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A Working Basis by Abby Meguire Roach

 

Why she married him her friends wondered at the time. Those she made later wondered more. Before long she caught herself wondering. Yes, she had seen it beforehand, more or less. But she had seen other things as well: he had developed unevenly, unexpectedly, if logically. There had been common tastes—which grew obsolete or secondary. As the momentum of what she believed and hoped of him ran down with them both, he crystallized into the man he was, and no doubt virtually had always been.

It was bad enough to have to ask for money, but to have it counted out to you, to be questioned about it like a child, was worse.

“I don't understand,” she said in the first months of their marriage. “Are you afraid I won't be judicious, responsible? Mightn't you try before judging?”

“Judicious? Responsible?” He pinched her cheek. (Judith was five feet nine and sweetly sober of mien.) “There are no feminines or diminutives of those words, my dear.”

She stepped back. “But with more freedom I could manage better, Sam.”

“Manage?”—jocularly. “That is your long suit, isn't it? You feel equal to managing all of us? Could even give me pointers on the business, eh?”

“Why not?” she asked, quietly.

Sam, feet apart, hands in pockets, looked her over with the smile one has for a dignified kitten. “I won't trouble you, my dear. I manage this family.” With his pleasantries a lower note struck—and jangled.

“But that isn't the point. I want—”

“Really? You always do. Don't bother to tell me what. If you got this you'd be wanting something else, so what's the use of the expense merely to change the object?” He chuckled at her baffled silence.

“I can't answer when you're like that. But—but, Sam! It isn't fair!” Still she supposed that relevant.

However, money was not the chief thing. He could manage. Let it go.

Having properly impressed her, nothing made Sam feel larger than to bring her a set of pearl-handled knives,—when she had wanted a dollar for kitchen tins. His extravagances were not always generosities. Once, after she had turned her winter-before-last suit and patched new seats into the boy's flannel drawers, because “times were hard,” he bought a brace of blooded hunting-dogs.

Next day she opened an account at a department store.

With the promptness of the first of the month and the sureness of death, the bill came. Sam had expressed himself unchecked before she turned in the doorway. “If you will go over it,” she said, with all her rehearsal unable, after all, to imitate his nonchalance, “you will find nothing unnecessary. I think there is nothing there for the dogs.”

But her cannon-ball affected him no more than a leaf an elephant; he did not know he was hit. It was always so.

In his cool way, however, Sam had all the cumulative jealousy of the primitive male for his long primacy. Some weeks later, when Judith ordered an overcoat for Sam junior sent home on approval, she found the store had been instructed to give her no credit.

She got out, with burning face and heart, without the article. Her first impulse was to shrink from a blow.

But at table that night she recounted her experience: “The very courteous gentleman who informed me of your predicament happened to be a cousin of Mr. Banks, of Head and Banks. (They supply your grain, I believe?) Mrs. Howe (isn't it R. E. Howe who is president of the Newcomb Club?) was at my elbow. The salesgirl has Sam junior's Sunday-school class. Doubtless it will interest them all to know you are in such straits you can't clothe your children.”

Ah? She had touched his vulnerable point? Instantly she was swept by compunction, by impulses to make amends, to him, to their love. Their love! That delicate wild thing she kept in a warm, moist, sheltered place, and forbore to look at for yellowing leaves.

Like the battle of Blenheim, it was a famous victory, but what good came of it at last? The overcoat came home, to be sure, with cap and shoes besides. But she was too gallant to press her advantage. Besides, she still looked for him to take a hint.

He did, after his own fashion. “You ought to see Judith here,” he laughed to a caller, “practising her kindergarten methods on me.” His imperturbability was at once a boast and a slight.

“He doesn't mean it,” she apologized, later, protecting herself by defending him. “You know how men are; the best of them a bit stupid about some things. They don't mean to hurt you. You know it, but you can't help crying.”

“Oh, I understand!” (That any one should sympathize with her! It was not so much her vanity that suffered as her precious regard for him, her pride in their marriage.) “Nobody minds little things like that against such devotion and constancy. Why, he talks of you all the time, Judith; of your style, your housekeeping. You are his pet boast. He says you can do more with less than anybody he ever saw.” And then Judith laughed.

They were all articles of the creed she herself repeated—and doubted more and more. Faithful enough. He never came or went without the customary kiss. When he had typhoid fever, no one might be near him but her, until her exhaustion could no longer be concealed, when he fretted about her—until he fretted himself back into high temperature and had a relapse.

So, run down as she was, she hid it, kept up, went on alone, adding to the score of her inevitable day of reckoning, after the old heroic-criminal woman-way.

She had begun with ideas of their saving together for a purpose; but, not allowed to plan, she must use every opportunity to provide against future stricture; besides, Sam's arbitrary and unregulated spending made her poor little economies both futile and unfair.

“I know nothing about your business. How can I tell if I spend too much?”

“Make your mind easy; I'll keep you posted,” he laughed. He was not bothering about dangerous ground.

“Doubtless,”—dryly. “But if I spend too little?”

“Not you.”

He did mean it! He didn't care! The half-truth fanned the slow fire growing within her into sudden flame. Judith turned, stammering over the dammed rush of replies.

“My dear, my dear!” he deprecated, amused. “How easily you lose your temper lately, every time there is a discussion of expenses! Why excite yourself?” Why, indeed? Anger put her at a disadvantage, and making her half wrong, half made him right. “I don't say I particularly blame you, but you see for yourself you don't keep your balance, and it's mistaken kindness to tempt any woman's natural feminine weakness for luxury and display.”

The retorts were so obvious they were hopeless. She stood looking at him.

His eyebrows lifted; he shrugged his shoulders, went out, and forgot.

Why any of it, indeed? There was no bridge of speech between alien minds. Their life was a continual game of cross-questions and silly answers. Their natures were antipodal; he had the faults that annoyed her most; his virtues were those least compensating.

Was her dream of influencing the children a superstition too, then?

The children! They slipped the house whenever possible; avoided their father with an almost physical effect of dodging an expected blow; when with him, watched his mood to forestall with hasty attention or divert with strained wit, with timorous hilarity when he proved complaisant. The possibilities for harm to them were numberless. She and Sam were losing the children, and the children were losing everything.

For years they had been a physical and mental outlet for her nature. That love had no question of reciprocity or merit. She had always been willing for them. Only it seemed to her all the rest of love should come first. It occurred to her ironically how happy her marriage would have been without her husband.

What was his love worth? It was only taxation—taxation without representation. Had either of them any real love left?

Suddenly she stood on the brink of black emptiness. To live without love; her whole nature, every life-habit, changed! Oh, no, no, no! So the cold water sets the suicide struggling for shore.

Dear, dear! This would not do. Her nerves were getting the best of her; she was losing her own dignity and sweetness—was on the verge of a breakdown.

But to say so would be to invoke doctors, pointless questions, futile drugs, and a period of acute affection from Sam—affection that took the form chiefly of expecting it of her.

At times Judith thought of death as an escape, but she thought of no other as being any more in her own hands; like so many people, she quoted the Episcopal marriage-service as equal authority with the Bible. She was too live to droop and break as some do. She had not made herself the one armor that would have been effective—her own shell. Friction that does not callous, forms a sore. Her love, her utmost self, ached like an exposed nerve. She had not dreamed one's whole being could be so alive to suffering. She must be alone, to get a hand on herself and things again.

At table one night she wanted them all to know she was going away, for several months perhaps, leaving her cousin Anne in charge. It was all arranged.

The amazing innovation surprised Sam into speechlessness.

Judith had had few vacations. There had always been the babies, of course. And Sam's consent had always been so hard to get. His first impulse about everything was to refuse, contradict, begrudge. Then certainly he mustn't be too easily convinced. After that he always moped through her preparations; counted and recounted the cost, and at the last perhaps gave her a handsome new bag when her old one was particularly convenient, and he had supplied only half she had asked for clothes; would hardly tell her good-by for desolate devotion; tracked her with letters full of loneliness, ailments, discomforts. When she had cut short her plans and hurried back, a bit quiet and unresponsive perhaps, “How truly gracious your unselfishness is, my dear!” he observed. “If it comes so hard to show me a little consideration, you would really better keep doing your own way.”

“I never do my own way.”

“No? Whose then? I fail to recognize the brand.”

“That's the trouble. I might as well stop trying.”

Now, she could not delay for, nor endure, the conventional comedy.

Since he asked her no questions, she hastened to explain: “I want to rest absolutely. Not even to write letters. You need not bother to, either. Anne will let me know if I am needed. And if I need anything, you will be sure to hear.”

“Oh, sure.” Sam was recovering.

But he couldn't think she would really go, in that way at least. He thought he knew one good reason why not. Yet, vaguely on guard against her capacity for surprise, he did not risk the satire of asking her plans. To the last Judith hoped he would shame her a little by offering the money; and against his utter disregard her indignation rose slowly, steadily, deepening, widening, drowning out every other feeling for him.

When, after their final breakfast, he kissed her good-by as for the morning only, she took her jewelry and silver, mementos of his self-indulgence in generosity, and pawned them, mailing him the tickets from the station where she piloted herself alone.

She spent a month (in her rest-cure!), writing and destroying letters to him. There was no alternation of moods now. Nor was she seeking a solution of the problem; there was only one.

At last a letter seemed to do: “It cannot hurt you to read, as much as me to write. But it must come. I can see now it has always been coming. Things cannot go on as they are. We are unable to improve them together. I will cast no blame. Perhaps some other woman would have called out a different side of you, or would have minded things less. It is enough that we do not belong together, because we are we and cannot change. We are not only ruining each other's happiness—that is already irrevocable,—we are ruining each other, and the children, and their futures. It is a question of the least wrong. And I am not coming back.

“I want the children, all of them. But if you insist, you take Sam junior and I the girls—and the baby, of course, at least for the present. And you shall provide for us proportionately. There is no use pretending independence; I have given my strength and all the accomplishments I had to you and them. And there is no sense in the mock-heroics that I don't want your money. It isn't your money; it's ours, everything we have. I have borne your children, and saved and kept house and served and nursed for you and them. If you want to divide equally now, I will take that as my share forever. But we can't escape the fact that we have been married and have the children.”

She could get an answer in two days.

But it did not come in two days, nor two weeks, nor three; while she burned herself out waiting.

Moreover, her funds were running low. She had waves of the nausea of defeat, fevers of the desperation of the last stand.

Then it occurred to her. Her armor had always been defensive. She had never stooped to neutralize his alkali with acid. But there was one weapon of offence she occasionally used. She wrote: “I am drawing on you to-day through your First National for a hundred and fifty. You will honor it, I think. And if I do not hear from you in a day or two I shall have Judge Harwood call on you as my attorney.”

The answer came promptly enough:—“My dear child, I couldn't make out what had struck you, so I hoped you would just feel better after blowing off steam and would get over your fit of nerves. Besides, I have nothing to say except to quote yourself: 'We can't escape the fact that we are married and have the children.' I know you too well to be afraid of your throwing off all obligations like that. It is impossible to fancy you airing our privacies.” Bait? or a goad? Oh yes, he counted on her “womanly qualities”—but with no idea of masculine emulation! “If you need advice, think what either of our mothers would say.” Her mother! Judith could hear her, “His doing wrong cannot make it right for you to,” with logic so unanswerable one forgot to question its relevance. And his! Judith held her partly accountable; some women absolutely fostered tyranny. Their mothers, poor things! Occasionally their fathers were different, but so occasionally that now the times were. “This sudden mood strikes me as very remarkable. 'After all I have done—twelve years of grind to keep you from the brunt of the world; and now...! My dear child, do you realize that there are husbands with violent tempers, husbands who drink and gamble and worse?

“I honored your draft. Do not try it again. And I advise you to use it to come home. We will have Dr. Hunter give you a tonic, and you will find you have fewer morbid fancies occupied with your duties. I shall look for you the end of the week.” Surely Sam was moved quite out of himself, that he had no lashes of laughter for her. But the next was more in character: “Bridget threatens to leave. She does not work well under Anne. The children are not manageable under her, either. Little Judith is sallow and fretful. I suspect Anne gives her sweets between meals. I saw a moth flying in my closet to-day....”

Judith pushed the letter away, fidgeted, yet smiled. How well they knew each other. And they used it only to sting and bully! Surely it could be put to better purpose. Had she tried everything? Had Sam fully understood? Sometimes she thought her early excuses had hurt too much for her to admit their truth: much of his unkindness was not intentional, only stupid; slow sympathy, dull sensibility; he did not suffer, nor comprehend, like a savage or a child. If the possibility of separation was new to her, would not he never have thought of it at all? But now, might he not see? Was not his unwonted self-defence itself admission of new enlightenment and approachability?

She sat long in the increasing dusk. Exhausted with struggle, loneliness was on her, crying need of the children, return to the consideration of many things. Admitting that at times it was right to break everything, wrong not to, it was at least the last resort. Love, of course, was over irrevocably; but were there not some things worth saving? Could not she and Sam find some working basis?

What had made their being together most intolerable to her was their persistence in the religion of a vanished god in whose empty ceremonies alone they could now take part together. Of the sacred image nothing was left but the feet of clay. Freed of that desecration, she could cure or endure everything else; her obligations, moreover, would hardly conflict at all.

Looking back at the pressures of nature, society, events, Sam's persistence, she wondered at times if, from the beginning, she had been any more responsible for her marriage than for the color of her hair. There were many such explanations for Sam, too. Not that they made her like him any better, feel him any more akin. But it was true that between the fatalities of heredity and environment that “slight particular difference” that makes the self had but short tether for action and reaction. Oh, she could be generous enough to him if he did not have to be part of herself!

She got up, lit the gas, shutting out the stars, and wrote: “I am coming back to make one more and one last effort. Won't you?” If he would only try!

Sam met her with the magnanimity of forgiveness, the consciousness of kind forgetting. Her redeemed valuables were all in place. Everything should be the same, in spite of—And she put the back of her hand against his lips!

When he dressed for dinner the salvage of the three balls, the spoils of war, were piled in his bureau drawer.

Still he hoped better for the roses by her plate. She had the maid carry them out, explaining in her absence, “No gifts, please, Sam. Substitutes will not do any longer.”

Sam played with his fork, smiling, with lips only. How shockingly she showed suffering. Separation had made her appearance unfamiliar; he thought the change all recent. He took pains to compliment the immediate improvement in the pastry, to give her the servants' money unreminded as soon as they were alone.

How characteristic! Judith thought, wearily, letting the bills lie where he laid them.

“That's one of the things for us to settle, Sam,” she said, in her new freedom and self-respect discarding the familiar little diplomacies by which she was used to soothe, prepare, manage, the lord of the hearth. “I am not going to ask for money in the future, nor depend on what you happen to give.” The manner was a simple statement of fact. “You must make me an allowance through your bookkeeper.”

Sam was lounging through his cigar. “So that's it? Still?” He smiled confidentially at the smoke, puffing it from his lower lip. “As accurately as I can recollect, my dear, I have told you seven thousand and three times that I am not on a salary, and don't know from month to month what I will make.”

How unchanged everything was! Her determination stiffened. “But you know what you have made. Base it on the year before. Or have a written statement mailed me every month, and file my signature at the bank.”

Not quite unchanged; for Sam took the cigar from his mouth and turned slowly to look at her. If he had taken her return for capitulation and had met it according to his code, things were not fitting in. “Really, my dear! Really! What next? Evidently I have never done you justice; you have positive genius in the game—of monopoly; first thing, I'll be begging from you.”

Well, why not, as fairly? and why should he think better of her than of himself? But it was too old to go over again. For a breath she waited to see her further way. She had not planned this as the issue, but the moment was obviously crucial, and offered what, in international politics already awry, would constitute a good technical opportunity. If her mirage of regeneration, her hope of an understanding, perhaps even her love, had flung up any last afterglow in this home-coming, it was over now. Indeed, now it seemed an old grief, the present but confirmation concerning a lover ten years lost at sea. She saw the whole man now clearly, the balance of her accusations and excuses; he had neither the modern spirit of equality, nor the medieval quixotism of honor and chivalry; appeal merely stirred the elemental tyranny of strength and masculinity, held as a “divine right”; weakness tempted an instinctive cruelty, half unconscious, half defiant.

It was Sam who spoke first, abruptly, not laughing. Sam who was never angry, was angry now. “I never have understood you in some ways. How a woman like you can forever bring money between us! How you got tainted with this modern female anarchy! You seem to forget that I made the money, it is mine. There is bound to be discussion; I never knew any one so determined to have everything his own way. All the same,” the defence rested its case, “it takes two to quarrel, and I won't.”

No, his defence was only admission of conscious weakness. He was afraid—of the solution she had discarded. She did not go back to it now. But now she saw the way, the only way, to accomplish reconstruction.

Judith looked at him steadily. Her voice was deadly quiet. “I am sure I have made myself quite plain. We will never discuss this again. You can let me know in the morning which arrangement you choose.”

They faced each other with level eyes.

And Sam's shifted.

He never had real nerve, she realized; they didn't—that kind. How had she managed to love him so long?

Late that night he knocked at her door with a formal proposition: Would that do?—dumbly. She changed a point or two: That would do, and signified good night. Sam, looking at her face, turned away from it, hesitated, turned back, broke. Fear increased his admiration, and, to do him justice, the fear was not wholly for conventions and comforts; the man had certain broad moralities and loyalties. A reflex muscular action had set in to regain what he had lost. “Judith! Judith!” he begged.

Her raised hand stopped him. “You are too late, Sam.”

“My dear, you mustn't get the idea that I don't love you still.”

“Love has nothing to do with it any more. Besides, it is never any use to talk of love without justice.”

He went out, dazed and aggrieved. He had always thought they got along as well as most people. He had not been cherishing grudges.

Womanlike, having met the emergency gallantly, after it was all over Judith collapsed. The day of reckoning for which she had so long been running up an account was on her. But the growing assurance rallied her, that her going away and her coming back were equally means to her success in failure.

The reality of their marriage could not have been saved. But they had the children; and to the children was restored much of what their father had largely spoiled in the first place, and she nearly forfeited in the second. For the fact was that Sam did better; the despot is always a moral coward, and always something of the slave to a master. Moreover, her growing invulnerability to hurt through him set, in large measure, the attitude of the household; everybody was more comfortable. She discounted his opinions and complaints; but, in considering the welfare of the greatest number, she sacrificed as little as possible his individual comforts. His interests she studied. And for the rest, she let him go his way and went hers.

Life is a perfect equation: if something is added or subtracted, something is subtracted or added, so long as there is life. Judith got her poise again in time, as strong natures do after any death; with some fibres weakened past mending, gray, but calm. If his side of her nature was stunted, she seemed to blossom all the more richly in other ways. She loved her children in proportion as she had suffered and worked for them. After her domestic years, like so many women, she took fresh start, physically and mentally. Her executive ability found public outlet. She could admit friends again. Freedom from the corrosion of antagonism was happiness. Without the struggle to keep that love which must ask so much of its object, she could give Sam more of that altruism which asks nothing.

 
 
 

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