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- Undertow - 1/22 -
THE WORKS OF KATHLEEN NORRIS
We need no gifts, whose thoughts and prayers maintain Through all the years a strong and stronger chain, Yet take the little gift, the visible sign Of the deep love between your heart and mine.
The marriage of Albert Bradley and Anne Polk Barrett was as close as anything comes, in these prosaic days, to a high adventure. Nancy's Uncle Thomas, a quiet, gentle old Southerner who wore tan linen suits when he came to New York, which was not often, and Bert's mother, a tiny Boston woman who had lived in a diminutive Brookline apartment since her three sons had struck out into the world for themselves, respectively assured the young persons that they were taking a grave chance. However different their viewpoint of life, old Mrs. Bradley and old Mr. Polk could agree heartily in that.
Of course there was much to commend the union. Nancy was beautiful, she came of gentlefolk, and she liked to assert that she was practical, she "had been a workin' woman for yeahs." This statement had reference to a comfortable and informal position she held with a private association for the relief of the poor. Nancy was paid fifteen dollars a week, seven of which she in turn paid to the pretty young widow, an old family friend only a few years older than herself, with whom she boarded. Mrs. Terhune was rich, in a modest way, and frequently refused the money entirely. But she took it often enough to make the blooming Nancy feel quite self-supporting, and as Nancy duly reported at the sunshiny office of the Southern Ladies' Helping Hand every morning, or almost every morning, the girl had some reason to feel that she had solved her financial and domestic problem.
Bert was handsome, too, and his mother knew everybody who was any body in Boston. If Nancy's grandfather Polk had been Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Maryland, why, Bert was the seventh of his name in direct descent, and it was in Bert's great-great- grandfather's home that several prominent citizens of Boston had assumed feathers and warpaint for a celebrated tea-party a great many years ago.
More than that, Bert was at a sensible age for matrimony, twenty- five, and Nancy, like all southern girls, had ripened early, and at twenty-two had several years of dancing and flirting behind her. There was nothing impulsive about the affair. The two had trotted about their adopted city for perhaps two years before Bert brought Nancy the enormous diamond that his mother had given him years ago for just this wonderful time. Circumstances had helped them to know each other well. Nancy knew the sort of play that made Bert stutter with enthusiasm as they walked home, and Bert knew that Nancy made adorable little faces when she tried on hats, and that her salary was fifteen dollars a week. At this time, and for some years later, Bert was only one of several renting agents employed by the firm of Pearsall and Pearsall, City Real Estate. He moved his office from one new office-building downtown to another, sometimes warmed by clanking new radiators, sometimes carrying a gasoline stove with him into the region of new plaster and paint. His name was not important enough to be included in the list of tenants in the vestibule, he was merely "Renting Office, Tenth Floor." And Nancy knew that when he had been a few months longer with Pearsall and Pearsall, they would pay him exactly thirteen hundred dollars a year.
That was the objection, money. Mother and Uncle Tom thought that that was not enough; Nancy and Bert worked it all out on paper, and thought it more than sufficient. They always had a splendid balance, on paper. Meanwhile, Mrs. Terhune went on refusing Nancy's board now and then, and slipping bank-notes into Nancy's purse now and then, and Bert continued to board with the southern gentlewomen to whom he had paid ten dollars a week for three years. He felt like a son in the Venables' house, by this time.
It was at the Venables' boarding-house, indeed, that he first had met the dark-eyed and vivacious Nancy, who was intimate with the faded daughters of the family, Miss Augusta and Miss Sally Anne. When Nancy's Uncle Thomas came to the city for one of his infrequent visits, she always placed him in Mrs. Venable's care.
Bert's first impression of her was of a supernaturally clever person, hopelessly surrounded by "beaux." She had so many admirers that even Miss Augusta, who had had a disappointment, warmed into half-forgotten coquetries while she amused Bert, for whom Miss Nancy had no time. They seemed to Bert, whose youth had known responsibility and hardship, a marvellously happy and light- hearted crowd. They laughed continuously, and they extracted from the chameleon city pleasures that were wonderfully innocent and fresh. It was as if these young exiles had brought from their southern homes something of leisure, something of spaciousness and pure sweetness that the more sophisticated youth of the city lacked. Their very speech, softly slurred and lazy, held a charm for Bert, used to his mother's and his aunts' crisp consonants. He called Nancy "my little southern girl" in his heart, from the hour he met her, and long afterward he told her that he had loved her all that time.
He could not free the cramped muscles of his spirit to meet her quite on her own ground; it was his fate sometimes to reach the laugh just as all the others grew suddenly serious, and as often he took their airy interest heavily, and chained them with facts, from which they fluttered like a flight of butterflies. But he had his own claim, and it warmed the very fibres of his lonely heart when he saw that Nancy was beginning to recognize that claim.
When they all went out to the theatre and supper, it was his pocket-book that never failed them. And what a night that was when, eagerly proffering the fresh bills to Lee Porter, who was giving the party, he looked up to catch a look of protest, and shame, and gratitude, in Nancy's lovely eyes!
"No, now, Lee, you shall not take it!" she laughed richly. Bert thought for a second that this was more than mere persiflage, for the expression on the girl's face was new. Later he reminded himself that they all used curious forms of speech. "I just was too tired to get up this morning," a girl who had actually gotten up would say, or someone would comment upon a late train: "The old train actually never did get here!"
After a while he took Nancy to lunch once or twice, and one day took her to the Plaza, where his mother happened to be staying with Cousin Mary Winthrop and Cousin Anna Baldwin, and his mother said that Nancy was a sweet, lovely girl. Bert had quite a thrill when he saw the familiar, beautiful face turned seriously and with pretty concern toward his mother, and he liked Nancy's composure among the rather formal older women. She managed her tea and her gloves and her attentions prettily, thought Bert. When he took her home at six o'clock he was conscious that he had passed an invisible barrier in their relationship; she knew his mother. They were of one breed.
But that night, when he went back to the hotel to dine, his mother drew him aside.
"Not serious, dear--between you and Miss Barrett, I mean?"
Bert laughed in pleasant confusion.
"Well, I--of course I admire her awfully. Everyone does. But I don't know that I'd have a chance with her." Suddenly and unbidden there leaped into his heart the glorious thought of possessing Nancy. Nancy--his wife, making a home and a life for unworthy him! He flushed deeply. His mother caught the abashed murmur, "...thirteen hundred a year!"
"Exactly!" she said incisively, almost triumphantly. But her eyes, closely watching his expression, were anxious. "I don't believe in having things made too easy for young persons," she added, smiling. "But that--that really is too hard."
"Yep. That's too hard," Bert agreed.
"It isn't fair to the girl to ask it," added his mother gently.
"That's true," Bert said a little heavily, after a pause. "It isn't fair--to Nancy."
The next night Nancy wondered why his manner was so changed, and why he spoke so bitterly of his work, and what was the matter with him anyway. She reflected that perhaps he was sorry his mother's visit was over. For two or three weeks he seemed restless and discontented, and equally unwilling to be included in the "Dutch treats," or to be left out of them. And then suddenly the bad mood passed, and Bert was his kind and appreciative and generous self again. Clark Belknap, also of Maryland, who had plenty of money and a charming personality and manner as well, began to show the familiar symptoms toward Nancy, and Bert told himself that Clark would be an admirable match for her. Also his Cousin Mary wrote him that his second cousin Dorothy Hayes Hamilton was going to be in New York for a few weeks, and asked him to take her about a little, and see that she had a nice time. Cousin Mary, as was usual, enclosed a generous check to insure the nice time, and little Dorothy proved to be a very rose of a girl, just as unspoiled as if her fortune had been half a dollar instead of half a million and full of pride in her big cousin, whose Harvard
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