Part 2 out of 4
taken her fancy and the farmer's wife had given it to her. On the drive
home the young wife had told her husband of her pregnancy and the
doctor had been stirred as never before. He sat holding the mirror on
his knees while his wife drove and when she announced the coming of the
child she looked away across the fields.
How deeply etched, that scene in the sick man's mind! The sun was going
down over young corn and oat fields beside the road. The prairie land
was black and occasionally the road ran through short lanes of trees
that also looked black in the waning light.
The mirror on his knees caught the rays of the departing sun and sent a
great ball of golden light dancing across the fields and among the
branches of trees. Now as he stood in the presence of the farmer and as
the little light from the burning match on the floor recalled that
other evening of dancing lights, he thought he understood the failure
of his marriage and of his life. On that evening long ago when Ellen
had told him of the coming of the great adventure of their marriage he
had remained silent because he had thought no words he could utter
would express what he felt. There had been a defense for himself built
up. "I told myself she should have understood without words and I've
all my life been telling myself the same thing about Mary. I've been a
fool and a coward. I've always been silent because I've been afraid of
expressing myself--like a blundering fool. I've been a proud man and a
"Tonight I'll do it. If it kills me I'll make myself talk to the girl,"
he said aloud, his mind coming back to the figure of his daughter.
"Hey! What's that?" asked the farmer who stood with his hat in his hand
waiting to tell of his mission.
The doctor got his horse from Barney Smithfield's livery and drove off
to the country to attend the farmer's wife who was about to give birth
to her first child. She was a slender narrow-hipped woman and the child
was large, but the doctor was feverishly strong. He worked desperately
and the woman, who was frightened, groaned and struggled. Her husband
kept coming in and going out of the room and two neighbor women
appeared and stood silently about waiting to be of service. It was past
ten o'clock when everything was done and the doctor was ready to depart
The farmer hitched his horse and brought it to the door and the doctor
drove off feeling strangely weak and at the same time strong. How
simple now seemed the thing he had yet to do. Perhaps when he got home
his daughter would have gone to bed but he would ask her to get up and
come into the office. Then he would tell the whole story of his
marriage and its failure sparing himself no humiliation. "There was
something very dear and beautiful in my Ellen and I must make Mary
understand that. It will help her to be a beautiful woman," he thought,
full of confidence in the strength of his resolution.
He got to the door of the livery barn at eleven o'clock and Barney
Smithfield with young Duke Yetter and two other men sat talking there.
The liveryman took his horse away into the darkness of the barn and the
doctor stood for a moment leaning against the wall of the building. The
town's night watchman stood with the group by the barn door and a
quarrel broke out between him and Duke Yetter, but the doctor did not
hear the hot words that flew back and forth or Duke's loud laughter at
the night watchman's anger. A queer hesitating mood had taken
possession of him.
There was something he passionately desired to do but could not
remember. Did it have to do with his wife Ellen or Mary his daughter?
The figures of the two women were again confused in his mind and to add
to the confusion there was a third figure, that of the woman he had
just assisted through child birth. Everything was confusion. He started
across the street toward the entrance of the stairway leading to his
office and then stopped in the road and stared about. Barney Smithfield
having returned from putting his horse in the stall shut the door of
the barn and a hanging lantern over the door swung back and forth. It
threw grotesque dancing shadows down over the faces and forms of the
men standing and quarreling beside the wall of the barn.
* * * * *
Mary sat by a window in the doctor's office awaiting his return. So
absorbed was she in her own thoughts that she was unconscious of the
voice of Duke Yetter talking with the men in the street.
When Duke had come into the street the hot anger of the early part of
the evening had returned and she again saw him advancing toward her in
the orchard with the look of arrogant male confidence in his eyes but
presently she forgot him and thought only of her father. An incident of
her childhood returned to haunt her. One afternoon in the month of May
when she was fifteen her father had asked her to accompany him on an
evening drive into the country. The doctor went to visit a sick woman
at a farmhouse five miles from town and as there had been a great deal
of rain the roads were heavy. It was dark when they reached the
farmer's house and they went into the kitchen and ate cold food off a
kitchen table. For some reason her father had, on that evening,
appeared boyish and almost gay. On the road he had talked a little.
Even at that early age Mary had grown tall and her figure was becoming
womanly. After the cold supper in the farm kitchen he walked with her
around the house and she sat on a narrow porch. For a moment her father
stood before her. He put his hands into his trouser pockets and
throwing back his head laughed almost heartily. "It seems strange to
think you will soon be a woman," he said. "When you do become a woman
what do you suppose is going to happen, eh? What kind of a life will
you lead? What will happen to you?"
The doctor sat on the porch beside the child and for a moment she had
thought he was about to put his arm around her. Then he jumped up and
went into the house leaving her to sit alone in the darkness.
As she remembered the incident Mary remembered also that on that
evening of her childhood she had met her father's advances in silence.
It seemed to her that she, not her father, was to blame for the life
they had led together. The farm laborer she had met on the bridge had
not felt her father's coldness. That was because he had himself been
warm and generous in his attitude toward the man who had cared for him
in his hour of sickness and misfortune. Her father had said that the
laborer knew how to be a father and Mary remembered with what warmth
the two boys fishing by the creek had called to her as she went away
into the darkness. "Their father has known how to be a father because
his children have known how to give themselves," she thought guiltily.
She also would give herself. Before the night had passed she would do
that. On that evening long ago and as she rode home beside her father
he had made another unsuccessful effort to break through the wall that
separated them. The heavy rains had swollen the streams they had to
cross and when they had almost reached town he had stopped the horse on
a wooden bridge. The horse danced nervously about and her father held
the reins firmly and occasionally spoke to him. Beneath the bridge the
swollen stream made a great roaring sound and beside the road in a long
flat field there was a lake of flood water. At that moment the moon had
come out from behind clouds and the wind that blew across the water
made little waves. The lake of flood water was covered with dancing
lights. "I'm going to tell you about your mother and myself," her
father said huskily, but at that moment the timbers of the bridge began
to crack dangerously and the horse plunged forward. When her father had
regained control of the frightened beast they were in the streets of
the town and his diffident silent nature had reasserted itself.
Mary sat in the darkness by the office window and saw her father drive
into the street. When his horse had been put away he did not, as was
his custom, come at once up the stairway to the office but lingered in
the darkness before the barn door. Once he started to cross the street
and then returned into the darkness.
Among the men who for two hours had been sitting and talking quietly a
quarrel broke out. Jack Fisher the town nightwatchman had been telling
the others the story of a battle in which he had fought during the
Civil War and Duke Yetter had begun bantering him. The nightwatchman
grew angry. Grasping his nightstick he limped up and down. The loud
voice of Duke Yetter cut across the shrill angry voice of the victim of
his wit. "You ought to a flanked the fellow, I tell you Jack. Yes sir
'ee, you ought to a flanked that reb and then when you got him flanked
you ought to a knocked the stuffings out of the cuss. That's what I
would a done," Duke shouted, laughing boisterously. "You would a raised
hell, you would," the night watchman answered, filled with ineffectual
The old soldier went off along the street followed by the laughter of
Duke and his companions and Barney Smithfield, having put the doctor's
horse away, came out and closed the barn door. A lantern hanging above
the door swung back and forth. Doctor Cochran again started across the
street and when he had reached the foot of the stairway turned and
shouted to the men. "Good night," he called cheerfully. A strand of
hair was blown by the light summer breeze across Mary's cheek and she
jumped to her feet as though she had been touched by a hand reached out
to her from the darkness. A hundred times she had seen her father
return from drives in the evening but never before had he said anything
at all to the loiterers by the barn door. She became half convinced
that not her father but some other man was now coming up the stairway.
The heavy dragging footsteps rang loudly on the wooden stairs and Mary
heard her father set down the little square medicine case he always
carried. The strange cheerful hearty mood of the man continued but his
mind was in a confused riot. Mary imagined she could see his dark form
in the doorway. "The woman has had a baby," said the hearty voice from
the landing outside the door. "Who did that happen to? Was it Ellen or
that other woman or my little Mary?"
A stream of words, a protest came from the man's lips. "Who's been
having a baby? I want to know. Who's been having a baby? Life doesn't
work out. Why are babies always being born?" he asked.
A laugh broke from the doctor's lips and his daughter leaned forward
and gripped the arms of her chair. "A babe has been born," he said
again. "It's strange eh, that my hands should have helped a baby be
born while all the time death stood at my elbow?"
Doctor Cochran stamped upon the floor of the landing. "My feet are cold
and numb from waiting for life to come out of life," he said heavily.
"The woman struggled and now I must struggle."
Silence followed the stamping of feet and the tired heavy declaration
from the sick man's lips. From the street below came another loud shout
of laughter from Duke Yetter.
And then Doctor Cochran fell backward down the narrow stairs to the
street. There was no cry from him, just the clatter of his shoes upon
the stairs and the terrible subdued sound of the body falling.
Mary did not move from her chair. With closed eyes she waited. Her
heart pounded. A weakness complete and overmastering had possession of
her and from feet to head ran little waves of feeling as though tiny
creatures with soft hair-like feet were playing upon her body.
It was Duke Yetter who carried the dead man up the stairs and laid him
on a bed in one of the rooms back of the office. One of the men who had
been sitting with him before the door of the barn followed lifting his
hands and dropping them nervously. Between his fingers he held a
forgotten cigarette the light from which danced up and down in the
He was an old man and he sat on the steps of the railroad station in a
small Kentucky town.
A well dressed man, some traveler from the city, approached and stood
The old man became self-conscious.
His smile was like the smile of a very young child. His face was all
sunken and wrinkled and he had a huge nose.
"Have you any coughs, colds, consumption or bleeding sickness?" he
asked. In his voice there was a pleading quality.
The stranger shook his head. The old man arose.
"The sickness that bleeds is a terrible nuisance," he said. His tongue
protruded from between his teeth and he rattled it about. He put his
hand on the stranger's arm and laughed.
"Bully, pretty," he exclaimed. "I cure them all--coughs, colds,
consumption and the sickness that bleeds. I take warts from the hand--I
cannot explain how I do it--it is a mystery--I charge nothing--my name
is Tom--do you like me?"
The stranger was cordial. He nodded his head. The old man became
reminiscent. "My father was a hard man," he declared. "He was like me,
a blacksmith by trade, but he wore a plug hat. When the corn was high
he said to the poor, 'go into the fields and pick' but when the war
came he made a rich man pay five dollars for a bushel of corn."
"I married against his will. He came to me and he said, 'Tom I do not
like that girl.'"
"'But I love her,' I said.
"'I don't,' he said.
"My father and I sat on a log. He was a pretty man and wore a plug hat.
'I will get the license,' I said.
"'I will give you no money,' he said.
"My marriage cost me twenty-one dollars--I worked in the corn--it
rained and the horses were blind--the clerk said, 'Are you over twenty-
one?' I said 'yes' and she said 'yes.' We had chalked it on our shoes.
My father said, 'I give you your freedom.' We had no money. My marriage
cost twenty-one dollars. She is dead."
The old man looked at the sky. It was evening and the sun had set. The
sky was all mottled with grey clouds. "I paint beautiful pictures and
give them away," he declared. "My brother is in the penitentiary. He
killed a man who called him an ugly name."
The decrepit old man held his hands before the face of the stranger. He
opened and shut them. They were black with grime. "I pick out warts,"
he explained plaintively. "They are as soft as your hands."
"I play on an accordion. You are thirty-seven years old. I sat beside
my brother in the penitentiary. He is a pretty man with pompadour hair.
'Albert' I said, 'are you sorry you killed a man?' 'No,' he said, 'I am
not sorry. I would kill ten, a hundred, a thousand!'"
The old man began to weep and to wipe his hands with a soiled
handkerchief. He attempted to take a chew of tobacco and his false
teeth became displaced. He covered his mouth with his hands and was
"I am old. You are thirty-seven years old but I am older than that," he
"My brother is a bad man--he is full of hate--he is pretty and has
pompadour hair, but he would kill and kill. I hate old age--I am
ashamed that I am old.
"I have a pretty new wife. I wrote her four letters and she replied.
She came here and we married--I love to see her walk--O, I buy her
"Her foot is not straight--it is twisted--my first wife is dead--I pick
warts off the hand with my fingers and no blood comes--I cure coughs,
colds, consumption and the sickness that bleeds--people can write to me
and I answer the letters--if they send me no money it is no matter--all
Again the old man wept and the stranger tried to comfort him. "You are
a happy man?" the stranger asked.
"Yes," said the old man, "and a good man too. Ask everywhere about me--
my name is Tom, a blacksmith--my wife walks prettily although she has a
twisted foot--I have bought her a long dress--she is thirty and I am
seventy-five--she has many pairs of shoes--I have bought them for her,
but her foot is twisted--I buy straight shoes--
"She thinks I do not know--everybody thinks Tom does not know--I have
bought her a long dress that comes down to the ground--my name is Tom,
a blacksmith--I am seventy-five and I hate old age--I take warts off
the hands and no blood comes--people may write to me and I answer the
letters--all is free."
THE MAN IN THE BROWN COAT
Napoleon went down into a battle riding on a horse.
Alexander went down into a battle riding on a horse.
General Grant got off a horse and walked in a wood.
General Hindenburg stood on a hill.
The moon came up out of a clump of bushes.
* * * * *
I am writing a history of the things men do. I have written three such
histories and I am but a young man. Already I have written three
hundred, four hundred thousand words.
My wife is somewhere in this house where for hours now I have been
sitting and writing. She is a tall woman with black hair, turning a
little grey. Listen, she is going softly up a flight of stairs. All day
she goes softly about, doing the housework in our house.
I came here to this town from another town in the state of Iowa. My
father was a workman, a house painter. He did not rise in the world as
I have done. I worked my way through college and became an historian.
We own this house in which I sit. This is my room in which I work.
Already I have written three histories of peoples. I have told how
states were formed and battles fought. You may see my books standing
straight up on the shelves of libraries. They stand up like sentries.
I am tall like my wife and my shoulders are a little stooped. Although
I write boldly I am a shy man. I like being at work alone in this room
with the door closed. There are many books here. Nations march back and
forth in the books. It is quiet here but in the books a great
thundering goes on.
* * * * *
Napoleon rides down a hill and into a battle.
General Grant walks in a wood.
Alexander rides down a hill and into a battle.
* * * * *
My wife has a serious, almost stern look. Sometimes the thoughts I have
concerning her frighten me. In the afternoon she leaves our house and
goes for a walk. Sometimes she goes to stores, sometimes to visit a
neighbor. There is a yellow house opposite our house. My wife goes out
at a side door and passes along the street between our house and the
The side door of our house bangs. There is a moment of waiting. My
wife's face floats across the yellow background of a picture.
* * * * *
General Pershing rode down a hill and into a battle.
Alexander rode down a hill and into a battle.
* * * * *
Little things are growing big in my mind. The window before my desk
makes a little framed place like a picture. Every day I sit staring. I
wait with an odd sensation of something impending. My hand trembles.
The face that floats through the picture does something I don't
understand. The face floats, then it stops. It goes from the right hand
side to the left hand side, then it stops.
The face comes into my mind and goes out--the face floats in my mind.
The pen has fallen from my fingers. The house is silent. The eyes of
the floating face are turned away from me.
My wife is a girl who came here to this town from another town in the
state of Ohio. We keep a servant but my wife often sweeps the floors
and she sometimes makes the bed in which we sleep together. We sit
together in the evening but I do not know her. I cannot shake myself
out of myself. I wear a brown coat and I cannot come out of my coat. I
cannot come out of myself. My wife is very gentle and she speaks softly
but she cannot come out of herself.
My wife has gone out of the house. She does not know that I know every
little thought of her life. I know what she thought when she was a
child and walked in the streets of an Ohio town. I have heard the
voices of her mind. I have heard the little voices. I heard the voice
of fear crying when she was first overtaken with passion and crawled
into my arms. Again I heard the voices of fear when her lips said words
of courage to me as we sat together on the first evening after we were
married and moved into this house.
It would be strange if I could sit here, as I am doing now, while my
own face floated across the picture made by the yellow house and the
window. It would be strange and beautiful if I could meet my wife, come
into her presence.
The woman whose face floated across my picture just now knows nothing
of me. I know nothing of her. She has gone off, along a street. The
voices of her mind are talking. I am here in this room, as alone as
ever any man God made.
It would be strange and beautiful if I could float my face across my
picture. If my floating face could come into her presence, if it could
come into the presence of any man or any woman--that would be a strange
and beautiful thing to have happen.
* * * * *
Napoleon went down into a battle riding on a horse.
General Grant went into a wood.
Alexander went down into a battle riding on a horse.
* * * * *
I'll tell you what--sometimes the whole life of this world floats in a
human face in my mind. The unconscious face of the world stops and
stands still before me.
Why do I not say a word out of myself to the others? Why, in all our
life together, have I never been able to break through the wall to my
Already I have written three hundred, four hundred thousand words. Are
there no words that lead into life? Some day I shall speak to myself.
Some day I shall make a testament unto myself.
I am at my house in the country and it is late October. It rains. Back
of my house is a forest and in front there is a road and beyond that
open fields. The country is one of low hills, flattening suddenly into
plains. Some twenty miles away, across the flat country, lies the huge
On this rainy day the leaves of the trees that line the road before my
window are falling like rain, the yellow, red and golden leaves fall
straight down heavily. The rain beats them brutally down. They are
denied a last golden flash across the sky. In October leaves should be
carried away, out over the plains, in a wind. They should go dancing
Yesterday morning I arose at daybreak and went for a walk. There was a
heavy fog and I lost myself in it. I went down into the plains and
returned to the hills, and everywhere the fog was as a wall before me.
Out of it trees sprang suddenly, grotesquely, as in a city street late
at night people come suddenly out of the darkness into the circle of
light under a street lamp. Above there was the light of day forcing
itself slowly into the fog. The fog moved slowly. The tops of trees
moved slowly. Under the trees the fog was dense, purple. It was like
smoke lying in the streets of a factory town.
An old man came up to me in the fog. I know him well. The people here
call him insane. "He is a little cracked," they say. He lives alone in
a little house buried deep in the forest and has a small dog he carries
always in his arms. On many mornings I have met him walking on the road
and he has told me of men and women who are his brothers and sisters,
his cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers-in-law. It is confusing. He cannot
draw close to people near at hand so he gets hold of a name out of a
newspaper and his mind plays with it. On one morning he told me he was
a cousin to the man named Cox who at the time when I write is a
candidate for the presidency. On another morning he told me that Caruso
the singer had married a woman who was his sister-in-law. "She is my
wife's sister," he said, holding the little dog close. His grey watery
eyes looked appealing up to me. He wanted me to believe. "My wife was a
sweet slim girl," he declared. "We lived together in a big house and in
the morning walked about arm in arm. Now her sister has married Caruso
the singer. He is of my family now."
As someone had told me the old man had never married, I went away
wondering. One morning in early September I came upon him sitting under
a tree beside a path near his house. The dog barked at me and then ran
and crept into his arms. At that time the Chicago newspapers were
filled with the story of a millionaire who had got into trouble with
his wife because of an intimacy with an actress. The old man told me
that the actress was his sister. He is sixty years old and the actress
whose story appeared in the newspapers is twenty but he spoke of their
childhood together. "You would not realize it to see us now but we were
poor then," he said. "It's true. We lived in a little house on the side
of a hill. Once when there was a storm, the wind nearly swept our house
away. How the wind blew! Our father was a carpenter and he built strong
houses for other people but our own house he did not build very
strong!" He shook his head sorrowfully. "My sister the actress has got
into trouble. Our house is not built very strongly," he said as I went
away along the path.
* * * * *
For a month, two months, the Chicago newspapers, that are delivered
every morning in our village, have been filled with the story of a
murder. A man there has murdered his wife and there seems no reason for
the deed. The tale runs something like this--
The man, who is now on trial in the courts and will no doubt be hanged,
worked in a bicycle factory where he was a foreman and lived with his
wife and his wife's mother in an apartment in Thirty-second Street. He
loved a girl who worked in the office of the factory where he was
employed. She came from a town in Iowa and when she first came to the
city lived with her aunt who has since died. To the foreman, a heavy
stolid looking man with grey eyes, she seemed the most beautiful woman
in the world. Her desk was by a window at an angle of the factory, a
sort of wing of the building, and the foreman, down in the shop had a
desk by another window. He sat at his desk making out sheets containing
the record of the work done by each man in his department. When he
looked up he could see the girl sitting at work at her desk. The notion
got into his head that she was peculiarly lovely. He did not think of
trying to draw close to her or of winning her love. He looked at her as
one might look at a star or across a country of low hills in October
when the leaves of the trees are all red and yellow gold. "She is a
pure, virginal thing," he thought vaguely. "What can she be thinking
about as she sits there by the window at work."
In fancy the foreman took the girl from Iowa home with him to his
apartment in Thirty-second Street and into the presence of his wife and
his mother-in-law. All day in the shop and during the evening at home
he carried her figure about with him in his mind. As he stood by a
window in his apartment and looked out toward the Illinois Central
railroad tracks and beyond the tracks to the lake, the girl was there
beside him. Down below women walked in the street and in every woman he
saw there was something of the Iowa girl. One woman walked as she did,
another made a gesture with her hand that reminded of her. All the
women he saw except his wife and his mother-in-law were like the girl
he had taken inside himself.
The two women in his own house puzzled and confused him. They became
suddenly unlovely and commonplace. His wife in particular was like some
strange unlovely growth that had attached itself to his body.
In the evening after the day at the factory he went home to his own
place and had dinner. He had always been a silent man and when he did
not talk no one minded. After dinner he with his wife went to a picture
show. There were two children and his wife expected another. They came
into the apartment and sat down. The climb up two flights of stairs had
wearied his wife. She sat in a chair beside her mother groaning with
The mother-in-law was the soul of goodness. She took the place of a
servant in the home and got no pay. When her daughter wanted to go to a
picture show she waved her hand and smiled. "Go on," she said. "I don't
want to go. I'd rather sit here." She got a book and sat reading. The
little boy of nine awoke and cried. He wanted to sit on the po-po. The
mother-in-law attended to that.
After the man and his wife came home the three people sat in silence
for an hour or two before bed time. The man pretended to read a
newspaper. He looked at his hands. Although he had washed them
carefully grease from the bicycle frames left dark stains under the
nails. He thought of the Iowa girl and of her white quick hands playing
over the keys of a typewriter. He felt dirty and uncomfortable.
The girl at the factory knew the foreman had fallen in love with her
and the thought excited her a little. Since her aunt's death she had
gone to live in a rooming house and had nothing to do in the evening.
Although the foreman meant nothing to her she could in a way use him.
To her he became a symbol. Sometimes he came into the office and stood
for a moment by the door. His large hands were covered with black
grease. She looked at him without seeing. In his place in her
imagination stood a tall slender young man. Of the foreman she saw only
the grey eyes that began to burn with a strange fire. The eyes
expressed eagerness, a humble and devout eagerness. In the presence of
a man with such eyes she felt she need not be afraid.
She wanted a lover who would come to her with such a look in his eyes.
Occasionally, perhaps once in two weeks, she stayed a little late at
the office, pretending to have work that must be finished. Through the
window she could see the foreman waiting. When everyone had gone she
closed her desk and went into the street. At the same moment the
foreman came out at the factory door.
They walked together along the street a half dozen blocks to where she
got aboard her car. The factory was in a place called South Chicago and
as they went along evening was coming on. The streets were lined with
small unpainted frame houses and dirty faced children ran screaming in
the dusty roadway. They crossed over a bridge. Two abandoned coal
barges lay rotting in the stream.
He went by her side walking heavily and striving to conceal his hands.
He had scrubbed them carefully before leaving the factory but they
seemed to him like heavy dirty pieces of waste matter hanging at his
side. Their walking together happened but a few times and during one
summer. "It's hot," he said. He never spoke to her of anything but the
weather. "It's hot," he said. "I think it may rain."
She dreamed of the lover who would some time come, a tall fair young
man, a rich man owning houses and lands. The workingman who walked
beside her had nothing to do with her conception of love. She walked
with him, stayed at the office until the others had gone to walk
unobserved with him because of his eyes, because of the eager thing in
his eyes that was at the same time humble, that bowed down to her. In
his presence there was no danger, could be no danger. He would never
attempt to approach too closely, to touch her with his hands. She was
safe with him.
In his apartment in the evening the man sat under the electric light
with his wife and his mother-in-law. In the next room his two children
were asleep. In a short time his wife would have another child. He had
been with her to a picture show and in a short time they would get into
He would lie awake thinking, would hear the creaking of the springs of
a bed where, in another room, his mother-in-law was crawling between
the sheets. Life was too intimate. He would lie awake eager, expectant
Nothing. Presently one of the children would cry. It wanted to get out
of bed and sit on the po-po. Nothing strange or unusual or lovely would
or could happen. Life was too close, intimate. Nothing that could
happen in the apartment could in any way stir him; the things his wife
might say, her occasional half-hearted outbursts of passion, the
goodness of his mother-in-law who did the work of a servant without
He sat in the apartment under the electric light pretending to read a
newspaper--thinking. He looked at his hands. They were large,
shapeless, a working-man's hands.
The figure of the girl from Iowa walked about the room. With her he
went out of the apartment and walked in silence through miles of
streets. It was not necessary to say words. He walked with her by a
sea, along the crest of a mountain. The night was clear and silent and
the stars shone. She also was a star. It was not necessary to say
Her eyes were like stars and her lips were like soft hills rising out
of dim, star lit plains. "She is unattainable, she is far off like the
stars," he thought. "She is unattainable like the stars but unlike the
stars she breathes, she lives, like myself she has being."
One evening, some six weeks ago, the man who worked as foreman in the
bicycle factory killed his wife and he is now in the courts being tried
for murder. Every day the newspapers are filled with the story. On the
evening of the murder he had taken his wife as usual to a picture show
and they started home at nine. In Thirty-second Street, at a corner
near their apartment building, the figure of a man darted suddenly out
of an alleyway and then darted back again. The incident may have put
the idea of killing his wife into the man's head.
They got to the entrance to the apartment building and stepped into a
dark hallway. Then quite suddenly and apparently without thought the
man took a knife out of his pocket. "Suppose that man who darted into
the alleyway had intended to kill us," he thought. Opening the knife he
whirled about and struck at his wife. He struck twice, a dozen times--
madly. There was a scream and his wife's body fell.
The janitor had neglected to light the gas in the lower hallway.
Afterwards, the foreman, decided, that was the reason he did it, that
and the fact that the dark slinking figure of a man darted out of an
alleyway and then darted back again. "Surely," he told himself, "I
could never have done it had the gas been lighted."
He stood in the hallway thinking. His wife was dead and with her had
died her unborn child. There was a sound of doors opening in the
apartments above. For several minutes nothing happened. His wife and
her unborn child were dead--that was all.
He ran upstairs thinking quickly. In the darkness on the lower stairway
he had put the knife back into his pocket and, as it turned out later,
there was no blood on his hands or on his clothes. The knife he later
washed carefully in the bathroom, when the excitement had died down a
little. He told everyone the same story. "There has been a holdup," he
explained. "A man came slinking out of an alleyway and followed me and
my wife home. He followed us into the hallway of the building and there
was no light. The janitor has neglected to light the gas." Well--there
had been a struggle and in the darkness his wife had been killed. He
could not tell how it had happened. "There was no light. The janitor
has neglected to light the gas," he kept saying.
For a day or two they did not question him specially and he had time to
get rid of the knife. He took a long walk and threw it away into the
river in South Chicago where the two abandoned coal barges lay rotting
under the bridge, the bridge he had crossed when on the summer evenings
he walked to the street car with the girl who was virginal and pure,
who was far off and unattainable, like a star and yet not like a star.
And then he was arrested and right away he confessed--told everything.
He said he did not know why he killed his wife and was careful to say
nothing of the girl at the office. The newspapers tried to discover the
motive for the crime. They are still trying. Someone had seen him on
the few evenings when he walked with the girl and she was dragged into
the affair and had her picture printed in the papers. That has been
annoying for her as of course she has been able to prove she had
nothing to do with the man.
* * * * *
Yesterday morning a heavy fog lay over our village here at the edge of
the city and I went for a long walk in the early morning. As I returned
out of the lowlands into our hill country I met the old man whose
family has so many and such strange ramifications. For a time he walked
beside me holding the little dog in his arms. It was cold and the dog
whined and shivered. In the fog the old man's face was indistinct. It
moved slowly back and forth with the fog banks of the upper air and
with the tops of trees. He spoke of the man who has killed his wife and
whose name is being shouted in the pages of the city newspapers that
come to our village each morning. As he walked beside me he launched
into a long tale concerning a life he and his brother, who has now
become a murderer, once lived together. "He is my brother," he said
over and over, shaking his head. He seemed afraid I would not believe.
There was a fact that must be established. "We were boys together that
man and I," he began again. "You see we played together in a barn back
of our father's house. Our father went away to sea in a ship. That is
the way our names became confused. You understand that. We have
different names, but we are brothers. We had the same father. We played
together in a barn back of our father's house. For hours we lay
together in the hay in the barn and it was warm there."
In the fog the slender body of the old man became like a little gnarled
tree. Then it became a thing suspended in air. It swung back and forth
like a body hanging on the gallows. The face beseeched me to believe
the story the lips were trying to tell. In my mind everything
concerning the relationship of men and women became confused, a muddle.
The spirit of the man who had killed his wife came into the body of the
little old man there by the roadside.
It was striving to tell me the story it would never be able to tell in
the court room in the city, in the presence of the judge. The whole
story of mankind's loneliness, of the effort to reach out to
unattainable beauty tried to get itself expressed from the lips of a
mumbling old man, crazed with loneliness, who stood by the side of a
country road on a foggy morning holding a little dog in his arms.
The arms of the old man held the dog so closely that it began to whine
with pain. A sort of convulsion shook his body. The soul seemed
striving to wrench itself out of the body, to fly away through the fog,
down across the plain to the city, to the singer, the politician, the
millionaire, the murderer, to its brothers, cousins, sisters, down in
the city. The intensity of the old man's desire was terrible and in
sympathy my body began to tremble. His arms tightened about the body of
the little dog so that it cried with pain. I stepped forward and tore
the arms away and the dog fell to the ground and lay whining. No doubt
it had been injured. Perhaps ribs had been crushed. The old man stared
at the dog lying at his feet as in the hallway of the apartment
building the worker from the bicycle factory had stared at his dead
wife. "We are brothers," he said again. "We have different names but we
are brothers. Our father you understand went off to sea."
* * * * *
I am sitting in my house in the country and it rains. Before my eyes
the hills fall suddenly away and there are the flat plains and beyond
the plains the city. An hour ago the old man of the house in the forest
went past my door and the little dog was not with him. It may be that
as we talked in the fog he crushed the life out of his companion. It
may be that the dog like the workman's wife and her unborn child is now
dead. The leaves of the trees that line the road before my window are
falling like rain--the yellow, red and golden leaves fall straight
down, heavily. The rain beat them brutally down. They are denied a last
golden flash across the sky. In October leaves should be carried away,
out over the plains, in a wind. They should go dancing away.
THE DOOR OF THE TRAP
Winifred Walker understood some things clearly enough. She understood
that when a man is put behind iron bars he is in prison. Marriage was
marriage to her.
It was that to her husband Hugh Walker, too, as he found out. Still he
didn't understand. It might have been better had he understood, then he
might at least have found himself. He didn't. After his marriage five
or six years passed like shadows of wind blown trees playing on a wall.
He was in a drugged, silent state. In the morning and evening every day
he saw his wife. Occasionally something happened within him and he
kissed her. Three children were born. He taught mathematics in the
little college at Union Valley, Illinois, and waited.
For what? He began to ask himself that question. It came to him at
first faintly like an echo. Then it became an insistent question. "I
want answering," the question seemed to say. "Stop fooling along. Give
your attention to me."
Hugh walked through the streets of the Illinois town. "Well, I'm
married. I have children," he muttered.
He went home to his own house. He did not have to live within his
income from the little college, and so the house was rather large and
comfortably furnished. There was a negro woman who took care of the
children and another who cooked and did the housework. One of the women
was in the habit of crooning low soft negro songs. Sometimes Hugh
stopped at the house door and listened. He could see through the glass
in the door into the room where his family was gathered. Two children
played with blocks on the floor. His wife sat sewing. The old negress
sat in a rocking chair with his youngest child, a baby, in her arms.
The whole room seemed under the spell of the crooning voice. Hugh fell
under the spell. He waited in silence. The voice carried him far away
somewhere, into forests, along the edges of swamps. There was nothing
very definite about his thinking. He would have given a good deal to be
able to be definite.
He went inside the house. "Well, here I am," his mind seemed to say,
"here I am. This is my house, these are my children."
He looked at his wife Winifred. She had grown a little plump since
their marriage. "Perhaps it is the mother in her coming out, she has
had three children," he thought.
The crooning old negro woman went away, taking the youngest child with
her. He and Winifred held a fragmentary conversation. "Have you been
well to-day, dear?" she asked. "Yes," he answered.
If the two older children were intent on their play his chain of
thought was not broken. His wife never broke it as the children did
when they came running to pull and tear at him. Throughout the early
evening, after the children went to bed, the surface of the shell of
him was not broken at all. A brother college professor and his wife
came in or he and Winifred went to a neighbor's house. There was talk.
Even when he and Winifred were alone together in the house there was
talk. "The shutters are becoming loose," she said. The house was an old
one and had green shutters. They were continually coming loose and at
night blew back and forth on their hinges making a loud banging noise.
Hugh made some remark. He said he would see a carpenter about the
shutters. Then his mind began playing away, out of his wife's presence,
out of the house, in another sphere. "I am a house and my shutters are
loose," his mind said. He thought of himself as a living thing inside a
shell, trying to break out. To avoid distracting conversation he got a
book and pretended to read. When his wife had also begun to read he
watched her closely, intently. Her nose was so and so and her eyes so
and so. She had a little habit with her hands. When she became lost in
the pages of a book the hand crept up to her cheek, touched it and then
was put down again. Her hair was not in very good order. Since her
marriage and the coming of the children she had not taken good care of
her body. When she read her body slumped down in the chair. It became
bag-like. She was one whose race had been run.
Hugh's mind played all about the figure of his wife but did not really
approach the woman who sat before him. It was so with his children.
Sometimes, just for a moment, they were living things to him, things as
alive as his own body. Then for long periods they seemed to go far away
like the crooning voice of the negress.
It was odd that the negress was always real enough. He felt an
understanding existed between himself and the negress. She was outside
his life. He could look at her as at a tree. Sometimes in the evening
when she had been putting the children to bed in the upper part of the
house and when he sat with a book in his hand pretending to read, the
old black woman came softly through the room, going toward the kitchen.
She did not look at Winifred, but at Hugh. He thought there was a
strange, soft light in her old eyes. "I understand you, my son," her
eyes seemed to say.
Hugh was determined to get his life cleaned up if he could manage it.
"All right, then," he said, as though speaking to a third person in the
room. He was quite sure there was a third person there and that the
third person was within himself, inside his body. He addressed the
"Well, there is this woman, this person I married, she has the air of
something accomplished," he said, as though speaking aloud. Sometimes
it almost seemed to him he had spoken aloud and he looked quickly and
sharply at his wife. She continued reading, lost in her book. "That may
be it," he went on. "She has had these children. They are accomplished
facts to her. They came out of her body, not out of mine. Her body has
done something. Now it rests. If she is becoming a little bag-like,
that's all right."
He got up and making some trivial excuse got out of the room and out of
the house. In his youth and young manhood the long periods of walking
straight ahead through the country, that had come upon him like
visitations of some recurring disease, had helped. Walking solved
nothing. It only tired his body, but when his body was tired he could
sleep. After many days of walking and sleeping something occurred. The
reality of life was in some queer way re-established in his mind. Some
little thing happened. A man walking in the road before him threw a
stone at a dog that ran barking out of a farm-house. It was evening
perhaps, and he walked in a country of low hills. Suddenly he came out
upon the top of one of the hills. Before him the road dipped down into
darkness but to the west, across fields, there was a farm-house. The
sun had gone down, but a faint glow lit the western horizon. A. woman
came out of the farmhouse and went toward a barn. He could not see her
figure distinctly. She seemed to be carrying something, no doubt a milk
pail; she was going to a barn to milk a cow.
The man in the road who had thrown the stone at the farm dog had turned
and seen Hugh in the road behind him. He was a little ashamed of having
been afraid of the dog. For a moment he seemed about to wait and speak
to Hugh, and then was overcome with confusion and hurried away. He was
a middle-aged man, but quite suddenly and unexpectedly he looked like a
As for the farm woman, dimly seen going toward a distant barn, she also
stopped and looked toward him. It was impossible she should have seen
him. She was dressed in white and he could see her but dimly against
the blackish green of the trees of an orchard behind her. Still she
stood looking and seemed to look directly into his eyes. He had a queer
sensation of her having been lifted by an unseen hand and brought to
him. It seemed to him he knew all about her life, all about the life of
the man who had thrown the stone at the dog.
In his youth, when life had stepped out of his grasp, Hugh had walked
and walked until several such things had occurred and then suddenly he
was all right again and could again work and live among men.
After his marriage and after such an evening at home he started walking
rapidly as soon as he left the house. As quickly as possible he got out
of town and struck out along a road that led over the rolling prairie.
"Well, I can't walk for days and days as I did once," he thought.
"There are certain facts in life and I must face facts. Winifred, my
wife, is a fact, and my children are facts. I must get my fingers on
facts. I must live by them and with them. It's the way lives are
Hugh got out of town and on to a road that ran between cornfields. He
was an athletic looking man and wore loose fitting clothes. He went
along distraught and puzzled. In a way he felt like a man capable of
taking a man's place in life and in another way he didn't at all.
The country spread out, wide, in all directions. It was always night
when he walked thus and he could not see, but the realization of
distances was always with him. "Everything goes on and on but I stand
still," he thought. He had been a professor in the little college for
six years. Young men and women had come into a room and he had taught
them. It was nothing. Words and figures had been played with. An effort
had been made to arouse minds.
There was the old question, always coming back, always wanting
answering as a little animal wants food. Hugh gave up trying to answer.
He walked rapidly, trying to grow physically tired. He made his mind
attend to little things in the effort to forget distances. One night he
got out of the road and walked completely around a cornfield. He
counted the stalks in each hill of corn and computed the number of
stalks in a whole field. "It should yield twelve hundred bushels of
corn, that field," he said to himself dumbly, as though it mattered to
him. He pulled a little handful of cornsilk out of the top of an ear of
corn and played with it. He tried to fashion himself a yellow
moustache. "I'd be quite a fellow with a trim yellow moustache," he
One day in his class-room Hugh suddenly began to look with new interest
at his pupils. A young girl attracted his attention. She sat beside the
son of a Union Valley merchant and the young man was writing something
on the back of a book. She looked at it and then turned her head away.
The young man waited.
It was winter and the merchant's son had asked the girl to go with him
to a skating party. Hugh, however, did not know that. He felt suddenly
old. When he asked the girl a question she was confused. Her voice
When the class was dismissed an amazing thing happened. He asked the
merchant's son to stay for a moment and, when the two were alone
together in the room, he grew suddenly and furiously angry. His voice
was, however, cold and steady. "Young man," he said, "you do not come
into this room to write on the back of a book and waste your time. If I
see anything of the kind again I'll do something you don't expect. I'll
throw you out through a window, that's what I'll do."
Hugh made a gesture and the young man went away, white and silent. Hugh
felt miserable. For several days he thought about the girl who had
quite accidentally attracted his attention. "I'll get acquainted with
her. I'll find out about her," he thought.
It was not an unusual thing for professors in the college at Union
Valley to take students home to their houses. Hugh decided he would
take the girl to his home. He thought about it several days and late
one afternoon saw her going down the college hill ahead of him.
The girl's name was Mary Cochran and she had come to the school but a
few months before from a place called Huntersburg, Illinois, no doubt
just such another place as Union Valley. He knew nothing of her except
that her father was dead, her mother too, perhaps. He walked rapidly
down the hill to overtake her. "Miss Cochran," he called, and was
surprised to find that his voice trembled a little. "What am I so eager
about?" he asked himself. A new life began in Hugh Walker's house. It
was good for the man to have some one there who did not belong to him,
and Winifred Walker and the children accepted the presence of the girl.
Winifred urged her to come again. She did come several times a week.
To Mary Cochran it was comforting to be in the presence of a family of
children. On winter afternoons she took Hugh's two sons and a sled and
went to a small hill near the house. Shouts arose. Mary Cochran pulled
the sled up the hill and the children followed. Then they all came
tearing down together.
The girl, developing rapidly into womanhood, looked upon Hugh Walker as
something that stood completely outside her own life. She and the man
who had become suddenly and intensely interested in her had little to
say to each other and Winifred seemed to have accepted her without
question as an addition to the household. Often in the afternoon when
the two negro women were busy she went away leaving the two older
children in Mary's charge.
It was late afternoon and perhaps Hugh had walked home with Mary from
the college. In the spring he worked in the neglected garden. It had
been plowed and planted, but he took a hoe and rake and puttered about.
The children played about the house with the college girl. Hugh did not
look at them but at her. "She is one of the world of people with whom I
live and with whom I am supposed to work here," he thought. "Unlike
Winifred and these children she does not belong to me. I could go to
her now, touch her fingers, look at her and then go away and never see
That thought was a comfort to the distraught man. In the evening when
he went out to walk the sense of distance that lay all about him did
not tempt him to walk and walk, going half insanely forward for hours,
trying to break through an intangible wall.
He thought about Mary Cochran. She was a girl from a country town. She
must be like millions of American girls. He wondered what went on in
her mind as she sat in his class-room, as she walked beside him along
the streets of Union Valley, as she played with the children in the
yard beside his house.
In the winter, when in the growing darkness of a late afternoon Mary
and the children built a snow man in the yard, he went upstairs and
stood in the darkness to look out a window. The tall straight figure of
the girl, dimly seen, moved quickly about. "Well, nothing has happened
to her. She may be anything or nothing. Her figure is like a young tree
that has not borne fruit," he thought. He went away to his own room and
sat for a long time in the darkness. That night when he left the house
for his evening's walk he did not stay long but hurried home and went
to his own room. He locked the door. Unconsciously he did not want
Winifred to come to the door and disturb his thoughts. Sometimes she
All the time she read novels. She read the novels of Robert Louis
Stevenson. When she had read them all she began again.
Sometimes she came upstairs and stood talking by his door. She told
some tale, repeated some wise saying that had fallen unexpectedly from
the lips of the children. Occasionally she came into the room and
turned out the light. There was a couch by a window. She went to sit on
the edge of the couch. Something happened. It was as it had been before
their marriage. New life came into her figure. He also went to sit on
the couch and she put up her hand and touched his face.
Hugh did not want that to happen now. He stood within the room for a
moment and then unlocked the door and went to the head of the stairs.
"Be quiet when you come up, Winifred. I have a headache and am going to
try to sleep," he lied.
When he had gone back to his own room and locked the door again he felt
safe. He did not undress but threw himself on the couch and turned out
He thought about Mary Cochran, the school girl, but was sure he thought
about her in a quite impersonal way. She was like the woman going to
milk cows he had seen across hills when he was a young fellow and
walked far and wide over the country to cure the restlessness in
himself. In his life she was like the man who threw the stone at dog.
"Well, she is unformed; she is like a young tree," he told himself
again. "People are like that. They just grow up suddenly out of
childhood. It will happen to my own children. My little Winifred that
cannot yet say words will suddenly be like this girl. I have not
selected her to think about for any particular reason. For some reason
I have drawn away from life and she has brought me back. It might have
happened when I saw a child playing in the street or an old man going
up a stairway into a house. She does not belong to me. She will go away
out of my sight. Winifred and the children will stay on and on here and
I will stay on and on. We are imprisoned by the fact that we belong to
each other. This Mary Cochran is free, or at least she is free as far
as this prison is concerned. No doubt she will, after a while make a
prison of her own and live in it, but I will have nothing to do with
By the time Mary Cochran was in her third year in the college at Union
Valley she had become almost a fixture in the Walker household. Still
she did not know Hugh. She knew the children better than he did,
perhaps better than their mother. In the fall she and the two boys went
to the woods to gather nuts. In the winter they went skating on a
little pond near the house.
Winifred accepted her as she accepted everything, the service of the
two negroes, the coming of the children, the habitual silence of her
And then quite suddenly and unexpectedly Hugh's silence, that had
lasted all through his married life, was broken up. He walked homeward
with a German who had the chair of modern languages in the school and
got into a violent quarrel. He stopped to speak to men on the street.
When he went to putter about in the garden he whistled and sang.
One afternoon in the fall he came home and found the whole family
assembled in the living room of the house. The children were playing on
the floor and the negress sat in the chair by the window with his
youngest child in her arms, crooning one of the negro songs. Mary
Cochran was there. She sat reading a book.
Hugh walked directly toward her and looked over her shoulder. At that
moment Winifred came into the room. He reached forward and snatched the
book out of the girl's hands. She looked up startled. With an oath he
threw it into the fire that burned in an open grate at the side of the
room. A flood of words ran from him. He cursed books and people and
schools. "Damn it all," he said. "What makes you want to read about
life? What makes people want to think about life? Why don't they live?
Why don't they leave books and thoughts and schools alone?"
He turned to look at his wife who had grown pale and stared at him with
a queer fixed uncertain stare. The old negro woman got up and went
quickly away. The two older children began to cry. Hugh was miserable.
He looked at the startled girl in the chair who also had tears in her
eyes, and at his wife. His fingers pulled nervously at his coat. To the
two women he looked like a boy who had been caught stealing food in a
pantry. "I am having one of my silly irritable spells," he said,
looking at his wife but in reality addressing the girl. "You see I am
more serious than I pretend to be. I was not irritated by your book but
by something else. I see so much that can be done in life and I do so
He went upstairs to his own room wondering why he had lied to the two
women, why he continually lied to himself.
Did he lie to himself? He tried to answer the question but couldn't. He
was like one who walks in the darkness of the hallway of a house and
comes to a blank wall. The old desire to run away from life, to wear
himself out physically, came back upon him like a madness.
For a long time he stood in the darkness inside his own room. The
children stopped crying and the house became quiet again. He could hear
his wife's voice speaking softly and presently the back door of the
house banged and he knew the schoolgirl had gone away.
Life in the house began again. Nothing happened. Hugh ate his dinner in
silence and went for a long walk. For two weeks Mary Cochran did not
come to his house and then one day he saw her on the college grounds.
She was no longer one of his pupils. "Please do not desert us because
of my rudeness," he said. The girl blushed and said nothing. When he
got home that evening she was in the yard beside the house playing with
the children. He went at once to his own room. A hard smile came and
went on his face. "She isn't like a young tree any more. She is almost
like Winifred. She is almost like a person who belongs here, who
belongs to me and my life," he thought.
* * * * *
Mary Cochran's visits to the Walker household came to an end very
abruptly. One evening when Hugh was in his room she came up the
stairway with the two boys. She had dined with the family and was
putting the two boys into their beds. It was a privilege she claimed
when she dined with the Walkers.
Hugh had hurried upstairs immediately after dining. He knew where his
wife was. She was downstairs, sitting under a lamp, reading one of the
books of Robert Louis Stevenson.
For a long time Hugh could hear the voices of his children on the floor
above. Then the thing happened.
Mary Cochran came down the stairway that led past the door of his room.
She stopped, turned back and climbed the stairs again to the room
above. Hugh arose and stepped into the hallway. The schoolgirl had
returned to the children's room because she had been suddenly overtaken
with a hunger to kiss Hugh's oldest boy, now a lad of nine. She crept
into the room and stood for a long time looking at the two boys, who
unaware of her presence had gone to sleep. Then she stole forward and
kissed the boy lightly. When she went out of the room Hugh stood in the
darkness waiting for her. He took hold of her hand and led her down the
stairs to his own room.
She was terribly afraid and her fright in an odd way pleased him.
"Well," he whispered, "you can't understand now what's going to happen
here but some day you will. I'm going to kiss you and then I'm going to
ask you to go out of this house and never come back."
He held the girl against his body and kissed her upon the cheeks and
lips. When he led her to the door she was so weak with fright and with
new, strange, trembling desires that she could with difficulty make her
way down the stair and into his wife's presence. "She will lie now," he
thought, and heard her voice coming up the stairs like an echo to his
thoughts. "I have a terrible headache. I must hurry home," he heard her
voice saying. The voice was dull and heavy. It was not the voice of a
"She is no longer like a young tree," he thought. He was glad and proud
of what he had done. When he heard the door at the back of the house
close softly his heart jumped. A strange quivering light came into his
eyes. "She will be imprisoned but I will have nothing to do with it.
She will never belong to me. My hands will never build a prison for
her," he thought with grim pleasure.
THE NEW ENGLANDER
Her name was Elsie Leander and her girlhood was spent on her father's
farm in Vermont. For several generations the Leanders had all lived on
the same farm and had all married thin women, and so she was thin. The
farm lay in the shadow of a mountain and the soil was not very rich.
From the beginning and for several generations there had been a great
many sons and few daughters in the family. The sons had gone west or to
New York City and the daughters had stayed at home and thought such
thoughts as come to New England women who see the sons of their
fathers' neighbors slipping away, one by one, into the West.
Her father's house was a small white frame affair and when you went out
at the back door, past a small barn and chicken house, you got into a
path that ran up the side of a hill and into an orchard. The trees were
all old and gnarled. At the back of the orchard the hill dropped away
and bare rocks showed.
Inside the fence a large grey rock stuck high up out of the ground. As
Elsie sat with her back to the rock, with a mangled hillside at her
feet, she could see several large mountains, apparently but a short
distance away, and between herself and the mountains lay many tiny
fields surrounded by neatly built stone walls. Everywhere rocks
appeared. Large ones, too heavy to be moved, stuck out of the ground in
the centre of the fields. The fields were like cups filled with a green
liquid that turned grey in the fall and white in the winter. The
mountains, far off but apparently near at hand, were like giants ready
at any moment to reach out their hands and take the cups one by one and
drink off the green liquid. The large rocks in the fields were like the
thumbs of the giants.
Elsie had three brothers, born before her, but they had all gone away.
Two of them had gone to live with her uncle in the West and her oldest
brother had gone to New York City where he had married and prospered.
All through his youth and manhood her father had worked hard and had
lived a hard life, but his son in New York City had begun to send money
home, and after that things went better. He still worked every day
about the barn or in the fields but he did not worry about the future.
Elsie's mother did house work in the mornings and in the afternoons sat
in a rocking chair in her tiny living room and thought of her sons
while she crocheted table covers and tidies for the backs of chairs.
She was a silent woman, very thin and with very thin bony hands. She
did not ease herself into a rocking chair but sat down and got up
suddenly, and when she crocheted her back was as straight as the back
of a drill sergeant.
The mother rarely spoke to the daughter. Sometimes in the afternoons as
the younger woman went up the hillside to her place by the rock at the
back of the orchard, her father came out of the barn and stopped her.
He put a hand on her shoulder and asked her where she was going. "To
the rock," she said and her father laughed. His laughter was like the
creaking of a rusty barn door hinge and the hand he had laid on her
shoulders was thin like her own hands and like her mother's hands. The
father went into the barn shaking his head. "She's like her mother. She
is herself like a rock," he thought. At the head of the path that led
from the house to the orchard there was a great cluster of bayberry
bushes. The New England farmer came out of his barn to watch his
daughter go along the path, but she had disappeared behind the bushes.
He looked away past his house to the fields and to the mountains in the
distance. He also saw the green cup-like fields and the grim mountains.
There was an almost imperceptible tightening of the muscles of his half
worn-out old body. For a long time he stood in silence and then,
knowing from long experience the danger of having thoughts, he went
back into the barn and busied himself with the mending of an
agricultural tool that had been mended many times before.
The son of the Leanders who went to live in New York City was the
father of one son, a thin sensitive boy who looked like Elsie. The son
died when he was twenty-three years old and some years later the father
died and left his money to the old people on the New England farm. The
two Leanders who had gone west had lived there with their father's
brother, a farmer, until they grew into manhood. Then Will, the
younger, got a job on a railroad. He was killed one winter morning. It
was a cold snowy day and when the freight train he was in charge of as
conductor left the city of Des Moines, he started to run over the tops
of the cars. His feet slipped and he shot down into space. That was the
end of him.
Of the new generation there was only Elsie and her brother Tom, whom
she had never seen, left alive. Her father and mother talked of going
west to Tom for two years before they came to a decision. Then it took
another year to dispose of the farm and make preparations. During the
whole time Elsie did not think much about the change about to take
place in her life.
The trip west on the railroad train jolted Elsie out of herself. In
spite of her detached attitude toward life she became excited. Her
mother sat up very straight and stiff in the seat in the sleeping car
and her father walked up and down in the aisle. After a night when the
younger of the two women did not sleep but lay awake with red burning
cheeks and with her thin fingers incessantly picking at the bed clothes
in her berth while the train went through towns and cities, crawled up
the sides of hills and fell down into forest-clad valleys, she got up
and dressed to sit all day looking at a new kind of land. The train ran
for a day and through another sleepless night in a flat land where
every field was as large as a farm in her own country. Towns appeared
and disappeared in a continual procession. The whole land was so unlike
anything she had ever known that she began to feel unlike herself. In
the valley where she had been born and where she had lived all her days
everything had an air of finality. Nothing could be changed. The tiny
fields were chained to the earth. They were fixed in their places and
surrounded by aged stone walls. The fields like the mountains that
looked down at them were as unchangeable as the passing days. She had a
feeling they had always been so, would always be so.
Elsie sat like her mother, upright in the car seat and with a back like
the back of a drill sergeant. The train ran swiftly along through Ohio
and Indiana. Her thin hands like her mother's hands were crossed and
locked. One passing casually through the car might have thought both
women prisoners handcuffed and bound to their seats. Night came on and
she again got into her berth. Again she lay awake and her thin cheeks
became flushed, but she thought new thoughts. Her hands were no longer
gripped together and she did not pick at the bed clothes. Twice during
the night she stretched herself and yawned, a thing she had never in
her life done before. The train stopped at a town on the prairies, and
as there was something the matter with one of the wheels of the car in
which she lay the trainsmen came with flaming torches to tinker it.
There was a great pounding and shouting. When the train went on its way
she wanted to get out of her berth and run up and down in the aisle of
the car. The fancy had come to her that the men tinkering with the car
wheel were new men out of the new land who with strong hammers had
broken away the doors of her prison. They had destroyed forever the
programme she had made for her life.
Elsie was filled with joy at the thought that the train was still going
on into the West. She wanted to go on forever in a straight line into
the unknown. She fancied herself no longer on a train and imagined she
had become a winged thing flying through space. Her long years of
sitting alone by the rock on the New England farm had got her into the
habit of expressing her thoughts aloud. Her thin voice broke the
silence that lay over the sleeping car and her father and mother, both
also lying awake, sat up in their berth to listen.
Tom Leander, the only living male representative of the new generation
of Leanders, was a loosely built man of forty inclined to corpulency.
At twenty he had married the daughter of a neighboring farmer, and when
his wife inherited some money she and Tom moved into the town of Apple
Junction in Iowa where Tom opened a grocery. The venture prospered as
did Tom's matrimonial venture. When his brother died in New York City
and his father, mother, and sister decided to come west Tom was already
the father of a daughter and four sons.
On the prairies north of town and in the midst of a vast level stretch
of cornfields, there was a partly completed brick house that had
belonged to a rich farmer named Russell who had begun to build the
house intending to make it the most magnificent place in the county,
but when it was almost completed he had found himself without money and
heavily in debt. The farm, consisting of several hundred acres of corn
land, had been split into three farms and sold. No one had wanted the
huge unfinished brick house. For years it had stood vacant, its windows
staring out over the fields that had been planted almost up to the
In buying the Russell house Tom was moved by two motives. He had a
notion that in New England the Leanders had been rather magnificent
people. His memory of his father's place in the Vermont valley was
shadowy, but in speaking of it to his wife he became very definite. "We
had good blood in us, we Leanders," he said, straightening his
shoulders. "We lived in a big house. We were important people."
Wanting his father and mother to feel at home in the new place, Tom had
also another motive. He was not a very energetic man and, although he
had done well enough as keeper of a grocery, his success was largely
due to the boundless energy of his wife. She did not pay much attention
to her household and her children, like little animals, had to take
care of themselves, but in any matter concerning the store her word was
To have his father the owner of the Russell place Tom felt would
establish him as a man of consequence in the eyes of his neighbors. "I
can tell you what, they're used to a big house," he said to his wife.
"I tell you what, my people are used to living in style."
* * * * *
The exaltation that had come over Elsie on the train wore away in the
presence of the grey empty Iowa fields, but something of the effect of
it remained with her for months. In the big brick house life went on
much as it had in the tiny New England house where she had always
lived. The Leanders installed themselves in three or four rooms on the
ground floor. After a few weeks the furniture that had been shipped by
freight arrived and was hauled out from town in one of Tom's grocery
wagons. There were three or four acres of ground covered with great
piles of boards the unsuccessful farmer had intended to use in the
building of stables. Tom sent men to haul the boards away and Elsie's
father prepared to plant a garden. They had come west in April and as
soon as they were installed in the house ploughing and planting began
in the fields nearby. The habit of a lifetime returned to the daughter
of the house. In the new place there was no gnarled orchard surrounded
by a half-ruined stone fence. All of the fences in all of the fields
that stretched away out of sight to the north, south, east, and west
were made of wire and looked like spider webs against the blackness of
the ground when it had been freshly ploughed.
There was however the house itself. It was like an island rising out of
the sea. In an odd way the house, although it was less than ten years
old, was very old. Its unnecessary bigness represented an old impulse
in men. Elsie felt that. At the east side there was a door leading to a
stairway that ran into the upper part of the house that was kept
locked. Two or three stone steps led up to it. Elsie could sit on the
top step with her back against the door and gaze into the distance
without being disturbed. Almost at her feet began the fields that
seemed to go on and on forever. The fields were like the waters of a
sea. Men came to plough and plant. Giant horses moved in a procession
across the prairies. A young man who drove six horses came directly
toward her. She was fascinated. The breasts of the horses as they came
forward with bowed heads seemed like the breasts of giants. The soft
spring air that lay over the fields was also like a sea. The horses
were giants walking on the floor of a sea. With their breasts they
pushed the waters of the sea before them. They were pushing the waters
out of the basin of the sea. The young man who drove them also was a
* * * * *
Elsie pressed her body against the closed door at the top of the steps.
In the garden back of the house she could hear her father at work. He
was raking dry masses of weeds off the ground preparatory to spading it
for a family garden. He had always worked in a tiny confined place and
would do the same thing here. In this vast open place he would work
with small tools, doing little things with infinite care, raising
little vegetables. In the house her mother would crochet little tidies.
She herself would be small. She would press her body against the door
of the house, try to get herself out of sight. Only the feeling that
sometimes took possession of her, and that did not form itself into a
thought would be large.
The six horses turned at the fence and the outside horse got entangled
in the traces. The driver swore vigorously. Then he turned and started
at the pale New Englander and with another oath pulled the heads of the
horses about and drove away into the distance. The field in which he
was ploughing contained two hundred acres. Elsie did not wait for him
to return but went into the house and sat with folded arms in a room.
The house she thought was a ship floating in a sea on the floor of
which giants went up and down.
May came and then June. In the great fields work was always going on
and Elsie became somewhat used to the sight of the young man in the
field that came down to the steps. Sometimes when he drove his horses
down to the wire fence he smiled and nodded.
* * * * *
In the month of August, when it is very hot, the corn in Iowa fields
grows until the corn stalks resemble young trees. The corn fields
become forests. The time for the cultivating of the corn has passed and
weeds grow thick between the corn rows. The men with their giant horses
have gone away. Over the immense fields silence broods.
When the time of the laying-by of the crop came that first summer after
Elsie's arrival in the West her mind, partially awakened by the
strangeness of the railroad trip, awakened again. She did not feel like
a staid thin woman with a back like the back of a drill sergeant, but
like something new and as strange as the new land into which she had
come to live. For a time she did not know what was the matter. In the
field the corn had grown so high that she could not see into the
distance. The corn was like a wall and the little bare spot of land on
which her father's house stood was like a house built behind the walls
of a prison. For a time she was depressed, thinking that she had come
west into a wide open country, only to find herself locked up more
closely than ever.
An impulse came to her. She arose and going down three or four steps
seated herself almost on a level with the ground.
Immediately she got a sense of release. She could not see over the corn
but she could see under it. The corn had long wide leaves that met over
the rows. The rows became long tunnels running away into infinity. Out
of the black ground grew weeds that made a soft carpet of green. From
above light sifted down. The corn rows were mysteriously beautiful.
They were warm passageways running out into life. She got up from the
steps and, walking timidly to the wire fence that separated her from
the field, put her hand between the wires and took hold of one of the
corn stalks. For some reason after she had touched the strong young
stalk and had held it for a moment firmly in her hand she grew afraid.
Running quickly back to the step she sat down and covered her face with
her hands. Her body trembled. She tried to imagine herself crawling
through the fence and wandering along one of the passageways. The
thought of trying the experiment fascinated but at the same time
terrified. She got quickly up and went into the house.
* * * * *
One Saturday night in August Elsie found herself unable to sleep.
Thoughts, more definite than any she had ever known before, came into
her mind. It was a quiet hot night and her bed stood near a window. Her
room was the only one the Leanders occupied on the second floor of the
house. At midnight a little breeze came up from the south and when she
sat up in bed the floor of corn tassels lying below her line of sight
looked in the moonlight like the face of a sea just stirred by a gentle
A murmuring began in the corn and murmuring thoughts and memories awoke
in her mind. The long wide succulent leaves had begun to dry in the
intense heat of the August days and as the wind stirred the corn they
rubbed against each other. A call, far away, as of a thousand voices
arose. She imagined the voices were like the voices of children. They
were not like her brother Tom's children, noisy boisterous little
animals, but something quite different, tiny little things with large
eyes and thin sensitive hands. One after another they crept into her
arms. She became so excited over the fancy that she sat up in bed and
taking a pillow into her arms held it against her breast. The figure of
her cousin, the pale sensitive young Leander who had lived with his
father in New York City and who had died at the age of twenty-three,
came into her mind. It was as though the young man had come suddenly
into the room. She dropped the pillow and sat waiting, intense,
Young Harry Leander had come to visit his cousin on the New England
farm during the late summer of the year before he died. He had stayed
there for a month and almost every afternoon had gone with Elsie to sit
by the rock at the back of the orchard. One afternoon when they had
both been for a long time silent he began to talk. "I want to go live
in the West," he said. "I want to go live in the West. I want to grow
strong and be a man," he repeated. Tears came into his eyes.
They got up to return to the house, Elsie walking in silence beside the
young man. The moment marked a high spot in her life. A strange
trembling eagerness for something she had not realized in her
experience of life had taken possession of her. They went in silence
through the orchard but when they came to the bayberry bush her cousin
stopped in the path and turned to face her. "I want you to kiss me," he
said eagerly, stepping toward her.
A fluttering uncertainty had taken possession of Elsie and had been
transmitted to her cousin. After he had made the sudden and unexpected
demand and had stepped so close to her that his breath could be felt on
her cheek, his own cheeks became scarlet and his hand that had taken
her hand trembled. "Well, I wish I were strong. I only wish I were
strong," he said hesitatingly and turning walked away along the path
toward the house.
And in the strange new house, set like an island in its sea of corn,
Harry Leander's voice seemed to arise again above the fancied voices of
the children that had been coming out of the fields. Elsie got out of
bed and walked up and down in the dim light coming through the window.
Her body trembled violently. "I want you to kiss me," the voice said
again and to quiet it and to quiet also the answering voice in herself
she went to kneel by the bed and taking the pillow again into her arms
pressed it against her face.
* * * * *
Tom Leander came with his wife and family to visit his father and
mother on Sundays. The family appeared at about ten o'clock in the
morning. When the wagon turned out of the road that ran past the
Russell place Tom shouted. There was a field between the house and the
road and the wagon could not be seen as it came along the narrow way
through the corn. After Tom had shouted, his daughter Elizabeth, a tall
girl of sixteen, jumped out of the wagon. All five children came
tearing toward the house through the corn. A series of wild shouts
arose on the still morning air.
The groceryman had brought food from the store. When the horse had been
unhitched and put into a shed he and his wife began to carry packages
into the house. The four Leander boys, accompanied by their sister,
disappeared into the near-by fields. Three dogs that had trotted out
from town under the wagon accompanied the children. Two or three
children and occasionally a young man from a neighboring farm had come
to join in the fun. Elsie's sister-in-law dismissed them all with a
wave of her hand. With a wave of her hand she also brushed Elsie aside.
Fires were lighted and the house reeked with the smell of cooking.
Elsie went to sit on the step at the side of the house. The corn fields
that had been so quiet rang with shouts and with the barking of dogs.
Tom Leander's oldest child, Elizabeth, was like her mother, full of
energy. She was thin and tall like the women of her father's house but
very strong and alive. In secret she wanted to be a lady but when she
tried her brothers, led by her father and mother, made fun of her.
"Don't put on airs," they said. When she got into the country with no
one but her brothers and two or three neighboring farm boys she herself
became a boy. With the boys she went tearing through the fields,
following the dogs in pursuit of rabbits. Sometimes a young man came
with the children from a near-by farm. Then she did not know what to do
with herself. She wanted to walk demurely along the rows through the
corn but was afraid her brothers would laugh and in desperation outdid
the boys in roughness and noisiness. She screamed and shouted and
running wildly tore her dress on the wire fences as she scrambled over
in pursuit of the dogs. When a rabbit was caught and killed she rushed
in and tore it out of the grasp of the dogs. The blood of the little
dying animal dripped on her clothes. She swung it over her head and
The farm hand who had worked all summer in the field within sight of
Elsie became enamoured of the young woman from town. When the
groceryman's family appeared on Sunday mornings he also appeared but
did not come to the house. When the boys and dogs came tearing through
the fields he joined them. He also was self-conscious and did not want
the boys to know the purpose of his coming and when he and Elizabeth
found themselves alone together he became embarrassed. For a moment
they walked together in silence. In a wide circle about them, in the
forest of the corn, ran the boys and dogs. The young man had something
he wanted to say, but when he tried to find words his tongue became
thick and his lips felt hot and dry. "Well," he began, "let's you and
Words failed him and Elizabeth turned and ran after her brothers and
for the rest of the day he could not manage to get her out of their
sight. When he went to join them she became the noisiest member of the
party. A frenzy of activity took possession of her. With hair hanging
down her back, with clothes torn and with cheeks and hands scratched
and bleeding she led her brothers in the endless wild pursuit of the
* * * * *
The Sunday in August that followed Elsie Leander's sleepless night was
hot and cloudy. In the morning she was half ill and as soon as the
visitors from town arrived she crept away to sit on the step at the
side of the house. The children ran away into the fields. An almost
overpowering desire to run with them, shouting and playing along the
corn rows took possession of her. She arose and went to the back of the
house. Her father was at work in the garden, pulling weeds from between
rows of vegetables. Inside the house she could hear her sister-in-law
moving about. On the front porch her brother Tom was asleep with his
mother beside him. Elsie went back to the step and then arose and went
to where the corn came down to the fence. She climbed awkwardly over
and went a little way along one of the rows. Putting out her hand she
touched the firm stalks and then, becoming afraid, dropped to her knees
on the carpet of weeds that covered the ground. For a long time she
stayed thus listening to the voices of the children in the distance.
An hour slipped away. Presently it was time for dinner and her sister-
in-law came to the back door and shouted. There was an answering whoop
from the distance and the children came running through the fields.
They climbed over the fence and ran shouting across her father's
garden. Elsie also arose. She was about to attempt to climb back over
the fence unobserved when she heard a rustling in the corn. Young
Elizabeth Leander appeared. Beside her walked the ploughman who but a
few months earlier had planted the corn in the field where Elsie now
stood. She could see the two people coming slowly along the rows. An
understanding had been established between them. The man reached
through between the corn stalks and touched the hand of the girl who
laughed awkwardly and running to the fence climbed quickly over. In her
hand she held the limp body of a rabbit the dogs had killed.
The farm hand went away and when Elizabeth had gone into the house
Elsie climbed over the fence. Her niece stood just within the kitchen
door holding the dead rabbit by one leg. The other leg had been torn
away by the dogs. At sight of the New England woman, who seemed to look
at her with hard unsympathetic eyes, she was ashamed and went quickly
into the house. She threw the rabbit upon a table in the parlor and
then ran out of the room. Its blood ran out on the delicate flowers of
a white crocheted table cover that had been made by Elsie's mother.
The Sunday dinner with all the living Leanders gathered about the table
was gone through in a heavy lumbering silence. When the dinner was over
and Tom and his wife had washed the dishes they went to sit with the
older people on the front porch. Presently they were both asleep. Elsie
returned to the step at the side of the house but when the desire to go
again into the cornfields came sweeping over her she got up and went
The woman of thirty-five tip-toed about the big house like a frightened
child. The dead rabbit that lay on the table in the parlour had become
cold and stiff. Its blood had dried on the white table cover. She went
upstairs but did not go to her own room. A spirit of adventure had hold
of her. In the upper part of the house there were many rooms and in
some of them no glass had been put into the windows. The windows had
been boarded up and narrow streaks of light crept in through the cracks
between the boards.
Elsie tip-toed up the flight of stairs past the room in which she slept
and opening doors went into other rooms. Dust lay thick on the floors.
In the silence she could hear her brother snoring as he slept in the
chair on the front porch. From what seemed a far away place there came
the shrill cries of the children. The cries became soft. They were like
the cries of unborn children that had called to her out of the fields
on the night before.
Into her mind came the intense silent figure of her mother sitting on
the porch beside her son and waiting for the day to wear itself out
into night. The thought brought a lump into her throat. She wanted
something and did not know what it was. Her own mood frightened her. In
a windowless room at the back of the house one of the boards over a
window had been broken and a bird had flown in and become imprisoned.
The presence of the woman frightened the bird. It flew wildly about.
Its beating wings stirred up dust that danced in the air. Elsie stood
perfectly still, also frightened, not by the presence of the bird but
by the presence of life. Like the bird she was a prisoner. The thought
gripped her. She wanted to go outdoors where her niece Elizabeth walked
with the young ploughman through the corn, but was like the bird in the
room--a prisoner. She moved restlessly about. The bird flew back and
forth across the room. It alighted on the window sill near the place
where the board was broken away. She stared into the frightened eyes of
the bird that in turn stared into her eyes. Then the bird flew away,
out through the window, and Elsie turned and ran nervously downstairs
and out into the yard. She climbed over the wire fence and ran with
stooped shoulders along one of the tunnels.
Elsie ran into the vastness of the cornfields filled with but one
desire. She wanted to get out of her life and into some new and sweeter
life she felt must be hidden away somewhere in the fields. After she
had run a long way she came to a wire fence and crawled over. Her hair
became unloosed and fell down over her shoulders. Her cheeks became
flushed and for the moment she looked like a young girl. When she
climbed over the fence she tore a great hole in the front of her dress.
For a moment her tiny breasts were exposed and then her hand clutched
and held nervously the sides of the tear. In the distance she could
hear the voices of the boys and the barking of the dogs. A summer storm
had been threatening for days and now black clouds had begun to spread
themselves over the sky. As she ran nervously forward, stopping to
listen and then running on again, the dry corn blades brushed against
her shoulders and a fine shower of yellow dust from the corn tassels
fell on her hair. A continued crackling noise accompanied her progress.
The dust made a golden crown about her head. From the sky overhead a
low rumbling sound, like the growling of giant dogs, came to her ears.
The thought that having at last ventured into the corn she would never
escape became fixed in the mind of the running woman. Sharp pains shot
through her body. Presently she was compelled to stop and sit on the
ground. For a long time she sat with closed eyes. Her dress became
soiled. Little insects that live in the ground under the corn came out
of their holes and crawled over her legs.
Following some obscure impulse the tired woman threw herself on her
back and lay still with closed eyes. Her fright passed. It was warm and
close in the room-like tunnels. The pain in her side went away. She
opened her eyes and between the wide green corn blades could see
patches of a black threatening sky. She did not want to be alarmed and
so closed her eyes again. Her thin hand no longer gripped the tear in
her dress and her little breasts were exposed. They expanded and
contracted in spasmodic jerks. She threw her hands back over her head
and lay still.
It seemed to Elsie that hours passed as she lay thus, quiet and passive
under the corn. Deep within her there was a feeling that something was
about to happen, something that would lift her out of herself, that
would tear her away from her past and the past of her people. Her
thoughts were not definite. She lay still and waited as she had waited
for days and months by the rock at the back of the orchard on the
Vermont farm when she was a girl. A deep grumbling noise went on in the
sky overhead but the sky and everything she had ever known seemed very
far away, no part of herself.
After a long silence, when it seemed to her that she had gone out of
herself as in a dream, Elsie heard a man's voice calling. "Aho, aho,
aho," shouted the voice and after another period of silence there arose
answering voices and then the sound of bodies crashing through the corn
and the excited chatter of children. A dog came running along the row
where she lay and stood beside her. His cold nose touched her face and
she sat up. The dog ran away. The Leander boys passed. She could see
their bare legs flashing in and out across one of the tunnels. Her
brother had become alarmed by the rapid approach of the thunder storm
and wanted to get his family to town. His voice kept calling from the
house and the voices of the children answered from the fields.
Elsie sat on the ground with her hands pressed together. An odd feeling
of disappointment had possession of her. She arose and walked slowly
along in the general direction taken by the children. She came to a
fence and crawled over, tearing her dress in a new place. One of her
stockings had become unloosed and had slipped down over her shoe top.
The long sharp weeds had scratched her leg so that it was criss-crossed
with red lines, but she was not conscious of any pain.
The distraught woman followed the children until she came within sight
of her father's house and then stopped and again sat on the ground.
There was another loud crash of thunder and Tom Leander's voice called
again, this time half angrily. The name of the girl Elizabeth was
shouted in loud masculine tones that rolled and echoed like the thunder
along the aisles under the corn.
And then Elizabeth came into sight accompanied by the young ploughman.
They stopped near Elsie and the man took the girl into his arms. At the
sound of their approach Elsie had thrown herself face downward on the
ground and had twisted herself into a position where she could see
without being seen. When their lips met her tense hands grasped one of
the corn stalks. Her lips pressed themselves into the dust. When they
had gone on their way she raised her head. A dusty powder covered her
What seemed another long period of silence fell over the fields. The
murmuring voices of unborn children, her imagination had created in the
whispering fields, became a vast shout. The wind blew harder and
harder. The corn stalks were twisted and bent. Elizabeth went
thoughtfully out of the field and climbing the fence confronted her
father. "Where you been? What you been a doing?" he asked. "Don't you
think we got to get out of here?"
When Elizabeth went toward the house Elsie followed, creeping on her
hands and knees like a little animal, and when she had come within
sight of the fence surrounding the house she sat on the ground and put
her hands over her face. Something within herself was being twisted and
whirled about as the tops of the corn stalks were now being twisted and
whirled by the wind. She sat so that she did not look toward the house
and when she opened her eyes she could again see along the long
Her brother with his wife and children went away. By turning her head
Elsie could see them driving at a trot out of the yard back of her
father's house. With the going of the younger woman the farm house in
the midst of the cornfield rocked by the winds seemed the most desolate
place in the world.
Her mother came out at the back door of the house. She ran to the steps
where she knew her daughter was in the habit of sitting and then in
alarm began to call. It did not occur to Elsie to answer. The voice of
the older woman did not seem to have anything to do with herself. It
was a thin voice and was quickly lost in the wind and in the crashing
sound that arose out of the fields. With her head turned toward the
house Elsie stared at her mother who ran wildly around the house and
then went indoors. The back door of the house went shut with a bang.
The storm that had been threatening broke with a roar. Broad sheets of
water swept over the cornfields. Sheets of water swept over the woman's
body. The storm that had for years been gathering in her also broke.
Sobs arose out of her throat. She abandoned herself to a storm of grief
that was only partially grief. Tears ran out of her eyes and made
little furrows through the dust on her face. In the lulls that
occasionally came in the storm she raised her head and heard, through
the tangled mass of wet hair that covered her ears and above the sound
of millions of rain-drops that alighted on the earthen floor inside the
house of the corn, the thin voices of her mother and father calling to
her out of the Leander house.
The story came to me from a woman met on a train. The car was crowded
and I took the seat beside her. There was a man in the offing who
belonged with her--a slender girlish figure of a man in a heavy brown
canvas coat such as teamsters wear in the winter. He moved up and down
in the aisle of the car, wanting my place by the woman's side, but I
did not know that at the time.
The woman had a heavy face and a thick nose. Something had happened to
her. She had been struck a blow or had a fall. Nature could never have
made a nose so broad and thick and ugly. She had talked to me in very
good English. I suspect now that she was temporarily weary of the man
in the brown canvas coat, that she had travelled with him for days,
perhaps weeks, and was glad of the chance to spend a few hours in the
company of some one else.
Everyone knows the feeling of a crowded train in the middle of the
night. We ran along through western Iowa and eastern Nebraska. It had
rained for days and the fields were flooded. In the clear night the
moon came out and the scene outside the car-window was strange and in
an odd way very beautiful.
You get the feeling: the black bare trees standing up in clusters as
they do out in that country, the pools of water with the moon reflected
and running quickly as it does when the train hurries along, the rattle
of the car-trucks, the lights in isolated farm-houses, and occasionally
the clustered lights of a town as the train rushed through it into the
The woman had just come out of war-ridden Poland, had got out of that
stricken land with her lover by God knows what miracles of effort. She
made me feel the war, that woman did, and she told me the tale that I
want to tell you.
I do not remember the beginning of our talk, nor can I tell you of how
the strangeness of my mood grew to match her mood until the story she
told became a part of the mystery of the still night outside the car-
window and very pregnant with meaning to me.
There was a company of Polish refugees moving along a road in Poland in
charge of a German. The German was a man of perhaps fifty, with a
beard. As I got him, he was much such a man as might be professor of
foreign languages in a college in our country, say at Des Moines, Iowa,
or Springfield, Ohio. He would be sturdy and strong of body and given
to the eating of rather rank foods, as such men are. Also he would be a
fellow of books and in his thinking inclined toward the ranker
philosophies. He was dragged into the war because he was a German, and
he had steeped his soul in the German philosophy of might. Faintly, I
fancy, there was another notion in his head that kept bothering him,
and so to serve his government with a whole heart he read books that
would re-establish his feeling for the strong, terrible thing for which
he fought. Because he was past fifty he was not on the battle line, but
was in charge of the refugees, taking them out of their destroyed
village to a camp near a railroad where they could be fed.
The refugees were peasants, all except the woman in the American train
with me, her lover and her mother, an old woman of sixty-five. They had
been small landowners and the others in their party had worked on their
Along a country road in Poland went this party in charge of the German
who tramped heavily along, urging them forward. He was brutal in his
insistence, and the old woman of sixty-five, who was a kind of leader
of the refugees, was almost equally brutal in her constant refusal to
go forward. In the rainy night she stopped in the muddy road and her
party gathered about her. Like a stubborn horse she shook her head and
muttered Polish words. "I want to be let alone, that's what I want. All
I want in the world is to be let alone," she said, over and over; and
then the German came up and putting his hand on her back pushed her
along, so that their progress through the dismal night was a constant
repetition of the stopping, her muttered words, and his pushing. They
hated each other with whole-hearted hatred, that old Polish woman and
The party came to a clump of trees on the bank of a shallow stream and
the German took hold of the old woman's arm and dragged her through the
stream while the others followed. Over and over she said the words: "I
want to be let alone. All I want in the world is to be let alone."
In the clump of trees the German started a fire. With incredible
efficiency he had it blazing high in a few minutes, taking the matches
and even some bits of dry wood from a little rubber-lined pouch carried
in his inside coat pocket. Then he got out tobacco and, sitting down on
the protruding root of a tree, smoked and stared at the refugees,
clustered about the old woman on the opposite side of the fire.
The German went to sleep. That was what started his trouble. He slept
for an hour and when he awoke the refugees were gone. You can imagine
him jumping up and tramping heavily back through the shallow stream and
along the muddy road to gather his party together again. He would be
angry through and through, but he would not be alarmed. It was only a
matter, he knew, of going far enough back along the road as one goes
back along a road for strayed cattle.
And then, when the German came up to the party, he and the old woman
began to fight. She stopped muttering the words about being let alone
and sprang at him. One of her old hands gripped his beard and the other
buried itself in the thick skin of his neck.
The struggle in the road lasted a long time. The German was tired and
not as strong as he looked, and there was that faint thing in him that
kept him from hitting the old woman with his fist. He took hold of her
thin shoulders and pushed, and she pulled. The struggle was like a man
trying to lift himself by his boot straps. The two fought and were full
of the determination that will not stop fighting, but they were not
very strong physically.
And so their two souls began to struggle. The woman in the train made
me understand that quite clearly, although it may be difficult to get
the sense of it over to you. I had the night and the mystery of the
moving train to help me. It was a physical thing, the fight of the two
souls in the dim light of the rainy night on that deserted muddy road.
The air was full of the struggle and the refugees gathered about and
stood shivering. They shivered with cold and weariness, of course, but
also with something else. In the air everywhere about them they could
feel the vague something going on. The woman said that she would gladly
have given her life to have it stopped, or to have someone strike a
light, and that her man felt the same way. It was like two winds
struggling, she said, like a soft yielding cloud become hard and trying
vainly to push another cloud out of the sky.
Then the struggle ended and the old woman and the German fell down
exhausted in the road. The refugees gathered about and waited. They
thought something more was going to happen, knew in fact something more
would happen. The feeling they had persisted, you see, and they huddled
together and perhaps whimpered a little.
What happened is the whole point of the story. The woman in the train
explained it very clearly. She said that the two souls, after
struggling, went back into the two bodies, but that the soul of the old
woman went into the body of the German and the soul of the German into
the body of the old woman.
After that, of course, everything was quite simple. The German sat down
by the road and began shaking his head and saying he wanted to be let
alone, declared that all he wanted in the world was to be let alone,
and the Polish woman took papers out of his pocket and began driving
her companions back along the road, driving them harshly and brutally
along, and when they grew weary pushing them with her hands.
There was more of the story after that. The woman's lover, who had been
a school-teacher, took the papers and got out of the country, taking
his sweetheart with him. But my mind has forgotten the details. I only
remember the German sitting by the road and muttering that he wanted to
be let alone, and the old tired mother-in-Poland saying the harsh words
and forcing her weary companions to march through the night back into
their own country.
Below the hill there was a swamp in which cattails grew. The wind
rustled the dry leaves of a walnut tree that grew on top of the hill.
She went beyond the tree to where the grass was long and matted. In the
farmhouse a door bangs and in the road before the house a dog barked.
For a long time there was no sound. Then a wagon came jolting and
bumping over the frozen road. The little noises ran along the ground to
where she was lying on the grass and seemed like fingers playing over
her body. A fragrance arose from her. It took a long time for the wagon
Then another sound broke the stillness. A young man from a neighboring
farm came stealthily across a field and climbed a fence. He also came
to the hill but for a time did not see her lying almost at his feet. He
looked toward the house and stood with hands in pockets, stamping on
the frozen ground like a horse.
Then he knew she was there. The aroma of her crept into his
He ran to kneel beside her silent figure. Everything was different than
it had been when they crept to the hill on the other evenings. The time
of talking and waiting was over. She was different. He grew bold and
put his hands on her face, her neck, her breasts, her hips. There was a
strange new firmness and hardness to her body. When he kissed her lips
she did not move and for a moment he was afraid. Then courage came and
he went down to lie with her.
He had been a farm boy all his life and had plowed many acres of rich