Undertow by Kathleen Thompson Norris
There was no stopping half way, however. The current had caught the Bradleys and it carried them on. There was no expense that could be lessened without weakening the whole structure. Nancy grew sick of bills, bills that came in the mail, that were delivered, and that piled up on her desk. She honestly racked her brain to discover the honourable solution; there was no solution. Even while she pondered, Priscilla in her arms, the machinery that she and Bert had so eagerly constructed went on of its own power.
"The cleaner's man, Hannah?" Nancy would ask, sighing. "You'll have to give him all those things; the boys' white coats are absolutely no good to them until they're cleaned, and Mr. Bradley really needs the vests. And put in my blue waist, and all those gloves, and the lace waist, too--no use letting it wait!"
"The things to-day came collect, Mrs. Bradley," Hannah might respectfully remind her.
"Oh, of course! And how much was it?--eleven-forty? Heavens! What made it so big?"
"Two suits, and your velvet dress, and one of Anne's dresses. And the man came for your furs this morning, and the awning place telephoned that they would send a man out to measure the porches. Mr. Bradley sent a man back from the station to ask you about plants; but you were asleep, and I didn't like to wake you!"
It was always something. Just as Nancy thought that the household expenses had been put behind her for a few days at least, a fresh crop sprang up. A room must be papered, the spare room needed curtains, Bert's racket was broken, the children clamoured for new bathing-suits. Nancy knew two moods in the matter. There was the mood in which she simply refused to spend money, and talked darkly to the children of changes, and a life devoid of all this ridiculous waste; and there was the mood in which she told herself desperately that they would get through somehow, everyone else did, one had to live, after all. In the latter mood she ordered new glasses and new towels, and white shoes for all four children, and bottles of maraschino cherries, and tins of caviar and the latest novel, and four veils at a time.
"Mrs. Albert Bradley, Marlborough Gardens--by self," Nancy said smoothly, swimming through the great city shops. Sometimes she was a little scared when the boxes and boxes and boxes came home, but after all, they really needed the things, she told herself. But needed or not, she and Bert began to quarrel about money, and to resent each other's extravagances. The sense of an underlying financial distress permeated everything they did; Nancy's face developed new expressions, she had a sharp look for the moment in which Bert told her that he was going to take their boys and the Underhill boys to the Hippodrome, or that he was going to play poker again. Bert rarely commented upon her own recklessness, further than to patiently ejaculate, "Lord!"
"Why do you say that, Bert?" she might ask, with violent self- control.
"Nothing, my dear, nothing!" Bert would return to his newspaper, or his razor. "I was just thinking. No matter!"
Nancy would stand, eyeing him sulphurously.
"But just what do you mean, Bert?" she would pursue. "Do you mean that you don't think I should have gotten the suit? I can't wear that fur-trimmed suit into the summer, you know. The hat was eighteen dollars--do you think there's another woman in the Gardens who pays no more than that? Lots of men haven't four lovely children and a home to support, they haven't wives who make all their friends welcome, as I do. Perhaps you feel that they are better off? If you don't--I don't see what you have to complain about. ..." And she would take her own way of punishing him for his air of detachment and superiority. Bert was not blameless, himself. It was all very well for Bert to talk of economy and self-denial, but Bert himself paid twelve dollars a pair for his golf-shoes, and was the first man at the club to order champagne at the dance suppers.
Smouldering with indignation, Nancy would shrug off her misgivings. Why should she hesitate over furs and new hangings for the study and the present for the Appletons, when Bert was so reckless? It would all be paid for, somehow.
"And why should I worry," Nancy asked herself, "and try to save a few cents here and there, when Bert is simply flinging money right and left?"
But for all her ready argument, Nancy was sometimes wretchedly unhappy. She had many a bitter cry about it all--tears interrupted by the honking of motors in the road, and ended with a dash of powder, a cold towel pressed to hot eyes, and the cheerful fiction of a headache. It was all very well to laugh and chat over the tea-cups, to accept compliments upon her lovely home and her lovely children, but she knew herself a hypocrite even while she did so. She could not say what was wrong, but something was wrong.
Even the children seemed changed to her in these days. The boys were nice-looking, grinning little lads, in their linen suits and white canvas hats, but somehow they did not seem to belong to her any more. Her own boys, whose high chairs had stood in her kitchen a few years ago, while she cut cookies for them and their father, seemed to have no confidences to unfold, and no hopes to share with their mother, now. Sometimes they quite obviously avoided the society of the person who must eternally send them to wash their hands, and exclaim at the condition of their knees. Sometimes they whined and teased to go with her in the motor, and had to be sternly asked by their father if they wished to be punished. Pierre took them about with him on week days, and they played with the other boys of the Gardens, eating too much and staying up too late, but rarely in the way.
Anne was a shy, inarticulate little blonde now, thin, sensitive, and plain. Her hair was straight, and she had lost her baby curls. Nancy did what she could for her, with severe little smocks of blue and lemon colour, and duly started her to school with the boys. But Anne cried herself into being sick, at school, and it was decided to keep her at home for a while. So Anne followed Agnes about, Agnes and the radiant Priscilla, who was giggling her way through a dimpled, rose-pink babyhood; the best of the four, and the easiest to manage. Priscilla chewed her blue ribbons peacefully, through all domestic ups and downs, and never cried when the grown-ups went away, and left her with Agnes.