OLD LADY MANDLE
Old lady Mandle was a queen. Her demesne, undisputed, was a six-room flat on South Park Avenue, Chicago. Her faithful servitress was Anna, an ancient person of Polish nativity, bad teeth, and a cunning hand at cookery. Not so cunning, however, but that old lady Mandle's was more artful still in such matters as meat-soups, broad noodles, fish with egg sauce, and the like. As ladies-in-waiting, flattering yet jealous, admiring though resentful, she had Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser, themselves old ladies and erstwhile queens, now deposed. And the crown jewel in old lady Mandle's diadem was my son Hugo.
Mrs. Mandle was not only a queen but a spoiled old lady. And not only a spoiled old lady but a confessedly spoiled old lady. Bridling and wagging her white head she admitted her pampered state. It was less an admission than a boast. Her son Hugo had spoiled her. This, too, she acknowledged. "My son Hugo spoils me," she would say, and there was no proper humbleness in her voice. Though he was her only son she never spoke of him merely as "Hugo," or "My son," but always as "My son Hugo." She rolled the three words on her tongue as though they were delicious morsels from which she would extract all possible savour and sweetness. And when she did this you could almost hear the click of the stiffening spines of Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser. For they envied her her son Hugo, and resented him as only three old ladies could who were living, tolerated and dependent, with their married sons and their sons' wives.
Any pleasant summer afternoon at four o'clock you might have seen Mrs. Mandle holding court. The four old women sat, a decent black silk row, on a shady bench in Washington Park (near the refectory and afternoon coffee). Three of them complained about their daughters-in-law. One of them bragged about her son. Adjective crowding adjective, pride in her voice, majesty in her mien, she bragged about my son Hugo.
My son Hugo had no wife. Not only that, Hugo Mandle, at forty, had no thought of marrying. Not that there was anything austere or saturnine about Hugo. He made you think, somehow, of a cherubic, jovial monk. It may have been his rosy rotundity, or, perhaps, the way in which his thinning hair vanished altogether at the top of his head, so as to form a tonsure. Hugo Mandle, kindly, generous, shrewd, spoiled his old mother in the way in which women of seventy, whose middle life has been hard, like to be spoiled. First of all, of course, she reigned unchecked over the South Park Avenue flat. She quarrelled wholesomely and regularly with Polish Anna. Alternately she threatened Anna with dismissal and Anna threatened Ma Mandle with impending departure. This had been going on, comfortably, for fifteen years. Ma Mandle held the purse and her son filled it. Hugo paid everything from the rent to the iceman, and this without once making his mother feel a beneficiary. She possessed an infinitesimal income of her own, left her out of the ruins of her dead husband's money, but this Hugo always waved aside did she essay to pay for her own movie ticket or an ice cream soda. "Now, now! None of that, Ma. Your money's no good to-night."
When he returned from a New York business trip he usually brought her two gifts, one practical, the other absurd. She kissed him for the first and scolded him for the second, but it was the absurdity, fashioned of lace, or silk, or fragile stuff, that she pridefully displayed to her friends.
"Look what my son Hugo brought me. I should wear a thing like that in my old days. But it's beautiful anyway, h'm? He's got taste, my son Hugo."
In the cool of the evening you saw them taking a slow and solemn walk together, his hand on her arm. He surprised her with matinée tickets in pairs, telling her to treat one of her friends. On Anna's absent Thursdays he always offered to take dinner downtown. He brought her pound boxes of candy tied with sly loops and bands of gay satin ribbon which she carefully rolled and tucked away in a drawer. He praised her cooking, and teased her with elephantine playfulness, and told her that she looked like a chicken in that hat. Oh, yes, indeed! Mrs. Mandle was a spoiled old lady.
At half-past one she always prepared to take her nap in the quiet of her neat flat. She would select a plump, after-lunch chocolate from the box in her left-hand bureau drawer, take off her shoes, and settle her old frame in comfort. No noisy grandchildren to disturb her rest. No fault-finding daughter-in-law to bustle her out of the way. The sounds that Anna made, moving about in the kitchen at the far end of the long hall, were the subdued homely swishings and brushings that lulled and soothed rather than irritated. At half-past two she rose, refreshed, dressed herself in her dotted swiss with its rows of val, or in black silk, modish both. She was, in fact, a modish old lady as were her three friends. They were not the ultra-modern type of old lady who at sixty apes sixteen. They were neat and rather tart-tongued septuagenarians, guiltless of artifice. Their soft white hair was dressed neatly and craftily so as to conceal the thinning spots that revealed the pink scalp beneath. Their corsets and their stomachs were too high, perhaps, for fashion, and their heavy brooches and chains and rings appeared clumsy when compared to the hoar-frost tracery of the platinumsmith's exquisite art. But their skirts had pleats when pleated skirts were worn, and their sleeves were snug when snug sleeves were decreed. They were inclined to cling over-long to a favourite leather reticule, scuffed and shapeless as an old shoe, but they could hold their own at bridge on a rainy afternoon. In matters of material and cut Mrs. Mandle triumphed. Her lace was likely to be real where that of the other three was imitation.
So there they sat on a park bench in the pleasant afternoon air, filling their lives with emptiness. They had married, and brought children into the world; sacrificed for them, managed a household, been widowed. They represented magnificent achievement, those four old women, though they themselves did not know it. They had come up the long hill, reached its apex, and come down. Their journey was over and yet they sat by the roadside. They knew that which could have helped younger travellers over the next hill, but those fleet-footed ones pressed on, wanting none of their wisdom. Ma Mandle alone still moved. She still queened it over her own household; she alone still had the delightful task of making a man comfortable. If the world passed them by as they sat there it did not pass unscathed. Their shrewd old eyes regarded the panorama, undeceived. They did not try to keep up with the procession, but they derived a sly amusement and entertainment from their observation of the modes and manners of this amazing day and age. Perhaps it was well that this plump matron in the over-tight skirt or that miss mincing on four-inch heels could not hear the caustic comment of the white-haired four sitting so mildly on the bench at the side of the path.
Their talk, stray as it might, always came back to two subjects. They seemed never to tire of them. Three talked of their daughters-in-law, and bitterness rasped their throats. One talked of her son, and her voice was unctuous with pride.
"My son's wife—" one of the three would begin. There was something terribly significant in the mock respect with which she uttered the title.
"If I had ever thought," Mrs. Brunswick would say, shaking her head, "if I had ever thought that I would live to see the day when I had to depend on strangers for my comfort, I would have wished myself dead."
"You wouldn't call your son a stranger, Mrs. Brunswick!" in shocked tones from Mrs. Mandle.
"A stranger has got more consideration. I count for nothing. Less than nothing. I'm in the way. I don't interfere in that household. I see enough, and I hear enough, but I say nothing. My son's wife, she says it all."
A silence, thoughtful, brooding. Then, from Mrs. Wormser: "What good do you have of your children? They grow up, and what do you have of them?"
More shaking of heads, and a dark murmur about the advisability of an Old People's Home as a refuge. Then:
"My son Hugo said only yesterday, 'Ma,' he said, 'when it comes to housekeeping you could teach them all something, believe me. Why,' he says, 'if I was to try and get a cup of coffee like this in a restaurant—well, you couldn't get it in a restaurant, that's all. You couldn't get it in any hotel, Michigan Avenue or I don't care where.'"
Goaded, Mrs. Lamb would look up from her knitting. "Mark my words, he'll marry yet." She was a sallow, lively woman, her hair still markedly streaked with black. Her rheumatism-twisted fingers were always grotesquely busy with some handiwork, and the finished product was a marvel of perfection.
Mrs. Wormser, plump, placid, agreed. "That's the kind always marries late. And they get it the worst. Say, my son was no spring chicken, either, when he married. And you would think the sun rises and sets in his wife. Well, I suppose it's only natural. But you wait."
"Some girl is going to have a snap." Mrs. Brunswick, eager, peering, a trifle vindictive, offered final opinion. "The girls aren't going to let a boy like your Hugo get away. Not nowadays, the way they run after them like crazy. All they think about is dress and a good time."
The three smiled grimly. Ma Mandle smiled, too, a little nervously, her fingers creasing and uncreasing a fold of her black silk skirt as she made airy answer: "If I've said once I've said a million times to my son Hugo, 'Hugo, why don't you pick out some nice girl and settle down? I won't be here always.' And he says, 'Getting tired of me, are you, Ma? I guess maybe you're looking for a younger fellow.' Only last night I said, at the table, 'Hugo, when are you going to get married?' And he laughed. 'When I find somebody that can cook dumplings like these. Pass me another, Ma'."
"That's all very well," said Mrs. Wormser.
"But when the right one comes along he won't know dumplings from mud."
"Oh, a man of forty isn't such a—"
"He's just like a man of twenty-five—only worse."
Mrs. Mandle would rise, abruptly. "Well, I guess you all know my son Hugo better than his own mother. How about a cup of coffee, ladies?"
They would proceed solemnly and eagerly to the columned coolness of the park refectory where they would drink their thick, creamy coffee. They never knew, perhaps, how keenly they counted on that cup of coffee, or how hungrily they drank it. Their minds, unconsciously, were definitely fixed on the four-o'clock drink that stimulated the old nerves.
Life had not always been so plumply upholstered for old lady Mandle. She had known its sharp corners and cruel edges. At twenty-three, a strong, healthy, fun-loving girl, she had married Herman Mandle, a dour man twenty-two years her senior. In their twenty-five years of married life together Hattie Mandle never had had a five-cent piece that she could call her own. Her husband was reputed to be wealthy, and probably was, according to the standards of that day. There were three children: Etta, the oldest; a second child, a girl, who died; and Hugo. Her husband's miserliness, and the grind of the planning, scheming, and contriving necessary to clothe and feed her two children would have crushed the spirit of many women. But hard and glum as her old husband was he never quite succeeded in subduing her courage or her love of fun. The habit of heart-breaking economy clung to her, however, even when days of plenty became hers. It showed in little hoarding ways: in the saving of burned matches, of bits of ribbon, of scraps of food, of the very furniture and linen, as though, when these were gone, no more would follow.
Ten years after her marriage her husband retired from active business. He busied himself now with his real estate, with mysterious papers, documents, agents. He was forever poking around the house at hours when a household should be manless, grumbling about the waste where there was none, peering into bread boxes, prying into corners never meant for masculine eyes. Etta, the girl, was like him, sharp-nosed, ferret-faced, stingy. The mother and the boy turned to each other. In a wordless way they grew very close, those two. It was as if they were silently matched against the father and daughter.
It was a queer household, brooding, sinister, like something created in a Brontë brain. The two children were twenty-four and twenty-two when the financial avalanche of '93 thundered across the continent sweeping Herman Handle, a mere speck, into the débris. Stocks and bonds and real estate became paper, with paper value. He clawed about with frantic, clutching fingers but his voice was lost in the shrieks of thousands more hopelessly hurt. You saw him sitting for hours together with a black tin box in front of him, pawing over papers, scribbling down figures, muttering. The bleak future that confronted them had little of terror for Hattie Mandle. It presented no contrast with the bleakness of the past. On the day that she came upon him, his head fallen at a curious angle against the black tin box, his hands, asprawl, clutching the papers that strewed the table, she was appalled, not at what she found, but at the leap her heart gave at what she found. Herman Handle's sudden death was one of the least of the tragedies that trailed in the wake of the devastating panic.
Thus it was that Hugo Handle, at twenty-three, became the head of a household. He did not need to seek work. From the time he was seventeen he had been employed in a large china-importing house, starting as a stock boy. Brought up under the harsh circumstances of Hugo's youth, a boy becomes food for the reformatory or takes on the seriousness and responsibility of middle age. In Hugo's case the second was true. From his father he had inherited a mathematical mind and a sense of material values. From his mother, a certain patience and courage, though he never attained her iron indomitability.
It had been a terrific struggle. His salary at twenty-three was most modest, but he was getting on. He intended to be a buyer, some day, and take trips abroad to the great Austrian and French and English china houses.
The day after the funeral he said to his mother, "Well, now we've got to get Etta married. But married well. Somebody who'll take care of her."
"You're a good son, Hugo," Mrs. Handle had said.
Hugo shook his head. "It isn't that. If she's comfortable and happy—or as happy as she knows how to be—she'll never come back. That's what I want. There's debts to pay, too. But I guess we'll get along."
They did get along, but at snail's pace. There followed five years of economy so rigid as to make the past seem profligate. Etta, the acid-tongued, the ferret-faced, was not the sort to go off without the impetus of a dowry. The man for Etta, the shrew, must be kindly, long-suffering, subdued—and in need of a start. He was. They managed a very decent trousseau and the miracle of five thousand dollars in cash. Every stitch in the trousseau and every penny in the dowry represented incredible sacrifice and self-denial on the part of mother and brother. Etta went off to her new home in Pittsburg with her husband. She had expressed thanks for nothing and had bickered with her mother to the last, but even Hugo knew that her suit and hat and gloves and shoes were right. She was almost handsome in them, the unwonted flush of excitement colouring her cheeks, brightening her eyes.
The next day Hugo came home with a new hat for his mother, a four-pound steak, and the announcement that he was going to take music lessons. A new era had begun in the life of Ma Mandle.
Two people, no matter how far apart in years or tastes, cannot struggle side by side, like that, in a common cause, without forging between them a bond indissoluble. Hugo, at twenty-eight, had the serious mien of a man of forty. At forty he was to revert to his slighted twenty-eight, but he did not know that then. His music lessons were his one protest against a beauty-starved youth. He played rather surprisingly well the cheap music of the day, waggling his head (already threatening baldness) in a professional vaudeville manner and squinting up through his cigar smoke, happily. His mother, seated in the room, sewing, would say, "Play that again, Hugo. That's beautiful. What's the name of that?" He would tell her, for the dozenth time, and play it over, she humming, off-key, in his wake. The relation between them was more than that of mother and son. It was a complex thing that had in it something conjugal. When Hugo kissed his mother with a resounding smack and assured her that she looked like a kid she would push him away with little futile shoves, pat her hair into place, and pretend annoyance. "Go away, you big rough thing!" she would cry. But all unconsciously she got from it a thrill that her husband's withered kisses had never given her.
Twelve years had passed since Etta's marriage. Hugo's salary was a comfortable thing now, even in these days of soaring prices. The habit of economy, so long a necessity, had become almost a vice in old lady Mandle. Hugo, with the elasticity of younger years, learned to spend freely, but his mother's thrift and shrewdness automatically swelled his savings. When he was on the road, as he sometimes was for weeks at a time, she spent only a tithe of the generous sum he left with her. She and Anna ate those sketchy meals that obtain in a manless household. When Hugo was home the table was abundant and even choice, though Ma Mandle often went blocks out of her way to save three cents on a bunch of new beets. So strong is usage. She would no more have wasted his money than she would have knifed him in the dark. She ran the household capably, but her way was the old-fashioned way. Sometimes Hugo used to protest, aghast at some petty act of parsimony.
"But, Ma, what do you want to scrimp like that for! You're the worst tightwad I ever saw. Here, take this ten and blow it. You're worse than the squirrels in the park, darned if you ain't!"
She couldn't resist the ten. Neither could she resist showing it, next day, to Mrs. Brunswick, Mrs. Lamb, and Mrs. Wormser. "How my son Hugo spoils me! He takes out a ten-dollar bill, and he stuffs it into my hand and says 'Ma, you're the worst tightwad I ever saw.'" She laughed contentedly. But she did not blow the ten. As she grew older Hugo regularly lied to her about the price of theatre tickets, dainties, articles of dress, railway fares, luxuries. Her credulity increased with age, shrewd though she naturally was.
It was a second blooming for Ma Mandle. When he surprised her with an evening at the theatre she would fuss before her mirror for a full hour. "Some gal!" Hugo would shout when finally she emerged. "Everybody'll be asking who the old man is you're out with. First thing I know I'll have a police-woman after me for going around with a chicken."
"Don't talk foolishness." But she would flush like a bride. She liked a musical comedy with a lot of girls in it and a good-looking tenor. Next day you would hear her humming the catch-tune in an airy falsetto. Sometimes she wondered about him. She was, after all, a rather wise old lady, and she knew something of men. She had a secret horror of his becoming what she called fast.
"Why don't you take out some nice young girl instead of an old woman like me, Hugo? Any girl would be only too glad." But in her heart was a dread. She thought of Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Wormser, and Mrs. Brunswick.
So they had gone on, year after year, in the comfortable flat on South Park Avenue. A pleasant thing, life.
And then Hugo married, suddenly, breathlessly, as a man of forty does.
Afterward, Ma Mandle could recall almost nothing from which she might have taken warning. That was because he had said so little. She remembered that he had come home to dinner one evening and had spoken admiringly of a woman buyer from Omaha. He did not often speak of business.
"She buys like a man," he had said at dinner. "I never saw anything like it. Knew what she wanted and got it. She bought all my best numbers at rock bottom. I sold her a four-figure bill in half an hour. And no fuss. Everything right to the point and when I asked her out to dinner she turned me down. Good looking, too. She's coming in again to-morrow for novelties."
Ma Mandle didn't even recall hearing her name until the knife descended. Hugo played the piano a great deal all that week, after dinner. Sentimental things, with a minor wail in the chorus. Smoked a good deal, too. Twice he spent a full hour in dressing, whistling absent-mindedly during the process and leaving his necktie rack looking like a nest of angry pythons when he went out, without saying where he was going. The following week he didn't touch the piano and took long walks in Washington Park, alone, after ten. He seemed uninterested in his meals. Usually he praised this dish, or that.
"How do you like the blueberry pie, Hugo?"
"'S all right." And declined a second piece.
The third week he went West on business. When he came home he dropped his bag in the hall, strode into his mother's bedroom, and stood before her like a schoolboy. "Lil and I are going to be married," he said.
Ma Mandle had looked up at him, her face a blank. "Lil?"
"Sure. I told you all about her." He hadn't. He had merely thought about her, for three weeks, to the exclusion of everything else. "Ma, you'll love her. She knows all about you. She's the grandest girl in the world. Say, I don't know why she ever fell for a dub like me. Well, don't look so stunned. I guess you kind of suspicioned, huh?"
"I never thought she'd look at me. Earned her own good salary, and strictly business, but she's a real woman. Says she wants her own home an—'n everything. Says every normal woman does. Says—"
They were married the following month.
Hugo sub-leased the flat on South Park and took an eight-room apartment farther east. Ma Mandle's red and green plush parlour pieces, and her mahogany rockers, and her rubber plant, and the fern, and the can of grapefruit pits that she and Anna had planted and that had come up, miraculously, in the form of shiny, thick little green leaves, all were swept away in the upheaval that followed. Gone, too, was Polish Anna, with her damp calico and her ubiquitous pail and dripping rag and her gutturals. In her place was a trim Swede who wore white kid shoes in the afternoon and gray dresses and cob-web aprons. The sight of the neat Swede sitting in her room at two-thirty in the afternoon, tatting, never failed to fill Ma Mandle with a dumb fury. Anna had been an all-day scrubber.
But Lil. Hugo thought her very beautiful, which she was not. A plump, voluble, full-bosomed woman, exquisitely neat, with a clear, firm skin, bright brown eyes, an unerring instinct for clothes, and a shrewd business head. Hugo's devotion amounted to worship.
He used to watch her at her toilette in their rose and black mahogany front bedroom. Her plump white shoulders gleamed from pink satin straps. She smelled pleasantly of sachet and a certain heady scent she affected. Seated before the mirror, she stared steadily at herself with a concentration such as an artist bestows upon a work that depends, for its perfection, upon nuances of light and shade. Everything about her shone and glittered. Her pink nails were like polished coral. Her hair gleamed in smooth undulations, not a strand out of place. Her skin was clear and smooth as a baby's. Her hands were plump and white. She was always getting what she called a facial, from which process she would emerge looking pinker and creamier than ever. Lil knew when camisoles were edged with filet, and when with Irish. Instinctively she sensed when taffeta was to be superseded by foulard. The contents of her scented bureau drawers needed only a dab of whipped cream on top to look as if they might have been eaten as something soufflé.
"How do I look in it, Hugo? Do you like it?" was a question that rose daily to her lips. A new hat, or frock, or collar, or negligée. Not that she was unduly extravagant. She knew values, and profited by her knowledge.
"Le's see. Turn around. It looks great on you. Yep. That's all right."
He liked to fancy himself a connoisseur in women's clothes and to prove it he sometimes brought home an article of feminine apparel glimpsed in a shop window or showcase, but Lil soon put a stop to that. She had her own ideas on clothes. He turned to jewellery. On Lil's silken bosom reposed a diamond-and-platinum pin the size and general contour of a fish-knife. She had a dinner ring that crowded the second knuckle, and on her plump wrist sparkled an oblong so encrusted with diamonds that its utilitarian dial was almost lost.
It wasn't a one-sided devotion, however. Lil knew much about men, and she had an instinct for making them comfortable. It is a gift that makes up for myriad minor shortcomings. She had a way of laying his clean things out on the bed—fresh linen, clean white socks (Hugo was addicted to white socks and tan, low-cut shoes), silk shirt, immaculate handkerchief. When he came in at the end of a hard day downtown—hot, fagged, sticky—she saw to it that the bathroom was his own for an hour so that he could bathe, shave, powder, dress, and emerge refreshed to eat his good dinner in comfort. Lil was always waiting for him cool, interested, sweet-smelling.
When she said, "How's business, lover?" she really wanted to know. More than that, when he told her she understood, having herself been so long in the game. She gave him shrewd advice, too, so shrewdly administered that he never realized he had been advised, and so, man-like, could never resent it.
Ma Mandle's reign was over.
To Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser Ma Mandle lied magnificently. Their eager, merciless questions pierced her like knives, but she made placid answer: "Young folks are young folks. They do things different. I got my way. My son's wife has got hers." Their quick ears caught the familiar phrase.
"It's hard, just the same," Mrs. Wormser insisted, "after you've been boss all these years to have somebody else step in and shove you out of the way. Don't I know!"
"I'm glad to have a little rest. Marketing and housekeeping nowadays is no snap, with the prices what they are. Anybody that wants the pleasure is welcome."
But they knew, the three. There was, in Ma Mandle's tone, a hollow pretence that deceived no one. They knew, and she knew that they knew. She was even as they were, a drinker of the hemlock cup, an eater of ashes.
Hugo Mandle was happier and more comfortable than he had ever been in his life. It wasn't merely his love for Lil, and her love for him that made him happy. Lil set a good table, though perhaps it was not as bounteous as his mother's had been. His food, somehow, seemed to agree with him better than it used to. It was because Lil selected her provisions with an eye to their building value, and to Hugo's figure. She told him he was getting too fat, and showed him where, and Hugo agreed with her and took off twenty-five burdensome pounds, but Ma Mandle fought every ounce of it.
"You'll weaken yourself, Hugo! Eat! How can a man work and not eat? I never heard of such a thing. Fads!"
But these were purely physical things. It was a certain mental relaxation that Hugo enjoyed, though he did not definitely know it. He only knew that Lil seemed, somehow, to understand. For years his mother had trailed after him, putting away things that he wanted left out, tidying that which he preferred left in seeming disorder. Lil seemed miraculously to understand about those things. He liked, for example, a certain grimy, gritty old rag with which he was wont to polish his golf clubs. It was caked with dirt, and most disreputable, but it was of just the right material, or weight, or size, or something, and he had for it the unreasoning affection that a child has for a tattered rag doll among a whole family of golden-haired, blue-eyed beauties. Ma Mandle, tidying up, used to throw away that rag in horror. Sometimes he would rescue it, crusted as it was with sand and mud and scouring dust. Sometimes he would have to train in a new rag, and it was never as good as the old. Lil understood about that rag, and approved of it. For that matter, she had a rag of her own which she used to remove cold cream from her face and throat. It was a clean enough bit of soft cloth to start with, but she clung to it as an actress often does, until it was smeared with the pink of makeup and the black of Chicago soot. She used to search remote corners of it for an inch of unused, unsmeared space. Lil knew about not talking when you wanted to read the paper, too. Ma Mandle, at breakfast, had always had a long and intricate story to tell about the milkman, or the strawberries that she had got the day before and that had spoiled overnight in the icebox. A shame! Sometimes he had wanted to say, "Let me read my paper in peace, won't you!" But he never had. Now it was Lil who listened patiently to Ma Mandle's small grievances, and Hugo was left free to peruse the head-lines.
If you had told Ma Mandle that she was doing her best to ruin the life of the one person she loved best in all the world she would have told you that you were insane. If you had told her that she was jealous she would have denied it, furiously. But both were true.
When Hugo brought his wife a gift he brought one for his mother as well.
"You don't need to think you have to bring your old mother anything," she would say, unreasonably.
"Didn't I always bring you something, Ma?"
If seventy can be said to sulk, Ma Mandle sulked.
Lil, on her way to market in the morning, was a pleasant sight, trim, well-shod, immaculate. Ma, whose marketing costume had always been neat but sketchy, would eye her disapprovingly. "Are you going out?"
"Just to market. I thought I'd start early, before everything was picked over."
"Oh—to market! I thought you were going to a party, you're so dressy."
In the beginning Lil had offered to allow Ma Mandle to continue with the marketing but Mrs. Mandle had declined, acidly. "Oh, no," she had said. "This is your household now."
But she never failed to inspect the groceries as they lay on the kitchen table after delivery. She would press a wise and disdainful thumb into a head of lettuce; poke a pot-roast with disapproving finger; turn a plump chicken over and thump it down with a look that was pregnant with meaning.
Ma Mandle disapproved of many things. Of Lil's silken, lacy lingerie; of her social activities; of what she termed her wastefulness. Lil wore the fewest possible undergarments, according to the fashion of the day, and she worried, good-naturedly, about additional plumpness that was the result of leisure and of rich food. She was addicted to afternoon parties at the homes of married women of her own age and station—pretty, well-dressed, over-indulged women who regularly ate too much. They served a mayonnaise chicken salad, and little hot buttery biscuits, and strong coffee with sugar and cream, and there were dishes of salted almonds, and great, shining, oily, black ripe olives, and a heavy, rich dessert. When she came home she ate nothing.
"I couldn't eat a bite of dinner," she would say. "Let me tell you what we had." She would come to the table in one of her silken, lace-bedecked teagowns and talk animatedly to Hugo while he ate his dinner and eyed her appreciatively as she sat there leaning one elbow on the cloth, the sleeve fallen back so that you saw her plump white forearm. She kept her clear, rosy skin in spite of the pastry and sweets and the indolent life, and even the layers of powder with which she was forever dabbing her face had not coarsened its texture.
Hugo, man-like, was unconscious of the undercurrent of animosity between the two women. He was very happy. He only knew that Lil understood about cigar ashes; that she didn't mind if a pillow wasn't plumped and patted after his Sunday nap on the davenport; that she never complained to him about the shortcomings of the little Swede, as Ma Mandle had about Polish Anna. Even at house-cleaning time, which Ma Mandle had always treated as a scourge, things were as smooth-running and peaceful as at ordinary times. Just a little bare, perhaps, as to floors, and smelling of cleanliness. Lil applied businesslike methods to the conduct of her house, and they were successful in spite of Ma Mandle's steady efforts to block them. Old lady Mandle did not mean to be cruel. She only thought that she was protecting her son's interests. She did not know that the wise men had a definite name for the mental processes which caused her, perversely, to do just the thing which she knew she should not do.
Hugo and Lil went out a great deal in the evening. They liked the theatre, restaurant life, gayety. Hugo learned to dance and became marvellously expert at it, as does your fat man.
"Come on and go out with us this evening, Mother," Lil would say.
"Sure!" Hugo would agree, heartily. "Come along, Ma. We'll show you some night life."
"I don't want to go," Ma Mandle would mutter. "I'm better off at home. You enjoy yourself better without an old woman dragging along."
That being true, they vowed it was not, and renewed their urging. In the end she went, grudgingly. But her old eyes would droop; the late supper would disagree with her; the noise, the music, the laughter, and shrill talk bewildered her. She did not understand the banter, and resented it.
Next day, in the park, she would boast of her life of gayety to the vaguely suspicious three.
Later she refused to go out with them. She stayed in her room a good deal, fussing about, arranging bureau drawers already geometrically precise, winding endless old ribbons, ripping the trimming off hats long passé and re-trimming them with odds and ends and scraps of feathers and flowers.
Hugo and Lil used to ask her to go with them to the movies, but they liked the second show at eight-thirty while she preferred the earlier one at seven. She grew sleepy early, though she often lay awake for hours after composing herself for sleep. She would watch the picture absorbedly, but when she stepped, blinking, into the bright glare of Fifty-third Street, she always had a sense of let-down, of depression.
A wise old lady of seventy, who could not apply her wisdom for her own good. A rather lonely old lady, with hardening arteries and a dilating heart. An increasingly fault-finding old lady. Even Hugo began to notice it. She would wait for him to come home and then, motioning him mysteriously into her own room, would pour a tale of fancied insult into his ear.
"I ran a household and brought up a family before she was born. I don't have to be told what's what. I may be an old woman but I'm not so old that I can sit and let my own son be made a fool of. One girl isn't enough, she's got to have a wash woman. And now a wash woman isn't enough she's got to have a woman to clean one day a week."
An hour later, from the front bedroom, where Hugo was dressing, would come the low murmur of conversation. Lil had reached the complaining point, goaded by much repetition.
The attitude of the two women distressed and bewildered Hugo. He was a simple soul, and this was a complex situation. His mind leaped from mother to wife, and back again, joltingly. After all, one woman at a time is all that any man can handle successfully.
"What's got into you women folks!" he would say. "Always quarrelling. Why can't you get along."
One night after dinner Lil said, quite innocently, "Mother, we haven't a decent picture of you. Why don't you have one taken? In your black lace."
Old lady Mandle broke into sudden fury. "I guess you think I'm going to die! A picture to put on the piano after I'm gone, huh? 'That's my dear mother that's gone.' Well, I don't have any picture taken. You can think of me the way I was when I was alive."
The thing grew and swelled and took on bitterness as it progressed. Lil's face grew strangely flushed and little veins stood out on her temples. All the pent-up bitterness that had been seething in Ma Mandle's mind broke bounds now, and welled to her lips. Accusation, denial; vituperation, retort.
"You'll be happy when I'm gone."
"If I am it's your fault."
"It's the ones that are used to nothing that always want the most. They don't know where to stop. When you were working in Omaha—"
"The salary I gave up to marry your son was more money than you ever saw."
And through it all, like a leit-motiv, ran Hugo's attempt at pacification: "Now, Ma! Don't, Lil. You'll only excite yourself. What's got into you two women?"
It was after dinner. In the end Ma Mandle slammed out of the house, hatless. Her old legs were trembling. Her hands shook. It was a hot June night. She felt as if she were burning up. In her frantic mind there was even thought of self-destruction. There were thousands of motor cars streaming by. The glare of their lamps and the smell of the gasoline blinded and stifled her. Once, at a crossing, she almost stumbled in front of an on-rushing car. The curses of the startled driver sounded in her terrified ears after she had made the opposite curb in a frantic bound. She walked on and on for what seemed to her to be a long time, with plodding, heavy step. She was not conscious of being tired. She came to a park bench and sat down, feeling very abused, and lonely and agonized. This was what she had come to in her old days. It was for this you bore children, and brought them up and sacrificed for them. How right they were—Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser. Useless. Unconsidered. In the way.
By degrees she grew calmer. Her brain cooled as her fevered old body lost the heat of anger. Lil had looked kind of sick. Perhaps ... and how worried Hugo had looked....
Feeling suddenly impelled she got up from the bench and started toward home. Her walk, which had seemed interminable, had really lasted scarcely more than half an hour. She had sat in the park scarcely fifteen minutes. Altogether her flight had been, perhaps, an hour in duration.
She had her latchkey in her pocket. She opened the door softly. The place was in darkness. Voices from the front bedroom, and the sound of someone sobbing, as though spent. Old lady Mandle's face hardened again. The door of the front bedroom was closed. Plotting against her! She crouched there in the hall, listening. Lil's voice, hoarse with sobs.
"I've tried and tried. But she hates me. Nothing I do suits her. If it wasn't for the baby coming sometimes I think I'd—"
"You're just nervous and excited, Lil. It'll come out all right. She's an old lady—"
"I know it. I know it. I've said that a million times in the last year and a half. But that doesn't excuse everything, does it? Is that any reason why she should spoil our lives? It isn't fair. It isn't fair!"
"Sh! Don't cry like that, dear. Don't! You'll only make yourself sick."
Her sobs again, racking, choking, and the gentle murmur of his soothing endearments. Then, unexpectedly, a little, high-pitched laugh through the tears.
"No, I'm not hysterical. I—it just struck me funny. I was just wondering if I might be like that. When I grow old, and my son marries, maybe I'll think everything his wife does is wrong. I suppose if we love them too much we really harm them. I suppose—"
"Oh, it's going to be a son, is it?"
Another silence. Then: "Come, dear. Bathe your poor eyes. You're all worn out from crying. Why, sweetheart, I don't believe I ever saw you cry before."
"I know it. I feel better now. I wish crying could make it all right. I'm sorry. She's so old, dear. That's the trouble. They live in the past and they expect us to live in the past with them. You were a good son to her, Hughie. That's why you make such a wonderful husband. Too good, maybe. You've spoiled us both, and now we both want all of you."
Hugo was silent a moment. He was not a quick-thinking man. "A husband belongs to his wife," he said then, simply. "He's his mother's son by accident of birth. But he's his wife's husband by choice, and deliberately."
But she laughed again at that. "It isn't as easy as that, sweetheart. If it was there'd be no jokes in the funny papers. My poor boy! And just now, too, when you're so worried about business."
"Business'll be all right, Lil. Trade'll open up next winter. It's got to. We've kept going on the Japanese and English stuff. But if the French and Austrian factories start running we'll have a whirlwind year. If it hadn't been for you this last year I don't know how I'd have stood the strain. No importing, and the business just keeping its head above water. But you were right, honey. We've weathered the worst of it now."
"I'm glad you didn't tell Mother about it. She'd have worried herself sick. If she had known we both put every cent we had into the business—"
"We'll get it back ten times over. You'll see."
The sound of footsteps. "I wonder where she went. She oughtn't to be out alone. I'm kind of worried about her, Hugo. Don't you think you'd better—"
Ma Mandle opened the front door and then slammed it, ostentatiously, as though she had just come in.
"That you, Ma?" called Hugo.
He turned on the hall light. She stood there, blinking, a bent, pathetic little figure. Her eyes were averted. "Are you all right, Ma? We began to worry about you."
"I'm all right. I'm going to bed."
He made a clumsy, masculine pretence at heartiness. "Lil and I are going over to the drug store for a soda, it's so hot. Come on along, Ma."
Lil joined him in the doorway of the bedroom. Her eyes were red-rimmed behind the powder that she had hastily dabbed on, but she smiled bravely.
"Come on, Mother," she said. "It'll cool you off."
But Ma Mandle shook her head. "I'm better off at home. You run along, you two."
That was all. But the two standing there caught something in her tone. Something new, something gentle, something wise.
She went on down the hall to her room. She took off her clothes, and hung them away, neatly. But once in her nightgown she did not get into bed. She sat there, in the chair by the window. Old lady Mandle had lived to be seventy and had acquired much wisdom. One cannot live to be seventy without having experienced almost everything in life. But to crystallize that experience of a long lifetime into terms that would express the meaning of life—this she had never tried to do. She could not do it now, for that matter. But she groped around, painfully, in her mind. There had been herself and Hugo. And now Hugo's wife and the child to be. They were the ones that counted, now. That was the law of life. She did not put it into words. But something of this she thought as she sat there in her plain white nightgown, her scant white locks pinned in a neat knob at the top of her head. Selfishness. That was it. They called it love, but it was selfishness. She must tell them about it to-morrow—Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser. Only yesterday Mrs. Brunswick had waxed bitter because her daughter-in-law had let a moth get into her husband's winter suit.
"I never had a moth in my house!" Mrs. Brunswick had declared. "Never. But nowadays housekeeping is nothing. A suit is ruined. What does my son's wife care! I never had a moth in my house."
Ma Mandle chuckled to herself there in the darkness. "I bet she did. She forgets. We all forget."
It was very hot to-night. Now and then there was a wisp of breeze from the lake, but not often.... How red Lil's eyes had been ... poor girl. Moved by a sudden impulse Ma Mandle thudded down the hall in her bare feet, found a scrap of paper in the writing-desk drawer, scribbled a line on it, turned out the light, and went into the empty front room. With a pin from the tray on the dresser she fastened the note to Lil's pillow, high up, where she must see it the instant she turned on the light. Then she scuttled down the hall to her room again.
She felt the heat terribly. She would sit by the window again. All the blood in her body seemed to be pounding in her head ... pounding in her head ... pounding....
At ten Hugo and Lil came in, softly. Hugo tiptoed down the hall, as was his wont, and listened. The room was in darkness. "Sleeping, Ma?" he whispered. He could not see the white-gowned figure sitting peacefully by the window, and there was no answer. He tiptoed with painful awkwardness up the hall again.
"She's asleep, all right. I didn't think she'd get to sleep so early on a scorcher like this."
Lil turned on the light in her room. "It's too hot to sleep," she said. She began to disrobe languidly. Her eye fell on the scrap of paper pinned to her pillow. She went over to it, curiously, leaned over, read it.
"Oh, look, Hugo!" She gave a little tremulous laugh that was more than half sob. He came over to her and read it, his arm around her shoulder.
"My son Hugo and my daughter Lil they are the best son and daughter in the world."
A sudden hot haze before his eyes blotted out the words as he finished reading them.