Chauncey Hannaford’s Wife
Did she make a mistake, this woman who risked her husband’s love to shield another who would have dispossessed her?
WHEN Chauncey Hannaford announced his engagement to Bess Pelley, his mother conceived a
passionate resentment, composed of equal parts of mother-love, the thwarted sex-instinct of virtuous widowhood, jealousy and a vast selfishness that was innate in her.
But she was no fool. She realized the inevitability of his marriage, and that attempts to block it would be transparent and would weaken her hold on him. She knew that Bess was good and yielding, not likely to prove a jealous or aggressive daughter-in-law, and, preferring to take the immediate devil she knew, to a future devil she knew not, contrived a front of sweet maternal benevolence—including just the correct amount of wistful sadness—and set about consolidating a position which should give her the maximum authority in her son’s new scheme of things.
So, when, within a month of the wedding day, Bess’s mother barely escaped a sordid conviction of habitual shoplifting by pleading hereditary kleptomania, and her father evaded arrest for misappropriation of trust funds by the simple expedient of blowing out his over-able brains, Mrs. Hannaford regarded the fantastic dual tragedy as the direct intervention of Providence in defence of her slighted motherhood, and slept peacefully for the first time since the engagement had been announced.
Clear-sighted as her level eye and sunny countenance betokened, Bess grasped at once the vast significance of the catastrophe, and, with head high and a brave smile, offered Chauncey an honorable freedom.
Nor would she have whined had he accepted it.
But he said, very quietly, “Thank you for that, Bess; but we’ve started already you and I, and there’s no going back in life. Whatever it may hold for you is for me, too. It’s ‘US’ now—and always.”
It was characteristic of her steadfast nature that she accepted his decision as whole-heartedly as she had offered him her sacrifice. She turned very pale, her lip quivering exquisitely and her eyes swimming. Then she went to his arms like a tired child .
A/fRS. HANNAFORD had regarded the episode as finished, and when Chauncey observed, quite casually, that the wedding would not even be postponed,
she rose in thwarted fury cloaked with righteous indignation and maternal solicitude.
She reasoned, pleaded, threatened and cajoled, invoking religion, science, high art and black magic to prove the certainty of ruin for marriage with such a tainted strain as Bess’s.
He only smiled his own slow smile and shook his head, till in the end she dissolved abjectly into tears.
Chauncey was concerned. He took her quickly in his arms, patting and soothing her.
“There, there, mother! I know; I know. You mustn't be afraid. I know the talk that’s going round, but it doesn’t fizz on me. This heredity business has been discredited as often as it’s been proven. Whoever I married, blood strains like that, or worse, might be behind her, and not apparent. After all, didn’t your own father drink himself to death?”
“It’s true, mother, and you know it, if the world at large does not. Please, mums. If Bess was good enough for us before, she’s good enough yet. The scandal’s the only thing I recognize, and I’d be a yellow dog to leave her now to ride that down alone. Our job is to dig right in and take the gall from that kid’s heart. I rely on your support.”
She thrust him off, and for an instant her bitter soul
was out. “I won’t! If that girl doesn’t know the crime of this, I’ll tell her; and if she loves you, she’ll not let you ruin yourself and—and damn your children for the sake of your quixotic chivalry!”
The slow smile died, leaving a sullen ruggedness that startlingly belied his boyish features. She knew that look —it was his father’s— dogged to the last ditch. She could not bend him.
“Mother,” he said, with that vast stillness that (an dwell in some men’s voices: “you and Bess are the best things life has brought me. But if you do that, you’re not the mother I’ve learned to think you, and I’ll not forgive you—ever!”
He spoke the last word with a momentary flash of passion, and she saw her failure, sobbed once from her heart’s roots, and fled.
CO BESS married Chauncey, and, as they left the ^ church between the rows of whispering gossips, their heads were high but their eyes, in faces drawn and pale, were too bright, from the last month’s tension.
And Mrs. Hannaford mauled her handkerchief and swallowed impotently. A stranger who chanced to meet her eyes was startled at the smolder in them. Yet she managed to smile her best as she followed to the cars.
The marriage was an unqualified success. The great wealth and unassailable social prestige of the Hannafords, and Chauncey’s studied challenges to all who harked, by word or deed or inference, to any stain on that which was now his own honor, so combined to discipline the powers of malice that in a year or so Bess felt the past was dead, the future golden.
Mrs. Hannaford was very sweet to her, though a smaller spirit than Bess’s would have resented the proprietorial air she had with Chauncey, and have wished for less of her society. Also, Bess was not deceived. With the sure woman’s instinct she recognized an enemy.
Then one day the Millers came over for bridge. Mrs. Hannaford was there, too. She did not like long sessions, and would cut in for a rubber now and then.
Chauncey had lately picked up a remarkably preserved Colonial davenport—he was an ardent collector of early American furniture—and that evening at bridge he sat on it.
Mrs. Hannaford was playing. Curled up beside Chauncey, Bess watched the game. He was dummy, and leaning to inspect his mother’s cards he idly thrust his hand between the bulges of the upholstery.
“Hullo!” he ejaculated, surprised, feeling with his fingers in the space he had discovered. Then he withdrew his hand and laid on the table a lady’s gold mesh bag of quaint old make.
Bess’s face lit up. “What a lovely old bag! But why wait till the middle of a rubber to produce it?”
Surprised at their host’s bad form in thus breaking into the game, the rest laid down their cards.
“But I found it in the crack of the couch— here. I put my hand in—Lord knows why
Nora Miller’s black eyes danced. “Not really?”
At once Bess was all excitement. “Open it! Open it!” she urged, crowding closer to him.
He fiddled a moment with the clasp, then slowly shook the yellow bag above the table.
A stream of jewels poured out: fingerrings, brooches, earrings, stick pins, cufflinks, fobs, dress studs, all in the quaint fashions of a bygone age. They lay in a many-colored, shimmering heap upon the green cloth.
For a moment no one spoke, all staring wide-eyed at the treasure.
Then Chauncey breathed, “Wow! Shades of Sinbad . .
Miller said, “Are they real?”
He chose a massive diamond ring, dropped it and took a pearl cravat pin. “I’m no expert, but I’ll bet my shirt they are.
Lawdy, what a find!” he said, with awe.
“Oh, the lovely things!” Bess burst out, leaning eagerly. Her yellow head and Chauncey’s sleek dark one were very close as, laughing delightedly, she loaded her fingers till they could hold no more. Then she spread her hands over the table, twinkling the gems.
Miller, always practical, said, “Nice point of morals, Chan—ownership, I mean. What are they worth?” “Couldn’t guess. If they’re real, though, fifty thousand wouldn’t buy ’em, I’m sure. But, whoever owns ’em, I don’t; though neither does the dealer I bought it from.” “Of course they’re yours,” Mrs. Hannaford broke in with some heat. “They’re legitimate treasure-trove. Anyone might have got them.”
“We-el, that’s all right as far as it goes. But I’ll bet I can find the original owners. This davenport hasn’t changed hands often—look at the condition of it—and it’s a dollar to a doughnut they can tell us all about these things before they see ’em.”
She grudgingly acquiesced. “If you can, of course
“We’ll see. I’m sure I’ll run it down, and there’ll be rejoicing in the home of some dead-broke American aristocrats. They wouldn’t sell such stuff as this if they weren’t broke.” He passed his hand lovingly over the mellow scroll work.
Bess had been eagerly turning over the jewels, slipping on first one ring and then another, moving her hand in the light to make them glitter. Now she donned a sapphire earring.
“Look, Chauncey,” she crowed, holding back her curls and cocking a rosy ear delightedly. “The lovely, lovely thing!”
He took her hand upon the table, squeezing it.
“I thought you disliked earrings. If you admire these so, I’ll buy you some exactly like ’em.”
“Oh, no. It isn’t that. It’s the way you found them, and the beautiful old settings. Think of all the wonderful things they must have seen, way back in the beginnings of America!” She slipped a great pearl solitaire upon her forefinger and brushed the glowing orb across the lips he loved. “Ohhhhh! I love them,” she crooned.
They regarded her with affectionate amusement. Her naivete, that elemental innocence she could not conceal, was a never-ending joy to them.
Now the butler appeared. Chauncey covered the heap with his hands, so that he should not see.
“Shall I bring coffee, madam?” asked the man.
“Please,” Bess replied.
When he had gone, Chauncey said, “I don’t want this to get about. It might complicate matters. We’ll keep it dark, we five, and I’ll see quietly what I can discover. Let’s get them out of sight till we’ve had our snack.”
Bess pursed her lips with a pretty air,of petulance, clasping the hand with the great pearl into her bosom, as he dropped the shimmering clusters into the bag. Then he held it to her, and, with assumed reluctance, she slowly drew the ring off and dropped it in.
As the butler reappeared, Chauncey laid his find on the seat beside him and threw a cushion over it.
They all rose as the man arranged the tray on a low Yarkand table by the fire.
Strangely excited, Bess was seized with a desire for music and, dancing on tip-toes to the alcove with the gramophone, hunted energetically for the ‘Jewel Song’ from Faust. Poised like a bird for flight, she listened till the song began to soar to its ecstatic climax, when she raised her arms and danced, trying to catch Chauncey’s eye. At last she succeeded, and, as he came, she swooped to meet him, brushing his lips with hers. Her eyes shone,
bringing the glow she worshipped into his in answer. Then she darted to stop the machine.
As she did so, in the Empire mirror on the wall above it she saw her mother-in-law alone by the card table, and stiffened as if petrified. The hair crawled on her nape, and a clutch of clammy fear closed on her heart, as though some foul thing neared.
Mrs. Hannaford’s mouth was set in a tortured line with a queer animal snarl in it. Her eyes were round and glaring eerily. Once Bess’s charitable work had taken her to an asylum. The horror of the faces there had haunted her for months. Now they came back.
As she watched, the woman glanced over her shoulder furtively. Chauncey and the Millers were by the fire now, Bess was hidden in the alcove—then she made a snakelike movement,incredibly swift, and the glare in her old withered face gave place to maniacal glee.
Bess’s universe whirled, and as if from far away she heard her husband say, “Come along. This stuff’s getting cold.”
She thought she must be dreaming, and went toward the fire, feeling in hér breast for her handkerchief. It was hot there. Remembering it was on the Davenport she turned to get it, reaching the fireside with her mind a whirling chaos she strove in vain to make coherent. What is this? What is it? I must understand. I must think. Think. Think! Over and over again she reiterated it. But she could not think. She only saw that lace; its mad unhallowed joy.
Mrs. Hannaford sat opposite her, talking earnestly in her patrician, slightly condescending manner to Miller about the evening’s romantic happening. No shadow of that other face was on her.
Chauncey said: “Won’t you serve coffee, dear? Why,” as Bess shook herself to prove that she was dreaming, “are you cold?” Then, seeing how the joy had left her face: “Here, you’re ill. What is it, darling?”
She jerked herself to attention. “Cold,” she said. “Yes, cold. But I’m all right.” She reached for the coffee pot.
But he was instantly beside her. “Why didn’t you say you were cold? Sit by me here. Mother, you’ll see to the coffee, won’t you? Come, dear.”
He led her to the low stool where she so often sat, close to the fire, her head upon his knee. She suffered him and sank down gratefully, leaning back and closing her eyes, glad of the chance to try and compose herself.
“Extraordinary thing,” Miller said, nodding to the
davenport. “What a chance for an author! How and when did they get there? Why were they never retrieved? What do the owners think became of them? Gad, Chan,” he broke off; “I wonder if there’s a crest on those fobs. That would be a sure clue to the owners.”
His host looked up from contemplating Bess’s golden mop beside his knee. “Bright boy, Pete. That’s a good idea.” He bent above her. “You all right, darling?”
“Fine, thanks,” she smiled wanly.
“Excuse me a moment, won’t you? We’ll take a look at those seals.”
Bess’s heart turned over.
In the mirror she had seen Mrs. Hannaford take the bag and drop it into the bosom of her dress.
He went across and picked up the cushion. “Hullo!” he ejaculated: “who’s the joker? Come on. Dig it up!”
Suddenly Bess felt foolish. Of course. That was it. Mrs. Hannaford had taken it for fun. She would laugh and give it back.
The others turned inquiringly to Chauncey. “Come on,” he said again, with a grin.
Mrs. Hannaford’s voice conveyed a mild surprise. “Isn’t it there, dear?”
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“No—and I didn’t move it.”
“Nor I,” said the Millers together.
Bess’s relief dissolved in consternation, but she controlled it. She’ll give it back in a minute, she told herself. But in hef heart she knew she would not. Tliat look some cold voice whispered. What was that crazy light that shone?—and her heart sank.
She was sick with apprehension. What .could she do? Accuse Chauncey’s mother, the mother he adored? She would deny it, of course. Then it could not be proved without a search. Searching Mrs. Hannaford. Preposterous! Unthinkable!
Again her mind whirled, as Chauncey bantered, “Come along. Out with it. Who couldn’t resist those jewels? Bess, you little devil, you hid it.”
“No. No, no!” She shook her head, barely concealing her distress, watching Mrs. Hannaford’s face and seeing there the merest faintest wraith of what the mirror had revealed.
“Oh, come on, someone. If there was any joke, it’s over now!”
No one replied. But his mother’s eyes went stealthily to his. They were pregnant with meaning, with malign intent. They spoke, as eyes may sometimes, and with a cold rush to his heart he read, and followed them to his wife’s face.
By now she was beside herself with apprehension. Their eyes met, and her distress was very plain. In that agonizing instant he remembered certain things. Her passionate glee over the jewels. Her reluctance to have them put away. He’d seen her go to take her handkerchief from beside the cushion. Her father. Her mother . . .
Mrs. Hannaford caught his eye again. Her face spoke volumes, and a hideous conviction sank into his heart. Kleptomania . . . heredity ... the hateful words sprang out in blood-red letters on the face he worshipped.
Chauncey steadied himself after the sickening impact. But he paled; and the light went from his eyes. For an instant horror had him. But for an instant only. Followed a hot surge of pity, tenderness . . . His Bess, his darling, to be so accursed. His soul reached out to her, and he stood a moment, calling savagely on all his being for the means to aid her.
By now the tension had communicated itself to the Millers, whose eyes slipped wonderingly from him to Bess and back again. Her brain whirled dizzily, a clacking mill of jumbled thoughts she could not grasp. Won’t she give them back? Won’t she? Shall I tell? Will they believe? Why did she? Won’t she give them back? What was that crazy glare, that loathsome glee? I’ll tell . but they’d have to search her to prove it. What shall I do? Help me, someone! Drunkenly the words reeled through her consciousness. Her misery was pitifully obvious. The others watched her now with dawning suspicion.
The Millers felt embarrassed. Mrs. Hannaford waited drawn up, with haughty mien, eyeing her coldly.
Chauncey stood braced, his legs apart, that dogged, mulish look upon his face, gazing down on Bess. Her very naivete was her undoing, but even as he watched, the piteousness upon her, the tenderness, welled through his hurt.
He turned away. “Well, they must be somewhere.”
He strode back to the Davenport, but stopped halfway and clapped his hand to his hip-pocket. Good Lord!" he exclaimed, “I must be more excited than Bess. I put ’em in my pocket when I got up; and clean forgot the fact. I’m a chump. “Ha! Ha!” he laughed. But there was no mirth, no youth in it.
Miller wheeled upon him. “You dumbell! Let's see those fobs!”
Continued on page 66
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Bess watched in incredulous amazement as Chauncey’s hand went to his hip. Feeling in his pocket he walked to the card table, but just as he seemed about to produce the bag his eyes fell on the clock. He pointed.
“Gee! Look at the time. I’d no idea . . . and I want to finish that rubber —set my heart on breaking my unlucky run to-night. Come on,” enthusiastically —“we’ll leave these things for now.”
“But just let’s see if there’s a crest.” “You’re afraid I’ll get the rubber! Come on!”
Miller eyed him sharply. “Oh, all right. But I’d sure like to see those fobs.” “To-morrow, Pete.”
He bustled to the table and made a pack. “Ready, Nora?”
Miller succumbed, dubiously.
Mrs. Hannaford watched with wellconcealed amazement, baffled, nonplussed, while Bess strove to grasp this new development.
Why had he done that? Had he really got the bag? No. His mother had had no chance to take it from its hiding place. He had seized this means of relieving the • innocent of embarrassment.
Suddenly he was beside her, where she had risen. His arm slid round her shoulders. “Won’t you sit down and . . . rest, dear?” His voice was very low. It trembled. “We’ll soon finish the rubber.” She let him push her down. As he leaned over her his eyes found hers, sounding, sounding, them. In his she saw unfathomable grief, and like the crack of doom the truth broke over her.
He was shielding her! He thought she had the filthy jewels!
Now he was back at the card table. Voices shrieked at her. He thinks you have them, that you’re like your mother, your father. Then she remembered the look she’d seen pass between him and his mother, and knew the whole grim truth.
Her distress turned to rage. She’d made him think it—that old she-Satan! She’d always known she hated her. Her blood surged. Horror . . . Hate . Fury!. . . She’d show them. She’d scream her accusation and tear the bag from that old loathsome breast!
Through her rage, she heard Mrs. Hannaford say, “Chauncey, I’m tired. Do youmindif we don’t have the rubber?” Her heart pounded. Now! She must speak—this minute—or her chance would be forever lost. She made to rise, but a singing dark engulfed her . . .
Overjoyed at this premature relief, Chauncey answered, “Why surely, mother. I’ll get your car at once. Bess is tired, too;” he paused significantly.
Nora Miller took her cue. “May as well have ours, too, then.”
VY^HEN the light returned to Bess, they were gone. Chauncey knelt beside her, chafing her hands and calling on her, his love, his darling, to come back to him.
She reached a weak hand to him. He seized it passionately, kissing it.
“Dear . . . dear . . . Are you better?”
“I’m all right, Chauncey.”
He knelt upright and drew her into his embrace. Close, close, he held her. She clung to him as the only solid thing in a reeling universe.
“Bess . . he whispered it.
“Yes . . . Chauncey.”
“Listen to me.”
He thrust his hand beneath her chin and raised her face. “I . . . worship you. There’s nothing in Heaven, or earth, or Hell could make you less adored to me . . . It’s you, you, YOU, as you are to me, I love.”
“Bess! Bess . . . Let me in! Please . . . let me help you . —
For a little time she did not grasp the infinite meaning of his low-voiced declaration. Then to her came a mighty whisper, like the very breath of God. A rush of warmth, exquisite, flooded all her being ... a heavenly ecstasy. She was loved, with love beyond belief; for herself, alone. No shame so black, no hurt so bitter it could make him falter. He believed her guilty, but he did not care . . . except to help her.
But horror followed. He thought her a kleptomaniac, a thief. She, who was innocent of even the will to steal. She would tell the truth, cleanse her honor in his sight. That hateful thing the mirror held had accused her. She’d tell him that his mother was . . . was . . . Then her heart sank. His mother whom he adored. To tell him that she stole, was mad, had tried deliberately to fix the guilt on her? To wring his heart with such undreamed of anguish? No—No! She could not hurt him so. He loved her most, in spite of his belief . . . worshipped her, was begging to be allowed to help her.
Watching the changing shades upon her face, he waited. But he grew impatient, and shook her gently.
“Bess. Speak to me. Let me . . . help ...”
Then the far gods in their mercy gave her clarity. For the first time since the revelation in the mirror she could think, and saw the way. Mrs. Hannaford was old; old and ailing. Soon she must die
She thrust him gently off, and sought his eyes. “Chauncey, nothing—nothing could come between us? You’d do anything for me—to prove it? Nothing could change ...”
That doggedness showed through again. “Nothing, I swear. You’re you to me . . . that’s all I want.”
She hid her face upon his shoulder, “Dear—”
“Do—this—for me. Forget to-night, as though it had never been. If such a thing should come again I’d kill myself”—and she spoke sober truth—“Please . . . please . . . forget.”
His soul shone through his eyes, their gaze at distance. “Of course. We’ll take them back, and ...”
She beat upon his breast, “No! No! Not that ... I said forget it . . . everything!”
“But darling ...”
She laid her hand upon his lips, knowing he thought of the jewels’ rightful owners. They might be poor. There was wealth . . . But for his youth’s sake . . . They had been lost for decades. Let them remain so. She threw her last stake into her plea.
“You said, ‘nothing in Heaven, earth, or Hell . . .’ Proveit.”
For a split second he hesitated. Then he swept her fiercely into his arms. “Nothing ... in hell!” he ground out. “All’s well forgot . . . for you.”
“Promise! To-night is dead. Wiped out ...”
. . I . . . promise.”
She collapsed into his arms and sobbed out her anguish.
Y"'HAUNCEY and his wife are happy.
His mother has ceased her endless machinations for the major influence in her son’s scheme of things. The spirit of malignity seems to have left her, and she is content to take what share she may of his companionship.
There is a curious impartiality in her daughter-in-law’s manner toward her, as though there lived between them always a barrier through which they see and speak, but cannot touch, however either one might will to do so.
But sometimes in the night, sleep will not come to Bess, and after the way of
women, her mind drifts always, then, to that which is nearest to her heart of hearts.
Where is the hoard of ancient jewels? Were they stolen for the lust of sheer possession, and does that old and broken woman drag them from some secret place and gloat upon their liquid shimmer? Or did she take them solely in the hope that she could thus destroy the tie that bound the son she worshipped to another woman, and has she hidden them now in abject terror of discovery?
Bess embarks upon the mental flight in a feeling of complete detachment. It seems unreal and very far from her.
When his mother dies shall she tell Chauncey what she knows? And would he believe? And could she ever find the evidence? What does Chauncey think became of them? Does he wonder . . . ?
Then always, just as horrible, just as shamefully scorching as when it first flashed upon her consciousness, the truth comes to her. He thinks you stole them; that you could not resist some atavistic prompting to acquire them. He does not dream of any other explanation.
And then her heart pounds, the blood throbs in her head and the sweat breaks out upon her. She starts up on her elbow to rush to Chauncey’s room and break the truth to him, to clear her name before his sight . . . But always another thought pursues the first. It does not count to Chauncey. He loves her so that in all life there is no task so weary, no pain so gnawing, no shame so bitter that could destroy it.
And always her Gethsemane is crowned anew by that transcendent certainty.
For such a benison she can keep his mother’s shameful secret, and fend from him the bitterness that the truth would bring.
It is the gauge of their enduring faith in life and in each other.
And for the future ... no ill can spring from such high purpose, come what may.
So at the last her form relaxes, and she smiles and sleeps content.