Story type: Literature
The train was ambling across the hot, russet plain. The wind, strong and warm and dry, sweeping up from the south, carried with it the subtle odor of September grass and gathered harvests. Out of the unfenced roads the dust arose in long lines, like smoke from some hidden burning which the riven earth revealed. The fields were tenanted with thrashing crews, the men diminished by distance to pygmies, the long belt of the engine flapping and shining like a ribbon in the flaming sunlight.
The freight-cars on the accommodation train jostled and rocked about and heaved up laterally till they resembled a long line of awkward, frightened, galloping buffaloes. The one coach was scantily filled with passengers, mainly poorly clothed farmers and their families.
A young man seated well back in the coach was looking dreamily out of the window, and the conductor, a keen-eyed young fellow, after passing him several times, said, in a friendly way:
“Going up to Boomtown, I imagine.”
“Yes–if we ever get there.”
“Oh, we’ll get there. We won’t have much more switching. We’ve only got an empty car or two to throw in at the junction.”
“Well, I’m glad of that. I’m a little impatient, because I’ve got a case coming up in court, and I’m not exactly fixed for it.”
“Your name is Allen, I believe.”
“Yes; J. H. Allen, of Sioux City.”
“I thought so. I’ve heard you speak.”
The young lawyer was a tall, slender, dark-eyed man, rather sombre in appearance. He did not respond to the invitation in the conductor’s voice.
“When do you reach the junction?”
“Next stop. We’re only a few minutes late. Expect to meet friends there?”
“No; thought I’d get a lunch, that’s all.”
At the junction the car became pretty well filled with people. Two or three Norwegian families came clattering in, the mothers clothed in heavy shawls and cheap straw hats, the flaxen-haired children in faded cottonade and blue denims. They filled nearly half the seats. Several drummers came in, laughing loudly, bearing heavy valises. Then Allen heard, above the noise, the shrill but sweet voice of a girl, and caught the odor of violets as two persons passed him and took a seat just before him.
The man he knew by sight and reputation as a very brilliant young lawyer–Edward Benson, of Heron Lake. The girl he knew instantly to be utterly alien to this land and people. She was like a tropic bird seen amid the scant foliage of northern hills. There was evidence of great care and taste in every fold of her modish dress. Her hat was simple but in the latest city fashion, and her gloves were spotless. She gave off an odor of cleanliness and beauty.
She was very young and slender. Her face was piquant but not intellectual, and scarcely beautiful. It pleased rather by its life and motion and oddity than by its beauty. She looked at her companion in a peculiar way–trustfully, almost reverently–and yet with a touch of coquetry which seemed perfectly native to every turn of her body or glance of her eyes.
Her companion was a fine Western type of self-made man. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but walked a little stooping, like a man of fifty. He wore a long Prince Albert frock-coat, hanging loosely from his rather square shoulders. His white vest was noticeably soiled by his watch chain, and his tie was disarranged.
His face was very fine and good. His eyes were gray-blue, deep and quiet, but slightly smiling, as were his lips, which his golden-brown mustache shaded but did not hide. He was kept smiling in this quizzical way by the nervous chatter of the girl beside him. His profile, which was the view Allen had of him, was striking. His strong, straight nose and abrupt forehead formed a marked contrast to the rather characterless nose and retreating forehead of the girl.
The first words that Allen distinguished out of the merry war in which they seemed engaged were spoken in the tone of pretty petulance such women use–a coquette’s defence.
“You did! you did! you did! Now! You know you did! You told me that! You told me you despised girls like me!”
“I said I despised women who had no object in life but dress,” he replied, rather soberly.
“But you were hopping on me; you meant me, now! You can’t deny it! You despise me, I know you do!” She challenged his flattery in her pouting self-depreciation.
The young man tried to stop her in her course, to change her mood, which was descending to real feeling. His low words were lost in the rumble of the car.
“Yes, yes, try to smooth it over; but you can’t fool me any more. But I don’t want you to flatter me and lie to me the way Judge Stearns did,” she added, with a sudden change of manner. “I like you because you’re straight.”
The phrase with which she ended seemed to take on a new meaning, uttered by those red lips in childish pout.
“Now, why are you down on the judge? I don’t see,” said the man, as if she had gone back to an old attack.
“Well, if you’d seen what I have, you’d understand.” She turned away and looked out of the window. “Oh, this terrible country! I’d die out here in six weeks. I know I should.”
The young lawyer was not to be turned aside.
“Of course, I’m pleased to have you throw the judge over and employ me, but, all the same, I think you do him an injustice. He’s a good, square man.”
“Square man!” she said, turning to him with a sudden fury in her eyes. “Do you call it square for a man–married, and gray-haired, too–to take up with a woman like Mrs. Shellberg? Say, do you, now?”
“Well, I don’t quite believe–“
“Oh, I lie, do I?” she cried, with another swift change to reproach. “You can’t take my word for Mrs. Shellberg’s visits to his office.”
“But he was her lawyer.”
“But you know what kind of a woman she is! She didn’t need to go there every day or two, did she? What did he always receive her in his private office for? Come, now, tell me that!”
“I don’t know that he did,” persisted the lawyer.
A sort of convulsion passed over her face, her little hands clinched, and the tears started into her eyes. Her voice was very quiet.
“You think I lie, then?”
“I think you are mistaken, just as other jealous women have–“
“You think I’m jealous, do you?”
“You act like a jeal–“
“Jealous of that gray-haired old wretch? No, sir! I–I–” She struggled to express herself. “I liked him, and I hated to lose all my faith in men. I thought he was good and honest when he prayed–Oh, I’ve seen him pray in church, the old hypocrite!” Her fury returned at the recollection.
Her companion’s face grew grave. The smile went out of his eyes, leaving them dark and sorrowful.
“I understand you now,” he said, at last. She turned to look at him. “My practice in the divorce business out here has almost destroyed my faith in women. If it weren’t for my wife and sister–“
She broke in eagerly: “Now I know you know what I mean. Sometimes I think men are–devils!” She thrust this word forth, and her little face grew dark and strained. “But the judge kept me from thinking–I never loved my father; he didn’t care for me; all he wanted to do was to make ten thousand barrels of beer a year and sell it; and the judge seemed like a father to me till she came and destroyed my faith in him.”
“But–well, let Mrs. S. go. There are lots of good men and pure women in the world. It’s dangerous to think there aren’t–especially for a handsome young woman like you. You can’t afford to keep in that kind of a mood long.”
She looked at him curiously. “That’s what I like about you,” she said, soberly. “You talk to me as if I had some sense–as if I were a human being. If you were to flatter me, now, and make love to me, I never would believe in any man again.”
He smiled again in his frank, good way, and drew a picture from his pocket. It was a picture of a woman bending down over a laughing, naked child, sprawling frogwise in her lap. The woman’s face was broad and intellectual and handsome. The look of splendid maternity was in her eyes. They both looked at the picture in silence. The girl sighed.
“I wish I was as good as that woman looks.”
“You can be if you try.”
“Not with a big Chicago brewer for a father, and a husband that beats you whenever the mood takes him.”
“I admit that’s hard. I think the atmosphere of that Heron Lake hotel isn’t any great help to you.”
“Oh, they’re a gay lot there! We fight like cats and dogs.” A look of slyness and boldness came over her face. “Mrs. Shellberg hates me as hard as I do her. She used to go around telling: ‘It’s very peculiar, you know’”–she imitated her rival’s voice–“‘but no matter which end of the dining-room I sit, all the men look that way!’”
The young lawyer laughed at her in spite of himself.
And she went on: “But they don’t, now. That’s the reason she hates me,” she said, in conclusion. “The men don’t notice her when I’m around.”
To hear her fresh young lips utter those words with their vile inflections was like taking a sudden glimpse into the underworld, where harlots dwell and the spirits of unrestrained lusts dance in the shadowy recesses of the human heart.
Allen, hearing this fragmentary conversation, fascinated yet uneasy, looked at the pair with wonder. They seemed quite unconscious of their public situation.
The young lawyer looked straight before him, while the girl, swept on by her ignoble rage, displayed still more of the moral ulceration which had been injected into her young life.
“I don’t see what men find about her to like–unless it is her eyes. She’s got beautiful eyes. But she’s vulgar–ugh! The stories she tells–right before men, too! She’d kill any one that got ahead of her, that woman would! And yet she’ll come into my room and cry and cry, and say: ‘Don’t take him away from me! Leave him to me!’ Ugh! It makes me sick.” She stamped her foot, then added, irrelevantly: “She wears a wig, too. I suppose that old fool of a judge thinks it’s her own hair.”
The lawyer sat in stony silence. His grave face was accusing in its set expression, and she felt it, and was spurred on to do still deeper injustice to herself–an insane perversity.
“Not that I care a cent–I’m not jealous of her. I ain’t so bad off for company as she is. She can’t take anybody away from me, but she must go and break down my faith in the judge.”
She bit her lips to keep from crying out. She looked out of the window again, seeking control.
The “divorce colony” never appeared more sickening in its inner corruptions than when delineated by this dainty young girl. Allen could see the swarming men about the hotels; he could see their hot, leering eyes and smell their liquor-laden breaths as they named the latest addition to the colony or boasted of their associations with those already well known.
The girl turned suddenly to her companion.
“How do those people live out here on their farms?”
She pointed at a small shanty where the whole family stood to watch the train go by.
“By eating boiled potatoes and salt pork.”
“Salt pork!” she echoed, as if salt pork were old boot-heels or bark or hay. “Why, it takes four hours for salt pork to digest!”
He laughed again at her childish irrelevancy. “So much the better for the poor. Where’d you learn all that, anyway?”
“At school. Oh, you needn’t look so incredulous! I went to boarding-school. I learned a good deal more than you think.”
“Well, so I see. Now, I should have said pork digested in three hours, speaking from experience.”
“Well, it don’t. What do the women do out here?”
“They work like the men, only more so.”
“Do they have any new things?”
“Not very often, I’m afraid.”
She sighed. After a pause, she said:
“You were raised on a farm?”
“Yes. In Minnesota.”
“Did you do work like that?” She pointed at a thrashing-machine in the field.
“Yes, I ploughed and sowed and reaped and mowed. I wasn’t on the farm for my health.”
“You’re very strong, aren’t you?” she asked, admiringly.
“In a slab-sided kind of a way–yes.”
Her eyes grew abstracted.
“I like strong men. Ollie was a little man, not any taller than I am, but when he was drunk he was what men call a–a holy terror. He struck me with the water-pitcher once–that was just before baby was born. I wish he’d killed me.” She ended in a sudden reaction to hopeless bitterness. “It would have saved me all these months of life in this terrible country.”
“It might have saved you from more than you think,” he said, quietly, tenderly.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been brought up against women and men who have defiled you. They’ve made your future uncertain.”
“Do you think it’s so bad as that? Tell me!” she insisted, seeing his hesitation.
“You’re on the road to hell!” he said, in a voice that was very low, but it reached her. It was full of pain and grave reprimand and gentleness. “You’ve been poisoned. You’re in need of a good man’s help. You need the companionship of good, earnest women instead of painted harlots.”
Her voice shook painfully as she replied:
“You don’t think I’m all bad?”
“You’re not bad at all–you’re simply reckless. You are not to blame. It depends upon yourself now, though, whether you keep a true woman or go to hell with Mrs. Shellberg.”
The conductor eyed them, as he passed, with an unpleasant light in his eyes, and the drummers a few seats ahead turned to look at them. The tip had passed along from lip to lip. They were like wild beasts roused by the presence of prey. Their eyes gleamed with relentless lust. They eyed the little creature with ravening eyes. Her helplessness was their opportunity.
Allen, sitting there, entered into the terror and the tragedy of the girl’s life. He imagined her reckless, prodigal girlhood; the coarse, rich father; the marriage, when a thoughtless girl, with a drunken, dissolute boy; the quarrels, brutal beatings; the haste to secure a divorce; the contamination of the crowded hotels in Heron Lake, where this slender young girl–naturally pure, alert, quick of impulse–was like a lamb among lustful wolves. His heart ached for her.
The deep, slow voice of the lawyer sounded on. His eyes, turned toward her, had no equivocal look. He was a brother speaking to a younger sister. The tears fell down her cheeks, upon her folded hands. Her widely opened eyes seemed to look out into a night of storms.
“Oh, what shall I do?” she moaned. “I wish I was dead–and baby, too!”
“Live for the baby–let him help you out.”
“Oh, he can’t! I don’t care enough for him. I wish I was like other mothers, but I’m not. I can’t shut myself up with a baby. I’m too young.”
He saw that. She was seeking the love of a man, not the care of a child. She had the wifely passion, but not the mother’s love. He was silent; the case baffled him.
“Oh, I wish you could help me! I wish I had you to help me all the time! I do! I don’t care what you think–I do! I do!”
“Our home is open to you and baby, too,” he said, slowly. “My wife knows about you, and–“
“Who told her–did you?” she flashed out again, angrily, jealously.
“Yes. My wife is my other self,” he replied, quietly.
She stared at him, breathing heavily, then looked out of the window again. At last she turned to him. She seemed to refer to his invitation.
“Oh, this terrible land! Oh, I couldn’t stay here! I’d go insane. Perhaps I’m going insane, anyway. Don’t you think so?”
“No, I think you’re a little nervous, that’s all.”
“Oh! Do you think I’ll get my divorce?”
“Certainly, without question.”
“Can I wait and go back with you?”
“I shall not return for several days. Perhaps you couldn’t bear to wait in this little town; it’s not much like the city.”
“Oh, dear! But I can’t go about alone. I hate these men, they stare at me so! I wish I was a man. It’s awful to be a woman, don’t you think so? Please don’t laugh.”
The young lawyer was far from laughing, but this was her only way of defending herself. These pert, bird-like ways formed her shield against ridicule and misprision.
He said, slowly, “Yes, it’s an awful thing to be a woman, but then it’s an awful responsibility to be a man.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that we are responsible, as the dominant sex, for every tragic, incomplete woman’s life.”
“Don’t you blame Mrs. Shellberg?” she said, forcing him to a concrete example with savage swiftness.
“No. She had a poor father and a poor husband, and she must earn her own living some way.”
“She could cook, or nurse, or something like that.”
“It isn’t easy to find opportunity to cook or nurse. If it were as easy to earn a living in a pure way as it is in a vicious way, all men would be rich and virtuous. But what had you planned to do after your divorce?”
“Oh, I’m going to travel for two years. Then I’ll try to settle down.”
“What you need is a good husband, and a little cottage where you’d have to cook your own food–and tend the baby.”
“I wouldn’t cook for any man living,” she broke in, to express her bitterness that he could so coldly dispose of her future. “Oh, this terrible train! Can’t it go faster? If I’d realized what a trip this was, I wouldn’t have started.”
“This is the route you all go,” he replied, with grim humor, and his words pictured a ceaseless stream of divorcees.
She resented his classing her with the rest, but she simply said: “You despise me, don’t you? But what can we do? You can’t expect us to live with men we hate, can you? That would be worse than Mrs. Shellberg.”
“No, I don’t expect that of you. I’d issue a divorce coupon with every marriage certificate, and done with it,” he said, in desperate disgust. “Then this whole cursed business would be done away with. It isn’t a question of our laxity of divorce laws,” he said, after a pause, “it’s a question of the senseless severity of the laws in other States. That’s what throws this demoralizing business into our hands here.”
“It pays, don’t it? I know I’ve paid for everything I’ve had.”
“Yes, that’s the demoralizing thing. It draws a gang of conscienceless attorneys here, and it draws us who belong here off into dirty work, and it brings us into contact with men and women–I’m sick of the whole business.”
She had hardly followed him in his generalizations. She brought him back to the personal.
“You’re sick of me, I know you are!” She leaned her head on the window-pane. Her eyes closed. “Oh, I wish my heart would stop beating!” she said, in a tense, profoundly significant tone.
Allen, sitting so close behind them, was forced to overhear, so piercingly sweet was her voice. He trembled for fear some one else might hear her. It seemed like profanation that any one but God should listen to this outcry of a quivering, writhing soul.
She faced her companion again. “You’re the only man I know, now, that I respect, and you despise me.”
“No, I don’t; I pity you.”
“That’s worse. I want you to help me. Oh, if you could go with me, or if I could be with you!” Her gloved hands strained together in the agony of her desire.
His calm lips did not waver. He did not smile, even about the eyes. He knew her cry sprang from her need of a brother, not from the passion of a woman.
“Our home is yours just as long as you can bear the monotony of our simple lives,” he said, in his quiet way, but it was deep-throated and unmistakable in its sincerity.
She laid her hand on his arm and clasped it hard, then turned away her head, and they rode in silence.
After they left the car Allen sat, with savage eyes and grimly set mouth, going over the problem again and again. He saw that young and helpless creature walking the gantlet between endless ranks of lustful, remorseless men, snatching at her in selfish, bestial desire.
It made him bitter and despairing to think that women should be helpless–that they should need some man to protect them against some other man. He cursed the laws and traditions that had kept women subordinate and trivial and deceptive and vacillating. He wished they could be raised to the level of the brutes till, like the tigress or she-wolf, they could not only defend themselves, but their young.
He tried to breathe a sigh of relief that she had gone out of his life, but he could not. It was not so easy to shake off the shadow of his responsibility. He followed her in imagination on her downward path till he saw her stretching out her hands in pitiful need to casual acquaintances–alone and without hope; still petite, still dainty in spite of all, still with flashes of wit, and then–
He shuddered. “O my God! Upon whom does the burden of guilt lie?”
* * * * *
On the night of his return he sat among his romping babes, debating whether he should tell the story to his wife or not. As the little ones grew weary the noise of the autumn wind–the lonely, woful, moaning prairie wind–came to his ears, and he shuddered. His wife observed it.
“What is it, Joe? Did you get a chill?”
“Oh no. The wind sounds a little lonesome to-night, that’s all.” But he took his little girl into his arms and held her close.