Triumph of the Egg and Other Stories
Part 3 out of 4
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--
Back to Full Books