Chapter Twenty-four
 

There was a brief halt when a fourth child, Priscilla, was born. It was in the quiet days that followed Priscilla's birth, that the Bradleys began to look certain unpleasant facts squarely in the face. They were running steadily deeper and deeper into debt. There were no sensational expenditures, but there were odd bills left unpaid, from midsummer, from early fall, from Christmas.

"And I don't see where we can cut down," said Bert, gloomily.

It was dusk of a bitter winter day. Nancy was lying on a wide couch beside her bedroom fire, Priscilla snuffled in a bassinet near by. In a lighted room adjoining, a nurse was washing bottles. The coming of the second daughter had somehow brought husband and wife nearer together than they had been for a long time, even now Nancy had been wrapped in peaceful thought; this was like the old times, when she had been tired and weak, and Bert had sat and talked about things, beside her! She brought her mind resolutely to bear upon all the distasteful suggestions contained in his involuntary remark.

"What specially worries you, Bert?" she asked.

He turned to her in quick gratitude for her sympathy.

"Nothing special, dear. We just get in deeper and deeper, that's all. The table, and the servants, and the car, and your bill at Landmann's--nothing stays within any limit any more! I don't know where we stand, half the time. It's not that!" He pulled at his pipe for a moment in silence. "It's not that!" he burst out, "but I don't think we get much out of it!"

Nancy glanced at him quickly, and then stared into the fire for a moment of silence. Then she said in a low tone:

"I don't believe we do!"

"I like Biggerstaff--and I like Rose and Fielding well enough!" Bert added presently, after profound thought, "but I don't like 'em all day and all night! I don't like this business of framing something up every Sunday--a lot of fur coats and robes, and all of us getting out half-frozen to eat dinners we don't want, all over the place--"

"And hours and hours of making talk with women I really don't care about, for me!" Nancy said. "I love Mary Ingram," she said presently, "and the Biggerstaffs. But that's about all."

"Exactly," said her husband grimly. "But it's not the Ingrams nor the Biggerstaffs who made our club bill sixty dollars this month" he added.

"Bert! It wasn't!"

"Oh, yes it was. Everyone of us had to take four tickets to the dance, you know, and we had two bottles of wine New Year's Eve; it all counts up. But part of it was for Atherton, that cousin of Collins, he asked me to sign for him because he had more than the regulation number of guests!"

"But Bert, he'll surely pay you?"

"Maybe he will, maybe he won't; it's just one of those things you can't mention."

"I could let Hannah go," mused Nancy, "but in the rush last summer I let her help Pauline--waiting on table. Now Pauline won't set her foot out of the kitchen for love or money."

"And Pauline is wished on us as long as we keep Pierre," Bert said, "No, you'll need 'em all now, with the baby to run. But we'll try to pull in a little where we can. My bills for the car are pretty heavy, and we've got a Tiffany bill for the Fielding kid's present, and the prizes for the card party. That school of the boys--it's worth all this, is it?"

Nancy did not answer; her brow was clouded with thought. Doctor, school, maids, car, table--it was all legitimate expense. Where might it be cut? For a few minutes they sat in silence, thinking. Then Bert sighed, shrugged his shoulders, and walked over to look down at Priscilla.

"Hello, Goo-goo!" said he: "You're having a grand little time with your blanket, aren't you?"

"I'll truly take the whole thing in hand," Nancy said, noticing with a little pang that dear old Bert was looking older, and grayer, than he had a few years ago. "When I come downstairs, self-denial week will set in!"

Her tone brought him to her side; he stooped to kiss the smiling face between the thick braids.

"You always stand by me, Nance!" he said gratefully.