Undertow by Kathleen Thompson Norris
She was still the centre of his universe and her own when she walked with her hand on his arm, to the little hospital around the corner, on a sweet April morning. The slow coming of spring had brought her a new tenderness and a new dependence, and instinctively she felt that, when she came home again, she would be a new Nancy. The wistfulness that marks any conscious human change had been hers for many days now; she was not distrustful, she was not unhappy, but she was sobered and thoughtful.
"We have been happy, haven't we, Bert?" she said, more than once.
"We always will be, my darling! You know that."
But she would only smile at him wisely, for reply. She was still happy, happier perhaps than ever. But she knew that she was no longer the mistress of her own happiness--it lay in other hands now.
So the universe was turned upside down for Nancy, and she lost, once and for all her position as its centre. The world, instead of a safe and cheerful place, became full of possible dangers for the baby, Albert the eighth. Nancy, instead of a self-reliant, optimistic woman, was only a weary, feeble, ignorant person who doubted her own power to protect this priceless treasure.
He was a splendid baby--that was part of the trouble. He was too splendid, he had never been equalled, and could never be replaced, and she would go stark, staring mad if anything happened to him! Nancy almost went mad, as it was. If the Cullinan Diamond had been placed in Nancy's keeping, rather than worry about it as she worried about Junior, she would have flung it gaily into the East River. But she could not dispose of the baby; her greatest horror was the thought of ever separating from him, the fear that some day Bert might want to send him, the darling, innocent thing, at fourteen, to boarding-school, or that there might be a war, and Junior might enlist!
She showed him to visiting friends in silence. When Nancy had led them in to the bedroom, and raised a shade so that the tempered sun light revealed the fuzzy head and shut eyes and rotund linen- swathed form of Junior, she felt that words were unnecessary. She never really saw the baby's face, she saw something idealized, haloed, angelic. In later year she used to say that none of the hundreds of snapshots Bert took of him really did the child justice. Junior had been the most exquisitely beautiful baby that any one ever saw, everyone said so.
When Bert got home at night, she usually had a request to make of him. Would he just look at Junior? No, he was all right, only he had hardly wanted his three o'clock nursing, and he was sleeping so hard--
And at this point, if she was tired--and she was always tired!-- Nancy would break into tears. "Bert--hadn't we better ask Colver to come and see him?" she would stammer, eagerly.
Ten minutes later she would be laughing, as she served Bert his dinner. Of course he was all right, only, being alone with him all day, she got to worrying. And she was tired.
Poor Nancy, she was not to know rest or leisure for many years to come. She was clever, and as resolutely as she had solved their first, simple problem, she set about solving this new one. They had forty dollars a week with which to manage now, but the extra money seemed only a special dispensation to provide for the growing demands of Junior.
Junior needed a coach, a crib, new shirts--"he is getting immense, the darling!" was Nancy's one rapturous comment, when four of these were bought at sixty cents each. In November he needed two quarts of milk daily, and what his mother called "an ouncer" to take the top-milk safely from the bottle, and a small ice box for the carefully prepared bottles, and the bottles themselves. He always needed powder and safety-pins and new socks, and presently he had to have a coloured woman to do his washing, for Nancy was growing stronger and more interested in life in general, and came to the conclusion that he might safely be left for a few moments with Esmeralda, now and then.
He paid for these favours in his own way, and neither Bert nor Nancy ever felt that it was inadequate. When his sober fat face wrinkled into a smile of welcome to his father, Bert was moved almost to tears. When she wheeled him through the streets, royally benign after a full bottle, rosy-cheeked in his wooly white cap, Nancy felt almost too rich. Junior filled all the gaps in her life, it mattered not what she lacked while she had Junior.
The forty dollar income melted as quickly as the twenty-five dollar one, and far more mysteriously. Nancy would have felt once that forty dollars every week was riches, but between Junior's demands, and the little leakage of Esmeralda's wages, and her hearty lunch twice a week, and the milk, and the necessarily less- careful marketing, they seemed to be just where they were before.
"There must be some way of living that we can afford!" mused Nancy, one March morning at the breakfast table, when the world looked particularly bright to the young Bradleys. Junior, curly- headed, white-clad, and excited over a hard crust of toast, sat between his parents, who interrupted their meal to kiss his fat fists, the dewy back of his neck under the silky curls, and even the bare toes that occasionally appeared on the board.
This was Sunday, and for months it had been the custom to weigh Junior on Sunday, a process that either put Nancy and Bert into a boastful mood for the day, or reduced the one to tearful silence, and the other to apprehensive bravado. But now the baby was approaching his first anniversary, and it was perfectly obvious that his weight was no longer a matter of concern. He was so large, so tall, and so fat that one of Nancy's daily satisfactions was to have other mothers, in the park, ask her his age. She looked at him with fond complacency rather than apprehension now, feeling that every month and week of his life made him a little more sure of protracted existence, and herself a little more safe as his mother.
"How do you mean--afford?" Bert asked. "We pay our bills, and we're not in debt."
"When I say 'afford,'" Nancy answered, "I mean that we do not live without a frightful amount of worry and fuss about money. To just keep out of debt, and make ends meet, is not my idea of life!"
"It's the way lots of people live--if they're lucky," Bert submitted, picking Junior's damp crust from the floor, eyeing it dubiously, and substituting another crust in its place.
"Well, it's all wrong!" Nancy stated positively. "There should be a comfortable living for everyone in this world who works even half as hard as you do--and if any one wants to work harder, let him have the luxuries!"
"That's socialism, Nance."
She raised her pretty brows innocently.
"Is it? Well, I'm not a socialist. I guess I just don't understand."
She knew, as the weeks went by, that there were other things she could not understand. Toil as she might, from morning until night, there was always something undone. It puzzled her strangely.
Other women had even harder problems, what did they do? Few women had steady, clever husbands like Bert. Few had energy and enthusiasm like hers. But she was so tired, all the time, that even when the daily routine ran smoothly, and the marketing and Junior's naps and meals occurred on schedule time, the result hardly seemed worth while. She whisked through breakfast and breakfast dishes, whisked through the baby's bath, had her house in order when he awakened from his nap, wheeled him to market, wheeled him home for another bottle and another nap. Then it was time for her own meal, and there were a few more dishes, and some simple laundry work to do, and then again the boy was dressed, and the perambulator was bumped out of the niche below the stairs, and they went out again. The hardest hour of all, in the warm lengthening days of spring, was between five and six. Junior was tired and cross, dinner preparations were under way, the table must be set, one more last bottle warmed. When Bert came in, Nancy, flushed and tired, was ready, and he might play for a few minutes with Junior before he was tucked up. But the relaxation of the meal was trying to Nancy, and the last dishes a weary drag. She would go to her chair, when they were done, and sit stupidly staring ahead of her. Sometimes, in this daze, she would reach for the fallen sheets of the evening paper, and read them indifferently. Sometimes she merely battled with yawns, before taking herself wearily to bed.
"Can I get you your book, dear?" Bert might ask.
"No-o-o! Pm too sleepy. I put my head down on the bed beside Junior to-day, and I've been as heavy as lead ever since! Besides, I forgot to wash my hands, and they're dishwatery."
"What tires you so, do you suppose?"
"Oh, nothing special, and everything! I think watching the baby is very tiring. He never uses all my time, and yet I can't do anything else while I have him. And then he's getting so mischievous--he makes work!"
"What'll you do next year?" Bert questioned sometimes dubiously.
"Oh, we'll manage!" And with a sleepy smile, and a sleepy kiss, Nancy would trail away, only too grateful to reach her bed after the hard hours.
Bert had carefully calculated upon her spring wardrobe, and she became quite her animated self over the excitement of selecting new clothes. They left Esmeralda in charge of Junior, and made an afternoon of it, and dined down town in the old way. Over the meal Bert told her that he had made exactly three hundred dollars at a blow, in a commission, and that she and the boy were going to the country for six weeks.
This led to a wonderful hour, when they compared feelings, and reviewed their adventure. Nancy marvelled at the good fortune that followed them, "we are marvellously lucky, aren't we, Bert?" she asked, appreciatively. She had just spent almost a hundred dollars for her summer clothes and the boy's! And now they were really going to the blessed country, to be free for six weeks from planning meals and scraping vegetables and stirring cereals. Radiantly, they discussed mountains and beaches, even buying a newspaper, on the hot walk home, to pore over in search of the right place.