The Daughter-in-law

Mary Stewart Cutting

From The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors (Harper & Brothers Publishers; New York: 1908)
Chapter IV.

I have never identified myself with my husband's family, and Charles Edward, who is the best sort ever, doesn't expect me to. Of course, I want to be decent to them, though I know they talk about me, but you can't make oil and water mix, and I don't see the use of pretending that you can. I know they never can understand how Charles Edward married me, and they never can get used to my being such a different type from theirs. The Talberts are all blue-eyed, fair-haired, and rosy, and I'm dark, thin, and pale, and Grandmother Evarts always thinks I can't be well, and wants me to take the medicine she takes.

But, really, I see very little of the family, except Alice and Billy, who don't count. Billy comes in at any time he feels like it to get a book and something to eat, though the others don't know it, and Alice has fits of stopping in every afternoon on her way from school, and then perhaps doesn't come near me for weeks. Alice is terribly discontented at home, and I think it's a very good thing that she is; anything is better than sinking to that dreadful dead level. She doesn't quite know whether to take up the artistic life or be a society queen, and she feels that nobody understands her at home. It makes her nearly wild when Aunt Elizabeth comes back from one of her grand visits and acts as if she wasn't anything. She came over right after the row, of course, and told me all about it — she had on her new white China silk and her hat with the feathers. She said she was so excited about everything that she couldn't stop to think about what she put on; she looked terribly dressed up, but she had come all through the village with her waist unfastened in the middle of the back — she said she couldn't reach the hooks. Aunt Elizabeth had gone away that morning for overnight, so nobody could get at her to find out about her actions with Mr. Goward, and the telegram she had sent to him, until the next day, and every one was nearly crazy. They talked about it for two hours before Maria went home. Then Peggy had locked herself in her room, and her mother had gone out, and her grandmother was sitting now on the piazza, rocking and sighing, with her eyes shut. Alice said each person had got dreadfully worked up, not only about Aunt Elizabeth, but about all the ways every other member of the family had hurt that person at some time. Maria said that Peggy never would take her advice, and Peggy returned that Maria had hurt her more than any one by her attitude toward Harry Goward, that she was so suspicious of him that it had made him act unnaturally from the first — that nothing had hurt her so much since the time Maria took away Peggy's doll on purpose when she was a little girl — the doll she used to sleep with — and burned it; it was something she had never got over.

Then her mother, who hadn't been talking very much, said that Peggy didn't realize the depth of Maria's affection for her, and what a good sister she had been, and how she had taken care of Peggy the winter that Peggy was ill — and then she couldn't help saying that, bad as was this affair about Harry Goward, it wasn't like the anxiety one felt about a sick child; there were times when she felt that she could bear anything if Charles Edward's health were only properly looked after. Of course Lorraine was young and inexperience, but if she would only use her influence with him —

Alice broke off suddenly, and said she had to go — it was just as Dr. Denbigh's little auto was coming down the street. She dashed out of the door and bowed to him from the crossing, quite like a young lady, for all her short skirts — she really did look fetching! Dr. Denbigh smiled at her, but not the way he used to smile at Peggy. I really thought he cared for Peggy once, though he's so much older that nobody else seemed to dream of such a thing.

Of course, after Alice went, I just sat there in the chair all humped up, thinking of her last words.

The family are always harping on “Lorraine's influence.” If they wanted their dear Charles Edward made different from the way he is, why on earth didn't they do it themselves, when they had the chance? That's what I want to know! I know they mean to be nice to me, but they take it for granted that every habit Charles Edward has or hasn't, and everything he does or doesn't, is because I didn't do something that I ought to have done, or condoned something that I ought not. They seem to think that a man is made of soft, kindergarten clay, and all a wife has to do is to sit down and mould him as she pleases. Well, some men may be like that, but Peter isn't. The family never really have forgiven me for calling their darling “Charles Edward” Peter. I perfectly loathe that long-winded Walter-Scotty name, and I don't care how many grandfathers it's descended from. I'm sorry, of course, if it hurts their feelings, but as long as I don't object to their calling him what they like, I don't see why they mind. And as for my managing Peter, they know perfectly well that, though he's a darling, he's just mulishly obstinate. He's had his own way ever since he was born; the whole family simply adore him. His mother has always waited on him hand and foot, though she's sensible enough with the other children. If he looks sulky she is perfectly miserable. I am really very fond of my mother-in-law — that is, I am fond of her in spots. There are times when she understands how I feel about Peter better than any one else — like that dreadful spring when he had pneumonia and I was nearly wild. I know she is dreadfully unselfish and kind, but she will think — they all do — that they know what Peter needs better than I do, and whenever they see me alone it's to hint that I ought to keep him from smoking too much and being extravagant, and that I should make him wear his overcoat and go to bed early and take medicine when he has a cold. And through everything else they hark back to that everlasting, “If you'd only exert your influence, Lorraine dear, to make Charles Edward take more interest in the business — his father thinks so much of that.”

If I were to tell them that Charles Edward perfectly detests the business, and will never be interested in it and never make anything out of it, they'd all go straight off the handle; yet they all know it just as well as I do. That's the trouble — you simply can't tell them the truth about anything; they don't want to hear it. I never talk at all any more when I go over to the big house, for I can't seem to without horrifying somebody.

I thought I should die when I first came here; it was so different from the way it is at home, where you can say or do anything you please without caring what anybody thinks. Dad has always believed in not restricting individuality, and that girls have just as much right to live their own lives as boys — which is a fortunate thing, for, counting Momsey, there are four of us.

We never had any system about anything at home, thank goodness! We just had atmosphere. Dad was an artist, you know, and he does paint such lovely pictures; but he gave it up as a profession when we were little, and went into business, because, he said, he couldn't let his family starve — and we all think it was so perfectly noble of him! I couldn't give up being an artist for anybody, no matter who starved, and Peter feels that way, too. Of course we both realize that we're not living here in this hole, we're simply existing, and nothing matters very much until we get out of it. In six months, when Charles Edward is twenty-five, there's a little money coming to him — three thousand dollars — and then we're going to Paris to live our own lives; but nobody knows anything about that. One day I said something, without thinking, to my mother-in-law about that money; I've forgotten what it was, but she looked so horrified and actually gasped:

“You wouldn't think of Charles Edward's using his principal, Lorraine?”

And I said: “Why not? It's his own principal.”

Well, I just made up my mind afterward that I'd never open my mouth again, while I live here, about anything I was interested in, even about Peter!

His father might have let him go to Paris that year before we met, when he was in New York at the Art League, just as well as not, but the family all consulted about it, Peter says, and concluded it wasn't “necessary.” That is the blight that is always put on everything we want to do — it isn't necessary. Oh, how Alice hates that word! She says she supposes it's never “necessary” to be happy.

Well, Peter heard that when the Paris scheme came up — he'd written home that he couldn't work without the art atmosphere — Grandmother Evarts said:

“Why, I'm sure he has the Metropolitan Museum to go to; and there's Wanamaker's picture-gallery, too. Has he been to Wanamaker's?”

I thought I should throw a fit when Peter told me that!

I know, of course, that the family pity Peter for living in a house that's all at sixes and sevens, and for not having everything the way he has been used to having it; and I know they think I keep him from going to see them all at home, when the truth is — although, as usual, I can't say it — sometimes I absolutely have to hound him to go there; though, of course, he's awfully fond of them all, and his mother especially; but he gets dreadfully lazy, and says they're his own people, anyway, and he can do as he pleases about it. It's their own fault, because they've always spoiled him. And if they only knew how he hates just that way of living he's been always used to, with its little, petty cast-iron rules and regulations, and the stupid family meals, where everybody is expected to be on time to the minute! My father-in-law pulls out his chair at the dinner-table exactly as the clock is striking one, and if any member of the family is a fraction late all the rest are solemn and strained and nervous until the culprit appears. Peter says the way he used to suffer — he was never on time.

The menu for each day of the week is as fixed as fate, no matter what the season of the year: hot roast beef, Sunday; cold roast beef, Monday; beef-steak, Tuesday; roast mutton, Wednesday; mutton pot-pie, Thursday; corned beef, Friday; and beef-steak again on Saturday. My father-in-law never eats fish or poultry, so they only have either if there is state company. There's one sacred apple pudding that's been made every Wednesday for nineteen years, and if you can imagine anything more positively dreadful than that, I can't.

Every time, as soon as we sit down to the table, Grandmother Evarts always begins, officially:

“Well, Charles Edward, my dear boy, we don't have you here very often nowadays. I said to your mother yesterday that it was two whole weeks since you had been to see her. What have you been doing with yourself lately?”

And when he says, as he always does, “Nothing, grandmother,” I know she's disappointed, and then she starts in and tells what she has been doing, and Maria — Maria always manages to be there when we are — Maria tells what she has been doing, with little side digs at me because I haven't been pickling or preserving or cleaning. Once, when I first went there, Maria asked me at dinner what days I had for cleaning. And I said, as innocently as possible, that I hadn't any; that I perfectly loathed cleaning, and that we never cleaned at home! Of course it wasn't true, but we never talk about it, anyway. Peter said he nearly shrieked with joy to hear me come out like that.

It was almost as bad as the time I wore that sweet little yellow Empire gown. It's a dear, and Lyman Wilde simply raved over it when he painted me in it (not that he can really paint, but he has a touch with everything he does). I noticed that everybody seemed solemn and queer, but I never dreamed that I was the cause until my mother-in-law came to me afterward, blushing, and told me that Mr. Talbert never allowed any of the family to wear Mother Hubbards around the house. Mother Hubbards! I could have moaned. Well, when I go around there now I never care what I have on, and I never pretend to talk at meals; I just sit and try and make my mind a blank until it's over. You have to make your mind a blank if you don't want to be driven raving crazy by that dining-room. It has a hideous black-walnut side-board, an “oil-painting” of pale, bloated fruit on one side, and pale, bloated fish on the other, and a strip of black-and-white marbled oil-cloth below.

I feel sometimes as if I could hardly live until my father-in-law rises from his chair and kisses his wife good-bye before going off to the factory. She always blushes so prettily when he kisses her — as if it were for the first time. Then everybody looks pained when Peter and I just nod at each other as he goes out — I cannot be affectionate to him before them — and then, thank Heaven! the rest of us escape from the dining-room.

How Peggy, who has been away from home and seen and done things, can stand it there now as it is, is a continual wonder to me.

Peggy is a dear little thing. Peter has always been awfully fond of her, but she doesn't seem to have an idea in her head beyond her clothes and Harry Goward, though she'll have to have something more to her if she's going to keep him. The moment I saw that boy, of course I knew that he had the artistic temperament; I've seen so much of it. He's the kind that's always awfully gloomy until eleven o'clock in the morning, and has to make love intensely to somebody every evening. What it must have been to that boy, after indulging in a romantic dream with poor little earnest, downright Peggy, to wake up and find the engagement taken seriously not only by her, but by all her relatives — find himself being welcomed into the family, introduced to them all as a future member — what it must have been to him I can't imagine! Peggy has no more temperament than a cow — the combination of Maria and Tom, and Grandmother Evarts, and Billy with his face washed clean, and Alice with three enormous bows on her hair, all waiting to welcome him, standing by the pictorial lamp on the brown worsted mat on the centre-table, made me fairly howl when I sat at home and thought of it — and that was before I'd seen Harry.

The family were, of course, quite “hurt” that Peter and I wouldn't assist at the celebration. I cannot see why people will want you to do things when they know you don't care to!

The next evening, however, we had to go, when Peggy herself came around and asked us. Of course Mr. Goward was with Peggy most of the time. They certainly looked charming together, but rather conscious and stiff. Every member of the family was watching his every motion. Oh, I've been there! I know what it is!

Some of the neighbors were there, too. Peter hardly ever plays on the big, old-fashioned grand-piano, but that night he was so bored he had to. The family always think they're very musical — you can know the style when I tell you that after Peter has been rambling through bits from Schumann and Richard Strauss they always ask him if he won't “play something.” Well, after Peggy had gone into the other room with her mother to do the polite to Mrs. Temple, Mr. Goward gravitated over to where I sat in the big bay-window behind the piano; he had that “be-good-to-me,-won't-you?” air that I know so well! Then we got to talking and listening in between whiles — he knows lots of girls in the Art League — till Peter began playing that heart-breaking “Im Herbst” from the Franz Songs, and then he said:

“You're going to be my sister, aren't you? Won't you let me hold your hand while your husband's playing that? It makes me feel so lonely!”

I answered, promptly, “Certainly; hold both hands if you like!”

And we laughed, and Peter turned around for a moment and smiled, too. Oh, it was nice to meet somebody of one's own kind! You get so sick of having everything taken seriously.

That night, after we'd left the house, Harry caught up with us at the corner on his way to the hotel, and went home with us, and we all talked until three o'clock in the morning. We simply ate all over the house — goodness! how hungry we were! At Peter's home it's an unheard-of thing to eat anything after half-past six — almost a crime, unless it's a wedding or state reception. We began now with coffee in the dining-room, and jam and cheese, and ended by gradual stages at hot lobster in the chafing-dish in the studio — the darky was out all night, as usual.

Then Harry and Peter concluded that it was too late to go to bed at all — it was really daylight — so they took bath-towels and went down to the river and had a swim, and Harry slipped back to the house at six o'clock. He said we'd repeat it all the next night, but of course we didn't. He's the kind that, as soon as he's promised to do a thing, feels at once that he doesn't really want to do it.

The next day Peter's Aunt Elizabeth came on the scene, and of course we stayed away as much as we could. She loves Peter — they all do — but she hasn't any use for me, and shows it. She thinks I'm perfectly dumb and stupid. I simply don't exist, and I've never tried to undeceive her — it's too much trouble. She always wants to tell people how to do their hair and put on their clothes.

Miss Elizabeth Talbert is a howling swell; she only just endures it here. I've heard lots of things about her from Bell Pickering, who knows the Munroes — Lily Talbert, they call her there. She thinks she's fond of Art, but she really doesn't know the first thing about it — she doesn't like anything that isn't expensive and elegant and à la mode.

The only time she ever came to see me she actually picked her way around the house when I was showing it to her — there's no other word to use — just because there was a glass of jelly on the sofa, and the painting things were all over the studio with Peter's clothes. I perfectly hated her that day, yet I do love to look at her, and I can see how she might be terribly nice if you were any one she thought worth caring for. There have been times when I've seen a look on her face, like the clear ethereal light beyond the sunset, that just pulled at me. She is very fond of Peggy; I know she would never do anything to injure Peggy.

Poor little Peggy! When I think of this affair about Harry Goward I don't believe she ever felt sure of him; that is why she is so worked up over this matter now. I know there was something that I felt from the first through all her excitement, something that wasn't quite happy in her happiness. I feel atmospheres at once; I just can't help it. And when I get feeling other people's atmospheres too much I lose my own, and then I can't paint. I began so well the other day with the picture of that Armenian peddler, and now since Alice left I can't do a thing with it; his bare yellow knees look just like ugly grape-fruit. I wish Sally was in. She can't cook, but she can do a song-and-dance that's worth its weight in gold when you're down in the mouth.

— Just then I looked out of the window and saw my mother-in-law coming in. For a minute I was frightened. I'd never seen her look like that before — so white and almost old; she seemed hardly able to walk, and I ran to the door and helped her in, and put her in a chair and her feet on a footstool, and got her my dear little Venetian bottle of smelling-salts with the long silver chain; it's so beautiful it makes you feel better just to look at it. I whisked Peter's shoes out into the hall, and when I sat down by her she put her hand out to me and said, “Dear child,” and I got all throaty, the way I do when any one speaks like that to me, for, oh, I have been lonesome for Dad and Momsey and my own dear home! though no one ever seems to imagine it, and I said:

“Oh, can't I do something for you, Madonna?” I usually just call her “you,” but once in a great while, when there's nobody else around, I call her Madonna, and I know she likes it, even if she does think it a little Romish or sacrilegious or something queer.

But she said she didn't want anything, only to rest a few minutes, and that there was something she wanted me to tell Peter. She couldn't come in the evening to see him without every one wanting to know why she came. There was some terrible trouble about Peggy's engagement. She flushed up and hesitated, and when I broke in to say, “You needn't bother to explain, I know all about the whole thing,” she didn't seem at all surprised or ask how I knew — she only seemed relieved to find that she could go right on. I never can be demonstrative to her before people, but I just put my arms around her now when she said:

“It's a great comfort to be able to come to you, Lorraine, and speak out. At home your dear grandmother considers me so much — she only thinks of everything as it affects me, but it makes it so that I can't always show what I feel, for if I do she gets ill. All I can think of is Peggy. If you knew what it was to me just now when my little Peggy went away from me and locked herself in her room — Peggy, who all her life has always come to me for comfort —”

She stopped for a minute, and I patted her. It was so unlike my mother-in-law to speak in this way; she's usually so self-contained that it made me sort of awestruck. After a moment she went on in a different voice:

“They all want me to tell Cyrus — your father — that Aunt Elizabeth has been trying to take Mr. Goward's affections away from Peggy. I'm afraid it's just what she has been doing, though it seems incredible that she should have any attraction for a young man. I was glad Elizabeth had gone away overnight, for Maria is in such a state I don't know what might have happened.”

“And don't you want to tell — father?” I gulped, but I knew I must say it. “Why not, Madonna?”

She shook her head, with that look that makes you feel sometimes that she isn't just the gentle and placid person that she appears to be. I seemed to catch a glimpse of something very clear and strong. If I could paint her with an expression like that I'd make my fortune.

“No, Lorraine. If it was about anybody but your aunt Elizabeth I would, but I can't speak against her. It's her home as well as mine; I've always realized that. I made up my mind, when I married, that I never would come between brother and sister, and I never have. Aunt Elizabeth doesn't know how many times I have smoothed matters over for her, how many times Cyrus has been provoked because he thought she didn't show enough consideration for me. I have always loved Aunt Elizabeth, and I believed she loved us — but when I saw my Peggy to-day, Lorraine, I couldn't go and tell your father about Aunt Elizabeth while I feel as I do now! I couldn't be just. If I made him angry with her —”

She stopped, and I didn't need to have her go on. My father-in-law is one of those big, kind, sensible, good-natured men who, when they do get angry, go clear off the handle, and are so absolutely furious and unreasonable you can't do anything with them. He got that way at Peter once — but it makes me so furious myself when I think of it that I never do.

“And, Lorraine,” Madonna went on, quite simply, “bringing all this home to Aunt Elizabeth and making her pay up for it really has nothing to do with Peggy's happiness. It is my child's happiness that I want, Lorraine. There may be a misunderstanding of some kind — misunderstandings are very cruel things sometimes, Lorraine. I cannot believe that boy doesn't care for her — why, he loved her dearly! It seems to me far the best and most dignified thing to just write to Mr. Goward himself and find out the truth.”

“I think so, too!” said I. “Oh, Madonna, you're a Jim Dandy!”

“And so,” she went on, “I want you to ask Charles Edward to write to-night. I'll leave the address with you. As Peggy's brother, it will be more suitable for him to attend to the matter.”

Charles Edward! I simply gasped. The idea of Peter's writing to Harry Goward to ask him the state of his affections! If Peter's mother couldn't realize how perfectly impossible it was for even me to make Peter do a thing that — Well — I was knocked silly.

Dear Madonna is the survival of a period when a woman always expected some man to face any crisis for her. All I could do was to say, resignedly:

“I'll give him the address.” And when she got up I went to the gate with her. She was as dear as she could be; I just loved her until she happened to say:

“When I came in I thought you might be lying down, for I looked up and saw the shades were pulled down in your room, as they are now.”

“Oh,” I said, “I don't suppose anybody has been back in the room since we got up.” And I was downright scared, she looked at me so strangely and began to tremble all over. “What is the matter?” I cried. “Do come into the house again!” But she only grasped my arm and said, tragically:

“Lorraine, it isn't possible that you haven't made your bed at four o'clock in the afternoon!” And I answered:

“Oh, I always make it up before I sleep in it.” And then I knew that I'd said just the wrong thing. What difference it can make to anybody what time you make your own bed I can't see! She tried to make me promise I'd always make it up before ten o'clock in the morning. Why, I wouldn't even promise to always feel fond of Peter at ten o'clock in the morning! I never have anything to do with the family without always feeling on edge afterward. Why, when she was so sweet and strong about Peggy and Aunt Elizabeth and all the rest of it, why should she get upset about such a trifle?

I stood there by the gate just glowering as she went off. I knew she thought I was going to perdition. I was sick of “the engagement.” What business was it of Peter's and mine, anyhow? It had nothing to do with us, really. Then I thought of the time Peter and I quarrelled, and how dear Lyman Wilde was about it, and how he brought Peter back to me — just to say the name of Lyman Wilde always makes me feel better. I adore him, and always shall, and Peter knows it. If I could only go back to the Settlement and hear him say, “Little girl,” in that coaxing voice of his! He is one of those men who are always working so hard for other people that you forget he hasn't anything for himself.

Thinking of him made me quite chipper again, and I went in and got his picture and stuck it up in the mantel-piece and put flowers in front of it. When Peter came in I told him about everything, and of course he refused to write to Harry Goward, as I knew he would. He said it was all rot, anyway, and that Harry was a nice boy, but not worth making such a fuss over. He didn't know that he was particularly stuck on Peggy's marrying Harry Goward, anyway — but there was no use in any one's interfering. Peggy was the person to write. Finally he said he'd telephone to Harry the next day to come out and stay at our house over Sunday, and then he and Peggy could have a chance to settle it.

But Peter didn't telephone. He was late at the Works the next day — though not nearly so late as he often is; but Mr. Talbert has a perfect fad about every one's getting there on time; it's one of the things there's always been a tug about between him and Peter. I should think he'd have realized long ago that Peter never will be on time, and just make up his mind to it, but he won't. Well, Peter came back again to the house a little after nine, perfectly white; he said he'd never enter the factory again. …

His father was in a towering rage when Peter went in; he spoke to Peter so that every one could hear him, and then — Oh, it was a dreadful time! …

Alice told me afterward that Maria had found her father in the garden before breakfast. She insinuated, in her way, all kinds of dreadful things about Harry Goward and Aunt Elizabeth, and there was a scene at the breakfast-table — and Peggy was taken so ill that they had to send for Dr. Denbigh. I don't know what will happen when Aunt Elizabeth comes home.

p. 95 changed [ she's uually so self-contained ] to [ usually ]