Read CHAPTER IX of Apron-Strings , free online book, by Eleanor Gates, on ReadCentral.com.

With a sigh of relief, Mrs. Milo rose, adjusted her bonnet, and, to make sure that her appearance justified her going out upon the street, took up from the table that same hand-mirror which she had thrust before Clare’s face.  “So she’s gone,” she observed.  She turned her head from side to side, delicately touching hair and bonnet, and the lace at her throat.  “Well, it’s for the best, I’ve no doubt.-And now we can go home.”

Sue did not move.  She had come back from her quick survey of the rear yard to stand at the center of the front room-to stand very straight, her head up, her eyes wide and fixed on space, her face strangely white and stern.

“Susan?” Mrs. Milo took out and replaced a hairpin.

Sue Stirred.  “Do you mean to his home?” she asked slowly.

“I mean to the Rectory.”  The glass was laid back upon the table.

“After what you’ve said?”

“What I said was true.”

“Ah!-You believe in speaking-the truth?”

“What a question, my daughter!”-fondly.

“Even when the truth is bitter-and hard!” She trembled, and drew in her breath at the remembrance of that scathing arraignment.

“Shall we start?”

“But he has asked you not to return.  And it’s you who have sent her away.  And the little one is coming.  You can’t go to the Rectory.”

“Oh, indeed?” queried Mrs. Milo, sarcastically.  “And are you going?”

Sue waited a moment.  Then, “My work is there.”

Mrs. Milo started.  “Now let me tell you something!” she cried, throwing up her head.  “You’ve disobeyed me once today -”

Sue smiled.  “Disobeyed!” she repeated.

“-If you disobey me again-if you go back to the Rectory without me -”

“I shall certainly go back.”

“-You shan’t have one penny of your father’s life insurance!  Not one!  I’ll leave every cent of it to Wallace!”

Again Sue smiled.  “Ah, you’re independent of me, aren’t you?”

“Quite-thank Providence!”

“No.  Thank me.  All these years you’ve had that insurance money out earning interest.  You haven’t had to use any of it, or even any of its earnings -”

“It has grown, I’m happy to say.”

“Until you have plenty.  Meanwhile, I’ve paid all of your expenses, and educated my brother.  Now-you can dispense with-your meal-ticket.”

Meal-ticket!” It was not the implied charge, but the slang, that shocked.

“Yes, meal-ticket.”

“So you throw it up!  You’ve been supporting me!  And helping Wallace!”

“I’ve been glad to.  Every hour at my machine has been a happy one.  I’ve never begrudged what I’ve done.”

“Well, anyhow, I shan’t need to take any more support from you, nor will my son.”

Sue laughed grimly.  “I don’t know about that, mother.  I’m afraid he’s going to miss his chance to marry a rich girl.  And he’s never been very successful in making his own way.”

Mrs. Milo would not be diverted from the main issue.  “I repeat, Susan:  You disobey me, as you’ve threatened to, and I’m done with you.  Understand that.  You’ll go your way, and I will go mine.”

Sue nodded.  She understood.  Her mother had announced her ultimatum to Farvel, and he had accepted it.  Mrs. Milo could not return to the Rectory.  But if Sue continued her work there, it meant that she would enjoy a happy companionship with the clergyman-a companionship unhindered by the presence of the elder woman.  Such a state of affairs might even end in marriage.  And now Sue knew it was marriage that her mother feared.

“Very well, mother.”

“Ah, you like the separation plan!”

“We’re as wide apart in our ideas as the poles.”

“I have certainly been very much mistaken in you.  Though I thought I knew my own daughter!  But-you belong with the Farvels, and it’s a pity she has run away.  Perhaps she’ll turn up later on.”  She spoke quietly, but she was livid with anger.  “I shall not be there to interfere with your friendship.  I am going to the hotel now.  You can direct my poor boy to me, if it isn’t too much trouble.”

“So you are going.”  Then smiling wistfully, “But who will fuss over you when you’re not sick?  And coax you out of your nerves?  And wait on you like a lady’s maid?  And how will you be able to keep an eye on me, mother?  ‘Who’s telephoning you, Susan?’ And ’Who’s your letter from, darling?’” Then with sarcasm, “Oh, hen-pecked Susan, is it possible that you’ll be able to go to Church without a chaperone?  That you can go down town without having to report home at half-hour intervals?”

“Well!  Well!  Well!” marveled Mrs. Milo.  She walked to the window before retorting further.  Then, with a return to the old methods of playing for sympathy, “And here I’ve thought that you were contented and happy with me!  But-it seems that your mother isn’t enough.”

The attempt failed.  “Was your mother enough?” demanded Sue.

Mrs. Milo came strolling back.  Was it possible that tactics invariably efficacious in the past would utterly fail her today?  She made a second attempt.  “But-but do you realize,” she faltered, with what seemed deep feeling; “-your father died when Wallace was so little.  If you hadn’t helped me, how would I have gotten on?  If you’d married -”

“Couldn’t I have helped you?”

“But I had Wallace so late.  And I’d have been alone.  What would I have done without my daughter?”

Sue was regarding her steadily.  “What did your mother do without you?  And when you die, where shall I be?-Alone!  Ah, you’ve seen the pathos of your own situation!-But how about mine?” For a second time in a single day, this was a changed Sue, unaccountably clear-visioned, and plain of speech.

“Dear me!” cried her mother, mockingly.  “Our eyes are open all of a sudden!”

“Yes,-my eyes are open.”

“Why not open your mouth?”

“Thank you for the suggestion.  I shall.  For twenty-five years, my eyes have been shut.  I’ve always said, ’My mother is sweet, and pious, and kind.  She’s one of that lovely type that’s passing.’ (Thank Heaven, the type is passing!) If now and then you were a little severe with me-oh, I’ve noticed it because people have sometimes interfered, as Hattie did this morning-I’ve never minded at all.  I’ve said, ‘Whatever I am, I owe to my mother.  And what she does is right.’  Anything you said or did to me never made any difference in the wonderful feeling I had about you-the feeling of love and belief.  All this time I’ve never once thought of rebelling.  But what you said and did to another-to her, a girl who needs kindness and sympathy, who’s never done you an intentional wrong !  Oh, you’re not really gentle and charitable!  You’re cruel, mother!”

“I am just.”

“The right kind of a woman today gives other women a chance for their lives-their happiness.  That is real piety.  She makes allowances.  She’s slow to condemn.”

“You don’t have to tell me that loose standards prevail.”

Sue did not seem to hear.  “All these years you’ve talked to me about the home-the home with a capital H. Your home-which you’d ’kept together’-the American home-wave the flag!  And I’ve always believed that you meant what you said.  But today I understand your real attitude.  First, because you weren’t willing to give that poor cornered girl a chance at one.  You intruded into her room and deliberately drove her away.”

“She ran away once from a good home with a good man.”  She paid Farvel the compliment unconsciously-and unintentionally.

“Then consider my case,”-it was as if Sue were speaking to herself.  “Why haven’t you given me a chance?  For all these years, if a man looked cross-eyed at me, was he ever asked to call on us?”

“Such nonsense!”

“If he did, somehow or other there was trouble.  You would cry, and say I didn’t love you-or you pretended to find something wrong with him, and he didn’t come again.  And once-once I remember that you claimed that you were ill-though I think I guessed that you weren’t-and away we went for a change of air.  Oh, peace at any price!”

Mrs. Milo grew scarlet.  “Ha!” she scoffed.  “So I’m to blame for your not being married!  I’ve stood in your way!”

“Just think how you’ve acted today-the way you acted over this dress-you can’t bear to see me look well?  Why?-Yes, you’ve stood in my way from the very first.”

“I deny it! You’d better look in the mirror.”  She picked it up and held it out to Sue.  “You know, you’re not a sweet young thing.”

Sue took the glass, and held it before her, gazing sadly at her reflection.  “No,” she answered.  “But I can remember when I was sweet-and young.”  She laid the mirror down.

Mrs. Milo felt the necessity of toning her remarks.  She spoke now with no rancor-but firmly.  “Your lack of judgment was excusable then,” she declared.  “But now-this interest in any and every child-in Farvel, a man younger than yourself-it’s silly, Sue.  It’s disgusting-in an old maid.”

“Any and every child,” repeated Sue.  “Oh, selfish!  Selfish!  Selfish!”

“No one can accuse me of that!  I’ve been trying to save you from making yourself ridiculous.”

“To save me!  Why, mother, you can’t bear to see me give one hour to those poor, deserted orphans.  If I go over to see them, you go along.  And how many friends have I?  Every thought I have must be for you! you! you!”

“I have exacted the attention that a mother should have.”

“And no more?  But what about Wallace?  Have you exacted the attention from him that you should have?  Does he owe you nothing?  Why shouldn’t he spend what he earns in caring for his mother, instead of spending every penny as he pleases?  Is there one set of rules for daughters, and another for sons?  Why haven’t you tied him up?  Are you sure he’s capable, when he reaches Peru, of supporting a wife?  Or will he simply draw on Mr. Balcome-the way he’s lived on me.”

“You ought to be ashamed to speak of your brother in such a way!”

“How much more ashamed he ought to be to think that he’s deserving of such criticism.”

“I can’t think what has come over you!”

“It’s what you said a moment ago:  My eyes are opened.  At eighteen years of age, you planned your future for yourself.  But you needed me-so you claimed me, body and soul!  And you’ve let me give you my whole girlhood-my young womanhood.  You’ve kept me single-and very busy.  And now,-I’m an old maid!”

The blue eyes glinted with satisfaction.  “Well, you are an old maid.”

“An old maid!  In other words, my purity’s a joke!”

“Now, we’re getting vulgar.”

“Vulgar?  Have you forgotten what you said to Laura Farvel?  You taunted her because she’s not ‘good’ as you call it.  And you taunt me because I am!  But who is farther in the scheme of things-she or I?  I envy her because she’s borne a child.  At least she’s a woman.  Nature means us to marry and have our little ones.  The women who don’t obey-what happens to them?  The years go”-she looked away now, beyond the walls of Tottie’s front-parlor, at a picture her imagining called up-“the light fades from their eyes, the gloss from their hair; they get ‘peculiar.’  And people laugh at them-and I don’t wonder!” Then passionately, “Look at me!  Mature!  Unmarried!  Childless!  Where in Nature do I belong?  Nowhere!  I’m a freak!”

“No, my dear.”  Mrs. Milo smiled derisively.  “You’re a martyr.”

“Yes!  To my mother.”

“Don’t forget”-the well-bred voice grew shrill-“that I am your mother.”

“You gave me birth.  But-reproduction isn’t motherhood.”

“Ah!”-mockingly.  “So I haven’t loved you!”

“Oh, you’ve loved me,” granted Sue.  “You’ve loved me too much-in the wrong way.  It’s a mistaken love that makes a mother stand between her daughter and happiness.”

“I deny -”

“Wait!-I got the proof today!  I repeat-you forgot everything you’ve ever stood for at the mere thought that happiness was threatening to come my way.”

Mrs. Milo’s eyes widened with apprehension.  Involuntarily she glanced at the hand which Farvel had lifted to kiss.

“I ought to have known that my first duty was to myself,” Sue went on bitterly; “-to my children.  But-I put away my dreams.  And now!  My eyes are open too late!  I’ve found out my mistake-too late!  No son-no daughter-’Momsey,’ but never ‘Mother.’  And, oh, how my heart has craved it all-a home of my own, and someone to care for me.  And my arms have ached for a baby!”

“Ha!  Ha!”-Mrs. Milo found it all so ridiculous.  “A baby!  Well,-why don’t you have one?”

For a long moment, Sue looked at her mother without speaking.  “Oh, I know why you laugh,” she said, finally.  “I’m-I’m forty-five.  But-after today, I’m going to do some laughing!  I’m going to do what I please, and go where I please!  I’m free!  I’m free at last!” She cried it up to the chandelier.  “From today, I’m free!  This is the Emancipation Proclamation!  This is the Declaration of Independence!”

Mrs. Milo moved away, smiling.  At the door she turned.  “What can you do?” she asked, teasingly; “-at your age!”

Sue buttoned her coat over the bridesmaid’s dress.  “What can I do?” she repeated.  “Well, mother dear, just watch me!”