Undertow by Kathleen Thompson Norris
"The Old Hill House," on the north Connecticut line, seemed almost too good to be true. It was an unpretentious country hotel, and Nancy and Junior settled themselves in one of its hot, second- story rooms feeling almost guiltily happy. Nancy kissed Bert good- bye on the first Monday morning assuring him that she had nothing to do! To go down to meals, and they were good meals, without the slightest share in the work of preparing them, and to be able to wear dainty clothes without the ruinous contact with the kitchen, seemed too luxurious.
But she was not quite idle, none-the-less. Junior had to have his morning bath, after breakfast, and while he was in the tub, his mother washed six bottles in the hand-basin. Then, on a tiltish alcohol stove, Nancy had to boil his barley for twenty endless minutes. When the stove upset there was an additional half-hour's hard work, but even when it did not, it was usually ten o'clock before she went down to the kitchen for his two quarts of milk. Then came the usual careful work with the "ouncer," and the six filled bottles were put into Nancy's own small ice-box, to which one of the maids was then supposed to bring a small piece of ice. The left-over milk was taken back to the kitchen, and Nancy washed the little saucepan in her hand-basin, and put away stove and barley. By this time Junior was ready for another bottle, and when he went to sleep his mother went down to the laundry with an arm- full of small garments.
There was no other way. Labour was scarce in the village, and Nancy could get no one of the housemaids to take upon herself this daily task. Women from the outside were not allowed in the hotel laundry, and so the task fell naturally to the baby's mother. She assumed it gladly, but when the line of snowy linen was blowing free in the summer wind, and the cake of soap had been put on its special rafter, and the tubs were draining, Nancy usually went up to her bedroom, tiptoeing in because of the sleeper, and flung herself down for a heavy nap.
After luncheon she gathered in her linen and watched by the wideawake baby. Then they went down to the cool shade by the creek, and Junior threw stones, and splashed fat hands in the shallows, and his mother watched him adoringly. It never entered her head that she was anything but privileged to be able to slave for him. He was always and supremely worth while. Nancy's only terrors were that something would happen to rob her of the honour. She wanted no other company; Junior was her world, except when Saturday's noon train brought Bert. She told her husband, and meant it, that she was too happy; they did not need the world.
But sometimes the world intruded, and turned Nancy's hard-won philosophy to ashes. She did not want to be idle, and she did not want to be rich, but when she saw women younger than herself, in no visible way inferior, who were both, her calm was shattered for a time.
One day she and Bert wheeled the boy, in his small cart, down a pleasant unfamiliar roadway, and across a rustic bridge, and, smiling over their adventure, found themselves close to a low, wide-spreading Colonial house, with striped awnings shading its wide porches, and girls and men in white grouped about a dozen tea-tables. Tennis courts were near by, and several motor-cars stood beside the pebbled drive.
A gray-uniformed attendant came to them, civilly. Did they wish to see some member of the club! "Oh, it is a club then," Bert asked, a little too carelessly. "It is the Silver River Country Club, sir."
"Oh, well, we'll get out of here, then," Bert said good naturedly, as he turned the perambulator on the gravel under a hundred casual eyes. He and Nancy chatted quite naturally about their mistake, as they re-crossed the rustic bridge, and went up the unfamiliar roadway again. But a cloud lay over them for the rest of that day, and that night Nancy said:
"What must one have--or be--to belong to a thing like that, Bert?"
"To--oh, that club?" Bert answered, "Oh, it isn't so much. A hundred initiation, and a hundred a year, I suppose." "We could do that--some year," Nancy predicted.
"Well, it isn't only that. There's no use joining a country club," Bert said musingly, "unless you can do the thing decently. It means signing checks for tea, and cocktails, and keeping a car, and the Lord knows what! It means tennis rackets and golf sticks and tips and playing bridge for a stake. It all counts up!"
"Where do all those people get the money?" Nancy asked resentfully. "They looked common, to me!"
"We'll get there, never you fret!" Bert answered vaguely. But long after he was asleep his wife lay awake in the hot hotel bedroom, and thought darkly of fate. She came of gentle stock, and she would meet her lot bravely, but oh, how she longed for ease, for a little luxury, for coolness and darkness and silence and service, for frothy laces and the touch of silk!
Lights came up from the lawn before the hotel. It was Sunday night, and the young people were making the most of the precious week-end. Nancy heard a clock somewhere strike ten, and then the single stroke for the half-hour. She got up and sat beside the window; the night was insufferably close, with not a breath of air.
Junior sighed; his mother arose, stricken, and lighted a shaded lamp. Half-past-ten and she had forgotten his bottle!
When she carried it over to him, he was wide awake, his face sober, his aureole of bright hair damp with the heat. But at the sight of his playfellow his four new teeth came suddenly into sight. Here was "Mugger," the unfailing solace and cheer of his life. He gave her a beatific smile, and seized the bottle with a rapturous "glug." Bert was roused by her laughter, and the soft sound of kisses.