Undertow by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Bert was very late, that night. The children were all asleep, and Nancy had dined, and was dreaming over her black coffee when, at nine o'clock, he came in. He was not hungry--just hot and tired-- he wanted something cool. He had lunched late, in town, with both the Pearsalls, had not left the table until four o'clock. And he had news for her. He was leaving Pearsall and Pearsall.
Nancy looked at him stupefied. What did he mean? Panic seized her, and under her panic something rose and exulted. Perhaps it was trouble--perhaps Bert needed his wife again!
"I'm going in for myself," said Bert. "Now, don't look so scared; it may be slow for a while, but there's big money in it, for me. I'm going to be Albert Bradley, Real Estate. You see, I've been advising Fred to handle this new proposition, down the Island, but he's young, and he's rich, and his father's an old man. Fred won't keep up the business when old Buck retires. He didn't want to handle it and they both asked me why I didn't go into it for myself. There's a pot of money in it, Nance, if I can swing it. However, I never thought of it until Biggerstaff asked me if I knew about anything of that kind--he's got some money to put in, and so has Ingram. This was last week. Well, I went to see. ..."
Nancy listened, frightened and thrilled. Fear was uppermost; before this she had seen something of daring business ventures in her southern childhood. But on the other hand, there was the possibility of "big money," and they needed money! They needed, as Bert said, to get out of the ranks, to push in before the next fellow pushed in. She had a vision of herself telling the other women of the Gardens that Mr. Bradley had gone into business for himself; that the Pearsalls were going to throw anything they could his way. It sounded dignified--Bert with a letter head, and an office in Broadway!
She was lost in a complacent dream when Bert's voice awakened her.
"So that, if Buck does lend it, that means the interest on fifty thousand. ..."
"Fifty thousand?" Nancy repeated, alarmed.
"Well, perhaps not quite that. I've got to figure it as closely as I can. ..." Nancy's colour had faded a trifle.
"Bert, you would be mad to get into it, or into anything, as deep as that!" she said breathlessly. Bert, dashed in the midst of his confident calculations, turned something like a snarl upon her.
"Well, what am I going to do?" he asked angrily. "It's all very well for you to sit there and advise me to keep out of it, but what am I going to do? It's a chance, and I believe in taking it. I know my market, I know how these things are handled. If I can swing this in the next three or four years, I can swing other things. It means that we step right into the rich class--"
"But if you fail--?" Nancy suggested, impressed in spite of herself.
"You keep your end of things going," he urged her, in a sombre voice, "and I'll take care of mine!"
"I'll try, Bert, I'll do the best I can." With something of her old, comradely spirit, she laid her hand on his arm. "I'll let Hannah go--at least I will as soon as the Berrys' visit is over. And what about our going to the Sewalls', Bert, that's going to be an expensive trip. Shall I get out of that?"
"No," Bert decided thoughtfully. "I may want to get Sewall into this thing. We'll have to go there--I wish to the deuce we could get rid of Pauline and Pierre; but I don't see myself taking care of the car, somehow!"
"Everyone envies us Pauline," Nancy observed. And seeing that he was still scowling thoughtfully at his black-coffee cup, she touched his hand affectionately again, and set herself seriously to soothe him. "But we'll find ways of economizing, dear. I'll watch the bills, and I'll scold Pauline again about the butter and eggs and meat that she wastes. You must remember that you have a big family, Bert. You're raising four healthy children, and you have a car, and a man, and a beautiful home, and a delightful group of friends, and two or three fine clubs--"
But for once Bert was not easily quieted. He put his head in his hands and gave a sort of groan.
"Don't tell me what I've got--I know it all! Lord, I lie awake nights wondering what would happen to the crowd of you--However!" And dismissing the topic, he glanced at his watch. "I think I'll turn in before anybody comes in, Nance. I need sleep." With a long tired yawn, he started for the big square stairway; paused at her desk. "What're all those?"
"Bills, Bert. I'm sorry to have you see them now. But we ought to pay some of them--I've been going over things, this afternoon. Now, especially if you're going to make a fresh start, we ought to straighten things out. We ought to plan that we can spend so much money, and stick to that."
Bert flipped the pile with a careless finger.
"We never will!" he said morosely. "We never have."
"Oh, Bert--we used to clear everything off on the first of the month, and then celebrate, don't you remember?"
He jerked his head impatiently.
"What's the use of harking back to that? That was years ago, and things are different now. We'll pull out of it, I'm not worried. Only, where we can, I think we ought to cut down."
"Dentist--" Nancy said musingly. She had come over to stand beside him, and now glanced at one of the topmost bills. "You have to have a dentist," she argued.
"Well, I'm too tired to go over 'em now!" Bert said, unsympathetically. "Leave 'em there--I'll take them all up in a day or two!"
"But I was thinking," Nancy said, following him upstairs, "That while you are about it, borrowing money for the new venture, you know--why not borrow an extra thousand or two, and clear this all up, and then we can really start fresh. You see interest on a thousand is only fifty dollars a year, and that--"
"That's nonsense!" Bert answered, harshly, "Borrowing money for a business is one thing, and borrowing money to pay for household bills is another! I don't propose to shame myself before men like Biggerstaff and Ingram by telling them that I can't pay my butcher's bill!"
"I wish you wouldn't take that tone with me," Nancy said, sharply, "I merely meant to make a suggestion that might be helpful--"
A bitter quarrel followed, the bitterest they had ever known. Bert left the house without speaking to his wife the next morning, and Nancy looked out into the still August sunshine with a heavy weight on her heart, as, scowling, he wheeled the car under the maples, and swept away. She went about all day long silent and brooding, answering the children vaguely, and with occasional deep sighs. She told Mrs. Smith that Mr. Bradley would let her know about the hospital money right away, and planned a day at the tennis tournament, and a dinner after it, between periods of actual pain. It was all so stupid--it was all so sad and hopeless and unnecessary!
Bert had not meant what he said to her; she had not meant what she said to him, and they both knew it. But an ugly silence lasted between them for several days. They spoke to each other civilly, before other people; they dressed and went about with an outward semblance of pleasantness, and at home they spoke to the servants and the children.