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The Glass Door by Mary Tracy Earle

 

Charlotte and Emory Blake lived at the old Blake place, on the little plateau at the foot of the Colton hill, in a vine-covered stone cottage. The place had belonged to old George Blake. When it came into Emory's hands he sold it to Uncle Billy Kerr, and used the money for a course in a school of pharmacy. Later, Charlotte, who was then Charlotte Hastings, bought it, and, after her marriage, finished paying for it out of its own products, while her husband talked politics or played chess in his drug-store. It was said that when Blake was doing either of these things he was as likely as not to keep a customer standing a half-hour before waiting on him,—and this not so much out of interest in his discussion or his game as from complete lack of interest in the business of selling drugs.

North Pass correctly interpreted this general nonchalance of Blake's as a sign that he was an unwilling partner in the matrimonial venture he had undertaken. Indeed, it was known that the engagement had hung fire for years through no fault of Charlotte's, and everybody had noticed that such mildly loverlike enthusiasm for her society as Blake had shown before he went to the school of pharmacy had disappeared from his manner when he returned. Charlotte had told people that they should marry as soon as he came home, yet the wedding did not come off for two years. During this time it was noticed that although she held her head high and was fertile in good reasons for the delay, her girlish look left her, her features sharpened, and her speech developed an acid reaction; it was at this time, too, that she bargained with Uncle Billy Kerr for the old Blake place, and also borrowed money from the old man to put up a new house. When people saw the house going up it was generally supposed that she was preparing either to rent it or to live in it as an old maid; but when it was completed, to the surprise of every one, Charlotte and Blake were married and moved in.

The morning after the wedding Blake was in his drug-store playing chess as languidly as ever, but Charlotte spent her whole day planting a vegetable-garden, in a mood of unreckoning exaltation such as rarely comes to a woman of her nature, and never comes to her but once. She had felt no such blissful security when Blake and she were first engaged. Blake was weak. She had felt it intensely even when her infatuation for him was too fresh to permit her to reason, and a weak man while unmarried is peculiarly liable to changes of affection. But, on the other hand, a weak man once safely married is completely in the power of his wife; during the last two years of their engagement certain illusions regarding herself and Blake had fallen from her eyes; she had stated both those facts plainly to herself, and they had helped her to decide upon a course of action. There had been moments when she had despised herself for using her stronger will to coerce Blake into the fulfilment of his engagement, but on the morning after the wedding these moments were forgotten, and, as she hoed and raked and planted in the brisk air and the bright spring sunshine, her whole existence seemed uplifted by the knowledge that she and Blake at last belonged unquestionably to each other; that every output of her strength was for their common comfort, and would continue to be as long as they both should live.

As the first year of married life goes, Charlotte's first year was fairly successful. She knew Blake's faults already, and had made up her mind to them, and if there was a frank indifference in his quiet languor, she had made up her mind to that, too. He was never unkind, and there were times when some fresh evidence of her devotion to him would touch him into an appreciation that was almost responsive. And there were other times when she would find him looking at her with an expression which any other observer might have classed as pity, but which she counted as tenderness. On the whole, it seemed to her that time was bringing them together, as she had counted that it would, and with this hope her face lost its sharp outlines.

Her first heavy chagrin was at the time of her baby's birth. When Blake came into the room to inquire for her, and she turned down the bed-cover to show him the little bundle at her side, a look of pain and aversion flashed across his face, and he moved away, begging her not to show the baby to him until it was older. On another day she tried to make him select a name for it, and he refused.

“Call it anything you please,” he said at first, but she would not let him go at that.

“I've been thinking,” she suggested, with a hesitation that was foreign to her,—“I've been thinking of calling her for your mother—Dorcas.”

They were alone in the room, and he was sitting by her bed, but looking away from her into the corner of the room, while she looked anxiously at him. At her words he started, flashing a keen glance at her. “Why should we name her that?” he asked.

There was something so sharply disturbed in his manner, and his distaste for the idea was so evident, that Charlotte flushed in extreme embarrassment.

“I thought you might like to,” she explained.

“Well, I wouldn't,—I—I don't think the name's pretty in itself,” he declared; adding, with a great effort to speak naturally, “I'd rather name her for you.”

Charlotte's lips came together so closely that all the unpleasant lines showed around them. “I certainly shall not name her for myself,” she said. “You must think of some other name.”

Blake got to his feet. “That's the only one I can think of,” he said. “If you don't like it, you can take some other. It's your affair, not mine.”

Charlotte's eyes flashed and then filled with tears, for she was very weak. “If I were asking you to father some other man's child, you couldn't act more as if you despised me,” she sobbed.

He turned as he was leaving the room and gave her a long look full of exasperation, repugnance, and despair. “You are quite mistaken,” he said. “I don't despise you. I despise myself.”

For half an hour Charlotte sobbed, her hands clenched at her sides, her tears flowing unchecked; then, quite suddenly, she was calm, and, drying her disfigured face, she began to take account of stock. All that she had before, she reasoned, she still had. The gains of a year might seem to be lost in the outbreak of a moment, yet they still existed as a solid foundation to build upon. There would be constraint at first, but the effort of daily patience would overcome it in time; moreover, there was the baby. Blake might refuse to look at her now, but as she grew and acquired the irresistible graces of a healthy babyhood he would be obliged to see and to yield to her. A man of his nature could not live in the house with a child and not love it. She touched the small form at her side, as if to assure herself that this ally which she had so suffered for had not deserted her. Yes, she had more hope now than ever before, she told herself, and her eyes shone with a passionate tenderness, though her lips were set in a hard line. Suddenly the line broke into a smile.

“I'll name her Hope,” she said.

When Hope was two months old she began her mission, and when she had reached six months Blake was vying with Charlotte in his devotion to her. He even plucked up a little interest in his business; sometimes he talked over his place with his wife, and the words which had passed between them over the naming of the child, though unforgotten, seemed so far in the past that Charlotte's courage strengthened with each day. The sense of security which had marked the first months of her married life did not return, but she could feel herself making a strong fight against fate to hold what she had, and, if she were never entirely certain of the issue, at least she fought with the obstinacy which has no knowledge of yielding. Sometimes even her love for Blake seemed to lose itself in this obstinacy, and her tenderness towards her child seemed the only womanly sentiment left in her; but more often her love for her husband mounted high and unmixed above the other feelings as the tremendous, inexplicable passion of her life.

Hope's attainment of six months was marked by an unusual display of energy on the part of Blake. The first cold weather of autumn had come, and when the house doors were closed, Charlotte was surprised to hear her husband declare that the sitting-room, where the baby would spend most of her time in winter, was poorly lighted, and needed to have a glass door substituted for the wooden one which opened on to the front porch. Still more to her surprise, the door was delivered from an adjoining town the next day, and on the following morning Blake rose earlier than usual and hung it before going down to his store. It was the first time he had lifted his hand towards the improvement of Charlotte's house.

He whistled boyishly while he measured and fitted in the hinges, and when it came to holding the door while the hinges were screwed in place, he called to Charlotte. She came, with lips as usual closed very tight, but with cheeks flushed very pink, and when the work was finished she was so atremble that she had to sit down for a moment before she could put breakfast on the table.

To give a reason for the delay, she kept looking at the door. “The room, is perfect now,” she said.

Blake swung the new acquisition back and forth, and latched it once or twice to make sure that it was perfectly adjusted. When he was satisfied he glanced at his wife.

“It will give our baby the sunlight,” he said, and their eyes met for a moment.

All that day, whenever Charlotte could bring her work into the sitting-room, she sat facing the glass door. She was not exactly happy; she was too strangely excited for happiness; but she was keenly awakened and alert. Every nerve in her seemed keyed up to its ultimate tension, and if the shadow of a cloud passed, even if a red leaf fell outside, she looked out expectantly through the door.

It was middle afternoon when, on looking up, she saw a young woman crossing the porch, leading a little child. Charlotte jumped to her feet, then reseated herself and waited for the tap on the glass. The visitors were strangers to her, and though she could not have told why, as she sat staring at them through the door, her mouth suddenly set into the lines of indomitable obstinacy which had grown so deep around it in the past three years. When she finally crossed the room to open the door, she walked slowly and deliberately, as if she had some definite purpose in mind and meant to accomplish it.

The woman on the outside was the first to speak. “Does Mr. Emory Blake live here?” she asked.

“He does. I am his wife. What can I do for you?” asked Charlotte.

The woman gave a little cry and drew back. “Oh no!” she said, breathlessly.

Charlotte stood, white and stiff and silent, while the other looked about her in a despairing helplessness. She was a frail-looking woman, worn with fatigue and the excited emotions with which timidity spurs itself to action. She looked as if she longed to sit down somewhere, and as if perhaps she could have more courage seated, but Charlotte made no motion to invite her to enter. After a while the newcomer brought her frightened eyes back to the set face in the doorway.

“I am so sorry for you,” she said, timidly. “I am his wife.”

A shiver of resentment ran convulsively through Charlotte's muscles. “You can be sorry for yourself,” she said, roughly.

“But he married me while he was at the school of pharmacy,” the other cried, weakly. “I was Nettie Trent. I clerked, and I boarded where he did, and we fell in love and married. He told me about you. You are Charlotte Hastings, aren't you, that wanted to marry him before he left home?”

Charlotte moved her dry lips soundlessly once or twice before she could speak. Then her masterful spirit rose to a new task. She drew herself up and looked down gravely, almost compassionately, upon the woman who had been Nettie Trent.

“I was Charlotte Hastings before my marriage,” she said. “I am sorry to be the one to hurt you, but you have been cruelly treated. I was married to Emory Blake before he left home for the school.”

The smaller woman gave a little gasp and stood silent, while Charlotte, with the fire in her veins scorching her cheeks and eyes and almost smothering her breath, waited for her to offer some resistance, to assert her own claim, or to ask for proof of the statement which denied it; but Nettie said nothing, and after a moment her gaze dropped from Charlotte's and she began to sob. Charlotte took her by the hand and led her into the room.

Neither of them spoke for a long time. Nettie sat with her face buried in her hands. On one side her child tugged at her dress; on the other, little Hope slept in her cradle. Charlotte stood pale and tall, watching all three.

At last Nettie looked up. “I suppose you think I ought to hate him—now I've found out,” she said, “but I don't; I just can't. When we were together he was so sweet to me. I don't think he meant to harm me. He must have thought it would come out all right somehow.”

“If I were in your place,” Charlotte said, slowly, “I should hate him.”

Nettie wiped her eyes and drew her child up into her arms. “But what he did was almost as bad for you as it was for me,” she urged, “and you don't hate him.”

Charlotte turned suddenly and walked to her own baby's cradle. “Oh, I don't know,” she said, in a low voice.

After a moment she came back and sat down. “I must ask you some questions,” she said, gravely. “Is this your only child?”

The young woman nodded. Her lips were quivering. “Named Dorcas,” she said, brokenly,—“for his mother.”

Charlotte flushed and the lines about her lips deepened. “Does he—provide for you?” she asked.

The other nodded once more. “He sends me money once in a while. I wrote him not to worry when he didn't have it. I'm clerking again.”

Charlotte made no comment. She was thinking how strange it was that this other woman, who was a frail, poor-spirited thing, should be ready to support herself and child out of love for Blake. In Charlotte's mind, which was pitilessly clear and active, there was room for a passing wonder at the mysterious power which so weak a man could exert over women, even without his will. She was wondering, too, if her own passion for him would ever rise again. At present she was far from loving him; she felt only a bitter resentment, a desire to punish him by holding to him, and a towering obstinacy and pride which refused to be set at fault and put to shame. While she was boldly examining and analyzing herself she glanced at the clock to see how long before he could possibly return; the time was ample, and she continued to sit silent. Presently her baby woke, and she rose and went to it.

As she lifted it from its cradle, Nettie started up and came towards her. Hope hid her face against her mother's neck, but after an instant turned shyly to steal a glance at the stranger.

Nettie sat down again, trembling. “Your baby is like him,” she said.

“Very like him,” Charlotte answered, and as the baby nestled up to her again, she dropped her cheek against it and tears came into her eyes—scalding tears that seemed to sear their way up from the depths of her heart.

Suddenly the other wife leaned forward, eagerly suspicious. “You have no other children—older?” she asked.

Charlotte looked round blankly, her eyes still wet. “Other children?” she echoed, but Nettie's sharpened face brought her to herself. She wiped her eyes on Hope's dress. “I lost—a child,” she said.

“Oh,” Nettie murmured, “I'm sorry I asked you. It was older than Dorcas?”

Charlotte stood at bay, with her child strained close to her. She nodded.

“Oh!” Nettie murmured again, in a shaken voice. She looked at Charlotte in despairing envy. “What is this baby named?” she asked.

“This one,” Charlotte answered, “we call Hope.”

She seated herself and began trotting the child to a slow measure. There were still a few questions which she wished to ask, but the other's simple acceptance of all she said inspired her with cool deliberation. There was plenty of time, and she wished to make no mistake. She must be sure of her own safety, and after that she must do anything she could for the comfort of the other woman. It would probably be very little.

“How did you get here?” she inquired, finally. “You must have asked somebody where Mr. Blake lived.”

“No, I didn't have to ask. He'd written me he was boarding with a woman that lived on his old place,” Nettie said, “and I knew where that was because he'd often told me all about where he grew up and just the road he used to take from the station to the house, and I remembered every word of it. I didn't like to go to him at his store for fear there would be loafers around, so I came right to his house. I thought I wouldn't mind telling the woman that I was his wife, if she asked me any questions while I waited for him.”

“You were very wise,” Charlotte said, dryly.

Nettie settled back in her chair, rocking her little girl, who had grown restless and impatient, and as she rocked she began to pour out her heart. “You must think queer of me to sit down here with you like this and not to be in a rush to go,” she began, “but I feel like I've got to sit still and—and kind of get my breath before I can start out. I've been so afraid of it that it doesn't seem like I ought to be surprised, but I tell you it pretty near kills me now I know it for sure.” She paused and stroked a stray lock of hair away from her child's eyes. “My baby's like him, too,” she said, irrelevantly. “My baby's just as like him as yours is.”

Charlotte glanced again at the clock. “How do your friends treat you?” she asked, abruptly. “Do they believe you were really married or not?”

A bright flush sprang over Nettie's face. “They believed it at first, of course, just the way I did,” she answered, quickly, “but lately they've been suspecting something. It was what they said made me get uneasy. I don't distrust folks right quick myself.”

“And none of them tried to make inquiries for you?”—Charlotte put the question seriously, all her nerves tight strung.

“Oh no,” Nettie said. “I don't have any family or any friends close enough to me to take trouble like that.”

“And I presume you're glad now that they didn't,” Charlotte said. “In your place I'd rather find it out for myself.”

“Oh, I'd much rather,” Nettie answered. “I couldn't have stood having other people find it out, and I'm not going to give anybody that knows me a chance to find out now. You see, I've been afraid of this so long that I've had time to make my plans and to save up money a little. Before I came here I gave up my place and told folks I was going to join Mr. Blake; so I'll not go back. I'll go to New York and get work there.”

Charlotte looked at her keenly. “I suppose you're depending on Mr. Blake to help you?” she said.

Again the color sprang into Nettie's face. “Oh no, ma'am,” she answered. “I couldn't let him help me now. I did wrong to live with him, but I didn't know he was married, so I don't feel like one of that kind of women; but if I was to take money from him now, I—I shouldn't feel that I was raising my child honest.”

Charlotte lifted her baby so that it hid her face. “For him to help you would only be right,” she said, from its shelter. “He owes you—money, at least.”

The other shook her head. “I couldn't bear it,” she said, chokingly. “Oh, you can't understand—nobody could understand unless she'd been through what I have, being left before my baby came, and having people ask me close questions, and then, little by little, losing my own faith. You can't see why, but if I was to take money from him now, it would make me feel my shame, and I don't want to,—I want to feel honest.”

Charlotte lowered Hope to her knee. “Perhaps I can understand that—in a way,” she said, with twitching lips.

Nettie looked into her face with a helpless, childish perception of the suffering shown in its drawn lines. “You're so good to me—I believe you feel 'most as bad as I do,” she declared; “and if I were you, I wouldn't say a word to anybody about my having been here. Nobody knows it. I didn't have to ask my way. There aren't many women would treat me the way you do, and I won't stay here any longer making you feel bad.” She rose, still holding her heavy child in her arms. “There isn't anything more we've got to say to each other, is there?” she asked.

“Wait a moment,” Charlotte said. She, too, rose, and as she stood looking at the other woman, so much smaller, so much weaker, so blindly trustful, and so patient, her heart, which had sunk in shame, rose suddenly in pity; at that moment if she had opened her lips the truth would have escaped from them, but her stubborn will held her lips closed.

Nettie eyed her with troubled uncertainty, but after a moment moved towards the door.

“Well, I must go,” she declared.

“Wait a moment,” Charlotte said again. Her voice was so dry and strange that after she had spoken she paused to moisten her lips. Her limbs trembled, and in the glass door which she had opened against the wall she could see the ashen whiteness of her face.

Nettie turned, and the two women confronted each other, each holding her child.

Charlotte put a hand up to her throat. “I have money I could give you,” she offered. “Not his, my own.”

The other shook her head. “Oh, I couldn't,” she exclaimed. “Anyway, I don't need it. I've saved up a good deal. And you've done better than give me money; you've been kind to me.” She put out her hand with a little appealing gesture and took Charlotte's, which lay cold in it.

“You'd better go,” Charlotte broke out. “You'll meet him coming home if you wait any longer. Here; I'll tell you how to go a roundabout way.”

She walked out on to the piazza and led the way down the steps and round to the back of the house, where she stood giving short, sharp directions, when across her hurried words came Blake's voice calling from the front:

“Charlotte! Charlotte! Where are you and Hope?”

For the first time since they had lived together Blake had come home before his hour.

The two women looked at each other. Charlotte pointed to the path which hid itself quickly in the shelter of an orchard. “Run,” she whispered. “I'll keep him in the house.”

But Nettie stood as if paralyzed, her eyes widening and filling with tears. “Oh, you've been so good—mayn't I see him—mayn't I bid him good-by?” she begged.

Charlotte lifted her voice to answer Blake. “Yes, Emory; stay where you are; I'm bringing Hope,” she called. “Hurry!” she whispered to the other woman. “It won't do you any good to see him. Think of what he's done. Hurry, I say!”

Nettie put her hand up to her head. “I—I can't,” she murmured. She swayed a little, and before Charlotte could reach out to catch her she had slipped to the ground.

At the same moment Blake came out of the back door of the house. For an instant he stared in bewilderment. Then he was at Nettie's side and had lifted her in his arms.

Charlotte saw his face as he kissed her. A moment later she was indoors on her knees beside her bed, with her face buried in the cover and her hands clutching it.

A cold wind swept through the house. Front and back the doors stood open. The sun was already low in the west and the evening promised to be chill. Presently Charlotte rose. She closed the front door carefully, wrapped Hope in a cloak, and, with her child on her arm, passed out at the back.

Blake had stretched his wife on the back porch and was bending over her. He looked up, and at sight of Charlotte's face he straightened himself.

She paused an instant. “I'm starting to harness the horse,” she said. “You can catch the night train at Antioch if I drive fast.”

He stood silent, his face working. It was as if strength were being born in him to say something in his own defence.

“She has plans,” Charlotte added. “You'd better pick up some of your things in the house.”

She passed on, and laying Hope in the bottom of the wagon, harnessed the horse with swift, shaking hands. The sun was out of sight when she drove back to the house. Nettie sat on the steps staring dazedly around her. Blake was not in sight.

“Are you ready?” Charlotte called.

He came out, carrying an old handbag. At the step he hesitated.

She pointed to the back seat, where he was to sit with Nettie and the child, and after an instant he helped them in.

The ride was long and cold. Night fell, and the stars came out in remote, hostile legions. The children slept. Occasionally Nettie and Blake advised together in hushed voices. Charlotte whipped the horse.

As they drew near to the end of their journey Blake leaned forward and touched her arm.

“What about the store?” he asked.

Charlotte broke her long silence harshly. “Your stock will cover what you owe on it, I guess.”

At the station she stayed in the wagon. Blake took his wife and Dorcas into the waiting-room and came back for his bag. Charlotte had it ready for him, resting on the wheel.

He did not offer to take it at first, but stood in the beam from the station window, trying to speak.

“Well?” she said.

“I guess there's not much I can say,” he choked out.

For a long time she made no answer. Then her breath came with an unexpected gasp. “It wasn't your fault—I made you do it.” For a moment more they were silent. Then she shifted the sleeping baby towards him.

“Don't you want to kiss her?” she asked.

He bent his face to the child with a sudden passionate tenderness. As he looked up, his wet eyes met Charlotte's, which were full of tears.

She put out her hand to him. “I guess I've been hard on you,” she said.

 
 
 

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