“The Bookkeeper’s Wife” by Willa Cather
Nobody but the janitor was stirring about the offices of the Remsen Paper Company, and still Percy Bixby sat at his desk, crouched on his high stool and staring out at the tops of the tall buildings flushed with the winter sunset, at the hundreds of windows, so many rectangles of white electric light, flashing against the broad waves of violet that ebbed across the sky. His ledgers were all in their places, his desk was in order, his office coat on its peg, and yet Percy’s smooth, thin face wore the look of anxiety and strain which usually meant that he was behind in his work. He was trying to persuade himself to accept a loan from the company without the company’s knowledge. As a matter of fact, he had already accepted it. His books were fixed, the money, in a black-leather bill-book, was already inside his waistcoat pocket.
He had still time to change his mind, to rectify the false figures in his ledger, and to tell Stella Brown that they couldn’t possibly get married next month. There he always halted in his reasoning, and went back to the beginning.
The Remsen Paper Company was a very wealthy concern, with easy, old-fashioned working methods. They did a longtime credit business with safe customers, who never thought of paying up very close on their large indebtedness. From the payments on these large accounts Percy had taken a hundred dollars here and two hundred there until he had made up the thousand he needed. So long as he stayed by the books himself and attended to the mail-orders he couldn’t possibly be found out. He could move these little shortages about from account to account indefinitely. He could have all the time he needed to pay back the deficit, and more time than he needed.
Although he was so far along in one course of action, his mind still clung resolutely to the other. He did not believe he was going to do it. He was the least of a sharper in the world. Being scrupulously honest even in the most trifling matters was a pleasure to him. He was the sort of young man that Socialists hate more than they hate capitalists. He loved his desk, he loved his books, which had no handwriting in them but his own. He never thought of resenting the fact that he had written away in those books the good red years between twenty-one and twenty-seven. He would have hated to let any one else put so much as a pen-scratch in them. He liked all the boys about the office; his desk, worn smooth by the sleeves of his alpaca coat; his rulers and inks and pens and calendars. He had a great pride in working economics, and he always got so far ahead when supplies were distributed that he had drawers full of pencils and pens and rubber bands against a rainy day.
Percy liked regularity: to get his work done on time, to have his half-day off every Saturday, to go to the theater Saturday night, to buy a new necktie twice a month, to appear in a new straw hat on the right day in May, and to know what was going on in New York. He read the morning and evening papers coming and going on the elevated, and preferred journals of approximate reliability. He got excited about ballgames and elections and business failures, was not above an interest in murders and divorce scandals, and he checked the news off as neatly as he checked his mail-orders. In short, Percy Bixby was like the model pupil who is satisfied with his lessons and his teachers and his holidays, and who would gladly go to school all his life. He had never wanted anything outside his routine until he wanted Stella Brown to marry him, and that had upset everything.
It wasn’t, he told himself for the hundredth time, that she was extravagant. Not a bit of it. She was like all girls. Moreover, she made good money, and why should she marry unless she could better herself? The trouble was that he had lied to her about his salary. There were a lot of fellows rushing Mrs. Brown’s five daughters, and they all seemed to have fixed on Stella as first choice and this or that one of the sisters as second. Mrs. Brown thought it proper to drop an occasional hint in the presence of these young men to the effect that she expected Stella to “do well.” It went without saying that hair and complexion like Stella’s could scarcely be expected to do poorly. Most of the boys who went to the house and took the girls out in a bunch to dances and movies seemed to realize this. They merely wanted a whirl with Stella before they settled down to one of her sisters. It was tacitly understood that she came too high for them. Percy had sensed all this through those slumbering instincts which awake in us all to befriend us in love or in danger.
But there was one of his rivals, he knew, who was a man to be reckoned with. Charley Greengay was a young salesman who wore tailor-made clothes and spotted waistcoats, and had a necktie for every day in the month. His air was that of a young man who is out for things that come high and who is going to get them. Mrs. Brown was ever and again dropping a word before Percy about how the girl that took Charley would have her flat furnished by the best furniture people, and her china-closet stocked with the best ware, and would have nothing to worry about but nicks and scratches. It was because he felt himself pitted against this pulling power of Greengay’s that Percy had brazenly lied to Mrs. Brown, and told her that his salary had been raised to fifty a week, and that now he wanted to get married.
When he threw out this challenge to Mother Brown, Percy was getting thirty-five dollars a week, and he knew well enough that there were several hundred thousand young men in New York who would do his work as well as he did for thirty.
These were the factors in Percy’s present situation. He went over them again and again as he sat stooping on his tall stool. He had quite lost track of time when he heard the janitor call good night to the watchman. Without thinking what he was doing, he slid into his overcoat, caught his hat, and rushed out to the elevator, which was waiting for the janitor. The moment the car dropped, it occurred to him that the thing was decided without his having made up his mind at all. The familiar floors passed him, ten, nine, eight, seven. By the time he reached the fifth, there was no possibility of going back; the click of the drop-lever seemed to settle that. The money was in his pocket. Now, he told himself as he hurried out into the exciting clamor of the street, he was not going to worry about it any more.
When Percy reached the Browns’ flat on 123d Street that evening he felt just the slightest chill in Stella’s greeting. He could make that all right, he told himself, as he kissed her lightly in the dark three-by-four entrance-hall. Percy’s courting had been prosecuted mainly in the Bronx or in winged pursuit of a Broadway car. When he entered the crowded sitting-room he greeted Mrs. Brown respectfully and the four girls playfully. They were all piled on one couch, reading the continued story in the evening paper, and they didn’t think it necessary to assume more formal attitudes for Percy. They looked up over the smeary pink sheets of paper, and handed him, as Percy said, the same old jolly:
“Hullo, Perc’! Come to see me, ain’t you? So flattered!”
“Any sweet goods on you, Perc’? Anything doing in the bong-bong line to-night?”
“Look at his new neckwear! Say, Perc’, remember me. That tie would go lovely with my new tailored waist.”
“Quit your kiddin’, girls!” called Mrs. Brown, who was drying shirt-waists on the dining-room radiator. “And, Percy, mind the rugs when you’re steppin’ round among them gum-drops.”
Percy fired his last shot at the recumbent figures, and followed Stella into the dining-room, where the table and two large easy-chairs formed, in Mrs. Brown’s estimation, a proper background for a serious suitor.
“I say, Stell’,” he began as he walked about the table with his hands in his pockets, “seems to me we ought to begin buying our stuff.” She brightened perceptibly. “Ah,” Percy thought, “so that was the trouble!” “To-morrow’s Saturday; why can’t we make an afternoon of it?” he went on cheerfully. “Shop till we’re tired, then go to Houtin’s for dinner, and end up at the theater.”
As they bent over the lists she had made of things needed, Percy glanced at her face. She was very much out of her sisters’ class and out of his, and he kept congratulating himself on his nerve. He was going in for something much too handsome and expensive and distinguished for him, he felt, and it took courage to be a plunger. To begin with, Stella was the sort of girl who had to be well dressed. She had pale primrose hair, with bluish tones in it, very soft and fine, so that it lay smooth however she dressed it, and pale-blue eyes, with blond eyebrows and long, dark lashes. She would have been a little too remote and languid even for the fastidious Percy had it not been for her hard, practical mouth, with lips that always kept their pink even when the rest of her face was pale. Her employers, who at first might be struck by her indifference, understood that anybody with that sort of mouth would get through the work.
After the shopping-lists had been gone over, Percy took up the question of the honeymoon. Stella said she had been thinking of Atlantic City. Percy met her with firmness. Whatever happened, he couldn’t leave his books now.
“I want to do my traveling right here on Forty-second Street, with a high-price show every night,” he declared. He made out an itinerary, punctuated by theaters and restaurants, which Stella consented to accept as a substitute for Atlantic City.
“They give your fellows a week off when they’re married, don’t they?” she asked.
“Yes, but I’ll want to drop into the office every morning to look after my mail. That’s only businesslike.”
“I’d like to have you treated as well as the others, though.” Stella turned the rings about on her pale hand and looked at her polished finger-tips.
“I’ll look out for that. What do you say to a little walk, Stell’?” Percy put the question coaxingly. When Stella was pleased with him she went to walk with him, since that was the only way in which Percy could ever see her alone. When she was displeased, she said she was too tired to go out. To-night she smiled at him incredulously, and went to put on her hat and gray fur piece.
Once they were outside, Percy turned into a shadowy side street that was only partly built up, a dreary waste of derricks and foundation holes, but comparatively solitary. Stella liked Percy’s steady, sympathetic silences; she was not a chatterbox herself. She often wondered why she was going to marry Bixby instead of Charley Greengay. She knew that Charley would go further in the world. Indeed, she had often coolly told herself that Percy would never go very far. But, as she admitted with a shrug, she was “weak to Percy.” In the capable New York stenographer, who estimated values coldly and got the most for the least outlay, there was something left that belonged to another kind of woman—something that liked the very things in Percy that were not good business assets. However much she dwelt upon the effectiveness of Greengay’s dash and color and assurance, her mind always came back to Percy’s neat little head, his clean-cut face, and warm, clear, gray eyes, and she liked them better than Charley’s fullness and blurred floridness. Having reckoned up their respective chances with no doubtful result, she opposed a mild obstinacy to her own good sense. “I guess I’ll take Percy, anyway,” she said simply, and that was all the good her clever business brain did her.
Percy spent a night of torment, lying tense on his bed in the dark, and figuring out how long it would take him to pay back the money he was advancing to himself. Any fool could do it in five years, he reasoned, but he was going to do it in three. The trouble was that his expensive courtship had taken every penny of his salary. With competitors like Charley Greengay, you had to spend money or drop out. Certain birds, he reflected ruefully, are supplied with more attractive plumage when they are courting, but nature hadn’t been so thoughtful for men. When Percy reached the office in the morning he climbed on his tall stool and leaned his arms on his ledger. He was so glad to feel it there that he was faint and weak-kneed.
Oliver Remsen, Junior, had brought new blood into the Remsen Paper Company. He married shortly after Percy Bixby did, and in the five succeeding years he had considerably enlarged the company’s business and profits. He had been particularly successful in encouraging efficiency and loyalty in the employees. From the time he came into the office he had stood for shorter hours, longer holidays, and a generous consideration of men’s necessities. He came out of college on the wave of economic reform, and he continued to read and think a good deal about how the machinery of labor is operated. He knew more about the men who worked for him than their mere office records.
Young Remsen was troubled about Percy Bixby because he took no summer vacations—always asked for the two weeks’ extra pay instead. Other men in the office had skipped a vacation now and then, but Percy had stuck to his desk for five years, had tottered to his stool through attacks of grippe and tonsilitis. He seemed to have grown fast to his ledger, and it was to this that Oliver objected. He liked his men to stay men, to look like men and live like men. He remembered how alert and wide-awake Bixby had seemed to him when he himself first came into the office. He had picked Bixby out as the most intelligent and interested of his father’s employees, and since then had often wondered why he never seemed to see chances to forge ahead. Promotions, of course, went to the men who went after them. When Percy’s baby died, he went to the funeral, and asked Percy to call on him if he needed money. Once when he chanced to sit down by Bixby on the elevated and found him reading Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” he asked him to make use of his own large office library. Percy thanked him, but he never came for any books. Oliver wondered whether his bookkeeper really tried to avoid him.
One evening Oliver met the Bixbys in the lobby of a theater. He introduced Mrs. Remsen to them, and held them for some moments in conversation. When they got into their motor, Mrs. Remsen said:
“Is that little man afraid of you, Oliver? He looked like a scared rabbit.”
Oliver snapped the door, and said with a shade of irritation:
“I don’t know what’s the matter with him. He’s the fellow I’ve told you about who never takes a vacation. I half believe it’s his wife. She looks pitiless enough for anything.”
“She’s very pretty of her kind,” mused Mrs. Remsen, “but rather chilling. One can see that she has ideas about elegance.”
“Rather unfortunate ones for a bookkeeper’s wife. I surmise that Percy felt she was overdressed, and that made him awkward with me. I’ve always suspected that fellow of good taste.”
After that, when Remsen passed the counting-room and saw Percy screwed up over his ledger, he often remembered Mrs. Bixby, with her cold, pale eyes and long lashes, and her expression that was something between indifference and discontent. She rose behind Percy’s bent shoulders like an apparition.
One spring afternoon Remsen was closeted in his private office with his lawyer until a late hour. As he came down the long hall in the dusk he glanced through the glass partition into the counting-room, and saw Percy Bixby huddled up on his tall stool, though it was too dark to work. Indeed, Bixby’s ledger was closed, and he sat with his two arms resting on the brown cover. He did not move a muscle when young Remsen entered.
“You are late, Bixby, and so am I,” Oliver began genially as he crossed to the front of the room and looked out at the lighted windows of other tall buildings. “The fact is, I’ve been doing something that men have a foolish way of putting off. I’ve been making my will.”
“Yes, sir.” Percy brought it out with a deep breath.
“Glad to be through with it,” Oliver went on. “Mr. Melton will bring the paper back to-morrow, and I’d like to ask you to be one of the witnesses.”
“I’d be very proud, Mr. Remsen.”
“Thank you, Bixby. Good night.” Remsen took up his hat just as Percy slid down from his stool.
“Mr. Remsen, I’m told you’re going to have the books gone over.”
“Why, yes, Bixby. Don’t let that trouble you. I’m taking in a new partner, you know, an old college friend. Just because he is a friend, I insist upon all the usual formalities. But it is a formality, and I’ll guarantee the expert won’t make a scratch on your books. Good night. You’d better be coming, too.” Remsen had reached the door when he heard “Mr. Remsen!” in a desperate voice behind him. He turned, and saw Bixby standing uncertainly at one end of the desk, his hand still on his ledger, his uneven shoulders drooping forward and his head hanging as if he were seasick. Remsen came back and stood at the other end of the long desk. It was too dark to see Bixby’s face clearly.
“What is it, Bixby?”
“What’s that, Bixby?” Young Remsen spoke in a tone of polite surprise. He felt painfully embarrassed.
“Yes, sir. I thought I’d get it all paid back before this. I’ve put back three hundred, but the books are still seven hundred out of true. I’ve played the shortages about from account to account these five years, but an expert would find ’em in twenty-four hours.”
“I don’t just understand how—” Oliver stopped and shook his head.
“I held it out of the Western remittances, Mr. Remsen. They were coming in heavy just then. I was up against it. I hadn’t saved anything to marry on, and my wife thought I was getting more money than I was. Since we’ve been married, I’ve never had the nerve to tell her. I could have paid it all back if it hadn’t been for the unforeseen expenses.”
“Being married is largely unforeseen expenses, Percy. There’s only one way to fix this up: I’ll give you seven hundred dollars in cash to-morrow, and you can give me your personal note, with the understanding that I hold ten dollars a week out of your pay-check until it is paid. I think you ought to tell your wife exactly how you are fixed, though. You can’t expect her to help you much when she doesn’t know.”
That night Mrs. Bixby was sitting in their flat, waiting for her husband. She was dressed for a bridge party, and often looked with impatience from her paper to the Mission clock, as big as a coffin and with nothing but two weights dangling in its hollow framework. Percy had been loath to buy the clock when they got their furniture, and he had hated it ever since. Stella had changed very little since she came into the flat a bride. Then she wore her hair in a Floradora pompadour; now she wore it hooded close about her head like a scarf, in a rather smeary manner, like an Impressionist’s brush-work. She heard her husband come in and close the door softly. While he was taking off his hat in the narrow tunnel of a hall, she called to him:
“I hope you’ve had something to eat down-town. You’ll have to dress right away.” Percy came in and sat down. She looked up from the evening paper she was reading. “You’ve no time to sit down. We must start in fifteen minutes.”
He shaded his eyes from the glaring overhead light.
“I’m afraid I can’t go anywhere to-night. I’m all in.”
Mrs. Bixby rattled her paper, and turned from the theatrical page to the fashions.
“You’ll feel better after you dress. We won’t stay late.”
Her even persistence usually conquered her husband. She never forgot anything she had once decided to do. Her manner of following it up grew more chilly, but never weaker. To-night there was no spring in Percy. He closed his eyes and replied without moving:
“I can’t go. You had better telephone the Burks we aren’t coming. I have to tell you something disagreeable.”
“I certainly am not going to disappoint the Burks and stay at home to talk about anything disagreeable.”
“You’re not very sympathetic, Stella.”
She turned away.
“If I were, you’d soon settle down into a pretty dull proposition. We’d have no social life now if I didn’t keep at you.”
Percy roused himself a little.
“Social life? Well, we’ll have to trim that pretty close for a while. I’m in debt to the company. We’ve been living beyond our means ever since we were married.”
“We can’t live on less than we do,” Stella said quietly. “No use in taking that up again.”
Percy sat up, clutching the arms of his chair.
“We’ll have to take it up. I’m seven hundred dollars short, and the books are to be audited to-morrow. I told young Remsen and he’s going to take my note and hold the money out of my pay-checks. He could send me to jail, of course.”
Stella turned and looked down at him with a gleam of interest.
“Oh, you’ve been playing solitaire with the books, have you? And he’s found you out! I hope I’ll never see that man again. Sugar face!” She said this with intense acrimony. Her forehead flushed delicately, and her eyes were full of hate. Young Remsen was not her idea of a “business man.”
Stella went into the other room. When she came back she wore her evening coat and carried long gloves and a black scarf. This she began to arrange over her hair before the mirror above the false fireplace. Percy lay inert in the Morris chair and watched her. Yes, he understood; it was very difficult for a woman with hair like that to be shabby and to go without things. Her hair made her conspicuous, and it had to be lived up to. It had been the deciding factor in his fate.
Stella caught the lace over one ear with a large gold hairpin. She repeated this until she got a good effect. Then turning to Percy, she began to draw on her gloves.
“I’m not worrying any, because I’m going back into business,” she said firmly. “I meant to, anyway, if you didn’t get a raise the first of the year. I have the offer of a good position, and we can live in an apartment hotel.”
Percy was on his feet in an instant.
“I won’t have you grinding in any office. That’s flat.”
Stella’s lower lip quivered in a commiserating smile. “Oh, I won’t lose my health. Charley Greengay’s a partner in his concern now, and he wants a private secretary.”
Percy drew back.
“You can’t work for Greengay. He’s got too bad a reputation. You’ve more pride than that, Stella.”
The thin sweep of color he knew so well went over Stella’s face.
“His business reputation seems to be all right,” she commented, working the kid on with her left hand.
“What if it is?” Percy broke out. “He’s the cheapest kind of a skate. He gets into scrapes with the girls in his own office. The last one got into the newspapers, and he had to pay the girl a wad.”
“He don’t get into scrapes with his books, anyway, and he seems to be able to stand getting into the papers. I excuse Charley. His wife’s a pill.”
“I suppose you think he’d have been all right if he’d married you,” said Percy, bitterly.
“Yes, I do.” Stella buttoned her glove with an air of finishing something, and then looked at Percy without animosity. “Charley and I both have sporty tastes, and we like excitement. You might as well live in Newark if you’re going to sit at home in the evening. You oughtn’t to have married a business woman; you need somebody domestic. There’s nothing in this sort of life for either of us.”
“That means, I suppose, that you’re going around with Greengay and his crowd?”
“Yes, that’s my sort of crowd, and you never did fit into it. You’re too intellectual. I’ve always been proud of you, Percy. You’re better style than Charley, but that gets tiresome. You will never burn much red fire in New York, now, will you?”
Percy did not reply. He sat looking at the minute-hand of the eviscerated Mission clock. His wife almost never took the trouble to argue with him.
“You’re old style, Percy,” she went on. “Of course everybody marries and wishes they hadn’t, but nowadays people get over it. Some women go ahead on the quiet, but I’m giving it to you straight. I’m going to work for Greengay. I like his line of business, and I meet people well. Now I’m going to the Burks’.”
Percy dropped his hands limply between his knees.
“I suppose,” he brought out, “the real trouble is that you’ve decided my earning power is not very great.”
“That’s part of it, and part of it is you’re old-fashioned.” Stella paused at the door and looked back. “What made you rush me, anyway, Percy?” she asked indulgently. “What did you go and pretend to be a spender and get tied up with me for?”
“I guess everybody wants to be a spender when he’s in love,” Percy replied.
Stella shook her head mournfully.
“No, you’re a spender or you’re not. Greengay has been broke three times, fired, down and out, black-listed. But he’s always come back, and he always will. You will never be fired, but you’ll always be poor.” She turned and looked back again before she went out.
Six months later Bixby came to young Oliver Remsen one afternoon and said he would like to have twenty dollars a week held out of his pay until his debt was cleared off.
Oliver looked up at his sallow employee and asked him how he could spare as much as that.
Oliver looked annoyed, and asked him if nothing could be done to readjust his domestic affairs. Bixby said no; they would probably remain as they were.
“But where are you living, Bixby? How have you arranged things?” the young man asked impatiently.
“I’m very comfortable. I live in a boarding-house and have my own furniture. There are several fellows there who are fixed the same way. Their wives went back into business, and they drifted apart.”
With a baffled expression Remsen stared at the uneven shoulders under the skin-fitting alpaca desk coat as his bookkeeper went out. He had meant to do something for Percy, but somehow, he reflected, one never did do anything for a fellow who had been stung as hard as that.