Wallace was playing a few weeks' engagement in the vaudeville houses of New Jersey and Brooklyn when his second child was born. He had been at home for a few hours that morning, coming in for clean linen, a good breakfast, and a talk with his wife. He was getting fifty dollars a week, as support for a woman star, and was happy and confident. The hard work--twelve performances a week--left small time for idling or drinking, and Martie's eager praise added the last touch to his content.
She was happy, too, as she walked back into the darkened, orderly house. It was just noon. Isabeau, having finished her work, had departed with Teddy to see a friend in West One Hundredth Street; John had sent Martie Maeterlinck's "Life of the Bee," and a fat, inviting brown book, "All the Days of My Life." She had planned to go to the hospital next week, Wallace coming home on Sunday to act as escort, and she determined to keep the larger book for the stupid days of convalescence.
She stretched herself on the dining-room couch, reached for the smaller book, and began to read. For a second, a look of surprise crossed her face, and she paused. Then she found the opening paragraph, and plunged into the story. But she had not read three sentences before she stopped again.
Suddenly, in a panic, she was on her feet. Frightened, breathless, laughing, she went into the kitchen.
"Isabeau out ... Heavenly day! What shall I do!" she whispered. "It can't be! Fool that I was to let her go ... what shall I do!"
Life caught her and shook her like a helpless leaf in a whirlwind. She went blindly into the bedroom and began feverishly to fling off her outer garments. Presently she made her way back to the kitchen again, and put her lips to the janitor's telephone.
Writhing seconds ensued. Finally she heard the shrill answering whistle.
"Mr. Kelly, is Mrs. Brice at home, do you know? Or Mrs. Napthaly? This is Mrs. Bannister... I'm ill. Will you get somebody?"
She broke off abruptly; catching the back of a chair. Kelly was a grandfather ... he would understand. But if somebody didn't come pretty soon...
It seemed hours; it was only minutes before the blessed sound of waddling feet came to the bedroom door. Old Grandma Simons, Mrs. Napthaly's mother, came in. Martie liked and Teddy loved the shapeless, moustached old woman, who lived out obscure dim days in the flat below, washing and dressing and feeding little black-eyed grandchildren. Martie never saw her in anything but a baggy, spotted black house-dress, but there were great gatherings and feasts occasionally downstairs, and then presumably the adored old head of the family was more suitably clad.
"Vell ... vot you try and do?" said Grandma Simons, grasping the situation at once, and full of sympathy and approval.
"I don't know!" half-laughed, half-gasped Martie from the pillows. "I'm awfully afraid my baby..." A spasm of pain brought her on one elbow, to a raised position. "Oh, don't do that!" she screamed.
"I do nothing!" said the old woman soothingly. And as Martie sank back on the pillows, gasping and exhausted, yet with excited relief brightening her face, Grandma Simons added triumphantly: "Now you shall rest; you are a goot girl!"
A second later the thin cry with which the newborn catch the first weary breath of an alien world floated through the room. Protesting, raw, it fell on Martie's ears like the resolving chord of an exquisite melody. Still breathless, still panting from strain and fright, she smiled.
"Ah, the darling! Is he all right?" she whispered.
"You haf a girl!" the old woman interrupted her clucking and grumbling to say briefly. "Vill you lay still, and let the old Grandma fix you, or not vill you?" she added sternly. "Grandma who has het elefen of dem...."
"Don't cry, little Margaret!" Martie murmured, happy under the kindly adjusting old hands. The old woman stumped about composedly, opening bureau drawers and scratching matches in the kitchen, before she would condescend to telephone for the superfluous doctor. She was pouring a flood of Yiddish endearments and diminutives about the newcomer, when the surprised practitioner arrived. Mrs. Simons scouted the idea of a nurse; she would come upstairs, her daughters would come upstairs--what was it, one baby! Martie was allowed a cupful of hot milk, and went to sleep with one arm about the flannel bundle that was Margaret.
Well--she thought, drifting into happy dreams--of course, the hospital was wonderful: the uniformed nurses, the system, the sanitation. But this was wonderful, too. So many persons had to be consulted, had to be involved, in the coming of a hospital baby; so much time, so many different rooms and hallways.
The clock had not yet struck two; she had given Wallace his breakfast at eleven, Isabeau would be home at five; Grandma had gone downstairs to borrow some of the put-away clothes of the last little Napthaly. Martie had nothing to do but smile and sleep. To-morrow, perhaps, they would let her go on with "The Life of the Bee."
Peace lapped soul and body. The long-approaching trial was over. In a few days she would arise, mistress of herself once more, and free to remake her life.
First, they must move. Even if they could afford to pay six hundred dollars a year in rent, this flat was neither convenient nor sanitary for little children. Secondly, Wallace must understand that while he worked and was sober, his wife would do her share; if he failed her, she must find some other life. Thirdly, as soon as the baby's claims made it possible, Martie must find some means of making money; her own money, independent of what Wallace chose to give.
She pondered the various possibilities. She could open a boarding- house; although that meant an outlay for furniture and rent. She could take a course in library work or stenography; that meant leaving the children all day.
She began to study advertisements in the newspapers for working housekeepers, and one day wrote a businesslike application to the company that controlled a line of fruit steamers between the city and Panama. Mrs. Napthaly's sister-in-law was stewardess on one of these, and had good pay. Short stories, film-plays, newspaper work-- other women did these things. But how had they begun?
"Begin at the beginning!" she said cheerfully to herself. The move was the beginning. Through the cool autumn days she resolutely hunted for flats. It was a wearisome task, especially when Wallace accompanied her, for his tastes ran to expensive and vestibuled apartments and fashionable streets. Martie sternly held to quiet side streets, cut off from the city by the barriers of elevated trains and the cheap shopping districts.
When she found what she wanted, she and Wallace had a bitter struggle. He refused at first to consider four large bare shabby rooms in a poor street, overlooking a coal-yard, and incidentally, on the very bank of the East River. What cars went there, he demanded indignantly; what sort of neighbours would they have? What would their friends think!
Martie patiently argued her point. The neighbourhood, the east fifties, if cheap and crowded, was necessarily quiet because the wide street ended at the river. The rooms were on a first floor, and so pleasantly accessible for baby and baby-carriage. The coalyard, if not particularly pleasant, was not unwholesome; there was sunshine in every room, and finally, the rent was eighteen dollars. They must entertain their friends elsewhere.
She did not know then that what really won him was her youth and beauty; the new brilliant colour, the blue, blue eyes, the revived strength and charm of the whole, lovely woman. She put her arms about him, and he kissed her and gave her her way.
Happily they went shopping. Martie had gathered some furniture in her various housekeeping adventures; the rest must be bought. They prowled through second-hand stores for the big things: beds, tables, a "chestard" for Wallace. The cottage china, chintzes, net curtains, and grass rugs were new. Martie conceded a plaster pipe-rack, set with little Indian faces, to Wallace; her own extravagance was a meat-chopper. Wallace got a cocktail shaker, and when the first grocery order went in, gin and vermouth and whisky-were included. Martie made their first meal a celebration, in the room that was sitting-and dining-room combined, and tired and happy, they sat long into the evening over the table, talking of the future.
Theoretically, Wallace agreed with her. If they were to succeed, there must be hard work, carefully controlled expenditure, and temperance. They were still young, their children were well, and life was before them. In a few years Wallace might make a big success; then they could have a little country home, and belong to a country club, and really live. Eager tears brimmed Martie's eyes as she planned and he approved.
Actually, Wallace was not quite so satisfactory. He would be sweet- tempered and helpful for a few days, but he expected a reward. He expected his wife's old attitude of utter trust and devotion. Rewarded by a happy evening when they dined and talked in utter harmony, he would fail her again. Then came dark days, when Martie's heart smouldered resentfully hour after busy hour. How could he--how could he risk his position, waste his money, antagonize his wife, break all his promises! She could not forgive him this time, she could not go through the humiliating explanations, apologies, asseverations, again be reconciled and again deceived!
He knew how to handle her, and she knew he knew. When the day or two of sickness and headache were over he would shave and dress carefully and come quietly and penitently back into the life of the house. Would Ted like to go off with Dad for a walk? Couldn't he go to market for her? Couldn't he go along and wheel Margaret?
Silently, with compressed lips, Martie might pass and repass him. But the moment always came when he caught her and locked her in his arms.
"Martie, dearest! I know how you feel--I won't blame you! I know what a skunk and a beast I am. What can I do? How can I show you how sorry I am? Don't--don't feel so badly! Tell me anything--any oath, any promise, I'll make it! You're just breaking my heart, acting like this!"
For half an hour, for an hour, her hurt might keep her unresponsive. In the end, she always kissed him, with wet eyes, and they began again.
Happy hours followed. Wallace would help her with the baby's bath, with Teddy's dressing, and the united Bannisters go forth for a holiday. Martie, her splendid square little son leaning on her shoulder, the veiled bundle of blankets that was Margaret safely sleeping in the crib, her handsome husband dressing for "a party," felt herself a blessed and happy woman.
Frequently, when he was not playing, they went to matinees, afterward drifting out into the five o'clock darkness to join the Broadway current. Here Wallace always met friends: picturesque looking men, and bright-eyed, hard-faced women. Invariably they went into some hotel, and sat about a bare table, for drinks. Warmed and cheered, the question of convivialities arose.
"Lissen; we are all going to Kingwell's for eats," Wallace would tell his wife.
"But, Wallace, Isabeau is going to have dinner at home!" It was no use; the bright eye, the thickened lips, the loosened speech evaded her. He understood her, he had perfect self-control, but she could influence him no longer. Mutinous, she would go with the chattering women into the dressing room, where they powdered, rouged lips and cheeks, and fluffed their hair.
"Lord, he is a scream, that boy!" Mrs. Dolly Fairbanks might remark appreciatively, offering Martie a mud-coloured powder-pad before restoring it to the top of her ravelled silk stocking. "I'll bet he's a scream in his own home!"
Martie could only smile forcedly in response. She was not in sympathy with her companions. She hated the extravagance, the noise, and the drinking that were a part of the evening's fun. Wallace's big, white, ringed hand touched the precious greenbacks so readily; here! they wanted another round of drinks; what did everybody want?
Wherever they went, the scene was the same: heat, tobacco smoke, music; men drinking, women drinking, greenbacks changing hands, waiters pocketing tips. Who liked it? she asked herself bitterly. In the old days she and Sally had thought it would be fun to be in New York, to know real actors and actresses, to go about to restaurants in taxicabs. But what if the money that paid for the taxicabs were needed for Ted's winter shirts and Margar's new crib? What if the actors were only rather stupid and excitable, rather selfish and ignorant men and women, to whom homes and children, gardens and books were only words?
Presumably the real actors, the real writers and painters led a mad and merry life somewhere, wore priceless gowns and opened champagne; but it was not here. These were the imitators, the pretenders, and the rich idlers who had nothing better to do than believe in the pretenders.
Still, when Wallace suggested it, Martie found it wise to yield. He might stumble home beside her at eleven, the worse for the eating and drinking, but at least he did come home, and she could tell herself that the men in the car who had smiled at his condition were only brutes; she would never see them again; what did their opinion matter! In other ways she yielded to him; peace, peace and affection at any cost. Yet it cost her dear, for the possibility of another child's coming was the one thought that frightened and dismayed her.
Strongly contrasted to Wallace's open-handedness when he was with his friends was the strict economy Martie was obliged to practise in her housekeeping. She went to market herself, as the spring came on, heaping her little purchases at Margar's feet in the coach. Teddy danced and chattered beside her, neighbours stopped to smile at the baby. At the fruit carts, the meat market, the grocery, Martie pondered and planned. Oranges had gone up, lamb had gone up--dear, dear, dear!
Sitting at the grocery counter, she would rearrange her menus.
"Butter fifty--my, that is high! Hasn't the new butter come in? I had better have half a pound, I think. And the beans, and the onions, yes. Let me see--how do you sell the canned asparagus-- that's too much. Send me those things, Mr. O'Brien, and I'll see what I can get in the market."
All about her, in the heart-warming spring sunshine, other women were mildly lamenting, mildly bartering. Martie's brain was still busily milling, as she wheeled the coach back through the checkered sun and shade of the elevated train. She would bump the coach down into the area, carefully loading her arms with small packages, catching Margar to her shoulder.
Panting, the perspiration breaking out on her forehead, she would enter the dining room.
"Take her, Isabeau! My arms are breaking! Whew!--it is hot! Not now, Teddy, you can't have anything until lunch time. Amuse her a minute, Isabeau, I can't take her until--I get--my breath! I had to change dinner; he had no liver. I got veal for veal loaf; Mr. Bannister likes that; and stuffed onions, and the pie, and baked potatoes. Make tea. Put that down, Teddy, you can't have that. Now, my blessedest girl, come to your mother! She's half asleep now; I'll change her and put her out for her nap!"
The baby fed and asleep, Ted out again, Martie would serve Wallace's breakfast herself rather than interrupt the steady thumping of irons in the kitchen. She tried to be patient with his long delays.
"How's the head?" she would ask, sitting opposite him with little socks to match, or boxed strawberries to stem.
"Oh, rotten! I woke up when the baby did."
"But, Wallie--that was seven o'clock! You've been asleep since."
"Just dozing. I heard you come in!"
"Well, I think I'll move her clothes out of that room. Aren't your eggs good?"
"Nope. They taste like storage. I should think we could get good eggs now!"
"They ought to be good!"
"You ought to get a telephone in here," he might return sourly. "Then you could deal with some decent place! I hate the way women pinch and squeeze to save five cents; there's nothing in it!"
Silence. Martie's face flushed, her fingers flew.
"What are you doing to-day?" she might ask, after a while.
"Oh, I'll go down town, I guess. Never can tell when something'll break. Bates told me that Foster was anxious to see me. He says they're having a deuce of a time getting people for their plays. Bates says to stick 'em for a couple of hundred a week."
Martie placed small hope in such a hint, but she was glad he could. When he had sauntered away, she would go on patiently, mixing the baby's bottles, picking toys from the floor, tying and re-tying Ted's shoe-laces. This was a woman's life. Martha Bannister was not a martyr; nobody in the city could stop to help or pity her.
The hot summer shut down upon them, and the baby drooped, even though Martie was careful to wheel her out into the shade by the river every day. She herself drooped, staring at life helplessly, hopelessly. In March there would be a third child.
After a restless night, the sun woke her, morning after morning, glaring into her room at six. Wearily, languidly, she dressed the twisting and leaping Teddy, fastened little Margar, with her string of spools and her shabby double-gown, in the high-chair. The kitchen smelled of coffee, of grease; the whole neighbourhood smelled in the merciless heat of the summer day. Had that meat spoiled; was the cream just a little turned?
Ted, always absorbed in wheels, pulleys, and nails, would be in an interrogative mood.
"Mother, could a giant step across the East River?"
"What was it, dear?--the water was running; Mother didn't hear you."
"Could a giant step across a river?"
"Why, I suppose he could. Don't touch that, Ted."
"Could he step across the whole world?"
"I don't know. Here's your porridge, dear. Listen---"
For Wallace was shouting. Martie would go to the bedroom door, to interrogate the tousle-headed, heaving form under the bedclothes.
"Say, Martie, isn't there an awful lot of noise out there?"
Martie would stand silent for a moment.
"You can't blame the children for chattering, Wallace."
"Well, you tell Ted he'll catch it, if I hear any more of it!"
She would go lifelessly back to the kitchen, to sip a cup of scalding black coffee. Margar went into her basket for her breakfast, banging the empty bottle rapturously against the wicker sides as a finale.
"Wash both their faces, Isabeau," Martie would murmur, flinging back her head with a long, weary sigh. "There are no buttons on this suit; I'll have to go back into Mr. Bannister's room--too bad, for he's asleep again! Yes, dear, you may go to market and push the carriage--don't ask Mother that again, Ted! I always let you go, and you always push Sister." Her voice would sink to a whisper, and her face fall into her hands. "Oh, Isabeau, I do feel so wretched. Sometimes it seems as if---However!" and with a sudden desperate courage, Martie would rally herself. "However, it's all in the day's work! Run down to the sidewalk, Ted, and Mother'll be right down with the baby!"
Coming in an hour later perhaps, Wallace, better-natured now, would call her again.
"Come in, Mart! Hell-oo! Is that somebody that loves her Daddy?"
"She's just going to have her bottle, Wallie" Martie would fret.
"Well, here! Let me give it to her." Sitting up in bed, his nightgown falling open at the throat, Margar's father would hold out big arms for the child.
"No, you can't. She'll never go to sleep at that rate; and if she misses her nap, that upsets her whole day!"
"Lord, but you are in a grouch, Mart. For Heaven's sake, cheer up!" Wallace, rumpling and kissing his daughter, would give her a reproachful look.
Martie's face always darkened resentfully at such a speech. Sometimes she did not answer.
"Perhaps if you couldn't sleep," she might say in a low, shaken tone, "and you felt as miserable as I do, you might not be so cheerful!"
"Oh, well, I know! But you know it's nothing serious, and it won't last. Forget it! After all, your mother had four children, and mine had seven, and they didn't make such a fuss!"
He did not mean to be unkind, she would remind herself. And what he said was true, after all. There was nothing more to say.
"Wallie, have you any money for the laundry?"
"Oh, Lord! How much is it?"
"Two dollars and thirteen cents; four weeks now."
"Well, when does he come?"
"Well, you tell him that I'll step in to-morrow and pay the whole thing. I'm going to see Richards to-day; I won't be home to dinner."
"But I thought you were going to see that man in the Bronx, about the moving picture job to-morrow?"
"Yes, I am. What about it?"
"Nothing. Only, Wallie, if you have dinner with Mr. Richards and all those men, you know--you know you may not feel like--like getting up early to-morrow!" Martie, hesitating in the doorway with the baby, wavered between tact and truth.
"Why don't you say I'll be drunk, while you're about it?"
The ugly tone would rouse everything that was ugly in response.
"Very well, I will say that, if you insist!" The slamming door ended the conversation; Martie trembled as she put the child to bed. Presently Isabeau would come to her to say noncommittally, but with watchful, white-rimmed eyes, that Mist' Bans'ter he didn' want no breakfuss, he jus' take hisse'f off. For the rest of the day, Martie carried a heart of lead.
Mentally, morally, physically, the little family steadily descended. With Martie too ill to do more than drag herself through the autumn days, Wallace idle and ugly, Isabeau overworked and discontented, and bills accumulating on every side, there was no saving element left. Desperately the wife and mother plodded on; the children must have milk and bread, the rent-collector must be pacified if not satisfied. Everything else was unimportant. Her own appearance mattered nothing, the appearance of the house mattered nothing. She pinned the children's clothing when their buttons disappeared; she slipped a coat wearily over her house-dress, and went to the delicatessen store five minutes before dinner-time. She was thin enough now,--Martie, who had always longed to be thin. Sometimes, sitting on the side of an unmade bed, with a worn little shirt of Ted's held languidly in her hands, she would call the maid.
"Isabeau! Hasn't Teddy a clean shirt?"
"No, Ma'am! You put two them shirts in yo' basket 'n' says how you's going to fix 'em!"
"I must get at those shirts," Martie would muse helplessly. "Come, Ted, look what you're doing! Pay attention, dear!"
"Man come with yo meat bill, Mis' Ban'ster," Isabeau might add, lingering in the doorway. "Ah says you's out."
"Thank you, Isabeau." Perhaps Martie would laugh forlornly. "Never mind--things must change! We can't go on this way!"
Suddenly, she was ill. Without warning, without the slip or stumble or running upstairs that she was quite instinctively avoiding, the accident befell. Martie, sobered, took to her bed, and sent Isabeau flying for Dr. Converse, the old physician whose pleasant wife had often spoken to Teddy in the market. Strange--strange, that she who so loved children should be reduced now to mere thankfulness that the little life was not to be, mere gratitude for an opportunity to lie quiet in bed!
"For I suppose I should stay in bed for a few days?" Martie asked the doctor. Until she was told she might get up. Very well, but he must remember that she had a husband and two children to care for, and make that soon.
Dr. Converse did not smile in answer. After a while she knew why. The baffling weakness did not go, the pain and restlessness seemed to have been hers forever. Day after day she lay helpless; while Isabeau grumbled, Margar fretted, and Teddy grew noisy and unmanageable. Wallace was rarely at home, the dirt and confusion of the house rode Martie's sick brain like a nightmare. She told herself, as she lay longing for an appetizing meal, an hour's freedom from worry, that there was a point beyond which no woman might be expected to bear things, that if life went on in this way she must simply turn her face to the wall and die.
Ghost-white, she was presently on her feet. The unbearable had been borne. She was getting well again; ridden with debts, and as shabby and hopeless as it could well be, the Bannister family staggered on. Money problems buzzed about Martie's eyes like a swarm of midges: Isabeau had paid this charge of seventy cents, there was a drug bill for six dollars and ten cents--eighty cents, a dollar and forty cents, sixty-five cents--the little sums cropped up on all sides.
Martie took pencil and paper, and wrote them all down. The hideous total was two hundred and seventeen dollars on the last day of October. But there would be rent again on the eleventh--
Her bright head went suddenly down on her arms. Oh, no--no--no! It couldn't be done. It was all too hard, too bewildering--
Suddenly, looking at the pencilled sums, the inspiration came. Was it a memory of those days long ago in Monroe, when she had calculated so carefully the cost of coming on to the mysterious fairyland of New York? As carefully now she began to count the cost of going home.
It was five years since she had seen her own people; and in that time she had carried always the old resentful feeling that she would rather die than turn to Pa for help! But she knew better now; her children should not suffer because of that old girlish pride.
Her mother was gone. Len and his wife, one of the lean, tall Gorman girls, were temporarily living with Pa in the old place. Sally had four children, Elizabeth, Billy, Jim, and Mary, and lived in the old Mussoo place near Dr. Ben. Joe Hawkes was studying medicine, Lydia kept house for Pa, of course, and Sally and her father were reconciled. "We just started talking to each other when Ma was so ill," wrote Sally, "and now he thinks the world and all of the children."
All these changes had filtered to Martie throughout the years. Only a few weeks ago a new note had been sounded. Pa had asked Sally if she ever heard of her sister; had said that Mary Hawkes was like her Aunt Martie, "the cunningest baby of them all."
Wild with hope, Sally had written the beloved sister. It was as if all these years of absence had been years of banishment to Sally. Martie recognized the unchanging Monroe standard.
She got Sally's letter now, and re-read it. If Pa could send her a few hundreds, if she could get the children into Lydia's hands, in the old house in the sunken garden, if Teddy and Margar could grow up in the beloved fogs and sunshine, the soft climate of home, then how bravely she could work, how hopefully she could struggle to get a foothold in the world for them! She wrote simply, lovingly, penitently, to her father--She was convalescent after serious illness; there were two small children; her husband was out of work; could he forgive her and help her? In the cold, darkening days, she went about fed with a secret hope, an abounding confidence.
But she held the letter a fortnight before sending it. If her father refused her, she was desperate indeed. Planning, planning, planning, she endured the days. Wallace was not well; wretched with grippe, he spent almost the entire day in bed when he was at home, dressing at four o'clock and going out of the house without a farewell. Sometimes, for two or three nights a week, Martie did not know where he was; his friends kept him in money, and made him feel himself a deeply wronged and unappreciated man. She could picture him in bars, in cafes, in hot hotel rooms seriously talking over a card-table, boasting, threatening.
She dismissed Isabeau Eato with a promise that the girl accepted ungraciously.
"If I had the money Isabeau, you should have it; you know that!"
"Yas'm. Hit's what dey all says'm."
"You shall have it," Martie promised, with hot cheeks. She breathed easier when the girl was gone. She told the grocer that she had written her father, and that his bills should be paid; she reminded the big rosy man that she had been ill. He listened without comment, cleaning a split thumb-nail. The story was not a new one.
No answer came to her letter, and a sick suspicion that no answer would come began to trouble her. December was passing. Teddy was careful to tell her just what he wanted from Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve she asked Wallace, as he was silently going out, for some money.
"I want to get Ted something for Christmas, Wallie."
"What does he want?"
"Well, of course he wants a coaster and skates, but that's absurd. I thought some sort of a gun--he's gun-mad, and perhaps a book of fairy-tales."
With no further comment her husband gave her a five-dollar-bill, and went on his way. She saw that he had other bills, and went impulsively after him.
"Wallie! Could you let me have a little more? I do need it so!"
Still silent, he took the little roll from his pocket, and gave her another five dollars. She saw still a third, and a one dollar bill.
But this was more than her wildest hopes. Joyfully, she went, shabby and cold, through the happy streets. She walked four blocks to a new market, and bought bread and butter and salt codfish and a candy cane. She went into a department store, leaving Teddy to watch the coach on the sidewalk, and got him the gun and the book. She gave her grocer four, her butcher three dollars, with a "Merry Christmas!" Did both men seem a little touched, a little pitying, or was it just the holiday air? The streets were crowded, the leaden sky low and menacing; they would have a white Christmas.
Teddy hung up his stocking at dark. The big things, he explained, would have to go on the floor.
"What big things, my heart?" Martie was toasting bread, eying the browned fish cakes with appetite.
"Well, the coaster or the skates!" he elucidated off-hand.
His mother's breast rose on a long sigh. She came to put one arm about him, as she knelt beside him on the floor.
"Teddy, dear, didn't Mother tell you that old Santa Claus is poor this year? He has so many, many little boys to go to! Wouldn't my boy rather that they should all have something, than that some poor little fellows should have nothing at all?" She stopped, sick at heart, for the child's lip was trembling, and a hot tear fell on her hand.
"But--but I've been good, Mother!" he stammered with a desperate effort at self-control.
Well, if he could not be brave, she must be. She began to tell him about going to California, to Grandfather's house. Later she put the orange, the apple, the gun, with a triangle puzzle given away at the drug store, a paper cow from the dairy, and five cents' worth of pressed figs, into the little dangling stocking, placed the book beside it, and hung the candy cane over all. Mrs. Converse, the doctor's wife, had sent a big flannel duck, obviously second-hand, but none the less wonderful for that, for Margar; Teddy had not seen it, so it would be one more Christmas touch!
And at eight o'clock, as she was putting her kitchen in order, a tired driver appeared, clumsily engineering something through the narrow hall; a great coaster, its brave red and gold showing through the flimsy, snow-wet wrappings.
"Teddy from Dad," Martie, bewildered, read on the card. Not to the excited child himself would it bring the joy it gave his mother. Poor Wallace--always generous! He had gone straight from her plea for the boy's Christmas to spend his money for this. She hoped he would come home to-morrow; that they might spend the day together. Some of the shops would be open for a few hours; if he brought home money, she could manage a chicken, and one of the puddings from the French confectioner's--
Another ring at the bell? Martie wiped her hands, and went again to the door. A telegram--
She tore and crumpled the wet yellow paper. The wonderful words danced before her eyes:
Pa says come at once told Lydia he would give you and children home as long as he lives sends his love merry Christmas darling
Martie went back to the kitchen, and put her head down on the little table and cried.
Wallace did not come home for Christmas Day, nor for many days. Teddy rejoiced in his coaster while his mother went soberly and swiftly about her plans. Perhaps Pa had realized that she did not actually have a cent, and was sending a check by mail. The perfect telegram would have been just a little more than perfect, if he had said so. But if he were not sending money, she must go nevertheless. She must give up this house on January tenth, landlord and grocer must trust her for the overdue rent and bill. If they would not, well, then they must have her arrested; that was all.
The fare to California would be less than two hundred dollars. She was going to borrow that from John.
Martie herself was surprised at the calm with which she came to this decision. It had all the force of finality to her. She cared for the hurt to her pride as little as she cared for what Rose Parker would think of her ignominious return, as little as she cared for what the world thought of a wife who deliberately left the father of her children to his fate.
Early in January she planned to take the children with her, and find John in his office. That very day the tickets should be bought. If Wallace cared enough for his family to come home in the meantime, she would tell him what she was doing. But Martie hoped that he would not. The one possible stumbling-block in her path would be Wallace's objection; the one thing of which she would not allow herself to think was that he might, by some hideous whim, decide to accompany them. Thinking of these things, she went about the process of house-cleaning and packing. The beds, the chairs, the china and linen and blankets must bring what they could. On the third day of the year, in his room, Martie, broom in hand, paused to study Wallace's "chestard." That must go, too. It had always been a cheaply constructed article, with one missing caster that had to be supplied by a folded wedge of paper. Still, in a consignment with other things, it would add something to the total. Martie put her hand upon it, and rocked it. As usual, the steadying wedge of paper was misplaced.
She stooped to push the prop into position again; noticed that it was a piece of notepaper, doubly folded; recognized John Dryden's handwriting--
The room whirled about her as she straightened the crumpled and discoloured sheet, and smoothed it, and grasped at one glance its contents:
DEAR MR. BANNISTER:
I am distressed to hear of Mrs. Bannister's illness, and can readily understand that she must not be burdened or troubled now. Please let me know how she progresses, and let me be your banker again, if the need arises. I am afraid she does not know how to save herself.
The date was mid-December.
Martie read it once, read it again, crushed it in her hand in a spasm of shame and pain. She brought the clenched hand that held it against her heart, and shut her eyes. Oh, how could he--how could he! To John, the last refuge of her wrecked life, he had closed the way in the very hour of escape!
For a long time she stood, leaning against the tipped chest, blind and deaf to everything but her whirling thoughts. After a while she looked apathetically at the clock; time for Margar's toast and boiled egg. She must finish in here; the baby would be waking.
Somehow she got through the cold, silent afternoon. She felt as if she were bleeding internally; as if the crimson stain from her shaken heart might ooze through her faded gingham. She must get the children into the fresh air before the snow fell.
Out of doors a silence reigned. A steady, cold wind, tasting already of snow, was blowing. The streets were almost deserted. Martie pushed the carriage briskly, and the sharp air brought colour to her cheeks, and a sort of desperate philosophy to her thoughts. Waiting for the prescription for Margar's croup, with the baby in her lap, Martie saw herself in a long mirror. The blooming young mother, the rosy, lovely children, could not but make a heartening picture. Margar's little gaitered legs, her bright face under the shabby, fur-rimmed cap; Teddy's sturdy straight little shoulders and his dark blue, intelligent eyes; these were Martie's riches. Were not comfort and surety well lost for them at twenty-seven? At thirty- seven, at forty-seven, there would be a different reckoning.
No woman's life was affected, surely, by a trifle like the tourist fare to California, she told herself sensibly. If the money was not to come from John, it must be forthcoming in some other way, if not this month, then next month, or the next still. Perhaps she would still go to John, and tell him the whole story.
Pondering, planning, she went back to the house, her spirits sinking as the warm air smote her, the odour of close rooms, and of the soaking little garments in the kitchen tub. Wallace had come in, had flung himself across his bed, and was asleep.
Martie merely glanced at him before she set about the daily routine of undressing the baby, setting the table, getting a simple supper for Teddy and herself. No matter! It was only a question of a little time, now. In ten days, in two weeks, she would be on the train; the new fortune hazarded. The snoring sleeper little dreamed that some of her things were packed, some of the children's things packed, that Margar's best coat had been sent to the laundry, with the Western trip in view; that a furniture man had been interviewed as to the disposal of the chairs and tables.
At six o'clock Margar, with her bottle, was tucked away in the front room, and Martie and Teddy sat down to their meal. Roused perhaps by the clatter of dishes, Wallace came from the bedroom to the kitchen door, and stood looking in.
"Wallace," Martie said without preamble, "why did you never tell me that you borrowed money from Mr. Dryden?"
He stared at her stupidly, still sleepy, and taken unawares.
"He told you, huh?" he said heavily, after a pause.
"I found his note!" Martie said, beginning to breathe quickly.
Without glancing at Wallace, she put a buttered slice of bread before Teddy.
"I didn't want to distress you with it, Mart," Wallace said weakly.
"Distress me!" his wife echoed with a bitter laugh.
"Of course, some of it is paid back," Wallace added unconvincingly. Martie shot him a quick, distrustful glance. Ah, if she could believe him! "I have his note acknowledging half of it, seventy- five," added Wallace more confidently. "I'll show it to you!"
"I wish you would!" Martie said in cold incredulity. Teddy, deceived by his mother's dispassionate tone, gave Wallace a warm little smile, embellished by bread and milk.
"I guess you've been wondering where I was?" ventured Wallace, rubbing one big bare foot with the other, and hunching his shoulders in his disreputable wrapper. Unshaven, unbrushed, he gave a luxurious yawn.
"No matter!" Martie said, shrugging. She poured her tea, noticed that her fingernails were neglected, and sighed.
"I don't see why you take that attitude, Mart," Wallace said mildly, sitting down. "In the first place, I sent you a letter day before yesterday, which Thompson didn't mail--"
"Really!" said Martie, the seething bitterness within her making hand and voice tremble.
"I have the deuce of a cold!" Wallace suggested tentatively. His wife did not comment, or show in any way that she had heard him. "I know what you think I've been doing," he went on. "But for once, you're wrong. A lot of us have just been down at Joe's in the country. His wife's away, and we just cooked and walked and played cards--and I sat in luck, too!" He opened the wallet he held in his hands, showing a little roll of dirty bills, and Martie was ashamed of the instant softening of her heart. She wanted money so badly! "I was coming home Monday," pursued Wallace, conscious that he was gaining ground, "but this damn cold hit me, and the boys made me stay in bed."
"Will you have some tea?" Martie asked reluctantly. He responded instantly to her softened tone.
"I would like some tea. I've been feeling rotten! And say, Mart," he had drawn up to the table now, and had one wrappered arm about Teddy, "say, Mart," he said eagerly, "listen! This'll interest you. Thompson's brother-in-law, Bill Buffington, was there; he's an awfully nice fellow; he's got coffee interests in Costa Rica. We talked a lot, we hit it off awfully well, and he thinks there's a dandy chance for me down there! He says he could get me twenty jobs, and he wants me to go back when he goes--"
"But, Wallace--" Martie's quick enthusiasm was firing. "But what about the children?"
"Why, they'd come along. Buff says piles of Americans down there have children, you just have to dress 'em light--"
"And feed them light; that's the most important!" Martie added eagerly.
"Sure. And I get my transportation, and you only half fare, so you see there's not much to that!"
"Wallace!" The world was changing. "And what would you do?"
"Checking cargoes, and managing things generally. We get a house, and he says the place is alive with servants. And he asked if you were the sort of woman who would take in a few boarders; he says the men there are crazy for American cooking, and that you could have all you'd take--"
"Oh, I would!" Martie said excitedly. "I'd have nothing else to do, you know! Oh, Wallie, I am delighted about this! I am so sick of this city!" she added, smiling tremulously. "I am so sick of cold and dirt and worry!"
"Well," he smiled a little shamefacedly, "one thing you'll like. No booze down there. Buff says there's nothing in it; it can't be done. He says that's the quickest way for a man to finish himself!"
The kitchen had been brightening for Martie with the swift changes of a stage sunrise. Now the colour came to her face, and the happy tears to her eyes. For the first time in many months she went into her husband's arms, and put her own arms about his neck, and her cheek against his, in the happy fashion of years ago.
"Oh, Wallie, dear! We'll begin all over again. We'll get away, on the steamer, and make a home and a life for ourselves!"
"Don't you want to go, Moth'?" Teddy asked anxiously. Martie laughed as she wiped her eyes.
"Crying for joy, Ted," she told him. "Don't sit there sneezing, Wallie," she added in her ordinary tone. Her husband asked her, dutifully, if she would object to his mixing a hot whisky lemonade for his cold. After a second's hesitation she said no, and it was mixed, and shortly afterward Wallace went to bed and to sleep. At eight Martie tucked Teddy into bed, straightening the clothes over Margar before she went into the dining room for an hour of solitaire.
"Mrs. Bannister's Boarding House"; she liked the sound. The men would tell each other that it was luck to get into Mrs. Bannister's. White shoes--thin white gowns--she must be businesslike--bills and receipts--and terms dignified, but not exorbitant--when Ted was old enough for boarding-school--say twelve--but of course they could tell better about that later on!
A little sound from the front bedroom brought her to her feet, fright clutching her heart. Margar was croupy again!
It was a sufficiently familiar emergency, but Martie never grew used to it. She ran to the child's side, catching up the new bottle of medicine. A hideous paroxysm subsided as she took the baby in her arms, but Margar sank back so heavily exhausted that no coaxing persuaded her to open her eyes, or to do more than reject with fretful little lips the medicine spoon. She is very ill--Martie said to herself fearfully. She flew to her husband's side.
"Wallie--I hate to wake you! But Margar is croupy, and I'm going to run for Dr. Converse. Light the croup kettle, will you, I won't be a moment!"
His daughter was the core of Wallace's heart. He was instantly alert.
"Here, let me go, Mart! I'll get something on--"
"No, no, I'm dressed! But look at her, Wallie," Martie said, as they came together to stand by the crib. "I don't like the way she's breathing--"
She looked eagerly at his face, but saw only her own disquiet reflected there.
"Get the doctor," he said, tucking the blankets about the shabby little double-gown. "I'll keep her warm--"
A moment later Martie, buttoned into her old squirrel-lined coat, was in the quiet, deserted street, which was being muffled deeper and deeper in the softly falling snow. Steps, areas, fences, were alike furred in soft white, old gratings wore an exquisite coating over their dingy filigree. The snow was coming down evenly, untouched by wind, the flakes twisting like long ropes against the street lights. A gang of men were talking and clanking shovels on the car tracks; an ambulance thudded by, the wheels grating and slipping on the snow.
Dr. and Mrs. Converse were in their dining room, a pleasant, shabby room smelling of musk, and with an old oil painting of fruit, a cut watermelon, peaches and grapes, a fringed napkin and a glass of red wine, over the curved black marble mantel. The old man was enjoying a late supper, but struggled into his great coat cheerfully enough. Mrs. Converse tried to persuade Martie to have just a sip of sherry, but Martie was frantic to be gone. In a moment she and the old man were on their way, through the silent, falling snow again, and in her own hallway, and she was crying to Wallace: "How is she?"
The room was steamy with the fumes of the croup kettle; Wallace, the child in his arms, met them with a face of terror. Both men bent over the baby.
"She seems all right again now," said Wallace in a sharp whisper, "but right after you left--my God, I thought she would choke!"
Martie watched the doctor's face, amazement and fright paralyzing every sense but sight. The old man's tender, clever hands rested for a moment on the little double-gown.
"Well, poor little girl!" he said, softly, after a moment of pulsing silence. He straightened up, and looked at Martie. "Gone," he said simply. "She died in her father's arms."
"Gone!" Martie echoed. The quiet word fell into a void of silence. Father and mother stood transfixed, looking upon each other. Martie was panting like a runner, Wallace seemed dazed. They stood so a long time.
Relief came first to Wallace; for as they laid the tiny form on the bed, and arranged the shabby little gown about it, he suddenly fell upon his knees, and flung one arm about his child and burst into bitter crying. But Martie moved about, mute, unhearing, her mouth fallen a little open, her breath still coming hard. She answered the doctor's suggestions only after a moment's frowning concentration-- what did he say?
After a while he was gone, and Wallace was persuaded to go to bed again, Teddy tucked in beside him. Then Martie lowered the light in what had been the children's room, and knelt beside her dead.
The snow was still falling with a gentle, ticking sound against the window. Muffled whistles sounded on the river; the night was so stilled that the clanking of shovels and the noise of voices came clearly from the car-tracks at the corner.
Hour after hour went by. Martie knelt on; she was not conscious of grief or pain; she was not conscious of the world that would wake in the morning, and go about its business, and of the bright sun that would blaze out upon the snow. There was no world, no sun, no protest, and no hope. There was only the question: Why?
In the soft flicker of the gaslight Margar lay in unearthly beauty, the shadow of her dark eyelashes touching her cheek, a smile lingering on her baby mouth. She had been such a happy baby; Martie had loved to rumple and kiss the aureole of bright hair that framed the sleeping face.
The old double-gown--with the middle button that did not match-- Martie had ironed only yesterday. She would not iron it again. The rag doll, and the strings of spools, and the shabby high-chair where Margar sat curling her little bare toes on summer mornings; these must vanish. The little feet were still. Gone!
Gone, in an hour, all the dreaming and hoping. No Margar in a cleaned coat would run about the decks of the steamer--
Martie pressed her hand over her dry and burning eyes. She wondered that she could think of these things and not go mad.
The days went by; time did not stop. Wallace remained ill; Teddy had a cold, too. Mrs. Converse and John and Adele were there, all sympathetic, all helpful. They were telling Martie that she must keep up for the others. She must drink this; she must lie down.
Presently the front room, so terribly occupied, was more terribly empty. Little Margaret Bannister was laid beside little Mary and Rose and Paul Converse at Mount Kisco. Children, many of them, died thus every year, and life went on. Martie had the perfect memory, and the memory of Adele's tears, of Mrs. Converse's tears, of John's agony of sympathy.
Then they all went out of her life as suddenly as they had entered it. Only the old doctor came steadily, because of Teddy's cold and Wallace's cold. Martie worked over their trays, read fairy-tales to Teddy, read the newspaper to Wallace, said that she felt well, she had eaten a good lunch, she was sleeping well.
When the first suspicion of Wallace's condition came to her she was standing in the kitchen, waiting for a kettle to boil, and staring dully out into a world of frozen bareness. Margaret had been with her a week ago; a week ago it had been her privilege to catch the warm little form to her heart, to kiss the aureole of gold, to listen to the shaken gurgle of baby laughter--
The doctor came out from Wallace's room; Martie, still wrapped in her thoughts, listened to him absently. ... pneumonia. Suddenly she came to herself with a shock, repeating the word. Pneumonia? What was he saying? But, Doctor--but Doctor--is Mr. Bannister so ill?
He was very ill; gravely ill. The fact that taken in time, and fought with every weapon, the disease had gained, augured badly. Martie listened in stupefaction.
She suggested a nurse. The old doctor smiled at her affectionately. Perhaps to-morrow, if he was no better, they might consider it. Meanwhile, he was in excellent hands.
A strange, silent day followed. Martie looked at her husband now with that augmented concern that such a warning brings. He slept, waked, smiled at her, was not hungry. His big hand, when she touched it, was hot. Teddy, coughing, and with oil-saturated flannel over his chest, played with his blocks and listened to fairy-tales. Outside, a bitter cold wind swept the empty streets. Her husband ill, perhaps dying, Margar gone; it was all unreal and unconvincing.
At four o'clock the doctor came back, and at five the nurse pleasantly took possession of the sick room. She was a sensible New England woman, who cooked potatoes in an amazing way for Teddy's supper, and taught Martie a new solitaire in the still watches of the night. Martie was anxious to make her comfortable; she must lie down; and she must be sure to get out into the fresh air to-morrow afternoon.
But Miss Swann did not leave her case the next day, a Sunday, and Martie, awed and silent, spent the day beside the bed. Wallace died at five o'clock.
He wandered in a light fever that morning, and at two o'clock fell into the stupor that was not to end in this world. But Martie had, to treasure, the memory of the early morning when she slipped quietly into the room that was orderly, dimly lighted, and odorous of drugs now. He was awake then, his eyes found her, and he smiled as she knelt beside him.
"Better?" she said softly.
The big head nodded almost imperceptibly. He moistened his lips.
"I'm all right," he said voicelessly. "Bad--bad cold!"
He shut his eyes, and with them shut, added in a whisper: "Sweet, sweet woman, Martie! Remember that day--in Pittsville--when you had on--your brother's--coat? Mabel--and old Jesse--!"
Heavenly tears rushed to her eyes; she felt the yielding of her frozen heart. She caught his hand to her lips, bowing her face over it.
"Ah, Wallace dear! We were happy then! We'll go back--back to that time--and we'll start fresh!"
A long silence. Then he opened his eyes, found her, with a start, as if he had not been quite sure what those opening eyes would see, and smiled sleepily.
"I'll make it--up to you, Martie!" he said heavily She had her arms about him as he sank into unnatural sleep. At eight, whispering in the kitchen with John, who had come for Teddy, she said that Wallie was better; and busy with coffee and toast for Miss Swann, she began to plan for Costa Rica. Beaten, crushed, purified by fire, healed by tears, she was ready for life again.
But that was not to be. Wallace was dead, and those who gathered about Martie wondered that she wept for her husband more than for her child.
Wept for the wasted life, perhaps, and for the needless suffering and sorrow. But even in the first hours of her widowhood Martie's heart knew a deep and passionate relief. Vague and menacing as was the future, stretching before her, she knew that she would never wish Wallace back.