Undertow by Kathleen Thompson Norris
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.