Mrs. Balfame: A NovelGertrude Franklin Horn Atherton / Mystery & Detective
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New YorkFrederick A. Stokes CompanyPublishers
Copyright, 1916, byGertrude Atherton
All rights reserved, including that of translation intoforeign languages
_And woman, yea, woman, shall be terrible in story; The tales too, meseemeth, shall be other than of yore. For a fear there is that cometh out of woman and a glory, And the hard hating voices shall encompass her no more._ --_The Medea._
Mrs. Balfame had made up her mind to commit murder.
As she stared down at the rapt faces of the fifty-odd members of theFriday Club, upturned to the distinguished speaker from New York, whomshe, as President, had introduced in those few words she so well knewhow to choose, it occurred to her with a faint shock that this momentousresolution had been growing in her essentially refined and amiable mindfor months, possibly for years; for she was not an impetuous woman.
While smiling and applauding, patting her large strong hands, freshlygloved in virgin white, at precisely the right moment, as the sound andescharotic speaker laid down the Woman's Law, she permitted herself towonder if the idea had not burrowed in her subconscious mind--thatmental antiquity shop of which she had lately read so much, that shemight expound it to the progressive ladies of the Friday Club--for atleast half the twenty-two years of her married life.
It was only last night that awakening suddenly she had realised with nofurther skirmishes and retreats of conscience or principle how shehated the heavy mass of flesh sleeping heavily beside her.
For at least eight years, ever since their fortunes had improved and shehad found leisure for the novels and plays of authors well-read in life,she had longed for a room, a separate personal existence, of her own.She was no dreamer, but this exclusive and ladylike apartment often hadfloated before her mental vision, chastely papered and furnished in acold pale blue (she had an uneasy instinct that pink and lavender wereimmoral); and by day it should look like a boudoir. She was too wise tomake a verbal assault upon this or any foreign word, for she found thestage, her only guide, strangely casual or contradictory in these minordetails; but although her little world found no trouble in discoveringwhat Mrs. Balfame increasingly knew, what she did not know theysuspected so little that they never even discussed her limitations.Handicapped by circumstances early and late she might be, but she hadmanaged to insinuate the belief that she was the superior in all thingsof the women around her, their born and natural leader.
Mrs. Balfame had never given expression to this desire for a delitescentbedroom, being a woman who thought silently, spoke guardedly, and, bothpatient and philosophical, rarely permitted what she called herimagination to wander, or bitterness to enter her soul.
The Balfames were by no means well enough off, even now, to refurnishthe old bedrooms long since denuded by a too economical parent after hischildren had married and moved away, but a few mornings since she hadremarked casually that as the springs of the conjugal bed were saggingshe thought she should send it to the auction room and buy two singlebeds. Last night, lying there in the dark, she had clenched her handsand held her breath as she recalled David Balfame's purple flush, thedeliberate manner in which he had set down his thick coffee cup andscrubbed his bristling moustache, then rolled up the stained napkin andpushed it into the ring before replying.
His first vocative expressed all, but he was a politician and used toelaborating his mental processes for the benefit of befuddledintellects. You'll have them springs mended, he informed his wife, whowas smiling brilliantly and sweetly across the debris of ham and eggs,salt mackerel, coffee and hot breads--that is, if they need it, which Ihaven't noticed, and I'm some heavier than you. But you'll introduce nomore of your damned new-fangled notions into this house. It was goodenough for my parents, and it's good enough for us. We lived for fifteenyears without art lampshades that hurt my eyes, and rugs that trip meup; and these last eight or nine years, since you've been runnin' a clubwhen you ain't runnin' to New York, I've had too many cold suppers tosuit me; I've paid bills for 'teas' to that Club and I've put out moneyfor fine clothes for you that I could spend a long sight better atelection time. But I've stood all that, for I guess I'm as good ahusband as any in God's own country; I like to see you well dressed, foryou're still a looker--and it's good business, anyhow; and I've nevergrudged you a hired girl. But there's a limit to every man's patience. Idraw the line at two beds. That's all there is to it.
He had made a part of his speech standing, that being his accustomedposition when laying down the law, and he now left the room with theheavy country slouch his wife had never been able to reform. He had noauthority in walk or bearing, being a man more obstinate than strong,more cunning than firm.
She was thankful that he did not bestow upon her the usual marital kiss;the smell of coffee on his moustache had sickened her faintly ever sinceshe had ceased to love him.
Or begun to hate him? She had wondered, as she lay there inhaling deeplyto draw the blood from her head, if she ever had loved him. When a manand a maid are young! He had been a tall slim youth, with red cheeks andbright eyes, the catch of the village; his habits were commendable andhe would inherit his father's store, his only brother having died a yearearlier and his sisters married and moved West. She was pretty,empty-headed, as ill-educated as all girls of her class, but she kepther father's house neatly, she was noted even at sixteen for her pies,and at twenty for the dexterity and taste with which she made her ownclothes out of practically nothing. She was by no means the ordinaryfool of her age class and nation. But although she was incapable ofpassion, she had a thin sentimental streak, a youthful desire for aromance, and a cold dislike for an impending stepmother.
David Balfame wooed her over the front gate and won her in the orchard;and the year was in its springtime. It was all as natural and inevitableas the measles and whooping-cough through which she nursed him duringthe first year of their marriage.
She had been happy with the happiness of youth ignorance and busy hands;although there had been the common trials and quarrels, they had beenquickly forgotten, for she was a woman of a serene and philosophicaltemperament; moreover, no children came, for which she felt a sort ofcold negative gratitude. She liked children, and even attracted them,but she preferred that other women should bear and rear them.
But all that comparative happiness was before the dawning of ambitionand the heavier trials that preceded it.
A railroad expanded the sleepy village into a lively town of some threethousand inhabitants, and although that meant wider interests for Mrs.Balfame, and an occasional trip to New York, the more intimateconnection with a great city nearly wrecked her husband's business. Hisfather was dead and he had inherited the store which had supplied thevillage with general merchandise for a generation. But by the time therailroad came he had grown lazy and liked to sit on the sidewalk on finedays, or before the stove in winter, his chair tilted back, talkingpolitics with other gentlemen of comparative leisure. He was popular,for he had a bluff and hospitable manner; he was an authority onpolitics, and possessed an eloquent if ungrammatical tongue. For a time,as his business dwindled, he merely blasphemed, but just as he wasbeginning to feel really uneasy, a brother-in-law who had been the chumof his youth arrived from Montana and saved him from extinction and theold Balfame place from mortgage.
Mr. Cummack, the brother-in-law, turned out the loafers, put Dave intopolitics, and himself called personally upon every housewife in thecommunity, agreeing to keep the best of all she needed, but none ofthose articles which served as an excuse for a visit to New York ortempted her to delightful hours with the mail-order catalogue.
Mrs. Balfame detested this bustling common efficient brother-in-law,although at the end of two years, the twelfth of her married life, shewas keeping a maid-of-all-work and manicuring her nails. She treated himwith an unswerving sweetness, a natural quality which later developedinto the full flower of graciousness, and even gave him a temperatemeasure of gratitude. She was a just woman; and it was not long afterhis advent that she began to realise the ambition latent in her strongcharacter and to enter upon a well defined plan for social leadership.
She found it all astonishingly easy. Of course she never had met,probably never would meet, the really wealthy families that owned largeestates in the county and haughtily entertained one another when notentertaining equally exclusive New Yorkers. But Mrs. Balfame did notwaste time in envy of these people; there were old families in her ownand neighbouring villages, proud of their three or four generations onthe same farm, well-to-do but easy-going, democratic and, when not soold as to be moss-backs, hospitable to new notions. Many, indeed, hadbuilt new homes in the expanding village, which bade fair to embracechoice bits of the farms.
Mrs. Balfame always had dominated these life-long neighbours andassociates, and the gradual newcomers were quick to recognise her powerand her superior mind; to realise that not to know Mrs. Balfame was tobe a commuter and no more. Everything helped her. Even the substantialhouse, inherited from her father-in-law, and still surrounded by fouracres of land, stood at the head of the original street of the village,a long wide street so thickly planted with maples as old as the farmsthat from spring until Christmas the soft leafy boughs interlacedoverhead. She had a subtle but iron will, and a quite commonplacepersonality disguised by the cold, sweet, stately and gracious manner somuch admired by women; and she was quite unhampered by the least of thatoriginality or waywardness which antagonises the orthodox. Moreover, shedressed her tall slender figure with unerring taste. Of course she wasobliged to wear her smart tailored suits for two years, but they alwayslooked new and were worn with an air that quite doubled their notinsignificant price. By women she was thought very beautiful, but men,for the most part, passed her by.
For eight years now, Mrs. Balfame had been the acknowledged leader ofElsinore. It was she who had founded the Friday Club, at first forgeneral cultivation of mind, of late to study the obsessing subject ofWoman. She cared not a straw for the privilege of voting; in fact, shethought it would be an extremely unladylike thing to do; but a leadermust always be at the head of the procession, while discriminatingbetwixt fad and fashion.
It was she who had established a connection with a respectable club inNew York; it was she who had inveigled the substantial well-dressed andradical personage on the rostrum beside her to come over and homiliseupon the subject of The European War _vs._ Woman.
The visitor had proved to her own satisfaction and that of the majorpart of her audience that the bomb which had precipitated the war hadbeen made in Germany. She was proceeding complacently, despite thehisses of several members with German forbears, and the President hadjust exchanged a glance of amusement with a moderate neutral, whobelieved that Russia's desire to thaw out her icy feet in warm water wasat the bottom of the mischief, when--spurred perhaps by a bitingallusion to the atrocities engaging the press at the moment--the idea ofmurder took definite form in that clear unvisionary brain so justlyadmired by the ladies of Elsinore.
Mrs. Balfame's pure profile, the purer for the still smooth contours andwhite skin of the face itself, the stately setting of the head, wasturned toward the audience below the platform, and one admiring youngmember, who attended an art class in New York, was sketching it as astudy in St. Cecelia's, when those six letters of fire rose smoking fromthe battle fields of Europe and took Mrs. Balfame's consciousness byassault: six dark and murky letters, but with no vagueness of outline.
The first faint shock of surprise over, as well as the few moments ofretrospect, she asked herself calmly: Why not? Over there men werebeing torn and shot to pieces by wholesale, joking across the trenchesin their intervals of rest, to kill again when the signal was given withas little compunction as she herself had often aimed at a target, orwrung the neck of a chicken that had fed from her hand. And these weremen, the makers of law, the self-elected rulers of the world.
Mrs. Balfame had respected men mightily in her youth. Even now, althoughshe both despised and hated her husband, she responded femininely to afine specimen of manhood with good manners and something to talk aboutsave politics and business. But these were few and infrequent in BrabantCounty. The only man she had met for years who interested her in theleast was Dwight Rush, also a scion of one of the old farm families.
Rush had been educated in the law at a northwestern university, butafter a few years of practice in Wisconsin had accepted an offer toenter the most respectable law firm in his native township. He had beenemployed several times by David Balfame, who had brought him homeinformally to supper perhaps once a fortnight during the last sixmonths. But, although Mrs. Balfame frankly enjoyed his society and hisevident admiration for a beauty she knew had little attraction for hissex, she had all a conventional woman's dislike for irregularities,however innocent; and she had snubbed Mr. Rush's desire to drop in ofan afternoon.
He barely flitted through her mind when she asked herself what did man'scivilisation amount to, anyway, and why should women respect it? And,compared with the stupendous slaughter in Europe, a slaughter that wouldseem to be one of the periodicities of the world, since it is thecomposite expression of the individual male's desire to fight somebodyjust so often--what, in comparison with such a monstrous crime, would bethe offence of making way with one obnoxious husband?
Something over two years ago--when liquor began to put a fiery edge uponMr. Balfame's temper--Mrs. Balfame had considered the question ofdivorce; but after several weeks of cool calculation and the exerciseof her foresight upon the inevitable social consequences, she had putthe idea definitely aside. It was incompatible with her plan of life.Only rich women, or women that were insignificant in great cities, orwho possessed conquering gifts, or who were so advanced as to beindifferent, could afford the luxury of divorce. Her world was theeastern division of Brabant County, and while it prided itself upon itsprogressiveness, and even--among the younger women--had a gay set, andalthough suppressed scandals slid about like slimy monsters in a marsh,its foundations were inherited from the old Puritan stock, and it fairlyreeked with ancient prejudices.
It was a typical middle-class community with traditions, some of itsblood too old, and made up of common human ingredients in varyingproportions. Mrs. Balfame, enlightened by much reading and manymatinees, applied the word _bourgeois_ to Elsinore with secret scorn,but with a sigh: conscious that all its prejudices were hers and thatnot for an instant could she continue to be its leader were she adivorced woman.
Mrs. Balfame indulged in no dreams of sudden wealth. Elsinore was herworld, and on the whole she was content, realising that life had notequipped her to lead the society of New York City. She liked to shop inFifth Avenue--long since had she politely forgotten the mobs ofSixth,--to occupy an orchestra chair with a friend at a matinee, andtake tea or chocolate at the fashionable retreats for such dissipationsbefore returning to provincial Elsinore. There was a tacit agreementbetween herself and her husband that he should dine with his politicalfriends in a certain restaurant behind a bar in Dobton, the county seat,on the Wednesday or Thursday evenings when she found it impossible toreturn to Elsinore before seven o'clock; an arrangement which hesecretly approved of but invariably entered a protest against by cominghome at two in the morning extremely drunk.
He never attended the theatre with her, his preference being forvaudeville or a screaming musical comedy, for both of whichabnormalities she had a profound contempt. She saw only the best playsherself, her choice being guided not so much by newspaper approval as bylength of run. It must be confessed that in the eight or nine years ofher comparative emancipation from the grinding duties of the home shehad learned a good deal of life from the plays she saw. On the whole,however, she preferred sound American drama, particularly when it dealtwith Society; for the advanced (or decadent?) pictures of life aspresented in the imported drama, she had only a mild contempt; her firstcuriosity satisfied, she thanked God that she was a plain American.
Such was Mrs. Balfame when she made up her mind to remove David Balfame,superfluous husband. She was quite content to reign in Elsinore, to liveout her life there, but as a dignified and irreproachable and well-to-dowidow. Divorce being out of the question, there was but one way to getrid of him: his years were but forty-four, and although he blew upwith increasing frequency, to use his own choice vernacular, he was ashealthy as an ox, and the town drunkard was rising eighty.
Mrs. Balfame's friend, Dr. Anna Steuer, was now replying to the ladyfrom New York. After reminding the Club that the President of the UnitedStates had requested his docile subjects to curb their passions andflaunt their neutrality, Dr. Steuer proceeded to demolish theanti-German attitude of the guests by reciting the long list ofindustrial, economic and scientific contributions to civilisation whichhad distinguished the German Empire since the federation of its states.
Dr. Steuer was of Dutch descent, and her gifts were not forensic, butthe key-note of her character was an intense and passionate loyalty. Shehad spent some of the most impressionable years of her life in theGerman clinics, and she cherished a romantic affection for a countrywhose natural and historic beauties no man will deny. She hadsteadfastly refused to read the other side, pinning her faith to allthat was best in the country of her youthful dreams. In consequence, herdiscourse, while informing, was somewhat beside the point; and had itnot been for the deep love borne her by almost every one present, therewould have been a polite but firm demand to give place.
Mrs. Balfame was smiling encouragement when her musings took a suddenand arbitrary twist. Being a person who never acted on impulse, herdecisions, after due processes of thought, were commonly irrevocable.The moment she had made up her mind to pass her husband on, she hadcommitted herself to the act; and, even before Dr. Anna Steuer hadclaimed her superficial attention, had already erected the question,How?
Mrs. Balfame was a woman who rarely bungled anything, and murder, shewell knew, was the last of all acts to bungle, did the perpetratordesire to enjoy the freedom of his act. Being refined to her marrow, sheshrank from all forms of brutality, and rarely, if ever, read thedetails of crime in the newspapers. The sight of blood disgusted her,although it did not turn her faint. She kept a pistol in her bedroom;burglars, particularly of late, had entered a large number of houses inBrabant County; but nothing would have horrified her more than to emptyits contents into the worst of criminals.
Mechanically she had run through the list of all the accepted forms ofremoving human impedimenta and rejected them, when Dr. Anna's scientificmind, playing along the surface of hers, shot in the arrow of suggestionthat she belonged naturally to the type of woman that poisoned if forcedto commit murder. It was bloodless, decent, and required no vulgarexpenditure of energy.
But healthy people, suddenly dead, were excavated and the quarrysubmitted to chemical tests; it was then--smiling brilliantly at herardent pro-German friend--that Mrs. Balfame recalled a rainy eveningsome two years since. She and Dr. Anna had sat over the fire in the oldSteuer cottage, and the doctor, who before the war never had beeninterested in anything but her friends, her science, and suffrage, haddiscoursed upon certain untraceable poisons, had even risen and takendown a vial from a secret cupboard above the mantel. During the sameconversation, which naturally drifted to crime, Dr. Anna had discoursedupon the idiocy of doctors who poisoned with morphia, strychnine, orprussic acid, when not only were these organic poisons known to allscientific members of the profession, but they could easily remove thebarrier to their complete happiness with cholera, smallpox, or typhusgerms, sealed within the noncommittal capsule.
Mrs. Balfame shuddered at the mere thought of any of these dreadfuldiseases, having no desire to witness human sufferings, or to run therisk of infection, but as she stared at Dr. Anna to-day, she made up hermind to procure that vial of furtive poison.
So sudden was this resolution and so grim its portent that it wasaccompanied by unusual physical phenomena: she brought her sound whiteteeth together and thrust out her strong chin; her eyes became fixed ina hard stare and the muscles of her face seemed to menace her soft whiteskin.
Alys Crumley, the young woman who had been sketching Mrs. Balfameinstead of listening to the discussion, caught her breath and droppedher pencil. For the moment the pretty, ultra-refined, elegant leader ofElsinore society looked not like St. Cecelia but like Medea. Alwaysdetermined, resolute, smilingly dominant, never before had she betrayedthe secret possibilities of her nature.
Miss Crumley cast a glance of startled apprehension about her, but thedebate was just finished, every one was commenting upon the splendidself-control of the high participants, and repeating the New Yorker'slast phrase: that not civilisation but man was a failure. A moment laterMrs. Balfame advanced to the edge of the platform, and, with herinimitable graciousness, invited the members of the Club to come forwardand meet the distinguished guest. Little Miss Alys Crumley, watchingher, listening to her pleasant shallow voice, her amused quiet laugh,came to the conclusion that the fearsome expression she had seen on hermodel's face had been a mere effect of light.