Chapter Twenty-six

Worse than any real or fancied change in the children, however, was the unmistakable change in Bert. Heartsick, Nancy saw it. It was not that he failed as a husband, Bert would never do that; but the bloom seemed gone from their relationship, and Nancy felt sometimes that he was almost a stranger. He never looked at her any more, really looked at her, in the old way. He hardly listened to her, when she tried to engage him in casual talk; to hold him she must speak of the immediate event--the message Joe had left for him, the plan for to-morrow's luncheon. He was popular with the men, and his wife would hear him chucklingly completing arrangements with them for this affair or that, even while she was frantically indicating, with everything short of actual speech, that she did not want to go to Little Mateo's to dinner; she did not want to be put into the Fieldings' car, while he went off with Oliver Rose in his roadster.

"Are you crazy!" she would exclaim, in a fierce undertone when they were upstairs dressing, "Didn't you see that I don't want to go to-night? I can't understand you sometimes. Bert, you'll fall in with a plan that I absolutely--"

"Now, look here, Nancy, look here! Weren't you and Mrs. Rose the two that cooked this whole scheme up last night--"

"She suggested it, and I merely said that I thought sometime it would be fun--"

"Oh, well, if you plan a thing and then go back on it--"

This led nowhere. In silence the Bradleys would finish their dressing, in silence descend to the joyous uproar of the cars. But Nancy despaired of the possibility of ever impressing Bert, through a dignified silence, with a sense of her displeasure. How could she possibly be silent under these circumstances? What was the use, anyway? Bert was tired, irritable, he had not meant to annoy her. It was just that they both were nervously tense; presently they would find some way of lessening the strain.

But--she began to wish that he would not drink quite so much. The other men did, of course, but then they were more used to it than Bert. Perhaps this constant stimulation accounted for Bert's nervous irritability, for the indefinable hardening and estranging. Nancy was not prudish, she had seen wine on her father's table since she was a baby, she enjoyed it herself, now and then. But to have cocktails served even at the women's luncheons; to have every host, whatever the meal, preface it with the slishing of chopped ice and the clink of tiny glasses, worried her. Bert even mixed a cocktail when he and she dined alone now, and she knew that when he had had two or three, he would want something more, would eagerly ask her if she would like to "stir up something" for the evening--how about a run over to the Ocean House, with the Fieldings? And wherever they went, there was more drinking.

"Let's make a rule," she proposed one day. "Let's confine our hospitality to persons we really and truly like. Nobody shall come here without express invitation!"

"You're on!" Bert agreed enthusiastically.

Ten minutes later it chanced that two motor-loads of persons they both thoroughly disliked poured into Holly Court, and Nancy rushed out to scramble some sandwiches together in the frigid atmosphere of the kitchen, where Pauline and Hannah were sourly attacking the ruins of a company lunch.

"It's maddening," she said to Bert, later, when the intruders had honked away into the late summer afternoon, "But what can we do? Such a sweet day, and we have that noisy crowd to lunch, and then this!"

"Well, we're having a lot of fun out of it, anyway!" Bert said, half-heartedly. Nancy did not answer.