been planning so happily. To picnic in the hot city with one beloved companion is one thing, to keep house there for one's family is quite another. Mamma was not adaptable, she had her own very definite ideas. She hated a dimly lighted drawing-room, and interrupted Mary's music--to which George listened in such utter content--with cheery random remarks, and the slapping of cards at Patience. Mamma hated silences, she hated town in summer, she made jolly and informal little expeditions the most discussed and tedious of events. If George, settling himself happily in some restaurant, suggested enthusiastically a planked steak, Mamma quite positively wanted some chicken or just a chop for herself, please. If George suggested red wine, Mamma was longing for just a sip of Pommerey: "You order it, Georgie, and let it be my treat!"
It never was her treat, but that was the least of it.
No, Mamma simply couldn't come to them now. She would have to go to Miss Fox and the children. Myra wouldn't like it, and Mamma always interfered with Miss Fox, and would have to take the second best bedroom, and George would probably make a fuss, but there was nothing else to do. It couldn't be helped.
Sometimes in moments of less strain, Mary was amused to remember that it was through Mamma that she had met George. She, Mary, had gone down from, her settlement work in hot New York for a little breathing spell at Atlantic City, where Mamma, who had a very small room at the top of a very large hotel, was enjoying a financially pinched but entirely carefree existence. Mary would have preferred sober and unpretentious boarding in some private family herself, but Mamma loved the big dining-room, the piazzas, the music, and the crowds of the hotel, and Mary amiably engaged the room next to hers. They had to climb a flight of stairs above the last elevator stop to reach their rooms, and rarely saw any one in their corridors except maids and chauffeurs, but Mamma didn't mind that. She knew a score of Southern people downstairs who always included her in their good times; her life never lacked the spice of a mild flirtation. Mamma rarely had to pay for any of her own meals, except breakfast, and the economy with which she could order a breakfast was a real surprise to Mary. Mamma swam, motored, danced, walked, gossiped, played bridge, and golfed like any debutante. Mary, watching her, wondered sometimes if the father she had lost when a tiny baby, and the stepfather whose marriage to her mother, and death had followed only a few years later, were any more real to her mother than the dreams they both were to her.
On the day of Mary's arrival, mother and daughter came down to the wide hotel porch, in the cool idle hour before dinner, and took possession of big rocking-chairs, facing the sea. They were barely seated, when a tall man in white flannels came smilingly toward them.
"Mrs. Honeywell!" he said, delightedly, and Mary saw her mother give him a cordial greeting before she said:
"And now, George, I want you to know my little girl, Ma'y,--Miss Bannister. Ma'y, this is my Southe'n boy I was telling you about!"
Mary, turning unsmiling eyes, was quite sure the man would be nearer forty than thirty, as indeed he was, grizzled and rather solid into the bargain. Mamma's "boys" were rarely less; had he really been at all youthful, Mamma would have introduced him as "that extr'ornarily intrusting man I've been telling you about, Ma'y, dear!"
But he was a nice-looking man, and a nice seeming man, except for his evidently having flirted with Mamma, which proceeding Mary always held slightly in contempt. Not that he seemed flirtatiously inclined at this particular moment, but Mary could tell from her mother's manner that their friendship had been one of those frothy surface affairs into which Mamma seemed able to draw the soberest of men.
Mr. Venable sat down next to Mary, and they talked of the sea, in which a few belated bathers were splashing, and of the hot and distant city, and finally of Mary's work. These topics did not interest Mamma, who carried on a few gay, restless conversations with various acquaintances on the porch meanwhile, and retied her parasol bow several times.
Mamma, with her prettily arranged and only slightly retouched hair, her dashing big hat and smart little gown, her red lips and black eyes, was an extremely handsome woman, but Mr. Venable even now could not seem to move his eyes from Mary's nondescript gray eyes, and rather colorless fair skin, and indefinite, pleasant mouth. Mamma's lines were all compact and trim. Mary was rather long of limb, even a little gauche in an attractive, unself-conscious sort of way. But something fine and high, something fresh and young and earnest about her, made its instant appeal to the man beside her.
"Isn't she just the biggest thing!" Mamma said finally, with a little affectionate slap for Mary's hand. "Makes me feel so old, having a great, big girl of twenty-three!"
This was three years short of the fact, but Mary never betrayed her mother in these little weaknesses. Mr. Venable said, not very spontaneously, that they could pass for sisters.
"Just hear him, will you!" said Mamma, in gay scorn. "Why there's seventeen whole years between us! Ma'y was born on the day I was seventeen. My first husband--dearest fellow ever was--used to say he had two babies and no wife. I never shall forget," Mamma went on youthfully, "one day when Ma'y was about two months old, and I had her out in the garden. I always had a nurse,--smartest looking thing you ever saw, in caps and ribbons!--but she was out, I forget where. Anyway our old Doctor Wallis came in, and he saw me, with my hair all hanging in curls, and a little blue dress on, and he called out, 'Look here, Ma'y Lou Duval, ain't you too old to be playin' with dolls?'"
Mary had often heard this, but she laughed, and Mr. Venable laughed, too, although he cut short an indication of further reminiscence on Mamma's part by entering briskly upon the subject of dinner. Would Mrs. Honeywell and Miss Bannister dine with him, in the piazza, dining-room, that wasn't too near the music, and was always cool, and then afterward he'd have the car brought about--? Mary's first smiling shake of the head subsided before these tempting details. It did sound so cool and restful and attractive! And after all, why shouldn't one dine with the big, responsible person who was one of New York's biggest construction engineers, with whom one's mother was on such friendly terms?
That was the first of many delightful times. George Venable fell in love with Mary and grew serious for the first time in his life. And Mary fell in love with George, and grew frivolous for the first time in hers. And in the breathless joy that attended their discovery of each other, they rather forgot Mamma.
"Stealing my beau!" said the little lady, accusatively, one night, when mother and daughter were dressing. Mary turned an uncomfortable scarlet.
"Oh, don't be such a little goosie!" Mrs. Honeywell said, with a great hug. And she artlessly added, "My goodness, Mary, I've got all the beaux I want! I'm only too tickled to have you have one at last!"
By the time the engagement, with proper formality, was announced, George's attitude toward his prospective mother-in-law had shifted completely. He was no longer Mamma's gallant squire, but had assumed something of Mary's tolerant, protective manner toward her. Later, when they were married, this change went still further, and George became rather scornful of the giddy little butterfly, casually critical of her in conversations with Mary.
Mrs. Honeywell enjoyed the wedding as if she had been the bride's younger sister now allowed a first peep at real romance.
"But I'm going to give you one piece of advice, dearie," said she, the night before the ceremony. Mary, wrapped in all the mysterious thoughts of that unreal time, winced inwardly. This was all so new, so sacred, so inexpressible to her that she felt Mamma couldn't understand it. Of course she had been married twice herself, but then she was so different.
"It's this," said Mrs. Honeywell, cheerfully, after a pause. "There'll come a time when you'll simply hate him--"
"Oh, Mamma!" Mary said, with distaste.
"Yes, there will," her mother went on placidly, "and then you just say to yourself that the best of 'em's only a big boy, and treat him as you'd treat a boy!"
"All right, darling!" Mary laughed, kissing her. But she thought to herself that the men Mamma had married were of very different caliber from George.
Parenthood developed new gravities in George, all life became purer, sweeter, more simple, with Mary beside him. Through the stress of their first married years they became more and more closely devoted, marvelled more and more at the miracle that had brought them together. But Mamma suffered to this. The atmosphere of gay irresponsibility and gossip that she brought with her on her frequent visitations became very trying to George. He resented her shallowness, her youthful gowns, her extravagances. Mary found herself eternally defending Mamma, in an unobtrusive sort of way, inventing and assuming congenialities between her and George. It had been an unmitigated blessing to have the little lady start gayly off for Cousin Will's, only a month ago--And now here she was again!
Mary sighed, pushed her letters aside, and stared thoughtfully out of the window. The first of New York's blazing summer days hung heavily over the gay Drive and the sluggish river. The Jersey hills were blurred with heat. Dull, brief whistles of river-craft came to her; under the full leafage of trees on the Drive green omnibuses lumbered; baby carriages, each with its attendant, were motionless in the shade. Mary drew her desk telephone toward her, pushed it away again, hesitated over a note. Then she sent for her cook and discussed the day's meals.
Alone again, she reached a second time for the telephone, waited for a number, and asked for Mr. Venable.
"George, this is Mary," said Mary, a moment later. Silence. "George, darling," said Mary, in a rush, "I am so sorry about Mamma, and I realize how trying it is for you, and I'm so sorry I took what you said at breakfast that way. Don't worry, dear, we'll settle her somehow. And I'll spare you all I can! George, would you like me to come down to the office at six, and have dinner somewhere? She won't be here until tomorrow. And my new hat has come, and I want to wear it--?" She paused; there was a moment's silence before George's warm, big voice answered:
"You are absolutely the most adorable angel that ever breathed, Mary. You make me ashamed of myself. I've been sitting here as blue as indigo. Everything going wrong! Those confounded Carter people got the order for the Whitely building--you remember I told you about it? It was a three-million dollar contract.
"Oh, George!" Mary lamented.
"Oh, well, it's not serious, dear. Only I thought we 'had it nailed.' I'd give a good deal to know how Carter does it. Sometimes I have the profoundest contempt for that fellow's methods--then he lands something like this. I don't believe he can handle it, either."
"I hate that man!" said Mary, calmly. George laughed boyishly.
"Well, you were an angel to telephone," he said. "Come early, sweetheart, and we'll go up to Macbeth's,--they say it's quite an extraordinary collection. And don't worry--I'll be nice to Mamma. And wear your blessed little pink hat--"
Mary went upstairs ten minutes later with a singing heart. Let Mamma and her attendant problems arrive tomorrow if she must. Today would be all their own! She began to dress at three o'clock, as pleasantly excited as a girl. She laid her prettiest white linen gown beside the pink hat on the bed, selected an especially frilled petticoat, was fastidious over white shoes and silken stockings.
The big house was very still. Lizzie, hitherto un-compromisingly a cook, had so far unbent this summer as to offer to fill the place of waitress as well as her own. Today she had joyously accepted Mary's offer of a whole unexpected free afternoon and evening. Mary was alone, and rather enjoying it. She walked, trailing her ruffled wrapper, to one of the windows, and looked down on the Drive. It was almost deserted.
While she stood there idle and smiling, a taxicab veered to the curb, hesitated, came to a full stop. Out of it came a small gloved hand with a parasol clasped in it, a small struggling foot in a gray suede shoe, a small doubled-up form clad in gray-blue silk, a hat covered with corn-flowers.
Mamma had arrived, as Mamma always did, unexpectedly.
Mary stared at the apparition with a sudden rebellious surge at her heart. She knew what this meant, but for a moment the full significance of it seemed too exasperating to be true. Oh, how could she!--spoil their last day together, upset their plans, madden George afresh, when he was only this moment pacified! Mary uttered an impatient little sigh as she went down to open the door; but it was the anticipation of George's vexation--not her own--that stirred her, and the sight of Mamma was really unwelcome to Mary only because of George's lack of welcome.
"No Lizzie?" asked Mamma, blithely, when her first greetings were over, and the case of Cousin Will had been dismissed with a few emphatic sentences.
"I let her go this afternoon instead of to-morrow, Muddie, dear. We're going down town to dinner."
"Oh; that's nice,--but I look a perfect fright!" said Mrs. Honeywell, following Mary upstairs. "Nasty trip! I don't want a thing but a cup of tea for supper anyway--bit of toast. I'll be glad to get my things off for a while."
"If you like, Mamma, why don't you just turn in?" Mary suggested. "It's nearly four now. I'll bring you up some cold meat and tea and so on."
"Sounds awfully nice," her mother said, getting a thin little silk wrapper out of her suit-case. "But we'll see,--there's no hurry. What time are you meeting Georgie?"
"Well, we were going to Macbeth's,--but that's not important,--we needn't meet him until nearly seven, I suppose," Mary said patiently, "only I ought to telephone him what we are going to do."
"Oh, telephone that I'll come too, I'll feel fine in half an hour," Mrs. Honeywell said decidedly.
Mary, unsatisfied with this message, temporized by sitting down in a deep chair. The room, which had all been made ready for Mamma, was cool and pleasant. Awnings shaded the open windows; the rugs, the wall-paper, the chintzes were all in gay and roseate tints. Mrs. Honeywell stretched herself luxuriously on the bed, both pillows under her head.
"I'm sure she'd be much more comfortable here than tearing about town this stuffy night!" the daughter reflected, while listening to an account of Cousin Will's dreadful house, and dreadful children.
It was so easy when Mamma was away to think generously, affectionately of her, to laugh kindly at the memory of her trying moods. But it was very different to have Mamma actually about, to humor her whims, listen to her ceaseless chatter, silently sacrifice to her comfort a thousand comforts of one's own.
After a half hour of playing listener she went down to telephone George.
"Oh, damn!" said George, heartily. "And here I've been hustling through things thinking any minute that you'd come in. Well, this spoils it all. I'll come home."
"Oh, dearest,--it'll be just a 'pick-up' dinner, then. I don't know what's in the house. Lizzie's gone," Mary submitted hesitatingly.
"Oh, damn!" George said forcibly, again.
"What does your mother propose to do?" he asked Mary some hours later, when the rather unsuccessful dinner was over, Mamma had retired, and he and his wife were in their own rooms. Mary felt impending unpleasantness in his tone, and battled with a rising sense of antagonism. She tucked her pink hat into its flowered box, folded the silky tissue paper about it, tied the strings.
"Why, I don't know, dear!" she said pleasantly, carrying the box to her wardrobe.
"Does she plan to stay here?" George asked, with a reasonable air, carefully transferring letters, pocket-book, and watch-case from one vest to another.
"George, when does Mamma ever plan anything!" Mary reminded him, with elaborate gentleness.
There was a short silence. The night was very sultry, and no air stirred the thin window-curtains. The room, with its rich litter of glass and silver, its dark wood and bright hangings, seemed somehow hot and crowded. Mary flung her dark cloud of hair impatiently back, as she sat at her dressing table. Brushing was too hot a business tonight.
"I confess I think I have a right to ask what your mother proposes to do," George said presently, with marked politeness.
"Oh, Georgie! Don't be so ridiculous!" Mary protested impatiently. "You know what Mamma is!"
"I may be ridiculous," George conceded, magnificently, "but I fail to see--"
"I don't mean that," Mary said hastily. "But need we decide tonight?" she added with laudable calm. "It's so hot, dearest, and I am so sleepy. Mamma could go to Beach Meadow, I suppose?" she finished unthinkingly.
This was a wrong move. George was disappearing into his dressing- room at the moment, and did not turn back. Mary put out all the lights but one, turned down the beds, settled on her pillows with a great sigh of relief. But George, returning in a trailing wrapper, was mighty with resolution.
"I mean to make just one final remark on this subject, Mary," said George, flashing on three lights with one turn of the wrist, "but you may as well understand me. I mean it! I don't propose to have your mother at Beach Meadow, not for a single night--not for a day! She demoralizes the boys, she has a very bad effect on the nurse. I sympathize with Miss Fox, and I refuse to allow my children to be given candy, and things injurious to their constitutions, and to be kept up until late hours, and to have their first perceptions of honor and truth misled--"
"Well,' said George, after a brief pause, more mildly, "I won't have it."
"Then--but she can't stay here, George. It will spoil our whole summer."
"Exactly," George assented. There was another pause.
"I'll talk to Mamma--she may have some plan," Mary said at last, with a long sigh.
Mamma had no plan to unfold on the following day, and a week and then ten days went by without any suggestion of change on her part. The weather was very hot, and Lizzie complained more than once that Mrs. Honeywell must have her iced coffee and sandwiches at four and that breakfast, luncheon, and dinner regularly for three was not at all like getting two meals for two every day, and besides, there was another bedroom to care for, and the kitchen was never in order! Mary applied an unfailing remedy to Lizzie's case, and sent for a charwoman besides. Less easily solved were other difficulties.
George, for example, liked to take long motoring trips out of the city, on warm summer evenings. He ran his own car, and was never so happy as when Mary was on the driver's seat beside him, where he could amuse her with the little news of the day, or repeat to her long and, to Mary, unintelligible business conversations in which he had borne a part.
But Mamma's return spoiled all this. Obviously, the little lady couldn't be left to bounce about alone in the tonneau. If Mary joined her there, George would sit silently, immovably, in the front seat, chewing his cigar, his eyes on the road. Only when they had a friend or two with them did Mary enjoy these drives.
Mamma had an unlucky habit of scattering George's valuable books carelessly about the house, and George was fussy about his books. And she would sometimes amuse herself by trying roll after roll on the piano-player, until George, perhaps trying to read in the adjoining library, was almost frantic. And she mislaid his telephone directory, and took telephone messages for him that she forgot to deliver, and insisted upon knowing why he was late for dinner, in spite of Mary's warning, "Let him change and get his breath Mamma, dear,--he's exhausted. What does it matter, anyway?"
Sometimes Mary's heart would ache for the little, resourceless lady, drifting aimlessly through her same and stupid days. Mamma had always been spoiled, loved, amused,--it was too much to expect strength and unselfishness of her now. And at other times, when she saw the tired droop to George's big shoulders, and the gallant effort he made to be sweet to Mamma, George who was so good, and so generous, and who only asked to have his wife and home quietly to himself after the long day, Mary's heart would burn with longing to put her arms about him, and go off alone with him somewhere, and smooth the wrinkles from. his forehead, and let him rest.
One warm Sunday in mid-July they all went down to Long Island to see the rosy, noisy babies. It was a happy day for Mary. George was very gracious, Mamma charming and complaisant. The weather was perfection, and the children angelic. They shared the noonday dinner with little George and Richard and Mary, and motored home through the level light of late afternoon. Slowly passing through a certain charming colony of summer homes, they were suddenly hailed.
Out from a shingled bungalow, and across a velvet lawn streamed three old friends of Mamma's, Mrs. Law'nce Arch'bald, and her daughter, 'Lizabeth Sarah, who was almost Mamma's age, and 'Lizabeth Sarah's husband, Harry Fairfax. These three were rapturously presented to the Venables by Mrs. Honeywell, and presently they all went up to the porch for tea.
Mary thought, and she could see George thought, that it was very pleasant to discuss the delicious Oolong and Maryland biscuit, and Southern white fruit-cake, while listening to Mamma's happy chatter with her old friends. The old negress who served tea called Mamma "chile," and Mrs. Archibald, an aristocratic, elderly woman, treated her as if she were no more than a girl. Mary thought she had never seen her mother so charming.
"I wonder if the's any reason, Mary Lou'siana, why you can't just come down here and stay with me this summah?" said Mrs. Archibald, suddenly. "'Lizabeth Sarah and Harry Fairfax, they're always coming and going, and Lord knows it would be like havin' one of my own girls back, to me. We've room, and there's a lot of nice people down hereabouts--"
A chorus arose, Mrs. Honey well protesting joyously that that was too much imp'sition for any use, 'Lizabeth Sarah and Harry Fairfax violently favorable to the idea, Mrs. Archibald magnificently overriding objections, Mary and George trying with laughter to separate jest from earnest. Mrs. Honeywell, overborne, was dragged upstairs to inspect "her room," old Aunt Curry, the colored maid and cook, adding her deep-noted welcome to "Miss Mar' Lou." It was arranged that Mamma should at least spend the night, and George and Mary left her there, and came happily home together, laughing, over their little downtown dinner, with an almost parental indulgence, at Mamma.
In the end, Mamma did go down to the Archibald's for an indefinite stay. Mary quite overwhelmed her with generous contributions to her wardrobe, and George presented her with a long-coveted chain. The parting took place with great affection and regret expressed on both sides. But this timely relief was clouded for Mary when Mamma flitted in to see her a day or two later. Mamma wondered if Ma'y dearest could possibly let her have two hundred dollars.
"Muddie, you've overdrawn again!" Mary accused her. For Mamma had an income of a thousand a year.
"No, dear, it's not that. I am a little overdrawn, but it's not that. But you see Richie Carter lives right next do' to the Arch'balds,"--Mamma's natural Southern accent was gaining strength every day now,--"and it might be awkward, meetin' him, don't you know?"
"Awkward?" Mary echoed, frowning.
"Well, you see, Ma'y, love, some years ago I was intimate with his wife," her mother proceeded with some little embarrassment, "and so when I met him at the Springs last year, I confided in him about-- laws! I forget what it was exactly, some bills I didn't want to bother Georgie about, anyway. And he was perfectly charmin' about it I"
"Oh, Mamma!" Mary said in distress, "not Richard Carter of the Carter Construction Company? Oh, Mamma, you know how George hates that whole crowd! You didn't borrow money of him!"
"Not that he'd ever speak of it--he'd die first!" Mrs. Honeywell said hastily.
"I'll have to ask George for it," Mary said after a long pause, "and he'll be furious." To which Mamma, who was on the point of departure, agreed, adding thoughtfully, "I'm always glad not to be here if Georgie's going to fly into a rage."
George did fly into a rage at this piece of news, and said some scathing things of Mamma, even while he wrote out a check for two hundred dollars.
"Here, you send it to her," he said bitterly to Mary, folding the paper with a frown. "I don't feel as if I ever wanted to see her again. I tell you, Mary, I warn you, my dear, that things can't go on this way much longer. I never refused her money that I know of, and yet she turns to this fellow Carter!" He interrupted himself with an exasperated shrug, and began to walk about the room. "She turns to Carter," he burst out again angrily, "a man who could hurt me irreparably by letting it get about that my mother-in-law had to ask him for a petty loan!"
Mary, with a troubled face, was slowly, silently setting up a game of chess. She took the check, feeling like Becky Sharp, and tucked it into her blouse.
"Come on, George, dear," she said, after an uneasy silence. She pushed a white pawn forward. George somewhat unwillingly took his seat opposite her, but could not easily capture the spirit of the game. He made a hasty move or two, scowled up at the lights, scowled at the windows that were already wide open to the sultry night, loosened his collar with two impatient fingers.
"I'd give a good deal to understand your mother, Mary," he burst out suddenly. "I'd give a great deal! Her love of pleasure I can understand--her utter lack of any possible vestige of business sense I can understand, although my own mother was a woman who conducted an immense business with absolute scrupulousness and integrity--"
"Georgie, dear! What has your mother's business ability to do with poor Mamma!" Mary said patiently, screwing the separated halves of a knight firmly together.
"It has this to do with it," George said with sudden heat, "that my mother's principles gave me a pretty clear idea of what a lady does and does not do! And my mother would have starved before she turned to a comparative stranger for a personal loan."
"But neither one of her sons could bear to live with her, she was so cold-blooded," Mary thought, but with heroic self-control she kept silent. She answered only by the masterly advance of a bishop.
"Queen," she said calmly.
"Queen nothing!" George said, suddenly attentive.
"Give me a piece then," Mary chanted. George gave a fully aroused attention to the game, and saving it, saved the evening for Mary.
"But please keep Mamma quiet now for a while!" she prayed fervently in her evening devotions a few hours later. "I can't keep this up-- we'll have serious trouble here. Please make her stay where she is for a year at least."
Two weeks, three weeks, went peaceably by. The Venables spent a happy week-end or two with their children. Between these visits they were as light-hearted as children themselves, in the quiet roominess of the New York home. Mamma's letters were regular and cheerful, she showed no inclination to return, and Mary, relieved for the first time since her childhood of pressing responsibility, bloomed like a rose.
Sometimes she reflected uneasily that Mamma's affairs were only temporarily settled, after all, and sometimes George made her heart sink with uncompromising statements regarding the future, but for the most part Mary's natural sunniness kept her cheerful and unapprehensive.
Almost unexpectedly, therefore, the crash came. It came on a very hot day, which, following a week of delightfully cool weather, was like a last flaming hand-clasp from the departing summer. It was a Monday, and had started wrong with a burned omelette at breakfast, and unripe melons. And the one suit George had particularly asked to have cleaned and pressed had somehow escaped Mary's vigilance, and still hung creased and limp in the closet. So George went off, feeling a little abused, and Mary, feeling cross, too, went slowly about her morning tasks. Another annoyance was when the telephones had been cut off; a man with a small black bag mysteriously appearing to disconnect them, and as mysteriously vanishing when once their separated parts lay useless on the floor. Mary, idly reading, and comfortably stretched on a couch in her own room at eleven o'clock, was disturbed by the frantic and incessant ringing of the front doorbell.
"Lizzie went in to Broadway, I suppose," she reflected uneasily. "But I oughtn't to go down this way! Let him try again."
"He"--whoever he was--did try again so forcibly and so many times that Mary, after going to the head of the kitchen stairs to call Lizzie, with no result, finally ran down the main stairway herself, and gathering the loose frills of her morning wrapper about her, warily unbolted the door.
She admitted George, whose face was dark with heat, and whose voice rasped.
"Where's Lizzie?" he asked, eying Mary's negligee.
"Oh, dearie--and I've been keeping you waiting!" Mary lamented. "Come into the dining-room, it's cooler. She's marketing."
George dropped into a chair and mopped his forehead.
"No one to answer the telephone?" he pursued, frowning.
"It's disconnected, dear. Georgie, what is it?--you look sick."
"Well, I am, just about!" George said sternly. Then, irrelevantly, he demanded: "Mary, did you know your mother had disposed of her Sunbright shares?"
"Sold her copper stock!" Mary ejaculated, aghast For Mamma's entire income was drawn from this eminently safe and sane investment, and Mary and George had never ceased to congratulate themselves upon her good fortune in getting it at all.
"Two months ago," said George, with a shrewdly observant eye.
Mary interpreted his expression.
"Certainly I didn't know it!" she said with spirit.
"Didn't, eh? She says you did," George said.
"Mamma does?" Mary was astounded.
"Read that!" Her husband flung a letter on the table.
Mary caught it up, ran through it hastily. It was from Mamma: She was ending her visit at Rock Bar, the Archibalds were going South rather early, they had begged her to go, but she didn't want to, and Mary could look for her any day now. And she was writing to Georgie because she was afraid she'd have to tell him that she had done an awfully silly thing: she had sold her Sunbright shares to an awfully attractive young fellow whom Mr. Pierce had sent to her--and so on and so on. Mary's eye leaped several lines to her own name. "Mary agreed with me that the Potter electric light stock was just as safe and they offered seven per cent," wrote Mamma.
"I do remember now her saying something about the Potter," Mary said, raising honest, distressed eyes from the letter, "but with no possible idea that she meditated anything like this!"
George had been walking up and down the room.
"She's lost every cent!" he said savagely. And he flung both hands out with an air of frenzy before beginning his angry march again.
Mary sat in stony despair.
"Have you heard from her today?" he flung out.
His wife shook her head.
"Well, she's in town," George presently resumed, "because Bates told me she telephoned the office while I was out this morning. Now, listen, Mary. I've done all I'm going to do for your mother! And she's not to enter this house again--do you understand?"
"George!" said Mary.
"She is not going to enter my house," reiterated George. "I have often wondered what led to estrangements in families, but by the Lord, I think there's some excuse in this case! She lies to me, she sets my judgment at naught, she does the things with my children that I've expressly asked her not to do, she cultivates the people I loathe, she works you into a state of nervous collapse--it's too much! Now she's thrown her income away,--thrown it away! Now I tell you, Mary, I'll support her, if that's what she expects--"
"Really, George, you are--you are--Be careful!" Mary exclaimed, roused in her turn. "You forget to whom you are speaking. I admit that Mamma is annoying, I admit that you have some cause for complaint,--but you forget to whom you are speaking! I love my mother," said Mary, her feeling rising with every word. "I won't have her so spoken of! Not have her enter the house again? Why, do you suppose I am going to meet her in the street, and send her clothes after her as if she were a discharged servant?"
"She may come here for her clothes," George conceded, "but she shall not spend another night under my roof. Let her try taking care of herself for a change!"
There was a silence.
"George, don't you see how unreasonable you are?" Mary said, after a bitter struggle for calm.
"That's final," George said briefly.
"I don't know what you mean by final," his wife answered with warmth. "If you really think--"
"I won't argue it, my dear. And I won't have my life ruined by your mother, as thousands of men's lives have been ruined, by just such unscrupulous irresponsible women!"
"George," said Mary, very white, "I won't turn against my mother!"
"Then you turn against me," George said in a deadly calm.
"Do you expect her to board, George, in the same city that I have my home?" Mary demanded, after a pause.
"Plenty of women do it," George said inflexibly.
"But, George, you know Mamma! She'd simply be here all the time; it would come to exactly the same thing. She'd come after breakfast, and you'd have to take her home after dinner. She'd have her clothes made here, and laundered here, and she'd do all her telephoning..."
"That is exactly what has got to stop," said George. "I will pay her board at some good place. But I'll pay it... she won't touch the money. Besides that, she can have an allowance. But she must understand that she is not to come here except when she is especially invited, at certain intervals."
"George, dear, that is absolutely absurd!"
"Very well," George said, flushing, "but if she is here to-night, I will not come home. I'll dine at the club. When she has gone, I'll come home again."
Mary's head was awhirl. She scarcely knew where the conversation was leading then, or what the reckless things they said involved. She was merely feeling blindly now for the arguments that should give her the advantage.
"You needn't stay at the club, George," she said, "for Mamma and I will go down to Beach Meadow. When you have come to your senses, I'll come back. I'll let Miss Fox go, and Mamma and I will look out for the children--"
"I warn you," George interrupted her coldly, "that if you take any such step, you will have a long time to think it over before you hear from me! I warn you that it has taken much less than this to ruin the happiness of many a man and woman!"
Mary faced him, breathing hard. This was their first real quarrel. Brief times of impatience, unsympathy, differences of opinion there had been, but this--this Mary felt even now--was gravely different. With a feeling curiously alien and cold, almost hostile, she eyed the face opposite her own; the strange face that had been so familiar and dear only at breakfast time.
"I will go," she said quietly. "I think it will do us both good."
"Nonsense!" George said. "I won't permit it."
"What will you do, make a public affair of it?"
"No, you know I won't do that. But don't talk like a child, Mary. Remember, I mean what I say about your mother, and tell her so when she arrives."
After that, he went away. A long time passed, while Mary sat very still in the big leather chair at the head of the table. The sunlight shifted, fell lower,--shone ruby red through a decanter of claret on the sideboard. The house was very still.
After a while she went slowly upstairs. She dragged a little trunk from a hall closet, and began quietly, methodically, to pack it with her own clothes. Now and then her breast rose with a great sob, but she controlled herself instantly.
"This can't go on," she said aloud to herself. "It's not today--it's not to-morrow--but it's for all time. I can't keep this up. I can't worry and apologize, and neglect George, and hurt Mamma's feelings for the rest of my life. Mamma has always done her best for me, and I never saw George until five years ago--
"It's not," she went on presently, "as if I were a woman who takes marriage lightly. I have tried. But I won't desert Mamma. And I won't--I will not!--endure having George talk to me as he did today!"
She would go down to the children, she would rest, she would read again during the quiet evenings. Days would go by, weeks. But finally George would write her--would come to her. He must. What else could he do?
Something like terror shook her. Was this the way serious, endless separations began between men and their wives? Her mind flitted sickly to other people's troubles: the Waynes, who had separated because Rose liked gayety and Fred liked domestic peace; the Gardiners, who--well, there never did seem to be any reason there. Frances and the baby just went to her mother's home, and stayed home, and after a while people said she and Sid had separated, though Frances said she would always like Sid as a friend--not very serious reasons, these! Yet they had proved enough.
Mary paused. Was she playing with fire? Ah, no, she told herself, it was very different in her case. This was no imaginary case of "neglect" or "incompatibility." There was the living trouble,-- Mamma. And even if tonight she conceded this point to George, and Mamma was banished, sooner or later resentment, bitter and uncontrollable, would rise again, she knew, in her heart. No. She would go. George might do the yielding.
Once or twice tears threatened her calm. But it was only necessary to remind herself of what George had said to dry her eyes into angry brilliance again. Too late now for tears.
At five o'clock the trunk was packed, but Mamma had not yet arrived. There remained merely to wait for her, and to start with her for Beach Meadow. Mary's heart was beating fast now, but it was less with regret than with a nervous fear that something would delay her now. She turned the key in the trunk lock and straightened up with the sudden realization that her back was aching.
For a moment she stood, undecided, in the centre of her room. Should she leave a little note for George, "on his pincushion," or simply ask Lizzie to say that she had gone to Beach Meadow? He would not follow her there, she knew; George understood her. He knew of how little use bullying or coaxing would be. There would be no scenes. She would be allowed to settle down to an existence that would be happy for Mamma, good for the children, restful--free from distressing strain--for Mary herself.
With a curious freedom from emotion of any sort, she selected a hat, and laid her gloves beside it on the bed. Just then the front door, below her, opened to admit the noise of hurried feet and of joyous laughter. Several voices were talking at once. Mary, to whom the group was still invisible, recognized one of these as belonging to Mamma. As she went downstairs, she had only time for one apprehensive thrill, before Mamma herself ran about the curve of the stairway, and flung herself into Mary's arms.
Mamma was dressed in corn-colored silk, over which an exquisite wrap of the same shade fell in rich folds. Her hat was a creation of pale yellow plumes and hydrangeas, her silk stockings and little boots corn-colored. She dragged the bewildered Mary down the stairway, and Mary, pausing at the landing, looked dazedly at her husband, who stood in the hall below with a dark, middle-aged man whom she had never seen before.
"Here she is!" Mamma cried joyously. "Richie, come kiss her right this minute! Ma'y, darling, this is your new papa!"
"What!" said Mary, faintly. But before she knew it the strange man did indeed kiss her, and then George kissed her, and Mamma kissed her again, and all three shouted with laughter as they went over and over the story. Mary, in all the surprise and confusion, still found time to marvel at the sight of George's radiant face.
"Carter--of all people!" said George, with a slap on the groom's shoulder. "I loved his dea' wife like a sister!" Mamma threw in parenthetically, displaying to Mary's eyes her little curled-up fist with a diamond on it quite the width of the finger it adorned. "Strangely enough," said Mr. Carter, in a deep, dignified boom, "your husband and I had never met until to-day, Mrs.--ah, Mary-- when-" his proud eye travelled to the corn-colored figure, "when this young lady of mine introduced us!"
"Though we've exchanged letters, eh?" George grinned, cutting the wires of a champagne bottle. For they were about the dining-room table now, and the bride's health was to be drunk.
Mary, managing with some effort to appear calm, outwardly congratulatory, interested, and sympathetic; and already feeling somewhere far down in her consciousness an exhilarated sense of amusement and relief at this latest performance of Mamma's,--was nevertheless chiefly conscious of a deep and swelling indignation against George.
George! Oh, he could laugh now; he could kiss, compliment, rejoice with Mamma now, he could welcome and flatter Richard Carter now, although he had repudiated and insulted the one but a few hours ago, and had for years found nothing good to say of the other! He could delightedly involve Mary in his congratulations and happy prophecies now, when but today he had half broken her heart!
"Lovely!" she said, smiling automatically and rising with the others when the bridegroom laughingly proposed a toast to the firm that might some day be "Venable and Carter," and George insisted upon drinking it standing, and, "Oh, of course, I understand how sudden it all was, darling!" "Oh, Mamma, won't that be heavenly!" she responded with apparent rapture to the excited outpourings of the bride. But at her heart was a cold, dull weight, and her sober eyes went again and again to her husband's face.
"Oh, no!" she would say to herself, watching him, "you can't do that, George! You can't change about like a weathercock, and expect me to change, too, and forget everything that went before! You've chosen to dig the gulf between us--I'm not like Mamma, I'm not a child--my dignity and my rights can't be ignored in this fashion!"
No, the matter involved more than Mamma now. George should be punished; he should have his scare. Things must be all cleared up, explained, made right between them. A few weeks of absence, a little realization of what he had done would start their marriage off again on a new footing.
She kissed her mother affectionately at the door, gave the new relative a cordial clasp with both hands.
"We'll let you know in a week or two where we are," said Mamma, all girlish confusion and happiness. "You have my suit-case, Rich'? That's right, dea'. Good-by, you nice things!"
"Good-by, darling!" Mary said. She walked back into the empty library, seated herself in a great chair, and waited for George.
The front door slammed. George reappeared, chuckling, and rubbing his hands together. He walked over to a window, held back the heavy curtain, and watched the departing carriage out of sight.
"There they go!" he said. "Carter and your mother--married, by Jove! Well, Mary, this is about the best day's work for me that's come along for some time. Carter was speaking in the carriage only an hour ago about the possibility of our handling the New Nassau Bridge contract together. I don't know why not." George mused a moment, smilingly.
"I thought you had an utter contempt for him as a business man," Mary said stingingly--involuntarily, too, for she had not meant to be diverted from her original plan of a mere dignified farewell.
"Never for him," George said promptly. "I don't like some of his people. Burns, his chief construction engineer, for instance. But I've the greatest respect for him! And your mother!" said George, laughing again. "And how pretty she looked, too! Well, sir, they walked in on me this afternoon. I never was so surprised in my life! You know, Mary," said George, taking his own big leather chair, stretching his legs out luxuriously, and eying the tip of a cigar critically, "you know that your mother is an extremely fascinating woman! You'll see now how she'll blossom out, with a home of her own again--he's got a big house over on the Avenue somewhere, beside the Bar Kock place--and he runs three or four cars. Just what your mother loves!"
Mary continued to regard her husband steadily, silently. One look at the fixed expression of contempt on her face would have enlightened him, but George was lighting his cigar now, and did not glance at her.
"I'll tell you another thing, Mary," said George, after a match- scratching-and-puffing interlude, "I'll tell you another thing, my dear. You're an angel, and you don't notice these things as I do, but, by Jove, your mother was reaching the point where she pretty nearly made trouble between us! Fact!" he pursued, with a serious nod. "I get tired, you know, and nervous, and unreasonable--you must have had it pretty hard sometimes this month between your mother and me! I get hot--you know I don't mean anything! If you hadn't the disposition of a saint, things would have come to a head long ago. Now this very morning I talked to you like a regular kid. Mary, the minute I got back to the office I was ashamed of myself. Why, ninety-nine women out of a hundred would have raised the very deuce with me for that! But, by Jove--" his voice dropped to a pause.
"By Jove," George went on, "you are an angel! Now tell me the honest truth, old girl, didn't you resent what I said to-day, just for a minute?"
"I certainly did," Mary responded promptly and quietly, but with an uncomfortable sense of lessened wrath. "What you said was absolutely unwarrantable and insulting!"
"I'll bet you did!" said George, giving her a glance that was a little troubled, and a little wistful, too. "It was insulting, it was unwarrantable. But, my Lord, Mary, you know how I love your mother!" he continued eagerly. "She and I are the best of friends. We rasp each other now and then, but we both love you too much ever to come to real trouble. I'm no angel, Mary," said George, looking down his cigar thoughtfully, "but as men go, I'm a pretty decent man. You know how much time I've spent at the club since we were married. You know the fellows can't rope me into poker games or booze parties. I love my wife and my kids and my home. But when I think of you, and realize how unworthy I am of you, by Heaven--!" He choked, shook his head, finding further speech for a moment difficult. "There's no man alive who's worthy of you!" he finished. "The Lord's been very good to me."
Mary's eyes had filled, too. She sat for a minute, trying to steady her suddenly quivering lips. She looked at George sitting there in the twilight, and said to herself it was all true. He was good, he was steady, he was indeed devoted to her and to the children. But-- but he had insulted her, he had broken her heart, she couldn't let him off without some rebuke.
"You should have thought of these things before you--" she began, with a very fair imitation of scorn in her voice. But George interrupted her. His hands were clasped loosely between his knees, his head hanging dejectedly.
"I know," he said despondently, "I know!"
Mary paused. What she had still to say seemed suddenly flat. And in the pause her mother's one piece of advice came to her mind. After all it only mattered that he was unhappy, and he was hers, and she could make him happy again.
She left her chair, went with a few quick steps to her husband's side, and knelt, and put her cheek against his shoulder. He gave a great boyish laugh of relief and pleasure and put his arms about her.
"How old are you, George?" she said.
"How old am I? What on earth--why, I'm forty," he said.
"I was just thinking that the best of you men is only a little boy, and should be treated as such!" said Mary, kissing him.
"You can treat me as you like," he assured her, joyously. "And I'm starving. And unless you think there is any likelihood of Mamma dropping in and spoiling our plan, I would like to take you out to dinner."
"Well, she might," Mary agreed with a happy laugh, "so I'll simply run for my hat. You never can be sure, with Mamma!"