The Price She Paid

Author: David Graham Phillips


HENRY GOWER was dead at sixty-one—the end of a lifelong fraud which never had been suspected, and never would be. With the world, with his acquaintances and neighbors, with his wife and son and daughter, he passed as a generous, warm-hearted, good-natured man, ready at all times to do anything to help anybody, incapable of envy or hatred or meanness. In fact, not once in all his days had he ever thought or done a single thing except for his own comfort. Like all intensely selfish people who are wise, he was cheerful and amiable, because that was the way to be healthy and happy and to have those around one agreeable and in the mood to do what one wished them to do. He told people, not the truth, not the unpleasant thing that might help them, but what they wished to hear. His family lived in luxurious comfort only because he himself was fond of luxurious comfort. His wife and his daughter dressed fashionably and went about and entertained in the fashionable, expensive way only because that was the sort of life that gratified his vanity. He lived to get what he wanted; he got it every day and every hour of a life into which no rain ever fell; he died, honored, respected, beloved, and lamented.

The clever trick he had played upon his fellow beings came very near to discovery a few days after his death. His widow and her son and daughter-in-law and daughter were in the living-room of the charming house at Hanging Rock, near New York, alternating between sorrowings over the dead man and plannings for the future. Said the widow:

"If Henry had only thought what would become of us if he were taken away!"

"If he had saved even a small part of what he made every year from the time he was twenty-six—for he always made a big income," said his son, Frank.

"But he was so generous, so soft-hearted!" exclaimed the widow. "He could deny us nothing."

"He couldn’t bear seeing us with the slightest wish ungratified," said Frank.

"He was the best father that ever lived!" cried the daughter, Mildred.

And Mrs. Gower the elder and Mrs. Gower the younger wept; and Mildred turned away to hide the emotion distorting her face; and Frank stared gloomily at the carpet and sighed. The hideous secret of the life of duplicity was safe, safe forever.

In fact, Henry Gower had often thought of the fate of his family if he should die. In the first year of his married life, at a time when passion for a beautiful bride was almost sweeping him into generous thought, he had listened for upward of an hour to the eloquence of a life insurance agent. Then the agent, misled by Gower’s effusively generous and unselfish expressions, had taken a false tack. He had descanted upon the supreme satisfaction that would be felt by a dying man as he reflected how his young widow would be left in affluence. He made a vivid picture; Gower saw— saw his bride happier after his death than she had been during his life, and attracting a swarm of admirers by her beauty, well set off in becoming black, and by her independent income. The generous impulse then and there shriveled to its weak and shallow roots. With tears in his kind, clear eyes he thanked the agent and said:

"You have convinced me. You need say no more. I’ll send for you in a few days."

The agent never got into his presence again. Gower lived up to his income, secure in the knowledge that his ability as a lawyer made him certain of plenty of money as long as he should live. But it would show an utter lack of comprehension of his peculiar species of character to imagine that he let himself into the secret of his own icy-heartedness by ceasing to think of the problem of his wife and two children without him to take care of them. On the contrary, he thought of it every day, and planned what he would do about it—to-morrow. And for his delay he had excellent convincing excuses. Did he not take care of his naturally robust health? Would he not certainly outlive his wife, who was always doctoring more or less? Frank would be able to take care of himself; anyhow, it was not well to bring a boy up to expectations, because every man should be self-supporting and selfreliant. As for Mildred, why, with her beauty and her cleverness she could not but make a brilliant marriage. Really, there was for him no problem of an orphaned family’s future; there was no reason why he should deny himself any comfort or luxury, or his vanity any of the titillations that come from social display.

That one of his calculations which was the most vital and seemed the surest proved to be worthless. It is not the weaklings who die, after infancy and youth, but the strong, healthy men and women. The weaklings have to look out for themselves, receive ample warning in the disastrous obvious effects of the slightest imprudence. The robust, even the wariest of them, even the Henry Gowers, overestimate and overtax their strength. Gower’s downfall was champagne. He could not resist a bottle of it for dinner every night. As so often happens, the collapse of the kidneys came without any warning that a man of powerful constitution would deem worthy of notice. By the time the doctor began to suspect the gravity of his trouble he was too far gone.

Frank, candidly greedy and selfish—"Such a contrast to his father!" everyone said—was married to the prettiest girl in Hanging Rock and had a satisfactory law practice in New York. His income was about fifteen thousand a year. But his wife had tastes as extravagant as his own; and Hanging Rock is one of those suburbs of New York where gather well-to-do middle-class people to live luxuriously and to delude each other and themselves with the notion that they are fashionable, rich New Yorkers who prefer to live in the country "like the English." Thus, Henry Gower’s widow and daughter could count on little help from Frank—and they knew it.

"You and Milly will have to move to some less expensive place than Hanging Rock," said Frank—it was the living-room conference a few days after the funeral.

Mildred flushed and her eyes flashed. She opened her lips to speak—closed them again with the angry retort unuttered. After all, Frank was her mother’s and her sole dependence. They could hope for little from him, but nothing must be said that would give him and his mean, selfish wife a chance to break with them and refuse to do anything whatever.

"And Mildred must get married," said Natalie. In Hanging Rock most of the girls and many of the boys had given names taken from Burke’s Peerage, the Almanac de Gotha, and fashionable novels.

Again Mildred flushed; but her eyes did not flash, neither did she open her lips to speak. The little remark of her sister-in-law, apparently so harmless and sensible, was in fact a poisoned arrow. For Mildred was twenty-three, had been "out" five years, and was not even in the way to become engaged. She and everyone had assumed from her lovely babyhood that she would marry splendidly, would marry wealth and social position. How could it be otherwise? Had she not beauty? Had she not family and position? Had she not style and cleverness? Yet—five years out and not a "serious" proposal. An impudent poor fellow with no prospects had asked her. An impudent rich man from fashionable New York had hung after her —and had presently abandoned whatever dark projects he may have been concealing and had married in his own set, "as they always do, the miserable snobs," raved Mrs. Gower, who had been building high upon those lavish outpourings of candy, flowers, and automobile rides. Mildred, however, had accepted the defection more philosophically. She had had enough vanity to like the attentions of the rich and fashionable New Yorker, enough good sense to suspect, perhaps not definitely, what those attentions meant, but certainly what they did not mean. Also, in the back of her head had been an intention to refuse Stanley Baird, if by chance he should ask her. Was there any substance to this intention, sprung from her disliking the conceited, self-assured snob as much as she liked his wealth and station? Perhaps not. Who can say? At any rate, may we not claim credit for our good intentions—so long as, even through lack of opportunity, we have not stultified them?

With every natural advantage apparently, Mildred’s failure to catch a husband seemed to be somehow her own fault. Other girls, less endowed than she, were marrying, were marrying fairly well. Why, then, was Mildred lagging in the market?

There may have been other reasons, reasons of accident—for, in the higher class matrimonial market, few are called and fewer chosen. There was one reason not accidental; Hanging Rock was no place for a girl so superior as was Mildred Gower to find a fitting husband. As has been hinted, Hanging Rock was one of those upper-middle-class colonies where splurge and social ambition dominate the community life. In such colonies the young men are of two classes—those beneath such a girl as Mildred, and those who had the looks, the manners, the intelligence, and the prospects to justify them in looking higher socially—in looking among the very rich and really fashionable. In the Hanging Rock sort of community, having all the snobbishness of Fifth Avenue, Back Bay, and Rittenhouse Square, with the added torment of the snobbishness being perpetually ungratified—in such communities, beneath a surface reeking culture and idealistic folderol, there is a coarse and brutal materialism, a passion for money, for luxury, for display, that equals aristocratic societies at their worst. No one can live for a winter, much less grow up, in such a place without becoming saturated with sycophantry. Thus, only by some impossible combination of chances could there have been at Hanging Rock a young man who would have appreciated Mildred and have had the courage of his appreciation. This combination did not happen. In Mildred’s generation and set there were only the two classes of men noted above. The men of the one of them which could not have attracted her accepted their fate of mating with second-choice females to whom they were themselves second choice. The men of the other class rarely appeared at Hanging Rock functions, hung about the rich people in New York, Newport, and on Long Island, and would as soon have thought of taking a Hanging Rock society girl to wife as of exchanging hundred-dollar bills for twenty-five-cent pieces. Having attractions acceptable in the best markets, they took them there. Hanging Rock denounced them as snobs, for Hanging Rock was virtuously eloquent on the subject of snobbishness—we human creatures being never so effective as when assailing in others the vice or weakness we know from lifelong, intimate, internal association with it. But secretly the successfully ambitious spurners of that suburban society were approved, were envied. And Hanging Rock was most gracious to them whenever it got the chance.

In her five years of social life Mildred had gone only with the various classes of fashionable people, had therefore known only the men who are full of the poison of snobbishness. She had been born and bred in an environment as impregnated with that poison as the air of a kitchen-garden with onions. She knew nothing else. The secret intention to refuse Stanley Baird, should he propose, was therefore the more astonishing—and the more significant. From time to time in any given environment you will find some isolated person, some personality, with a trait wholly foreign and out of place there. Now it is a soft voice and courteous manners in a slum; again it is a longing for a life of freedom and equality in a member of a royal family that has known nothing but sordid slavery for centuries. Or, in the petty conventionality of a prosperous middleor upper-class community you come upon one who dreams—perhaps vaguely but still longingly—of an existence where love and ideas shall elevate and glorify life. In spite of her training, in spite of the teaching and example of all about her from the moment of her opening her eyes upon the world, Mildred Gower at twenty-three still retained something of these dream flowers sown in the soil of her naturally good mind by some book or play or perhaps by some casually read and soon forgotten article in magazine or newspaper. We have the habit of thinking only weeds produce seeds that penetrate and prosper everywhere and anywhere. The truth is that fine plants of all kinds, vegetable, fruit, and flower of rarest color and perfume, have this same hardiness and fecundity. Pull away at the weeds in your garden for a while, and see if this is not so. Though you may plant nothing, you will be amazed at the results if you but clear a little space of its weeds—which you have been planting and cultivating.

Mildred—woman fashion—regarded it as a reproach upon her that she had not yet succeeded in making the marriage everyone, including herself, predicted for her and expected of her. On the contrary, it was the most savage indictment possible of the marriageable and marrying men who had met her—of their stupidity, of their short-sighted and mean-souled calculation, of their lack of courage—the courage to take what they, as men of flesh and blood wanted, instead of what their snobbishness ordered. And if Stanley Baird, the nearest to a flesh-and-blood man of any who had known her, had not been so profoundly afraid of his fashionable mother and of his sister, the Countess of Waring— But he was profoundly afraid of them; so, it is idle to speculate about him.

What did men see when they looked at Mildred Gower? Usually, when men look at a woman, they have a hazy, either pleasant or unpleasant, sense of something feminine. That, and nothing more. Afterward, through some whim or some thrust from chance they may see in her, or fancy they see in her, the thing feminine that their souls—it is always "soul"—most yearns after. But just at first glance, so colorless or conventionally colored is the usual human being, the average woman—indeed every woman but she who is exceptional—creates upon man the mere impression of pleasant or unpleasant petticoats. In the exceptional woman something obtrudes. She has astonishing hair, or extraordinary eyes, or a mouth that seems to draw a man like a magnet; or it is the allure of a peculiar smile or of a figure whose sinuosities as she moves seem to cause a corresponding wave-disturbance in masculine nerves. Further, the possession of one of these signal charms usually causes all her charms to have more than ordinary potency. The sight of the man is so bewitched by the one potent charm that he sees the whole woman under a spell.

Mildred Gower, of the medium height and of a slender and well-formed figure, had a face of the kind that is called lovely; and her smile, sweet, dreamy, revealing white and even teeth, gave her loveliness delicate animation. She had an abundance of hair, neither light nor dark; she had a fine clear skin. Her eyes, gray and rather serious and well set under long straight brows, gave her a look of honesty and intelligence. But the charm that won men, her charm of charms, was her mouth—mobile, slightly pouted, not too narrow, of a wonderful, vividly healthy and vital red. She had beauty, she had intelligence. But it was impossible for a man to think of either, once his glance had been caught by those expressive, inviting lips of hers, so young, so fresh, with their ever-changing, everfascinating line expressing in a thousand ways the passion and poetry of the kiss.

Of all the men who had admired her and had edged away because they feared she would bewitch them into forgetting what the world calls "good common sense" —of all those men only one had suspected the real reason for her physical power over men. All but Stanley Baird had thought themselves attracted because she was so pretty or so stylish or so clever and amusing to talk with. Baird had lived intelligently enough to learn that feminine charm is never general, is always specific. He knew it was Mildred Gower’s lips that haunted, that frightened ambitious men away, that sent men who knew they hadn’t a ghost of a chance with her discontentedly back to the second-choice women who alone were available for them. Fortunately for Mildred, Stanley Baird, too wise to flatter a woman discriminatingly, did not tell her the secret of her fascination. If he had told her, she would no doubt have tried to train and to use it—and so would inevitably have lost it.

To go on with that important conference in the sitting-room in the handsome, roomy house of the Gowers at Hanging Rock, Frank Gower eagerly seized upon his wife’s subtly nasty remark. "I don’t see why in thunder you haven’t married, Milly," said he. "You’ve had every chance, these last four or five years."

"And it’ll be harder now," moaned her mother. "For it looks as though we were going to be wretchedly poor. And poverty is so repulsive."

"Do you think," said Mildred, "that giving me the idea that I must marry right away will make it easier for me to marry? Everyone who knows us knows our circumstances." She looked significantly at Frank’s wife, who had been wailing through Hanging Rock the woeful plight of her dead father-in-law’s family. The young Mrs. Gower blushed and glanced away. "And," Mildred went on, "everyone is saying that I must marry at once—that there’s nothing else for me to do." She smiled bitterly. "When I go into the street again I shall see nothing but flying men. And no man would come to call unless he brought a chaperon and a witness with him."

"How can you be so frivolous?" reproached her mother.

Mildred was used to being misunderstood by her mother, who had long since been made hopelessly dull by the suffocating life she led and by pain from her feet, which never left her at ease for a moment except when she had them soaking in cold water. Mrs. Gower had been born with ordinary feet, neither ugly nor pretty and entirely fit for the uses for which nature intended feet. She had spoiled them by wearing shoes to make them look smaller and slimmer than they were. In steady weather she was plaintive; in changeable weather she varied between irritable and violent.

Said Mildred to her brother: "How much—JUST how much is there?"

"I can’t say exactly," replied her brother, who had not yet solved to his satisfaction the moral problem of how much of the estate he ought to allow his mother and sister and how much he ought to claim for himself —in such a way that the claim could not be disputed.

Mildred looked fixedly at him. He showed his uneasiness not by glancing away, but by the appearance of a certain hard defiance in his eyes. Said she:

"What is the very most we can hope for?"

A silence. Her mother broke it. "Mildred, how CAN you talk of those things—already?"

"I don’t know," replied Mildred. "Perhaps because it’s got to be done."

This seemed to them all—and to herself—a lame excuse for such apparent hardness of heart. Her father had always been SENDER-HEARTED—HAD NEVER SPOKEN OF MONEY, OR ENCOURAGED HIS FAMILY IN SPEAKING OF IT.


"YOU’RE SURE, Frank, there’s NO insurance?"

"Father always said that you disliked the idea," replied her son; "that you thought insurance looked like your calculating on his death."

Under her husband’s adroit prompting Mrs. Gower had discovered such a view of insurance in her brain. She now recalled expressing it—and regretted. But she was silenced. She tried to take her mind of the subject of money. But, like Mildred, she could not. The thought of imminent poverty was nagging at them like toothache. "There’ll be enough for a year or so?" she said, timidly interrogative.

"I hope so," said Frank.

Mildred was eying him fixedly again. Said she: "Have you found anything at all?"

"He had about eight thousand dollars in bank," said Frank. "But most of it will go for the pressing debts."

"But how did HE expect to live?" urged Mildred.

"Yes, there must have been SOMETHING," said her mother.

"Of course, there’s his share of the unsettled and unfinished business of the firm," admitted Frank.

"How much will that be?" persisted Mildred.

"I can’t tell, offhand," said Frank, with virtuous reproach. "My mind’s been on—other things."

Henry Gower’s widow was not without her share of instinctive shrewdness. Neither had she, unobservant though she was, been within sight of her son’s character for twenty-eight years without having unconfessed, unformed misgivings concerning it. "You mustn’t bother about these things now, Frank dear," said she. "I’ll get my brother to look into it."

"That won’t be necessary," hastily said Frank. "I don’t want any rival lawyer peeping into our firm’s affairs."

"My brother Wharton is the soul of honor," said Mrs. Gower, the elder, with dignity. "You are too young to take all the responsibility of settling the estate. Yes, I’ll send for Wharton to-morrow."

"It’ll look as though you didn’t trust me," said Frank sourly.

"We mustn’t do anything to start the gossips in this town," said his wife, assisting.

"Then send for him yourself, Frank," said Mildred, "and give him charge of the whole matter."

Frank eyed her furiously. "How ashamed father would be!" exclaimed he.

But this solemn invoking of the dead man’s spirit was uneffectual. The specter of poverty was too insistent, too terrible. Said the widow:

"I’m sure, in the circumstances, my dear dead husband would want me to get help from someone older and more experienced."

And Frank, guilty of conscience and an expert in the ways of conventional and highly moral rascality, ceased to resist. His wife, scenting danger to their getting the share that "rightfully belongs to the son, especially when he has been the brains of the firm for several years," made angry and indiscreet battle for no outside interference. The longer she talked the firmer the widow and the daughter became, not only because she clarified suspicions that had been too hazy to take form, but also because they disliked her intensely. The following day Wharton Conover became unofficial administrator. He had no difficulty in baffling Frank Gower’s half-hearted and clumsy efforts to hide two large fees due the dead man’s estate. He discovered clear assets amounting in all to sixtythree thousand dollars, most of it available within a few months.

"As you have the good-will of the firm and as your mother and sister have only what can be realized in cash," said he to Frank, "no doubt you won’t insist on your third."

"I’ve got to consider my wife," said Frank. "I can’t do as I’d like."

"You are going to insist on your third?" said Conover, with an accent that made Frank quiver.

"I can’t do otherwise," said he in a dogged, shamed way.

"Um," said Conover. "Then, on behalf of my sister and her daughter I’ll have to insist on a more detailed accounting than you have been willing to give —and on the production of that small book bound in red leather which disappeared from my brother-in-law’s desk the afternoon of his death."

A wave of rage and fear surged up within Frank Gower and crashed against the seat of his life. For days thereafter he was from time to time seized with violent spasms of trembling; years afterward he was attributing premature weaknesses of old age to the effects of that moment of horror. His uncle’s words came as a sudden, high shot climax to weeks of exasperating peeping and prying and questioning, of sneer and insinuation. Conover had been only moderately successful at the law, had lost clients to Frank’s father, had been beaten when they were on opposite sides. He hated the father with the secret, hypocritical hatred of the highly moral and religious man. He despised the son. It is not often that a Christian gentleman has such an opportunity to combine justice and revenge, to feed to bursting an ancient grudge, the while conscious that he is but doing his duty.

Said Frank, when he was able to speak: "You have been listening to the lies of some treacherous clerk here."

"Don’t destroy that little book," proceeded Conover tranquilly. "We can prove that you took it."

Young Gower rose. "I must decline to have anything further to say to you, sir," said he. "You will leave this office, and you will not be admitted here again unless you come with proper papers as administrator."

Conover smiled with cold satisfaction and departed. There followed a series of quarrels—between Frank and his sister, between Frank and his mother, between Frank’s wife and his mother, between Mildred and her mother, between the mother and Conover. Mrs. Gower was suspicious of her son; but she knew her brother for a pinchpenny, exacting the last drop of what he regarded as his own. And she discovered that, if she authorized him to act as administrator for her, he could —and beyond question would—take a large share of the estate. The upshot was that Frank paid over to his mother and sister forty-seven thousand dollars, and his mother and her brother stopped speaking to each other.

"I see that you have turned over all your money to mother," said Frank to Mildred a few days after the settlement.

"Of course," said Mildred. She was in a mood of high scorn for sordidness—a mood induced by the spectacle of the shameful manners of Conover, Frank, and his wife.

"Do you think that’s wise?" suggested Frank.

"I think it’s decent," said Mildred.

"Well, I hope you’ll not live to regret it," said her brother.

Neither Mrs. Gower nor her daughter had ever had any experience in the care of money. To both fortyseven thousand dollars seemed a fortune—forty-seven thousand dollars in cash in the bank, ready to issue forth and do their bidding at the mere writing of a few figures and a signature on a piece of paper. In a sense they knew that for many years the family’s annual expenses had ranged between forty and fifty thousand, but in the sense of actuality they knew nothing about it—a state of affairs common enough in families where the man is in absolute control and spends all he makes. Money always had been forthcomcoming;{sic} therefore money always would be forthcoming.

The mourning and the loss of the person who had filled and employed their lives caused the widow and the daughter to live very quietly during the succeeding year. They spent only half of their capital. For reasons of selfish and far-sighted prudence which need no detailing Frank moved away to New York within six months of his father’s death and reduced communication between himself and wife and his mother and sister to a frigid and rapidly congealing minimum. He calculated that by the time their capital was consumed they would have left no feeling of claim upon him or he feeling of duty toward them.

It was not until eighteen months after her father’s death, when the total capital was sunk to less than fifteen thousand dollars, that Mildred awakened to the truth of their plight. A few months at most, and they would have to give up that beautiful house which had been her home all her life. She tried to grasp the meaning of the facts as her intelligence presented them to her, but she could not. She had no practical training whatever. She had been brought up as a rich man’s child, to be married to a rich man, and never to know anything of the material details of life beyond what was necessary in managing servants after the indifferent fashion of the usual American woman of the comfortable classes. She had always had a maid; she could not even dress herself properly without the maid’s assistance. Life without a maid was inconceivable; life without servants was impossible.

She wandered through the house, through the grounds. She said to herself again and again: "We have got to give up all this, and be miserably poor— with not a servant, with less than the tenement people have." But the words conveyed no meaning to her. She said to herself again and again: "I must rouse myself. I must do something. I must—must— must!" But she did not rouse, because there was nothing to rouse. So far as practical life was concerned she was as devoid of ideas as a new-born baby.

There was but the one hope—marriage, a rich marriage. It is the habit of men who can take care of themselves and of women who are securely well taken care of to scorn the woman or the helpless-bred man who marries for money or even entertains that idea. How little imagination these scorners have! To marry for a mere living, hardly better than one could make for oneself, assuredly does show a pitiful lack of selfreliance, a melancholy lack of self-respect. But for men or women all their lives used to luxury and with no ability whatever at earning money—for such persons to marry money in order to save themselves from the misery and shame that poverty means to them is the most natural, the most human action conceivable. The man or the woman who says he or she would not do it, either is a hypocrite or is talking without thinking. You may in honesty criticize and condemn a social system that suffers men and women to be so crudely and criminally miseducated by being given luxury they did not earn. But to condemn the victims of that system for acting as its logic compels is sheer folly or sheer phariseeism.

Would Mildred Gower have married for money? As the weeks fled, as the bank account dwindled, she would have grasped eagerly at any rich man who might have offered himself—no matter how repellent he might have been. She did not want a bare living; she did not want what passes with the mass of middle-class people for comfort. She wanted what she had—the beautiful and spacious house, the costly and fashionable clothing, the servants, the carriages and motors, the thousand and one comforts, luxuries, and vanities to which she had always been used. In the brain of a young woman of poor or only comfortably off family the thoughts that seethed in Mildred Gower’s brain would have been so many indications of depravity. In Mildred Gower’s brain they were the natural, the inevitable, thoughts. They indicated everything as to her training, nothing as to her character. So, when she, thinking only of a rich marriage with no matter whom, and contrasting herself with the fine women portrayed in the novels and plays, condemned herself as shameless and degraded, she did herself grave injustice.

But no rich man, whether attractive or repulsive, offered. Indeed, no man of any kind offered. Instead, it was her mother who married.

A widower named James Presbury, elderly, with an income of five to six thousand a year from inherited wealth, stumbled into Hanging Rock to live, was impressed by the style the widow Gower maintained, believed the rumor that her husband had left her better off than was generally thought, proposed, and was accepted. And two years and a month after Henry Gower’s death his widow became Mrs. James Presbury —and ceased to veil from her new husband the truth as to her affairs.

Mildred had thought that, than the family quarrels incident to settling her father’s estate, human nature could no lower descend. She was now to be disillusioned. When a young man or a young woman blunders into a poor marriage in trying to make a rich one, he or she is usually withheld from immediate and frank expression by the timidity of youth. Not so the elderly man or woman. As we grow older, no matter how timidly conventional we are by nature, we become, through selfishness or through indifference to the opinion of others or through impatience of petty restraint, more and more outspoken. Old Presbury discovered how he had tricked himself four days after the wedding. He and his bride were at the Waldorf in New York, a-honeymooning.

The bride had never professed to be rich. She had simply continued in her lifelong way, had simply acted rich. She well knew the gaudy delusions her admirer was entertaining, and she saw to it that nothing was said or done to disturb him. She inquired into his affairs, made sure of the substantiality of the comparatively small income he possessed, decided to accept him as her best available chance to escape becoming a charge upon her anything but eager and generous relatives. She awaited the explosion with serenity. She cared not a flip for Presbury, who was a soft and silly old fool, full of antiquated compliments and so drearily the inferior of Henry Gower, physically and mentally, that even she could appreciate the difference, the descent. She rather enjoyed the prospect of a combat with him, of the end of dissimulating her contempt. She had thought out and had put in arsenal ready for use a variety of sneers, jeers, and insults that suggested themselves to her as she listened and simpered and responded while he was courting.

Had the opportunity offered earlier than the fourth day she would have seized it, but not until that fourth morning was she in just the right mood. She had eaten too much dinner the night before, and had followed it after two hours in a stuffy theater with an indigestible supper. He liked the bedroom windows open at night; she liked them closed. After she fell into a heavy sleep, he slipped out of bed and opened the windows wide—to teach her by the night’s happy experience that she was entirely mistaken as to the harmfulness of fresh winter air. The result was that she awakened with a frightful cold and a splitting headache. And as the weather was about to change she had shooting pains like toothache through her toes the instant she thrust them into her shoes. The elderly groom, believing he had a rich bride, was all solicitude and infuriating attention. She waited until he had wrought her to the proper pitch of fury. Then she said—in reply to some remark of his:

"Yes, I shall rely upon you entirely. I want you to take absolute charge of my affairs."

The tears sprang to his eyes. His weak old mouth, rapidly falling to pieces, twisted and twitched with emotion. "I’ll try to deserve your confidence, darling," said he. "I’ve had large business experience— in the way of investing carefully, I mean. I don’t think your affairs will suffer in my hands."

"Oh, I’m sure they’ll not trouble you," said she in a sweet, sure tone as the pains shot through her feet and her head. "You’ll hardly notice my little mite in your property." She pretended to reflect. "Let me see—there’s seven thousand left, but of course half of that is Millie’s."

"It must be very well invested," said he. "Those seven thousand shares must be of the very best."

"Shares?" said she, with a gentle little laugh. "I mean dollars."

Presbury was about to lift a cup of cafe au lait to his lips. Instead, he turned it over into the platter of eggs and bacon.

"We—Mildred and I," pursued his bride, "were left with only forty-odd thousand between us. Of course, we had to live. So, naturally, there’s very little left."

Presbury was shaking so violently that his head and arms waggled like a jumping-jack’s. He wrapped his elegant white fingers about the arms of his chair to steady himself. In a suffocated voice he said: "Do you mean to say that you have only seven thousand dollars in the world?"

"Only half that," corrected she. "Oh, dear, how my head aches! Less than half that, for there are some debts."

She was impatient for the explosion; the agony of her feet and head needed outlet and relief. But he disappointed her. That was one of the situations in which one appeals in vain to the resources of language. He shrank and sank back in his chair, his jaw dropped, and he vented a strange, imbecile cackling laugh. It was not an expression of philosophic mirth, of sense of the grotesqueness of an anti-climax. It was not an expression of any emotion whatever. It was simply a signal from a mind temporarily dethroned.

"What are you laughing at?" she said sharply.

His answer was a repetition of the idiotic sound.

"What’s the matter with you?" demanded she. "Please close your mouth."

It was a timely piece of advice; for his upper and false teeth had become partially dislodged and threatened to drop upon the shirt-bosom gayly showing between the lapels of his dark-blue silk house-coat. He slowly closed his mouth, moving his teeth back into place with his tongue—a gesture that made her face twitch with rage and disgust.

"Seven thousand dollars," he mumbled dazedly.

"I said less than half that," retorted she sharply.

"And I—thought you were—rich."

A peculiar rolling of the eyes and twisting of the lips gave her the idea that he was about to vent that repulsive sound again. "Don’t you laugh!" she cried. "I can’t bear your laugh—even at its best."

Suddenly he galvanized into fury. "This is an outrage!" he cried, waving his useless-looking white fists. "You have swindled me—SWINDLED me!"

Her head stopped aching. The pains in her feet either ceased or she forgot them. In a suspiciously calm voice she said: "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you are a swindler!" he shouted, banging one fist on the table and waving the other.

She acted as though his meaning were just dawning upon her. "Do you mean," said she tranquilly, "that you married me for money?"

"I mean that I thought you a substantial woman, and that I find you are an adventuress."

"Did you think," inquired she, "that any woman who had money would marry YOU?" She laughed very quietly. "You ARE a fool!"

He sat back to look at her. This mode of combat in such circumstances puzzled him.

"I knew that you were rich," she went on, "or you would not have dared offer yourself to me. All my friends were amazed at my stooping to accept you. Your father was an Irish Tammany contractor, wasn’t he?—a sort of criminal? But I simply had to marry. So I gave you my family and position and name in exchange for your wealth—a good bargain for you, but a poor one for me."

These references to HIS wealth were most disconcerting, especially as they were accompanied by remarks about his origin, of which he was so ashamed that he had changed the spelling of his name in the effort to clear himself of it. However, some retort was imperative. He looked at her and said:

"Swindler and adventuress!"

"Don’t repeat that lie," said she. "You are the adventurer—despite the fact that you are very rich."

"Don’t say that again," cried he. "I never said or pretended I was rich. I have about five thousand a year—and you’ll not get a cent of it, madam!"

She knew his income, but no one would have suspected it from her expression of horror. "What!" she gasped. "You dared to marry ME when you were a— beggar! Me—the widow of Henry Gower! You impudent old wreck! Why, you haven’t enough to pay my servants. What are we to live on, pray?"

"I don’t know what YOU’LL live on," replied he. " shall live as I always have."

"A beggar!" she exclaimed. "I—married to a beggar." She burst into tears. "How men take advantage of a woman alone! If my son had been near me! But there’s surely some law to protect me. Yes, I’m sure there is. Oh, I’ll punish you for having deceived me." Her eyes dried as she looked at him. "How dare you sit there? How dare you face me, you miserable fraud!"

Early in her acquaintance with him she had discovered that determining factors in his character were sensitiveness about his origin and sensitiveness about his social position. On this knowledge of his weaknesses was securely based her confidence that she could act as she pleased toward him. To ease her pains she proceeded to pour out her private opinion of him—all the disagreeable things, all the insults she had been storing up.

She watched him as only a woman can watch a man. She saw that his rage was not dangerous, that she was forcing him into a position where fear of her revenging herself by disgracing him would overcome anger at the collapse of his fatuous dreams of wealth. She did not despise him the more deeply for sitting there, for not flying from the room or trying to kill her or somehow compelling her to check that flow of insult. She already despised him utterly; also, she attached small importance to self-respect, having no knowledge of what that quality really is.

When she grew tired, she became quiet. They sat there a long time in silence. At last he ran up the white flag of abject surrender by saying:

"What’ll we live on—that’s what I’d like to know?"

An eavesdropper upon the preceding violence of upward of an hour would have assumed that at its end this pair must separate, never to see each other again voluntarily. But that idea, even as a possibility, had not entered the mind of either. They had lived a long time; they were practical people. They knew from the outset that somehow they must arrange to go on together. The alternative meant a mere pittance of alimony for her; meant for him social ostracism and the small income cut in half; meant for both scandal and confusion.

Said she fretfully: "Oh, I suppose we’ll get along, somehow. I don’t know anything about those things. I’ve always been looked after—kept from contact with the sordid side of life."

"That house you live in," he went on, "does it belong to you?"

She gave him a contemptuous glance. "Of course," said she. "What low people you must have been used to!"

"I thought perhaps you had rented it for your bunco game," retorted he. "The furniture, the horses, the motor—all those things—do they belong to you?"

"I shall leave the room if you insult me," said she.

"Did you include them in the seven thousand dollars?"

"The money is in the bank. It has nothing to do with our house and our property."

He reflected, presently said: "The horses and carriages must be sold at once—and all those servants dismissed except perhaps two. We can live in the house."

She grew purple with rage. "Sell MY carriages! Discharge MY servants! I’d like to see you try!"

"Who’s to pay for keeping up that establishment?" demanded he.

She was silent. She saw what he had in mind.

"If you want to keep that house and live comfortably," he went on, "you’ve got to cut expenses to the bone. You see that, don’t you?"

"I can’t live any way but the way I’ve been used to all my life," wailed she.

He eyed her disgustedly. Was there anything equal to a woman for folly?

"We’ve got to make the most of what little we have," said he.

"I tell you I don’t know anything about those things," repeated she. "You’ll have to look after them. Mildred and I aren’t like the women you’ve been used to. We are ladies."

Presbury’s rage boiled over again at the mention of Mildred. "That daughter of yours!" he cried. "What’s to be done about her? I’ve got no money to waste on her."

"You miserable Tammany THING!" exclaimed she. "Don’t you dare SPEAK of my daughter except in the most respectful way."

And once more she opened out upon him, wreaking upon him all her wrath against fate, all the pent-up fury of two years—fury which had been denied such fury’s usual and natural expression in denunciations of the dead bread-winner. The generous and ever-kind Henry Gower could not be to blame for her wretched plight; and, of course, she herself could not be to blame for it. So, until now there had been no scapegoat. Presbury therefore received the whole burden. He, alarmed lest a creature apparently so irrational, should in wild rage drive him away, ruin him socially, perhaps induce a sympathetic court to award her a large part of his income as alimony, said not a word in reply. He bade his wrath wait. Later on, when the peril was over, when he had a firm grip upon the situation—then he would take his revenge.

They gave up the expensive suite at the Waldorf that very day and returned to Hanging Rock. They alternated between silence and the coarsest, crudest quarrelings, for neither had the intelligence to quarrel wittily or the refinement to quarrel artistically. As soon as they arrived at the Gower house, Mildred was dragged into the wrangle.

"I married this terrible man for your sake," was the burden of her mother’s wail. "And he is a beggar— wants to sell off everything and dismiss the servants."

"You are a pair of paupers," cried the old man. "You are shameless tricksters. Be careful how you goad me!"

Mildred had anticipated an unhappy ending to her mother’s marriage, but she had not knowledge enough of life or of human nature to anticipate any such horrors as now began. Every day, all day long the vulgar fight raged. Her mother and her stepfather withdrew from each other’s presence only to think up fresh insults to fling at each other. As soon as they were armed they hastened to give battle again. She avoided Presbury. Her mother she could not avoid; and when her mother was not in combat with him, she was weeping or wailing or railing to Mildred.

It was at Mildred’s urging that her mother acquiesced in Presbury’s plans for reducing expenses within income. At first the girl, even more ignorant than her mother of practical affairs, did not appreciate the wisdom, not to say the necessity, of what he wished to do, but soon she saw that he was right, that the servants must go, that the horses and carriages and the motors must be sold. When she was convinced and had convinced her mother, she still did not realize what the thing really meant. Not until she no longer had a maid did she comprehend. To a woman who has never had a maid, or who has taken on a maid as a luxury, it will seem an exaggeration to say that Mildred felt as helpless as a baby lying alone in a crib before it has learned to crawl. Yet that is rather an understatement of her plight. The maid left in the afternoon. Mildred, not without inconveniences that had in the novelty their amusing side, contrived to dress that evening for dinner and to get to bed; but when she awakened in the morning and was ready to dress, the loss of Therese became a tragedy. It took the girl nearly four hours to get herself together presentably—and then, never had she looked so unkempt. With her hair, thick and soft, she could do nothing.

"What a wonderful person Therese was!" thought she. "And I always regarded her as rather stupid." Her mother, who had not had a maid until she was about thirty and had never become completely dependent, fared somewhat better, though, hearing her moans, you would have thought she was faring worse.

Mildred’s unhappiness increased from day to day, as her wardrobe fell into confusion and disrepair. She felt that she must rise to the situation, must teach herself, must save herself from impending dowdiness and slovenliness. But her brain seemed to be paralyzed. She did not know how or where to begin to learn. She often in secret gave way to the futility of tears.

There were now only a cook and one housemaid and a man of all work—all three newcomers, for Presbury insisted—most wisely—that none of the servants of the luxurious, wasteful days would be useful in the new circumstances. He was one of those small, orderly men who have a genius for just such situations as the one he now proceeded to grapple with and solve. In his pleasure at managing everything about that house, in distributing the work among the three servants, in marketing, and, in inspecting purchases and nosing into the garbage-barrel, in looking for dust on pictureframes and table-tops and for neglected weeds in the garden walks—in this multitude of engrossing delights he forgot his anger over the trick that had been played upon him. He still fought with his wife and denounced her and met insult with insult. But that, too, was one of his pleasures. Also, he felt that on the whole he had done well in marrying. He had been lonely as a bachelor, had had no one to talk with, or to quarrel with, nothing to do. The marriage was not so expensive, as his wife had brought him a house—and it such a one as he had always regarded as the apogee of elegance. Living was not dear in Hanging Rock, if one understood managing and gave time to it. And socially he was at last established.

Soon his wife was about as contented as she had ever been in her life. She hated and despised her husband, but quarreling with him and railing against him gave her occupation and aim—two valuable assets toward happiness that she had theretofore lacked. Her living —shelter, food, clothing enough—was now secure. But the most important factor of all in her content was the one apparently too trivial to be worthy of record. From girlhood she could not recall a single day in which she had not suffered from her feet. And she had been ashamed to say anything about it—had never let anyone, even her maid, see her feet, which were about the only unsightly part of her. None had guessed the cause of her chronic ill-temper until Presbury, that genius for the little, said within a week of their marriage:

"You talk and act like a woman with chronic corns."

He did not dream of the effect this chance thrust had upon his wife. For the first time he had really "landed." She concealed her fright and her shame as best she could and went on quarreling more viciously than ever. But he presently returned to the attack. Said he:

"Your feet hurt you. I’m sure they do. Now that I think of it, you walk that way."

"I suppose I deserve my fate," said she. "When a woman marries beneath her she must expect insult and low conversation."

"You must cure your feet," said he. "I’ll not live in the house with a person who is made fiendish by corns. I think it’s only corns. I see no signs of bunions."

"You brute!" cried his wife, rushing from the room.

But when they met again, he at once resumed the subject, telling her just how she could cure herself—and he kept on telling her, she apparently ignoring but secretly acting on his advice. He knew what he was about, and her feet grew better, grew well—and she was happier than she had been since girlhood when she began ruining her feet with tight shoes.

Six months after the marriage, Presbury and his wife were getting on about as comfortably as it is given to average humanity to get on in this world of incessant struggle between uncomfortable man and his uncomfortable environment. But Mildred had become more and more unhappy. Her mother, sometimes angrily, again reproachfully—and that was far harder to bear —blamed her for "my miserable marriage to this low, quarrelsome brute." Presbury let no day pass without telling her openly that she was a beggar living off him, that she would better marry soon or he would take drastic steps to release himself of the burden. When he attacked her before her mother, there was a violent quarrel from which Mildred fled to hide in her room or in the remotest part of the garden. When he hunted her out to insult her alone, she sat or stood with eyes down and face ghastly pale, mute, quivering. She did not interrupt, did not try to escape. She was like the chained and spiritless dog that crouches and takes the shower of blows from its cruel master.

Where could she go? Nowhere. What could she do? Nothing. In the days of prosperity she had regarded herself as proud and high spirited. She now wondered at herself! What had become of the pride? What of the spirit? She avoided looking at her image in the glass—that thin, pallid face, those circled eyes, the drawn, sick expression about the mouth and nose. "I’m stunned," she said to herself. "I’ve been stunned ever since father’s death. I’ve never recovered—nor has mother." And she gave way to tears—for her father, she fancied; in fact, from shame at her weakness and helplessness. She thought—hoped—that she would not be thus feeble and cowardly, if she were not living at home, in the house she loved, the house where she had spent her whole life. And such a house! Comfort and luxury and taste; every room, every corner of the grounds, full of the tenderest and most beautiful associations. Also, there was her position in Hanging Rock. Everywhere else she would be a stranger and would have either no position at all or one worse than that of the utter outsider. There, she was of the few looked up to by the whole community. No one knew, or even suspected, how she was degraded by her stepfather. Before the world he was courteous and considerate toward her as toward everybody. Indeed, Presbury’s natural instincts were gentle and kindly. His hatred of Mildred and his passion for humiliating her were the result of his conviction that he had been tricked into the marriage and his inability to gratify his resentment upon his wife. He could not make the mother suffer; but he could make the daughter suffer—and he did. Besides, she was of no use to him and would presently be an expense.

"Your money will soon be gone," he said to her. "If you paid your just share of the expenses it would be gone now. When it is gone, what will you do?"

She was silent.

"Your mother has written to your brother about you."

Mildred lifted her head, a gleam of her former spirit in her eyes. Then she remembered, and bent her gaze upon the ground.

"But he, like the cur that he is, answered through a secretary that he wished to have nothing to do with either of you."

Mildred guessed that Frank had made the marriage an excuse.

"Surely some of your relatives will do something for you. I have my hands full, supporting your mother. I don’t propose to have two strapping, worthless women hanging from my neck."

She bent her head lower, and remained silent.

"I warn you to bestir yourself," he went on. "I give you four months. After the first of the year you can’t stay here unless you pay your share—your third."

No answer.

"You hear what I say, miss?" he demanded.

"Yes," replied she.

"If you had any sense you wouldn’t wait until your last cent was gone. You’d go to New York now and get something to do."

"What?" she asked—all she could trust herself to speak.

"How should know?" retorted he furiously. "you are a stranger to me. You’ve been educated, I assume. Surely there’s something you can do. You’ve been out six years now, and have had no success, for you’re neither married nor engaged. You can’t call it success to be flattered and sought by people who wanted invitations to this house when it was a social center."

He paused for response from her. None came.

"You admit you are a failure?" he said sharply.

"Yes," said she.

"You must have realized it several years ago," he went on. "Instead of allowing your mother to keep on wasting money in entertaining lavishly here to give you a chance to marry, you should have been preparing yourself to earn a living." A pause. "Isn’t that true, miss?"

He had a way of pronouncing the word "miss" that made it an epithet, a sneer at her unmarried and unmarriageable state. She colored, paled, murmured:


"Then, better late than never. You’ll do well to follow my advice and go to New York and look about you."

"I’ll—I’ll think of it," stammered she.

And she did think of it. But in all her life she had never considered the idea of money-making. That was something for men, and for the middle and lower classes —while Hanging Rock was regarded as most noisomely middle class by fashionable people, it did not so regard itself. Money-making was not for ladies. Like all her class, she was a constant and a severe critic of the women of the lower orders who worked for her as milliners, dressmakers, shop-attendants, cooks, maids. But, as she now realized, it is one thing to pass upon the work of others; it is another thing to do work oneself. She— There was literally nothing that she could do. Any occupation, even the most menial, was either beyond her skill or beyond her strength, or beyond both.

Suddenly she recalled that she could sing. Her prostrate spirit suddenly leaped erect. Yes, she could sing! Her voice had been praised by experts. Her singing had been in demand at charity entertainments where amateurs had to compete with professionals. Then down she dropped again. She sang well enough to know how badly she sang—the long and toilsome and expensive training that lay between her and operatic or concert or even music-hall stage. Her voice was fine at times. Again—most of the time—it was unreliable. No, she could not hope to get paying employment even as a church choir-singer. Miss Dresser who sang in the choir of the Good Shepherd for ten dollars a Sunday, had not nearly so good a voice as she, but it was reliable.

"There is nothing I can do—nothing!"

All at once, with no apparent bridge across the vast chasm, her heart went out, not in pity but in human understanding and sisterly sympathy, to the women of the pariah class at whom, during her stops in New York, she had sometimes gazed in wonder and horror. "Why, we and they are only a step apart," she said to herself in amazement. "We and they are much nearer than my maid or the cook and they!"

And then her heart skipped a beat and her skin grew cold and a fog swirled over her brain. If she should be cast out—if she could find no work and no one to support her—would she— "O my God!" she moaned. "I must be crazy, to think such thoughts. I never could! I’d die first—DIE!" But if anyone had pictured to her the kind of life she was now leading—the humiliation and degradation she was meekly enduring with no thought of flight, with an ever stronger desire to stay on, regardless of pride and self-respect—if anyone had pictured this to her as what she would endure, what would she have said? She could see herself flashing scornful denial, saying that she would rather kill herself. Yet she was living—and was not even contemplating suicide as a way out!

A few days after Presbury gave her warning, her mother took advantage of his absence for his religiously observed daily constitutional to say to her:

"I hope you didn’t think I was behind him in what he said to you about going away?"

Mildred had not thought so, but in her mother’s guilty tone and guiltier eyes she now read that her mother wished her to go.

"It’d be awful for me to be left here alone with him," wailed her mother insincerely. "Of course we’ve got no money, and beggars can’t be choosers. But it’d just about kill me to have you go."

Mildred could not speak.

"I don’t know a thing about money," Mrs. Presbury went on. "Your father always looked after everything." She had fallen into the way of speaking of her first husband as part of some vague, remote past, which, indeed, he had become for her. "This man"— meaning Presbury—"has only about five thousand a year, as you know. I suppose that’s as small as he says it is. I remember our bills for one month used to be as much or more than that." She waved her useless, pretty hands helplessly. "I don’t see HOW we are to get on, Mildred!"

Her mother wished her to go! Her mother had fallen under the influence of Presbury—her mother, womanlike, or rather, ladylike, was of kin to the helpless, flabby things that float in the sea and attach themselves to whatever they happen to lodge against. Her mother wished her to go!

"At the same time," Mrs. Presbury went on, "I can’t live without somebody here to stand between me and him. I’d kill him or kill myself."

Mildred muttered some excuse and fled from the room, to lock herself in.

But when she came forth again to descend to dinner, she had resolved nothing, because there was nothing to resolve. When she was a child she leaned from the nursery window one day and saw a stable-boy drowning a rat that was in a big, oval, wire cage with a wooden bottom. The boy pressed the cage slowly down in the vat of water. The rat, in the very top of the cage, watched the floor sink, watched the water rise. And as it watched it uttered a strange, shrill, feeble sound which she could still remember distinctly and terribly. It seemed to her now that if she were to utter any sound at all, it would be that one.


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Chicago: David Graham Phillips, "I," The Price She Paid, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in The Price She Paid (New York: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1894), Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2024,

MLA: Phillips, David Graham. "I." The Price She Paid, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in The Price She Paid, Vol. 22, New York, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1894, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Phillips, DG, 'I' in The Price She Paid, ed. . cited in 1894, The Price She Paid, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from