English Literature

Mrs. Balfame by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton

Mrs. Balfame by Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.jpg


Mrs. Balfame had made up her mind to commit murder.

As she stared down at the rapt faces of the fifty-odd members of the Friday Club, upturned to the distinguished speaker from New York, whom she, as President, had introduced in those few words she so well knew how to choose, it occurred to her with a faint shock that this momentous resolution had been growing in her essentially refined and amiable mind for months, possibly for years; for she was not an impetuous woman.

While smiling and applauding, patting her large strong hands, freshly gloved in virgin white, at precisely the right moment, as the sound and escharotic speaker laid down the Woman’s Law, she permitted herself to wonder if the idea had not burrowed in her subconscious mind—that mental antiquity shop of which she had lately read so much, that she might expound it to the progressive ladies of the Friday Club—for at least half the twenty-two years of her married life.

It was only last night that awakening suddenly she had realised with no further skirmishes and retreats of[Pg 2] conscience or principle how she hated the heavy mass of flesh sleeping heavily beside her.

For at least eight years, ever since their fortunes had improved and she had 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 had floated before her mental vision, chastely papered and furnished in a cold pale blue (she had an uneasy instinct that pink and lavender were immoral); and by day it should look like a boudoir. She was too wise to make a verbal assault upon this or any foreign word, for she found the stage, her only guide, strangely casual or contradictory in these minor details; but although her little world found no trouble in discovering what Mrs. Balfame increasingly knew, what she did not know they suspected so little that they never even discussed her limitations. Handicapped by circumstances early and late she might be, but she had managed to insinuate the belief that she was the superior in all things of the women around her, their born and natural leader.

Mrs. Balfame had never given expression to this desire for a delitescent bedroom, being a woman who thought silently, spoke guardedly, and, both patient and philosophical, rarely permitted what she called her imagination to wander, or bitterness to enter her soul.

The Balfames were by no means well enough off, even now, to refurnish the old bedrooms long since denuded by a too economical parent after his children had married and moved away, but a few mornings since she had remarked casually that as the springs of the conjugal bed were sagging she thought she should send it[Pg 3] to the auction room and buy two single beds. Last night, lying there in the dark, she had clenched her hands and held her breath as she recalled David Balfame’s purple flush, the deliberate manner in which he had set down his thick coffee cup and scrubbed his bristling moustache, then rolled up the stained napkin and pushed it into the ring before replying.

His first vocative expressed all, but he was a politician and used to elaborating his mental processes for the benefit of befuddled intellects. “You’ll have them springs mended,” he informed his wife, who was smiling brilliantly and sweetly across the debris of ham and eggs, salt mackerel, coffee and hot breads—”that is, if they need it, which I haven’t noticed, and I’m some heavier than you. But you’ll introduce no more of your damned new-fangled notions into this house. It was good enough for my parents, and it’s good enough for us. We lived for fifteen years without art lampshades that hurt my eyes, and rugs that trip me up; and these last eight or nine years, since you’ve been runnin’ a club when you ain’t runnin’ to New York, I’ve had too many cold suppers to suit me; I’ve paid bills for ‘teas’ to that Club and I’ve put out money for fine clothes for you that I could spend a long sight better at election time. But I’ve stood all that, for I guess I’m as good a husband as any in God’s own country; I like to see you well dressed, for you’re still a looker—and it’s good business, anyhow; and I’ve never grudged you a hired girl. But there’s a limit to every man’s patience. I draw the line at two beds. That’s all there is to it.”

He had made a part of his speech standing, that being his accustomed position when laying down the[Pg 4] law, and he now left the room with the heavy country slouch his wife had never been able to reform. He had no authority 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 since she had ceased to love him.

Or begun to hate him? She had wondered, as she lay there inhaling deeply to draw the blood from her head, if she ever had loved him. When a man and a maid are young! He had been a tall slim youth, with red cheeks and bright eyes, the “catch” of the village; his habits were commendable and he would inherit his father’s store, his only brother having died a year earlier and his sisters married and moved West. She was pretty, empty-headed, as ill-educated as all girls of her class, but she kept her 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 own clothes out of practically nothing. She was by no means the ordinary fool of her age class and nation. But although she was incapable of passion, she had a thin sentimental streak, a youthful desire for a romance, 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 inevitable as the measles and whooping-cough through which she nursed him during the first year of their marriage.

She had been happy with the happiness of youth ignorance and busy hands; although there had been the[Pg 5] common trials and quarrels, they had been quickly forgotten, for she was a woman of a serene and philosophical temperament; moreover, no children came, for which she felt a sort of cold 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 ambition and the heavier trials that preceded it.

A railroad expanded the sleepy village into a lively town of some three thousand inhabitants, and although that meant wider interests for Mrs. Balfame, and an occasional trip to New York, the more intimate connection with a great city nearly wrecked her husband’s business. His father was dead and he had inherited the store which had supplied the village with general merchandise for a generation. But by the time the railroad came he had grown lazy and liked to sit on the sidewalk on fine days, or before the stove in winter, his chair tilted back, talking politics with other gentlemen of comparative leisure. He was popular, for he had a bluff and hospitable manner; he was an authority on politics, and possessed an eloquent if ungrammatical tongue. For a time, as his business dwindled, he merely blasphemed, but just as he was beginning to feel really uneasy, a brother-in-law who had been the chum of his youth arrived from Montana and saved him from extinction and “the old Balfame place” from mortgage.

Mr. Cummack, the brother-in-law, turned out the loafers, put Dave into politics, and himself called personally upon every housewife in the community, agreeing to keep the best of all she needed, but none of those[Pg 6] articles which served as an excuse for a visit to New York or tempted 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, she was keeping a maid-of-all-work and manicuring her nails. She treated him with an unswerving sweetness, a natural quality which later developed into the full flower of graciousness, and even gave him a temperate measure of gratitude. She was a just woman; and it was not long after his advent that she began to realise the ambition latent in her strong character 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 large estates in the county and haughtily entertained one another when not entertaining equally exclusive New Yorkers. But Mrs. Balfame did not waste time in envy of these people; there were old families in her own and neighbouring villages, proud of their three or four generations on the same farm, well-to-do but easy-going, democratic and, when not so old as to be “moss-backs,” hospitable to new notions. Many, indeed, had built new homes in the expanding village, which bade fair to embrace choice bits of the farms.

Mrs. Balfame always had dominated these life-long neighbours and associates, and the gradual newcomers were quick to recognise her power and her superior mind; to realise that not to know Mrs. Balfame was to be a commuter and no more. Everything helped her. Even the substantial house, inherited from her[Pg 7] father-in-law, and still surrounded by four acres 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 farms that from spring until Christmas the soft leafy boughs interlaced overhead. She had a subtle but iron will, and a quite commonplace personality disguised by the cold, sweet, stately and gracious manner so much admired by women; and she was quite unhampered by the least of that originality or waywardness which antagonises the orthodox. Moreover, she dressed her tall slender figure with unerring taste. Of course she was obliged to wear her smart tailored suits for two years, but they always looked new and were worn with an air that quite doubled their not insignificant 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 of Elsinore. It was she who had founded the Friday Club, at first for general cultivation of mind, of late to study the obsessing subject of Woman. She cared not a straw for the privilege of voting; in fact, she thought it would be an extremely unladylike thing to do; but a leader must always be at the head of the procession, while discriminating betwixt fad and fashion.

It was she who had established a connection with a respectable club in New York; it was she who had inveigled the substantial well-dressed and radical personage on the rostrum beside her to come over and homilise upon the subject of “The European War vs. Woman.”

The visitor had proved to her own satisfaction and[Pg 8] that of the major part of her audience that the bomb which had precipitated the war had been made in Germany. She was proceeding complacently, despite the hisses of several members with German forbears, and the President had just exchanged a glance of amusement with a moderate neutral, who believed that Russia’s desire to thaw out her icy feet in warm water was at the bottom of the mischief, when—spurred perhaps by a biting allusion to the atrocities engaging the press at the moment—the idea of murder took definite form in that clear unvisionary brain so justly admired by the ladies of Elsinore.

Mrs. Balfame’s pure profile, the purer for the still smooth contours and white skin of the face itself, the stately setting of the head, was turned toward the audience below the platform, and one admiring young member, who attended an art class in New York, was sketching it as a study in St. Cecelia’s, when those six letters of fire rose smoking from the battle fields of Europe and took Mrs. Balfame’s consciousness by assault: six dark and murky letters, but with no vagueness of outline.

The first faint shock of surprise over, as well as the few moments of retrospect, she asked herself calmly: “Why not?” Over there men were being torn and shot to pieces by wholesale, joking across the trenches in their intervals of rest, to kill again when the signal was given with as little compunction as she herself had often aimed at a target, or wrung the neck of a chicken that had fed from her hand. And these were men, the makers of law, the self-elected rulers of the world.

Mrs. Balfame had respected men mightily in her youth. Even now, although she both despised and[Pg 9] hated her husband, she responded femininely to a fine specimen of manhood with good manners and something to talk about save politics and business. But these were few and infrequent in Brabant County. The only man she had met for years who interested her in the least was Dwight Rush, also a scion of one of the old farm families.

Rush had been educated in the law at a northwestern university, but after a few years of practice in Wisconsin had accepted an offer to enter the most respectable law firm in his native township. He had been employed several times by David Balfame, who had brought him home informally to supper perhaps once a fortnight during the last six months. But, although Mrs. Balfame frankly enjoyed his society and his evident admiration for a beauty she knew had little attraction for his sex, she had all a conventional woman’s dislike for irregularities, however innocent; and she had snubbed Mr. Rush’s desire to “drop in of an afternoon.”

He barely flitted through her mind when she asked herself what did man’s civilisation amount to, anyway, and why should women respect it? And, compared with the stupendous slaughter in Europe, a slaughter that would seem to be one of the periodicities of the world, since it is the composite expression of the individual male’s desire to fight somebody just so often—what, in comparison with such a monstrous crime, would be the offence of making way with one obnoxious husband?

Something over two years ago—when liquor began to put a fiery edge upon Mr. Balfame’s temper—Mrs. Balfame had considered the question of divorce; but[Pg 10] after several weeks of cool calculation and the exercise of her foresight upon the inevitable social consequences, she had put the idea definitely aside. It was incompatible with her plan of life. Only rich women, or women that were insignificant in great cities, or who possessed conquering gifts, or who were so advanced as to be indifferent, could afford the luxury of divorce. Her world was the eastern division of Brabant County, and while it prided itself upon its progressiveness, and even—among the younger women—had a gay set, and although suppressed scandals slid about like slimy monsters in a marsh, its foundations were inherited from the old Puritan stock, and it fairly reeked with ancient prejudices.

It was a typical middle-class community with traditions, some of its blood too old, and made up of common human ingredients in varying proportions. Mrs. Balfame, enlightened by much reading and many matinées, applied the word bourgeois to Elsinore with secret scorn, but with a sigh: conscious that all its prejudices were hers and that not for an instant could she continue to be its leader were she a divorced woman.

Mrs. Balfame indulged in no dreams of sudden wealth. Elsinore was her world, and on the whole she was content, realising that life had not equipped her to lead the society of New York City. She liked to shop in Fifth Avenue—long since had she politely forgotten the mobs of Sixth,—to occupy an orchestra chair with a friend at a matinée, and take tea or chocolate at the fashionable retreats for such dissipations before returning to provincial Elsinore. There was a tacit agreement between herself and her husband that[Pg 11] he should dine with his political friends in a certain restaurant behind a bar in Dobton, the county seat, on the Wednesday or Thursday evenings when she found it impossible to return to Elsinore before seven o’clock; an arrangement which he secretly approved of but invariably entered a protest against by coming home at two in the morning extremely drunk.

He never attended the theatre with her, his preference being for vaudeville or a screaming musical comedy, for both of which abnormalities she had a profound contempt. She saw only the “best plays” herself, her choice being guided not so much by newspaper approval as by length of run. It must be confessed that in the eight or nine years of her comparative emancipation from the grinding duties of the home she had learned a good deal of life from the plays she saw. On the whole, however, she preferred sound American drama, particularly when it dealt with Society; for the advanced (or decadent?) pictures of life as presented in the imported drama, she had only a mild contempt; her first curiosity 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 live out her life there, but as a dignified and irreproachable and well-to-do widow. Divorce being out of the question, there was but one way to get rid of him: his years were but forty-four, and although he “blew up” with increasing frequency, to use his own choice vernacular, he was as healthy as an ox, and the town drunkard was rising eighty.

Mrs. Balfame’s friend, Dr. Anna Steuer, was now[Pg 12] replying to the lady from New York. After reminding the Club that the President of the United States had requested his docile subjects to curb their passions and flaunt their neutrality, Dr. Steuer proceeded to demolish the anti-German attitude of the guests by reciting the long list of industrial, economic and scientific contributions to civilisation which had distinguished the German Empire since the federation of its states.

Dr. Steuer was of Dutch descent, and her gifts were not forensic, but the key-note of her character was an intense and passionate loyalty. She had spent some of the most impressionable years of her life in the German clinics, and she cherished a romantic affection for a country whose natural and historic beauties no man will deny. She had steadfastly refused to read the “other side,” pinning her faith to all that was best in the country of her youthful dreams. In consequence, her discourse, while informing, was somewhat beside the point; and had it not been for the deep love borne her by almost every one present, there would have been a polite but firm demand to give place.

Mrs. Balfame was smiling encouragement when her musings took a sudden and arbitrary twist. Being a person who never acted on impulse, her decisions, after due processes of thought, were commonly irrevocable. The moment she had made up her mind to pass her husband on, she had committed herself to the act; and, even before Dr. Anna Steuer had claimed her superficial attention, had already erected the question, How?

Mrs. Balfame was a woman who rarely bungled anything, and murder, she well knew, was the last of all[Pg 13] acts to bungle, did the perpetrator desire to enjoy the freedom of his act. Being refined to her marrow, she shrank from all forms of brutality, and rarely, if ever, read the details 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 in Brabant County; but nothing would have horrified her more than to empty its contents into the worst of criminals.

Mechanically she had run through the list of all the accepted forms of removing human impedimenta and rejected them, when Dr. Anna’s scientific mind, playing along the surface of hers, shot in the arrow of suggestion that she belonged naturally to the type of woman that poisoned if forced to commit murder. It was bloodless, decent, and required no vulgar expenditure of energy.

But healthy people, suddenly dead, were excavated and the quarry submitted to chemical tests; it was then—smiling brilliantly at her ardent pro-German friend—that Mrs. Balfame recalled a rainy evening some two years since. She and Dr. Anna had sat over the fire in the old Steuer cottage, and the doctor, who before the war never had been interested in anything but her friends, her science, and suffrage, had discoursed upon certain untraceable poisons, had even risen and taken down a vial from a secret cupboard above the mantel. During the same conversation, which naturally drifted to crime, Dr. Anna had discoursed upon the idiocy of doctors who poisoned with morphia, strychnine, or prussic acid, when not only were these organic poisons known to all scientific [Pg 14]members of the profession, but they could easily remove the barrier to their complete happiness with cholera, smallpox, or typhus germs, sealed within the noncommittal capsule.

Mrs. Balfame shuddered at the mere thought of any of these dreadful diseases, having no desire to witness human sufferings, or to run the risk of infection, but as she stared at Dr. Anna to-day, she made up her mind to procure that vial of furtive poison.

So sudden was this resolution and so grim its portent that it was accompanied by unusual physical phenomena: she brought her sound white teeth together and thrust out her strong chin; her eyes became fixed in a hard stare and the muscles of her face seemed to menace her soft white skin.

Alys Crumley, the young woman who had been sketching Mrs. Balfame instead of listening to the discussion, caught her breath and dropped her pencil. For the moment the pretty, ultra-refined, elegant leader of Elsinore society looked not like St. Cecelia but like Medea. Always determined, resolute, smilingly dominant, never before had she betrayed the secret possibilities of her nature.

Miss Crumley cast a glance of startled apprehension about her, but the debate was just finished, every one was commenting upon the splendid self-control of the high participants, and repeating the New Yorker’s last phrase: that not civilisation but man was a failure. A moment later Mrs. Balfame advanced to the edge of the platform, and, with her inimitable graciousness, invited the members of the Club to come forward and meet the distinguished guest. Little Miss Alys [Pg 15]Crumley, watching her, listening to her pleasant shallow voice, her amused quiet laugh, came to the conclusion that the fearsome expression she had seen on her model’s face had been a mere effect of light.


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