The Maternal Feminine by Edna Ferber
Story type: Literature
Called upon to describe Aunt Sophy, you would have to coin a term or fall back on the dictionary definition of a spinster. “An unmarried woman,” states that worthy work, baldly, “especially when no longer young.” That, to the world, was Sophy Decker. Unmarried, certainly. And most certainly no longer young. In figure, she was, at fifty, what is known in the corset ads as a “stylish stout.” Well dressed in dark suits, with broad-toed health shoes and a small, astute hat. The suit was practical common sense. The health shoes were comfort. The hat was strictly business. Sophy Decker made and sold hats, both astute and ingenuous, to the female population of Chippewa, Wisconsin. Chippewa’s East End set bought the knowing type of hat, and the mill hands and hired girls bought the naive ones. But whether lumpy or possessed of that thing known as line, Sophy Decker’s hats were honest hats.
The world is full of Aunt Sophys, unsung. Plump, ruddy, capable women of middle age. Unwed, and rather looked down upon by a family of married sisters and tolerant, good-humored brothers-in-law, and careless nieces and nephews.
“Poor Aunt Soph,” with a significant half smile. “She’s such a good old thing. And she’s had so little in life, really.”
She was, undoubtedly, a good old thing–Aunt Soph. Forever sending a model hat to this pert little niece in Seattle; or taking Adele, Sister Flora’s daughter, to Chicago or New York as a treat on one of her buying trips.
Burdening herself, on her business visits to these cities, with a dozen foolish shopping commissions for the idle womenfolk of her family. Hearing without partisanship her sisters’ complaints about their husbands, and her sisters’ husbands’ complaints about their wives. It was always the same.
“I’m telling you this, Sophy. I wouldn’t breathe it to another living soul. But I honestly think, sometimes, that if it weren’t for the children—-“
There is no knowing why they confided these things to Sophy instead of to each other, these wedded sisters of hers. Perhaps they held for each other an unuttered distrust or jealousy. Perhaps, in making a confidante of Sophy, there was something of the satisfaction that comes of dropping a surreptitious stone down a deep well and hearing it plunk, safe in the knowledge that it has struck no one and that it cannot rebound, lying there in the soft darkness. Sometimes they would end by saying, “But you don’t know what it is, Sophy. You can’t. I’m sure I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
But when Sophy answered, sagely, “I know; I know,” they paid little heed, once having unburdened themselves. The curious part of it is that she did know. She knew as a woman of fifty must know who, all her life, has given and given and in return has received nothing. Sophy Decker had never used the word inhibition in her life. She may not have known what it meant. She only knew (without in the least knowing she knew) that in giving of her goods, of her affections, of her time, of her energy, she found a certain relief. Her own people would have been shocked if you had told them that there was about this old-maid aunt something rather splendidly Rabelaisian. Without being what is known as a masculine woman, she had, somehow, acquired the man’s viewpoint, his shrewd value sense. She ate a good deal, and enjoyed her food. She did not care for those queer little stories that married women sometimes tell, with narrowed eyes, but she was strangely tolerant of what is known as sin. So simple and direct she was that you wondered how she prospered in a line so subtle as the millinery business.
You might have got a fairly true characterization of Sophy Decker from one of fifty people: from a salesman in a New York or Chicago wholesale millinery house; from Otis Cowan, cashier of the First National Bank of Chippewa; from Julia Gold, her head milliner and trimmer; from almost anyone, in fact, except a member of her own family. They knew her least of all. Her three married sisters–Grace in Seattle, Ella in Chicago, and Flora in Chippewa–regarded her with a rather affectionate disapproval from the snug safety of their own conjugal inglenooks.
“I don’t know. There’s something–well–common about Sophy,” Flora confided to Ella. Flora, on shopping bent, and Sophy, seeking hats, had made the five-hour run from Chippewa to Chicago together. “She talks to everybody. You should have heard her with the porter on our train. Chums! And when the conductor took our tickets it was a social occasion. You know how packed the seven-fifty-two is. Every seat in the parlor car taken. And Sophy asking the colored porter about how his wife was getting along–she called him William–and if they were going to send her West, and all about her. I wish she wouldn’t.”
Aunt Sophy undeniably had a habit of regarding people as human beings. You found her talking to chambermaids and delivery boys, and elevator starters, and gas collectors, and hotel clerks–all that aloof, unapproachable, superior crew. Under her benign volubility they bloomed and spread and took on color as do those tight little paper water flowers when you cast them into a bowl. It wasn’t idle curiosity in her. She was interested. You found yourself confiding to her your innermost longings, your secret tribulations, under the encouragement of her sympathetic, “You don’t say!” Perhaps it was as well that Sister Flora was in ignorance of the fact that the millinery salesmen at Danowitz & Danowitz, Importers, always called Miss Decker Aunt Soph, as, with one arm flung about her plump shoulder, they revealed to her the picture of their girl in the back flap of their billfold.
Flora, with a firm grip on Chippewa society, as represented by the East End set, did not find her position enhanced by a sister in the millinery business in Elm Street.
“Of course it’s wonderful that she’s self-supporting and successful and all,” she told her husband. “But it’s not so pleasant for Adele, now that she’s growing up, having all the girls she knows buying their hats of her aunt. Not that I–but you know how it is.”
H. Charnsworth Baldwin said yes, he knew.
When the Decker girls were young, the Deckers had lived in a sagging old frame house (from which the original paint had long ago peeled in great scrofulous patches) on an unimportant street in Chippewa. There was a worm-eaten, russet-apple tree in the yard, an untidy tangle of wild-cucumber vine over the front porch, and an uncut brush of sunburned grass and weeds all about.
From May until September you never passed the Decker place without hearing the plunkety-plink of a mandolin from somewhere behind the vines, laughter, and the creak-creak of the hard- worked and protesting hammock hooks.
Flora, Ella, and Grace Decker had had more beaux and fewer clothes than any other girls in Chippewa. In a town full of pretty young things, they were, undoubtedly, the prettiest; and in a family of pretty sisters (Sophy always excepted) Flora was the acknowledged beauty. She was the kind of girl whose nose never turns red on a frosty morning. A little, white, exquisite nose, purest example of the degree of perfection which may be attained by that vulgarest of features. Under her great gray eyes were faint violet shadows which gave her a look of almost poignant wistfulness. Her slow, sweet smile give the beholder an actual physical pang. Only her family knew she was lazy as a behemoth, untidy about her person, and as sentimental as a hungry shark. The strange and cruel part of it was that, in some grotesque, exaggerated way, as a cartoon may be like a photograph, Sophy resembled Flora. It was as though nature, in prankish mood, had given a cabbage the color and texture of a rose, with none of its fragile reticence and grace.
It was a manless household. Mrs. Decker, vague, garrulous, referred to her dead husband, in frequent reminiscence, as poor Mr. Decker. Mrs. Decker dragged one leg as she walked–rheumatism, or a spinal affection. S
mall wonder, then, that Sophy, the plain, with a gift for hatmaking, a knack at eggless cake baking, and a genius for turning a sleeve so that last year’s style met this year’s without a struggle, contributed nothing to the sag in the center of the old twine hammock on the front porch.
That the three girls should marry well, and Sophy not at all, was as inevitable as the sequence of the seasons. Ella and Grace did not manage badly, considering that they had only their girlish prettiness and the twine hammock to work with. But Flora, with her beauty, captured H. Charnsworth Baldwin. Chippewa gasped. H. Charnsworth Baldwin drove a skittish mare to a high-wheeled yellow runabout; had his clothes made at Proctor Brothers in Milwaukee; and talked about a game called golf. It was he who advocated laying out a section of land for what he called links, and erecting a clubhouse thereon.
“The section of the bluff overlooking the river,” he explained, “is full of natural hazards, besides having a really fine view.”
Chippewa–or that comfortable, middle-class section of it which got its exercise walking home to dinner from the store at noon, and cutting the grass evenings after supper–laughed as it read this interview in the Chippewa Eagle.
“A golf course,” they repeated to one another, grinning. “Conklin’s cow pasture, up the river. It’s full of natural–wait a minute–what was?–oh, yeh, here it is–hazards. Full of natural hazards. Say, couldn’t you die!”
For H. Charnsworth Baldwin had been little Henry Baldwin before he went East to college. Ten years later H. Charnsworth, in knickerbockers and gay-topped stockings, was winning the cup in the men’s tournament played on the Chippewa golf-club course, overlooking the river. And his name, in stout gold letters, blinked at you from the plate-glass windows of the office at the corner of Elm and Winnebago:
NORTHERN LUMBER AND LAND COMPANY
H. Charnsworth Baldwin, Pres.
Two blocks farther down Elm Street was another sign, not so glittering, which read:
Miss Sophy Decker
Sophy’s hatmaking, in the beginning, had been done at home. She had always made her sisters’ hats, and her own, of course, and an occasional hat for a girl friend. After her sisters had married, Sophy found herself in possession of a rather bewildering amount of spare time. The hat trade grew so that sometimes there were six rather botchy little bonnets all done up in yellow paper pyramids with a pin at the top, awaiting their future wearers. After her mother’s death Sophy still stayed on in the old house. She took a course in millinery in Milwaukee, came home, stuck up a homemade sign in the parlor window (the untidy cucumber vines came down), and began her hatmaking in earnest. In five years she had opened a shop on a side street near Elm, had painted the old house, installed new plumbing, built a warty stucco porch, and transformed the weedy, grass-tangled yard into an orderly stretch of green lawn and bright flower beds. In ten years she was in Elm Street, and the Chippewa Eagle ran a half column twice a year describing her spring and fall openings. On these occasions Aunt Sophy, in black satin and marcel wave and her most relentless corsets, was, in all the superficial things, not a pleat or fold or line or wave behind her city colleagues. She had all the catch phrases:
“This is awfully good this year.”
“Here’s a sweet thing. A Mornet model.”
“. . . Well, but, my dear, it’s the style–the line–you’re paying for, not the material.”
“No, that hat doesn’t do a thing for you.”
“I’ve got it. I had you in mind when I bought it. Now don’t say you can’t wear henna. Wait till you see it on.”
When she stood behind you as you sat, uncrowned and expectant before the mirror, she would poise the hat four inches above your head, holding it in the tips of her fingers, a precious, fragile thing. Your fascinated eyes were held by it, and your breath as well. Then down it descended, slowly, slowly. A quick pressure.
Her fingers firm against your temples. A little sigh of relieved suspense.
“That’s wonderful on you! . . . You don’t! Oh, my dear! But that’s because you’re not used to it. You know how you said, for years, you had to have a brim, and couldn’t possibly wear a turban, with your nose, until I proved to you that if the head size was only big . . . Well, perhaps this needs just a lit-tle lift here. Ju-u-ust a nip. There! That does it.”
And that did it. Not that Sophy Decker ever tried to sell you a hat against your judgment, taste, or will. She was too wise a psychologist and too shrewd a businesswoman for that. She preferred that you go out of her shop hatless rather than with an unbecoming hat. But whether you bought or not you took with you out of Sophy Decker’s shop something more precious than any hatbox ever contained. Just to hear her admonishing a customer, her good-natured face all aglow:
“My dear, always put on your hat before you get into your dress.
I do. You can get your arms above your head, and set it right. I put on my hat and veil as soon’s I get my hair combed.”
In your mind’s eye you saw her, a stout, well-stayed figure in tight brassiere and scant slip, bare-armed and bare-bosomed, in smart hat and veil, attired as though for the street from the neck up and for the bedroom from the shoulders down.
The East End set bought Sophy Decker’s hats because they were modish and expensive hats. But she managed, miraculously, to gain a large and lucrative following among the paper-mill girls and factory hands as well. You would have thought that any attempt to hold both these opposites would cause her to lose one or the other. Aunt Sophy said, frankly, that of the two, she would have preferred to lose her smart trade.
“The mill girls come in with their money in their hands, you might say. They get good wages and they want to spend them. I wouldn’t try to sell them one of those little plain model hats. They wouldn’t understand ’em or like them. And if I told them the price they’d think I was trying to cheat them. They want a hat with something good and solid on it. Their fathers wouldn’t prefer caviar to pork roast, would they? It’s the same idea.”
Her shopwindows reflected her business acumen. One was chastely, severely elegant, holding a single hat poised on a slender stick.
In the other were a dozen honest arrangements of velvet and satin and plumes.
At the spring opening she always displayed one of those little toques completely covered with violets. That violet-covered toque was a symbol.
“I don’t expect ’em to buy it,” Sophy Decker explained. “But everybody feels there should be a hat like that at a spring opening. It’s like a fruit centerpiece at a family dinner. Nobody ever eats it, but it has to be there.”
The two Baldwin children–Adele and Eugene–found Aunt Sophy’s shop a treasure trove. Adele, during her doll days, possessed such boxes of satin and velvet scraps, and bits of lace and ribbon and jet as to make her the envy of all her playmates. She used to crawl about the floor of the shop workroom and under the table and chairs like a little scavenger.
“What in the world do you do with all that truck, child?” asked Aunt Sophy. “You must have barrels of it.”
Adele stuffed another wisp of tulle into the pocket of her pinafore.
“I keep it,” she said.
When she was ten Adele had said to her mother, “Why do you always say `Poor Sophy’?”
“Because–Aunt Sophy’s had so little in life. She never has married, and has always worked.”
Adele considered that. “If you don’t get married do they say you’re poor?”
“Then I’ll get married,” announced Adele. A small, dark, eerie child, skinny and rather foreign-looking. The boy, Eugene, had the beauty which should have been the girl’s. Very tall, very blond, with the straight nose and wistful eyes of the Flora of twenty years ago. “If only Adele
could have had his looks,” his mother used to say. “They’re wasted on a man. He doesn’t need them, but a girl does. Adele will have to be well dressed and interesting. And that’s such hard work.”
Flora said she worshiped her children. And she actually sometimes still coquetted heavily with her husband. At twenty she had been addicted to baby talk when endeavoring to coax something out of someone. Her admirers had found it irresistible. At forty it was awful. Her selfishness was colossal. She affected a semi-invalidism and for fifteen years had spent one day a week in bed. She took no exercise and a great deal of soda bicarbonate and tried to fight her fat with baths. Fifteen or twenty years had worked a startling change in the two sisters, Flora the beautiful and Sophy the plain. It was more than a mere physical change. It was a spiritual thing, though neither knew nor marked it. Each had taken on weight, the one, solidly, comfortably; the other, flabbily, unhealthily. With the encroaching fat, Flora’s small, delicate features seemed, somehow, to disappear in her face, so that you saw it as a large white surface bearing indentations, ridges, and hollows like one of those enlarged photographs of the moon’s surface as seen through a telescope. A self-centered face, and misleadingly placid. Aunt Sophy’s large, plain features, plumply padded now, impressed you as indicating strength, courage, and a great human understanding.
From her husband and her children, Flora exacted service that would have chafed a galley slave into rebellion. She loved to lie in bed, in an orchid bed jacket with ribbons, and be read to by Adele, or Eugene, or her husband. They all hated it.
“She just wants to be waited on, and petted, and admired,” Adele had stormed one day, in open rebellion, to her Aunt Sophy. “She uses it as an excuse for everything and has, ever since Gene and I were children. She’s as strong as an ox.” Not a daughterly speech, but true.
Years before, a generous but misguided woman friend, coming in to call, had been ushered in to where Mrs. Baldwin lay propped up in a nest of pillows.
“Well, I don’t blame you,” the caller had gushed. “If I looked the way you do in bed I’d stay there forever. Don’t tell me you’re sick, with all that lovely color!”
Flora Baldwin had rolled her eyes ceilingward. “Nobody ever gives me credit for all my suffering and ill-health. And just because all my blood is in my cheeks.”
Flora was ambitious, socially, but too lazy to make the effort necessary for success in that direction.
“I love my family,” she would say. “They fill my life. After all, that’s a profession in itself–being a wife and mother.”
She showed her devotion by taking no interest whatever in her husband’s land schemes; by forbidding Eugene to play football at school for fear he might be injured; by impressing Adele with the necessity for vivacity and modishness because of what she called her unfortunate lack of beauty.
“I don’t understand it,” she used to say in the child’s presence. “Her father’s handsome enough, goodness knows; and I wasn’t such a fright when I was a girl. And look at her! Little dark skinny thing.”
The boy, Eugene, grew up a very silent, handsome, shy young fellow. The girl, dark, voluble, and rather interesting. The husband, more and more immersed in his business, was absent from home for long periods irritable after some of these home-comings; boisterously high-spirited following other trips. Now growling about household expenses and unpaid bills; now urging the purchase of some almost prohibitive luxury. Anyone but a nagging, self-absorbed, and vain woman such as Flora would have marked these unmistakable signs. But Flora was a taker, not a giver. She thought herself affectionate because she craved affection unduly. She thought herself a fond mother because she insisted on having her children with her, under her thumb, marking their devotion as a prisoner marks time with his feet, stupidly, shufflingly, advancing not a step.
Sometimes Sophy, the clear-eyed, seeing this state of affairs, tried to stop it.
“You expect too much of your husband and children,” she said one day, bluntly, to her sister.
“I!” Flora’s dimpled hand had flown to her breast like a wounded thing. “I! You’re crazy! There isn’t a more devoted wife and mother in the world. That’s the trouble. I love them too much.”
“Well, then,” grimly, “stop it for a change. That’s half Eugene’s nervousness–your fussing over him. He’s eighteen. Give him a chance. You’re weakening him. And stop dinning that society stuff into Adele’s ears. She’s got brains, that child. Why, just yesterday, in the workroom, she got hold of some satin and a shape and turned out a little turban that Angie Hatton—-“
“Do you mean to tell me that Angie Hatton saw my Adele working in your shop! Now, look here, Sophy. You’re earning your living, and it’s to your credit. You’re my sister. But I won’t have Adele associated in the minds of my friends with your hat store, understand? I won’t have it. That isn’t what I sent her away to an expensive school for. To have her come back and sit around a millinery workshop with a lot of little, cheap, shoddy sewing girls! Now, understand, I won’t have it! You don’t know what it is to be a mother. You don’t know what it is to have suffered. If you had brought two children into the world—-“
So, then, it had come about during the years between their childhood and their youth that Aunt Sophy received the burden of their confidences, their griefs, their perplexities. She seemed, somehow, to understand in some miraculous way, and to make the burden a welcome one.
“Well, now, you tell Aunt Sophy all about it. Stop crying, Della. How can I hear when you’re crying! That’s my baby. Now, then.”
This when they were children. But with the years the habit clung and became fixed. There was something about Aunt Sophy’s house–the old frame house with the warty stucco porch. For that matter, there was something about the very shop downtown, with its workroom in the rear, that had a cozy, homelike quality never possessed by the big Baldwin house. H. Charnsworth Baldwin had built a large brick mansion, in the Tudor style, on a bluff overlooking the Fox River, in the best residential section of Chippewa. It was expensively furnished. The hall console alone was enough to strike a preliminary chill to your heart.
The millinery workroom, winter days, was always bright and warm and snug. The air was a little close, perhaps, and heavy, but with a not unpleasant smell of dyes and stuffs and velvet and glue and steam and flatiron and a certain racy scent that Julia Gold, the head trimmer, always used. There was a sociable cat, white with a dark-gray patch on his throat and a swipe of it across one flank that spoiled him for style and beauty but made him a comfortable-looking cat to have around. Sometimes, on very cold days, or in the rush season, the girls would not go home to dinner, but would bring their lunches and cook coffee over a little gas heater in the corner. Julia Gold, especially, drank quantities of coffee. Aunt Sophy had hired her from Chicago. She had been with her for five years. She said Julia was the best trimmer she had ever had. Aunt Sophy often took her to New York or Chicago on her buying trips. Julia had not much genius for original design, or she never would have been content to be head milliner in a small-town shop. But she could copy a fifty-dollar model from memory down to the last detail of crown and brim. It was a gift that made her invaluable.
The boy, Eugene, used to like to look at Julia Gold. Her hair was very black and her face was very white, and her eyebrows met in a thick dark line. Her face as she bent over her work was sullen and brooding, but when she lifted her head suddenly, in conversation, you were startled by a vivid flash of teeth and eyes and smile. Her voice was deep and low. She made you a little u
ncomfortable. Her eyes seemed always to be asking something. Around the worktable, mornings, she used to relate the dream she had had the night before. In these dreams she was always being pursued by a lover. “And then I woke up, screaming.” Neither she nor the sewing girls knew what she was revealing in these confidences of hers. But Aunt Sophy, the shrewd, somehow sensed it.
“You’re alone too much, evenings. That’s what comes of living in a boardinghouse. You come over to me for a week. The change will do you good, and it’ll be nice for me, too, having somebody to keep me company.”
Julia often came for a week or ten days at a time. Julia, about the house after supper, was given to those vivid splashy negligees with big flower patterns strewn over them. They made her hair look blacker and her skin whiter by contrast. Sometimes Eugene or Adele or both would drop in and the four would play bridge. Aunt Sophy played a shrewd and canny game, Adele a rather brilliant one, Julia a wild and disastrous hand, always, and Eugene so badly that only Julia would take him on as a partner. Mrs. Baldwin never knew about these evenings.
It was on one of these occasions that Aunt Sophy, coming unexpectedly into the living room from the kitchen, where she and Adele were foraging for refreshments after the game, beheld Julia Gold and Eugene, arms clasped about each other, cheek to cheek. They started up as she came in and faced her, the woman defiantly, the boy bravely. Julia Gold was thirty (with reservations) at that time, and the boy not quite twenty-one. “How long?” said Aunt Sophy, quietly. She had a mayonnaise spoon and a leaf of lettuce in her hand then, and still she did not look comic.
“I’m crazy about her,” said Eugene. “We’re crazy about each other. We’re going to be married.”
Aunt Sophy listened for the reassuring sound of Adele’s spoons and plates in the kitchen. She came forward. “Now, listen—-” she began.
“I love him,” said Julia Gold, dramatically. “I love him!”
Except that it was very white and, somehow, old-looking, Aunt Sophy’s face was as benign as always. “Now, look here, Julia, my girl. That isn’t love, and you know it. I’m an old maid, but I know what love is when I see it. I’m ashamed of you, Julia. Sensible woman like you, hugging and kissing a boy like that, and old enough to be his mother.”
“Now, look here, Aunt Sophy! If you’re going to talk that way—- Why, she’s wonderful. She’s taught me what it means to really—-“
“Oh, my land!” Aunt Sophy sat down, looking suddenly very ill.
And then, from the kitchen, Adele’s clear young voice: “Heh! What’s the idea! I’m not going to do all the work. Where’s everybody?”
Aunt Sophy started up again. She came up to them and put a hand– a capable, firm, steadying hand–on the arm of each. The woman drew back, but the boy did not.
“Will you promise me not to do anything for a week? Just a week! Will you promise me? Will you?”
“Are you going to tell Father?”
“Not for a week, if you’ll promise not to see each other in that week. No, I don’t want to send you away, Julia, I don’t want to. . . . You’re not a bad girl. It’s just–he’s never had–at home they never gave him a chance. Just a week, Julia. Just a week, Eugene. We can talk things over then.”
Adele’s footsteps coming from the kitchen.
“I promise,” said Eugene. Julia said nothing.
“Well, really,” said Adele, from the doorway, “you’re a nervy lot, sitting around while I slave in the kitchen. Gene, see if you can open the olives with this fool can opener. I tried.”
There is no knowing what she expected to do in that week, Aunt Sophy; what miracle she meant to perform. She had no plan in her mind. Just hope. She looked strangely shrunken and old, suddenly. But when, three days later, the news came that America was to go into the war she had her answer.
Flora was beside herself. “Eugene won’t have to go. He isn’t old enough, thank God! And by the time he is it will be over. Surely.” She was almost hysterical.
Eugene was in the room. Aunt Sophy looked at him and he looked at Aunt Sophy. In her eyes was a question. In his was the answer. They said nothing. The next day Eugene enlisted. In three days he was gone. Flora took to her bed. Next day Adele, a faint, unwonted color marking her cheeks, walked into her mother’s bedroom and stood at the side of the recumbent figure. Her father, his hands clasped behind him, was pacing up and down, now and then kicking a cushion that had fallen to the floor. He was chewing a dead cigar, one side of his face twisted curiously over the cylinder in his mouth so that he had a sinister and crafty look.
“Charnsworth, won’t you please stop ramping up and down like that! My nerves are killing me. I can’t help it if the war has done something or other to your business. I’m sure no wife could have been more economical than I have. Nothing matters but Eugene, anyway. How could he do such a thing! I’ve given my whole life to my children—-“
H. Charnsworth kicked the cushion again so that it struck the wall at the opposite side of the room. Flora drew her breath in between her teeth as though a knife had entered her heart.
Adele still stood at the side of the bed, looking at her mother. Her hands were clasped behind her, too. In that moment, as she stood there, she resembled her mother and her father so startlingly and simultaneously that the two, had they been less absorbed in their own affairs, must have marked it.
The girl’s head came up stiffly. “Listen. I’m going to marry Daniel Oakley.”
Daniel Oakley was fifty, and a friend of her father’s. For years he had been coming to the house and for years she had ridiculed him. She and Eugene had called him Sturdy Oak because he was always talking about his strength and endurance, his walks, his rugged health; pounding his chest meanwhile and planting his feet far apart. He and Baldwin had had business relations as well as friendly ones.
At this announcement Flora screamed and sat up in bed. H. Charnsworth stopped short in his pacing and regarded his daughter with a queer look; a concentrated look, as though what she had said had set in motion a whole mass of mental machinery within his brain.
“When did he ask you?”
“He’s asked me a dozen times. But it’s different now. All the men will be going to war. There won’t be any left. Look at England and France. I’m not going to be left.” She turned squarely toward her father, her young face set and hard. “You know what I mean. You know what I mean.”
Flora, sitting up in bed, was sobbing. “I think you might have told your mother, Adele. What are children coming to! You stand there and say, `I’m going to marry Daniel Oakley.’ Oh, I am so faint . . . all of a sudden . . . Get the spirits of ammonia.”
Adele turned and walked out of the room. She was married six weeks later. They had a regular prewar wedding–veil, flowers, dinner, and all. Aunt Sophy arranged the folds of her gown and draped her veil. The girl stood looking at herself in the mirror, a curious half smile twisting her lips. She seemed slighter and darker than ever.
“In all this white, and my veil, I look just like a fly in a quart of milk,” she said, with a laugh. Then, suddenly, she turned to her aunt, who stood behind her, and clung to her, holding her tight, tight. “I can’t!” she gasped. “I can’t! I can’t!”
Aunt Sophy held her off and looked at her, her eyes searching the girl.
“What do you mean, Della? Are you just nervous or do you mean you don’t want to marry him? Do you mean that? Then what are you marrying for? Tell me! Tell your Aunt Sophy.”
But Adele was straightening herself and pulling out the crushed folds of her veil. “To pay the mortgage on the old homestead, of course. Just like the girl in the play.” She laughed a little. But Aunt Sophy did not.
“Now look here, Della. If you’re—-“
ut there was a knock at the door. Adele caught up her flowers. “It’s all right,” she said. Aunt Sophy stood with her back against the door. “If it’s money,” she said. “It is! It is, isn’t it! I’ve got money saved. It was for you children. I’ve always been afraid. I knew he was sailing pretty close, with his speculations and all, since the war. He can have it all. It isn’t too late yet. Adele! Della, my baby.”
“Don’t, Aunt Sophy. It wouldn’t be enough, anyway. Daniel has been wonderful, really. Dad’s been stealing money for years. Dan’s. Don’t look like that. I’d have hated being poor, anyway.
Never could have got used to it. It is ridiculous, though, isn’t it? Like something in the movies. I don’t mind. I’m lucky, really, when you come to think of it. A plain little black thing like me.”
“But your mother—-“
“Mother doesn’t know a thing.”
Flora wept mistily all through the ceremony, but Adele was composed enough for two.
When, scarcely a month later, Baldwin came to Sophy Decker, his face drawn and queer, Sophy knew.
“How much?” she said.
“Thirty thousand will cover it. If you’ve got more than that—-“
“I thought Oakley—-Adele said—-“
“He did, but he won’t any more, and this thing’s got to be met. It’s this damned war that’s done it. I’d have been all right. People got scared. They wanted their money. They wanted it in cash.”
“Speculating with it, were you?”
“Oh, well, a woman doesn’t understand these business deals.”
“No, naturally,” said Aunt Sophy, “a butterfly like me.”
“Sophy, for God’s sake don’t joke now. I tell you this will cover it, and everything will be all right. If I had anybody else to go to for the money I wouldn’t ask you. But you’ll get it back. You know that.”
Aunt Sophy got up, heavily, and went over to her desk. “It was for the children, anyway. They won’t need it now.”
He looked up at that. Something in her voice. “Who won’t? Why won’t they?”
“I don’t know what made me say that. I had a dream.”
“Oh, well, we’re all nervous. Flora has dreams every night and presentiments every fifteen minutes. Now, look here, Sophy. About this money. You’ll never know how grateful I am. Flora doesn’t understand these things, but I can talk to you. It’s like this—-“
“I might as well be honest about it,” Sophy interrupted. “I’m doing it, not for you, but for Flora, and Della–and Eugene. Flora has lived such a sheltered life. I sometimes wonder if she ever really knew any of you. Her husband, or her children. I sometimes have the feeling that Della and Eugene are my children–were my children.”
When he came home that night Baldwin told his wife that old Soph was getting queer. “She talks about the children being hers,” he said.
“Oh, well, she’s awfully fond of them,” Flora explained. “And she’s lived her little, narrow life, with nothing to bother her but her hats and her house. She doesn’t know what it means to suffer as a mother suffers –poor Sophy.”
“Um,” Baldwin grunted.
When the official notification of Eugene’s death came from the War Department, Aunt Sophy was so calm it might have appeared that Flora had been right. She took to her bed now in earnest, did Flora. Sophy neglected everything to give comfort to the stricken two.
“How can you sit there like that!” Flora would rail. “How can you sit there like that! Even if you weren’t his mother, surely you must feel something.”
“It’s the way he died that comforts me,” said Aunt Sophy.
“What difference does that make!”
AMERICAN RED CROSS
(Croix Rouge Americaine)
MY DEAR MRS. BALDWIN:
I am sure you must have been officially notified by the U.S.
War Dept. of the death of your son, Lieut. Eugene H. Baldwin.
But I want to write you what I can of his last hours. I was with
him much of that time as his nurse. I’m sure it must mean much
to a mother to hear from a woman who was privileged to be with
her boy at the last.
Your son was brought to our hospital one night badly gassed
from the fighting in the Argonne Forest. Ordinarily we do not
receive gassed patients, as they are sent to a special hospital
near here. But two nights before, the Germans wrecked that
hospital, so many gassed patients have come to us.
Your son was put in the officers’ ward, where the doctors who
examined him told me there was absolutely no hope for him, as he
had inhaled so much gas that it was only a matter of a few hours.
I could scarcely believe that a man so big and strong as he was
could not pull through.
The first bad attack he had, losing his breath and nearly
choking, rather frightened him, although the doctor and I were
both with him. He held my hand tightly in his, begging me not to
leave him, and repeating, over and over, that it was good to have
a woman near. He was propped high in bed and put his head on my
shoulder while I fanned him until he breathed more easily. I
stayed with him all that night, though I was not on duty. You
see, his eyes also were badly burned. But before he died he was
able to see very well. I stayed with him every minute of that
night and have never seen a finer character than he showed during
all that fight for life.
He had several bad attacks that night and came through each one
simply because of his great will power and fighting spirit.
After each attack he would grip my hand and say, “Well, we made
it that time, didn’t we, nurse?” Toward morning he asked me if
he was going to die. I could not tell him the truth. He needed
all his strength. I told him he had one chance in a thousand.
He seemed to become very strong then, and sitting bolt upright in
bed, he said: “Then I’ll fight for it!” We kept him alive for
three days, and actually thought we had won when on the third day
. . .
But even in your sorrow you must be very proud to have been the
mother of such a son. . . .
I am a Wisconsin girl–Madison. When this is over and I come
home, will you let me see you so that I may tell you more than I
can possibly write?
It was in March, six months later, that Marian King came. They had hoped for it, but never expected it. And she came. Four people were waiting in the living room of the big Baldwin house overlooking the river. Flora and her husband, Adele and Aunt Sophy. They sat, waiting. Now and then Adele would rise, nervously, and go to the window that faced the street. Flora was weeping with audible sniffs. Baldwin sat in his chair, frowning a little, a dead cigar in one corner of his mouth. Only Aunt Sophy sat quietly, waiting.
There was little conversation. None in the last five minutes. Flora broke the silence, dabbing at her face with her handkerchief as she spoke.
“Sophy, how can you sit there like that? Not that I don’t envy you. I do. I remember I used to feel sorry for you. I used to say `Poor Sophy.’ But you unmarried ones are the happiest, after all. It’s the married woman who drinks the cup to the last, bitter drop. There you sit, Sophy, fifty years old, and life hasn’t even touched you. You don’t know how cruel life can be to a mother.”
Suddenly, “There!” said Adele. The other three in the room stood up and faced the door. The sound of a motor stopping outside. Daniel Oakley’s hearty voice: “Well, it only took us five minutes from the station. Pretty good.”
Footsteps down the hall. Marian King stood in the doorway. They faced her, the four–Baldwin and Adele and Flora and Sophy. Marian King stood a moment, uncertainly, her eyes upon them. She looked at the two older women with swift, appraising glances. Then she came into the room, quickly, and put her two hands on Aunt Soph’s shoulders and looked into her eyes straight and
“You must be a very proud woman,” she said. “You ought to be a very proud woman.”