Father said that one great mystery about the monthly household expenses was what made them jump up and down so. “Anyone would suppose that there would be some regularity after a while which would let a man try to make plans, but I never know from one month to another what to expect.”
Mother said she didn’t, either. Things just seemed to go that way.
“But they have no business to go that way, Vinnie,” Father declared. “And what’s more I won’t allow it.”
Mother said she didn’t see what she could do about it. All she knew was that when the bills mounted up, it didn’t mean that she had been extravagant.
“Well, it certainly means that you’ve spent a devil of a lot of money,” said Father.
Mother looked at him obstinately. She couldn’t exactly deny this, but she said that it wasn’t fair.
Appearances were often hopelessly against Mother, but that never daunted her. She wasn’t afraid of Father or anybody. She was a woman of great spirit who would have flown at and pecked any tyrant. It was only when she had a bad conscience that she had no heart to fight. Father had the best of her there because he never had a bad conscience. And he didn’t know that he was a tyrant. He regarded himself as a long-suffering man who asked little of anybody, and who showed only the greatest moderation in his encounters with unreasonable beings like Mother. Mother’s one advantage over him was that she was quicker. She was particularly elusive when Father was trying to hammer her into shape.
When the household expenses shot up very high, Father got frightened. He would then, as Mother put it, yell his head off. He always did some yelling anyhow, merely on general principles, but when his alarm was genuine he roared in real anguish.
Usually this brought the total down again, at least for a while. But there were times when no amount of noise seemed to do any good, and when every month for one reason or another the total went on up and up. And then, just as Father had almost resigned himself to this awful outgo, and just as he had eased up on his yelling and had begun to feel grim, the expenses, to his utter amazement, would take a sharp drop.
Mother didn’t keep track of these totals, she was too busy watching small details, and Father never knew whether to tell her the good news or not. He always did tell her, because he couldn’t keep things to himself. But he always had cause to regret it.
When he told her, he did it in as disciplinary a manner as possible. He didn’t congratulate her on the expenses having come down. He appeared at her door, waving the bills at her with a threatening scowl, and said, “I’ve told you again and again that you could keep the expenses down if you tried, and this shows I was right.”
Mother was always startled at such attacks, but she didn’t lose her presence of mind. She asked how much less the amount was and said it was all due to her good management, of course, and Father ought to give her the difference.
At this point Father suddenly found himself on the defensive and the entire moral lecture that he had intended to deliver was wrecked. The more they talked, the clearer it seemed to Mother that he owed her that money. Only when he was lucky could he get out of her room without paying it.
He said that this was one of the things about her that was enough to drive a man mad.
The other thing was her lack of system, which was always cropping up in new ways. He sometimes looked at Mother as though he had never seen her before. “Upon my soul,” he said, “I almost believe you don’t know what system is. You don’t even want to know, either.”
He had at last invented what seemed a perfect method of recording expenses. Whenever he gave any money to Mother, he asked her what it was for and made a note of it in his pocket notebook. His idea was that these items, added to those in the itemized bills, would show him exactly where every dollar had gone.
But they didn’t.
He consulted his notebook. “I gave you six dollars in cash on the twenty-fifth of last month,” he said, “to buy a new coffeepot.”
“Yes,” Mother said, “because you broke your old one. You threw it right on the floor.”
Father frowned. “I’m not talking about that,” he answered. “I am simply endeavouring to find out from you, if I can–“
“But it’s so silly to break a nice coffee-pot, Clare, and that was the last of those French ones, and there was nothing the matter with the coffee that morning; it was made just the same as it always is.”
“It wasn’t,” said Father. “It was made in a damned barbaric manner.”
“And I couldn’t get another French one,” Mother continued, “because that little shop the Auffmordts told us about has stopped selling them. They said the tariff wouldn’t let them any more, and I told Monsieur Duval he ought to be ashamed of himself to stand there and say so. I said that if I had a shop, I’d like to see the tariff keep me from selling things.”
“But I gave you six dollars to buy a new pot,” Father firmly repeated, “and now I find that you apparently got one at Lewis & Conger’s and charged it. Here’s their bill: ‘one brown earthenware drip coffee-pot, five dollars.'”
“So I saved you a dollar,” Mother triumphantly said, “and you can hand it right over to me.”
“Bah! What nonsense you talk!” Father cried. “Is there no way to get this thing straightened out? What did you do with the six dollars?”
“Why, Clare! I can’t tell you now, dear. Why didn’t you ask at the time?”
“Oh, my God!” Father groaned.
“Wait a moment,” said Mother. “I spent four dollars and a half for that new umbrella I told you I wanted, and you said I didn’t need a new one, but I did, very much.”
Father got out his pencil and wrote “New Umbrella for V.” in his notebook.
“And that must have been the week,” Mother went on, “that I paid Mrs. Tobin for two extra days’ washing, so that was two dollars more out of it, which makes it six-fifty. There’s another fifty cents that you owe me.”
“I don’t owe you anything,” Father said. “You have managed to turn a coffee-pot for me into a new umbrella for you. No matter what I give you money for, you buy something else with it, and if this is to keep on, I might as well not keep account books at all.”
“I’d like to see you run this house without having any money on hand for things,” Mother said.
“I am not made of money,” Father replied, “You seem to think I only have to put my hand in my pocket to get some.”
Mother not only thought this, she knew it. His wallet always was full. That was the provoking part of it–she knew he had the money right there, but he tried to keep from giving it to her. She had to argue it out of him.
“Well, you can put your hand in your pocket and give me that dollar-fifty this minute,” she said. “You owe me that, anyhow.”
Father said he didn’t have a dollar-fifty to spare and tried to get back to his desk, but Mother wouldn’t let him go till he paid her. She said she wouldn’t put up with injustice.
Mother said it hampered her dreadfully never to have any cash. She was always having to pay out small amounts for demands that she had forgot to provide for, and in such emergencies the only way to do was to juggle things around. One result, however, of all these more or less innocent shifts was that in this way she usually took care of all her follies herself. All the small ones, at any rate. They never got entered on Father’s books, except when they were monstrous.
She came home one late afternoon in a terrible state. “Has it come yet?” she asked the waitress.
The waitress said nothing had come that she knew of.
Mother ran upstairs with a hunted expression and flung herself down on her bed. When we looked in, she was sobbing.
It turned out that she had gone to an auction, and she had become so excited that she had bought but not paid for a grandfather’s clock.
Mother knew in her heart that she had no business going to auctions. She was too suggestible, and if an hypnotic auctioneer once got her eye, she was lost. Besides, an auction aroused all her worst instincts–her combativeness, her recklessness, and her avaricious love of a bargain. And the worst of it was that this time it wasn’t a bargain at all. At least she didn’t think it was now. The awful old thing was about eight feet tall, and it wasn’t the one she had wanted. It wasn’t half as nice as the clock that old Miss Van Derwent had bought. And inside the hood over the dial, she said, there was a little ship which at first she hadn’t noticed, a horrid ship that rocked up and down every time the clock ticked. It made her ill just to look at it. And she didn’t have the money, and the man said he’d have to send it this evening, and what would Father say?
She came down to dinner, and left half-way through. Couldn’t stand it. But an hour or two later, when the doorbell rang, she bravely went to tell Father.
She could hardly believe it, but she found that luck was with her, for once. If the clock had come earlier, there might have been a major catastrophe, but Father was in a good mood and he had had a good dinner. And though he never admitted it or spoke of it, he had a weakness for clocks. There were clocks all over the house, which he would allow no one to wind but himself. Every Sunday between breakfast and church he made the rounds, setting them at the right time by his infallible watch, regulating their speed, and telling us about every clock’s little idiosyncrasies. When he happened to be coming downstairs on the hour, he cocked his ear, watch in hand, to listen to as many of them as he could, in the hope that they would all strike at once. He would reprove the impulsive pink clock in the spare room for striking too soon, and the big solemn clock in the dining-room for being a minute too late.
So when Mother led him out in the hall to confess to him and show him what she had bought, and he saw it was a clock, he fell in love with it, and made almost no fuss at all.
The let-down was too much for Mother. She tottered off to her room without another word and went straight to bed, leaving Father and the auctioneer’s man setting up the new clock alongside the hat-rack. Father was especially fascinated by the hard-rocking ship.