"So you're going home to your own people for the week end, Peggy?—And how many of you are there,—I always forget?" said young Mrs. George Crawford, negligently. She tipped back in her chair, half shut her novel, half shut her eyes, and looked critically at her finger-nails.
Outside the big country house summer sunshine flooded the smooth lawns, sparkled on the falling diamonds and still pool of the fountain, glowed over acres of matchless wood and garden. But deep awnings made a clear cool shade indoors, and the wide rooms were delightfully breezy.
Margaret, busy with a ledger and cheque-book, smiled absently, finished a long column, made an orderly entry, and wiped her pen.
"Seven," said she, smiling.
"Seven!" echoed Mrs. Potter, lazily. "My heaven—seven children! How early Victorian!"
"Isn't it?" said a third woman, a very beautiful woman, Mrs. Watts Watson, who was also idling and reading in the white-and-gray morning room. "Well," she added, dropping her magazine, and locking her hands about her head, "my grandmother had ten. Fancy trying to raise ten children!"
"Oh, everything's different now," the first speaker said indifferently. "Everything's more expensive, life is more complicated. People used to have roomier houses, aunts and cousins and grandmothers living with them; there was always some one at home with the children. Nowadays we don't do that."
"And thank the saints we don't!" said Mrs. Watson, piously. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's a houseful of things-in-law!"
"Of course; but I mean it made the family problem simpler," Mrs. Crawford pursued. "Oh—and I don't know! Everything was so simple. All this business of sterilizing, and fumigating, and pasteurizing, and vaccinating, and boiling in boracic acid wasn't done in those days," she finished vaguely.
"Now there you are—now there you are!" said Mrs. Carr-Boldt, entering into the conversation with sudden force. Entirely recovered after her nervous collapse, as brisk as ever in her crisp linen gown, she was signing the cheques that Margaret handed her, frowningly busy and absorbed with her accounts. Now she leaned back in her chair, glanced at the watch at her wrist, and relaxed the cramped muscles of her body. "That's exactly it, Rose," said she to Mrs. Crawford. "Life is more complicated. People—the very people who ought to have children—simply cannot afford it! And who's to blame? Can you blame a woman whose life is packed full of other things she simply cannot avoid, if she declines to complicate things any further? Our grandmothers didn't have telephones, or motor-cars, or week-end affairs, or even—for that matter—manicures and hair-dressers! A good heavy silk was full dress all the year 'round. They washed their own hair. The 'up-stairs girl' answered the doorbell,—why, they didn't even have talcum powder and nursery refrigerators, and sanitary rugs that have to be washed every day! Do you suppose my grandmother ever took a baby's temperature, or had its eyes and nose examined, or its adenoids cut? They had more children, and they lost more children,—without any reason or logic whatever. Poor things, they never thought of doing anything else, I suppose! A fat old darky nurse brought up the whole crowd—it makes one shudder to think of it! Why, I had always a trained nurse, and the regular nurse used to take two baths a day. I insisted on that, and both nurseries were washed out every day with chloride of potash solution, and the iron beds washed every week! And even then Vic had this mastoid trouble, and Harriet got everything, almost."
"Exactly," said Mrs. Watson. "That's you, Hattie, with all the money in the world. Now do you wonder that some of the rest of us, who have to think of money—in short," she finished decidedly, "do you wonder that people are not having children? At first, naturally, one doesn't want them,—for three or four years, I'm sure, the thought doesn't come into one's head. But then, afterwards,—you see, I've been married fifteen years now!—afterwards, I think it would be awfully nice to have one or two little kiddies, if it was a possible thing. But it isn't."
"No, it isn't," Mrs. Crawford agreed. "You don't want to have them unless you're able to do everything in the world for them. If I were Hat here, I'd have a dozen."
"Oh, no, you wouldn't," Mrs. Carr-Boldt assured her promptly. "No, you wouldn't! You can't leave everything to servants—there are clothes to think of, and dentists, and special teachers, and it's frightfully hard to get a nursery governess. And then you've got to see that they know the right people—don't you know?—and give them parties—I tell you it's a strain."
"Well, I don't believe my mother with her seven ever worked any harder than you do!" said Margaret, with the admiration in her eyes that was so sweet to the older woman. "Look at this morning—did you sit down before you came in here twenty minutes ago?"
"I? Indeed I didn't!" Mrs. Carr-Boldt said. "I had my breakfast and letters at seven, bath at eight, straightened out that squabble between Swann and the cook,—I think Paul is still simmering, but that's neither here nor there!—then I went down with the vet to see the mare. Joe'll never forgive me if I've really broken the creature's knees!—then I telephoned mother, and saw Harriet's violin man, and talked to that Italian Joe sent up to clean the oils,—he's in the gallery now, and—let's see—"
"Italian lesson," Margaret prompted.
"Italian lesson," the other echoed, "and then came in here to sign my cheques."
"You're so executive, Harriet!" said Mrs. Crawford, languidly.
"Apropos of Swann," Margaret said, "he confided to me that he has seven children—on a little farm down on Long Island."
"The butler—oh, I dare say!" Mrs. Watson agreed. "They can, because they've no standard to maintain—seven, or seventeen—the only difference in expense is the actual amount of bread and butter consumed."
"It's too bad," said Mrs. Crawford. "But you've got to handle the question sanely and reasonably, like any other. Now, I love children," she went on. "I'm perfectly crazy about my sister's little girl. She's eleven now, and the cutest thing alive. But when I think of all Mabel's been through, since she was born,—I realize that it's a little too much to expect of any woman. Now, look at us,—there are thousands of people fixed as we are. We're in an apartment hotel, with one maid. There's no room for a second maid, no porch and no back yard. Well, the baby comes,—one loses, before and after the event, just about six months of everything, and of course the expense is frightful, but no matter!—the baby comes. We take a house. That means three indoor maids, George's chauffeur, a man for lawn and furnace—that's five—"
"Doubling expenses," said Mrs. Carr-Boldt, thoughtfully.
"Doubling—! Trebling, or more. But that's not all. Baby must be out from eleven to three every day. So you've got to go sit by the carriage in the park while nurse goes home for her lunch. Or, if you're out for luncheon, or giving a luncheon, she brings baby home, bumps the carriage into the basement, carries the baby upstairs, eats her lunch in snatches—the maids don't like it, and I don't blame them! I know how it was with Mabel; she had to give up that wonderful old apartment of theirs on Gramercy Park. Sid had his studio on the top floor, and she had such a lovely flat on the next floor, but there was no lift, and no laundry, and the kitchen was small—a baby takes so much fussing! And then she lost that splendid cook of hers, Germaine. She wouldn't stand it. Up to that time she'd been cooking and waiting, too, but the baby ended that. Mabel took a house, and Sid paid studio rent beside, and they had two maids, and then three maids,—and what with their fighting, and their days off, and eternally changing, Mabel was a wreck. I've seen her trying to play a bridge hand with Dorothy bobbing about on her arm—poor girl! Finally they went to a hotel, and of course the child got older, and was less trouble. But to this day Mabel doesn't dare leave her alone for one second. And when they go out to dinner, and leave her alone in the hotel, of course the child cries—!"
"That's the worst of a kiddie," Mrs. Watson said. "You can't ever turn 'em off, as it were, or make it spades! They're always right on the job. I'll never forget Elsie Clay. She was the best friend I had,—my bridesmaid, too. She married, and after a while they took a house in Jersey because of the baby. I went out there to lunch one day. There she was in a house perfectly buried in trees, with the rain sopping down outside, and smoke blowing out of the fireplace, and the drawing-room as dark as pitch at two o'clock. Elsie said she used to nearly die of loneliness, sitting there all afternoon long listening to the trains whistling, and the maid thumping irons in the kitchen, and picking up the baby's blocks. And they quarrelled, you know, she and her husband—that was the beginning of the trouble. Finally the boy went to his grandmother, and now believe Elsie's married again, and living in California somewhere."
Margaret, hanging over the back of her chair, was an attentive listener.
"But people—people in town have children!" she said. "The Blankenships have one, and haven't the de Normandys?"
"The Blankenship boy is in college," said Mrs. Carr-Boldt; "and the little de Normandys lived with their grandmother until they were old enough for boarding school."
"Well, the Deanes have three!" Margaret said triumphantly.
"Ah, well, my dear! Harry Deane's a rich man, and she was a Pell of Philadelphia," Mrs. Crawford supplied promptly. "Now the Eastmans have three, too, with a trained nurse apiece."
"I see," Margaret admitted slowly.
"Far wiser to have none at all," said Mrs. Carr-Boldt, in her decisive way, "than to handicap them from the start by letting them see other children enjoying pleasures and advantages they can't afford. And now, girls, let's stop wasting time. It's half-past eleven. Why can't we have a game of auction right here and now?"
Margaret returned to her cheque-book with speed. The other two, glad to be aroused, heartily approved the idea.
"Well, what does this very businesslike aspect imply?" Mrs. Carr-Boldt asked her secretary.
"It means that I can't play cards, and you oughtn't," Margaret said, laughing.
"Oh—? Why not?"
"Because you've lots of things to do, and I've got to finish these notes, and I have to sit with Harriet while she does her German—"
"Fraulein's going to drive Vic over to the Partridges' for luncheon, and I promised Swann I'd talk to him about favors and things for tomorrow night."
"Well—busy Lizzie! And what have I to do?"
Margaret reached for a well-filled date-book.
"You were to decide about those alterations, the porch and dining room, you know," said she. "There are some architect's sketches around here; the man's going to be here early in the morning. You said you'd drive to the yacht club, to see about the stage for the children's play; you were to stop on the way back and see old Mrs. McNab a moment. You wanted to write Mrs. Polk a note to catch the 'Kaiserin Augusta', and luncheon's early because of the Kellogg bridge." She shut the book. "And call Mr. Carr-Boldt at the club at one," she added.
"All that, now fancy!" said her employer, admiringly.
She had swept some scattered magazines from a small table, and was now seated there, negligently shuffling a pack of cards in her fine white hands.
"Ring, will you, Peggy?" said she.
"And the boat races are to-day, and you dine at Oaks-in-the-Field," Margaret supplemented inflexibly.
"Yes? Well, come and beat the seven of clubs," said Mrs. Carr-Boldt, spreading the deck for the draw.
"Fraulein," she said sweetly, a moment later, when a maid had summoned that worthy and earnest governess, "tell Miss Harriet that Mother doesn't want her to do her German to-day, it's too warm. Tell her that she's to go with you and Miss Victoria for a drive. Thank you. And, Fraulein, will you telephone old Mrs. McNab, and say that Mrs. Carr Boldt is lying down with a severe headache, and she won't be able to come in this morning? Thank you. And, Fraulein, telephone the yacht club, will you? And tell Mr. Mathews that Mrs. Carr-Boldt is indisposed and he'll have to come back this afternoon. I'll talk to him before the children's races. And—one thing more! Will you tell Swann Miss Paget will see him about to-morrow's dinner when she comes back from the yacht club to-day? And tell him to send us something cool to drink now. Thank you so much. No, shut it. Thank you. Have a nice drive!"
They all drew up their chairs to the table.
"You and I, Rose," said Mrs. Watson. "I'm so glad you suggested this, Hattie. I am dying to play."
"It really rests me more than anything else," said Mrs. Carr-Boldt. "Two spades."