The telephone in the hall rang startlingly, unexpectedly.
“Let me go, Milly.”
“But who in the world! Nobody knows we’re—”
He was at the telephone. “Who? Who? Oh.” He turned: “It’s Miz’ Merz. She says her little Minnie went by at six and saw a light in the house. She—Hello! What?... She says she wants to know if she’s to save time for you at the end of the month for the April cleaning.”
Mrs. Brewster took the receiver from him: “The
twenty-fifth, as usual,
Miz’ Merz. The twenty-fifth, as usual. The attic must be a sight.”
Old lady Mandle was a queen. Her demesne, undisputed, was a six-room flat on South Park Avenue, Chicago. Her faithful servitress was Anna, an ancient person of Polish nativity, bad teeth, and a cunning hand at cookery. Not so cunning, however, but that old lady Mandle’s was more artful still in such matters as meat-soups, broad noodles, fish with egg sauce, and the like. As ladies-in-waiting, flattering yet jealous, admiring though resentful, she had Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser, themselves old ladies and erstwhile queens, now deposed. And the crown jewel in old lady Mandle’s diadem was my son Hugo.
Mrs. Mandle was not only a queen but a spoiled old lady. And not only a spoiled old lady but a confessedly spoiled old lady. Bridling and wagging her white head she admitted her pampered state. It was less an admission than a boast. Her son Hugo had spoiled her. This, too, she acknowledged. “My son Hugo spoils me,” she would say, and there was no proper humbleness in her voice. Though he was her only son she never spoke of him merely as “Hugo,” or “My son,” but always as “My son Hugo.” She rolled the three words on her tongue as though they were delicious morsels from which she would extract all possible savour and sweetness. And when she did this you could almost hear the click of the stiffening spines of Mrs. Lamb, Mrs. Brunswick, and Mrs. Wormser. For they envied her her son Hugo, and resented him as only three old ladies could who were living, tolerated and dependent, with their married sons and their sons’ wives.
Any pleasant summer afternoon at four o’clock you might have seen Mrs. Mandle holding court. The four old women sat, a decent black silk row, on a shady bench in Washington Park (near the refectory and afternoon coffee). Three of them complained about their daughters-in-law. One of them bragged about her son. Adjective crowding adjective, pride in her voice, majesty in her mien, she bragged about my son Hugo.