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Silent Sam and Other Stories of Our Day/The Mother-in-law

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THE MOTHER-IN-LAW

 

 

THE MOTHER-IN-LAW

I

MRS. JOLIFFE had said, at the time of her daughter's marriage: "Then I hope her children 'll not take after me—fer if they do, they 'll have the divil's own time bringin' her up." Mrs. Joliffe was Irish. She was fat and jolly, with a sense of humor that could he sly, and whimsical, and even discreet. Her husband had been English and a butcher. "He was a blood-puddin' Britisher," she would say in loving memory. "God rest his bones." And whatever natural differences she had ever had with the girl, she laid to the fact that Hetty took after him.

"An' annyway, there 's no sort o' comfort in a daughter nowadays," she contended. "I 'd as soon have a canary bird to look after. They eat nothin'. An' they 're that danged indipindint! If I 'd 'a' had a son, now, he 'd never 'a' knowed where to find a shirt to his body unless I laid it out fer him. These hoity-toity young misses in their little slippers, goin' hoppin' along on two toes! If I 'd 'a' had a son, I c'u'd 'a' heard him comin' a block away. I never see a big fut like that in a trolley-car that I don't envy the mother of it."

These complaints, of course, were intended more than half jocularly. Mrs. Joliffe's daughter and she had lived happily enough together, the mother being contented to stay at home and keep house in their little flat, and the girl willing to work all day in the millinery department of Altgelt's Sixth Avenue store. When the daughter married Bailey, who had charge of a section of Altgelt's grocery department, Mrs. Joliffe saw them off on a honeymoon excursion to Niagara Falls, and undertook to have their new home ready for them before they returned. "If yuh c'u'd eat hats," she said, "I 'd not need to bother with yuh. But I 'd better be lookin' after yer meals a while, till Hetty learns how to trim a steak. Go along with yuh, an' don't fall in the water. I 'll have everythin' set up fer yuh betimes."

She had it set up now, and she was expecting their return at any moment. They had found a "jew'l of a flat," with doors at both ends and a kitchen in the middle; and that kitchen was the largest room in the apartment. There was a bedroom for Mrs. Joliffe, opening off the dining-room and separated from the young couple's quarters by the whole length of the flat. "I c'n live here," she told herself, "with no more trouble to them than an ol' dog in their back yard." Bailey had given her money to spend on furnishing. She had more of her own; she had a small estate, which her husband had left her; and she did not spare her own in her desire to give her daughter "a start that anny gurl c'u'd be proud o'."

She covered the floors with carpets and then covered the carpets with druggets, with rag rugs, with doormats, linoleums, and hall strips. It was her belief that a floor was by nature cold and that the more one put upon it, the warmer the house would be. She covered the windows with white roller-blinds, double sash-curtains of muslin starched like surplices, long lace curtains reaching from the cornice to the floor, and over-curtains of some sort of yellow stuff with an inwoven tinsel thread—until every window was as beautiful in gold embroidery and fine lace as "an archbishop sayin' mass." She crowded the little parlor with unmatched pieces of plush-upholstered furniture, which she had acquired in exchange for trading-stamps. She regilded her old picture-frames with a brush, bought Fourteenth Street colored "art photos," and hung everywhere her holiday calendars, embossed and beribboned, but years out of date.

The kitchen she outfitted as if she were to cook there for a regiment; and in the place of honor she hung two great frying-pans, as thick as iron pots, heirlooms, such pans as are no longer made in these days of gas-stoves and light-housekeeping. She set her arms akimbo and looked about her. "There," she said, with the defiant air of an artist opening his exhibition, "let 'em come."

It was nine o'clock at night when they came. They had been on the train all day, and Hetty looked tired. She was a small blonde, with pale, gray-blue eyes and with one of those firm little mouths that are capable of unlimited silence. "Well, Mother," she asked, with a slow correctness of pronunciation that marked an ambition in her, what 've you been up to?"

Mrs. Joliffe laughed. "All sorts o' divilmint," she said, kissing Bailey. "I been settlin' things in a kind o' way till you 'd be able to put 'em to rights." She stood aside from the doorway. "Here's the parlor."

Hetty looked it over. She had it in her mind that the walls were like a stationer's window in Christmas week, and the whole room was as old-fashioned as her mother; but she said nothing. She accepted the arrangement as provisional: she could change it to the latest styles of Altgelt's furniture displays, in due course.

Bailey had been a country boy who had come to the city to be a millionaire, and he had been living in shabby hall-bedrooms. If he did not seem sufficiently enthusiastic about the parlor, it was because he did not wish them to think he was not accustomed to such magnificence. Added to this country reticence, he had the art of accepting a bargain with a show of reluctance. He said: "It 'll do us all right, won't it, Hetty?"

She pretended that she had not heard.

But Mrs. Joliffe was not discouraged. She introduced Bailey to a little tobacco-table set with a tobacco-jar, a corncob pipe, and a tobacco-cutter on a mahogany board—the very cutter with which Joliffe had sliced his plugs. A padded armchair stood beside the table. A pair of new "morocco" slippers waited under the chair, and a tin spittoon beside it. "That 's the place fer you," she said, "when yuh come home with yer boots tired o' yer feet."

"But, Mother," Hetty objected, "he won't smoke in the parlor!"

"Won't he then?" she said. "He 'll be a fool if he don't. He 'll smoke where he likes in his own house." She produced a shaving-mirror in three leaves. "There," she said, "yuh c'n see all but the top o' yer head in it. An' thank the cats, as yuh get older, yuh won't have to shave that."

Bailey, heretofore, had had no one to consider his comfort but the washerwoman, who sometimes charitably darned his socks. "That 's great," he laughed, flattered. "All the comforts of home!"

Mrs. Joliffe made a gesture that said "Wait! I 'll show yuh!" and led the way to the dining-room.

She had prepared cold ham and hot coffee, pie and pickles and chocolate cake, bananas and cheese, bottled beer and sweet biscuits, celery, potato salad, table raisins, canned salmon, and chili sauce. They were crowded on the table promiscuously. There was scarcely room for the plates. "If yuh want annything yuh can't reach," she said, "ask fer it."

Hetty excused herself, on the plea that she was train-sick, and went to bed; and Bailey sat down to such a meal as he had not eaten since he had left his country home—for Mrs. Joliffe had boiled the ham herself, baked the cake, made the salad and the chili sauce, and ground the coffee; and they had the flavor that cannot be bought.

She kept his plate filled and his cup overflowing. When he had had enough, she coaxed and wheedled him into taking more. "Yuh sh'u'd never stop eatin', man," she said, till yer hands 're too tired to feed yuh."

He ate until he was red in the face; and then she brought him his pipe and let him talk. He talked shop—as Joliffe used to do—and she listened as if the ambitions and jealousies of Altgelt's grocery department were the most interesting gossip. "Yuh 'll be startin' up store some day fer yersilf?" she asked. He replied that he would as soon as he had saved the necessary capital. "Then yuh need n't worry about the house," she said. "It 'll cost yuh less than it did fer board, er I 'm a Dutchman. Hetty 'll want nex' to nothin' fer clothes. She sews her own. An' I 'll look after the kitchen till she gets the hang o' housekeepin'. We 'll be millionaires this day next week."

He went to bed, gorged and optimistic, and relieved of half the worries of a newly married man. He had been aware that Hetty was the sort of wife to grace any station in life to which his business success might raise him, but he had been afraid that she might prove rather expensive at first. "Now he was assured, that with her mother's aid, their beginning would prove as easy as their end would be glorious.

Mrs. Joliffe remained for an hour in the kitchen, washing the supper dishes and setting the table for breakfast, as satisfied as if she had been for a year out of work and had just found "a job." She took a last fond look at the table before she reluctantly put out the light. And neither she nor Bailey suspected that there was any person in their flat not perfectly happy and willing to let things go on as they had begun.


II

It was two days later that Hetty began her quiet campaign against the established order.

She had found her first day a day of empty restlessness and dissatisfaction. She missed the noise and bustle of Altgelt's, the chatter of her fellow clerks, and the work to which she had been accustomed. She might have taken some interest in the housekeeping if her mother's incessant activity had not forced her aside and left her idle. She unpacked her trunk, put a few stitches in a torn flounce, changed the trimming of a hat, and washed her yellow hair in the sunlight; but chiefly she wandered from room to room or hung out of the parlor window, vacant-minded, empty-handed, like a girl who has left boarding-school and come home to find nothing to do.

Her mother rarely joked with her, having learned by experience that when a joke falls on a literal mind it is likely to sprout a misunderstanding. When she was not "slushin' about," as she called it, in the kitchen, she was humming "old-country" tunes and rocking happily in a favorite chair, which she had put by the dining-room window. It would be a nice study in psychology to explain why she never sat in the parlor; but she never felt at home there; and if she went in, it was only to stand a moment looking out of the window before she rearranged the curtains and went back to her usual place. "I 'm like our ol' cat Tom," she had explained once, "that was never happy off his own bit o' rag carpet. Leave me be." And Hetty had the parlor to herself.

She was ill-tempered that evening, and ate her dinner in silence, resenting the fact that Bailey had the head of the table, where he carved—and her mother the foot of it, where she poured the tea—while she herself sat at the side and had no hand in anything. She vented her resentment after dinner by objecting again to Bailey's smoking in the parlor; and he moved his smoking-table to the dining-room, where Mrs. Joliffe and he played cribbage. Hetty disliked cards. She disliked sitting in the dining-room beside a table set with dishes. She stayed in the parlor—where she could hear her mother quarreling humorously over the pegging and Bailey laughing with the heartiness of a winner. Finally she went to bed in a sulk.

Bailey, after a midnight supper, came to his sleep chuckling. She said nothing to him.

But next morning, at breakfast, she demanded that they hire a servant so that her mother might not have to spend all her days in the kitchen. "Good heavens!" Mrs. Joliffe cried. "What w'u'd yuh be doin' with a servan' gurl litterin' up the house, an' pokin' her nose into everybody's business, an' talkin' about us to the neighbors, an' stealin' ev'rythin' she c'u'd lay hands to, an' pois'nin' us with bad food! A servan' gurl!"

Bailey was less voluble, but equally determined. A servant was an expensive luxury, which he had no intention of indulging in—though he did not say so.

He allowed his silence to say it for him.

"Well, I 'm not going to spend all my time over a cook stove," Hetty protested.

"Leave the kitchen to me," her mother said, "an' don't be talkin' nonsinse. We c'u'd live on Fif' Avenuh fer the price of a servan' gurl."

"Well, then," Hetty said, "let us send out the washing."

"What!" the mother cried. "Pay some one fer tearin' yer clothes to pieces? I 'd as soon have a cook bringin' me on grub that I did n't know what she 'd been puttin' into it. What 's the good o' havin' purty clothes if yuh 're never to have the fun o' washin' an' ironin' 'em? I never heard such like talk. What 's got into yuh at all, gurl?"

A feeling that she was useless in her own house—that was what had got into her. She had looked forward to having a little home in which she and Bailey might be happy and alone together. She had expected her mother, if she joined them, to take her place as a visitor and grow old in idleness. Instead of that, Mrs. Joliffe had furnished the flat to her own taste and was running it to her own satisfaction. She had made herself more necessary to Bailey than his own wife. And the girl's attempts to supplant her with a servant only established her more securely in the kitchen; for Hetty maintained her determination not to work there at all, and Mrs. Joliffe ruled unchallenged.

When Hetty claimed the right to do the shopping, at least, she was invited to "go ahead an' do it, then." But when Bailey opened a bad egg for breakfast and sat down for dinner to a rolled roast so tough that no one could eat it, there was a scene at the table, and Hetty declared, in a passion, that she would never buy another thing for the house. She went to bed almost weeping with anger.

Bailey played his cribbage and smoked his pipe.

"Leave her be," Mrs. Joliffe counseled him—and Hetty overheard her through the open door—"she 'll come out of her tantrums. I know her. Two fer 'his heels.' Go on now."

He tried letting her be and found it a poor plan. She let him be. She withdrew herself ostentatiously from the household life, was silent at the table, and turned her back on him when they were alone. She sat all day by herself, amid the furnishings of a room that she hated, brooding upon the incidents of a life that she despised. Bailey's manner during his courtship had flattered her by a tacit acknowledgment that she was something finer and better than he. (He had fallen in love with her "citified" sophistication.) She had not allowed him to see much of her mother, of whose simplicity and commonness she had been ashamed. She had never let him know that her father had been a butcher; she had intended to leave all that sort of thing behind her when she married. She had known that Bailey was a trusted man at Altgelt's, with a future before him, and she had counted on rising with him out of reach of her past. She had vaguely intended to subdue her mother and put her into the background of her new life.

And, to Hetty's mind, it was the mother who had wrecked every plan. Had n't she told Bailey about her husband—"God rest his bones." Had n't she dragged Bailey down to her own free-and-easy tenement-house manner? Had n't she destroyed his awed respect for his wife

"What 's the matter with you, anyway?" Bailey asked her impatiently; and she turned on him in a blazing indignation. "Don't you speak to me like that," she cried. "You have n't married a servant girl."

"I don't know what I have married," he retorted.

"You seem to 've married a mother-in-law," she said. "Go and sit in the kitchen with her. It 's the part of the house you 're most int'rested in."

"That 's a nice sort of talk!"

His reproof put her on her dignity. She saw that she was lowering herself still further in his regard; and thereafter she said nothing. She became self-contained, haughty, silent, and altogether impossible. No endearments could draw an explanation from her, and no impatience provoke her to a retort. She lived a silent protest against the whole situation, and Bailey rapidly found himself reduced to a state of worried misery.

He could no longer enjoy his evening game of cribbage in the dining-room; and yet he played, because he did not wish to hurt Mrs. Joliffe's feelings. He could not enjoy his meals, but he had to pretend, for Mrs. Joliffe's sake, that he did enjoy them. She exerted herself to please him, performed miracles in cookery, and tried to keep the table lively with an indomitable good nature. But she did not understand what was wrong. She thought there had been some belated lover's quarrel between the two, and she considered it the part of wisdom to ask no questions. She was cheerfully happy herself, worked singing, read the newspapers in her rocking-chair, and kept to her own end of the flat. "The gurl 's a fool," she told herself, "but I was the same mesilf at her age.… Poor Jollie! Heaven give 'm rest!" She laughed to herself. "Us women—we 're danged hard to live with!"

She played her part until it was not humanly possible to play it longer. Then she scolded her daughter and got nothing but a malevolent look. She advised Bailey to take his wife to the theater at night, and he did so, though he fell asleep in his seat. Then he took her to Coney Island on a Saturday afternoon, and came back desperately discouraged—for the girl had told him calmly that she would not live in the flat more than a month longer; that as soon as the cool weather came, she would return to work in some shop.

He sat with his cards in his hands, too worried to play his game. He gazed at nothing, with an empty pipe in his mouth.

"She wants a couple o' babies," Mrs. Joliffe declared. "When she has some squallin' young appitites to be stuffin' she 'll have no time to be thinkin' of ersilf."

He shook his head.

"Aw, yuh 're as bad as them ol' maid ministers," she cried, "that 're allus writin' to the paypers about the divorce problum. If you men had more children, yuh 'd be havin' less trouble with yer wives."

"She does n't like the flat."

"The flat! What 's wrong with it, man?"

He looked at her as if he were going to tell her, flushed self-consciously, and went on with his game.

That look gave her her first suspicion of the truth. She lay awake a long time in the night, "puttin' two an' two togither," as she would have said. When she saw her daughter in the morning, she understood.

"Well," she said to herself, "I ain't goin' to butt in. Let her do things her own way if she wants to. She 'll learn as well by tryin' as by bein' told!"


III

She understood why Bailey did not play cribbage with her that night—though he pretended that it was because he had a headache. He spent the evening in the other end of the flat, with the doors closed against her so that she might not hear what Hetty was saying. The old woman darned his socks and assured herself that it was natural in the girl to want him to herself. She overlooked his guiltily apologetic manner toward her in the morning, and said nothing to Hetty when they were left alone together.

The girl swept the parlor herself that day, rearranged the furniture, and took down all the calendars—as Mrs. Jolifle discovered in the evening, when Bailey and his wife had gone off to a roof-garden. She found her cherished decorations thrown together in a closet, and she put them away in her trunk, her lips twitching with a pained indignation. The insult was two-edged, though it hurt her most by impugning her taste as a housekeeper. "Dang the girl," she said. "A few years ago she 'd not 'a' behaved so—er if she did, she 'd 'a' got well spanked fer it!"

She was up early and had breakfast ready for Bailey in the morning, with a cheerful countenance that changed, for a moment only, when she understood from his long and shamefaced explanation that he was going to take Hetty out to dinner in a restaurant and would not be home to the meal. Here was an insinuation that her cooking was not all that it might be! He invited her to come with them, but she knew better than to accept. "Never mind me," she said. "I 'm too old to be gaddin' about."

Hetty's manner during the day seemed to have a suggestion of silent triumph in it, but nothing was said. The mother could not speak of what was in her thought, and the daughter would not. Mrs. Joliffe could only wait and watch, hoping that what seemed to her an unreasonable anger in the girl would abate for want of provocation. But Hetty was determined to have her mother understand that she could not be ignored and put aside in her own house; and as her mother yielded, bewildered and hurt, Hetty pressed on to the realization of the plans that she had made before her marriage.

It became one of those tragi-comedies of household life that develop day by day, week after week, in the small incidents of domestic routine. Bailey did his best to smooth over the situation, but he was no diplomat. He asked Mrs. Joliffe to play cribbage with him, once, tentatively; but he was evidently relieved when she did not accept. He allowed Hetty to send her own clothes to the laundry, and then his, and finally the household linen. He even ate less heartily what Mrs. Joliffe cooked, and he was content when she accepted these slights without appearing to notice them. He let Hetty take down the curtains in the parlor and put up others more to her taste. He gave her money to buy some new furniture, and she put away the rugs.

Mrs. Joliffe, sitting quiet and humiliated in the dining-room, heard the girl, now, singing as she worked.

By this time, of course, Hetty was no longer silent at the table, except when she and her mother were alone. When Bailey was there, she was quite talkative and affable, and affected to ignore what looked like ill humor in the old woman. "She 'll come around," she told him privately. "She 's sulky because she can't have everything her own way." She had bought a recipe book and she was experimenting in the kitchen with desserts, which Bailey praised immoderately and ate largely of. She had persuaded him that tea gave him indigestion; she did not drink it herself; and her mother had none to pour but her own. When the furnishings of the dining-room were overhauled, she turned the table around and placed Bailey's chair opposite hers—by which manœuver Mrs. Joliffe was left in the place of the outsider. As a final touch, Hetty helped the vegetables; and there was something hard to define in the way in which she passed her mother's plate. It was perhaps unconscious and unintentional; but it made Mrs. Joliffe feel that the hand of a slighting charity was extended to her with the food.

"I 'm not wanted," she told herself. "I 'll go away. I 'll go away an' live by mesilf." But she had spent too much of her own money on the despised furniture and decorations of the flat, and she was too proud to ask for it back. The prospect of a lonely and useless old age frightened her even more than poverty. She wanted work to do; and here was work, if Hetty would only let her do it. "What 's the matter with the child?" she asked herself. "What 've I done to her? I 'm that worried I 've got the heartburn." And she rubbed her waist-line pathetically and blinked her faded eyes.

She did not appreciate this desire of a young life to mold its own circumstances, direct its own plans, achieve its new ambitions. She saw herself thrust aside by a filial jealousy that seemed to her the most horrible ingratitude, unnatural and heart-breaking; and this jealousy, having begun in ill-temper, continued in that aspect, because the girl was best able to justify herself in her own eyes by preserving her resentment against her mother, even after Mrs. Joliffe had been reduced to the meekness of despair.

At last Hetty happened to say, one day at dinner: "When we have a girl we 'll be able to give little parties."

Bailey remained silent, and his silence piqued her. She glanced at her mother and took the old woman's set lips as an unspoken challenge. She remembered how humiliatingly she had been defeated on this point once, and she set herself to carry it now—to make her husband say that she might have a servant if she wished, although she did not intend to get one.

She complained of the need of some one to run out to the grocer's, or to answer the door. She found frequent occasions for remembering that her neighbor had a servant. And although there was no room in the flat for a maid, unless she turned her mother out—and she saw that her mother regarded the matter in this light—she persisted and insisted and took every opportunity to push the question home.

"Hetty does n't want me," Mrs. Joliffe told her son-in-law, with tears in her eyes. "She knows I won't stay here idle, eatin' what I do nothin' to earn. She 'll need me bedroom fer the gurl. I 'll go. I 'll go."

Bailey remonstrated privately with his wife. "That 's all talk," Hetty replied, with more animosity than she really felt. "She 's too old to do the work now, and she 's growing older every day. She does n't get things half done, and the stuff she cooks makes me sick."

She had, in fact, been feeling unwell, complaining of attacks of faintness and eating very little.

Bailey said indignantly: "Well, I 'm tired of this whole business. We don't need a girl and we can't afford one. Leave the poor old woman alone. The house was a good deal happier as it was—besides being cheaper."

"Very well," the wife replied. "If you think more of her crazy notions than you do of my health—"

She went out to a dairy restaurant for luncheon and bought some food in a delicatessen shop and hid it in her trunk. She ate nothing for dinner except some tapioca pudding, which she had made herself, and it was so badly cooked that it disagreed with her. She was ill in the morning, refused to have her breakfast brought to her in bed, and sent Bailey to his work, to worry about her. Her mother came to see her at mid-day with a bowl of chicken broth and some buttered toast. She refused it. "If I want anything to eat," she said, "I 'll cook it myself."

Mrs. Joliffe put the food on the dresser and went to her room to pack her small belongings. "I can't stay here," she told herself, "an' I don't know where I 'll go to. I 'll have to get work. I 'll have to get work somewhere, but I 'll go to the poorhouse before I 'll stan' fer this. I 've slaved fer her all me life, an' I 'd work fer her now, till the flesh dropped off me fingers, if she wanted me. But she don't. I 'll go—an' be danged to her!" She wiped her cheeks on the end of her apron. "God help Bailey. I 'm glad it 's him that 's got to stay an' not me."

She stripped her little room, packed her pictures of the saints, her holy-water font, and her photographs. She even began to tie up her bedding in a bundle, but left it until she should see Bailey. "I can't move till mornin' annyways," she said, "an' I 'll not sleep on the floor to please nobody."

She did not go in to her daughter again; and Hetty, in a high fever, with a blinding headache, had the satisfaction of finding herself seriously ill. When Bailey came home, she was in such a state that he ran out again for the doctor. Mrs. Joliffe looked on at his anxiety, grimly contemptuous, and sat down to her lonely dinner, eating and drinking mechanically, with her eyes blank and her face resolute.

"I 'm leavin' here in the mornin'," she told him.

The doctor was in the other room, and Bailey was awaiting his opinion of the case. "Leaving?" he said. "She 's sick."

"She 'll let me do nothin' fer her. She 'll eat nothin' I cook. She wants a gurl. She wants to be rid o' me. I 'm goin'."

He wandered back to the bedroom again.

She heard the murmur of the doctor's voice and she said to herself: "He c'n cure her bad timper, no doubt! It 's all that 's wrong with her!" When she heard the doctor go out, she took Bailey's dinner from the oven, ready for his return to the table. "Poor boy," she said. "She 'll lead him a life!"

He came out to her, pale. "She wants to see you," he said huskily.

"What is it?"

He looked down at his feet. "She 'll tell you, I guess."

His manner alarmed her. She hurried to the bedroom and found Hetty lying among the pillows, her eyes dilated, her lips trembling. "Mother," she said, clutching at the old woman's hard hand, "don't go away. Don't leave me. I 'm—I 'm frightened."

"What is it?" the mother whispered. "What is it? " And even as she asked it, she knew.… "Dear God," she laughed, while the girl clung to her, "I wanted nothin' but to stay with yuh. Who said I was goin' to leave yuh. Don't be a fool, gurl. What 're yuh scared o'? D' yuh think yuh 're the first woman ever had a baby? Wait now. Yuh 're hungry. That 's what 's wrong with yuh. Where 's that broth?"

She ran out to the kitchen with it to warm it up. "There!" she said to Bailey. "What 'd I tell yuh! We 'll have no more trouble in this house. Sit down there an' eat yer dinner like a man an' a father. I 'll beat y' at cribbage when I get her off to sleep."

She chuckled to herself, good-naturedly, over the stove: "I hope it 'll be a gurl, an' marry young. I do that. 'T 'ud serve Hetty dang well right if she lived to be a mother-in-law hersilf, fer her sins.… A mother-in-law! An' they make jokes about us in the paypers!"