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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesOne Woman's Life - Part Three. Aspirations - Chapter 1. The New Home
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One Woman's Life - Part Three. Aspirations - Chapter 1. The New Home Post by :Paperboy Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :May 2012 Read :798

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One Woman's Life - Part Three. Aspirations - Chapter 1. The New Home

PART THREE. ASPIRATIONS
CHAPTER I. THE NEW HOME

They took a tiny, four-room apartment far, far out on the North Side. It was close to the sandy shore of the Lake; from the rear porch, which was perched on wooden stilts in the fashion of Chicago apartments, the gray blue waters of the great lake could be seen. In the next block there were a few scrubby oak trees, still adorned, even in January, with rustling brown leaves, which gave something of a country air to the landscape. By an ironical accident the new apartment they had chosen happened to be not far from the spot where Clarence Albert had wished to build his home. There was still much vacant property in this neighborhood, as well as the free lake beach, which attracted the lovers, and though it was a tiresome car-ride to the centre of the city Milly did not expect to make many journeys back and forth.

At first she had had some idea of resuming her newspaper work, but that had become almost negligible of late, since her preoccupation with love, and when she approached Mr. Becker, he showed slight interest. He felt kindly towards the two young adventurers, but he was not disposed to carry his sentiments into the newspaper business. They must "make good" by themselves, like any other Tom and Gill, and Milly married to an impecunious newspaper artist would not be a social asset for the _Star_. So Milly, happily, was relegated to domesticity, and the management of her one raw little maid. Anyway, as she told Eleanor Kemp, her husband did not care to have his wife working--didn't think much of women in the newspaper business. She was proud of his Pride....

The new home was a pretty little nest. Milly had rescued from the last debacle of the Ridge household those few good pieces of old mahogany that had been her mother's contribution to the conglomerate, and kind friends had added a few essential articles. Especially Eleanor Kemp, with a practical eye and generous hand, had taken delight in seeing that all details of the new home were complete, and that everything was in smiling order on their return from the brief wedding trip. She had even taken pains to have flowers and plants sent in from the Como greenhouses. (The plants speedily died, as Milly forgot to water them.)

So now they were embarked, cosily and cheerily, considering their circumstances. As a shrewd worldly philosopher once put it on a similar occasion: "Your John and my Amy got launched to-day on the long journey. Poor dears! They think it's to be one long picnic. But we know they are up against the Holy State of Matrimony--a very different proposition." By which he meant, no doubt, that the young couple were to discover that instead of passion and sentiment, verses and kisses, marriage was largely a matter of feeding John and keeping him smoothly running as an economic machine, and of clothing Milly and keeping her happily attuned to the social cosmos,--later on of feeding, clothing, educating, and properly launching the little Johns and Millys who might be expected to put in an appearance....

But our lovers had not struck the prosaic bottom yet, though they reached it sooner than either had expected. There were a good many kisses and verses the first months, passion and temperament. John discovered, of course, that Mrs. Bragdon was quite a different woman from Milly Ridge,--a still fascinating, though occasionally exasperating, creature, while Milly thought John was just what she had known he would be,--an altogether adorable lover and perfect man. What surprised her more as the early weeks of marriage slipped by was to find that she herself had remained, in spite of her great woman's experience, much the same person she had always been, with the same lively interests in people and things outside and the same dislike of the sordid side of existence. She had vaguely supposed that the state of love ecstasy which had been aroused in her would continue forever, excluding all other elements in her being, and thus transform her into something gloriously new. Not at all. She still felt aggrieved when the maid boiled her eggs more than two minutes or passed the vegetables on the wrong side.

When the two first seriously faced the budget question, they found that they had started their sentimental partnership with a combined deficit of over four hundred dollars. Luckily Mrs. Gilbert had sent to their new address a chilly note of good wishes and a crisp cheque for one hundred dollars. It was rather brutal of the good lady to put them so quickly on the missionary list, and Milly wanted to return the cheque; but John laughed and "entered it to the good," as he said. Then miraculously Grandma Ridge had put into Milly's hand just before the wedding ten fresh ten-dollar bills. Where had the old lady concealed such wealth all these barren years, Milly wondered!... And finally, among other traces of Eleanor Kemp's fairy hand, they found in a drawer of Milly's new desk a bank-book on Walter Kemp's bank with a bold entry of $250 on the first page. So, all told, they were able to start rather to the windward, as Bragdon put it. Much to Milly's surprise, the artist proved to have a sense of figures, light handed as he had shown himself before marriage. At least he knew the difference between the debit and the credit side of the ledger, and had grasped the fundamental principle of domestic finance, viz. one cannot spend more than one earns, long. He insisted upon paying up all the old bills and establishing a monthly budget. When, after the rent had been deducted from the sum he expected to earn, Milly proved to him that they could not live on what was left, he whistled and said he must "dig it up somehow," and he did. He became indefatigably industrious in picking up odd dollars, extending his funny column, doing posters, and making extra sketches for the sporting sheet. In spite of these added fives and tens, they usually exceeded the budget by a third, and when Jack looked grave, Milly of course explained just how exceptional the circumstances had been.

It is not worth while to go into the budgetary details of this particular matrimonial venture. Other story-tellers have done that with painful literalness, and nothing is drearier than the dead accounts of the butcher and baker, necessary as they are. The essential truths of domestic finance are very simple, and invariable: in the last analysis they come to one horn of the eternal dilemma,--fewer wants or more dollars. In America it is usually the second horn of the dilemma that the husband valiantly embraces--it seems the easier one at the time, at least the more comfortable horn upon which to be impaled. Milly was convinced that the first horn was impossible, if they were to "live decently." Bragdon began to think they might do better in New York, where the market for incidental art was larger and the pay better. Milly was eager for the venture. But both hesitated to cut themselves off from a sure, if lean, subsistence. The _Star raised him during the presidential campaign, when he was quite happy in caricaturing the Democratic ass and the wide-mouthed Democratic candidate. (They always had a tender feeling for the gentleman after that!) All in all, he made nearly twenty-five hundred dollars the first year, and that was much more than he had expected. But he found that even in those years of low prices it was a small income for two--as Milly pointed out.

However, money was not their only concern. The young wife was properly ambitious for her husband.

"It isn't so much the money," she told Eleanor Kemp. "I don't want Jack to sink into mere newspaper work, though he's awfully clever at it. But it leads nowhere, you know. I want him to be a real artist; he's got the talent. And if he succeeds as a painter, it pays so much better. Just think! That Varnot man charges fifteen hundred dollars for his portraits and such daubs--don't you think so?"

(Emil Varnot was one of the tribe of foreign artists who periodically descend upon American cities and reap in a few months a rich harvest of portraits, if they are properly introduced--much to the disgust of local talent.)

"Don't be impatient, Milly," Mrs. Kemp counselled. "It will come in time, I've no doubt. You must save up to go abroad first."

But the dull way of thrift was not Milly's; it was not American. Improvements there are financed by mortgage, not by savings. They must borrow to make the next step.... Milly had lofty ideals of helping her husband in his work. She was to be his inspiration in Art, of course: that was to go on all the time. More practically she hoped to serve as model from which his creations would issue to capture fame. She had heard of artists who had painted themselves into fame through their wives' figures, and she longed to emulate the wives. But this illusion was shattered during the first year of their married life. When Bragdon essayed a picture in the slack summer season, it was discovered that Milly, for all her vivacious good looks, was not paintable in the full figure. (They had tried her on the sands behind the flat, where they rigged up an impromptu studio out of old sails.) Her legs were too short between the thigh and the knee, and when the artist tried to correct this defect of his model, the result was disastrous.... However, what was of more practical purpose, her head answered very well, and Milly's pretty face adorned the covers of various minor magazines, done in all possible color schemes at twenty dollars per head. "I earn something," she said, by way of self-consolation.

She had another disappointment. She had imagined that her husband would do most of his work at home, immediately under her fostering eye, and that in this way she should have a finger, so to speak, in the creative process; but for the present the sort of "art" they lived on was best done in an office, with the thud of steam presses beneath and the eager eye of the copy-reader at the door. So Milly was left to herself for long hours in her new little home, and Milly was lonely. The trouble obviously was that Milly had not enough to do to occupy her abundant energy and interest in life. They were not to have children if possible: in the modern way they had settled beforehand that _that was impossible. And modern life had also so skilfully contrived the plebeian machinery of living that there was little or nothing left for the woman to do, if she were above the necessity of cooking and washing for her man. Deliberately to set herself to find an interesting and inexpensive occupation for her idle hours was not in Milly's nature,--few women of her class did in those days. It was supposed to be enough for a married woman to be "the head of her house"--even of a four-room modern apartment--and to be a gracious and desirable companion to her lord in his free hours of relaxation. Anything else was altogether "advanced" and "queer."

So after the first egotistic weeks of young love, the social instinct--Milly's dominant passion, in which her husband shared to some extent--awoke with a renewed keenness, and she looked abroad for its gratification. Their immediate neighbors, she quickly decided, were "impossible" as intimates: they were honest young couples, clerks and minor employees, who had come to the outskirts of the great city, like themselves, for the sake of low rents and clean housing. There were no signs of that "artistic and Bohemian" quality about them which she had hoped to find in her new life. Her husband assured her that he had failed to discover any such circle in Chicago, any at least whose members she could endure. That was where America, except New York possibly, differed from Europe. It had no class of cultivated poor. Occasionally he brought a newspaper man from the city, and they had some amusing talk over their dinner. A few of Milly's old friends persistently followed her up, like the Norton girls, the kindly Mrs. Lamereux, and the Kemps. But after accepting the hospitality of these far-off friends, there was always the dreary long journey back to their flat, with ample time for sleepy reflection on the futility of trying to keep up with people who had ten times your means of existence. It was not good for either of them, they knew, to taste surreptitiously the _bourgeois social feast, when they were not able "to do their part." Nevertheless, as the spring came on, Milly invited people more and more, and in the long summer twilights they had some jolly "beach parties" on the sandy lake shore, cooking messes over a driftwood fire, and also moonlight swimming parties. By such means the dauntless Milly managed to keep a sense of social movement about them.

* * * * *

She saw her father rarely. It was a day's journey, as she expressed it, to the West Side, and her father was never free until after six, except on Sundays, which Milly consecrated to husband, of course. Really, father and daughter were not congenial, and they discovered it, now that fate had separated them. At long intervals Horatio would come to them for Sunday dinner, when Milly had not some other festivity on foot. On these occasions the little man seemed subdued, as if he had turned down the hill and drearily contemplated the end, at the bottom. He liked best to sit on the rear porch, read the Sunday _Star_, and watch the gleaming lake. Perhaps it reminded him of that vision he had indulged himself with for a few short weeks of the broad Pacific beneath the Ventura hills. Milly felt sorry for her father and did her best to cheer him by giving him a bountiful dinner of the sort of food he liked. She had a faint sense of guilt towards him, as if she might have done more to make life toothsome for him in his old age. And yet how could she have been false to her heart, which she felt had been amply vindicated by her marriage? Pity that her heart could not have chimed to another note, but that was the way of hearts. She was relieved when she had put her father aboard the car on his return. As for Jack, he was always kind and polite, but frankly bored; the two men had nothing in common--how could they? It was the two generations over again--that was all.

Old Mrs. Ridge never made the journey to the Bragdon flat, and Milly saw her only once or twice after her marriage. She was not sorry. Years of living with "Grandma" had eaten into even Milly's amiable soul. The little old lady grimly pursued her narrow path between the boarding-house and the church, reading her _Christian Vindicator for all mental relaxation, until one autumn morning she was found placidly asleep in her bed, forever.

That was the next event of importance in Milly's life.

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