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But Nancy began to ask herself seriously; was it such fun? When house and maids and children, garden, car, table-linen and clothes had all been brought to the standard of Marlborough Gardens, was the result worth while? Who enjoyed them, who praised them? It was all taken for granted here; the other women were too deep in their own problems to note more than the satisfactory fact; the Bradleys kept the social law.
It was a terrible law. It meant that Nancy must spend every waking moment of her life in thought about constantly changing trifles-- about the strip of embroidered linen that curtained the door, about the spoons that were placed on the table, about a hundred details of her dress, about every towel and plate, every stocking and hat-pin she possessed. She must watch the other women, and see how salad-dressing must be served, and what was the correct disposition of grapefruit. And more than that she must be reasonably conversant with the books and poetry of the day, the plays and the political atmosphere. She must always have the right clothing to wear, and be ready to change her plans at any time. She must be ready to run gaily down to the door at the most casual interruption; leaving Agnes to finish Priscilla's bath just because Seward Smith felt in a mood to come and discuss the fairness of golf handicaps with his pretty, sensible neighbour.
She did not realize that she had been happier years ago, when every step Junior and Ned and Anne took was with Mother's hand for guide, but she often found herself thinking of those days with a sort of wistful pain at her heart. Life had had a flavour then that it somehow lacked now. She had been tired, she had been too busy. But what richness the memories had; memories of three small heads about a kitchen table, memories of limp little socks and crumpled little garments left like dropped petals in Mother's lap, at the end of the long day.
"Are we the same people?" mused Nancy. "Have I really my car and my man; is it the same old Bert whose buckskin pumps and whose silk handkerchiefs are imitated by all these rich men? No wonder we've lost our bearings a little, we've gone ahead--if it is ahead--too fast!"
They were getting from life, she mused, just what everyone wanted to get from life; home, friends, children, amusement. They lived near the greatest city, they could have anything that art and science provided, for the mere buying, no king could sleep in a softer bed, or eat more delicious fare. When Mary Ingram asked Nancy to go to the opera matinee with her, Nancy met women whose names had been only a joke to her, a few years ago. She found them rather like other persons, simple, friendly, interested in their nurseries and their gardens and anxious to reach their own firesides for tea. When Nancy and Bert went out with the Fieldings they had a different experience; they had dinners that were works of art, the finest box in the theatre, and wines that came cobwebbed and dusty to the table.
So that there was no height left to scale; "if we could only afford it," mused Nancy. Belle Fielding could afford it, of course; her trouble was that the Fielding name was perhaps a trifle too surely connected with fabulous sums of money. And Mary Ingram could afford anything, despite her simple clothes and her fancy for long tramps and quiet evenings with her delicate husband and two big boys. Nancy sometimes wondered that with the Ingram income anyone could be satisfied with Marlborough Gardens, but after all, what was there better in all the world? Europe?--but that meant hotel cooking for the man. Nancy visualized an apartment in a big city hotel, a bungalow in California, a villa in Italy, and came back to the Gardens. Nothing was finer than this.
"If we could only appreciate it!" she said again, sighing. "And if we need only see the people we like--and if time didn't fly so!" And of course if there were more money! She reflected that if she might go back a few years, to the time of their arrival at the Gardens, she might build far more wisely for her own happiness and Bert's. They had been drawn in, they had followed the crowd, it was impossible to withdraw now. Nancy knew that something was troubling Bert in these days, she guessed it to be the one real cause for worry. She began almost to hope that he felt financial trouble near, it would be a relief to fling aside, the whole pretence to say openly and boldly, "we must economize," and to go back to honest, simple living again. They could rent Holly Court--
Fired with enthusiasm, she looked for her check book, and for Bert's, and with the counterfoils before her made some long calculations. The result horrified her. She and Bert between them had spent ten thousand dollars in twelve months. Nearly ten times the sum upon which they had been so happy, years ago! The loans upon the property still stood, twelve thousand dollars, and the additional three, they had never touched it. There was a bank balance, of course, but as Nancy courageously opened and read bill after bill, and flattened the whole into orderly pile under a paper weight, she saw their total far exceeded the money on hand to meet them. They could wait of course, but meanwhile debts were not standing still.
It was a quiet August afternoon; the house was still, but from the shady lawn on the water side, Nancy could hear Priscilla crooning like a dove, and hear Agnes's low voice, and Anne's high-pitched little treble. For a long while she sat staring into space, her brows knit. Ten thousand dollars--when they could have lived luxuriously for five! The figures actually frightened her. Why, they should have cleared off half the mortgage now, they might easily have cleared it all. And if anything happened to Bert, what of herself and the four children left absolutely penniless, with a mortgaged home?
"This is wicked," Nancy decided soberly. "It isn't conscientious. We both must be going crazy, to go on as we do. I am going to have a long talk with Bert to-night. This can't go on!"
"Interrupting?" smiled pretty Mrs. Seward Smith, from the Dutch doorway.
Nancy jumped up, full of hospitality.
"Oh, come in, Mrs. Smith. I was just going over my accounts--"
"You are the cleverest creature; fancy doing that with everything else you do!" the caller said, dropping into a chair. "I'm only here for one second--and I'm bringing two messages from my husband. The first is, that he has your tickets for the tennis tournament with ours, we'll all be together; so tell Mr. Bradley that he mustn't get them. And then, what did you decide about the hospital? You see Mr. Ingram promised fifty dollars if we could find nine other men to promise that, and make it an even thousand from the Gardens, and Mr. Bradley said that even if he only gave twenty-five himself he would find someone else to give the other twenty-five. Tell him there's no hurry, but Ward wants to know sometime before the first. I didn't know whether he remembered it or not."
"I'll remind him!" Nancy promised brightly. She walked with her guest to the car, and stood in the bright warm clear sunlight smiling good-byes. "So many thanks for the tickets--and I'll tell Bert about the hospital to-night!"
But when the car was gone she went slowly back. She eyed the cool porchway sombrely, the opened casement windows, the blazing geraniums in their boxes. Pauline was hanging checked glass towels on the line, Nancy caught a glimpse of her big bare arms, over the brick wall that shielded the kitchen yard. It was a lovely home, it was a most successful establishment; surely, surely, things would improve, it would never be necessary to go away from Holly Court.
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