The Triumph Of The Egg
A Book Of Impressions
From American Life
In Tales And Poems
In Clay By
In the fields
Seeds on the air floating.
In the towns
Black smoke for a shroud.
In my breast
Mid American Chants.
Robert And John Anderson
Tales are people who sit on the doorstep of the house of my mind.
It is cold outside and they sit waiting.
I look out at a window.
The tales have cold hands,
Their hands are freezing.
A short thickly-built tale arises and threshes his arms about.
His nose is red and he has two gold teeth.
There is an old female tale sitting hunched up in a cloak.
Many tales come to sit for a few moments on the doorstep
and then go away.
It is too cold for them outside.
The street before the door of the house of my mind is
filled with tales.
They murmur and cry out, they are dying of cold and hunger.
I am a helpless man—my hands tremble.
I should be sitting on a bench like a tailor.
I should be weaving warm cloth out of the threads of thought.
The tales should be clothed.
They are freezing on the doorstep of the house of my mind.
I am a helpless man—my hands tremble.
I feel in the darkness but cannot find the doorknob.
I look out at a window.
Many tales are dying in the street before the house of my mind.
THE DUMB MAN
I WANT TO KNOW WHY
THE OTHER WOMAN
THE MAN IN THE BROWN COAT
THE DOOR OF THE TRAP
THE NEW ENGLANDER
OUT OF NOWHERE INTO NOTHING
THE MAN WITH THE TRUMPET
THE DUMB MAN
There is a story.—I cannot tell it.—I have no words. The story is
almost forgotten but sometimes I remember.
The story concerns three men in a house in a street. If I could say the
words I would sing the story. I would whisper it into the ears of
women, of mothers. I would run through the streets saying it over and
over. My tongue would be torn loose—it would rattle against my teeth.
The three men are in a room in the house. One is young and dandified.
He continually laughs.
There is a second man who has a long white beard. He is consumed with
doubt but occasionally his doubt leaves him and he sleeps.
A third man there is who has wicked eyes and who moves nervously about
the room rubbing his hands together. The three men are waiting—
Upstairs in the house there is a woman standing with her back to a
wall, in half darkness by a window.
That is the foundation of my story and everything I will ever know is
distilled in it.
I remember that a fourth man came to the house, a white silent man.
Everything was as silent as the sea at night. His feet on the stone
floor of the room where the three men were made no sound.
The man with the wicked eyes became like a boiling liquid—he ran back
and forth like a caged animal. The old grey man was infected by his
nervousness—he kept pulling at his beard.
The fourth man, the white one, went upstairs to the woman.
There she was—waiting.
How silent the house was—how loudly all the clocks in the neighborhood
ticked. The woman upstairs craved love. That must have been the story.
She hungered for love with her whole being. She wanted to create in
love. When the white silent man came into her presence she sprang
forward. Her lips were parted. There was a smile on her lips.
The white one said nothing. In his eyes there was no rebuke, no
question. His eyes were as impersonal as stars.
Down stairs the wicked one whined and ran back and forth like a little
lost hungry dog. The grey one tried to follow him about but presently
grew tired and lay down on the floor to sleep. He never awoke again.
The dandified fellow lay on the floor too. He laughed and played with
his tiny black mustache.
I have no words to tell what happened in my story. I cannot tell the
The white silent one may have been Death.
The waiting eager woman may have been Life.
Both the old grey bearded man and the wicked one puzzle me. I think and
think but cannot understand them. Most of the time however I do not
think of them at all. I keep thinking about the dandified man who
laughed all through my story.
If I could understand him I could understand everything. I could run
through the world telling a wonderful story. I would no longer be dumb.
Why was I not given words? Why am I dumb?
I have a wonderful story to tell but know no way to tell it.
I WANT TO KNOW WHY
We got up at four in the morning, that first day in the east. On the
evening before we had climbed off a freight train at the edge of town,
and with the true instinct of Kentucky boys had found our way across
town and to the race track and the stables at once. Then we knew we
were all right. Hanley Turner right away found a nigger we knew. It was
Bildad Johnson who in the winter works at Ed Becker's livery barn in
our home town, Beckersville. Bildad is a good cook as almost all our
niggers are and of course he, like everyone in our part of Kentucky who
is anyone at all, likes the horses. In the spring Bildad begins to
scratch around. A nigger from our country can flatter and wheedle
anyone into letting him do most anything he wants. Bildad wheedles the
stable men and the trainers from the horse farms in our country around
Lexington. The trainers come into town in the evening to stand around
and talk and maybe get into a poker game. Bildad gets in with them. He
is always doing little favors and telling about things to eat, chicken
browned in a pan, and how is the best way to cook sweet potatoes and
corn bread. It makes your mouth water to hear him.
When the racing season comes on and the horses go to the races and
there is all the talk on the streets in the evenings about the new
colts, and everyone says when they are going over to Lexington or to
the spring meeting at Churchhill Downs or to Latonia, and the horsemen
that have been down to New Orleans or maybe at the winter meeting at
Havana in Cuba come home to spend a week before they start out again,
at such a time when everything talked about in Beckersville is just
horses and nothing else and the outfits start out and horse racing is
in every breath of air you breathe, Bildad shows up with a job as cook
for some outfit. Often when I think about it, his always going all
season to the races and working in the livery barn in the winter where
horses are and where men like to come and talk about horses, I wish I
was a nigger. It's a foolish thing to say, but that's the way I am
about being around horses, just crazy. I can't help it.
Well, I must tell you about what we did and let you in on what I'm
talking about. Four of us boys from Beckersville, all whites and sons
of men who live in Beckersville regular, made up our minds we were
going to the races, not just to Lexington or Louisville, I don't mean,
but to the big eastern track we were always hearing our Beckersville
men talk about, to Saratoga. We were all pretty young then. I was just
turned fifteen and I was the oldest of the four. It was my scheme.
I admit that and I talked the others into trying it. There was Hanley
Turner and Henry Rieback and Tom Tumberton and myself. I had thirty-
seven dollars I had earned during the winter working nights and
Saturdays in Enoch Myer's grocery. Henry Rieback had eleven dollars and
the others, Hanley and Tom had only a dollar or two each. We fixed it
all up and laid low until the Kentucky spring meetings were over and
some of our men, the sportiest ones, the ones we envied the most, had
cut out—then we cut out too.
I won't tell you the trouble we had beating our way on freights and
all. We went through Cleveland and Buffalo and other cities and saw
Niagara Falls. We bought things there, souvenirs and spoons and cards
and shells with pictures of the falls on them for our sisters and
mothers, but thought we had better not send any of the things home. We
didn't want to put the folks on our trail and maybe be nabbed.
We got into Saratoga as I said at night and went to the track. Bildad
fed us up. He showed us a place to sleep in hay over a shed and
promised to keep still. Niggers are all right about things like that.
They won't squeal on you. Often a white man you might meet, when you
had run away from home like that, might appear to be all right and give
you a quarter or a half dollar or something, and then go right and give
you away. White men will do that, but not a nigger. You can trust them.
They are squarer with kids. I don't know why.
At the Saratoga meeting that year there were a lot of men from home.
Dave Williams and Arthur Mulford and Jerry Myers and others. Then there
was a lot from Louisville and Lexington Henry Rieback knew but I
didn't. They were professional gamblers and Henry Rieback's father is
one too. He is what is called a sheet writer and goes away most of the
year to tracks. In the winter when he is home in Beckersville he don't
stay there much but goes away to cities and deals faro. He is a nice
man and generous, is always sending Henry presents, a bicycle and a
gold watch and a boy scout suit of clothes and things like that.
My own father is a lawyer. He's all right, but don't make much money
and can't buy me things and anyway I'm getting so old now I don't
expect it. He never said nothing to me against Henry, but Hanley Turner
and Tom Tumberton's fathers did. They said to their boys that money so
come by is no good and they didn't want their boys brought up to hear
gamblers' talk and be thinking about such things and maybe embrace
That's all right and I guess the men know what they are talking about,
but I don't see what it's got to do with Henry or with horses either.
That's what I'm writing this story about. I'm puzzled. I'm getting to
be a man and want to think straight and be O. K., and there's something
I saw at the race meeting at the eastern track I can't figure out.
I can't help it, I'm crazy about thoroughbred horses. I've always been
that way. When I was ten years old and saw I was growing to be big and
couldn't be a rider I was so sorry I nearly died. Harry Hellinfinger in
Beckersville, whose father is Postmaster, is grown up and too lazy to
work, but likes to stand around in the street and get up jokes on boys
like sending them to a hardware store for a gimlet to bore square holes
and other jokes like that. He played one on me. He told me that if I
would eat a half a cigar I would be stunted and not grow any more and
maybe could be a rider. I did it. When father wasn't looking I took a
cigar out of his pocket and gagged it down some way. It made me awful
sick and the doctor had to be sent for, and then it did no good. I kept
right on growing. It was a joke. When I told what I had done and why
most fathers would have whipped me but mine didn't.
Well, I didn't get stunted and didn't die. It serves Harry Hellinfinger
right. Then I made up my mind I would like to be a stable boy, but had
to give that up too. Mostly niggers do that work and I knew father
wouldn't let me go into it. No use to ask him.
If you've never been crazy about thoroughbreds it's because you've
never been around where they are much and don't know any better.
They're beautiful. There isn't anything so lovely and clean and full of
spunk and honest and everything as some race horses. On the big horse
farms that are all around our town Beckersville there are tracks and
the horses run in the early morning. More than a thousand times I've
got out of bed before daylight and walked two or three miles to the
tracks. Mother wouldn't of let me go but father always says, "Let him
alone." So I got some bread out of the bread box and some butter and
jam, gobbled it and lit out.
At the tracks you sit on the fence with men, whites and niggers, and
they chew tobacco and talk, and then the colts are brought out. It's
early and the grass is covered with shiny dew and in another field a
man is plowing and they are frying things in a shed where the track
niggers sleep, and you know how a nigger can giggle and laugh and say
things that make you laugh. A white man can't do it and some niggers
can't but a track nigger can every time.
And so the colts are brought out and some are just galloped by stable
boys, but almost every morning on a big track owned by a rich man who
lives maybe in New York, there are always, nearly every morning, a few
colts and some of the old race horses and geldings and mares that are
It brings a lump up into my throat when a horse runs. I don't mean all
horses but some. I can pick them nearly every time. It's in my blood
like in the blood of race track niggers and trainers. Even when they
just go slop-jogging along with a little nigger on their backs I can
tell a winner. If my throat hurts and it's hard for me to swallow,
that's him. He'll run like Sam Hill when you let him out. If he don't
win every time it'll be a wonder and because they've got him in a
pocket behind another or he was pulled or got off bad at the post or
something. If I wanted to be a gambler like Henry Rieback's father I
could get rich. I know I could and Henry says so too. All I would have
to do is to wait 'til that hurt comes when I see a horse and then bet
every cent. That's what I would do if I wanted to be a gambler, but I
When you're at the tracks in the morning—not the race tracks but the
training tracks around Beckersville—you don't see a horse, the kind
I've been talking about, very often, but it's nice anyway. Any
thoroughbred, that is sired right and out of a good mare and trained by
a man that knows how, can run. If he couldn't what would he be there
for and not pulling a plow?
Well, out of the stables they come and the boys are on their backs and
it's lovely to be there. You hunch down on top of the fence and itch
inside you. Over in the sheds the niggers giggle and sing. Bacon is
being fried and coffee made. Everything smells lovely. Nothing smells
better than coffee and manure and horses and niggers and bacon frying
and pipes being smoked out of doors on a morning like that. It just
gets you, that's what it does.
But about Saratoga. We was there six days and not a soul from home seen
us and everything came off just as we wanted it to, fine weather and
horses and races and all. We beat our way home and Bildad gave us a
basket with fried chicken and bread and other eatables in, and I had
eighteen dollars when we got back to Beckersville. Mother jawed and
cried but Pop didn't say much. I told everything we done except one
thing. I did and saw that alone. That's what I'm writing about. It got
me upset. I think about it at night. Here it is.
At Saratoga we laid up nights in the hay in the shed Bildad had showed
us and ate with the niggers early and at night when the race people had
all gone away. The men from home stayed mostly in the grandstand and
betting field, and didn't come out around the places where the horses
are kept except to the paddocks just before a race when the horses are
saddled. At Saratoga they don't have paddocks under an open shed as at
Lexington and Churchill Downs and other tracks down in our country, but
saddle the horses right out in an open place under trees on a lawn as
smooth and nice as Banker Bohon's front yard here in Beckersville. It's
lovely. The horses are sweaty and nervous and shine and the men come
out and smoke cigars and look at them and the trainers are there and
the owners, and your heart thumps so you can hardly breathe.
Then the bugle blows for post and the boys that ride come running out
with their silk clothes on and you run to get a place by the fence with
I always am wanting to be a trainer or owner, and at the risk of being
seen and caught and sent home I went to the paddocks before every race.
The other boys didn't but I did.
We got to Saratoga on a Friday and on Wednesday the next week the big
Mullford Handicap was to be run. Middlestride was in it and Sunstreak.
The weather was fine and the track fast. I couldn't sleep the night
What had happened was that both these horses are the kind it makes my
throat hurt to see. Middlestride is long and looks awkward and is a
gelding. He belongs to Joe Thompson, a little owner from home who only
has a half dozen horses. The Mullford Handicap is for a mile and
Middlestride can't untrack fast. He goes away slow and is always way
back at the half, then he begins to run and if the race is a mile and a
quarter he'll just eat up everything and get there.
Sunstreak is different. He is a stallion and nervous and belongs on the
biggest farm we've got in our country, the Van Riddle place that
belongs to Mr. Van Riddle of New York. Sunstreak is like a girl you
think about sometimes but never see. He is hard all over and lovely
too. When you look at his head you want to kiss him. He is trained by
Jerry Tillford who knows me and has been good to me lots of times, lets
me walk into a horse's stall to look at him close and other things.
There isn't anything as sweet as that horse. He stands at the post
quiet and not letting on, but he is just burning up inside. Then when
the barrier goes up he is off like his name, Sunstreak. It makes you
ache to see him. It hurts you. He just lays down and runs like a bird
dog. There can't anything I ever see run like him except Middlestride
when he gets untracked and stretches himself.
Gee! I ached to see that race and those two horses run, ached and
dreaded it too. I didn't want to see either of our horses beaten. We
had never sent a pair like that to the races before. Old men in
Beckersville said so and the niggers said so. It was a fact.
Before the race I went over to the paddocks to see. I looked a last
look at Middlestride, who isn't such a much standing in a paddock that
way, then I went to see Sunstreak.
It was his day. I knew when I see him. I forgot all about being seen
myself and walked right up. All the men from Beckersville were there
and no one noticed me except Jerry Tillford. He saw me and something
happened. I'll tell you about that.
I was standing looking at that horse and aching. In some way, I can't
tell how, I knew just how Sunstreak felt inside. He was quiet and
letting the niggers rub his legs and Mr. Van Riddle himself put the
saddle on, but he was just a raging torrent inside. He was like the
water in the river at Niagara Falls just before its goes plunk down.
That horse wasn't thinking about running. He don't have to think about
that. He was just thinking about holding himself back 'til the time for
the running came. I knew that. I could just in a way see right inside
him. He was going to do some awful running and I knew it. He wasn't
bragging or letting on much or prancing or making a fuss, but just
waiting. I knew it and Jerry Tillford his trainer knew. I looked up and
then that man and I looked into each other's eyes. Something happened
to me. I guess I loved the man as much as I did the horse because he
knew what I knew. Seemed to me there wasn't anything in the world but
that man and the horse and me. I cried and Jerry Tillford had a shine
in his eyes. Then I came away to the fence to wait for the race. The
horse was better than me, more steadier, and now I know better than
Jerry. He was the quietest and he had to do the running.
Sunstreak ran first of course and he busted the world's record for a
mile. I've seen that if I never see anything more. Everything came out
just as I expected. Middlestride got left at the post and was way back
and closed up to be second, just as I knew he would. He'll get a
world's record too some day. They can't skin the Beckersville country
I watched the race calm because I knew what would happen. I was sure.
Hanley Turner and Henry Rieback and Tom Tumberton were all more excited
A funny thing had happened to me. I was thinking about Jerry Tillford
the trainer and how happy he was all through the race. I liked him that
afternoon even more than I ever liked my own father. I almost forgot
the horses thinking that way about him. It was because of what I had
seen in his eyes as he stood in the paddocks beside Sunstreak before
the race started. I knew he had been watching and working with
Sunstreak since the horse was a baby colt, had taught him to run and be
patient and when to let himself out and not to quit, never. I knew that
for him it was like a mother seeing her child do something brave or
wonderful. It was the first time I ever felt for a man like that.
After the race that night I cut out from Tom and Hanley and Henry. I
wanted to be by myself and I wanted to be near Jerry Tillford if I
could work it. Here is what happened.
The track in Saratoga is near the edge of town. It is all polished up
and trees around, the evergreen kind, and grass and everything painted
and nice. If you go past the track you get to a hard road made of
asphalt for automobiles, and if you go along this for a few miles there
is a road turns off to a little rummy-looking farm house set in a yard.
That night after the race I went along that road because I had seen
Jerry and some other men go that way in an automobile. I didn't expect
to find them. I walked for a ways and then sat down by a fence to
think. It was the direction they went in. I wanted to be as near Jerry
as I could. I felt close to him. Pretty soon I went up the side road—I
don't know why—and came to the rummy farm house. I was just lonesome
to see Jerry, like wanting to see your father at night when you are a
young kid. Just then an automobile came along and turned in. Jerry was
in it and Henry Rieback's father, and Arthur Bedford from home, and
Dave Williams and two other men I didn't know. They got out of the car
and went into the house, all but Henry Rieback's father who quarreled
with them and said he wouldn't go. It was only about nine o'clock, but
they were all drunk and the rummy looking farm house was a place for
bad women to stay in. That's what it was. I crept up along a fence and
looked through a window and saw.
It's what give me the fantods. I can't make it out. The women in the
house were all ugly mean-looking women, not nice to look at or be near.
They were homely too, except one who was tall and looked a little like
the gelding Middlestride, but not clean like him, but with a hard ugly
mouth. She had red hair. I saw everything plain. I got up by an old
rose bush by an open window and looked. The women had on loose dresses
and sat around in chairs. The men came in and some sat on the women's
laps. The place smelled rotten and there was rotten talk, the kind a
kid hears around a livery stable in a town like Beckersville in the
winter but don't ever expect to hear talked when there are women
around. It was rotten. A nigger wouldn't go into such a place.
I looked at Jerry Tillford. I've told you how I had been feeling about
him on account of his knowing what was going on inside of Sunstreak in
the minute before he went to the post for the race in which he made a
Jerry bragged in that bad woman house as I know Sunstreak wouldn't
never have bragged. He said that he made that horse, that it was him
that won the race and made the record. He lied and bragged like a fool.
I never heard such silly talk.
And then, what do you suppose he did! He looked at the woman in there,
the one that was lean and hard-mouthed and looked a little like the
gelding Middlestride, but not clean like him, and his eyes began to
shine just as they did when he looked at me and at Sunstreak in the
paddocks at the track in the afternoon. I stood there by the window—
gee!—but I wished I hadn't gone away from the tracks, but had stayed
with the boys and the niggers and the horses. The tall rotten looking
woman was between us just as Sunstreak was in the paddocks in the
Then, all of a sudden, I began to hate that man. I wanted to scream and
rush in the room and kill him. I never had such a feeling before. I was
so mad clean through that I cried and my fists were doubled up so my
finger nails cut my hands.
And Jerry's eyes kept shining and he waved back and forth, and then he
went and kissed that woman and I crept away and went back to the tracks
and to bed and didn't sleep hardly any, and then next day I got the
other kids to start home with me and never told them anything I seen.
I been thinking about it ever since. I can't make it out. Spring has
come again and I'm nearly sixteen and go to the tracks mornings same as
always, and I see Sunstreak and Middlestride and a new colt named
Strident I'll bet will lay them all out, but no one thinks so but me
and two or three niggers.
But things are different. At the tracks the air don't taste as good or
smell as good. It's because a man like Jerry Tillford, who knows what
he does, could see a horse like Sunstreak run, and kiss a woman like
that the same day. I can't make it out. Darn him, what did he want to
do like that for? I keep thinking about it and it spoils looking at
horses and smelling things and hearing niggers laugh and everything.
Sometimes I'm so mad about it I want to fight someone. It gives me the
fantods. What did he do it for? I want to know why.
He was a small man with a beard and was very nervous. I remember how
the cords of his neck were drawn taut.
For years he had been trying to cure people of illness by the method
called psychoanalysis. The idea was the passion of his life. "I came
here because I am tired," he said dejectedly. "My body is not tired but
something inside me is old and worn-out. I want joy. For a few days or
weeks I would like to forget men and women and the influences that make
them the sick things they are."
There is a note that comes into the human voice by which you may know
real weariness. It comes when one has been trying with all his heart
and soul to think his way along some difficult road of thought. Of a
sudden he finds himself unable to go on. Something within him stops. A
tiny explosion takes place. He bursts into words and talks, perhaps
foolishly. Little side currents of his nature he didn't know were there
run out and get themselves expressed. It is at such times that a man
boasts, uses big words, makes a fool of himself in general.
And so it was the doctor became shrill. He jumped up from the steps
where we had been sitting, talking and walked about. "You come from the
West. You have kept away from people. You have preserved yourself—damn
you! I haven't—" His voice had indeed become shrill. "I have entered
into lives. I have gone beneath the surface of the lives of men and
women. Women especially I have studied—our own women, here in
"You have loved them?" I suggested.
"Yes," he said. "Yes—you are right there. I have done that. It is the
only way I can get at things. I have to try to love. You see how that
is? It's the only way. Love must be the beginning of things with me."
I began to sense the depths of his weariness. "We will go swim in the
lake," I urged.
"I don't want to swim or do any damn plodding thing. I want to run and
shout," he declared. "For awhile, for a few hours, I want to be like a
dead leaf blown by the winds over these hills. I have one desire and
one only—to free myself."
We walked in a dusty country road. I wanted him to know that I thought
I understood, so I put the case in my own way.
When he stopped and stared at me I talked. "You are no more and no
better than myself," I declared. "You are a dog that has rolled in
offal, and because you are not quite a dog you do not like the smell of
your own hide."
In turn my voice became shrill. "You blind fool," I cried impatiently.
"Men like you are fools. You cannot go along that road. It is given to
no man to venture far along the road of lives."
I became passionately in earnest. "The illness you pretend to cure is
the universal illness," I said. "The thing you want to do cannot be
done. Fool—do you expect love to be understood?"
We stood in the road and looked at each other. The suggestion of a
sneer played about the corners of his mouth. He put a hand on my
shoulder and shook me. "How smart we are—how aptly we put things!"
He spat the words out and then turned and walked a little away. "You
think you understand, but you don't understand," he cried. "What you
say can't be done can be done. You're a liar. You cannot be so definite
without missing something vague and fine. You miss the whole point. The
lives of people are like young trees in a forest. They are being choked
by climbing vines. The vines are old thoughts and beliefs planted by
dead men. I am myself covered by crawling creeping vines that choke
He laughed bitterly. "And that's why I want to run and play," he said.
"I want to be a leaf blown by the wind over hills. I want to die and be
born again, and I am only a tree covered with vines and slowly dying. I
am, you see, weary and want to be made clean. I am an amateur venturing
timidly into lives," he concluded. "I am weary and want to be made
clean. I am covered by creeping crawling things."
* * * * *
A woman from Iowa came here to Chicago and took a room in a house on
the west-side. She was about twenty-seven years old and ostensibly she
came to the city to study advanced methods for teaching music.
A certain young man also lived in the west-side house. His room faced a
long hall on the second floor of the house and the one taken by the
woman was across the hall facing his room.
In regard to the young man—there is something very sweet in his
nature. He is a painter but I have often wished he would decide to
become a writer. He tells things with understanding and he does not
And so the woman from Iowa lived in the west-side house and came home
from the city in the evening. She looked like a thousand other women
one sees in the streets every day. The only thing that at all made her
stand out among the women in the crowds was that she was a little lame.
Her right foot was slightly deformed and she walked with a limp. For
three months she lived in the house—where she was the only woman
except the landlady—and then a feeling in regard to her began to grow
up among the men of the house.
The men all said the same thing concerning her. When they met in the
hallway at the front of the house they stopped, laughed and whispered.
"She wants a lover," they said and winked. "She may not know it but a
lover is what she needs."
One knowing Chicago and Chicago men would think that an easy want to be
satisfied. I laughed when my friend—whose name is LeRoy—told me the
story, but he did not laugh. He shook his head. "It wasn't so easy," he
said. "There would be no story were the matter that simple."
LeRoy tried to explain. "Whenever a man approached her she became
alarmed," he said. Men kept smiling and speaking to her. They invited
her to dinner and to the theatre, but nothing would induce her to walk
in the streets with a man. She never went into the streets at night.
When a man stopped and tried to talk with her in the hallway she turned
her eyes to the floor and then ran into her room. Once a young drygoods
clerk who lived there induced her to sit with him on the steps before
He was a sentimental fellow and took hold of her hand. When she began
to cry he was alarmed and arose. He put a hand on her shoulder and
tried to explain, but under the touch of his fingers her whole body
shook with terror. "Don't touch me," she cried, "don't let your hands
touch me!" She began to scream and people passing in the street stopped
to listen. The drygoods clerk was alarmed and ran upstairs to his own
room. He bolted the door and stood listening. "It is a trick," he
declared in a trembling voice. "She is trying to make trouble. I did
nothing to her. It was an accident and anyway what's the matter? I only
touched her arm with my fingers."
Perhaps a dozen times LeRoy has spoken to me of the experience of the
Iowa woman in the west-side house. The men there began to hate her.
Although she would have nothing to do with them she would not let them
alone. In a hundred ways she continually invited approaches that when
made she repelled. When she stood naked in the bathroom facing the
hallway where the men passed up and down she left the door slightly
ajar. There was a couch in the living room down stairs, and when men
were present she would sometimes enter and without saying a word throw
herself down before them. On the couch she lay with lips drawn slightly
apart. Her eyes stared at the ceiling. Her whole physical being seemed
to be waiting for something. The sense of her filled the room. The men
standing about pretended not to see. They talked loudly. Embarrassment
took possession of them and one by one they crept quietly away.
One evening the woman was ordered to leave the house. Someone, perhaps
the drygoods clerk, had talked to the landlady and she acted at once.
"If you leave tonight I shall like it that much better," LeRoy heard
the elder woman's voice saying. She stood in the hallway before the
Iowa woman's room. The landlady's voice rang through the house.
LeRoy the painter is tall and lean and his life has been spent in
devotion to ideas. The passions of his brain have consumed the passions
of his body. His income is small and he has not married. Perhaps he has
never had a sweetheart. He is not without physical desire but he is not
primarily concerned with desire.
On the evening when the Iowa woman was ordered to leave the west-side
house, she waited until she thought the landlady had gone down stairs,
and then went into LeRoy's room. It was about eight o'clock and he sat
by a window reading a book. The woman did not knock but opened the
door. She said nothing but ran across the floor and knelt at his feet.
LeRoy said that her twisted foot made her run like a wounded bird, that
her eyes were burning and that her breath came in little gasps. "Take
me," she said, putting her face down upon his knees and trembling
violently. "Take me quickly. There must be a beginning to things. I
can't stand the waiting. You must take me at once."
You may be quite sure LeRoy was perplexed by all this. From what he has
said I gathered that until that evening he had hardly noticed the
woman. I suppose that of all the men in the house he had been the most
indifferent to her. In the room something happened. The landlady
followed the woman when she ran to LeRoy, and the two women confronted
him. The woman from Iowa knelt trembling and frightened at his feet.
The landlady was indignant. LeRoy acted on impulse. An inspiration came
to him. Putting his hand on the kneeling woman's shoulder he shook her
violently. "Now behave yourself," he said quickly. "I will keep my
promise." He turned to the landlady and smiled. "We have been engaged
to be married," he said. "We have quarreled. She came here to be near
me. She has been unwell and excited. I will take her away. Please don't
let yourself be annoyed. I will take her away."
When the woman and LeRoy got out of the house she stopped weeping and
put her hand into his. Her fears had all gone away. He found a room for
her in another house and then went with her into a park and sat on a
* * * * *
Everything LeRoy has told me concerning this woman strengthens my
belief in what I said to the man that day in the mountains. You cannot
venture along the road of lives. On the bench he and the woman talked
until midnight and he saw and talked with her many times later. Nothing
came of it. She went back, I suppose, to her place in the West.
In the place from which she had come the woman had been a teacher of
music. She was one of four sisters, all engaged in the same sort of
work and, LeRoy says, all quiet capable women. Their father had died
when the eldest girl was not yet ten, and five years later the mother
died also. The girls had a house and a garden.
In the nature of things I cannot know what the lives of the women were
like but of this one may be quite certain—they talked only of women's
affairs, thought only of women's affairs. No one of them ever had a
lover. For years no man came near the house.
Of them all only the youngest, the one who came to Chicago, was visibly
affected by the utterly feminine quality of their lives. It did
something to her. All day and every day she taught music to young girls
and then went home to the women. When she was twenty-five she began to
think and to dream of men. During the day and through the evening she
talked with women of women's affairs, and all the time she wanted
desperately to be loved by a man. She went to Chicago with that hope in
mind. LeRoy explained her attitude in the matter and her strange
behavior in the west-side house by saying she had thought too much and
acted too little. "The life force within her became decentralized," he
declared. "What she wanted she could not achieve. The living force
within could not find expression. When it could not get expressed in
one way it took another. Sex spread itself out over her body. It
permeated the very fibre of her being. At the last she was sex
personified, sex become condensed and impersonal. Certain words, the
touch of a man's hand, sometimes even the sight of a man passing in the
street did something to her."
* * * * *
Yesterday I saw LeRoy and he talked to me again of the woman and her
strange and terrible fate.
We walked in the park by the lake. As we went along the figure of the
woman kept coming into my mind. An idea came to me.
"You might have been her lover," I said. "That was possible. She was
not afraid of you."
LeRoy stopped. Like the doctor who was so sure of his ability to walk
into lives he grew angry and scolded. For a moment he stared at me and
then a rather odd thing happened. Words said by the other man in the
dusty road in the hills came to LeRoy's lips and were said over again.
The suggestion of a sneer played about the corners of his mouth. "How
smart we are. How aptly we put things," he said.
The voice of the young man who walked with me in the park by the lake
in the city became shrill. I sensed the weariness in him. Then he
laughed and said quietly and softly, "It isn't so simple. By being sure
of yourself you are in danger of losing all of the romance of life. You
miss the whole point. Nothing in life can be settled so definitely. The
woman—you see—was like a young tree choked by a climbing vine. The
thing that wrapped her about had shut out the light. She was a
grotesque as many trees in the forest are grotesques. Her problem was
such a difficult one that thinking of it has changed the whole current
of my life. At first I was like you. I was quite sure. I thought I
would be her lover and settle the matter."
LeRoy turned and walked a little away. Then he came back and took hold
of my arm. A passionate earnestness took possession of him. His voice
trembled. "She needed a lover, yes, the men in the house were quite
right about that," he said. "She needed a lover and at the same time a
lover was not what she needed. The need of a lover was, after all, a
quite secondary thing. She needed to be loved, to be long and quietly
and patiently loved. To be sure she is a grotesque, but then all the
people in the world are grotesques. We all need to be loved. What would
cure her would cure the rest of us also. The disease she had is, you
see, universal. We all want to be loved and the world has no plan for
creating our lovers."
LeRoy's voice dropped and he walked beside me in silence. We turned
away from the lake and walked under trees. I looked closely at him. The
cords of his neck were drawn taut. "I have seen under the shell of life
and I am afraid," he mused. "I am myself like the woman. I am covered
with creeping crawling vine-like things. I cannot be a lover. I am not
subtle or patient enough. I am paying old debts. Old thoughts and
beliefs—seeds planted by dead men—spring up in my soul and choke me."
For a long time we walked and LeRoy talked, voicing the thoughts that
came into his mind. I listened in silence. His mind struck upon the
refrain voiced by the man in the mountains. "I would like to be a dead
dry thing," he muttered looking at the leaves scattered over the grass.
"I would like to be a leaf blown away by the wind." He looked up and
his eyes turned to where among the trees we could see the lake in the
distance. "I am weary and want to be made clean. I am a man covered by
creeping crawling things. I would like to be dead and blown by the wind
over limitless waters," he said. "I want more than anything else in the
world to be clean."
THE OTHER WOMAN
"I am in love with my wife," he said—a superfluous remark, as I had
not questioned his attachment to the woman he had married. We walked
for ten minutes and then he said it again. I turned to look at him. He
began to talk and told me the tale I am now about to set down.
The thing he had on his mind happened during what must have been the
most eventful week of his life. He was to be married on Friday
afternoon. On Friday of the week before he got a telegram announcing
his appointment to a government position. Something else happened that
made him very proud and glad. In secret he was in the habit of writing
verses and during the year before several of them had been printed in
poetry magazines. One of the societies that give prizes for what they
think the best poems published during the year put his name at the head
of its list. The story of his triumph was printed in the newspapers of
his home city and one of them also printed his picture.
As might have been expected he was excited and in a rather highly
strung nervous state all during that week. Almost every evening he went
to call on his fiancée, the daughter of a judge. When he got there the
house was filled with people and many letters, telegrams and packages
were being received. He stood a little to one side and men and women
kept coming up to speak to him. They congratulated him upon his success
in getting the government position and on his achievement as a poet.
Everyone seemed to be praising him and when he went home and to bed he
could not sleep. On Wednesday evening he went to the theatre and it
seemed to him that people all over the house recognized him. Everyone
nodded and smiled. After the first act five or six men and two women
left their seats to gather about him. A little group was formed.
Strangers sitting along the same row of seats stretched their necks and
looked. He had never received so much attention before, and now a fever
of expectancy took possession of him.
As he explained when he told me of his experience, it was for him an
altogether abnormal time. He felt like one floating in air. When he got
into bed after seeing so many people and hearing so many words of
praise his head whirled round and round. When he closed his eyes a
crowd of people invaded his room. It seemed as though the minds of all
the people of his city were centred on himself. The most absurd fancies
took possession of him. He imagined himself riding in a carriage
through the streets of a city. Windows were thrown open and people ran
out at the doors of houses. "There he is. That's him," they shouted,
and at the words a glad cry arose. The carriage drove into a street
blocked with people. A hundred thousand pairs of eyes looked up at him.
"There you are! What a fellow you have managed to make of yourself!"
the eyes seemed to be saying.
My friend could not explain whether the excitement of the people was
due to the fact that he had written a new poem or whether, in his new
government position, he had performed some notable act. The apartment
where he lived at that time was on a street perched along the top of a
cliff far out at the edge of his city, and from his bedroom window he
could look down over trees and factory roofs to a river. As he could
not sleep and as the fancies that kept crowding in upon him only made
him more excited, he got out of bed and tried to think.
As would be natural under such circumstances, he tried to control his
thoughts, but when he sat by the window and was wide awake a most
unexpected and humiliating thing happened. The night was clear and
fine. There was a moon. He wanted to dream of the woman who was to be
his wife, to think out lines for noble poems or make plans that would
affect his career. Much to his surprise his mind refused to do anything
of the sort.
At a corner of the street where he lived there was a small cigar store
and newspaper stand run by a fat man of forty and his wife, a small
active woman with bright grey eyes. In the morning he stopped there to
buy a paper before going down to the city. Sometimes he saw only the
fat man, but often the man had disappeared and the woman waited on him.
She was, as he assured me at least twenty times in telling me his tale,
a very ordinary person with nothing special or notable about her, but
for some reason he could not explain, being in her presence stirred him
profoundly. During that week in the midst of his distraction she was
the only person he knew who stood out clear and distinct in his mind.
When he wanted so much to think noble thoughts he could think only of
her. Before he knew what was happening his imagination had taken hold
of the notion of having a love affair with the woman.
"I could not understand myself," he declared, in telling me the story.
"At night, when the city was quiet and when I should have been asleep,
I thought about her all the time. After two or three days of that sort
of thing the consciousness of her got into my daytime thoughts. I was
terribly muddled. When I went to see the woman who is now my wife I
found that my love for her was in no way affected by my vagrant
thoughts. There was but one woman in the world I wanted to live with
and to be my comrade in undertaking to improve my own character and my
position in the world, but for the moment, you see, I wanted this other
woman to be in my arms. She had worked her way into my being. On all
sides people were saying I was a big man who would do big things, and
there I was. That evening when I went to the theatre I walked home
because I knew I would be unable to sleep, and to satisfy the annoying
impulse in myself I went and stood on the sidewalk before the tobacco
shop. It was a two story building, and I knew the woman lived upstairs
with her husband. For a long time I stood in the darkness with my body
pressed against the wall of the building, and then I thought of the two
of them up there and no doubt in bed together. That made me furious.
"Then I grew more furious with myself. I went home and got into bed,
shaken with anger. There are certain books of verse and some prose
writings that have always moved me deeply, and so I put several books
on a table by my bed.
"The voices in the books were like the voices of the dead. I did not
hear them. The printed words would not penetrate into my consciousness.
I tried to think of the woman I loved, but her figure had also become
something far away, something with which I for the moment seemed to
have nothing to do. I rolled and tumbled about in the bed. It was a
"On Thursday morning I went into the store. There stood the woman
alone. I think she knew how I felt. Perhaps she had been thinking of me
as I had been thinking of her. A doubtful hesitating smile played about
the corners of her mouth. She had on a dress made of cheap cloth and
there was a tear on the shoulder. She must have been ten years older
than myself. When I tried to put my pennies on the glass counter,
behind which she stood, my hand trembled so that the pennies made a
sharp rattling noise. When I spoke the voice that came out of my throat
did not sound like anything that had ever belonged to me. It barely
arose above a thick whisper. 'I want you,' I said. 'I want you very
much. Can't you run away from your husband? Come to me at my apartment
at seven tonight.'
"The woman did come to my apartment at seven. That morning she didn't
say anything at all. For a minute perhaps we stood looking at each
other. I had forgotten everything in the world but just her. Then she
nodded her head and I went away. Now that I think of it I cannot
remember a word I ever heard her say. She came to my apartment at seven
and it was dark. You must understand this was in the month of October.
I had not lighted a light and I had sent my servant away.
"During that day I was no good at all. Several men came to see me at my
office, but I got all muddled up in trying to talk with them. They
attributed my rattle-headedness to my approaching marriage and went
"It was on that morning, just the day before my marriage, that I got a
long and very beautiful letter from my fiancée. During the night before
she also had been unable to sleep and had got out of bed to write the
letter. Everything she said in it was very sharp and real, but she
herself, as a living thing, seemed to have receded into the distance.
It seemed to me that she was like a bird, flying far away in distant
skies, and that I was like a perplexed bare-footed boy standing in the
dusty road before a farm house and looking at her receding figure. I
wonder if you will understand what I mean?
"In regard to the letter. In it she, the awakening woman, poured out
her heart. She of course knew nothing of life, but she was a woman. She
lay, I suppose, in her bed feeling nervous and wrought up as I had been
doing. She realized that a great change was about to take place in her
life and was glad and afraid too. There she lay thinking of it all.
Then she got out of bed and began talking to me on the bit of paper.
She told me how afraid she was and how glad too. Like most young women
she had heard things whispered. In the letter she was very sweet and
fine. 'For a long time, after we are married, we will forget we are a
man and woman,' she wrote. 'We will be human beings. You must remember
that I am ignorant and often I will be very stupid. You must love me
and be very patient and kind. When I know more, when after a long time
you have taught me the way of life, I will try to repay you. I will
love you tenderly and passionately. The possibility of that is in me or
I would not want to marry at all. I am afraid but I am also happy. O, I
am so glad our marriage time is near at hand!'
"Now you see clearly enough what a mess I was in. In my office, after I
had read my fiancée's letter, I became at once very resolute and
strong. I remember that I got out of my chair and walked about, proud
of the fact that I was to be the husband of so noble a woman. Right
away I felt concerning her as I had been feeling about myself before I
found out what a weak thing I was. To be sure I took a strong
resolution that I would not be weak. At nine that evening I had planned
to run in to see my fiancée. 'I'm all right now,' I said to myself.
'The beauty of her character has saved me from myself. I will go home
now and send the other woman away.' In the morning I had telephoned to
my servant and told him that I did not want him to be at the apartment
that evening and I now picked up the telephone to tell him to stay at
"Then a thought came to me. 'I will not want him there in any event,' I
told myself. 'What will he think when he sees a woman coming in my
place on the evening before the day I am to be married?' I put the
telephone down and prepared to go home. 'If I want my servant out of
the apartment it is because I do not want him to hear me talk with the
woman. I cannot be rude to her. I will have to make some kind of an
explanation,' I said to myself.
"The woman came at seven o'clock, and, as you may have guessed, I let
her in and forgot the resolution I had made. It is likely I never had
any intention of doing anything else. There was a bell on my door, but
she did not ring, but knocked very softly. It seems to me that
everything she did that evening was soft and quiet, but very determined
and quick. Do I make myself clear? When she came I was standing just
within the door where I had been standing and waiting for a half hour.
My hands were trembling as they had trembled in the morning when her
eyes looked at me and when I tried to put the pennies on the counter in
the store. When I opened the door she stepped quickly in and I took her
into my arms. We stood together in the darkness. My hands no longer
trembled. I felt very happy and strong.
"Although I have tried to make everything clear I have not told you
what the woman I married is like. I have emphasized, you see, the other
woman. I make the blind statement that I love my wife, and to a man of
your shrewdness that means nothing at all. To tell the truth, had I not
started to speak of this matter I would feel more comfortable. It is
inevitable that I give you the impression that I am in love with the
tobacconist's wife. That's not true. To be sure I was very conscious of
her all during the week before my marriage, but after she had come to
me at my apartment she went entirely out of my mind.
"Am I telling the truth? I am trying very hard to tell what happened to
me. I am saying that I have not since that evening thought of the woman
who came to my apartment. Now, to tell the facts of the case, that is
not true. On that evening I went to my fiancée at nine, as she had
asked me to do in her letter. In a kind of way I cannot explain the
other woman went with me. This is what I mean—you see I had been
thinking that if anything happened between me and the tobacconist's
wife I would not be able to go through with my marriage. 'It is one
thing or the other with me,' I had said to myself.
"As a matter of fact I went to see my beloved on that evening filled
with a new faith in the outcome of our life together. I am afraid I
muddle this matter in trying to tell it. A moment ago I said the other
woman, the tobacconist's wife, went with me. I do not mean she went in
fact. What I am trying to say is that something of her faith in her own
desires and her courage in seeing things through went with me. Is that
clear to you? When I got to my fiancée's house there was a crowd of
people standing about. Some were relatives from distant places I had
not seen before. She looked up quickly when I came into the room. My
face must have been radiant. I never saw her so moved. She thought her
letter had affected me deeply, and of course it had. Up she jumped and
ran to meet me. She was like a glad child. Right before the people who
turned and looked inquiringly at us, she said the thing that was in her
mind. 'O, I am so happy,' she cried. 'You have understood. We will be
two human beings. We will not have to be husband and wife.'
"As you may suppose everyone laughed, but I did not laugh. The tears
came into my eyes. I was so happy I wanted to shout. Perhaps you
understand what I mean. In the office that day when I read the letter
my fiancée had written I had said to myself, 'I will take care of the
dear little woman.' There was something smug, you see, about that. In
her house when she cried out in that way, and when everyone laughed,
what I said to myself was something like this: 'We will take care of
ourselves.' I whispered something of the sort into her ears. To tell
you the truth I had come down off my perch. The spirit of the other
woman did that to me. Before all the people gathered about I held my
fiancée close and we kissed. They thought it very sweet of us to be so
affected at the sight of each other. What they would have thought had
they known the truth about me God only knows!
"Twice now I have said that after that evening I never thought of the
other woman at all. That is partially true but, sometimes in the
evening when I am walking alone in the street or in the park as we are
walking now, and when evening comes softly and quickly as it has come
to-night, the feeling of her comes sharply into my body and mind. After
that one meeting I never saw her again. On the next day I was married
and I have never gone back into her street. Often however as I am
walking along as I am doing now, a quick sharp earthy feeling takes
possession of me. It is as though I were a seed in the ground and the
warm rains of the spring had come. It is as though I were not a man but
"And now you see I am married and everything is all right. My marriage
is to me a very beautiful fact. If you were to say that my marriage is
not a happy one I could call you a liar and be speaking the absolute
truth. I have tried to tell you about this other woman. There is a kind
of relief in speaking of her. I have never done it before. I wonder why
I was so silly as to be afraid that I would give you the impression I
am not in love with my wife. If I did not instinctively trust your
understanding I would not have spoken. As the matter stands I have a
little stirred myself up. To-night I shall think of the other woman.
That sometimes occurs. It will happen after I have gone to bed. My wife
sleeps in the next room to mine and the door is always left open. There
will be a moon to-night, and when there is a moon long streaks of light
fall on her bed. I shall awake at midnight to-night. She will be lying
asleep with one arm thrown over her head.
"What is it that I am now talking about? A man does not speak of his
wife lying in bed. What I am trying to say is that, because of this
talk, I shall think of the other woman to-night. My thoughts will not
take the form they did during the week before I was married. I will
wonder what has become of the woman. For a moment I will again feel
myself holding her close. I will think that for an hour I was closer to
her than I have ever been to anyone else. Then I will think of the time
when I will be as close as that to my wife. She is still, you see, an
awakening woman. For a moment I will close my eyes and the quick,
shrewd, determined eyes of that other woman will look into mine. My
head will swim and then I will quickly open my eyes and see again the
dear woman with whom I have undertaken to live out my life. Then I will
sleep and when I awake in the morning it will be as it was that evening
when I walked out of my dark apartment after having had the most
notable experience of my life. What I mean to say, you understand is
that, for me, when I awake, the other woman will be utterly gone."
My father was, I am sure, intended by nature to be a cheerful, kindly
man. Until he was thirty-four years old he worked as a farm-hand for a
man named Thomas Butterworth whose place lay near the town of Bidwell,
Ohio. He had then a horse of his own and on Saturday evenings drove
into town to spend a few hours in social intercourse with other farm-
hands. In town he drank several glasses of beer and stood about in Ben
Head's saloon—crowded on Saturday evenings with visiting farm-hands.
Songs were sung and glasses thumped on the bar. At ten o'clock father
drove home along a lonely country road, made his horse comfortable for
the night and himself went to bed, quite happy in his position in life.
He had at that time no notion of trying to rise in the world.
It was in the spring of his thirty-fifth year that father married my
mother, then a country school-teacher, and in the following spring I
came wriggling and crying into the world. Something happened to the two
people. They became ambitious. The American passion for getting up in
the world took possession of them.
It may have been that mother was responsible. Being a school-teacher
she had no doubt read books and magazines. She had, I presume, read of
how Garfield, Lincoln, and other Americans rose from poverty to fame
and greatness and as I lay beside her—in the days of her lying-in—she
may have dreamed that I would some day rule men and cities. At any rate
she induced father to give up his place as a farm-hand, sell his horse
and embark on an independent enterprise of his own. She was a tall
silent woman with a long nose and troubled grey eyes. For herself she
wanted nothing. For father and myself she was incurably ambitious.
The first venture into which the two people went turned out badly. They
rented ten acres of poor stony land on Griggs's Road, eight miles from
Bidwell, and launched into chicken raising. I grew into boyhood on the
place and got my first impressions of life there. From the beginning
they were impressions of disaster and if, in my turn, I am a gloomy man
inclined to see the darker side of life, I attribute it to the fact
that what should have been for me the happy joyous days of childhood
were spent on a chicken farm.
One unversed in such matters can have no notion of the many and tragic
things that can happen to a chicken. It is born out of an egg, lives
for a few weeks as a tiny fluffy thing such as you will see pictured on
Easter cards, then becomes hideously naked, eats quantities of corn and
meal bought by the sweat of your father's brow, gets diseases called
pip, cholera, and other names, stands looking with stupid eyes at the
sun, becomes sick and dies. A few hens, and now and then a rooster,
intended to serve God's mysterious ends, struggle through to maturity.
The hens lay eggs out of which come other chickens and the dreadful
cycle is thus made complete. It is all unbelievably complex. Most
philosophers must have been raised on chicken farms. One hopes for so
much from a chicken and is so dreadfully disillusioned. Small chickens,
just setting out on the journey of life, look so bright and alert and
they are in fact so dreadfully stupid. They are so much like people
they mix one up in one's judgments of life. If disease does not kill
them they wait until your expectations are thoroughly aroused and then
walk under the wheels of a wagon—to go squashed and dead back to their
maker. Vermin infest their youth, and fortunes must be spent for
curative powders. In later life I have seen how a literature has been
built up on the subject of fortunes to be made out of the raising of
chickens. It is intended to be read by the gods who have just eaten of
the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is a hopeful literature
and declares that much may be done by simple ambitious people who own a
few hens. Do not be led astray by it. It was not written for you. Go
hunt for gold on the frozen hills of Alaska, put your faith in the
honesty of a politician, believe if you will that the world is daily
growing better and that good will triumph over evil, but do not read
and believe the literature that is written concerning the hen. It was
not written for you.
I, however, digress. My tale does not primarily concern itself with the
hen. If correctly told it will centre on the egg. For ten years my
father and mother struggled to make our chicken farm pay and then they
gave up that struggle and began another. They moved into the town of
Bidwell, Ohio and embarked in the restaurant business. After ten years
of worry with incubators that did not hatch, and with tiny—and in
their own way lovely—balls of fluff that passed on into semi-naked
pullethood and from that into dead hen-hood, we threw all aside and
packing our belongings on a wagon drove down Griggs's Road toward
Bidwell, a tiny caravan of hope looking for a new place from which to
start on our upward journey through life.
We must have been a sad looking lot, not, I fancy, unlike refugees
fleeing from a battlefield. Mother and I walked in the road. The wagon
that contained our goods had been borrowed for the day from Mr. Albert
Griggs, a neighbor. Out of its sides stuck the legs of cheap chairs and
at the back of the pile of beds, tables, and boxes filled with kitchen
utensils was a crate of live chickens, and on top of that the baby
carriage in which I had been wheeled about in my infancy. Why we stuck
to the baby carriage I don't know. It was unlikely other children would
be born and the wheels were broken. People who have few possessions
cling tightly to those they have. That is one of the facts that make
life so discouraging.
Father rode on top of the wagon. He was then a bald-headed man of
forty-five, a little fat and from long association with mother and the
chickens he had become habitually silent and discouraged. All during
our ten years on the chicken farm he had worked as a laborer on
neighboring farms and most of the money he had earned had been spent
for remedies to cure chicken diseases, on Wilmer's White Wonder Cholera
Cure or Professor Bidlow's Egg Producer or some other preparations that
mother found advertised in the poultry papers. There were two little
patches of hair on father's head just above his ears. I remember that
as a child I used to sit looking at him when he had gone to sleep in a
chair before the stove on Sunday afternoons in the winter. I had at
that time already begun to read books and have notions of my own and
the bald path that led over the top of his head was, I fancied,
something like a broad road, such a road as Caesar might have made on
which to lead his legions out of Rome and into the wonders of an
unknown world. The tufts of hair that grew above father's ears were, I
thought, like forests. I fell into a half-sleeping, half-waking state
and dreamed I was a tiny thing going along the road into a far
beautiful place where there were no chicken farms and where life was a
happy eggless affair.
One might write a book concerning our flight from the chicken farm into
town. Mother and I walked the entire eight miles—she to be sure that
nothing fell from the wagon and I to see the wonders of the world. On
the seat of the wagon beside father was his greatest treasure. I will
tell you of that.
On a chicken farm where hundreds and even thousands of chickens come
out of eggs surprising things sometimes happen. Grotesques are born out
of eggs as out of people. The accident does not often occur—perhaps
once in a thousand births. A chicken is, you see, born that has four
legs, two pairs of wings, two heads or what not. The things do not
live. They go quickly back to the hand of their maker that has for a
moment trembled. The fact that the poor little things could not live
was one of the tragedies of life to father. He had some sort of notion
that if he could but bring into henhood or roosterhood a five-legged
hen or a two-headed rooster his fortune would be made. He dreamed of
taking the wonder about to county fairs and of growing rich by
exhibiting it to other farm-hands.
At any rate he saved all the little monstrous things that had been born
on our chicken farm. They were preserved in alcohol and put each in its
own glass bottle. These he had carefully put into a box and on our
journey into town it was carried on the wagon seat beside him. He drove
the horses with one hand and with the other clung to the box. When we
got to our destination the box was taken down at once and the bottles
removed. All during our days as keepers of a restaurant in the town of
Bidwell, Ohio, the grotesques in their little glass bottles sat on a
shelf back of the counter. Mother sometimes protested but father was a
rock on the subject of his treasure. The grotesques were, he declared,
valuable. People, he said, liked to look at strange and wonderful
Did I say that we embarked in the restaurant business in the town of
Bidwell, Ohio? I exaggerated a little. The town itself lay at the foot
of a low hill and on the shore of a small river. The railroad did not
run through the town and the station was a mile away to the north at a
place called Pickleville. There had been a cider mill and pickle
factory at the station, but before the time of our coming they had both
gone out of business. In the morning and in the evening busses came
down to the station along a road called Turner's Pike from the hotel on
the main street of Bidwell. Our going to the out of the way place to
embark in the restaurant business was mother's idea. She talked of it
for a year and then one day went off and rented an empty store building
opposite the railroad station. It was her idea that the restaurant
would be profitable. Travelling men, she said, would be always waiting
around to take trains out of town and town people would come to the
station to await incoming trains. They would come to the restaurant to
buy pieces of pie and drink coffee. Now that I am older I know that she
had another motive in going. She was ambitious for me. She wanted me to
rise in the world, to get into a town school and become a man of the
At Pickleville father and mother worked hard as they always had done.
At first there was the necessity of putting our place into shape to be
a restaurant. That took a month. Father built a shelf on which he put
tins of vegetables. He painted a sign on which he put his name in large
red letters. Below his name was the sharp command—"EAT HERE"—that was
so seldom obeyed. A show case was bought and filled with cigars and
tobacco. Mother scrubbed the floor and the walls of the room. I went to
school in the town and was glad to be away from the farm and from the
presence of the discouraged, sad-looking chickens. Still I was not very
joyous. In the evening I walked home from school along Turner's Pike
and remembered the children I had seen playing in the town school yard.
A troop of little girls had gone hopping about and singing. I tried
that. Down along the frozen road I went hopping solemnly on one leg.
"Hippity Hop To The Barber Shop," I sang shrilly. Then I stopped and
looked doubtfully about. I was afraid of being seen in my gay mood. It
must have seemed to me that I was doing a thing that should not be done
by one who, like myself, had been raised on a chicken farm where death
was a daily visitor.
Mother decided that our restaurant should remain open at night. At ten
in the evening a passenger train went north past our door followed by a
local freight. The freight crew had switching to do in Pickleville and
when the work was done they came to our restaurant for hot coffee and
food. Sometimes one of them ordered a fried egg. In the morning at four
they returned north-bound and again visited us. A little trade began to
grow up. Mother slept at night and during the day tended the restaurant
and fed our boarders while father slept. He slept in the same bed
mother had occupied during the night and I went off to the town of
Bidwell and to school. During the long nights, while mother and I
slept, father cooked meats that were to go into sandwiches for the
lunch baskets of our boarders. Then an idea in regard to getting up in
the world came into his head. The American spirit took hold of him. He
also became ambitious.
In the long nights when there was little to do father had time to
think. That was his undoing. He decided that he had in the past been an
unsuccessful man because he had not been cheerful enough and that in
the future he would adopt a cheerful outlook on life. In the early
morning he came upstairs and got into bed with mother. She woke and the
two talked. From my bed in the corner I listened.
It was father's idea that both he and mother should try to entertain
the people who came to eat at our restaurant. I cannot now remember his
words, but he gave the impression of one about to become in some
obscure way a kind of public entertainer. When people, particularly
young people from the town of Bidwell, came into our place, as on very
rare occasions they did, bright entertaining conversation was to be
made. From father's words I gathered that something of the jolly inn-
keeper effect was to be sought. Mother must have been doubtful from the
first, but she said nothing discouraging. It was father's notion that a
passion for the company of himself and mother would spring up in the
breasts of the younger people of the town of Bidwell. In the evening
bright happy groups would come singing down Turner's Pike. They would
troop shouting with joy and laughter into our place. There would be
song and festivity. I do not mean to give the impression that father
spoke so elaborately of the matter. He was as I have said an
uncommunicative man. "They want some place to go. I tell you they want
some place to go," he said over and over. That was as far as he got. My
own imagination has filled in the blanks.
For two or three weeks this notion of father's invaded our house. We
did not talk much, but in our daily lives tried earnestly to make
smiles take the place of glum looks. Mother smiled at the boarders and
I, catching the infection, smiled at our cat. Father became a little
feverish in his anxiety to please. There was no doubt, lurking
somewhere in him, a touch of the spirit of the showman. He did not
waste much of his ammunition on the railroad men he served at night but
seemed to be waiting for a young man or woman from Bidwell to come in
to show what he could do. On the counter in the restaurant there was a
wire basket kept always filled with eggs, and it must have been before
his eyes when the idea of being entertaining was born in his brain.
There was something pre-natal about the way eggs kept themselves
connected with the development of his idea. At any rate an egg ruined
his new impulse in life. Late one night I was awakened by a roar of
anger coming from father's throat. Both mother and I sat upright in our
beds. With trembling hands she lighted a lamp that stood on a table by
her head. Downstairs the front door of our restaurant went shut with a
bang and in a few minutes father tramped up the stairs. He held an egg
in his hand and his hand trembled as though he were having a chill.
There was a half insane light in his eyes. As he stood glaring at us I
was sure he intended throwing the egg at either mother or me. Then he
laid it gently on the table beside the lamp and dropped on his knees
beside mother's bed. He began to cry like a boy and I, carried away by
his grief, cried with him. The two of us filled the little upstairs
room with our wailing voices. It is ridiculous, but of the picture we
made I can remember only the fact that mother's hand continually
stroked the bald path that ran across the top of his head. I have
forgotten what mother said to him and how she induced him to tell her
of what had happened downstairs. His explanation also has gone out of
my mind. I remember only my own grief and fright and the shiny path
over father's head glowing in the lamp light as he knelt by the bed.
As to what happened downstairs. For some unexplainable reason I know
the story as well as though I had been a witness to my father's
discomfiture. One in time gets to know many unexplainable things. On
that evening young Joe Kane, son of a merchant of Bidwell, came to
Pickleville to meet his father, who was expected on the ten o'clock
evening train from the South. The train was three hours late and Joe
came into our place to loaf about and to wait for its arrival. The
local freight train came in and the freight crew were fed. Joe was left
alone in the restaurant with father.
From the moment he came into our place the Bidwell young man must have
been puzzled by my father's actions. It was his notion that father was
angry at him for hanging around. He noticed that the restaurant keeper
was apparently disturbed by his presence and he thought of going out.
However, it began to rain and he did not fancy the long walk to town
and back. He bought a five-cent cigar and ordered a cup of coffee. He
had a newspaper in his pocket and took it out and began to read. "I'm
waiting for the evening train. It's late," he said apologetically.
For a long time father, whom Joe Kane had never seen before, remained
silently gazing at his visitor. He was no doubt suffering from an
attack of stage fright. As so often happens in life he had thought so
much and so often of the situation that now confronted him that he was
somewhat nervous in its presence.
For one thing, he did not know what to do with his hands. He thrust one
of them nervously over the counter and shook hands with Joe Kane. "How-
de-do," he said. Joe Kane put his newspaper down and stared at him.
Father's eye lighted on the basket of eggs that sat on the counter and
he began to talk. "Well," he began hesitatingly, "well, you have heard
of Christopher Columbus, eh?" He seemed to be angry. "That Christopher
Columbus was a cheat," he declared emphatically. "He talked of making
an egg stand on its end. He talked, he did, and then he went and broke
the end of the egg."
My father seemed to his visitor to be beside himself at the duplicity
of Christopher Columbus. He muttered and swore. He declared it was
wrong to teach children that Christopher Columbus was a great man when,
after all, he cheated at the critical moment. He had declared he would
make an egg stand on end and then when his bluff had been called he had
done a trick. Still grumbling at Columbus, father took an egg from the
basket on the counter and began to walk up and down. He rolled the egg
between the palms of his hands. He smiled genially. He began to mumble
words regarding the effect to be produced on an egg by the electricity
that comes out of the human body. He declared that without breaking its
shell and by virtue of rolling it back and forth in his hands he could
stand the egg on its end. He explained that the warmth of his hands and
the gentle rolling movement he gave the egg created a new centre of
gravity, and Joe Kane was mildly interested. "I have handled thousands
of eggs," father said. "No one knows more about eggs than I do."
He stood the egg on the counter and it fell on its side. He tried the
trick again and again, each time rolling the egg between the palms of
his hands and saying the words regarding the wonders of electricity and
the laws of gravity. When after a half hour's effort he did succeed in
making the egg stand for a moment he looked up to find that his visitor
was no longer watching. By the time he had succeeded in calling Joe
Kane's attention to the success of his effort the egg had again rolled
over and lay on its side.
Afire with the showman's passion and at the same time a good deal
disconcerted by the failure of his first effort, father now took the
bottles containing the poultry monstrosities down from their place on
the shelf and began to show them to his visitor. "How would you like to
have seven legs and two heads like this fellow?" he asked, exhibiting
the most remarkable of his treasures. A cheerful smile played over his
face. He reached over the counter and tried to slap Joe Kane on the
shoulder as he had seen men do in Ben Head's saloon when he was a young
farm-hand and drove to town on Saturday evenings. His visitor was made
a little ill by the sight of the body of the terribly deformed bird
floating in the alcohol in the bottle and got up to go. Coming from
behind the counter father took hold of the young man's arm and led him
back to his seat. He grew a little angry and for a moment had to turn
his face away and force himself to smile. Then he put the bottles back
on the shelf. In an outburst of generosity he fairly compelled Joe Kane
to have a fresh cup of coffee and another cigar at his expense. Then he
took a pan and filling it with vinegar, taken from a jug that sat
beneath the counter, he declared himself about to do a new trick. "I
will heat this egg in this pan of vinegar," he said. "Then I will put
it through the neck of a bottle without breaking the shell. When the
egg is inside the bottle it will resume its normal shape and the shell
will become hard again. Then I will give the bottle with the egg in it
to you. You can take it about with you wherever you go. People will
want to know how you got the egg in the bottle. Don't tell them. Keep
them guessing. That is the way to have fun with this trick."
Father grinned and winked at his visitor. Joe Kane decided that the man
who confronted him was mildly insane but harmless. He drank the cup of
coffee that had been given him and began to read his paper again. When
the egg had been heated in vinegar father carried it on a spoon to the
counter and going into a back room got an empty bottle. He was angry
because his visitor did not watch him as he began to do his trick, but
nevertheless went cheerfully to work. For a long time he struggled,
trying to get the egg to go through the neck of the bottle. He put the
pan of vinegar back on the stove, intending to reheat the egg, then
picked it up and burned his fingers. After a second bath in the hot
vinegar the shell of the egg had been softened a little but not enough
for his purpose. He worked and worked and a spirit of desperate
determination took possession of him. When he thought that at last the
trick was about to be consummated the delayed train came in at the
station and Joe Kane started to go nonchalantly out at the door. Father
made a last desperate effort to conquer the egg and make it do the
thing that would establish his reputation as one who knew how to
entertain guests who came into his restaurant. He worried the egg. He
attempted to be somewhat rough with it. He swore and the sweat stood
out on his forehead. The egg broke under his hand. When the contents
spurted over his clothes, Joe Kane, who had stopped at the door, turned
A roar of anger rose from my father's throat. He danced and shouted a
string of inarticulate words. Grabbing another egg from the basket on
the counter, he threw it, just missing the head of the young man as he
dodged through the door and escaped.
Father came upstairs to mother and me with an egg in his hand. I do not
know what he intended to do. I imagine he had some idea of destroying
it, of destroying all eggs, and that he intended to let mother and me
see him begin. When, however, he got into the presence of mother
something happened to him. He laid the egg gently on the table and
dropped on his knees by the bed as I have already explained. He later
decided to close the restaurant for the night and to come upstairs and
get into bed. When he did so he blew out the light and after much
muttered conversation both he and mother went to sleep. I suppose I
went to sleep also, but my sleep was troubled.
I awoke at dawn and for a long time looked at the egg that lay on the
table. I wondered why eggs had to be and why from the egg came the hen
who again laid the egg. The question got into my blood. It has stayed
there, I imagine, because I am the son of my father. At any rate, the
problem remains unsolved in my mind. And that, I conclude, is but
another evidence of the complete and final triumph of the egg—at
least as far as my family is concerned.
Mary Cochran went out of the rooms where she lived with her father,
Doctor Lester Cochran, at seven o'clock on a Sunday evening. It was
June of the year nineteen hundred and eight and Mary was eighteen years
old. She walked along Tremont to Main Street and across the railroad
tracks to Upper Main, lined with small shops and shoddy houses, a
rather quiet cheerless place on Sundays when there were few people
about. She had told her father she was going to church but did not
intend doing anything of the kind. She did not know what she wanted to
do. "I'll get off by myself and think," she told herself as she walked
slowly along. The night she thought promised to be too fine to be spent
sitting in a stuffy church and hearing a man talk of things that had
apparently nothing to do with her own problem. Her own affairs were
approaching a crisis and it was time for her to begin thinking
seriously of her future.
The thoughtful serious state of mind in which Mary found herself had
been induced in her by a conversation had with her father on the
evening before. Without any preliminary talk and quite suddenly and
abruptly he had told her that he was a victim of heart disease and
might die at any moment. He had made the announcement as they stood
together in the Doctor's office, back of which were the rooms in which
the father and daughter lived.
It was growing dark outside when she came into the office and found him
sitting alone. The office and living rooms were on the second floor of
an old frame building in the town of Huntersburg, Illinois, and as the
Doctor talked he stood beside his daughter near one of the windows that
looked down into Tremont Street. The hushed murmur of the town's
Saturday night life went on in Main Street just around a corner, and
the evening train, bound to Chicago fifty miles to the east, had just
passed. The hotel bus came rattling out of Lincoln Street and went
through Tremont toward the hotel on Lower Main. A cloud of dust kicked
up by the horses' hoofs floated on the quiet air. A straggling group of
people followed the bus and the row of hitching posts on Tremont Street
was already lined with buggies in which farmers and their wives had
driven into town for the evening of shopping and gossip.
After the station bus had passed three or four more buggies were driven
into the street. From one of them a young man helped his sweetheart to
alight. He took hold of her arm with a certain air of tenderness, and a
hunger to be touched thus tenderly by a man's hand, that had come to
Mary many times before, returned at almost the same moment her father
made the announcement of his approaching death.
As the Doctor began to speak Barney Smithfield, who owned a livery barn
that opened into Tremont Street directly opposite the building in which
the Cochrans lived, came back to his place of business from his evening
meal. He stopped to tell a story to a group of men gathered before the
barn door and a shout of laughter arose. One of the loungers in the
street, a strongly built young man in a checkered suit, stepped away
from the others and stood before the liveryman. Having seen Mary he was
trying to attract her attention. He also began to tell a story and as
he talked he gesticulated, waved his arms and from time to time looked
over his shoulder to see if the girl still stood by the window and if
she were watching.
Doctor Cochran had told his daughter of his approaching death in a cold
quiet voice. To the girl it had seemed that everything concerning her
father must be cold and quiet. "I have a disease of the heart," he said
flatly, "have long suspected there was something of the sort the matter
with me and on Thursday when I went into Chicago I had myself examined.
The truth is I may die at any moment. I would not tell you but for one
reason—I will leave little money and you must be making plans for the
The Doctor stepped nearer the window where his daughter stood with her
hand on the frame. The announcement had made her a little pale and her
hand trembled. In spite of his apparent coldness he was touched and
wanted to reassure her. "There now," he said hesitatingly, "it'll
likely be all right after all. Don't worry. I haven't been a doctor for
thirty years without knowing there's a great deal of nonsense about
these pronouncements on the part of experts. In a matter like this,
that is to say when a man has a disease of the heart, he may putter
about for years." He laughed uncomfortably. "I've even heard it said
that the best way to insure a long life is to contract a disease of the
With these words the Doctor had turned and walked out of his office,
going down a wooden stairway to the street. He had wanted to put his
arm about his daughter's shoulder as he talked to her, but never having
shown any feeling in his relations with her could not sufficiently
release some tight thing in himself.
Mary had stood for a long time looking down into the street. The young
man in the checkered suit, whose name was Duke Yetter, had finished
telling his tale and a shout of laughter arose. She turned to look
toward the door through which her father had passed and dread took
possession of her. In all her life there had never been anything warm
and close. She shivered although the night was warm and with a quick
girlish gesture passed her hand over her eyes.
The gesture was but an expression of a desire to brush away the cloud
of fear that had settled down upon her but it was misinterpreted by
Duke Yetter who now stood a little apart from the other men before the
livery barn. When he saw Mary's hand go up he smiled and turning
quickly to be sure he was unobserved began jerking his head and making
motions with his hand as a sign that he wished her to come down into
the street where he would have an opportunity to join her.
* * * * *
On the Sunday evening Mary, having walked through Upper Main, turned
into Wilmott, a street of workmens' houses. During that year the first
sign of the march of factories westward from Chicago into the prairie
towns had come to Huntersburg. A Chicago manufacturer of furniture had
built a plant in the sleepy little farming town, hoping thus to escape
the labor organizations that had begun to give him trouble in the city.
At the upper end of town, in Wilmott, Swift, Harrison and Chestnut
Streets and in cheap, badly-constructed frame houses, most of the
factory workers lived. On the warm summer evening they were gathered on
the porches at the front of the houses and a mob of children played in
the dusty streets. Red-faced men in white shirts and without collars
and coats slept in chairs or lay sprawled on strips of grass or on the
hard earth before the doors of the houses. The laborers' wives had
gathered in groups and stood gossiping by the fences that separated the
yards. Occasionally the voice of one of the women arose sharp and
distinct above the steady flow of voices that ran like a murmuring
river through the hot little streets.
In the roadway two children had got into a fight. A thick-shouldered
red-haired boy struck another boy who had a pale sharp-featured face, a
blow on the shoulder. Other children came running. The mother of the
red-haired boy brought the promised fight to an end. "Stop it Johnny, I
tell you to stop it. I'll break your neck if you don't," the woman
The pale boy turned and walked away from his antagonist. As he went
slinking along the sidewalk past Mary Cochran his sharp little eyes,
burning with hatred, looked up at her.
Mary went quickly along. The strange new part of her native town with
the hubbub of life always stirring and asserting itself had a strong
fascination for her. There was something dark and resentful in her own
nature that made her feel at home in the crowded place where life
carried itself off darkly, with a blow and an oath. The habitual
silence of her father and the mystery concerning the unhappy married
life of her father and mother, that had affected the attitude toward
her of the people of the town, had made her own life a lonely one and
had encouraged in her a rather dogged determination to in some way
think her own way through the things of life she could not understand.
And back of Mary's thinking there was an intense curiosity and a
courageous determination toward adventure. She was like a little animal
of the forest that has been robbed of its mother by the gun of a
sportsman and has been driven by hunger to go forth and seek food.
Twenty times during the year she had walked alone at evening in the new
and fast growing factory district of her town. She was eighteen and had
begun to look like a woman, and she felt that other girls of the town
of her own age would not have dared to walk in such a place alone. The
feeling made her somewhat proud and as she went along she looked boldly
Among the workers in Wilmott Street, men and women who had been brought
to town by the furniture manufacturer, were many who spoke in foreign
tongues. Mary walked among them and liked the sound of the strange
voices. To be in the street made her feel that she had gone out of her
town and on a voyage into a strange land. In Lower Main Street or in
the residence streets in the eastern part of town where lived the young
men and women she had always known and where lived also the merchants,
the clerks, the lawyers and the more well-to-do American workmen of
Huntersburg, she felt always a secret antagonism to herself. The
antagonism was not due to anything in her own character. She was sure
of that. She had kept so much to herself that she was in fact but
little known. "It is because I am the daughter of my mother," she told
herself and did not walk often in the part of town where other girls of
her class lived.
Mary had been so often in Wilmott Street that many of the people had
begun to feel acquainted with her. "She is the daughter of some farmer
and has got into the habit of walking into town," they said. A red-
haired, broad-hipped woman who came out at the front door of one of the
houses nodded to her. On a narrow strip of grass beside another house
sat a young man with his back against a tree. He was smoking a pipe,
but when he looked up and saw her he took the pipe from his mouth. She
decided he must be an Italian, his hair and eyes were so black. "Ne
bella! si fai un onore a passare di qua," he called waving his hand and
Mary went to the end of Wilmott Street and came out upon a country
road. It seemed to her that a long time must have passed since she left
her father's presence although the walk had in fact occupied but a few
minutes. By the side of the road and on top of a small hill there was a
ruined barn, and before the barn a great hole filled with the charred
timbers of what had once been a farmhouse. A pile of stones lay beside
the hole and these were covered with creeping vines. Between the site
of the house and the barn there was an old orchard in which grew a mass
of tangled weeds.
Pushing her way in among the weeds, many of which were covered with
blossoms, Mary found herself a seat on a rock that had been rolled
against the trunk of an old apple tree. The weeds half concealed her
and from the road only her head was visible. Buried away thus in the
weeds she looked like a quail that runs in the tall grass and that on
hearing some unusual sound, stops, throws up its head and looks sharply
The doctor's daughter had been to the decayed old orchard many times
before. At the foot of the hill on which it stood the streets of the
town began, and as she sat on the rock she could hear faint shouts and
cries coming out of Wilmott Street. A hedge separated the orchard from
the fields on the hillside. Mary intended to sit by the tree until
darkness came creeping over the land and to try to think out some plan
regarding her future. The notion that her father was soon to die seemed
both true and untrue, but her mind was unable to take hold of the
thought of him as physically dead. For the moment death in relation to
her father did not take the form of a cold inanimate body that was to
be buried in the ground, instead it seemed to her that her father was
not to die but to go away somewhere on a journey. Long ago her mother
had done that. There was a strange hesitating sense of relief in the
thought. "Well," she told herself, "when the time comes I also shall be
setting out, I shall get out of here and into the world." On several
occasions Mary had gone to spend a day with her father in Chicago and
she was fascinated by the thought that soon she might be going there to
live. Before her mind's eye floated a vision of long streets filled
with thousands of people all strangers to herself. To go into such
streets and to live her life among strangers would be like coming out
of a waterless desert and into a cool forest carpeted with tender young
In Huntersburg she had always lived under a cloud and now she was
becoming a woman and the close stuffy atmosphere she had always
breathed was becoming constantly more and more oppressive. It was true
no direct question had ever been raised touching her own standing in
the community life, but she felt that a kind of prejudice against her
existed. While she was still a baby there had been a scandal involving
her father and mother. The town of Huntersburg had rocked with it and
when she was a child people had sometimes looked at her with mocking
sympathetic eyes. "Poor child! It's too bad," they said. Once, on a
cloudy summer evening when her father had driven off to the country and
she sat alone in the darkness by his office window, she heard a man and
woman in the street mention her name. The couple stumbled along in the
darkness on the sidewalk below the office window. "That daughter of Doc
Cochran's is a nice girl," said the man. The woman laughed. "She's
growing up and attracting men's attention now. Better keep your eyes in
your head. She'll turn out bad. Like mother, like daughter," the woman
For ten or fifteen minutes Mary sat on the stone beneath the tree in
the orchard and thought of the attitude of the town toward herself and
her father. "It should have drawn us together," she told herself, and
wondered if the approach of death would do what the cloud that had for
years hung over them had not done. It did not at the moment seem to her
cruel that the figure of death was soon to visit her father. In a way
Death had become for her and for the time a lovely and gracious figure
intent upon good. The hand of death was to open the door out of her
father's house and into life. With the cruelty of youth she thought
first of the adventurous possibilities of the new life.
Mary sat very still. In the long weeds the insects that had been
disturbed in their evening song began to sing again. A robin flew into
the tree beneath which she sat and struck a clear sharp note of alarm.
The voices of people in the town's new factory district came softly up
the hillside. They were like bells of distant cathedrals calling people
to worship. Something within the girl's breast seemed to break and
putting her head into her hands she rocked slowly back and forth. Tears
came accompanied by a warm tender impulse toward the living men and
women of Huntersburg.
And then from the road came a call. "Hello there kid," shouted a voice,
and Mary sprang quickly to her feet. Her mellow mood passed like a puff
of wind and in its place hot anger came.
In the road stood Duke Yetter who from his loafing place before the
livery barn had seen her set out for the Sunday evening walk and had
followed. When she went through Upper Main Street and into the new
factory district he was sure of his conquest. "She doesn't want to be
seen walking with me," he had told himself, "that's all right. She
knows well enough I'll follow but doesn't want me to put in an
appearance until she is well out of sight of her friends. She's a
little stuck up and needs to be brought down a peg, but what do I care?
She's gone out of her way to give me this chance and maybe she's only
afraid of her dad."
Duke climbed the little incline out of the road and came into the
orchard, but when he reached the pile of stones covered by vines he
stumbled and fell. He arose and laughed. Mary had not waited for him to
reach her but had started toward him, and when his laugh broke the
silence that lay over the orchard she sprang forward and with her open
hand struck him a sharp blow on the cheek. Then she turned and as he
stood with his feet tangled in the vines ran out to the road. "If you
follow or speak to me I'll get someone to kill you," she shouted.
Mary walked along the road and down the hill toward Wilmott Street.
Broken bits of the story concerning her mother that had for years
circulated in town had reached her ears. Her mother, it was said, had
disappeared on a summer night long ago and a young town rough, who had
been in the habit of loitering before Barney Smithfield's Livery Barn,
had gone away with her. Now another young rough was trying to make up
to her. The thought made her furious.
Her mind groped about striving to lay hold of some weapon with which
she could strike a more telling blow at Duke Yetter. In desperation it
lit upon the figure of her father already broken in health and now
about to die. "My father just wants the chance to kill some such fellow
as you," she shouted, turning to face the young man, who having got
clear of the mass of vines in the orchard, had followed her into the
road. "My father just wants to kill someone because of the lies that
have been told in this town about mother."
Having given way to the impulse to threaten Duke Yetter Mary was
instantly ashamed of her outburst and walked rapidly along, the tears
running from her eyes. With hanging head Duke walked at her heels. "I
didn't mean no harm, Miss Cochran," he pleaded. "I didn't mean no harm.
Don't tell your father. I was only funning with you. I tell you I
didn't mean no harm."
* * * * *
The light of the summer evening had begun to fall and the faces of the
people made soft little ovals of light as they stood grouped under the
dark porches or by the fences in Wilmott Street. The voices of the
children had become subdued and they also stood in groups. They became
silent as Mary passed and stood with upturned faces and staring eyes.
"The lady doesn't live very far. She must be almost a neighbor," she
heard a woman's voice saying in English. When she turned her head she
saw only a crowd of dark-skinned men standing before a house. From
within the house came the sound of a woman's voice singing a child to
The young Italian, who had called to her earlier in the evening and who
was now apparently setting out of his own Sunday evening's adventures,
came along the sidewalk and walked quickly away into the darkness. He
had dressed himself in his Sunday clothes and had put on a black derby
hat and a stiff white collar, set off by a red necktie. The shining
whiteness of the collar made his brown skin look almost black. He
smiled boyishly and raised his hat awkwardly but did not speak.
Mary kept looking back along the street to be sure Duke Yetter had not
followed but in the dim light could see nothing of him. Her angry
excited mood went away.
She did not want to go home and decided it was too late to go to
church. From Upper Main Street there was a short street that ran
eastward and fell rather sharply down a hillside to a creek and a
bridge that marked the end of the town's growth in that direction. She
went down along the street to the bridge and stood in the failing light
watching two boys who were fishing in the creek.
A broad-shouldered man dressed in rough clothes came down along the
street and stopping on the bridge spoke to her. It was the first time
she had ever heard a citizen of her home town speak with feeling of her
father. "You are Doctor Cochran's daughter?" he asked hesitatingly. "I
guess you don't know who I am but your father does." He pointed toward
the two boys who sat with fishpoles in their hands on the weed-grown
bank of the creek. "Those are my boys and I have four other children,"
he explained. "There is another boy and I have three girls. One of my
daughters has a job in a store. She is as old as yourself." The man
explained his relations with Doctor Cochran. He had been a farm
laborer, he said, and had but recently moved to town to work in the
furniture factory. During the previous winter he had been ill for a
long time and had no money. While he lay in bed one of his boys fell
out of a barn loft and there was a terrible cut in his head.
"Your father came every day to see us and he sewed up my Tom's head."
The laborer turned away from Mary and stood with his cap in his hand
looking toward the boys. "I was down and out and your father not only
took care of me and the boys but he gave my old woman money to buy the
things we had to have from the stores in town here, groceries and
medicines." The man spoke in such low tones that Mary had to lean
forward to hear his words. Her face almost touched the laborer's
shoulder. "Your father is a good man and I don't think he is very
happy," he went on. "The boy and I got well and I got work here in town
but he wouldn't take any money from me. 'You know how to live with your
children and with your wife. You know how to make them happy. Keep your
money and spend it on them,' that's what he said to me."
The laborer went on across the bridge and along the creek bank toward
the spot where his two sons sat fishing and Mary leaned on the railing
of the bridge and looked at the slow moving water. It was almost black
in the shadows under the bridge and she thought that it was thus her
father's life had been lived. "It has been like a stream running always
in shadows and never coming out into the sunlight," she thought, and
fear that her own life would run on in darkness gripped her. A great
new love for her father swept over her and in fancy she felt his arms
about her. As a child she had continually dreamed of caresses received
at her father's hands and now the dream came back. For a long time she
stood looking at the stream and she resolved that the night should not
pass without an effort on her part to make the old dream come true.
When she again looked up the laborer had built a little fire of sticks
at the edge of the stream. "We catch bullheads here," he called. "The
light of the fire draws them close to the shore. If you want to come
and try your hand at fishing the boys will lend you one of the poles."
"O, I thank you, I won't do it tonight," Mary said, and then fearing
she might suddenly begin weeping and that if the man spoke to her again
she would find herself unable to answer, she hurried away. "Good bye!"
shouted the man and the two boys. The words came quite spontaneously
out of the three throats and created a sharp trumpet-like effect that
rang like a glad cry across the heaviness of her mood.
* * * * *
When his daughter Mary went out for her evening walk Doctor Cochran sat
for an hour alone in his office. It began to grow dark and the men who
all afternoon had been sitting on chairs and boxes before the livery
barn across the street went home for the evening meal. The noise of
voices grew faint and sometimes for five or ten minutes there was
silence. Then from some distant street came a child's cry. Presently
church bells began to ring.
The Doctor was not a very neat man and sometimes for several days he
forgot to shave. With a long lean hand he stroked his half grown beard.
His illness had struck deeper than he had admitted even to himself and
his mind had an inclination to float out of his body. Often when he sat
thus his hands lay in his lap and he looked at them with a child's
absorption. It seemed to him they must belong to someone else. He grew
philosophic. "It's an odd thing about my body. Here I've lived in it
all these years and how little use I have had of it. Now it's going to
die and decay never having been used. I wonder why it did not get
another tenant." He smiled sadly over this fancy but went on with it.
"Well I've had thoughts enough concerning people and I've had the use
of these lips and a tongue but I've let them lie idle. When my Ellen
was here living with me I let her think me cold and unfeeling while
something within me was straining and straining trying to tear itself
He remembered how often, as a young man, he had sat in the evening in
silence beside his wife in this same office and how his hands had ached
to reach across the narrow space that separated them and touch her
hands, her face, her hair.
Well, everyone in town had predicted his marriage would turn out badly!
His wife had been an actress with a company that came to Huntersburg
and got stranded there. At the same time the girl became ill and had no
money to pay for her room at the hotel. The young doctor had attended
to that and when the girl was convalescent took her to ride about the
country in his buggy. Her life had been a hard one and the notion of
leading a quiet existence in the little town appealed to her.
And then after the marriage and after the child was born she had
suddenly found herself unable to go on living with the silent cold man.
There had been a story of her having run away with a young sport, the
son of a saloon keeper who had disappeared from town at the same time,
but the story was untrue. Lester Cochran had himself taken her to
Chicago where she got work with a company going into the far western
states. Then he had taken her to the door of her hotel, had put money
into her hands and in silence and without even a farewell kiss had
turned and walked away.
The Doctor sat in his office living over that moment and other intense
moments when he had been deeply stirred and had been on the surface so
cool and quiet. He wondered if the woman had known. How many times he
had asked himself that question. After he left her that night at the
hotel door she never wrote. "Perhaps she is dead," he thought for the
A thing happened that had been happening at odd moments for more than a
year. In Doctor Cochran's mind the remembered figure of his wife became
confused with the figure of his daughter. When at such moments he tried
to separate the two figures, to make them stand out distinct from each
other, he was unsuccessful. Turning his head slightly he imagined he
saw a white girlish figure coming through a door out of the rooms in
which he and his daughter lived. The door was painted white and swung
slowly in a light breeze that came in at an open window. The wind ran
softly and quietly through the room and played over some papers lying
on a desk in a corner. There was a soft swishing sound as of a woman's
skirts. The doctor arose and stood trembling. "Which is it? Is it you
Mary or is it Ellen?" he asked huskily.
On the stairway leading up from the street there was the sound of heavy
feet and the outer door opened. The doctor's weak heart fluttered and
he dropped heavily back into his chair.
A man came into the room. He was a farmer, one of the doctor's
patients, and coming to the centre of the room he struck a match, held
it above his head and shouted. "Hello!" he called. When the doctor
arose from his chair and answered he was so startled that the match
fell from his hand and lay burning faintly at his feet.
The young farmer had sturdy legs that were like two pillars of stone
supporting a heavy building, and the little flame of the match that
burned and fluttered in the light breeze on the floor between his feet
threw dancing shadows along the walls of the room. The doctor's
confused mind refused to clear itself of his fancies that now began to
feed upon this new situation.
He forgot the presence of the farmer and his mind raced back over his
life as a married man. The flickering light on the wall recalled
another dancing light. One afternoon in the summer during the first
year after his marriage his wife Ellen had driven with him into the
country. They were then furnishing their rooms and at a farmer's house
Ellen had seen an old mirror, no longer in use, standing against a wall
in a shed. Because of something quaint in the design the mirror had
taken her fancy and the farmer's wife had given it to her. On the drive
home the young wife had told her husband of her pregnancy and the
doctor had been stirred as never before. He sat holding the mirror on
his knees while his wife drove and when she announced the coming of the
child she looked away across the fields.
How deeply etched, that scene in the sick man's mind! The sun was going
down over young corn and oat fields beside the road. The prairie land
was black and occasionally the road ran through short lanes of trees
that also looked black in the waning light.
The mirror on his knees caught the rays of the departing sun and sent a
great ball of golden light dancing across the fields and among the
branches of trees. Now as he stood in the presence of the farmer and as
the little light from the burning match on the floor recalled that
other evening of dancing lights, he thought he understood the failure
of his marriage and of his life. On that evening long ago when Ellen
had told him of the coming of the great adventure of their marriage he
had remained silent because he had thought no words he could utter
would express what he felt. There had been a defense for himself built
up. "I told myself she should have understood without words and I've
all my life been telling myself the same thing about Mary. I've been a
fool and a coward. I've always been silent because I've been afraid of
expressing myself—like a blundering fool. I've been a proud man and a
"Tonight I'll do it. If it kills me I'll make myself talk to the girl,"
he said aloud, his mind coming back to the figure of his daughter.
"Hey! What's that?" asked the farmer who stood with his hat in his hand
waiting to tell of his mission.
The doctor got his horse from Barney Smithfield's livery and drove off
to the country to attend the farmer's wife who was about to give birth
to her first child. She was a slender narrow-hipped woman and the child
was large, but the doctor was feverishly strong. He worked desperately
and the woman, who was frightened, groaned and struggled. Her husband
kept coming in and going out of the room and two neighbor women
appeared and stood silently about waiting to be of service. It was past
ten o'clock when everything was done and the doctor was ready to depart
The farmer hitched his horse and brought it to the door and the doctor
drove off feeling strangely weak and at the same time strong. How
simple now seemed the thing he had yet to do. Perhaps when he got home
his daughter would have gone to bed but he would ask her to get up and
come into the office. Then he would tell the whole story of his
marriage and its failure sparing himself no humiliation. "There was
something very dear and beautiful in my Ellen and I must make Mary
understand that. It will help her to be a beautiful woman," he thought,
full of confidence in the strength of his resolution.
He got to the door of the livery barn at eleven o'clock and Barney
Smithfield with young Duke Yetter and two other men sat talking there.
The liveryman took his horse away into the darkness of the barn and the
doctor stood for a moment leaning against the wall of the building. The
town's night watchman stood with the group by the barn door and a
quarrel broke out between him and Duke Yetter, but the doctor did not
hear the hot words that flew back and forth or Duke's loud laughter at
the night watchman's anger. A queer hesitating mood had taken
possession of him.
There was something he passionately desired to do but could not
remember. Did it have to do with his wife Ellen or Mary his daughter?
The figures of the two women were again confused in his mind and to add
to the confusion there was a third figure, that of the woman he had
just assisted through child birth. Everything was confusion. He started
across the street toward the entrance of the stairway leading to his
office and then stopped in the road and stared about. Barney Smithfield
having returned from putting his horse in the stall shut the door of
the barn and a hanging lantern over the door swung back and forth. It
threw grotesque dancing shadows down over the faces and forms of the
men standing and quarreling beside the wall of the barn.
* * * * *
Mary sat by a window in the doctor's office awaiting his return. So
absorbed was she in her own thoughts that she was unconscious of the
voice of Duke Yetter talking with the men in the street.
When Duke had come into the street the hot anger of the early part of
the evening had returned and she again saw him advancing toward her in
the orchard with the look of arrogant male confidence in his eyes but
presently she forgot him and thought only of her father. An incident of
her childhood returned to haunt her. One afternoon in the month of May
when she was fifteen her father had asked her to accompany him on an
evening drive into the country. The doctor went to visit a sick woman
at a farmhouse five miles from town and as there had been a great deal
of rain the roads were heavy. It was dark when they reached the
farmer's house and they went into the kitchen and ate cold food off a
kitchen table. For some reason her father had, on that evening,
appeared boyish and almost gay. On the road he had talked a little.
Even at that early age Mary had grown tall and her figure was becoming
womanly. After the cold supper in the farm kitchen he walked with her
around the house and she sat on a narrow porch. For a moment her father
stood before her. He put his hands into his trouser pockets and
throwing back his head laughed almost heartily. "It seems strange to
think you will soon be a woman," he said. "When you do become a woman
what do you suppose is going to happen, eh? What kind of a life will
you lead? What will happen to you?"
The doctor sat on the porch beside the child and for a moment she had
thought he was about to put his arm around her. Then he jumped up and
went into the house leaving her to sit alone in the darkness.
As she remembered the incident Mary remembered also that on that
evening of her childhood she had met her father's advances in silence.
It seemed to her that she, not her father, was to blame for the life
they had led together. The farm laborer she had met on the bridge had
not felt her father's coldness. That was because he had himself been
warm and generous in his attitude toward the man who had cared for him
in his hour of sickness and misfortune. Her father had said that the
laborer knew how to be a father and Mary remembered with what warmth
the two boys fishing by the creek had called to her as she went away
into the darkness. "Their father has known how to be a father because
his children have known how to give themselves," she thought guiltily.
She also would give herself. Before the night had passed she would do
that. On that evening long ago and as she rode home beside her father
he had made another unsuccessful effort to break through the wall that
separated them. The heavy rains had swollen the streams they had to
cross and when they had almost reached town he had stopped the horse on
a wooden bridge. The horse danced nervously about and her father held
the reins firmly and occasionally spoke to him. Beneath the bridge the
swollen stream made a great roaring sound and beside the road in a long
flat field there was a lake of flood water. At that moment the moon had
come out from behind clouds and the wind that blew across the water
made little waves. The lake of flood water was covered with dancing
lights. "I'm going to tell you about your mother and myself," her
father said huskily, but at that moment the timbers of the bridge began
to crack dangerously and the horse plunged forward. When her father had
regained control of the frightened beast they were in the streets of
the town and his diffident silent nature had reasserted itself.
Mary sat in the darkness by the office window and saw her father drive
into the street. When his horse had been put away he did not, as was
his custom, come at once up the stairway to the office but lingered in
the darkness before the barn door. Once he started to cross the street
and then returned into the darkness.
Among the men who for two hours had been sitting and talking quietly a
quarrel broke out. Jack Fisher the town nightwatchman had been telling
the others the story of a battle in which he had fought during the
Civil War and Duke Yetter had begun bantering him. The nightwatchman
grew angry. Grasping his nightstick he limped up and down. The loud
voice of Duke Yetter cut across the shrill angry voice of the victim of
his wit. "You ought to a flanked the fellow, I tell you Jack. Yes sir
'ee, you ought to a flanked that reb and then when you got him flanked
you ought to a knocked the stuffings out of the cuss. That's what I
would a done," Duke shouted, laughing boisterously. "You would a raised
hell, you would," the night watchman answered, filled with ineffectual
The old soldier went off along the street followed by the laughter of
Duke and his companions and Barney Smithfield, having put the doctor's
horse away, came out and closed the barn door. A lantern hanging above
the door swung back and forth. Doctor Cochran again started across the
street and when he had reached the foot of the stairway turned and
shouted to the men. "Good night," he called cheerfully. A strand of
hair was blown by the light summer breeze across Mary's cheek and she
jumped to her feet as though she had been touched by a hand reached out
to her from the darkness. A hundred times she had seen her father
return from drives in the evening but never before had he said anything
at all to the loiterers by the barn door. She became half convinced
that not her father but some other man was now coming up the stairway.
The heavy dragging footsteps rang loudly on the wooden stairs and Mary
heard her father set down the little square medicine case he always
carried. The strange cheerful hearty mood of the man continued but his
mind was in a confused riot. Mary imagined she could see his dark form
in the doorway. "The woman has had a baby," said the hearty voice from
the landing outside the door. "Who did that happen to? Was it Ellen or
that other woman or my little Mary?"
A stream of words, a protest came from the man's lips. "Who's been
having a baby? I want to know. Who's been having a baby? Life doesn't
work out. Why are babies always being born?" he asked.
A laugh broke from the doctor's lips and his daughter leaned forward
and gripped the arms of her chair. "A babe has been born," he said
again. "It's strange eh, that my hands should have helped a baby be
born while all the time death stood at my elbow?"
Doctor Cochran stamped upon the floor of the landing. "My feet are cold
and numb from waiting for life to come out of life," he said heavily.
"The woman struggled and now I must struggle."
Silence followed the stamping of feet and the tired heavy declaration
from the sick man's lips. From the street below came another loud shout
of laughter from Duke Yetter.
And then Doctor Cochran fell backward down the narrow stairs to the
street. There was no cry from him, just the clatter of his shoes upon
the stairs and the terrible subdued sound of the body falling.
Mary did not move from her chair. With closed eyes she waited. Her
heart pounded. A weakness complete and overmastering had possession of
her and from feet to head ran little waves of feeling as though tiny
creatures with soft hair-like feet were playing upon her body.
It was Duke Yetter who carried the dead man up the stairs and laid him
on a bed in one of the rooms back of the office. One of the men who had
been sitting with him before the door of the barn followed lifting his
hands and dropping them nervously. Between his fingers he held a
forgotten cigarette the light from which danced up and down in the
He was an old man and he sat on the steps of the railroad station in a
small Kentucky town.
A well dressed man, some traveler from the city, approached and stood
The old man became self-conscious.
His smile was like the smile of a very young child. His face was all
sunken and wrinkled and he had a huge nose.
"Have you any coughs, colds, consumption or bleeding sickness?" he
asked. In his voice there was a pleading quality.
The stranger shook his head. The old man arose.
"The sickness that bleeds is a terrible nuisance," he said. His tongue
protruded from between his teeth and he rattled it about. He put his
hand on the stranger's arm and laughed.
"Bully, pretty," he exclaimed. "I cure them all—coughs, colds,
consumption and the sickness that bleeds. I take warts from the hand—I
cannot explain how I do it—it is a mystery—I charge nothing—my name
is Tom—do you like me?"
The stranger was cordial. He nodded his head. The old man became
reminiscent. "My father was a hard man," he declared. "He was like me,
a blacksmith by trade, but he wore a plug hat. When the corn was high
he said to the poor, 'go into the fields and pick' but when the war
came he made a rich man pay five dollars for a bushel of corn."
"I married against his will. He came to me and he said, 'Tom I do not
like that girl.'"
"'But I love her,' I said.
"'I don't,' he said.
"My father and I sat on a log. He was a pretty man and wore a plug hat.
'I will get the license,' I said.
"'I will give you no money,' he said.
"My marriage cost me twenty-one dollars—I worked in the corn—it
rained and the horses were blind—the clerk said, 'Are you over twenty-
one?' I said 'yes' and she said 'yes.' We had chalked it on our shoes.
My father said, 'I give you your freedom.' We had no money. My marriage
cost twenty-one dollars. She is dead."
The old man looked at the sky. It was evening and the sun had set. The
sky was all mottled with grey clouds. "I paint beautiful pictures and
give them away," he declared. "My brother is in the penitentiary. He
killed a man who called him an ugly name."
The decrepit old man held his hands before the face of the stranger. He
opened and shut them. They were black with grime. "I pick out warts,"
he explained plaintively. "They are as soft as your hands."
"I play on an accordion. You are thirty-seven years old. I sat beside
my brother in the penitentiary. He is a pretty man with pompadour hair.
'Albert' I said, 'are you sorry you killed a man?' 'No,' he said, 'I am
not sorry. I would kill ten, a hundred, a thousand!'"
The old man began to weep and to wipe his hands with a soiled
handkerchief. He attempted to take a chew of tobacco and his false
teeth became displaced. He covered his mouth with his hands and was
"I am old. You are thirty-seven years old but I am older than that," he
"My brother is a bad man—he is full of hate—he is pretty and has
pompadour hair, but he would kill and kill. I hate old age—I am
ashamed that I am old.
"I have a pretty new wife. I wrote her four letters and she replied.
She came here and we married—I love to see her walk—O, I buy her
"Her foot is not straight—it is twisted—my first wife is dead—I pick
warts off the hand with my fingers and no blood comes—I cure coughs,
colds, consumption and the sickness that bleeds—people can write to me
and I answer the letters—if they send me no money it is no matter—all
Again the old man wept and the stranger tried to comfort him. "You are
a happy man?" the stranger asked.
"Yes," said the old man, "and a good man too. Ask everywhere about me—
my name is Tom, a blacksmith—my wife walks prettily although she has a
twisted foot—I have bought her a long dress—she is thirty and I am
seventy-five—she has many pairs of shoes—I have bought them for her,
but her foot is twisted—I buy straight shoes—
"She thinks I do not know—everybody thinks Tom does not know—I have
bought her a long dress that comes down to the ground—my name is Tom,
a blacksmith—I am seventy-five and I hate old age—I take warts off
the hands and no blood comes—people may write to me and I answer the
letters—all is free."
THE MAN IN THE BROWN COAT
Napoleon went down into a battle riding on a horse.
Alexander went down into a battle riding on a horse.
General Grant got off a horse and walked in a wood.
General Hindenburg stood on a hill.
The moon came up out of a clump of bushes.
* * * * *
I am writing a history of the things men do. I have written three such
histories and I am but a young man. Already I have written three
hundred, four hundred thousand words.
My wife is somewhere in this house where for hours now I have been
sitting and writing. She is a tall woman with black hair, turning a
little grey. Listen, she is going softly up a flight of stairs. All day
she goes softly about, doing the housework in our house.
I came here to this town from another town in the state of Iowa. My
father was a workman, a house painter. He did not rise in the world as
I have done. I worked my way through college and became an historian.
We own this house in which I sit. This is my room in which I work.
Already I have written three histories of peoples. I have told how
states were formed and battles fought. You may see my books standing
straight up on the shelves of libraries. They stand up like sentries.
I am tall like my wife and my shoulders are a little stooped. Although
I write boldly I am a shy man. I like being at work alone in this room
with the door closed. There are many books here. Nations march back and
forth in the books. It is quiet here but in the books a great
thundering goes on.
* * * * *
Napoleon rides down a hill and into a battle.
General Grant walks in a wood.
Alexander rides down a hill and into a battle.
* * * * *
My wife has a serious, almost stern look. Sometimes the thoughts I have
concerning her frighten me. In the afternoon she leaves our house and
goes for a walk. Sometimes she goes to stores, sometimes to visit a
neighbor. There is a yellow house opposite our house. My wife goes out
at a side door and passes along the street between our house and the
The side door of our house bangs. There is a moment of waiting. My
wife's face floats across the yellow background of a picture.
* * * * *
General Pershing rode down a hill and into a battle.
Alexander rode down a hill and into a battle.
* * * * *
Little things are growing big in my mind. The window before my desk
makes a little framed place like a picture. Every day I sit staring. I
wait with an odd sensation of something impending. My hand trembles.
The face that floats through the picture does something I don't
understand. The face floats, then it stops. It goes from the right hand
side to the left hand side, then it stops.
The face comes into my mind and goes out—the face floats in my mind.
The pen has fallen from my fingers. The house is silent. The eyes of
the floating face are turned away from me.
My wife is a girl who came here to this town from another town in the
state of Ohio. We keep a servant but my wife often sweeps the floors
and she sometimes makes the bed in which we sleep together. We sit
together in the evening but I do not know her. I cannot shake myself
out of myself. I wear a brown coat and I cannot come out of my coat. I
cannot come out of myself. My wife is very gentle and she speaks softly
but she cannot come out of herself.
My wife has gone out of the house. She does not know that I know every
little thought of her life. I know what she thought when she was a
child and walked in the streets of an Ohio town. I have heard the
voices of her mind. I have heard the little voices. I heard the voice
of fear crying when she was first overtaken with passion and crawled
into my arms. Again I heard the voices of fear when her lips said words
of courage to me as we sat together on the first evening after we were
married and moved into this house.
It would be strange if I could sit here, as I am doing now, while my
own face floated across the picture made by the yellow house and the
window. It would be strange and beautiful if I could meet my wife, come
into her presence.
The woman whose face floated across my picture just now knows nothing
of me. I know nothing of her. She has gone off, along a street. The
voices of her mind are talking. I am here in this room, as alone as
ever any man God made.
It would be strange and beautiful if I could float my face across my
picture. If my floating face could come into her presence, if it could
come into the presence of any man or any woman—that would be a strange
and beautiful thing to have happen.
* * * * *
Napoleon went down into a battle riding on a horse.
General Grant went into a wood.
Alexander went down into a battle riding on a horse.
* * * * *
I'll tell you what—sometimes the whole life of this world floats in a
human face in my mind. The unconscious face of the world stops and
stands still before me.
Why do I not say a word out of myself to the others? Why, in all our
life together, have I never been able to break through the wall to my
Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words. Are
there no words that lead into life? Some day I shall speak to myself.
Some day I shall make a testament unto myself.
I am at my house in the country and it is late October. It rains. Back
of my house is a forest and in front there is a road and beyond that
open fields. The country is one of low hills, flattening suddenly into
plains. Some twenty miles away, across the flat country, lies the huge
On this rainy day the leaves of the trees that line the road before my
window are falling like rain, the yellow, red and golden leaves fall
straight down heavily. The rain beats them brutally down. They are
denied a last golden flash across the sky. In October leaves should be
carried away, out over the plains, in a wind. They should go dancing
Yesterday morning I arose at daybreak and went for a walk. There was a
heavy fog and I lost myself in it. I went down into the plains and
returned to the hills, and everywhere the fog was as a wall before me.
Out of it trees sprang suddenly, grotesquely, as in a city street late
at night people come suddenly out of the darkness into the circle of
light under a street lamp. Above there was the light of day forcing
itself slowly into the fog. The fog moved slowly. The tops of trees
moved slowly. Under the trees the fog was dense, purple. It was like
smoke lying in the streets of a factory town.
An old man came up to me in the fog. I know him well. The people here
call him insane. "He is a little cracked," they say. He lives alone in
a little house buried deep in the forest and has a small dog he carries
always in his arms. On many mornings I have met him walking on the road
and he has told me of men and women who are his brothers and sisters,
his cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers-in-law. It is confusing. He cannot
draw close to people near at hand so he gets hold of a name out of a
newspaper and his mind plays with it. On one morning he told me he was
a cousin to the man named Cox who at the time when I write is a
candidate for the presidency. On another morning he told me that Caruso
the singer had married a woman who was his sister-in-law. "She is my
wife's sister," he said, holding the little dog close. His grey watery
eyes looked appealing up to me. He wanted me to believe. "My wife was a
sweet slim girl," he declared. "We lived together in a big house and in
the morning walked about arm in arm. Now her sister has married Caruso
the singer. He is of my family now."
As someone had told me the old man had never married, I went away
wondering. One morning in early September I came upon him sitting under
a tree beside a path near his house. The dog barked at me and then ran
and crept into his arms. At that time the Chicago newspapers were
filled with the story of a millionaire who had got into trouble with
his wife because of an intimacy with an actress. The old man told me
that the actress was his sister. He is sixty years old and the actress
whose story appeared in the newspapers is twenty but he spoke of their
childhood together. "You would not realize it to see us now but we were
poor then," he said. "It's true. We lived in a little house on the side
of a hill. Once when there was a storm, the wind nearly swept our house
away. How the wind blew! Our father was a carpenter and he built strong
houses for other people but our own house he did not build very
strong!" He shook his head sorrowfully. "My sister the actress has got
into trouble. Our house is not built very strongly," he said as I went
away along the path.
* * * * *
For a month, two months, the Chicago newspapers, that are delivered
every morning in our village, have been filled with the story of a
murder. A man there has murdered his wife and there seems no reason for
the deed. The tale runs something like this—
The man, who is now on trial in the courts and will no doubt be hanged,
worked in a bicycle factory where he was a foreman and lived with his
wife and his wife's mother in an apartment in Thirty-second Street. He
loved a girl who worked in the office of the factory where he was
employed. She came from a town in Iowa and when she first came to the
city lived with her aunt who has since died. To the foreman, a heavy
stolid looking man with grey eyes, she seemed the most beautiful woman
in the world. Her desk was by a window at an angle of the factory, a
sort of wing of the building, and the foreman, down in the shop had a
desk by another window. He sat at his desk making out sheets containing
the record of the work done by each man in his department. When he
looked up he could see the girl sitting at work at her desk. The notion
got into his head that she was peculiarly lovely. He did not think of
trying to draw close to her or of winning her love. He looked at her as
one might look at a star or across a country of low hills in October
when the leaves of the trees are all red and yellow gold. "She is a
pure, virginal thing," he thought vaguely. "What can she be thinking
about as she sits there by the window at work."
In fancy the foreman took the girl from Iowa home with him to his
apartment in Thirty-second Street and into the presence of his wife and
his mother-in-law. All day in the shop and during the evening at home
he carried her figure about with him in his mind. As he stood by a
window in his apartment and looked out toward the Illinois Central
railroad tracks and beyond the tracks to the lake, the girl was there
beside him. Down below women walked in the street and in every woman he
saw there was something of the Iowa girl. One woman walked as she did,
another made a gesture with her hand that reminded of her. All the
women he saw except his wife and his mother-in-law were like the girl
he had taken inside himself.
The two women in his own house puzzled and confused him. They became
suddenly unlovely and commonplace. His wife in particular was like some
strange unlovely growth that had attached itself to his body.
In the evening after the day at the factory he went home to his own
place and had dinner. He had always been a silent man and when he did
not talk no one minded. After dinner he with his wife went to a picture
show. There were two children and his wife expected another. They came
into the apartment and sat down. The climb up two flights of stairs had
wearied his wife. She sat in a chair beside her mother groaning with
The mother-in-law was the soul of goodness. She took the place of a
servant in the home and got no pay. When her daughter wanted to go to a
picture show she waved her hand and smiled. "Go on," she said. "I don't
want to go. I'd rather sit here." She got a book and sat reading. The
little boy of nine awoke and cried. He wanted to sit on the po-po. The
mother-in-law attended to that.
After the man and his wife came home the three people sat in silence
for an hour or two before bed time. The man pretended to read a
newspaper. He looked at his hands. Although he had washed them
carefully grease from the bicycle frames left dark stains under the
nails. He thought of the Iowa girl and of her white quick hands playing
over the keys of a typewriter. He felt dirty and uncomfortable.
The girl at the factory knew the foreman had fallen in love with her
and the thought excited her a little. Since her aunt's death she had
gone to live in a rooming house and had nothing to do in the evening.
Although the foreman meant nothing to her she could in a way use him.
To her he became a symbol. Sometimes he came into the office and stood
for a moment by the door. His large hands were covered with black
grease. She looked at him without seeing. In his place in her
imagination stood a tall slender young man. Of the foreman she saw only
the grey eyes that began to burn with a strange fire. The eyes
expressed eagerness, a humble and devout eagerness. In the presence of
a man with such eyes she felt she need not be afraid.
She wanted a lover who would come to her with such a look in his eyes.
Occasionally, perhaps once in two weeks, she stayed a little late at
the office, pretending to have work that must be finished. Through the
window she could see the foreman waiting. When everyone had gone she
closed her desk and went into the street. At the same moment the
foreman came out at the factory door.
They walked together along the street a half dozen blocks to where she
got aboard her car. The factory was in a place called South Chicago and
as they went along evening was coming on. The streets were lined with
small unpainted frame houses and dirty faced children ran screaming in
the dusty roadway. They crossed over a bridge. Two abandoned coal
barges lay rotting in the stream.
He went by her side walking heavily and striving to conceal his hands.
He had scrubbed them carefully before leaving the factory but they
seemed to him like heavy dirty pieces of waste matter hanging at his
side. Their walking together happened but a few times and during one
summer. "It's hot," he said. He never spoke to her of anything but the
weather. "It's hot," he said. "I think it may rain."
She dreamed of the lover who would some time come, a tall fair young
man, a rich man owning houses and lands. The workingman who walked
beside her had nothing to do with her conception of love. She walked
with him, stayed at the office until the others had gone to walk
unobserved with him because of his eyes, because of the eager thing in
his eyes that was at the same time humble, that bowed down to her. In
his presence there was no danger, could be no danger. He would never
attempt to approach too closely, to touch her with his hands. She was
safe with him.
In his apartment in the evening the man sat under the electric light
with his wife and his mother-in-law. In the next room his two children
were asleep. In a short time his wife would have another child. He had
been with her to a picture show and in a short time they would get into
He would lie awake thinking, would hear the creaking of the springs of
a bed where, in another room, his mother-in-law was crawling between
the sheets. Life was too intimate. He would lie awake eager, expectant
Nothing. Presently one of the children would cry. It wanted to get out
of bed and sit on the po-po. Nothing strange or unusual or lovely would
or could happen. Life was too close, intimate. Nothing that could
happen in the apartment could in any way stir him; the things his wife
might say, her occasional half-hearted outbursts of passion, the
goodness of his mother-in-law who did the work of a servant without
He sat in the apartment under the electric light pretending to read a
newspaper—thinking. He looked at his hands. They were large,
shapeless, a working-man's hands.
The figure of the girl from Iowa walked about the room. With her he
went out of the apartment and walked in silence through miles of
streets. It was not necessary to say words. He walked with her by a
sea, along the crest of a mountain. The night was clear and silent and
the stars shone. She also was a star. It was not necessary to say
Her eyes were like stars and her lips were like soft hills rising out
of dim, star lit plains. "She is unattainable, she is far off like the
stars," he thought. "She is unattainable like the stars but unlike the
stars she breathes, she lives, like myself she has being."
One evening, some six weeks ago, the man who worked as foreman in the
bicycle factory killed his wife and he is now in the courts being tried
for murder. Every day the newspapers are filled with the story. On the
evening of the murder he had taken his wife as usual to a picture show
and they started home at nine. In Thirty-second Street, at a corner
near their apartment building, the figure of a man darted suddenly out
of an alleyway and then darted back again. The incident may have put
the idea of killing his wife into the man's head.
They got to the entrance to the apartment building and stepped into a
dark hallway. Then quite suddenly and apparently without thought the
man took a knife out of his pocket. "Suppose that man who darted into
the alleyway had intended to kill us," he thought. Opening the knife he
whirled about and struck at his wife. He struck twice, a dozen times—
madly. There was a scream and his wife's body fell.
The janitor had neglected to light the gas in the lower hallway.
Afterwards, the foreman, decided, that was the reason he did it, that
and the fact that the dark slinking figure of a man darted out of an
alleyway and then darted back again. "Surely," he told himself, "I
could never have done it had the gas been lighted."
He stood in the hallway thinking. His wife was dead and with her had
died her unborn child. There was a sound of doors opening in the
apartments above. For several minutes nothing happened. His wife and
her unborn child were dead—that was all.
He ran upstairs thinking quickly. In the darkness on the lower stairway
he had put the knife back into his pocket and, as it turned out later,
there was no blood on his hands or on his clothes. The knife he later
washed carefully in the bathroom, when the excitement had died down a
little. He told everyone the same story. "There has been a holdup," he
explained. "A man came slinking out of an alleyway and followed me and
my wife home. He followed us into the hallway of the building and there
was no light. The janitor has neglected to light the gas." Well—there
had been a struggle and in the darkness his wife had been killed. He
could not tell how it had happened. "There was no light. The janitor
has neglected to light the gas," he kept saying.
For a day or two they did not question him specially and he had time to
get rid of the knife. He took a long walk and threw it away into the
river in South Chicago where the two abandoned coal barges lay rotting
under the bridge, the bridge he had crossed when on the summer evenings
he walked to the street car with the girl who was virginal and pure,
who was far off and unattainable, like a star and yet not like a star.
And then he was arrested and right away he confessed—told everything.
He said he did not know why he killed his wife and was careful to say
nothing of the girl at the office. The newspapers tried to discover the
motive for the crime. They are still trying. Someone had seen him on
the few evenings when he walked with the girl and she was dragged into
the affair and had her picture printed in the papers. That has been
annoying for her as of course she has been able to prove she had
nothing to do with the man.
* * * * *
Yesterday morning a heavy fog lay over our village here at the edge of
the city and I went for a long walk in the early morning. As I returned
out of the lowlands into our hill country I met the old man whose
family has so many and such strange ramifications. For a time he walked
beside me holding the little dog in his arms. It was cold and the dog
whined and shivered. In the fog the old man's face was indistinct. It
moved slowly back and forth with the fog banks of the upper air and
with the tops of trees. He spoke of the man who has killed his wife and
whose name is being shouted in the pages of the city newspapers that
come to our village each morning. As he walked beside me he launched
into a long tale concerning a life he and his brother, who has now
become a murderer, once lived together. "He is my brother," he said
over and over, shaking his head. He seemed afraid I would not believe.
There was a fact that must be established. "We were boys together that
man and I," he began again. "You see we played together in a barn back
of our father's house. Our father went away to sea in a ship. That is
the way our names became confused. You understand that. We have
different names, but we are brothers. We had the same father. We played
together in a barn back of our father's house. For hours we lay
together in the hay in the barn and it was warm there."
In the fog the slender body of the old man became like a little gnarled
tree. Then it became a thing suspended in air. It swung back and forth
like a body hanging on the gallows. The face beseeched me to believe
the story the lips were trying to tell. In my mind everything
concerning the relationship of men and women became confused, a muddle.
The spirit of the man who had killed his wife came into the body of the
little old man there by the roadside.
It was striving to tell me the story it would never be able to tell in
the court room in the city, in the presence of the judge. The whole
story of mankind's loneliness, of the effort to reach out to
unattainable beauty tried to get itself expressed from the lips of a
mumbling old man, crazed with loneliness, who stood by the side of a
country road on a foggy morning holding a little dog in his arms.
The arms of the old man held the dog so closely that it began to whine
with pain. A sort of convulsion shook his body. The soul seemed
striving to wrench itself out of the body, to fly away through the fog,
down across the plain to the city, to the singer, the politician, the
millionaire, the murderer, to its brothers, cousins, sisters, down in
the city. The intensity of the old man's desire was terrible and in
sympathy my body began to tremble. His arms tightened about the body of
the little dog so that it cried with pain. I stepped forward and tore
the arms away and the dog fell to the ground and lay whining. No doubt
it had been injured. Perhaps ribs had been crushed. The old man stared
at the dog lying at his feet as in the hallway of the apartment
building the worker from the bicycle factory had stared at his dead
wife. "We are brothers," he said again. "We have different names but we
are brothers. Our father you understand went off to sea."
* * * * *
I am sitting in my house in the country and it rains. Before my eyes
the hills fall suddenly away and there are the flat plains and beyond
the plains the city. An hour ago the old man of the house in the forest
went past my door and the little dog was not with him. It may be that
as we talked in the fog he crushed the life out of his companion. It
may be that the dog like the workman's wife and her unborn child is now
dead. The leaves of the trees that line the road before my window are
falling like rain—the yellow, red and golden leaves fall straight
down, heavily. The rain beat them brutally down. They are denied a last
golden flash across the sky. In October leaves should be carried away,
out over the plains, in a wind. They should go dancing away.
THE DOOR OF THE TRAP
Winifred Walker understood some things clearly enough. She understood
that when a man is put behind iron bars he is in prison. Marriage was
marriage to her.
It was that to her husband Hugh Walker, too, as he found out. Still he
didn't understand. It might have been better had he understood, then he
might at least have found himself. He didn't. After his marriage five
or six years passed like shadows of wind blown trees playing on a wall.
He was in a drugged, silent state. In the morning and evening every day
he saw his wife. Occasionally something happened within him and he
kissed her. Three children were born. He taught mathematics in the
little college at Union Valley, Illinois, and waited.
For what? He began to ask himself that question. It came to him at
first faintly like an echo. Then it became an insistent question. "I
want answering," the question seemed to say. "Stop fooling along. Give
your attention to me."
Hugh walked through the streets of the Illinois town. "Well, I'm
married. I have children," he muttered.
He went home to his own house. He did not have to live within his
income from the little college, and so the house was rather large and
comfortably furnished. There was a negro woman who took care of the
children and another who cooked and did the housework. One of the women
was in the habit of crooning low soft negro songs. Sometimes Hugh
stopped at the house door and listened. He could see through the glass
in the door into the room where his family was gathered. Two children
played with blocks on the floor. His wife sat sewing. The old negress
sat in a rocking chair with his youngest child, a baby, in her arms.
The whole room seemed under the spell of the crooning voice. Hugh fell
under the spell. He waited in silence. The voice carried him far away
somewhere, into forests, along the edges of swamps. There was nothing
very definite about his thinking. He would have given a good deal to be
able to be definite.
He went inside the house. "Well, here I am," his mind seemed to say,
"here I am. This is my house, these are my children."
He looked at his wife Winifred. She had grown a little plump since
their marriage. "Perhaps it is the mother in her coming out, she has
had three children," he thought.
The crooning old negro woman went away, taking the youngest child with
her. He and Winifred held a fragmentary conversation. "Have you been
well to-day, dear?" she asked. "Yes," he answered.
If the two older children were intent on their play his chain of
thought was not broken. His wife never broke it as the children did
when they came running to pull and tear at him. Throughout the early
evening, after the children went to bed, the surface of the shell of
him was not broken at all. A brother college professor and his wife
came in or he and Winifred went to a neighbor's house. There was talk.
Even when he and Winifred were alone together in the house there was
talk. "The shutters are becoming loose," she said. The house was an old
one and had green shutters. They were continually coming loose and at
night blew back and forth on their hinges making a loud banging noise.
Hugh made some remark. He said he would see a carpenter about the
shutters. Then his mind began playing away, out of his wife's presence,
out of the house, in another sphere. "I am a house and my shutters are
loose," his mind said. He thought of himself as a living thing inside a
shell, trying to break out. To avoid distracting conversation he got a
book and pretended to read. When his wife had also begun to read he
watched her closely, intently. Her nose was so and so and her eyes so
and so. She had a little habit with her hands. When she became lost in
the pages of a book the hand crept up to her cheek, touched it and then
was put down again. Her hair was not in very good order. Since her
marriage and the coming of the children she had not taken good care of
her body. When she read her body slumped down in the chair. It became
bag-like. She was one whose race had been run.
Hugh's mind played all about the figure of his wife but did not really
approach the woman who sat before him. It was so with his children.
Sometimes, just for a moment, they were living things to him, things as
alive as his own body. Then for long periods they seemed to go far away
like the crooning voice of the negress.
It was odd that the negress was always real enough. He felt an
understanding existed between himself and the negress. She was outside
his life. He could look at her as at a tree. Sometimes in the evening
when she had been putting the children to bed in the upper part of the
house and when he sat with a book in his hand pretending to read, the
old black woman came softly through the room, going toward the kitchen.
She did not look at Winifred, but at Hugh. He thought there was a
strange, soft light in her old eyes. "I understand you, my son," her
eyes seemed to say.
Hugh was determined to get his life cleaned up if he could manage it.
"All right, then," he said, as though speaking to a third person in the
room. He was quite sure there was a third person there and that the
third person was within himself, inside his body. He addressed the
"Well, there is this woman, this person I married, she has the air of
something accomplished," he said, as though speaking aloud. Sometimes
it almost seemed to him he had spoken aloud and he looked quickly and
sharply at his wife. She continued reading, lost in her book. "That may
be it," he went on. "She has had these children. They are accomplished
facts to her. They came out of her body, not out of mine. Her body has
done something. Now it rests. If she is becoming a little bag-like,
that's all right."
He got up and making some trivial excuse got out of the room and out of
the house. In his youth and young manhood the long periods of walking
straight ahead through the country, that had come upon him like
visitations of some recurring disease, had helped. Walking solved
nothing. It only tired his body, but when his body was tired he could
sleep. After many days of walking and sleeping something occurred. The
reality of life was in some queer way re-established in his mind. Some
little thing happened. A man walking in the road before him threw a
stone at a dog that ran barking out of a farm-house. It was evening
perhaps, and he walked in a country of low hills. Suddenly he came out
upon the top of one of the hills. Before him the road dipped down into
darkness but to the west, across fields, there was a farm-house. The
sun had gone down, but a faint glow lit the western horizon. A. woman
came out of the farmhouse and went toward a barn. He could not see her
figure distinctly. She seemed to be carrying something, no doubt a milk
pail; she was going to a barn to milk a cow.
The man in the road who had thrown the stone at the farm dog had turned
and seen Hugh in the road behind him. He was a little ashamed of having
been afraid of the dog. For a moment he seemed about to wait and speak
to Hugh, and then was overcome with confusion and hurried away. He was
a middle-aged man, but quite suddenly and unexpectedly he looked like a
As for the farm woman, dimly seen going toward a distant barn, she also
stopped and looked toward him. It was impossible she should have seen
him. She was dressed in white and he could see her but dimly against
the blackish green of the trees of an orchard behind her. Still she
stood looking and seemed to look directly into his eyes. He had a queer
sensation of her having been lifted by an unseen hand and brought to
him. It seemed to him he knew all about her life, all about the life of
the man who had thrown the stone at the dog.
In his youth, when life had stepped out of his grasp, Hugh had walked
and walked until several such things had occurred and then suddenly he
was all right again and could again work and live among men.
After his marriage and after such an evening at home he started walking
rapidly as soon as he left the house. As quickly as possible he got out
of town and struck out along a road that led over the rolling prairie.
"Well, I can't walk for days and days as I did once," he thought.
"There are certain facts in life and I must face facts. Winifred, my
wife, is a fact, and my children are facts. I must get my fingers on
facts. I must live by them and with them. It's the way lives are
Hugh got out of town and on to a road that ran between cornfields. He
was an athletic looking man and wore loose fitting clothes. He went
along distraught and puzzled. In a way he felt like a man capable of
taking a man's place in life and in another way he didn't at all.
The country spread out, wide, in all directions. It was always night
when he walked thus and he could not see, but the realization of
distances was always with him. "Everything goes on and on but I stand
still," he thought. He had been a professor in the little college for
six years. Young men and women had come into a room and he had taught
them. It was nothing. Words and figures had been played with. An effort
had been made to arouse minds.
There was the old question, always coming back, always wanting
answering as a little animal wants food. Hugh gave up trying to answer.
He walked rapidly, trying to grow physically tired. He made his mind
attend to little things in the effort to forget distances. One night he
got out of the road and walked completely around a cornfield. He
counted the stalks in each hill of corn and computed the number of
stalks in a whole field. "It should yield twelve hundred bushels of
corn, that field," he said to himself dumbly, as though it mattered to
him. He pulled a little handful of cornsilk out of the top of an ear of
corn and played with it. He tried to fashion himself a yellow
moustache. "I'd be quite a fellow with a trim yellow moustache," he
One day in his class-room Hugh suddenly began to look with new interest
at his pupils. A young girl attracted his attention. She sat beside the
son of a Union Valley merchant and the young man was writing something
on the back of a book. She looked at it and then turned her head away.
The young man waited.
It was winter and the merchant's son had asked the girl to go with him
to a skating party. Hugh, however, did not know that. He felt suddenly
old. When he asked the girl a question she was confused. Her voice
When the class was dismissed an amazing thing happened. He asked the
merchant's son to stay for a moment and, when the two were alone
together in the room, he grew suddenly and furiously angry. His voice
was, however, cold and steady. "Young man," he said, "you do not come
into this room to write on the back of a book and waste your time. If I
see anything of the kind again I'll do something you don't expect. I'll
throw you out through a window, that's what I'll do."
Hugh made a gesture and the young man went away, white and silent. Hugh
felt miserable. For several days he thought about the girl who had
quite accidentally attracted his attention. "I'll get acquainted with
her. I'll find out about her," he thought.
It was not an unusual thing for professors in the college at Union
Valley to take students home to their houses. Hugh decided he would
take the girl to his home. He thought about it several days and late
one afternoon saw her going down the college hill ahead of him.
The girl's name was Mary Cochran and she had come to the school but a
few months before from a place called Huntersburg, Illinois, no doubt
just such another place as Union Valley. He knew nothing of her except
that her father was dead, her mother too, perhaps. He walked rapidly
down the hill to overtake her. "Miss Cochran," he called, and was
surprised to find that his voice trembled a little. "What am I so eager
about?" he asked himself. A new life began in Hugh Walker's house. It
was good for the man to have some one there who did not belong to him,
and Winifred Walker and the children accepted the presence of the girl.
Winifred urged her to come again. She did come several times a week.
To Mary Cochran it was comforting to be in the presence of a family of
children. On winter afternoons she took Hugh's two sons and a sled and
went to a small hill near the house. Shouts arose. Mary Cochran pulled
the sled up the hill and the children followed. Then they all came
tearing down together.
The girl, developing rapidly into womanhood, looked upon Hugh Walker as
something that stood completely outside her own life. She and the man
who had become suddenly and intensely interested in her had little to
say to each other and Winifred seemed to have accepted her without
question as an addition to the household. Often in the afternoon when
the two negro women were busy she went away leaving the two older
children in Mary's charge.
It was late afternoon and perhaps Hugh had walked home with Mary from
the college. In the spring he worked in the neglected garden. It had
been plowed and planted, but he took a hoe and rake and puttered about.
The children played about the house with the college girl. Hugh did not
look at them but at her. "She is one of the world of people with whom I
live and with whom I am supposed to work here," he thought. "Unlike
Winifred and these children she does not belong to me. I could go to
her now, touch her fingers, look at her and then go away and never see
That thought was a comfort to the distraught man. In the evening when
he went out to walk the sense of distance that lay all about him did
not tempt him to walk and walk, going half insanely forward for hours,
trying to break through an intangible wall.
He thought about Mary Cochran. She was a girl from a country town. She
must be like millions of American girls. He wondered what went on in
her mind as she sat in his class-room, as she walked beside him along
the streets of Union Valley, as she played with the children in the
yard beside his house.
In the winter, when in the growing darkness of a late afternoon Mary
and the children built a snow man in the yard, he went upstairs and
stood in the darkness to look out a window. The tall straight figure of
the girl, dimly seen, moved quickly about. "Well, nothing has happened
to her. She may be anything or nothing. Her figure is like a young tree
that has not borne fruit," he thought. He went away to his own room and
sat for a long time in the darkness. That night when he left the house
for his evening's walk he did not stay long but hurried home and went
to his own room. He locked the door. Unconsciously he did not want
Winifred to come to the door and disturb his thoughts. Sometimes she
All the time she read novels. She read the novels of Robert Louis
Stevenson. When she had read them all she began again.
Sometimes she came upstairs and stood talking by his door. She told
some tale, repeated some wise saying that had fallen unexpectedly from
the lips of the children. Occasionally she came into the room and
turned out the light. There was a couch by a window. She went to sit on
the edge of the couch. Something happened. It was as it had been before
their marriage. New life came into her figure. He also went to sit on
the couch and she put up her hand and touched his face.
Hugh did not want that to happen now. He stood within the room for a
moment and then unlocked the door and went to the head of the stairs.
"Be quiet when you come up, Winifred. I have a headache and am going to
try to sleep," he lied.
When he had gone back to his own room and locked the door again he felt
safe. He did not undress but threw himself on the couch and turned out
He thought about Mary Cochran, the school girl, but was sure he thought
about her in a quite impersonal way. She was like the woman going to
milk cows he had seen across hills when he was a young fellow and
walked far and wide over the country to cure the restlessness in
himself. In his life she was like the man who threw the stone at dog.
"Well, she is unformed; she is like a young tree," he told himself
again. "People are like that. They just grow up suddenly out of
childhood. It will happen to my own children. My little Winifred that
cannot yet say words will suddenly be like this girl. I have not
selected her to think about for any particular reason. For some reason
I have drawn away from life and she has brought me back. It might have
happened when I saw a child playing in the street or an old man going
up a stairway into a house. She does not belong to me. She will go away
out of my sight. Winifred and the children will stay on and on here and
I will stay on and on. We are imprisoned by the fact that we belong to
each other. This Mary Cochran is free, or at least she is free as far
as this prison is concerned. No doubt she will, after a while make a
prison of her own and live in it, but I will have nothing to do with
By the time Mary Cochran was in her third year in the college at Union
Valley she had become almost a fixture in the Walker household. Still
she did not know Hugh. She knew the children better than he did,
perhaps better than their mother. In the fall she and the two boys went
to the woods to gather nuts. In the winter they went skating on a
little pond near the house.
Winifred accepted her as she accepted everything, the service of the
two negroes, the coming of the children, the habitual silence of her
And then quite suddenly and unexpectedly Hugh's silence, that had
lasted all through his married life, was broken up. He walked homeward
with a German who had the chair of modern languages in the school and
got into a violent quarrel. He stopped to speak to men on the street.
When he went to putter about in the garden he whistled and sang.
One afternoon in the fall he came home and found the whole family
assembled in the living room of the house. The children were playing on
the floor and the negress sat in the chair by the window with his
youngest child in her arms, crooning one of the negro songs. Mary
Cochran was there. She sat reading a book.
Hugh walked directly toward her and looked over her shoulder. At that
moment Winifred came into the room. He reached forward and snatched the
book out of the girl's hands. She looked up startled. With an oath he
threw it into the fire that burned in an open grate at the side of the
room. A flood of words ran from him. He cursed books and people and
schools. "Damn it all," he said. "What makes you want to read about
life? What makes people want to think about life? Why don't they live?
Why don't they leave books and thoughts and schools alone?"
He turned to look at his wife who had grown pale and stared at him with
a queer fixed uncertain stare. The old negro woman got up and went
quickly away. The two older children began to cry. Hugh was miserable.
He looked at the startled girl in the chair who also had tears in her
eyes, and at his wife. His fingers pulled nervously at his coat. To the
two women he looked like a boy who had been caught stealing food in a
pantry. "I am having one of my silly irritable spells," he said,
looking at his wife but in reality addressing the girl. "You see I am
more serious than I pretend to be. I was not irritated by your book but
by something else. I see so much that can be done in life and I do so
He went upstairs to his own room wondering why he had lied to the two
women, why he continually lied to himself.
Did he lie to himself? He tried to answer the question but couldn't. He
was like one who walks in the darkness of the hallway of a house and
comes to a blank wall. The old desire to run away from life, to wear
himself out physically, came back upon him like a madness.
For a long time he stood in the darkness inside his own room. The
children stopped crying and the house became quiet again. He could hear
his wife's voice speaking softly and presently the back door of the
house banged and he knew the schoolgirl had gone away.
Life in the house began again. Nothing happened. Hugh ate his dinner in
silence and went for a long walk. For two weeks Mary Cochran did not
come to his house and then one day he saw her on the college grounds.
She was no longer one of his pupils. "Please do not desert us because
of my rudeness," he said. The girl blushed and said nothing. When he
got home that evening she was in the yard beside the house playing with
the children. He went at once to his own room. A hard smile came and
went on his face. "She isn't like a young tree any more. She is almost
like Winifred. She is almost like a person who belongs here, who
belongs to me and my life," he thought.
* * * * *
Mary Cochran's visits to the Walker household came to an end very
abruptly. One evening when Hugh was in his room she came up the
stairway with the two boys. She had dined with the family and was
putting the two boys into their beds. It was a privilege she claimed
when she dined with the Walkers.
Hugh had hurried upstairs immediately after dining. He knew where his
wife was. She was downstairs, sitting under a lamp, reading one of the
books of Robert Louis Stevenson.
For a long time Hugh could hear the voices of his children on the floor
above. Then the thing happened.
Mary Cochran came down the stairway that led past the door of his room.
She stopped, turned back and climbed the stairs again to the room
above. Hugh arose and stepped into the hallway. The schoolgirl had
returned to the children's room because she had been suddenly overtaken
with a hunger to kiss Hugh's oldest boy, now a lad of nine. She crept
into the room and stood for a long time looking at the two boys, who
unaware of her presence had gone to sleep. Then she stole forward and
kissed the boy lightly. When she went out of the room Hugh stood in the
darkness waiting for her. He took hold of her hand and led her down the
stairs to his own room.
She was terribly afraid and her fright in an odd way pleased him.
"Well," he whispered, "you can't understand now what's going to happen
here but some day you will. I'm going to kiss you and then I'm going to
ask you to go out of this house and never come back."
He held the girl against his body and kissed her upon the cheeks and
lips. When he led her to the door she was so weak with fright and with
new, strange, trembling desires that she could with difficulty make her
way down the stair and into his wife's presence. "She will lie now," he
thought, and heard her voice coming up the stairs like an echo to his
thoughts. "I have a terrible headache. I must hurry home," he heard her
voice saying. The voice was dull and heavy. It was not the voice of a
"She is no longer like a young tree," he thought. He was glad and proud
of what he had done. When he heard the door at the back of the house
close softly his heart jumped. A strange quivering light came into his
eyes. "She will be imprisoned but I will have nothing to do with it.
She will never belong to me. My hands will never build a prison for
her," he thought with grim pleasure.
THE NEW ENGLANDER
Her name was Elsie Leander and her girlhood was spent on her father's
farm in Vermont. For several generations the Leanders had all lived on
the same farm and had all married thin women, and so she was thin. The
farm lay in the shadow of a mountain and the soil was not very rich.
From the beginning and for several generations there had been a great
many sons and few daughters in the family. The sons had gone west or to
New York City and the daughters had stayed at home and thought such
thoughts as come to New England women who see the sons of their
fathers' neighbors slipping away, one by one, into the West.
Her father's house was a small white frame affair and when you went out
at the back door, past a small barn and chicken house, you got into a
path that ran up the side of a hill and into an orchard. The trees were
all old and gnarled. At the back of the orchard the hill dropped away
and bare rocks showed.
Inside the fence a large grey rock stuck high up out of the ground. As
Elsie sat with her back to the rock, with a mangled hillside at her
feet, she could see several large mountains, apparently but a short
distance away, and between herself and the mountains lay many tiny
fields surrounded by neatly built stone walls. Everywhere rocks
appeared. Large ones, too heavy to be moved, stuck out of the ground in
the centre of the fields. The fields were like cups filled with a green
liquid that turned grey in the fall and white in the winter. The
mountains, far off but apparently near at hand, were like giants ready
at any moment to reach out their hands and take the cups one by one and
drink off the green liquid. The large rocks in the fields were like the
thumbs of the giants.
Elsie had three brothers, born before her, but they had all gone away.
Two of them had gone to live with her uncle in the West and her oldest
brother had gone to New York City where he had married and prospered.
All through his youth and manhood her father had worked hard and had
lived a hard life, but his son in New York City had begun to send money
home, and after that things went better. He still worked every day
about the barn or in the fields but he did not worry about the future.
Elsie's mother did house work in the mornings and in the afternoons sat
in a rocking chair in her tiny living room and thought of her sons
while she crocheted table covers and tidies for the backs of chairs.
She was a silent woman, very thin and with very thin bony hands. She
did not ease herself into a rocking chair but sat down and got up
suddenly, and when she crocheted her back was as straight as the back
of a drill sergeant.
The mother rarely spoke to the daughter. Sometimes in the afternoons as
the younger woman went up the hillside to her place by the rock at the
back of the orchard, her father came out of the barn and stopped her.
He put a hand on her shoulder and asked her where she was going. "To
the rock," she said and her father laughed. His laughter was like the
creaking of a rusty barn door hinge and the hand he had laid on her
shoulders was thin like her own hands and like her mother's hands. The
father went into the barn shaking his head. "She's like her mother. She
is herself like a rock," he thought. At the head of the path that led
from the house to the orchard there was a great cluster of bayberry
bushes. The New England farmer came out of his barn to watch his
daughter go along the path, but she had disappeared behind the bushes.
He looked away past his house to the fields and to the mountains in the
distance. He also saw the green cup-like fields and the grim mountains.
There was an almost imperceptible tightening of the muscles of his half
worn-out old body. For a long time he stood in silence and then,
knowing from long experience the danger of having thoughts, he went
back into the barn and busied himself with the mending of an
agricultural tool that had been mended many times before.
The son of the Leanders who went to live in New York City was the
father of one son, a thin sensitive boy who looked like Elsie. The son
died when he was twenty-three years old and some years later the father
died and left his money to the old people on the New England farm. The
two Leanders who had gone west had lived there with their father's
brother, a farmer, until they grew into manhood. Then Will, the
younger, got a job on a railroad. He was killed one winter morning. It
was a cold snowy day and when the freight train he was in charge of as
conductor left the city of Des Moines, he started to run over the tops
of the cars. His feet slipped and he shot down into space. That was the
end of him.
Of the new generation there was only Elsie and her brother Tom, whom
she had never seen, left alive. Her father and mother talked of going
west to Tom for two years before they came to a decision. Then it took
another year to dispose of the farm and make preparations. During the
whole time Elsie did not think much about the change about to take
place in her life.
The trip west on the railroad train jolted Elsie out of herself. In
spite of her detached attitude toward life she became excited. Her
mother sat up very straight and stiff in the seat in the sleeping car
and her father walked up and down in the aisle. After a night when the
younger of the two women did not sleep but lay awake with red burning
cheeks and with her thin fingers incessantly picking at the bed clothes
in her berth while the train went through towns and cities, crawled up
the sides of hills and fell down into forest-clad valleys, she got up
and dressed to sit all day looking at a new kind of land. The train ran
for a day and through another sleepless night in a flat land where
every field was as large as a farm in her own country. Towns appeared
and disappeared in a continual procession. The whole land was so unlike
anything she had ever known that she began to feel unlike herself. In
the valley where she had been born and where she had lived all her days
everything had an air of finality. Nothing could be changed. The tiny
fields were chained to the earth. They were fixed in their places and
surrounded by aged stone walls. The fields like the mountains that
looked down at them were as unchangeable as the passing days. She had a
feeling they had always been so, would always be so.
Elsie sat like her mother, upright in the car seat and with a back like
the back of a drill sergeant. The train ran swiftly along through Ohio
and Indiana. Her thin hands like her mother's hands were crossed and
locked. One passing casually through the car might have thought both
women prisoners handcuffed and bound to their seats. Night came on and
she again got into her berth. Again she lay awake and her thin cheeks
became flushed, but she thought new thoughts. Her hands were no longer
gripped together and she did not pick at the bed clothes. Twice during
the night she stretched herself and yawned, a thing she had never in
her life done before. The train stopped at a town on the prairies, and
as there was something the matter with one of the wheels of the car in
which she lay the trainsmen came with flaming torches to tinker it.
There was a great pounding and shouting. When the train went on its way
she wanted to get out of her berth and run up and down in the aisle of
the car. The fancy had come to her that the men tinkering with the car
wheel were new men out of the new land who with strong hammers had
broken away the doors of her prison. They had destroyed forever the
programme she had made for her life.
Elsie was filled with joy at the thought that the train was still going
on into the West. She wanted to go on forever in a straight line into
the unknown. She fancied herself no longer on a train and imagined she
had become a winged thing flying through space. Her long years of
sitting alone by the rock on the New England farm had got her into the
habit of expressing her thoughts aloud. Her thin voice broke the
silence that lay over the sleeping car and her father and mother, both
also lying awake, sat up in their berth to listen.
Tom Leander, the only living male representative of the new generation
of Leanders, was a loosely built man of forty inclined to corpulency.
At twenty he had married the daughter of a neighboring farmer, and when
his wife inherited some money she and Tom moved into the town of Apple
Junction in Iowa where Tom opened a grocery. The venture prospered as
did Tom's matrimonial venture. When his brother died in New York City
and his father, mother, and sister decided to come west Tom was already
the father of a daughter and four sons.
On the prairies north of town and in the midst of a vast level stretch
of cornfields, there was a partly completed brick house that had
belonged to a rich farmer named Russell who had begun to build the
house intending to make it the most magnificent place in the county,
but when it was almost completed he had found himself without money and
heavily in debt. The farm, consisting of several hundred acres of corn
land, had been split into three farms and sold. No one had wanted the
huge unfinished brick house. For years it had stood vacant, its windows
staring out over the fields that had been planted almost up to the
In buying the Russell house Tom was moved by two motives. He had a
notion that in New England the Leanders had been rather magnificent
people. His memory of his father's place in the Vermont valley was
shadowy, but in speaking of it to his wife he became very definite. "We
had good blood in us, we Leanders," he said, straightening his
shoulders. "We lived in a big house. We were important people."
Wanting his father and mother to feel at home in the new place, Tom had
also another motive. He was not a very energetic man and, although he
had done well enough as keeper of a grocery, his success was largely
due to the boundless energy of his wife. She did not pay much attention
to her household and her children, like little animals, had to take
care of themselves, but in any matter concerning the store her word was
To have his father the owner of the Russell place Tom felt would
establish him as a man of consequence in the eyes of his neighbors. "I
can tell you what, they're used to a big house," he said to his wife.
"I tell you what, my people are used to living in style."
* * * * *
The exaltation that had come over Elsie on the train wore away in the
presence of the grey empty Iowa fields, but something of the effect of
it remained with her for months. In the big brick house life went on
much as it had in the tiny New England house where she had always
lived. The Leanders installed themselves in three or four rooms on the
ground floor. After a few weeks the furniture that had been shipped by
freight arrived and was hauled out from town in one of Tom's grocery
wagons. There were three or four acres of ground covered with great
piles of boards the unsuccessful farmer had intended to use in the
building of stables. Tom sent men to haul the boards away and Elsie's
father prepared to plant a garden. They had come west in April and as
soon as they were installed in the house ploughing and planting began
in the fields nearby. The habit of a lifetime returned to the daughter
of the house. In the new place there was no gnarled orchard surrounded
by a half-ruined stone fence. All of the fences in all of the fields
that stretched away out of sight to the north, south, east, and west
were made of wire and looked like spider webs against the blackness of
the ground when it had been freshly ploughed.
There was however the house itself. It was like an island rising out of
the sea. In an odd way the house, although it was less than ten years
old, was very old. Its unnecessary bigness represented an old impulse
in men. Elsie felt that. At the east side there was a door leading to a
stairway that ran into the upper part of the house that was kept
locked. Two or three stone steps led up to it. Elsie could sit on the
top step with her back against the door and gaze into the distance
without being disturbed. Almost at her feet began the fields that
seemed to go on and on forever. The fields were like the waters of a
sea. Men came to plough and plant. Giant horses moved in a procession
across the prairies. A young man who drove six horses came directly
toward her. She was fascinated. The breasts of the horses as they came
forward with bowed heads seemed like the breasts of giants. The soft
spring air that lay over the fields was also like a sea. The horses
were giants walking on the floor of a sea. With their breasts they
pushed the waters of the sea before them. They were pushing the waters
out of the basin of the sea. The young man who drove them also was a
* * * * *
Elsie pressed her body against the closed door at the top of the steps.
In the garden back of the house she could hear her father at work. He
was raking dry masses of weeds off the ground preparatory to spading it
for a family garden. He had always worked in a tiny confined place and
would do the same thing here. In this vast open place he would work
with small tools, doing little things with infinite care, raising
little vegetables. In the house her mother would crochet little tidies.
She herself would be small. She would press her body against the door
of the house, try to get herself out of sight. Only the feeling that
sometimes took possession of her, and that did not form itself into a
thought would be large.
The six horses turned at the fence and the outside horse got entangled
in the traces. The driver swore vigorously. Then he turned and started
at the pale New Englander and with another oath pulled the heads of the
horses about and drove away into the distance. The field in which he
was ploughing contained two hundred acres. Elsie did not wait for him
to return but went into the house and sat with folded arms in a room.
The house she thought was a ship floating in a sea on the floor of
which giants went up and down.
May came and then June. In the great fields work was always going on
and Elsie became somewhat used to the sight of the young man in the
field that came down to the steps. Sometimes when he drove his horses
down to the wire fence he smiled and nodded.
* * * * *
In the month of August, when it is very hot, the corn in Iowa fields
grows until the corn stalks resemble young trees. The corn fields
become forests. The time for the cultivating of the corn has passed and
weeds grow thick between the corn rows. The men with their giant horses
have gone away. Over the immense fields silence broods.
When the time of the laying-by of the crop came that first summer after
Elsie's arrival in the West her mind, partially awakened by the
strangeness of the railroad trip, awakened again. She did not feel like
a staid thin woman with a back like the back of a drill sergeant, but
like something new and as strange as the new land into which she had
come to live. For a time she did not know what was the matter. In the
field the corn had grown so high that she could not see into the
distance. The corn was like a wall and the little bare spot of land on
which her father's house stood was like a house built behind the walls
of a prison. For a time she was depressed, thinking that she had come
west into a wide open country, only to find herself locked up more
closely than ever.
An impulse came to her. She arose and going down three or four steps
seated herself almost on a level with the ground.
Immediately she got a sense of release. She could not see over the corn
but she could see under it. The corn had long wide leaves that met over
the rows. The rows became long tunnels running away into infinity. Out
of the black ground grew weeds that made a soft carpet of green. From
above light sifted down. The corn rows were mysteriously beautiful.
They were warm passageways running out into life. She got up from the
steps and, walking timidly to the wire fence that separated her from
the field, put her hand between the wires and took hold of one of the
corn stalks. For some reason after she had touched the strong young
stalk and had held it for a moment firmly in her hand she grew afraid.
Running quickly back to the step she sat down and covered her face with
her hands. Her body trembled. She tried to imagine herself crawling
through the fence and wandering along one of the passageways. The
thought of trying the experiment fascinated but at the same time
terrified. She got quickly up and went into the house.
* * * * *
One Saturday night in August Elsie found herself unable to sleep.
Thoughts, more definite than any she had ever known before, came into
her mind. It was a quiet hot night and her bed stood near a window. Her
room was the only one the Leanders occupied on the second floor of the
house. At midnight a little breeze came up from the south and when she
sat up in bed the floor of corn tassels lying below her line of sight
looked in the moonlight like the face of a sea just stirred by a gentle
A murmuring began in the corn and murmuring thoughts and memories awoke
in her mind. The long wide succulent leaves had begun to dry in the
intense heat of the August days and as the wind stirred the corn they
rubbed against each other. A call, far away, as of a thousand voices
arose. She imagined the voices were like the voices of children. They
were not like her brother Tom's children, noisy boisterous little
animals, but something quite different, tiny little things with large
eyes and thin sensitive hands. One after another they crept into her
arms. She became so excited over the fancy that she sat up in bed and
taking a pillow into her arms held it against her breast. The figure of
her cousin, the pale sensitive young Leander who had lived with his
father in New York City and who had died at the age of twenty-three,
came into her mind. It was as though the young man had come suddenly
into the room. She dropped the pillow and sat waiting, intense,
Young Harry Leander had come to visit his cousin on the New England
farm during the late summer of the year before he died. He had stayed
there for a month and almost every afternoon had gone with Elsie to sit
by the rock at the back of the orchard. One afternoon when they had
both been for a long time silent he began to talk. "I want to go live
in the West," he said. "I want to go live in the West. I want to grow
strong and be a man," he repeated. Tears came into his eyes.
They got up to return to the house, Elsie walking in silence beside the
young man. The moment marked a high spot in her life. A strange
trembling eagerness for something she had not realized in her
experience of life had taken possession of her. They went in silence
through the orchard but when they came to the bayberry bush her cousin
stopped in the path and turned to face her. "I want you to kiss me," he
said eagerly, stepping toward her.
A fluttering uncertainty had taken possession of Elsie and had been
transmitted to her cousin. After he had made the sudden and unexpected
demand and had stepped so close to her that his breath could be felt on
her cheek, his own cheeks became scarlet and his hand that had taken
her hand trembled. "Well, I wish I were strong. I only wish I were
strong," he said hesitatingly and turning walked away along the path
toward the house.
And in the strange new house, set like an island in its sea of corn,
Harry Leander's voice seemed to arise again above the fancied voices of
the children that had been coming out of the fields. Elsie got out of
bed and walked up and down in the dim light coming through the window.
Her body trembled violently. "I want you to kiss me," the voice said
again and to quiet it and to quiet also the answering voice in herself
she went to kneel by the bed and taking the pillow again into her arms
pressed it against her face.
* * * * *
Tom Leander came with his wife and family to visit his father and
mother on Sundays. The family appeared at about ten o'clock in the
morning. When the wagon turned out of the road that ran past the
Russell place Tom shouted. There was a field between the house and the
road and the wagon could not be seen as it came along the narrow way
through the corn. After Tom had shouted, his daughter Elizabeth, a tall
girl of sixteen, jumped out of the wagon. All five children came
tearing toward the house through the corn. A series of wild shouts
arose on the still morning air.
The groceryman had brought food from the store. When the horse had been
unhitched and put into a shed he and his wife began to carry packages
into the house. The four Leander boys, accompanied by their sister,
disappeared into the near-by fields. Three dogs that had trotted out
from town under the wagon accompanied the children. Two or three
children and occasionally a young man from a neighboring farm had come
to join in the fun. Elsie's sister-in-law dismissed them all with a
wave of her hand. With a wave of her hand she also brushed Elsie aside.
Fires were lighted and the house reeked with the smell of cooking.
Elsie went to sit on the step at the side of the house. The corn fields
that had been so quiet rang with shouts and with the barking of dogs.
Tom Leander's oldest child, Elizabeth, was like her mother, full of
energy. She was thin and tall like the women of her father's house but
very strong and alive. In secret she wanted to be a lady but when she
tried her brothers, led by her father and mother, made fun of her.
"Don't put on airs," they said. When she got into the country with no
one but her brothers and two or three neighboring farm boys she herself
became a boy. With the boys she went tearing through the fields,
following the dogs in pursuit of rabbits. Sometimes a young man came
with the children from a near-by farm. Then she did not know what to do
with herself. She wanted to walk demurely along the rows through the
corn but was afraid her brothers would laugh and in desperation outdid
the boys in roughness and noisiness. She screamed and shouted and
running wildly tore her dress on the wire fences as she scrambled over
in pursuit of the dogs. When a rabbit was caught and killed she rushed
in and tore it out of the grasp of the dogs. The blood of the little
dying animal dripped on her clothes. She swung it over her head and
The farm hand who had worked all summer in the field within sight of
Elsie became enamoured of the young woman from town. When the
groceryman's family appeared on Sunday mornings he also appeared but
did not come to the house. When the boys and dogs came tearing through
the fields he joined them. He also was self-conscious and did not want
the boys to know the purpose of his coming and when he and Elizabeth
found themselves alone together he became embarrassed. For a moment
they walked together in silence. In a wide circle about them, in the
forest of the corn, ran the boys and dogs. The young man had something
he wanted to say, but when he tried to find words his tongue became
thick and his lips felt hot and dry. "Well," he began, "let's you and
Words failed him and Elizabeth turned and ran after her brothers and
for the rest of the day he could not manage to get her out of their
sight. When he went to join them she became the noisiest member of the
party. A frenzy of activity took possession of her. With hair hanging
down her back, with clothes torn and with cheeks and hands scratched
and bleeding she led her brothers in the endless wild pursuit of the
* * * * *
The Sunday in August that followed Elsie Leander's sleepless night was
hot and cloudy. In the morning she was half ill and as soon as the
visitors from town arrived she crept away to sit on the step at the
side of the house. The children ran away into the fields. An almost
overpowering desire to run with them, shouting and playing along the
corn rows took possession of her. She arose and went to the back of the
house. Her father was at work in the garden, pulling weeds from between
rows of vegetables. Inside the house she could hear her sister-in-law
moving about. On the front porch her brother Tom was asleep with his
mother beside him. Elsie went back to the step and then arose and went
to where the corn came down to the fence. She climbed awkwardly over
and went a little way along one of the rows. Putting out her hand she
touched the firm stalks and then, becoming afraid, dropped to her knees
on the carpet of weeds that covered the ground. For a long time she
stayed thus listening to the voices of the children in the distance.
An hour slipped away. Presently it was time for dinner and her sister-
in-law came to the back door and shouted. There was an answering whoop
from the distance and the children came running through the fields.
They climbed over the fence and ran shouting across her father's
garden. Elsie also arose. She was about to attempt to climb back over
the fence unobserved when she heard a rustling in the corn. Young
Elizabeth Leander appeared. Beside her walked the ploughman who but a
few months earlier had planted the corn in the field where Elsie now
stood. She could see the two people coming slowly along the rows. An
understanding had been established between them. The man reached
through between the corn stalks and touched the hand of the girl who
laughed awkwardly and running to the fence climbed quickly over. In her
hand she held the limp body of a rabbit the dogs had killed.
The farm hand went away and when Elizabeth had gone into the house
Elsie climbed over the fence. Her niece stood just within the kitchen
door holding the dead rabbit by one leg. The other leg had been torn
away by the dogs. At sight of the New England woman, who seemed to look
at her with hard unsympathetic eyes, she was ashamed and went quickly
into the house. She threw the rabbit upon a table in the parlor and
then ran out of the room. Its blood ran out on the delicate flowers of
a white crocheted table cover that had been made by Elsie's mother.
The Sunday dinner with all the living Leanders gathered about the table
was gone through in a heavy lumbering silence. When the dinner was over
and Tom and his wife had washed the dishes they went to sit with the
older people on the front porch. Presently they were both asleep. Elsie
returned to the step at the side of the house but when the desire to go
again into the cornfields came sweeping over her she got up and went
The woman of thirty-five tip-toed about the big house like a frightened
child. The dead rabbit that lay on the table in the parlour had become
cold and stiff. Its blood had dried on the white table cover. She went
upstairs but did not go to her own room. A spirit of adventure had hold
of her. In the upper part of the house there were many rooms and in
some of them no glass had been put into the windows. The windows had
been boarded up and narrow streaks of light crept in through the cracks
between the boards.
Elsie tip-toed up the flight of stairs past the room in which she slept
and opening doors went into other rooms. Dust lay thick on the floors.
In the silence she could hear her brother snoring as he slept in the
chair on the front porch. From what seemed a far away place there came
the shrill cries of the children. The cries became soft. They were like
the cries of unborn children that had called to her out of the fields
on the night before.
Into her mind came the intense silent figure of her mother sitting on
the porch beside her son and waiting for the day to wear itself out
into night. The thought brought a lump into her throat. She wanted
something and did not know what it was. Her own mood frightened her. In
a windowless room at the back of the house one of the boards over a
window had been broken and a bird had flown in and become imprisoned.
The presence of the woman frightened the bird. It flew wildly about.
Its beating wings stirred up dust that danced in the air. Elsie stood
perfectly still, also frightened, not by the presence of the bird but
by the presence of life. Like the bird she was a prisoner. The thought
gripped her. She wanted to go outdoors where her niece Elizabeth walked
with the young ploughman through the corn, but was like the bird in the
room—a prisoner. She moved restlessly about. The bird flew back and
forth across the room. It alighted on the window sill near the place
where the board was broken away. She stared into the frightened eyes of
the bird that in turn stared into her eyes. Then the bird flew away,
out through the window, and Elsie turned and ran nervously downstairs
and out into the yard. She climbed over the wire fence and ran with
stooped shoulders along one of the tunnels.
Elsie ran into the vastness of the cornfields filled with but one
desire. She wanted to get out of her life and into some new and sweeter
life she felt must be hidden away somewhere in the fields. After she
had run a long way she came to a wire fence and crawled over. Her hair
became unloosed and fell down over her shoulders. Her cheeks became
flushed and for the moment she looked like a young girl. When she
climbed over the fence she tore a great hole in the front of her dress.
For a moment her tiny breasts were exposed and then her hand clutched
and held nervously the sides of the tear. In the distance she could
hear the voices of the boys and the barking of the dogs. A summer storm
had been threatening for days and now black clouds had begun to spread
themselves over the sky. As she ran nervously forward, stopping to
listen and then running on again, the dry corn blades brushed against
her shoulders and a fine shower of yellow dust from the corn tassels
fell on her hair. A continued crackling noise accompanied her progress.
The dust made a golden crown about her head. From the sky overhead a
low rumbling sound, like the growling of giant dogs, came to her ears.
The thought that having at last ventured into the corn she would never
escape became fixed in the mind of the running woman. Sharp pains shot
through her body. Presently she was compelled to stop and sit on the
ground. For a long time she sat with closed eyes. Her dress became
soiled. Little insects that live in the ground under the corn came out
of their holes and crawled over her legs.
Following some obscure impulse the tired woman threw herself on her
back and lay still with closed eyes. Her fright passed. It was warm and
close in the room-like tunnels. The pain in her side went away. She
opened her eyes and between the wide green corn blades could see
patches of a black threatening sky. She did not want to be alarmed and
so closed her eyes again. Her thin hand no longer gripped the tear in
her dress and her little breasts were exposed. They expanded and
contracted in spasmodic jerks. She threw her hands back over her head
and lay still.
It seemed to Elsie that hours passed as she lay thus, quiet and passive
under the corn. Deep within her there was a feeling that something was
about to happen, something that would lift her out of herself, that
would tear her away from her past and the past of her people. Her
thoughts were not definite. She lay still and waited as she had waited
for days and months by the rock at the back of the orchard on the
Vermont farm when she was a girl. A deep grumbling noise went on in the
sky overhead but the sky and everything she had ever known seemed very
far away, no part of herself.
After a long silence, when it seemed to her that she had gone out of
herself as in a dream, Elsie heard a man's voice calling. "Aho, aho,
aho," shouted the voice and after another period of silence there arose
answering voices and then the sound of bodies crashing through the corn
and the excited chatter of children. A dog came running along the row
where she lay and stood beside her. His cold nose touched her face and
she sat up. The dog ran away. The Leander boys passed. She could see
their bare legs flashing in and out across one of the tunnels. Her
brother had become alarmed by the rapid approach of the thunder storm
and wanted to get his family to town. His voice kept calling from the
house and the voices of the children answered from the fields.
Elsie sat on the ground with her hands pressed together. An odd feeling
of disappointment had possession of her. She arose and walked slowly
along in the general direction taken by the children. She came to a
fence and crawled over, tearing her dress in a new place. One of her
stockings had become unloosed and had slipped down over her shoe top.
The long sharp weeds had scratched her leg so that it was criss-crossed
with red lines, but she was not conscious of any pain.
The distraught woman followed the children until she came within sight
of her father's house and then stopped and again sat on the ground.
There was another loud crash of thunder and Tom Leander's voice called
again, this time half angrily. The name of the girl Elizabeth was
shouted in loud masculine tones that rolled and echoed like the thunder
along the aisles under the corn.
And then Elizabeth came into sight accompanied by the young ploughman.
They stopped near Elsie and the man took the girl into his arms. At the
sound of their approach Elsie had thrown herself face downward on the
ground and had twisted herself into a position where she could see
without being seen. When their lips met her tense hands grasped one of
the corn stalks. Her lips pressed themselves into the dust. When they
had gone on their way she raised her head. A dusty powder covered her
What seemed another long period of silence fell over the fields. The
murmuring voices of unborn children, her imagination had created in the
whispering fields, became a vast shout. The wind blew harder and
harder. The corn stalks were twisted and bent. Elizabeth went
thoughtfully out of the field and climbing the fence confronted her
father. "Where you been? What you been a doing?" he asked. "Don't you
think we got to get out of here?"
When Elizabeth went toward the house Elsie followed, creeping on her
hands and knees like a little animal, and when she had come within
sight of the fence surrounding the house she sat on the ground and put
her hands over her face. Something within herself was being twisted and
whirled about as the tops of the corn stalks were now being twisted and
whirled by the wind. She sat so that she did not look toward the house
and when she opened her eyes she could again see along the long
Her brother with his wife and children went away. By turning her head
Elsie could see them driving at a trot out of the yard back of her
father's house. With the going of the younger woman the farm house in
the midst of the cornfield rocked by the winds seemed the most desolate
place in the world.
Her mother came out at the back door of the house. She ran to the steps
where she knew her daughter was in the habit of sitting and then in
alarm began to call. It did not occur to Elsie to answer. The voice of
the older woman did not seem to have anything to do with herself. It
was a thin voice and was quickly lost in the wind and in the crashing
sound that arose out of the fields. With her head turned toward the
house Elsie stared at her mother who ran wildly around the house and
then went indoors. The back door of the house went shut with a bang.
The storm that had been threatening broke with a roar. Broad sheets of
water swept over the cornfields. Sheets of water swept over the woman's
body. The storm that had for years been gathering in her also broke.
Sobs arose out of her throat. She abandoned herself to a storm of grief
that was only partially grief. Tears ran out of her eyes and made
little furrows through the dust on her face. In the lulls that
occasionally came in the storm she raised her head and heard, through
the tangled mass of wet hair that covered her ears and above the sound
of millions of rain-drops that alighted on the earthen floor inside the
house of the corn, the thin voices of her mother and father calling to
her out of the Leander house.
The story came to me from a woman met on a train. The car was crowded
and I took the seat beside her. There was a man in the offing who
belonged with her—a slender girlish figure of a man in a heavy brown
canvas coat such as teamsters wear in the winter. He moved up and down
in the aisle of the car, wanting my place by the woman's side, but I
did not know that at the time.
The woman had a heavy face and a thick nose. Something had happened to
her. She had been struck a blow or had a fall. Nature could never have
made a nose so broad and thick and ugly. She had talked to me in very
good English. I suspect now that she was temporarily weary of the man
in the brown canvas coat, that she had travelled with him for days,
perhaps weeks, and was glad of the chance to spend a few hours in the
company of some one else.
Everyone knows the feeling of a crowded train in the middle of the
night. We ran along through western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. It had
rained for days and the fields were flooded. In the clear night the
moon came out and the scene outside the car-window was strange and in
an odd way very beautiful.
You get the feeling: the black bare trees standing up in clusters as
they do out in that country, the pools of water with the moon reflected
and running quickly as it does when the train hurries along, the rattle
of the car-trucks, the lights in isolated farm-houses, and occasionally
the clustered lights of a town as the train rushed through it into the
The woman had just come out of war-ridden Poland, had got out of that
stricken land with her lover by God knows what miracles of effort. She
made me feel the war, that woman did, and she told me the tale that I
want to tell you.
I do not remember the beginning of our talk, nor can I tell you of how
the strangeness of my mood grew to match her mood until the story she
told became a part of the mystery of the still night outside the car-
window and very pregnant with meaning to me.
There was a company of Polish refugees moving along a road in Poland in
charge of a German. The German was a man of perhaps fifty, with a
beard. As I got him, he was much such a man as might be professor of
foreign languages in a college in our country, say at Des Moines, Iowa,
or Springfield, Ohio. He would be sturdy and strong of body and given
to the eating of rather rank foods, as such men are. Also he would be a
fellow of books and in his thinking inclined toward the ranker
philosophies. He was dragged into the war because he was a German, and
he had steeped his soul in the German philosophy of might. Faintly, I
fancy, there was another notion in his head that kept bothering him,
and so to serve his government with a whole heart he read books that
would re-establish his feeling for the strong, terrible thing for which
he fought. Because he was past fifty he was not on the battle line, but
was in charge of the refugees, taking them out of their destroyed
village to a camp near a railroad where they could be fed.
The refugees were peasants, all except the woman in the American train
with me, her lover and her mother, an old woman of sixty-five. They had
been small landowners and the others in their party had worked on their
Along a country road in Poland went this party in charge of the German
who tramped heavily along, urging them forward. He was brutal in his
insistence, and the old woman of sixty-five, who was a kind of leader
of the refugees, was almost equally brutal in her constant refusal to
go forward. In the rainy night she stopped in the muddy road and her
party gathered about her. Like a stubborn horse she shook her head and
muttered Polish words. "I want to be let alone, that's what I want. All
I want in the world is to be let alone," she said, over and over; and
then the German came up and putting his hand on her back pushed her
along, so that their progress through the dismal night was a constant
repetition of the stopping, her muttered words, and his pushing. They
hated each other with whole-hearted hatred, that old Polish woman and
The party came to a clump of trees on the bank of a shallow stream and
the German took hold of the old woman's arm and dragged her through the
stream while the others followed. Over and over she said the words: "I
want to be let alone. All I want in the world is to be let alone."
In the clump of trees the German started a fire. With incredible
efficiency he had it blazing high in a few minutes, taking the matches
and even some bits of dry wood from a little rubber-lined pouch carried
in his inside coat pocket. Then he got out tobacco and, sitting down on
the protruding root of a tree, smoked and stared at the refugees,
clustered about the old woman on the opposite side of the fire.
The German went to sleep. That was what started his trouble. He slept
for an hour and when he awoke the refugees were gone. You can imagine
him jumping up and tramping heavily back through the shallow stream and
along the muddy road to gather his party together again. He would be
angry through and through, but he would not be alarmed. It was only a
matter, he knew, of going far enough back along the road as one goes
back along a road for strayed cattle.
And then, when the German came up to the party, he and the old woman
began to fight. She stopped muttering the words about being let alone
and sprang at him. One of her old hands gripped his beard and the other
buried itself in the thick skin of his neck.
The struggle in the road lasted a long time. The German was tired and
not as strong as he looked, and there was that faint thing in him that
kept him from hitting the old woman with his fist. He took hold of her
thin shoulders and pushed, and she pulled. The struggle was like a man
trying to lift himself by his boot straps. The two fought and were full
of the determination that will not stop fighting, but they were not
very strong physically.
And so their two souls began to struggle. The woman in the train made
me understand that quite clearly, although it may be difficult to get
the sense of it over to you. I had the night and the mystery of the
moving train to help me. It was a physical thing, the fight of the two
souls in the dim light of the rainy night on that deserted muddy road.
The air was full of the struggle and the refugees gathered about and
stood shivering. They shivered with cold and weariness, of course, but
also with something else. In the air everywhere about them they could
feel the vague something going on. The woman said that she would gladly
have given her life to have it stopped, or to have someone strike a
light, and that her man felt the same way. It was like two winds
struggling, she said, like a soft yielding cloud become hard and trying
vainly to push another cloud out of the sky.
Then the struggle ended and the old woman and the German fell down
exhausted in the road. The refugees gathered about and waited. They
thought something more was going to happen, knew in fact something more
would happen. The feeling they had persisted, you see, and they huddled
together and perhaps whimpered a little.
What happened is the whole point of the story. The woman in the train
explained it very clearly. She said that the two souls, after
struggling, went back into the two bodies, but that the soul of the old
woman went into the body of the German and the soul of the German into
the body of the old woman.
After that, of course, everything was quite simple. The German sat down
by the road and began shaking his head and saying he wanted to be let
alone, declared that all he wanted in the world was to be let alone,
and the Polish woman took papers out of his pocket and began driving
her companions back along the road, driving them harshly and brutally
along, and when they grew weary pushing them with her hands.
There was more of the story after that. The woman's lover, who had been
a school-teacher, took the papers and got out of the country, taking
his sweetheart with him. But my mind has forgotten the details. I only
remember the German sitting by the road and muttering that he wanted to
be let alone, and the old tired mother-in-Poland saying the harsh words
and forcing her weary companions to march through the night back into
their own country.
Below the hill there was a swamp in which cattails grew. The wind
rustled the dry leaves of a walnut tree that grew on top of the hill.
She went beyond the tree to where the grass was long and matted. In the
farmhouse a door bangs and in the road before the house a dog barked.
For a long time there was no sound. Then a wagon came jolting and
bumping over the frozen road. The little noises ran along the ground to
where she was lying on the grass and seemed like fingers playing over
her body. A fragrance arose from her. It took a long time for the wagon
Then another sound broke the stillness. A young man from a neighboring
farm came stealthily across a field and climbed a fence. He also came
to the hill but for a time did not see her lying almost at his feet. He
looked toward the house and stood with hands in pockets, stamping on
the frozen ground like a horse.
Then he knew she was there. The aroma of her crept into his
He ran to kneel beside her silent figure. Everything was different than
it had been when they crept to the hill on the other evenings. The time
of talking and waiting was over. She was different. He grew bold and
put his hands on her face, her neck, her breasts, her hips. There was a
strange new firmness and hardness to her body. When he kissed her lips
she did not move and for a moment he was afraid. Then courage came and
he went down to lie with her.
He had been a farm boy all his life and had plowed many acres of rich
He became sure of himself.
He plowed her deeply.
He planted the seeds of a son in the warm rich quivering soil.
* * * * *
She carried the seeds of a son within herself. On winter evenings she
went along a path at the foot of a small hill and turned up the hill to
a barn where she milked cows. She was large and strong. Her legs went
swinging along. The son within her went swinging along.
He learned the rhythm of little hills.
He learned the rhythm of flat places.
He learned the rhythm of legs walking.
He learned the rhythm of firm strong hands pulling at the teats of
* * * * *
There was a field that was barren and filled with stones. In the spring
when the warm nights came and when she was big with him she went to the
fields. The heads of little stones stuck out of the ground like the
heads of buried children. The field, washed with moonlight, sloped
gradually downward to a murmuring brook. A few sheep went among the
stones nibbling the sparse grass.
A thousand children were buried in the barren field. They struggled to
come out of the ground. They struggled to come to her. The brook ran
over stones and its voice cried out. For a long time she stayed in the
field, shaken with sorrow.
She arose from her seat on a large stone and went to the farmhouse. The
voices of the darkness cried to her as she went along a lane and past a
Within herself only the one child struggled. When she got into bed his
heels beat upon the walls of his prison. She lay still and listened.
Only one small voice seemed coming to her out of the silence of the
OUT OF NOWHERE INTO NOTHING.
Rosalind Wescott, a tall strong looking woman of twenty-seven, was
walking on the railroad track near the town of Willow Springs, Iowa. It
was about four in the afternoon of a day in August, and the third day
since she had come home to her native town from Chicago, where she was
At that time Willow Springs was a town of about three thousand people.
It has grown since. There was a public square with the town hall in the
centre and about the four sides of the square and facing it were the
merchandising establishments. The public square was bare and grassless,
and out of it ran streets of frame houses, long straight streets that
finally became country roads running away into the flat prairie
Although she had told everyone that she had merely come home for a
short visit because she was a little homesick, and although she wanted
in particular to have a talk with her mother in regard to a certain
matter, Rosalind had been unable to talk with anyone. Indeed she had
found it difficult to stay in the house with her mother and father and
all the time, day and night, she was haunted by a desire to get out of
town. As she went along the railroad tracks in the hot afternoon
sunshine she kept scolding herself. "I've grown moody and no good. If I
want to do it why don't I just go ahead and not make a fuss," she
For two miles the railroad tracks, eastward out of Willow Springs, went
through corn fields on a flat plain. Then there was a little dip in the
land and a bridge over Willow Creek. The Creek was altogether dry now
but trees grew along the edge of the grey streak of cracked mud that in
the fall, winter and spring would be the bed of the stream. Rosalind
left the tracks and went to sit under one of the trees. Her cheeks were
flushed and her forehead wet. When she took off her hat her hair fell
down in disorder and strands of it clung to her hot wet face. She sat
in what seemed a kind of great bowl on the sides of which the corn grew
rank. Before her and following the bed of the stream there was a dusty
path along which cows came at evening from distant pastures. A great
pancake formed of cow dung lay nearby. It was covered with grey dust
and over it crawled shiny black beetles. They were rolling the dung
into balls in preparation for the germination of a new generation of
Rosalind had come on the visit to her home town at a time of the year
when everyone wished to escape from the hot dusty place. No one had
expected her and she had not written to announce her coming. One hot
morning in Chicago she had got out of bed and had suddenly begun
packing her bag, and on that same evening there she was in Willow
Springs, in the house where she had lived until her twenty-first year,
among her own people. She had come up from the station in the hotel bus
and had walked into the Wescott house unannounced. Her father was at
the pump by the kitchen door and her mother came into the living room
to greet her wearing a soiled kitchen apron. Everything in the house
was just as it always had been. "I just thought I would come home for a
few days," she said, putting down her bag and kissing her mother.
Ma and Pa Wescott had been glad to see their daughter. On the evening
of her arrival they were excited and a special supper was prepared.
After supper Pa Wescott went up town as usual, but he stayed only a few
minutes. "I just want to run to the postoffice and get the evening
paper," he said apologetically. Rosalind's mother put on a clean dress
and they all sat in the darkness on the front porch. There was talk, of
a kind. "Is it hot in Chicago now? I'm going to do a good deal of
canning this fall. I thought later I would send you a box of canned
fruit. Do you live in the same place on the North Side? It must be nice
in the evening to be able to walk down to the park by the lake."
* * * * *
Rosalind sat under the tree near the railroad bridge two miles from
Willow Springs and watched the tumble bugs at work. Her whole body was
hot from the walk in the sun and the thin dress she wore clung to her
legs. It was being soiled by the dust on the grass under the tree.
She had run away from town and from her mother's house. All during the
three days of her visit she had been doing that. She did not go from
house to house to visit her old schoolgirl friends, the girls who
unlike herself had stayed in Willow Springs, had got married and
settled down there. When she saw one of these women on the street in
the morning, pushing a baby carriage and perhaps followed by a small
child, she stopped. There was a few minutes of talk. "It's hot. Do you
live in the same place in Chicago? My husband and I hope to take the
children and go away for a week or two. It must be nice in Chicago
where you are so near the lake." Rosalind hurried away.
All the hours of her visit to her mother and to her home town had been
spent in an effort to hurry away.
From what? Rosalind defended herself. There was something she had come
from Chicago hoping to be able to say to her mother. Did she really
want to talk with her about things? Had she thought, by again breathing
the air of her home town, to get strength to face life and its
There was no point in her taking the hot uncomfortable trip from
Chicago only to spend her days walking in dusty country roads or
between rows of cornfields in the stifling heat along the railroad
"I must have hoped. There is a hope that cannot be fulfilled," she
Willow Springs was a rather meaningless, dreary town, one of thousands
of such towns in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, but her
mind made it more dreary.
She sat under the tree by the dry bed of Willow Creek thinking of the
street in town where her mother and father lived, where she had lived
until she had become a woman. It was only because of a series of
circumstances she did not live there now. Her one brother, ten years
older than herself, had married and moved to Chicago. He had asked her
to come for a visit and after she got to the city she stayed. Her
brother was a traveling salesman and spent a good deal of time away
from home. "Why don't you stay here with Bess and learn stenography,"
he asked. "If you don't want to use it you don't have to. Dad can look
out for you all right. I just thought you might like to learn."
* * * * *
"That was six years ago," Rosalind thought wearily. "I've been a city
woman for six years." Her mind hopped about. Thoughts came and went. In
the city, after she became a stenographer, something for a time
awakened her. She wanted to be an actress and went in the evening to a
dramatic school. In an office where she worked there was a young man, a
clerk. They went out together, to the theatre or to walk in the park in
the evening. They kissed.
Her thoughts came sharply back to her mother and father, to her home in
Willow Springs, to the street in which she had lived until her twenty-
It was but an end of a street. From the windows at the front of her
mother's house six other houses could be seen. How well she knew the
street and the people in the houses! Did she know them? From her
eighteenth and until her twenty-first year she had stayed at home,
helping her mother with the housework, waiting for something. Other
young women in town waited just as she did. They like herself had
graduated from the town high school and their parents had no intention
of sending them away to college. There was nothing to do but wait. Some
of the young women—their mothers and their mothers' friends still
spoke of them as girls—had young men friends who came to see them on
Sunday and perhaps also on Wednesday or Thursday evenings. Others
joined the church, went to prayer meetings, became active members of
some church organization. They fussed about.
Rosalind had done none of these things. All through those three trying
years in Willow Springs she had just waited. In the morning there was
the work to do in the house and then, in some way, the day wore itself
away. In the evening her father went up town and she sat with her
mother. Nothing much was said. After she had gone to bed she lay awake,
strangely nervous, eager for something to happen that never would
happen. The noises of the Wescott house cut across her thoughts. What
things went through her mind!
There was a procession of people always going away from her. Sometimes
she lay on her belly at the edge of a ravine. Well it was not a ravine.
It had two walls of marble and on the marble face of the walls strange
figures were carved. Broad steps led down—always down and away. People
walked along the steps, between the marble walls, going down and away
What people! Who were they? Where did they come from? Where were they
going? She was not asleep but wide awake. Her bedroom was dark. The
walls and ceiling of the room receded. She seemed to hang suspended in
space, above the ravine—the ravine with walls of white marble over
which strange beautiful lights played.
The people who went down the broad steps and away into infinite
distance—they were men and women. Sometime a young girl like herself
but in some way sweeter and purer than herself, passed alone. The young
girl walked with a swinging stride, going swiftly and freely like a
beautiful young animal. Her legs and arms were like the slender top
branches of trees swaying in a gentle wind. She also went down and
Others followed along the marble steps. Young boys walked alone. A
dignified old man followed by a sweet faced woman passed. What a
remarkable man! One felt infinite power in his old frame. There were
deep wrinkles in his face and his eyes were sad. One felt he knew
everything about life but had kept something very precious alive in
himself. It was that precious thing that made the eyes of the woman who
followed him burn with a strange fire. They also went down along the
steps and away.
Down and away along the steps went others—how many others, men and
women, boys and girls, single old men, old women who leaned on sticks
and hobbled along.
In the bed in her father's house as she lay awake Rosalind's head grew
light. She tried to clutch at something, understand something.
She couldn't. The noises of the house cut across her waking dream. Her
father was at the pump by the kitchen door. He was pumping a pail of
water. In a moment he would bring it into the house and put it on a box
by the kitchen sink. A little of the water would slop over on the
floor. There would be a sound like a child's bare foot striking the
floor. Then her father would go to wind the clock. The day was done.
Presently there would be the sound of his heavy feet on the floor of
the bedroom above and he would get into bed to lie beside Rosalind's
The night noises of her father's house had been in some way terrible to
the girl in the years when she was becoming a woman. After chance had
taken her to the city she never wanted to think of them again. Even in
Chicago where the silence of nights was cut and slashed by a thousand
noises, by automobiles whirling through the streets, by the belated
footsteps of men homeward bound along the cement sidewalks after
midnight, by the shouts of quarreling men drunk on summer nights, even
in the great hubbub of noises there was comparative quiet. The
insistent clanging noises of the city nights were not like the homely
insistent noises of her father's house. Certain terrible truths about
life did not abide in them, they did not cling so closely to life and
did not frighten as did the noises in the one house on the quiet street
in the town of Willow Springs. How often, there in the city, in the
midst of the great noises she had fought to escape the little noises!
Her father's feet were on the steps leading into the kitchen. Now he
was putting the pail of water on the box by the kitchen sink. Upstairs
her mother's body fell heavily into bed. The visions of the great
marble-lined ravine down along which went the beautiful people flew
away. There was the little slap of water on the kitchen floor. It was
like a child's bare foot striking the floor. Rosalind wanted to cry
out. Her father closed the kitchen door. Now he was winding the clock.
In a moment his feet would be on the stairs—
There were six houses to be seen from the windows of the Wescott house.
In the winter smoke from six brick chimneys went up into the sky. There
was one house, the next one to the Wescott's place, a small frame
affair, in which lived a man who was thirty-five years old when
Rosalind became a woman of twenty-one and went away to the city. The
man was unmarried and his mother, who had been his housekeeper, had
died during the year in which Rosalind graduated from the high school.
After that the man lived alone. He took his dinner and supper at the
hotel, down town on the square, but he got his own breakfast, made his
own bed and swept out his own house. Sometimes he walked slowly along
the street past the Wescott house when Rosalind sat alone on the front
porch. He raised his hat and spoke to her. Their eyes met. He had a
long, hawk-like nose and his hair was long and uncombed.
Rosalind thought about him sometimes. It bothered her a little that he
sometimes went stealing softly, as though not to disturb her, across
her daytime fancies.
As she sat that day by the dry creek bed Rosalind thought about the
bachelor, who had now passed the age of forty and who lived on the
street where she had lived during her girlhood. His house was separated
from the Wescott house by a picket fence. Sometimes in the morning he
forgot to pull his blinds and Rosalind, busy with the housework in her
father's house, had seen him walking about in his underwear. It was—
uh, one could not think of it.
The man's name was Melville Stoner. He had a small income and did not
have to work. On some days he did not leave his house and go to the
hotel for his meals but sat all day in a chair with his nose buried in
There was a house on the street occupied by a widow who raised
chickens. Two or three of her hens were what the people who lived on
the street called 'high flyers.' They flew over the fence of the
chicken yard and escaped and almost always they came at once into the
yard of the bachelor. The neighbors laughed about it. It was
significant, they felt. When the hens had come into the yard of the
bachelor, Stoner, the widow with a stick in her hand ran after them.
Melville Stoner came out of his house and stood on a little porch in
front. The widow ran through the front gate waving her arms wildly and
the hens made a great racket and flew over the fence. They ran down the
street toward the widow's house. For a moment she stood by the Stoner
gate. In the summer time when the windows of the Wescott house were
open Rosalind could hear what the man and woman said to each other. In
Willow Springs it was not thought proper for an unmarried woman to
stand talking to an unmarried man near the door of his bachelor
establishment. The widow wanted to observe the conventions. Still she
did linger a moment, her bare arm resting on the gate post. What bright
eager little eyes she had! "If those hens of mine bother you I wish you
would catch them and kill them," she said fiercely. "I am always glad
to see them coming along the road," Melville Stoner replied, bowing.
Rosalind thought he was making fun of the widow. She liked him for
that. "I'd never see you if you did not have to come here after your
hens. Don't let anything happen to them," he said, bowing again.
For a moment the man and woman lingered looking into each other's eyes.
From one of the windows of the Wescott house Rosalind watched the
woman. Nothing more was said. There was something about the woman she
had not understood—well the widow's senses were being fed. The
developing woman in the house next door had hated her.
* * * * *
Rosalind jumped up from under the tree and climbed up the railroad
embankment. She thanked the gods she had been lifted out of the life of
the town of Willow Springs and that chance had set her down to live in
a city. "Chicago is far from beautiful. People say it is just a big
noisy dirty village and perhaps that's what it is, but there is
something alive there," she thought. In Chicago, or at least during the
last two or three years of her life there, Rosalind felt she had
learned a little something of life. She had read books for one thing,
such books as did not come to Willow Springs, books that Willow Springs
knew nothing about, she had gone to hear the Symphony Orchestra, she
had begun to understand something of the possibility of line and color,
had heard intelligent, understanding men speak of these things. In
Chicago, in the midst of the twisting squirming millions of men and
women there were voices. One occasionally saw men or at least heard of
the existence of men who, like the beautiful old man who had walked
away down the marble stairs in the vision of her girlhood nights, had
kept some precious thing alive in themselves.
And there was something else—it was the most important thing of all.
For the last two years of her life in Chicago she had spent hours, days
in the presence of a man to whom she could talk. The talks had awakened
her. She felt they had made her a woman, had matured her.
"I know what these people here in Willow Springs are like and what I
would have been like had I stayed here," she thought. She felt relieved
and almost happy. She had come home at a crisis of her own life hoping
to be able to talk a little with her mother, or if talk proved
impossible hoping to get some sense of sisterhood by being in her
presence. She had thought there was something buried away, deep within
every woman, that at a certain call would run out to other women. Now
she felt that the hope, the dream, the desire she had cherished was
altogether futile. Sitting in the great flat bowl in the midst of the
corn lands two miles from her home town where no breath of air stirred
and seeing the beetles at their work of preparing to propagate a new
generation of beetles, while she thought of the town and its people,
had settled something for her. Her visit to Willow Springs had come to
something after all.
Rosalind's figure had still much of the spring and swing of youth in
it. Her legs were strong and her shoulders broad. She went swinging
along the railroad track toward town, going westward. The sun had begun
to fall rapidly down the sky. Away over the tops of the corn in one of
the great fields she could see in the distance to where a man was
driving a motor along a dusty road. The wheels of the car kicked up
dust through which the sunlight played. The floating cloud of dust
became a shower of gold that settled down over the fields. "When a
woman most wants what is best and truest in another woman, even in her
own mother, she isn't likely to find it," she thought grimly. "There
are certain things every woman has to find out for herself, there is a
road she must travel alone. It may only lead to some more ugly and
terrible place, but if she doesn't want death to overtake her and live
within her while her body is still alive she must set out on that
Rosalind walked for a mile along the railroad track and then stopped. A
freight train had gone eastward as she sat under the tree by the creek
bed and now, there beside the tracks, in the grass was the body of a
man. It lay still, the face buried in the deep burned grass. At once
she concluded the man had been struck and killed by the train. The body
had been thrown thus aside. All her thoughts went away and she turned
and started to tiptoe away, stepping carefully along the railroad ties,
making no noise. Then she stopped again. The man in the grass might not
be dead, only hurt, terribly hurt. It would not do to leave him there.
She imagined him mutilated but still struggling for life and herself
trying to help him. She crept back along the ties. The man's legs were
not twisted and beside him lay his hat. It was as though he had put it
there before lying down to sleep, but a man did not sleep with his face
buried in the grass in such a hot uncomfortable place. She drew nearer.
"O, you Mister," she called, "O, you—are you hurt?"
The man in the grass sat up and looked at her. He laughed. It was
Melville Stoner, the man of whom she had just been thinking and in
thinking of whom she had come to certain settled conclusions regarding
the futility of her visit to Willow Springs. He got to his feet and
picked up his hat. "Well, hello, Miss Rosalind Wescott," he said
heartily. He climbed a small embankment and stood beside her. "I knew
you were at home on a visit but what are you doing out here?" he asked
and then added, "What luck this is! Now I shall have the privilege of
walking home with you. You can hardly refuse to let me walk with you
after shouting at me like that."
They walked together along the tracks he with his hat in his hand.
Rosalind thought he looked like a gigantic bird, an aged wise old bird,
"perhaps a vulture" she thought. For a time he was silent and then he
began to talk, explaining his lying with his face buried in the grass.
There was a twinkle in his eyes and Rosalind wondered if he was
laughing at her as she had seen him laugh at the widow who owned the
He did not come directly to the point and Rosalind thought it strange
that they should walk and talk together. At once his words interested
her. He was so much older than herself and no doubt wiser. How vain she
had been to think herself so much more knowing than all the people of
Willow Springs. Here was this man and he was talking and his talk did
not sound like anything she had ever expected to hear from the lips of
a native of her home town. "I want to explain myself but we'll wait a
little. For years I've been wanting to get at you, to talk with you,
and this is my chance. You've been away now five or six years and have
grown into womanhood.
"You understand it's nothing specially personal, my wanting to get at
you and understand you a little," he added quickly. "I'm that way about
everyone. Perhaps that's the reason I live alone, why I've never
married or had personal friends. I'm too eager. It isn't comfortable to
others to have me about."
Rosalind was caught up by this new view point of the man. She wondered.
In the distance along the tracks the houses of the town came into
sight. Melville Stoner tried to walk on one of the iron rails but after
a few steps lost his balance and fell off. His long arms whirled about.
A strange intensity of mood and feeling had come over Rosalind. In one
moment Melville Stoner was like an old man and then he was like a boy.
Being with him made her mind, that had been racing all afternoon, race
faster than ever.
When he began to talk again he seemed to have forgotten the explanation
he had intended making. "We've lived side by side but we've hardly
spoken to each other," he said. "When I was a young man and you were a
girl I used to sit in the house thinking of you. We've really been
friends. What I mean is we've had the same thoughts."
He began to speak of life in the city where she had been living,
condemning it. "It's dull and stupid here but in the city you have your
own kind of stupidity too," he declared. "I'm glad I do not live
In Chicago when she had first gone there to live a thing had sometimes
happened that had startled Rosalind. She knew no one but her brother
and his wife and was sometimes very lonely. When she could no longer
bear the eternal sameness of the talk in her brother's house she went
out to a concert or to the theatre. Once or twice when she had no money
to buy a theatre ticket she grew bold and walked alone in the streets,
going rapidly along without looking to the right or left. As she sat in
the theatre or walked in the street an odd thing sometimes happened.
Someone spoke her name, a call came to her. The thing happened at a
concert and she looked quickly about. All the faces in sight had that
peculiar, half bored, half expectant expression one grows accustomed to
seeing on the faces of people listening to music. In the entire theatre
no one seemed aware of her. On the street or in the park the call had
come when she was utterly alone. It seemed to come out of the air, from
behind a tree in the park.
And now as she walked on the railroad tracks with Melville Stoner the
call seemed to come from him. He walked along apparently absorbed with
his own thoughts, the thoughts he was trying to find words to express.
His legs were long and he walked with a queer loping gait. The idea of
some great bird, perhaps a sea-bird stranded far inland, stayed in
Rosalind's mind but the call did not come from the bird part of him.
There was something else, another personality hidden away. Rosalind
fancied the call came this time from a young boy, from such another
clear-eyed boy as she had once seen in her waking dreams at night in
her father's house, from one of the boys who walked on the marble
stairway, walked down and away. A thought came that startled her. "The
boy is hidden away in the body of this strange bird-like man," she told
herself. The thought awoke fancies within her. It explained much in the
lives of men and women. An expression, a phrase, remembered from her
childhood when she had gone to Sunday School in Willow Springs, came
back to her mind. "And God spoke to me out of a burning bush." She
almost said the words aloud.
Melville Stoner loped along, walking on the railroad ties and talking.
He seemed to have forgotten the incident of his lying with his nose
buried in the grass and was explaining his life lived alone in the
house in town. Rosalind tried to put her own thoughts aside and to
listen to his words but did not succeed very well. "I came home here
hoping to get a little closer to life, to get, for a few days, out of
the company of a man so I could think about him. I fancied I could get
what I wanted by being near mother, but that hasn't worked. It would be
strange if I got what I am looking for by this chance meeting with
another man," she thought. Her mind went on recording thoughts. She
heard the spoken words of the man beside her but her own mind went on,
also making words. Something within herself felt suddenly relaxed and
free. Ever since she had got off the train at Willow Springs three days
before there had been a great tenseness. Now it was all gone. She
looked at Melville Stoner who occasionally looked at her. There was
something in his eyes, a kind of laughter—a mocking kind of laughter.
His eyes were grey, of a cold greyness, like the eyes of a bird.
"It has come into my mind—I have been thinking—well you see you have
not married in the six years since you went to live in the city. It
would be strange and a little amusing if you are like myself, if you
cannot marry or come close to any other person," he was saying.
Again he spoke of the life he led in his house. "I sometimes sit in my
house all day, even when the weather is fine outside," he said. "You
have no doubt seen me sitting there. Sometimes I forget to eat. I read
books all day, striving to forget myself and then night comes and I
"If I could write or paint or make music, if I cared at all about
expressing what goes on in my mind it would be different. However, I
would not write as others do. I would have but little to say about what
people do. What do they do? In what way does it matter? Well you see
they build cities such as you live in and towns like Willow Springs,
they have built this railroad track on which we are walking, they marry
and raise children, commit murders, steal, do kindly acts. What does it
matter? You see we are walking here in the hot sun. In five minutes
more we will be in town and you will go to your house and I to mine.
You will eat supper with your father and mother. Then your father will
go up town and you and your mother will sit together on the front
porch. There will be little said. Your mother will speak of her
intention to can fruit. Then your father will come home and you will
all go to bed. Your father will pump a pail of water at the pump by the
kitchen door. He will carry it indoors and put it on a box by the
kitchen sink. A little of the water will be spilled. It will make a
soft little slap on the kitchen floor—"
Melville Stoner turned and looked sharply at Rosalind who had grown a
little pale. Her mind raced madly, like an engine out of control. There
was a kind of power in Melville Stoner that frightened her. By the
recital of a few commonplace facts he had suddenly invaded her secret
places. It was almost as though he had come into the bedroom in her
father's house where she lay thinking. He had in fact got into her bed.
He laughed again, an unmirthful laugh. "I'll tell you what, we know
little enough here in America, either in the towns or in the cities,"
he said rapidly. "We are all on the rush. We are all for action. I sit
still and think. If I wanted to write I'd do something. I'd tell what
everyone thought. It would startle people, frighten them a little, eh?
I would tell you what you have been thinking this afternoon while you
walked here on this railroad track with me. I would tell you what your
mother has been thinking at the same time and what she would like to
say to you."
Rosalind's face had grown chalky white and her hands trembled. They got
off the railroad tracks and into the streets of Willow Springs. A
change came over Melville Stoner. Of a sudden he seemed just a man of
forty, a little embarrassed by the presence of the younger woman, a
little hesitant. "I'm going to the hotel now and I must leave you
here," he said. His feet made a shuffling sound on the sidewalk. "I
intended to tell you why you found me lying out there with my face
buried in the grass," he said. A new quality had come into his voice.
It was the voice of the boy who had called to Rosalind out of the body
of the man as they walked and talked on the tracks. "Sometimes I can't
stand my life here," he said almost fiercely and waved his long arms
about. "I'm alone too much. I grow to hate myself. I have to run out of
The man did not look at Rosalind but at the ground. His big feet
continued shuffling nervously about. "Once in the winter time I thought
I was going insane," he said. "I happened to remember an orchard, five
miles from town where I had walked one day in the late fall when the
pears were ripe. A notion came into my head. It was bitter cold but I
walked the five miles and went into the orchard. The ground was frozen
and covered with snow but I brushed the snow aside. I pushed my face
into the grass. In the fall when I had walked there the ground was
covered with ripe pears. A fragrance arose from them. They were covered
with bees that crawled over them, drunk, filled with a kind of ecstacy.
I had remembered the fragrance. That's why I went there and put my face
into the frozen grass. The bees were in an ecstasy of life and I had
missed life. I have always missed life. It always goes away from me. I
always imagined people walking away. In the spring this year I walked
on the railroad track out to the bridge over Willow Creek. Violets grew
in the grass. At that time I hardly noticed them but today I
remembered. The violets were like the people who walk away from me. A
mad desire to run after them had taken possession of me. I felt like a
bird flying through space. A conviction that something had escaped me
and that I must pursue it had taken possession of me."
Melville Stoner stopped talking. His face also had grown white and his
hands also trembled. Rosalind had an almost irresistible desire to put
out her hand and touch his hand. She wanted to shout, crying—"I am
here. I am not dead. I am alive." Instead she stood in silence, staring
at him, as the widow who owned the high flying hens had stared.
Melville Stoner struggled to recover from the ecstasy into which he had
been thrown by his own words. He bowed and smiled. "I hope you are in
the habit of walking on railroad tracks," he said. "I shall in the
future know what to do with my time. When you come to town I shall camp
on the railroad tracks. No doubt, like the violets, you have left your
fragrance out there." Rosalind looked at him. He was laughing at her as
he had laughed when he talked to the widow standing at his gate. She
did not mind. When he had left her she went slowly through the streets.
The phrase that had come into her mind as they walked on the tracks
came back and she said it over and over. "And God spoke to me out of a
burning bush." She kept repeating the phrase until she got back into
the Wescott house.
* * * * *
Rosalind sat on the front porch of the house where her girlhood had
been spent. Her father had not come home for the evening meal. He was a
dealer in coal and lumber and owned a number of unpainted sheds facing
a railroad siding west of town. There was a tiny office with a stove
and a desk in a corner by a window. The desk was piled high with
unanswered letters and with circulars from mining and lumber companies.
Over them had settled a thick layer of coal dust. All day he sat in his
office looking like an animal in a cage, but unlike a caged animal he
was apparently not discontented and did not grow restless. He was the
one coal and lumber dealer in Willow Springs. When people wanted one of
these commodities they had to come to him. There was no other place to
go. He was content. In the morning as soon as he got to his office he
read the Des Moines paper and then if no one came to disturb him he sat
all day, by the stove in winter and by an open window through the long
hot summer days, apparently unaffected by the marching change of
seasons pictured in the fields, without thought, without hope, without
regret that life was becoming an old worn out thing for him.
In the Wescott house Rosalind's mother had already begun the canning of
which she had several times spoken. She was making gooseberry jam.
Rosalind could hear the pots boiling in the kitchen. Her mother walked
heavily. With the coming of age she was beginning to grow fat.
The daughter was weary from much thinking. It had been a day of many
emotions. She took off her hat and laid it on the porch beside her.
Melville Stoner's house next door had windows that were like eyes
staring at her, accusing her. "Well now, you see, you have gone too
fast," the house declared. It sneered at her. "You thought you knew
about people. After all you knew nothing." Rosalind held her head in
her hands. It was true she had misunderstood. The man who lived in the
house was no doubt like other people in Willow Springs. He was not, as
she had smartly supposed, a dull citizen of a dreary town, one who knew
nothing of life. Had he not said words that had startled her, torn her
out of herself?
Rosalind had an experience not uncommon to tired nervous people. Her
mind, weary of thinking, did not stop thinking but went on faster than
ever. A new plane of thought was reached. Her mind was like a flying
machine that leaves the ground and leaps into the air.
It took hold upon an idea expressed or implied in something Melville
Stoner had said. "In every human being there are two voices, each
striving to make itself heard."
A new world of thought had opened itself before her. After all human
beings might be understood. It might be possible to understand her
mother and her mother's life, her father, the man she loved, herself.
There was the voice that said words. Words came forth from lips. They
conformed, fell into a certain mold. For the most part the words had no
life of their own. They had come down out of old times and many of them
were no doubt once strong living words, coming out of the depth of
people, out of the bellies of people. The words had escaped out of a
shut-in place. They had once expressed living truth. Then they had gone
on being said, over and over, by the lips of many people, endlessly,
She thought of men and women she had seen together, that she had heard
talking together as they sat in the street cars or in apartments or
walked in a Chicago park. Her brother, the traveling salesman, and his
wife had talked half wearily through the long evenings she had spent
with them in their apartment. It was with them as with the other
people. A thing happened. The lips said certain words but the eyes of
the people said other words. Sometimes the lips expressed affection
while hatred shone out of the eyes. Sometimes it was the other way
about. What a confusion!
It was clear there was something hidden away within people that could
not get itself expressed except accidentally. One was startled or
alarmed and then the words that fell from the lips became pregnant
words, words that lived.
The vision that had sometimes visited her in her girlhood as she lay in
bed at night came back. Again she saw the people on the marble
stairway, going down and away, into infinity. Her own mind began to
make words that struggled to get themselves expressed through her lips.
She hungered for someone to whom to say the words and half arose to go
to her mother, to where her mother was making gooseberry jam in the
kitchen, and then sat down again. "They were going down into the hall
of the hidden voices," she whispered to herself. The words excited and
intoxicated her as had the words from the lips of Melville Stoner. She
thought of herself as having quite suddenly grown amazingly,
spiritually, even physically. She felt relaxed, young, wonderfully
strong. She imagined herself as walking, as had the young girl she had
seen in the vision, with swinging arms and shoulders, going down a
marble stairway—down into the hidden places in people, into the hall
of the little voices. "I shall understand after this, what shall I not
understand?" she asked herself.
Doubt came and she trembled a little. As she walked with him on the
railroad track Melville Stoner had gone down within herself. Her body
was a house, through the door of which he had walked. He had known
about the night noises in her father's house—her father at the well
by the kitchen door, the slap of the spilled water on the floor. Even
when she was a young girl and had thought herself alone in the bed in
the darkness in the room upstairs in the house before which she now
sat, she had not been alone. The strange bird-like man who lived in the
house next door had been with her, in her room, in her bed. Years later
he had remembered the terrible little noises of the house and had known
how they had terrified her.
There was something terrible in his knowledge too. He had spoken, given
forth his knowledge, but as he did so there was laughter in his eyes,
perhaps a sneer.
In the Wescott house the sounds of housekeeping went on. A man who had
been at work in a distant field, who had already begun his fall
plowing, was unhitching his horses from the plow. He was far away,
beyond the street's end, in a field that swelled a little out of the
plain. Rosalind stared. The man was hitching the horses to a wagon. She
saw him as through the large end of a telescope. He would drive the
horses away to a distant farmhouse and put them into a barn. Then he
would go into a house where there was a woman at work. Perhaps the
woman like her mother would be making gooseberry jam. He would grunt as
her father did when at evening he came home from the little hot office
by the railroad siding. "Hello," he would say, flatly, indifferently,
stupidly. Life was like that.
Rosalind became weary of thinking. The man in the distant field had got
into his wagon and was driving away. In a moment there would be nothing
left of him but a thin cloud of dust that floated in the air. In the
house the gooseberry jam had boiled long enough. Her mother was
preparing to put it into glass jars. The operation produced a new
little side current of sounds. She thought again of Melville Stoner.
For years he had been sitting, listening to sounds. There was a kind of
madness in it.
She had got herself into a half frenzied condition. "I must stop it,"
she told herself. "I am like a stringed instrument on which the strings
have been tightened too much." She put her face into her hands,
And then a thrill ran through her body. There was a reason for Melville
Stoner's being what he had become. There was a locked gateway leading
to the marble stairway that led down and away, into infinity, into the
hall of the little voices and the key to the gateway was love. Warmth
came back into Rosalind's body. "Understanding need not lead to
weariness," she thought. Life might after all be a rich, a triumphant
thing. She would make her visit to Willow Springs count for something
significant in her life. For one thing she would really approach her
mother, she would walk into her mother's life. "It will be my first
trip down the marble stairway," she thought and tears came to her eyes.
In a moment her father would be coming home for the evening meal but
after supper he would go away. The two women would be alone together.
Together they would explore a little into the mystery of life, they
would find sisterhood. The thing she had wanted to talk about with
another understanding woman could be talked about then. There might yet
be a beautiful outcome to her visit to Willow Springs and to her
The story of Rosalind's six years in Chicago is the story of thousands
of unmarried women who work in offices in the city. Necessity had not
driven her to work nor kept her at her task and she did not think of
herself as a worker, one who would always be a worker. For a time after
she came out of the stenographic school she drifted from office to
office, acquiring always more skill, but with no particular interest in
what she was doing. It was a way to put in the long days. Her father,
who in addition to the coal and lumber yards owned three farms, sent
her a hundred dollars a month. The money her work brought was spent for
clothes so that she dressed better than the women she worked with.
Of one thing she was quite sure. She did not want to return to Willow
Springs to live with her father and mother, and after a time she knew
she could not continue living with her brother and his wife. For the
first time she began seeing the city that spread itself out before her
eyes. When she walked at the noon hour along Michigan Boulevard or went
into a restaurant or in the evening went home in the street car she saw
men and women together. It was the same when on Sunday afternoons in
the summer she walked in the park or by the lake. On a street car she
saw a small round-faced woman put her hand into the hand of her male
companion. Before she did it she looked cautiously about. She wanted to
assure herself of something. To the other women in the car, to Rosalind
and the others the act said something. It was as though the woman's
voice had said aloud, "He is mine. Do not draw too close to him."
There was no doubt that Rosalind was awakening out of the Willow
Springs torpor in which she had lived out her young womanhood. The city
had at least done that for her. The city was wide. It flung itself out.
One had but to let his feet go thump, thump upon the pavements to get
into strange streets, see always new faces.
On Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday one did not work. In the
summer it was a time to go to places—to the park, to walk among the
strange colorful crowds in Halsted Street, with a half dozen young
people from the office, to spend a day on the sand dunes at the foot of
Lake Michigan. One got excited and was hungry, hungry, always hungry—
for companionship. That was it. One wanted to possess something—a man
—to take him along on jaunts, be sure of him, yes—own him.
She read books—always written by men or by manlike women. There was an
essential mistake in the viewpoint of life set forth in the books. The
mistake was always being made. In Rosalind's time it grew more
pronounced. Someone had got hold of a key with which the door to the
secret chamber of life could be unlocked. Others took the key and
rushed in. The secret chamber of life was filled with a noisy vulgar
crowd. All the books that dealt with life at all dealt with it through
the lips of the crowd that had newly come into the sacred place. The
writer had hold of the key. It was his time to be heard. "Sex," he
cried. "It is by understanding sex I will untangle the mystery."
It was all very well and sometimes interesting but one grew tired of
She lay abed in her room at her brother's house on a Sunday night in
the summer. During the afternoon she had gone for a walk and on a
street on the Northwest Side had come upon a religious procession. The
Virgin was being carried through the streets. The houses were decorated
and women leaned out at the windows of houses. Old priests dressed in
white gowns waddled along. Strong young men carried the platform on
which the Virgin rested. The procession stopped. Someone started a
chant in a loud clear voice. Other voices took it up. Children ran
about gathering in money. All the time there was a loud hum of ordinary
conversation going on. Women shouted across the street to other women.
Young girls walked on the sidewalks and laughed softly as the young men
in white, clustered about the Virgin, turned to stare at them. On every
street corner merchants sold candies, nuts, cool drinks—
In her bed at night Rosalind put down the book she had been reading.
"The worship of the Virgin is a form of sex expression," she read.
"Well what of it? If it be true what does it matter?"
She got out of bed and took off her nightgown. She was herself a
virgin. What did that matter? She turned herself slowly about, looking
at her strong young woman's body. It was a thing in which sex lived. It
was a thing upon which sex in others might express itself. What did it
There was her brother sleeping with his wife in another room near at
hand. In Willow Springs, Iowa, her father was at just this moment
pumping a pail of water at the well by the kitchen door. In a moment he
would carry it into the kitchen to set it on the box by the kitchen
Rosalind's cheeks were flushed. She made an odd and lovely figure
standing nude before the glass in her room there in Chicago. She was so
much alive and yet not alive. Her eyes shone with excitement. She
continued to turn slowly round and round twisting her head to look at
her naked back. "Perhaps I am learning to think," she decided. There
was some sort of essential mistake in people's conception of life.
There was something she knew and it was of as much importance as the
things the wise men knew and put into books. She also had found out
something about life. Her body was still the body of what was called a
virgin. What of it? "If the sex impulse within it had been gratified in
what way would my problem be solved? I am lonely now. It is evident
that after that had happened I would still be lonely."
Rosalind's life in Chicago had been like a stream that apparently turns
back toward its source. It ran forward, then stopped, turned, twisted.
At just the time when her awakening became a half realized thing she
went to work at a new place, a piano factory on the Northwest Side
facing a branch of the Chicago River. She became secretary to a man who
was treasurer of the company. He was a slender, rather small man of
thirty-eight with thin white restless hands and with gray eyes that
were clouded and troubled. For the first time she became really
interested in the work that ate up her days. Her employer was charged
with the responsibility of passing upon the credit of the firm's
customers and was unfitted for the task. He was not shrewd and within a
short time had made two costly mistakes by which the company had lost
money. "I have too much to do. My time is too much taken up with
details. I need help here," he had explained, evidently irritated, and
Rosalind had been engaged to relieve him of details.
Her new employer, named Walter Sayers, was the only son of a man who in
his time had been well known in Chicago's social and club life.
Everyone had thought him wealthy and he had tried to live up to
people's estimate of his fortune. His son Walter had wanted to be a
singer and had expected to inherit a comfortable fortune. At thirty he
had married and three years later when his father died he was already
the father of two children.
And then suddenly he had found himself quite penniless. He could sing
but his voice was not large. It wasn't an instrument with which one
could make money in any dignified way. Fortunately his wife had some
money of her own. It was her money, invested in the piano manufacturing
business, that had secured him the position as treasurer of the
company. With his wife he withdrew from social life and they went to
live in a comfortable house in a suburb.
Walter Sayers gave up music, apparently surrendered even his interest
in it. Many men and women from his suburb went to hear the orchestra on
Friday afternoons but he did not go. "What's the use of torturing
myself and thinking of a life I cannot lead?" he said to himself. To
his wife he pretended a growing interest in his work at the factory.
"It's really fascinating. It's a game, like moving men back and forth
on a chess board. I shall grow to love it," he said.
He had tried to build up interest in his work but had not been
successful. Certain things would not get into his consciousness.
Although he tried hard he could not make the fact that profit or loss
to the company depended upon his judgment seem important to himself. It
was a matter of money lost or gained and money meant nothing to him.
"It's father's fault," he thought. "While he lived money never meant
anything to me. I was brought up wrong. I am ill prepared for the
battle of life." He became too timid and lost business that should have
come to the company quite naturally. Then he became too bold in the
extension of credit and other losses followed.
His wife was quite happy and satisfied with her life. There were four
or five acres of land about the suburban house and she became absorbed
in the work of raising flowers and vegetables. For the sake of the
children she kept a cow. With a young negro gardener she puttered about
all day, digging in the earth, spreading manure about the roots of
bushes and shrubs, planting and transplanting. In the evening when he
had come home from his office in his car she took him by the arm and
led him eagerly about. The two children trotted at their heels. She
talked glowingly. They stood at a low spot at the foot of the garden
and she spoke of the necessity of putting in tile. The prospect seemed
to excite her. "It will be the best land on the place when it's
drained," she said. She stooped and with a trowel turned over the soft
black soil. An odor arose. "See! Just see how rich and black it is!"
she exclaimed eagerly. "It's a little sour now because water has stood
on it." She seemed to be apologizing as for a wayward child. "When it's
drained I shall use lime to sweeten it," she added. She was like a
mother leaning over the cradle of a sleeping babe. Her enthusiasm
When Rosalind came to take the position in his office the slow fires of
hatred that had been burning beneath the surface of Walter Savers' life
had already eaten away much of his vigor and energy. His body sagged in
the office chair and there were heavy sagging lines at the corners of
his mouth. Outwardly he remained always kindly and cheerful but back of
the clouded, troubled eyes the fires of hatred burned slowly,
persistently. It was as though he was trying to awaken from a troubled
dream that gripped him, a dream that frightened a little, that was
unending. He had contracted little physical habits. A sharp paper
cutter lay on his desk. As he read a letter from one of the firm's
customers he took it up and jabbed little holes in the leather cover of
his desk. When he had several letters to sign he took up his pen and
jabbed it almost viciously into the inkwell. Then before signing he
jabbed it in again. Sometimes he did the thing a dozen times in
Sometimes the things that went on beneath the surface of Walter Sayers
frightened him. In order to do what he called "putting in his Saturday
afternoons and Sundays" he had taken up photography. The camera took
him away from his own house and the sight of the garden where his wife
and the negro were busy digging, and into the fields and into stretches
of woodland at the edge of the suburban village. Also it took him away
from his wife's talk, from her eternal planning for the garden's
future. Here by the house tulip bulbs were to be put in in the fall.
Later there would be a hedge of lilac bushes shutting off the house
from the road. The men who lived in the other houses along the suburban
street spent their Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings tinkering
with motor cars. On Sunday afternoons they took their families driving,
sitting up very straight and silent at the driving wheel. They consumed
the afternoon in a swift dash over country roads. The car ate up the
hours. Monday morning and the work in the city was there, at the end of
the road. They ran madly toward it.
For a time the use of the camera made Walter Sayers almost happy. The
study of light, playing on the trunk of a tree or over the grass in a
field appealed to some instinct within. It was an uncertain delicate
business. He fixed himself a dark room upstairs in the house and spent
his evenings there. One dipped the films into the developing liquid,
held them to the light and then dipped them again. The little nerves
that controlled the eyes were aroused. One felt oneself being enriched,
One Sunday afternoon he went to walk in a strip of woodland and came
out upon the slope of a low hill. He had read somewhere that the low
hill country southwest of Chicago, in which his suburb lay, had once
been the shore of Lake Michigan. The low hills sprang out of the flat
land and were covered with forests. Beyond them the flat lands began
again. The prairies went on indefinitely, into infinity. People's lives
went on so. Life was too long. It was to be spent in the endless doing
over and over of an unsatisfactory task. He sat on the slope and looked
out across the land.
He thought of his wife. She was back there, in the suburb in the hills,
in her garden making things grow. It was a noble sort of thing to be
doing. One shouldn't be irritated.
Well he had married her expecting to have money of his own. Then he
would have worked at something else. Money would not have been involved
in the matter and success would not have been a thing one must seek. He
had expected his own life would be motivated. No matter how much or how
hard he worked he would not have been a great singer. What did that
matter? There was a way to live—a way of life in which such things did
not matter. The delicate shades of things might be sought after. Before
his eyes, there on the grass covered flat lands, the afternoon light
was playing. It was like a breath, a vapor of color blown suddenly from
between red lips out over the grey dead burned grass. Song might be
like that. The beauty might come out of himself, out of his own body.
Again he thought of his wife and the sleeping light in his eyes flared
up, it became a flame. He felt himself being mean, unfair. It didn't
matter. Where did the truth lie? Was his wife, digging in her garden,
having always a succession of small triumphs, marching forward with the
seasons—well, was she becoming a little old, lean and sharp, a little
It seemed so to him. There was something smug in the way in which she
managed to fling green growing flowering things over the black land. It
was obvious the thing could be done and that there was satisfaction in
doing it. It was a little like running a business and making money by
it. There was a deep seated vulgarity involved in the whole matter. His
wife put her hands into the black ground. They felt about, caressed the
roots of the growing things. She laid hold of the slender trunk of a
young tree in a certain way—as though she possessed it.
One could not deny that the destruction of beautiful things was
involved. Weeds grew in the garden, delicate shapely things. She
plucked them out without thought. He had seen her do it.
As for himself, he also had been pulled out of something. Had he not
surrendered to the fact of a wife and growing children? Did he not
spend his days doing work he detested? The anger within him burned
bright. The fire came into his conscious self. Why should a weed that
is to be destroyed pretend to a vegetable existence? As for puttering
about with a camera—was it not a form of cheating? He did not want to
be a photographer. He had once wanted to be a singer.
He arose and walked along the hillside, still watching the shadows play
over the plains below. At night—in bed with his wife—well, was she
not sometimes with him as she was in the garden? Something was plucked
out of him and another thing grew in its place—something she wanted to
have grow. Their love making was like his puttering with a camera—to
make the weekends pass. She came at him a little too determinedly—
sure. She was plucking delicate weeds in order that things she had
determined upon—"vegetables," he exclaimed in disgust—in order that
vegetables might grow. Love was a fragrance, the shading of a tone over
the lips, out of the throat. It was like the afternoon light on the
burned grass. Keeping a garden and making flowers grow had nothing to
do with it.
Walter Sayers' fingers twitched. The camera hung by a strap over his
shoulder. He took hold of the strap and walked to a tree. He swung the
box above his head and brought it down with a thump against the tree
trunk. The sharp breaking sound—the delicate parts of the machine
being broken—was sweet to his ears. It was as though a song had come
suddenly from between his lips. Again he swung the box and again
brought it down against the tree trunk.
Rosalind at work in Walter Sayers' office was from the beginning
something different, apart from the young woman from Iowa who had been
drifting from office to office, moving from rooming house to rooming
house on Chicago's North Side, striving feebly to find out something
about life by reading books, going to the theatre and walking alone in
the streets. In the new place her life at once began to have point and
purpose, but at the same time the perplexity that was later to send her
running to Willow Springs and to the presence of her mother began to
grow in her.
Walter Sayers' office was a rather large room on the third floor of the
factory whose walls went straight up from the river's edge. In the
morning Rosalind arrived at eight and went into the office and closed
the door. In a large room across a narrow hallway and shut off from her
retreat by two thick, clouded-glass partitions was the company's
general office. It contained the desks of salesmen, several clerks, a
bookkeeper and two stenographers. Rosalind avoided becoming acquainted
with these people. She was in a mood to be alone, to spend as many
hours as possible alone with her own thoughts.
She got to the office at eight and her employer did not arrive until
nine-thirty or ten. For an hour or two in the morning and in the late
afternoon she had the place to herself. Immediately she shut the door
into the hallway and was alone she felt at home. Even in her father's
house it had never been so. She took off her wraps and walked about the
room touching things, putting things to rights. During the night a
negro woman had scrubbed the floor and wiped the dust off her
employer's desk but she got a cloth and wiped the desk again. Then she
opened the letters that had come in and after reading arranged them in
little piles. She wanted to spend a part of her wages for flowers and
imagined clusters of flowers arranged in small hanging baskets along
the grey walls. "I'll do that later, perhaps," she thought.
The walls of the room enclosed her. "What makes me so happy here?" she
asked herself. As for her employer—she felt she scarcely knew him. He
was a shy man, rather small—
She went to a window and stood looking out. Near the factory a bridge
crossed the river and over it went a stream of heavily loaded wagons
and motor trucks. The sky was grey with smoke. In the afternoon, after
her employer had gone for the day, she would stand again by the window.
As she stood thus she faced westward and in the afternoon saw the sun
fall down the sky. It was glorious to be there alone during the late
hours of the afternoon. What a tremendous thing this city in which she
had come to live! For some reason after she went to work for Walter
Sayers the city seemed, like the room in which she worked, to have
accepted her, taken her into itself. In the late afternoon the rays of
the departing sun fell across great banks of clouds. The whole city
seemed to reach upwards. It left the ground and ascended into the air.
There was an illusion produced. Stark grim factory chimneys, that all
day were stiff cold formal things sticking up into the air and belching
forth black smoke, were now slender upreaching pencils of light and
wavering color. The tall chimneys detached themselves from the
buildings and sprang into the air. The factory in which Rosalind stood
had such a chimney. It also was leaping upward. She felt herself being
lifted, an odd floating sensation was achieved. With what a stately
tread the day went away, over the city! The city, like the factory
chimneys yearned after it, hungered for it.
In the morning gulls came in from Lake Michigan to feed on the sewage
floating in the river below. The river was the color of chrysoprase.
The gulls floated above it as sometimes in the evening the whole city
seemed to float before her eyes. They were graceful, living, free
things. They were triumphant. The getting of food, even the eating of
sewage was done thus gracefully, beautifully. The gulls turned and
twisted in the air. They wheeled and floated and then fell downward to
the river in a long curve, just touching, caressing the surface of the
water and then rising again.
Rosalind raised herself on her toes. At her back beyond the two glass
partitions were other men and women, but there, in that room, she was
alone. She belonged there. What an odd feeling she had. She also
belonged to her employer, Walter Sayers. She scarcely knew the man and
yet she belonged to him. She threw her arms above her head, trying
awkwardly to imitate some movement of the birds.
Her awkwardness shamed her a little and she turned and walked about the
room. "I'm twenty-five years old and it's a little late to begin trying
to be a bird, to be graceful," she thought. She resented the slow
stupid heavy movements of her father and mother, the movements she had
imitated as a child. "Why was I not taught to be graceful and beautiful
in mind and body, why in the place I came from did no one think it
worth while to try to be graceful and beautiful?" she whispered to
How conscious of her own body Rosalind was becoming! She walked across
the room, trying to go lightly and gracefully. In the office beyond the
glass partitions someone spoke suddenly and she was startled. She
laughed foolishly. For a long time after she went to work in the office
of Walter Sayers she thought the desire in herself to be physically
more graceful and beautiful and to rise also out of the mental
stupidity and sloth of her young womanhood was due to the fact that the
factory windows faced the river and the western sky, and that in the
morning she saw the gulls feeding and in the afternoon the sun going
down through the smoke clouds in a riot of colors.
On the August evening as Rosalind sat on the porch before her father's
house in Willow Springs, Walter Sayers came home from the factory by
the river and to his wife's suburban garden. When the family had dined
he came out to walk in the paths with the two children, boys, but they
soon tired of his silence and went to join their mother. The young
negro came along a path by the kitchen door and joined the party.
Walter went to sit on a garden seat that was concealed behind bushes.
He lighted a cigarette but did not smoke. The smoke curled quietly up
through his fingers as it burned itself out.
Closing his eyes Walter sat perfectly still and tried not to think. The
soft evening shadows began presently to close down and around him. For
a long time he sat thus motionless, like a carved figure placed on the
garden bench. He rested. He lived and did not live. The intense body,
usually so active and alert, had become a passive thing. It was thrown
aside, on to the bench, under the bush, to sit there, waiting to be
This hanging suspended between consciousness and unconsciousness was a
thing that did not happen often. There was something to be settled
between himself and a woman and the woman had gone away. His whole plan
of life had been disturbed. Now he wanted to rest. The details of his
life were forgotten. As for the woman he did not think of her, did not
want to think of her. It was ridiculous that he needed her so much. He
wondered if he had ever felt that way about Cora, his wife. Perhaps he
had. Now she was near him, but a few yards away. It was almost dark but
she with the negro remained at work, digging in the ground—somewhere
near—caressing the soil, making things grow.
When his mind was undisturbed by thoughts and lay like a lake in the
hills on a quiet summer evening little thoughts did come. "I want you
as a lover—far away. Keep yourself far away." The words trailed
through his mind as the smoke from the cigarette trailed slowly upwards
through his fingers. Did the words refer to Rosalind Wescott? She had
been gone from him three days. Did he hope she would never come back or
did the words refer to his wife?
His wife's voice spoke sharply. One of the children in playing about,
had stepped on a plant. "If you are not careful I shall have to make
you stay out of the garden altogether." She raised her voice and
called, "Marian!" A maid came from the house and took the children
away. They went along the path toward the house protesting. Then they
ran back to kiss their mother. There was a struggle and then
acceptance. The kiss was acceptance of their fate—to obey. "O,
Walter," the mother's voice called, but the man on the bench did not
answer. Tree toads began to cry. "The kiss is acceptance. Any physical
contact with another is acceptance," he reflected.
The little voices within Walter Sayers were talking away at a great
rate. Suddenly he wanted to sing. He had been told that his voice was
small, not of much account, that he would never be a singer. It was
quite true no doubt but here, in the garden on the quiet summer night,
was a place and a time for a small voice. It would be like the voice
within himself that whispered sometimes when he was quiet, relaxed. One
evening when he had been with the woman, Rosalind, when he had taken
her into the country in his car, he had suddenly felt as he did now.
They sat together in the car that he had run into a field. For a long
time they had remained silent. Some cattle came and stood nearby, their
figures soft in the night. Suddenly he had felt like a new man in a new
world and had begun to sing. He sang one song over and over, then sat
in silence for a time and after that drove out of the field and through
a gate into the road. He took the woman back to her place in the city.
In the quiet of the garden on the summer evening he opened his lips to
sing the same song. He would sing with the tree toad hidden away in the
fork of a tree somewhere. He would lift his voice up from the earth, up
into the branches, of trees, away from the ground in which people were
digging, his wife and the young negro.
The song did not come. His wife began speaking and the sound of her
voice took away the desire to sing. Why had she not, like the other
woman, remained silent?
He began playing a game. Sometimes, when he was alone the thing
happened to him that had now happened. His body became like a tree or a
plant. Life ran through it unobstructed. He had dreamed of being a
singer but at such a moment he wanted also to be a dancer. That would
have been sweetest of all things—to sway like the tops of young trees
when a wind blew, to give himself as grey weeds in a sunburned field
gave themself to the influence of passing shadows, changing color
constantly, becoming every moment something new, to live in life and in
death too, always to live, to be unafraid of life, to let it flow
through his body, to let the blood flow through his body, not to
struggle, to offer no resistance, to dance.
Walter Sayers' children had gone into the house with the nurse girl
Marian. It had become too dark for his wife to dig in the garden. It
was August and the fruitful time of the year for farms and gardens had
come, but his wife had forgotten fruitfulness. She was making plans for
another year. She came along the garden path followed by the negro. "We
will set out strawberry plants there," she was saying. The soft voice
of the young negro murmured his assent. It was evident the young man
lived in her conception of the garden. His mind sought out her desire
and gave itself.
The children Walter Sayers had brought into life through the body of
his wife Cora had gone into the house and to bed. They bound him to
life, to his wife, to the garden where he sat, to the office by the
riverside in the city.
They were not his children. Suddenly he knew that quite clearly. His
own children were quite different things. "Men have children just as
women do. The children come out of their bodies. They play about," he
thought. It seemed to him that children, born of his fancy, were at
that very moment playing about the bench where he sat. Living things
that dwelt within him and that had at the same time the power to depart
out of him were now running along paths, swinging from the branches of
trees, dancing in the soft light.
His mind sought out the figure of Rosalind Wescott. She had gone away,
to her own people in Iowa. There had been a note at the office saying
she might be gone for several days. Between himself and Rosalind the
conventional relationship of employer and employee had long since been
swept quite away. It needed something in a man he did not possess to
maintain that relationship with either men or women.
At the moment he wanted to forget Rosalind. In her there was a struggle
going on. The two people had wanted to be lovers and he had fought
against that. They had talked about it. "Well," he said, "it will not
work out. We will bring unnecessary unhappiness upon ourselves."
He had been honest enough in fighting off the intensification of their
relationship. "If she were here now, in this garden with me, it
wouldn't matter. We could be lovers and then forget about being
lovers," he told himself.
His wife came along the path and stopped nearby. She continued talking
in a low voice, making plans for another year of gardening. The negro
stood near her, his figure making a dark wavering mass against the
foliage of a low growing bush. His wife wore a white dress. He could
see her figure quite plainly. In the uncertain light it looked girlish
and young. She put her hand up and took hold of the body of a young
tree. The hand became detached from her body. The pressure of her
leaning body made the young tree sway a little. The white hand moved
slowly back and forth in space.
Rosalind Wescott had gone home to tell her mother of her love. In her
note she had said nothing of that but Walter Sayers knew that was the
object of her visit to the Iowa town. It was on odd sort of thing to
try to do—to tell people of love, to try to explain it to others.
The night was a thing apart from Walter Sayers, the male being sitting
in silence in the garden. Only the children of his fancy understood it.
The night was a living thing. It advanced upon him, enfolded him.
"Night is the sweet little brother of Death," he thought.
His wife stood very near. Her voice was soft and low and the voice of
the negro when he answered her comments on the future of the garden was
soft and low. There was music in the negro's voice, perhaps a dance in
it. Walter remembered about him.
The young negro had been in trouble before he came to the Sayers. He
had been an ambitious young black and had listened to the voices of
people, to the voices that filled the air of America, rang through the
houses of America. He had wanted to get on in life and had tried to
educate himself. The black had wanted to be a lawyer.
How far away he had got from his own people, from the blacks of the
African forests! He had wanted to be a lawyer in a city in America.
What a notion!
Well he had got into trouble. He had managed to get through college and
had opened a law office. Then one evening he went out to walk and
chance led him into a street where a woman, a white woman, had been
murdered an hour before. The body of the woman was found and then he
was found walking in the street. Mrs. Sayers' brother, a lawyer, had
saved him from being punished as a murderer and after the trial, and
the young negro's acquittal, had induced his sister to take him as
gardener. His chances as a professional man in the city were no good.
"He has had a terrible experience and has just escaped by a fluke" the
brother had said. Cora Sayers had taken the young man. She had bound
him to herself, to her garden.
It was evident the two people were bound together. One cannot bind
another without being bound. His wife had no more to say to the negro
who went away along the path that led to the kitchen door. He had a
room in a little house at the foot of the garden. In the room he had
books and a piano. Sometimes in the evening he sang. He was going now
to his place. By educating himself he had cut himself off from his own
Cora Sayers went into the house and Walter sat alone. After a time the
young negro came silently down the path. He stopped by the tree where a
moment before the white woman had stood talking to him. He put his hand
on the trunk of the young tree where her hand had been and then went
softly away. His feet made no sound on the garden path.
An hour passed. In his little house at the foot of the garden the negro
began to sing softly. He did that sometimes in the middle of the night.
What a life he had led too! He had come away from his black people,
from the warm brown girls with the golden colors playing through the
blue black of their skins and had worked his way through a Northern
college, had accepted the patronage of impertinent people who wanted to
uplift the black race, had listened to them, had bound himself to them,
had tried to follow the way of life they had suggested.
Now he was in the little house at the foot of the Sayers' garden.
Walter remembered little things his wife had told him about the man.
The experience in the court room had frightened him horribly and he did
not want to go off the Sayers' place. Education, books had done
something to him. He could not go back to his own people. In Chicago,
for the most part, the blacks lived crowded into a few streets on the
South Side. "I want to be a slave," he had said to Cora Sayers. "You
may pay me money if it makes you feel better but I shall have no use
for it. I want to be your slave. I would be happy if I knew I would
never have to go off your place."
The black sang a low voiced song. It ran like a little wind on the
surface of a pond. It had no words. He had remembered the song from his
father who had got it from his father. In the South, in Alabama and
Mississippi the blacks sang it when they rolled cotton bales onto the
steamers in the rivers. They had got it from other rollers of cotton
bales long since dead. Long before there were any cotton bales to roll
black men in boats on rivers in Africa had sung it. Young blacks in
boats floated down rivers and came to a town they intended to attack at
dawn. There was bravado in singing the song then. It was addressed to
the women in the town to be attacked and contained both a caress and a
threat. "In the morning your husbands and brothers and sweethearts we
shall kill. Then we shall come into your town to you. We shall hold you
close. We shall make you forget. With our hot love and our strength we
shall make you forget." That was the old significance of the song.
Walter Sayers remembered many things. On other nights when the negro
sang and when he lay in his room upstairs in the house, his wife came
to him. There were two beds in their room. She sat upright in her bed.
"Do you hear, Walter?" she asked. She came to sit on his bed, sometimes
she crept into his arms. In the African villages long ago when the song
floated up from the river men arose and prepared for battle. The song
was a defiance, a taunt. That was all gone now. The young negro's house
was at the foot of the garden and Walter with his wife lay upstairs in
the larger house situated on high ground. It was a sad song, filled
with race sadness. There was something in the ground that wanted to
grow, buried deep in the ground. Cora Sayers understood that. It
touched something instinctive in her. Her hand went out and touched,
caressed her husband's face, his body. The song made her want to hold
him tight, possess him.
The night was advancing and it grew a little cold in the garden. The
negro stopped singing. Walter Sayers arose and went along the path
toward the house but did not enter. Instead he went through a gate into
the road and along the suburban streets until he got into the open
country. There was no moon but the stars shone brightly. For a time he
hurried along looking back as though afraid of being followed, but when
he got out into a broad flat meadow he went more slowly. For an hour he
walked and then stopped and sat on a tuft of dry grass. For some reason
he knew he could not return to his house in the suburb that night. In
the morning he would go to the office and wait there until Rosalind
came. Then? He did not know what he would do then. "I shall have to
make up some story. In the morning I shall have to telephone Cora and
make up some silly story," he thought. It was an absurd thing that he,
a grown man, could not spend a night abroad, in the fields without the
necessity of explanations. The thought irritated him and he arose and
walked again. Under the stars in the soft night and on the wide flat
plains the irritation soon went away and he began to sing softly, but
the song he sang was not the one he had repeated over and over on that
other night when he sat with Rosalind in the car and the cattle came.
It was the song the negro sang, the river song of the young black
warriors that slavery had softened and colored with sadness. On the
lips of Walter Sayers the song had lost much of its sadness. He walked
almost gaily along and in the song that flowed from his lips there was
a taunt, a kind of challenge.
At the end of the short street on which the Wescotts lived in Willow
Springs there was a cornfield. When Rosalind was a child it was a
meadow and beyond was an orchard.
On summer afternoons the child often went there to sit alone on the
banks of a tiny stream that wandered away eastward toward Willow Creek,
draining the farmer's fields on the way. The creek had made a slight
depression in the level contour of the land and she sat with her back
against an old apple tree and with her bare feet almost touching the
water. Her mother did not permit her to run bare footed through the
streets but when she got into the orchard she took her shoes off. It
gave her a delightful naked feeling.
Overhead and through the branches the child could see the great sky.
Masses of white clouds broke into fragments and then the fragments came
together again. The sun ran in behind one of the cloud masses and grey
shadows slid silently over the face of distant fields. The world of her
child life, the Wescott household, Melville Stoner sitting in his
house, the cries of other children who lived in her street, all the
life she knew went far away. To be there in that silent place was like
lying awake in bed at night only in some way sweeter and better. There
were no dull household sounds and the air she breathed was sweeter,
cleaner. The child played a little game. All the apple trees in the
orchard were old and gnarled and she had given all the trees names.
There was one fancy that frightened her a little but was delicious too.
She fancied that at night when she had gone to bed and was asleep and
when all the town of Willow Springs had gone to sleep the trees came
out of the ground and walked about. The grasses beneath the trees, the
bushes that grew beside the fence—all came out of the ground and ran
madly here and there. They danced wildly. The old trees, like stately
old men, put their heads together and talked. As they talked their
bodies swayed slightly—back and forth, back and forth. The bushes and
flowering weeds ran in great circles among the little grasses. The
grasses hopped straight up and down.
Sometimes when she sat with her back against the tree on warm bright
afternoons the child Rosalind had played the game of dancing-life until
she grew afraid and had to give it up. Nearby in the fields men were
cultivating corn. The breasts of the horses and their wide strong
shoulders pushed the young corn aside and made a low rustling sound.
Now and then a man's voice was raised in a shout. "Hi, there you Joe!
Get in there Frank!" The widow of the hens owned a little woolly dog
that occasionally broke into a spasm of barking, apparently without
cause, senseless, eager, barking. Rosalind shut all the sounds out. She
closed her eyes and struggled, trying to get into the place beyond
human sounds. After a time her desire was accomplished. There was a low
sweet sound like the murmuring of voices far away. Now the thing was
happening. With a kind of tearing sound the trees came up to stand on
top of the ground. They moved with stately tread toward each other. Now
the mad bushes and the flowering weeds came running, dancing madly, now
the joyful grasses hopped. Rosalind could not stay long in her world of
fancy. It was too mad, too joyful. She opened her eyes and jumped to
her feet. Everything was all right. The trees stood solidly rooted in
the ground, the weeds and bushes had gone back to their places by the
fence, the grasses lay asleep on the ground. She felt that her father
and mother, her brother, everyone she knew would not approve of her
being there among them. The world of dancing life was a lovely but a
wicked world. She knew. Sometimes she was a little mad herself and then
she was whipped or scolded. The mad world of her fancy had to be put
away. It frightened her a little. Once after the thing appeared she
cried, went down to the fence crying. A man who was cultivating corn
came along and stopped his horses. "What's the matter?" he asked
sharply. She couldn't tell him so she told a lie. "A bee stung me," she
said. The man laughed. "It'll get well. Better put on your shoes," he
The time of the marching trees and the dancing grasses was in
Rosalind's childhood. Later when she had graduated from the Willow
Springs High School and had the three years of waiting about the
Wescott house before she went to the city she had other experiences in
the orchard. Then she had been reading novels and had talked with other
young women. She knew many things that after all she did not know. In
the attic of her mother's house there was a cradle in which she and her
brother had slept when they were babies. One day she went up there and
found it. Bedding for the cradle was packed away in a trunk and she
took it out. She arranged the cradle for the reception of a child. Then
after she did it she was ashamed. Her mother might come up the attic
stairs and see it. She put the bedding quickly back into the trunk and
went down stairs, her cheeks burning with shame.
What a confusion! One day she went to the house of a schoolgirl friend
who was about to be married. Several other girls came and they were all
taken into a bedroom where the bride's trousseau was laid out on a bed.
What soft lovely things! All the girls went forward and stood over
them, Rosalind among them. Some of the girls were shy, others bold.
There was one, a thin girl who had no breasts. Her body was flat like a
door and she had a thin sharp voice and a thin sharp face. She began to
cry out strangely. "How sweet, how sweet, how sweet," she cried over
and over. The voice was not like a human voice. It was like something
being hurt, an animal in the forest, far away somewhere by itself,
being hurt. Then the girl dropped to her knees beside the bed and began
to weep bitterly. She declared she could not bear the thought of her
schoolgirl friend being married. "Don't do it! O, Mary don't do it!"
she pleaded. The other girls laughed but Rosalind couldn't stand it.
She hurried out of the house.
That was one thing that had happened to Rosalind and there were other
things. Once she saw a young man on the street. He clerked in a store
and Rosalind did not know him. However her fancy played with the
thought that she had married him. Her own thoughts made her ashamed.
Everything shamed her. When she went into the orchard on summer
afternoons she sat with her back against the apple tree and took off
her shoes and stockings just as she had when she was a child, but the
world of her childhood fancy was gone, nothing could bring it back.
Rosalind's body was soft but all her flesh was firm and strong. She
moved away from the tree and lay on the ground. She pressed her body
down into the grass, into the firm hard ground. It seemed to her that
her mind, her fancy, all the life within her, except just her physical
life, went away. The earth pressed upwards against her body. Her body
was pressed against the earth. There was darkness. She was imprisoned.
She pressed against the walls of her prison. Everything was dark and
there was in all the earth silence. Her fingers clutched a handful of
the grasses, played in the grasses.
Then she grew very still but did not sleep. There was something that
had nothing to do with the ground beneath her or the trees or the
clouds in the sky, that seemed to want to come to her, come into her, a
kind of white wonder of life.
The thing couldn't happen. She opened her eyes and there was the sky
overhead and the trees standing silently about. She went again to sit
with her back against one of the trees. She thought with dread of the
evening coming on and the necessity of going out of the orchard and to
the Wescott house. She was weary. It was the weariness that made her
appear to others a rather dull stupid young woman. Where was the wonder
of life? It was not within herself, not in the ground. It must be in
the sky overhead. Presently it would be night and the stars would come
out. Perhaps the wonder did not really exist in life. It had something
to do with God. She wanted to ascend upwards, to go at once up into
God's house, to be there among the light strong men and women who had
died and left dullness and heaviness behind them on the earth. Thinking
of them took some of her weariness away and sometimes she went out of
the orchard in the late afternoon walking almost lightly. Something
like grace seemed to have come into her tall strong body.
* * * * *
Rosalind had gone away from the Wescott house and from Willow Springs,
Iowa, feeling that life was essentially ugly. In a way she hated life
and people. In Chicago sometimes it was unbelievable how ugly the world
had become. She tried to shake off the feeling but it clung to her. She
walked through the crowded streets and the buildings were ugly. A sea
of faces floated up to her. They were the faces of dead people. The
dull death that was in them was in her also. They too could not break
through the walls of themselves to the white wonder of life. After all
perhaps there was no such thing as the white wonder of life. It might
be just a thing of the mind. There was something essentially dirty
about life. The dirt was on her and in her. Once as she walked at
evening over the Rush Street bridge to her room on the North Side she
looked up suddenly and saw the chrysoprase river running inland from
the lake. Near at hand stood a soap factory. The men of the city had
turned the river about, made it flow inland from the lake. Someone had
erected a great soap factory there near the river's entrance to the
city, to the land of men. Rosalind stopped and stood looking along the
river toward the lake. Men and women, wagons, automobiles rushed past
her. They were dirty. She was dirty. "The water of an entire sea and
millions of cakes of soap will not wash me clean," she thought. The
dirtiness of life seemed a part of her very being and an almost
overwhelming desire to climb upon the railing of the bridge and leap
down into the chrysoprase river swept over her. Her body trembled
violently and putting down her head and staring at the flooring of the
bridge she hurried away.
* * * * *
And now Rosalind, a grown woman, was in the Wescott house at the supper
table with her father and mother. None of the three people ate. They
fussed about with the food Ma Wescott had prepared. Rosalind looked at
her mother and thought of what Melville Stoner had said.
"If I wanted to write I'd do something. I'd tell what everyone thought.
It would startle people, frighten them a little, eh? I would tell what
you have been thinking this afternoon while you walked here on this
railroad track with me. I would tell what your mother has been thinking
at the same time and what she would like to say to you."
What had Rosalind's mother been thinking all through the three days
since her daughter had so unexpectedly come home from Chicago? What did
mothers think in regard to the lives led by their daughters? Had
mothers something of importance to say to daughters and if they did
when did the time come when they were ready to say it?
She looked at her mother sharply. The older woman's face was heavy and
sagging. She had grey eyes like Rosalind's but they were dull like the
eyes of a fish lying on a slab of ice in the window of a city meat
market. The daughter was a little frightened by what she saw in her
mother's face and something caught in her throat. There was an
embarrassing moment. A strange sort of tenseness came into the air of
the room and all three people suddenly got up from the table.
Rosalind went to help her mother with the dishes and her father sat in
a chair by a window and read a paper. The daughter avoided looking
again into her mother's face. "I must gather myself together if I am to
do what I want to do," she thought. It was strange—in fancy she saw
the lean bird-like face of Melville Stoner and the eager tired face of
Walter Sayers floating above the head of her mother who leaned over the
kitchen sink, washing the dishes. Both of the men's faces sneered at
her. "You think you can but you can't. You are a young fool," the men's
lips seemed to be saying.
Rosalind's father wondered how long his daughter's visit was to last.
After the evening meal he wanted to clear out of the house, go up town,
and he had a guilty feeling that in doing so he was being discourteous
to his daughter. While the two women washed the dishes he put on his
hat and going into the back yard began chopping wood. Rosalind went to
sit on the front porch. The dishes were all washed and dried but for a
half hour her mother would putter about in the kitchen. She always did
that. She would arrange and rearrange, pick up dishes and put them down
again. She clung to the kitchen. It was as though she dreaded the hours
that must pass before she could go upstairs and to bed and asleep, to
fall into the oblivion of sleep.
When Henry Wescott came around the corner of the house and confronted
his daughter he was a little startled. He did not know what was the
matter but he felt uncomfortable. For a moment he stopped and looked at
her. Life radiated from her figure. A fire burned in her eyes, in her
grey intense eyes. Her hair was yellow like cornsilk. She was, at the
moment, a complete, a lovely daughter of the cornlands, a being to be
loved passionately, completely by some son of the cornlands—had there
been in the land a son as alive as this daughter it had thrown aside.
The father had hoped to escape from the house unnoticed. "I'm going up
town a little while," he said hesitatingly. Still he lingered a moment.
Some old sleeping thing awoke in him, was awakened in him by the
startling beauty of his daughter. A little fire flared up among the
charred rafters of the old house that was his body. "You look pretty,
girly," he said sheepishly and then turned his back to her and went
along the path to the gate and the street.
Rosalind followed her father to the gate and stood looking as he went
slowly along the short street and around a corner. The mood induced in
her by her talk with Melville Stoner had returned. Was it possible that
her father also felt as Melville Stoner sometimes did? Did loneliness
drive him to the door of insanity and did he also run through the night
seeking some lost, some hidden and half forgotten loveliness?
When her father had disappeared around the corner she went through the
gate and into the street. "I'll go sit by the tree in the orchard until
mother has finished puttering about the kitchen," she thought.
Henry Wescott went along the streets until he came to the square about
the court house and then went into Emanuel Wilson's Hardware Store. Two
or three other men presently joined him there. Every evening he sat
among these men of his town saying nothing. It was an escape from his
own house and his wife. The other men came for the same reason. A faint
perverted kind of male fellowship was achieved. One of the men of the
party, a little old man who followed the housepainters trade, was
unmarried and lived with his mother. He was himself nearing the age of
sixty but his mother was still alive. It was a thing to be wondered
about. When in the evening the house painter was a trifle late at the
rendezvous a mild flurry of speculation arose, floated in the air for a
moment and then settled like dust in an empty house. Did the old house
painter do the housework in his own house, did he wash the dishes, cook
the food, sweep and make the beds or did his feeble old mother do these
things? Emanuel Wilson told a story he had often told before. In a town
in Ohio where he had lived as a young man he had once heard a tale.
There was an old man like the house painter whose mother was also still
alive and lived with him. They were very poor and in the winter had not
enough bedclothes to keep them both warm. They crawled into a bed
together. It was an innocent enough matter, just like a mother taking
her child into her bed.
Henry Wescott sat in the store listening to the tale Emanuel Wilson
told for the twentieth time and thought about his daughter. Her beauty
made him feel a little proud, a little above the men who were his
companions. He had never before thought of his daughter as a beautiful
woman. Why had he never before noticed her beauty? Why had she come
from Chicago, there by the lake, to Willow Springs, in the hot month of
August? Had she come home from Chicago because she really wanted to see
her father and mother? For a moment he was ashamed of his own heavy
body, of his shabby clothes and his unshaven face and then the tiny
flame that had flared up within him burned itself out. The house
painter came in and the faint flavor of male companionship to which he
clung so tenaciously was reestablished.
In the orchard Rosalind sat with her back against the tree in the same
spot where her fancy had created the dancing life of her childhood and
where as a young woman graduate of the Willow Springs High School she
had come to try to break through the wall that separated her from life.
The sun had disappeared and the grey shadows of night were creeping
over the grass, lengthening the shadows cast by the trees. The orchard
had long been neglected and many of the trees were dead and without
foliage. The shadows of the dead branches were like long lean arms that
reached out, felt their way forward over the grey grass. Long lean
fingers reached and clutched. There was no wind and the night would be
dark and without a moon, a hot dark starlit night of the plains.
In a moment more it would be black night. Already the creeping shadows
on the grass were barely discernible. Rosalind felt death all about
her, in the orchard, in the town. Something Walter Sayers had once said
to her came sharply back into her mind. "When you are in the country
alone at night sometime try giving yourself to the night, to the
darkness, to the shadows cast by trees. The experience, if you really
give yourself to it, will tell you a startling story. You will find
that, although the white men have owned the land for several
generations now and although they have built towns everywhere, dug coal
out of the ground, covered the land with railroads, towns and cities,
they do not own an inch of the land in the whole continent. It still
belongs to a race who in their physical life are now dead. The red men,
although they are practically all gone still own the American
continent. Their fancy has peopled it with ghosts, with gods and
devils. It is because in their time they loved the land. The proof of
what I say is to be seen everywhere. We have given our towns no
beautiful names of our own because we have not built the towns
beautifully. When an American town has a beautiful name it was stolen
from another race, from a race that still owns the land in which we
live. We are all strangers here. When you are alone at night in the
country, anywhere in America, try giving yourself to the night. You
will find that death only resides in the conquering whites and that
life remains in the red men who are gone."
The spirits of the two men, Walter Sayers and Melville Stoner,
dominated the mind of Rosalind. She felt that. It was as though they
were beside her, sitting beside her on the grass in the orchard. She
was quite certain that Melville Stoner had come back to his house and
was now sitting within sound of her voice, did she raise her voice to
call. What did they want her of her? Had she suddenly begun to love two
men, both older than herself? The shadows of the branches of trees made
a carpet on the floor of the orchard, a soft carpet spun of some
delicate material on which the footsteps of men could make no sound.
The two men were coming toward her, advancing over the carpet. Melville
Stoner was near at hand and Walter Sayers was coming from far away, out
of the distance. The spirit of him was creeping toward her. The two men
were in accord. They came bearing some male knowledge of life,
something they wanted to give her.
She arose and stood by the tree, trembling. Into what a state she had
got herself! How long would it endure? Into what knowledge of life and
death was she being led? She had come home on a simple mission. She
loved Walter Sayers, wanted to offer herself to him but before doing so
had felt the call to come home to her mother. She had thought she would
be bold and would tell her mother the story of her love. She would tell
her and then take what the older woman offered. If her mother
understood and sympathized, well that would be a beautiful thing to
have happen. If her mother did not understand—at any rate she would
have paid some old debt, would have been true to some old, unexpressed
The two men—what did they want of her? What had Melville Stoner to do
with the matter? She put the figure of him out of her mind. In the
figure of the other man, Walter Sayers, there was something less
aggressive, less assertive. She clung to that.
She put her arm about the trunk of the old apple tree and laid her
cheek against its rough bark. Within herself she was so intense, so
excited that she wanted to rub her cheeks against the bark of the tree
until the blood came, until physical pain came to counteract the
tenseness within that had become pain.
Since the meadow between the orchard and the street end had been
planted to corn she would have to reach the street by going along a
lane, crawling under a wire fence and crossing the yard of the widowed
chicken raiser. A profound silence reigned over the orchard and when
she had crawled under the fence and reached the widow's back yard she
had to feel her way through a narrow opening between a chicken house
and a barn by running her fingers forward over the rough boards.
Her mother sat on the porch waiting and on the narrow porch before his
house next door sat Melville Stoner. She saw him as she hurried past
and shivered slightly. "What a dark vulture-like thing he is! He lives
off the dead, off dead glimpses of beauty, off dead old sounds heard at
night," she thought. When she got to the Wescott house she threw
herself down on the porch and lay on her back with her arms stretched
above her head. Her mother sat on a rocking chair beside her. There was
a street lamp at the corner at the end of the street and a little light
came through the branches of trees and lighted her mother's face. How
white and still and death-like it was. When she had looked Rosalind
closed her eyes. "I mustn't. I shall lose courage," she thought.
There was no hurry about delivering the message she had come to
deliver. It would be two hours before her father came home. The silence
of the village street was broken by a hubbub that arose in the house
across the street. Two boys playing some game ran from room to room
through the house, slamming doors, shouting. A baby began to cry and
then a woman's voice protested. "Quit it! Quit it!" the voice called.
"Don't you see you have wakened the baby? Now I shall have a time
getting him to sleep again."
Rosalind's fingers closed and her hands remained clenched. "I came home
to tell you something. I have fallen in love with a man and can't marry
him. He is a good many years older than myself and is already married.
He has two children. I love him and I think he loves me—I know he
does. I want him to have me too. I wanted to come home and tell you
before it happened," she said speaking in a low clear voice. She
wondered if Melville Stoner could hear her declaration.
Nothing happened. The chair in which Rosalind's mother sat had been
rocking slowly back and forth and making a slight creaking sound. The
sound continued. In the house across the street the baby stopped
crying. The words Rosalind had come from Chicago to say to her mother
were said and she felt relieved and almost happy. The silence between
the two women went on and on. Rosalind's mind wandered away. Presently
there would be some sort of reaction from her mother. She would be
condemned. Perhaps her mother would say nothing until her father came
home and would then tell him. She would be condemned as a wicked woman,
ordered to leave the house. It did not matter.
Rosalind waited. Like Walter Sayers, sitting in his garden, her mind
seemed to float away, out of her body. It ran away from her mother to
the man she loved.
One evening, on just such another quiet summer evening as this one, she
had gone into the country with Walter Sayers. Before that he had talked
to her, at her, on many other evenings and during long hours in the
office. He had found in her someone to whom he could talk, to whom he
wanted to talk. What doors of life he had opened for her! The talk had
gone on and on. In her presence the man was relieved, he relaxed out of
the tenseness that had become the habit of this body. He had told her
of how he had wanted to be a singer and had given up the notion. "It
isn't my wife's fault nor the children's fault," he had said. "They
could have lived without me. The trouble is I could not have lived
without them. I am a defeated man, was intended from the first to be a
defeated man and I needed something to cling to, something with which
to justify my defeat. I realize that now. I am a dependent. I shall
never try to sing now because I am one who has at least one merit. I
know defeat. I can accept defeat."
That is what Walter Sayers had said and then on the summer evening in
the country as she sat beside him in his car he had suddenly begun to
sing. He had opened a farm gate and had driven the car silently along a
grass covered lane and into a meadow. The lights had been put out and
the car crept along. When it stopped some cattle came and stood nearby.
Then he began to sing, softly at first and with increasing boldness as
he repeated the song over and over. Rosalind was so happy she had
wanted to cry out. "It is because of myself he can sing now," she had
thought proudly. How intensely, at the moment she loved the man, and
yet perhaps the thing she felt was not love after all. There was pride
in it. It was for her a moment of triumph. He had crept up to her out
of a dark place, out of the dark cave of defeat. It had been her hand
reached down that had given him courage.
She lay on her back, at her mother's feet, on the porch of the Wescott
house trying to think, striving to get her own impulses clear in her
mind. She had just told her mother that she wanted to give herself to
the man, Walter Sayers. Having made the statement she already wondered
if it could be quite true. She was a woman and her mother was a woman.
What would her mother have to say to her? What did mothers say to
daughters? The male element in life—what did it want? Her own desires
and impulses were not clearly realized within herself. Perhaps what she
wanted in life could be got in some sort of communion with another
woman, with her mother. What a strange and beautiful thing it would be
if mothers could suddenly begin to sing to their daughters, if out of
the darkness and silence of old women song could come.
Men confused Rosalind, they had always confused her. On that very
evening her father for the first time in years had really looked at
her. He had stopped before her as she sat on the porch and there had
been something in his eyes. A fire had burned in his old eyes as it had
sometimes burned in the eyes of Walter. Was the fire intended to
consume her quite? Was it the fate of women to be consumed by men and
of men to be consumed by women?
In the orchard, an hour before she had distinctly felt the two men,
Melville Stoner and Walter Sayers coming toward her, walking silently
on the soft carpet made of the dark shadows of trees.
They were again coming toward her. In their thoughts they approached
nearer and nearer to her, to the inner truth of her. The street and the
town of Willow Springs were covered with a mantle of silence. Was it
the silence of death? Had her mother died? Did her mother sit there now
a dead thing in the chair beside her?
The soft creaking of the rocking chair went on and on. Of the two men
whose spirits seemed hovering about one, Melville Stoner, was bold and
cunning. He was too close to her, knew too much of her. He was
unafraid. The spirit of Walter Sayers was merciful. He was gentle, a
man of understanding. She grew afraid of Melville Stoner. He was too
close to her, knew too much of the dark, stupid side of her life. She
turned on her side and stared into the darkness toward the Stoner house
remembering her girlhood. The man was too physically close. The faint
light from the distant street lamp that had lighted her mother's face
crept between branches of trees and over the tops of bushes and she
could see dimly the figure of Melville Stoner sitting before his house.
She wished it were possible with a thought to destroy him, wipe him
out, cause him to cease to exist. He was waiting. When her mother had
gone to bed and when she had gone upstairs to her own room to lie awake
he would invade her privacy. Her father would come home, walking with
dragging footsteps along the sidewalk. He would come into the Wescott
house and through to the back door. He would pump the pail of water at
the pump and bring it into the house to put it on the box by the
kitchen sink. Then he would wind the clock. He would—
Rosalind stirred uneasily. Life in the figure of Melville Stoner had
her, it gripped her tightly. She could not escape. He would come into
her bedroom and invade her secret thoughts. There was no escape for
her. She imagined his mocking laughter ringing through the silent
house, the sound rising above the dreadful commonplace sounds of
everyday life there. She did not want that to happen. The sudden death
of Melville Stoner would bring sweet silence. She wished it possible
with a thought to destroy him, to destroy all men. She wanted her
mother to draw close to her. That would save her from the men. Surely,
before the evening had passed her mother would have something to say,
something living and true.
Rosalind forced the figure of Melville Stoner out of her mind. It was
as though she had got out of her bed in the room upstairs and had taken
the man by the arm to lead him to the door. She had put him out of the
room and had closed the door.
Her mind played her a trick. Melville Stoner had no sooner gone out of
her mind than Walter Sayers came in. In imagination she was with Walter
in the car on the summer evening in the pasture and he was singing. The
cattle with their soft broad noses and the sweet grass-flavored breaths
were crowding in close.
There was sweetness in Rosalind's thoughts now. She rested and waited,
waited for her mother to speak. In her presence Walter Sayers had
broken his long silence and soon the old silence between mother and
daughter would also be broken.
The singer who would not sing had begun to sing because of her
presence. Song was the true note of life, it was the triumph of life
What sweet solace had come to her that time when Walter Sayers sang!
How life had coursed through her body! How alive she had suddenly
become! It was at that moment she had decided definitely, finally, that
she wanted to come closer to the man, that she wanted with him the
ultimate physical closeness—to find in physical expression through him
what in his song he was finding through her.
It was in expressing physically her love of the man she would find the
white wonder of life, the wonder of which, as a clumsy and crude girl,
she had dreamed as she lay on the grass in the orchard. Through the
body of the singer she would approach, touch the white wonder of life.
"I shall willingly sacrifice everything else on the chance that may
happen," she thought.
How peaceful and quiet the summer night had become! How clearly now she
understood life! The song Walter Sayers had sung in the field, in the
presence of the cattle was in a tongue she had not understood, but now
she understood everything, even the meaning of the strange foreign
The song was about life and death. What else was there to sing about?
The sudden knowledge of the content of the song had not come out of her
own mind. The spirit of Walter was coming toward her. It had pushed the
mocking spirit of Melville Stoner aside. What things had not the mind
of Walter Sayers already done to her mind, to the awakening woman
within her. Now it was telling her the story of the song. The words of
the song itself seemed to float down the silent street of the Iowa
town. They described the sun going down in the smoke clouds of a city
and the gulls coming from a lake to float over the city.
Now the gulls floated over a river. The river was the color of
chrysoprase. She, Rosalind Wescott, stood on a bridge in the heart of
the city and she had become entirely convinced of the filth and
ugliness of life. She was about to throw herself into the river, to
destroy herself in an effort to make herself clean.
It did not matter. Strange sharp cries came from the birds. The cries
of the birds were like the voice of Melville Stoner. They whirled and
turned in the air overhead. In a moment more she would throw herself
into the river and then the birds would fall straight down in a long
graceful line. The body of her would be gone, swept away by the stream,
carried away to decay but what was really alive in herself would arise
with the birds, in the long graceful upward line of the flight of the
Rosalind lay tense and still on the porch at her mother's feet. In the
air above the hot sleeping town, buried deep in the ground beneath all
towns and cities, life went on singing, it persistently sang. The song
of life was in the humming of bees, in the calling of tree toads, in
the throats of negroes rolling cotton bales on a boat in a river.
The song was a command. It told over and over the story of life and of
death, life forever defeated by death, death forever defeated by life.
* * * * *
The long silence of Rosalind's mother was broken and Rosalind tried to
tear herself away from the spirit of the song that had begun to sing
itself within her—
The sun sank down into the western sky over a city—
Life defeated by death,
Death defeated by life.
The factory chimneys had become pencils of light—
Life defeated by death,
Death defeated by life.
The rocking chair in which Rosalind's mother sat kept creaking. Words
came haltingly from between her white lips. The test of Ma Wescott's
life had come. Always she had been defeated. Now she must triumph in
the person of Rosalind, the daughter who had come out of her body. To
her she must make clear the fate of all women. Young girls grew up
dreaming, hoping, believing. There was a conspiracy. Men made words,
they wrote books and sang songs about a thing called love. Young girls
believed. They married or entered into close relationships with men
without marriage. On the marriage night there was a brutal assault and
after that the woman had to try to save herself as best she could. She
withdrew within herself, further and further within herself. Ma Wescott
had stayed all her life hidden away within her own house, in the
kitchen of her house. As the years passed and after the children came
her man had demanded less and less of her. Now this new trouble had
come. Her daughter was to have the same experience, to go through the
experience that had spoiled life for her.
How proud she had been of Rosalind, going out into the world, making
her own way. Her daughter dressed with a certain air, walked with a
certain air. She was a proud, upstanding, triumphant thing. She did not
need a man.
"God, Rosalind, don't do it, don't do it," she muttered over and over.
How much she had wanted Rosalind to keep clear and clean! Once she also
had been a young woman, proud, upstanding. Could anyone think she had
ever wanted to become Ma Wescott, fat, heavy and old? All through her
married life she had stayed in her own house, in the kitchen of her own
house, but in her own way she had watched, she had seen how things went
with women. Her man had known how to make money, he had always housed
her comfortably. He was a slow, silent man but in his own way he was as
good as any of the men of Willow Springs. Men worked for money, they
ate heavily and then at night they came home to the woman they had
Before she married, Ma Wescott had been a farmer's daughter. She had
seen things among the beasts, how the male pursued the female. There
was a certain hard insistence, cruelty. Life perpetuated itself that
way. The time of her own marriage was a dim, terrible time. Why had she
wanted to marry? She tried to tell Rosalind about it. "I saw him on the
Main Street of town here, one Saturday evening when I had come to town
with father, and two weeks after that I met him again at a dance out in
the country," she said. She spoke like one who has been running a long
distance and who has some important, some immediate message to deliver.
"He wanted me to marry him and I did it. He wanted me to marry him and
I did it."
She could not get beyond the fact of her marriage. Did her daughter
think she had no vital thing to say concerning the relationship of men
and women? All through her married life she had stayed in her husband's
house, working as a beast might work, washing dirty clothes, dirty
dishes, cooking food.
She had been thinking, all through the years she had been thinking.
There was a dreadful lie in life, the whole fact of life was a lie.
She had thought it all out. There was a world somewhere unlike the
world in which she lived. It was a heavenly place in which there was no
marrying or giving in marriage, a sexless quiet windless place where
mankind lived in a state of bliss. For some unknown reason mankind had
been thrown out of that place, had been thrown down upon the earth. It
was a punishment for an unforgivable sin, the sin of sex.
The sin had been in her as well as in the man she had married. She had
wanted to marry. Why else did she do it? Men and women were condemned
to commit the sin that destroyed them. Except for a few rare sacred
beings no man or woman escaped.
What thinking she had done! When she had just married and after her man
had taken what he wanted of her he slept heavily but she did not sleep.
She crept out of bed and going to a window looked at the stars. The
stars were quiet. With what a slow stately tread the moon moved across
the sky. The stars did not sin. They did not touch one another. Each
star was a thing apart from all other stars, a sacred inviolate thing.
On the earth, under the stars everything was corrupt, the trees,
flowers, grasses, the beasts of the field, men and women. They were all
corrupt. They lived for a moment and then fell into decay. She herself
was falling into decay. Life was a lie. Life perpetuated itself by the
lie called love. The truth was that life itself came out of sin,
perpetuated itself only by sin.
"There is no such thing as love. The word is a lie. The man you are
telling me about wants you for the purpose of sin," she said and
getting heavily up went into the house.
Rosalind heard her moving about in the darkness. She came to the screen
door and stood looking at her daughter lying tense and waiting on the
porch. The passion of denial was so strong in her that she felt choked.
To the daughter it seemed that her mother standing in the darkness
behind her had become a great spider, striving to lead her down into
some web of darkness. "Men only hurt women," she said, "they can't help
wanting to hurt women. They are made that way. The thing they call love
doesn't exist. It's a lie."
"Life is dirty. Letting a man touch her dirties a woman." Ma Wescott
fairly screamed forth the words. They seemed torn from her, from some
deep inner part of her being. Having said them she moved off into the
darkness and Rosalind heard her going slowly toward the stairway that
led to the bedroom above. She was weeping in the peculiar half choked
way in which old fat women weep. The heavy feet that had begun to mount
the stair stopped and there was silence. Ma Wescott had said nothing of
what was in her mind. She had thought it all out, what she wanted to
say to her daughter. Why would the words not come? The passion for
denial within her was not satisfied. "There is no love. Life is a lie.
It leads to sin, to death and decay," she called into the darkness.
A strange, almost uncanny thing happened to Rosalind. The figure of her
mother went out of her mind and she was in fancy again a young girl and
had gone with other young girls to visit a friend about to be married.
With the others she stood in a room where white dresses lay on a bed.
One of her companions, a thin, flat breasted girl fell on her knees
beside the bed. A cry arose. Did it come from the girl or from the old
tired defeated woman within the Wescott house? "Don't do it. O,
Rosalind don't do it," pleaded a voice broken with sobs.
The Wescott house had become silent like the street outside and like
the sky sprinkled with stars into which Rosalind gazed. The tenseness
within her relaxed and she tried again to think. There was a thing that
balanced, that swung backward and forward. Was it merely her heart
beating? Her mind cleared.
The song that had come from the lips of Walter Sayers was still singing
Life the conqueror over death,
Death the conqueror over life.
She sat up and put her head into her hands. "I came here to Willow
Springs to put myself to a test. Is it the test of life and death?" she
asked herself. Her mother had gone up the stairway, into the darkness
of the bedroom above.
The song singing within Rosalind went on—
Life the conqueror over death,
Death the conqueror over life.
Was the song a male thing, the call of the male to the female, a lie,
as her mother had said? It did not sound like a lie. The song had come
from the lips of the man Walter and she had left him and had come to
her mother. Then Melville Stoner, another male, had come to her. In him
also was singing the song of life and death. When the song stopped
singing within one did death come? Was death but denial? The song was
singing within herself. What a confusion!
After her last outcry Ma Wescott had gone weeping up the stairs and to
her own room and to bed. After a time Rosalind followed. She threw
herself onto her own bed without undressing. Both women lay waiting.
Outside in the darkness before his house sat Melville Stoner, the male,
the man who knew of all that had passed between mother and daughter.
Rosalind thought of the bridge over the river near the factory in the
city and of the gulls floating in the air high above the river. She
wished herself there, standing on the bridge. "It would be sweet now to
throw my body down into the river," she thought. She imagined herself
falling swiftly and the swifter fall of the birds down out of the sky.
They were swooping down to pick up the life she was ready to drop,
sweeping swiftly and beautifully down. That was what the song Walter
had sung was about.
* * * * *
Henry Wescott came home from his evening at Emanuel Wilson's store. He
went heavily through the house to the back door and the pump. There was
the slow creaking sound of the pump working and then he came into the
house and put the pail of water on the box by the kitchen sink. A
little of the water spilled. There was a soft little slap—like a
child's bare feet striking the floor—
Rosalind arose. The dead cold weariness that had settled down upon her
went away. Cold dead hands had been gripping her. Now they were swept
aside. Her bag was in a closet but she had forgotten it. Quickly she
took off her shoes and holding them in her hands went out into the hall
in her stockinged feet. Her father came heavily up the stairs past her
as she stood breathless with her body pressed against the wall in the
How quick and alert her mind had become! There was a train Eastward
bound toward Chicago that passed through Willow Springs at two in the
morning. She would not wait for it. She would walk the eight miles to
the next town to the east. That would get her out of town. It would
give her something to do. "I need to be moving now," she thought as she
ran down the stairs and went silently out of the house.
She walked on the grass beside the sidewalk to the gate before Melville
Stoner's house and he came down to the gate to meet her. He laughed
mockingly. "I fancied I might have another chance to walk with you
before the night was gone," he said bowing. Rosalind did not know how
much of the conversation between herself and her mother he had heard.
It did not matter. He knew all Ma Wescott had said, all she could say
and all Rosalind could say or understand. The thought was infinitely
sweet to Rosalind. It was Melville Stoner who lifted the town of Willow
Springs up out of the shadow of death. Words were unnecessary. With him
she had established the thing beyond words, beyond passion—the
fellowship in living, the fellowship in life.
They walked in silence to the town's edge and then Melville Stoner put
out his hand. "You'll come with me?" she asked, but he shook his head
and laughed. "No," he said, "I'll stay here. My time for going passed
long ago. I'll stay here until I die. I'll stay here with my thoughts."
He turned and walked away into the darkness beyond the round circle of
light cast by the last street lamp on the street that now became a
country road leading to the next town to the east. Rosalind stood to
watch him go and something in his long loping gait again suggested to
her mind the figure of a gigantic bird. "He is like the gulls that
float above the river in Chicago," she thought. "His spirit floats
above the town of Willow Springs. When the death in life comes to the
people here he swoops down, with his mind, plucking out the beauty of
She walked at first slowly along the road between corn fields. The
night was a vast quiet place into which she could walk in peace. A
little breeze rustled the corn blades but there were no dreadful
significant human sounds, the sounds made by those who lived physically
but who in spirit were dead, had accepted death, believed only in
death. The corn blades rubbed against each other and there was a low
sweet sound as though something was being born, old dead physical life
was being torn away, cast aside. Perhaps new life was coming into the
Rosalind began to run. She had thrown off the town and her father and
mother as a runner might throw off a heavy and unnecessary garment. She
wished also to throw off the garments that stood between her body and
nudity. She wanted to be naked, new born. Two miles out of town a
bridge crossed Willow Creek. It was now empty and dry but in the
darkness she imagined it filled with water, swift running water, water
the color of chrysoprase. She had been running swiftly and now she
stopped and stood on the bridge her breath coming in quick little
After a time she went on again, walking until she had regained her
breath and then running again. Her body tingled with life. She did not
ask herself what she was going to do, how she was to meet the problem
she had come to Willow Springs half hoping to have solved by a word
from her mother. She ran. Before her eyes the dusty road kept coming up
to her out of darkness. She ran forward, always forward into a faint
streak of light. The darkness unfolded before her. There was joy in the
running and with every step she took she achieved a new sense of
escape. A delicious notion came into her mind. As she ran she thought
the light under her feet became more distinct. It was, she thought, as
though the darkness had grown afraid in her presence and sprang aside,
out of her path. There was a sensation of boldness. She had herself
become something that within itself contained light. She was a creator
of light. At her approach darkness grew afraid and fled away into the
distance. When that thought came she found herself able to run without
stopping to rest and half wished she might run on forever, through the
land, through towns and cities, driving darkness away with her
I stated it as definitely as I could. I was in a room with them.
They had tongues like me, and hair and eyes.
I got up out of my chair and said it as definitely as I could.
Their eyes wavered. Something slipped out of their grasp. Had I been
white and strong and young enough I might have plunged through walls,
gone outward into nights and days, gone into prairies, into distances—
gone outward to the doorstep of the house of God, gone to God's throne
room with their hands in mine.
What I am trying to say is this—
By God I made their minds flee out of them.
Their minds came out of them as clear and straight as anything could
I said they might build temples to their lives.
I threw my words at faces floating in a street.
I threw my words like stones, like building stones.
I scattered words in alleyways like seeds.
I crept at night and threw my words in empty rooms of houses in a
I said that life was life, that men in streets and cities might build
temples to their souls.
I whispered words at night into a telephone.
I told my people life was sweet, that men might live.
I said a million temples might be built, that doorsteps might be
At their fleeing harried minds I hurled a stone.
I said they might build temples to themselves.