Story type: Literature
Emily Fair got out of Hiram Jameson’s waggon at the gate. She took her satchel and parasol and, in her clear, musical tones, thanked him for bringing her home. Emily had a very distinctive voice. It was very sweet always and very cold generally; sometimes it softened to tenderness with those she loved, but in it there was always an undertone of inflexibility and reserve. Nobody had ever heard Emily Fair’s voice tremble.
“You are more than welcome, Mrs. Fair,” said Hiram Jameson, with a glance of bold admiration. Emily met it with an unflinching indifference. She disliked Hiram Jameson. She had been furious under all her external composure because he had been at the station when she left the train.
Jameson perceived her scorn, but chose to disregard it.
“Proud as Lucifer,” he thought as he drove away. “Well, she’s none the worse of that. I don’t like your weak women–they’re always sly. If Stephen Fair don’t get better she’ll be free and then–“
He did not round out the thought, but he gloated over the memory of Emily, standing by the gate in the harsh, crude light of the autumn sunset, with her tawny, brown hair curling about her pale, oval face and the scornful glint in her large, dark-grey eyes.
Emily stood at the gate for some time after Jameson’s waggon had disappeared. When the brief burst of sunset splendour had faded out she turned and went into the garden where late asters and chrysanthemums still bloomed. She gathered some of the more perfect ones here and there. She loved flowers, but to-night the asters seemed to hurt her, for she presently dropped those she had gathered and deliberately set her foot on them.
A sudden gust of wind came over the brown, sodden fields and the ragged maples around the garden writhed and wailed. The air was raw and chill. The rain that had threatened all day was very near. Emily shivered and went into the house.
Amelia Phillips was bending over the fire. She came forward and took Emily’s parcels and wraps with a certain gentleness that sat oddly on her grim personality.
“Are you tired? I’m glad you’re back. Did you walk from the station?”
“No. Hiram Jameson was there and offered to drive me home. I’d rather have walked. It’s going to be a storm, I think. Where is John?”
“He went to the village after supper,” answered Amelia, lighting a lamp. “We needed some things from the store.”
The light flared up as she spoke and brought out her strong, almost harsh features and deep-set black eyes. Amelia Phillips looked like an overdone sketch in charcoal.
“Has anything happened in Woodford while I’ve been away?” asked Emily indifferently. Plainly she did not expect an affirmative answer. Woodford life was not eventful.
Amelia glanced at her sharply. So she had not heard! Amelia had expected that Hiram Jameson would have told her. She wished that he had, for she never felt sure of Emily. The older sister knew that beneath that surface reserve was a passionate nature, brooking no restraint when once it overleaped the bounds of her Puritan self-control. Amelia Phillips, with all her naturally keen insight and her acquired knowledge of Emily’s character, had never been able to fathom the latter’s attitude of mind towards her husband. From the time that Emily had come back to her girlhood’s home, five years before, Stephen Fair’s name had never crossed her lips.
“I suppose you haven’t heard that Stephen is very ill,” said Amelia slowly.
Not a feature of Emily’s face changed. Only in her voice when she spoke was a curious jarring, as if a false note had been struck in a silver melody.
“What is the matter with him?”
“Typhoid,” answered Amelia briefly. She felt relieved that Emily had taken it so calmly. Amelia hated Stephen Fair with all the intensity of her nature because she believed that he had treated Emily ill, but she had always been distrustful that Emily in her heart of hearts loved her husband still. That, in Amelia Phillips’ opinion, would have betrayed a weakness not to be tolerated.
Emily looked at the lamp unwinkingly.
“That wick needs trimming,” she said. Then, with a sudden recurrence of the untuneful note:
“Is he dangerously ill?”
“We haven’t heard for three days. The doctors were not anxious about him Monday, though they said it was a pretty severe case.”
A faint, wraith-like change of expression drifted over Emily’s beautiful face and was gone in a moment. What was it–relief? Regret? It would have been impossible to say. When she next spoke her vibrant voice was as perfectly melodious as usual.
“I think I will go to bed, Amelia. John will not be back until late I suppose, and I am very tired. There comes the rain. I suppose it will spoil all the flowers. They will be beaten to pieces.”
In the dark hall Emily paused for a moment and opened the front door to be cut in the face with a whip-like dash of rain. She peered out into the thickly gathering gloom. Beyond, in the garden, she saw the asters tossed about, phantom-like. The wind around the many-cornered old farmhouse was full of wails and sobs.
The clock in the sitting-room struck eight. Emily shivered and shut the door. She remembered that she had been married at eight o’clock that very morning seven years ago. She thought she could see herself coming down the stairs in her white dress with her bouquet of asters. For a moment she was glad that those mocking flowers in the garden would be all beaten to death before morning by the lash of wind and rain.
Then she recovered her mental poise and put the hateful memories away from her as she went steadily up the narrow stairs and along the hall with its curious slant as the house had settled, to her own room under the north-western eaves.
When she had put out her light and gone to bed she found that she could not sleep. She pretended to believe that it was the noise of the storm that kept her awake. Not even to herself would Emily confess that she was waiting and listening nervously for John’s return home. That would have been to admit a weakness, and Emily Fair, like Amelia, despised weakness.
Every few minutes a gust of wind smote the house, with a roar as of a wild beast, and bombarded Emily’s window with a volley of rattling drops. In the silences that came between the gusts she heard the soft, steady pouring of the rain on the garden paths below, mingled with a faint murmur that came up from the creek beyond the barns where the pine boughs were thrashing in the storm. Emily suddenly thought of a weird story she had once read years before and long forgotten–a story of a soul that went out in a night of storm and blackness and lost its way between earth and heaven. She shuddered and drew the counterpane over her face.
“Of all things I hate a fall storm most,” she muttered. “It frightens me.”
Somewhat to her surprise–for even her thoughts were generally well under the control of her unbending will–she could not help thinking of Stephen–thinking of him not tenderly or remorsefully, but impersonally, as of a man who counted for nothing in her life. It was so strange to think of Stephen being ill. She had never known him to have a day’s sickness in his life before. She looked back over her life much as if she were glancing with a chill interest at a series of pictures which in no way concerned her. Scene after scene, face after face, flashed out on the background of the darkness.
Emily’s mother had died at her birth, but Amelia Phillips, twenty years older than the baby sister, had filled the vacant place so well and with such intuitive tenderness that Emily had never been conscious of missing a mother. John Phillips, too, the grave, silent, elder brother, loved and petted the child. Woodford people were fond of saying that John and Amelia spoiled Emily shamefully.
Emily Phillips had never been like the other Woodford girls and had no friends of her own age among them. Her uncommon beauty won her many lovers, but she had never cared for any of them until Stephen Fair, fifteen years her senior, had come a-wooing to the old, gray, willow-girdled Phillips homestead.
Amelia and John Phillips never liked him. There was an ancient feud between the families that had died out among the younger generation, but was still potent with the older.
From the first Emily had loved Stephen. Indeed, deep down in her strange, wayward heart, she had cared for him long before the memorable day when he had first looked at her with seeing eyes and realized that the quiet, unthought-of child who had been growing up at the old Phillips place had blossomed out into a woman of strange, seraph-like beauty and deep grey eyes whose expression was nevermore to go out of Stephen Fair’s remembrance from then till the day of his death.
John and Amelia Phillips put their own unjustifiable dislike of Stephen aside when they found that Emily’s heart was set on him. The two were married after a brief courtship and Emily went out from her girlhood’s home to the Fair homestead, two miles away.
Stephen’s mother lived with them. Janet Fair had never liked Emily. She had not been willing for Stephen to marry her. But, apart from this, the woman had a natural, ineradicable love of making mischief and took a keen pleasure in it. She loved her son and she had loved her husband, but nevertheless, when Thomas Fair had been alive she had fomented continual strife and discontent between him and Stephen. Now it became her pleasure to make what trouble she could between Stephen and his wife.
She had the advantage of Emily in that she was always sweet-spoken and, on the surface, sweet-tempered. Emily, hurt and galled in a score of petty ways, so subtle that they were beyond a man’s courser comprehension, astonished her husband by her fierce outbursts of anger that seemed to him for the most part without reason or excuse. He tried his best to preserve the peace between his wife and mother; and when he failed, not understanding all that Emily really endured at the elder woman’s merciless hands, he grew to think her capricious and easily irritated–a spoiled child whose whims must not be taken too seriously.
To a certain extent he was right. Emily had been spoiled. The unbroken indulgence which her brother and sister had always accorded her had fitted her but poorly to cope with the trials of her new life. True, Mrs. Fair was an unpleasant woman to live with, but if Emily had chosen to be more patient under petty insults, and less resentful of her husband’s well-meant though clumsy efforts for harmony, the older woman could have effected real little mischief. But this Emily refused to be, and the breach between husband and wife widened insidiously.
The final rupture came two years after their marriage. Emily, in rebellious anger, told her husband that she would no longer live in the same house with his mother.
“You must choose between us,” she said, her splendid voice vibrating with all the unleashed emotion of her being, yet with no faltering in it. “If she stays I go.”
Stephen Fair, harassed and bewildered, was angry with the relentless anger of a patient man roused at last.
“Go, then,” he said sternly, “I’ll never turn my mother from my door for any woman’s whim.”
The stormy red went out of Emily’s face, leaving it like a marble wash.
“You mean that!” she said calmly. “Think well. If I go I’ll never return.”
“I do mean it,” said Stephen. “Leave my house if you will–if you hold your marriage vow so lightly. When your senses return you are welcome to come back to me. I will never ask you to.”
Without another word Emily turned away. That night she went back to John and Amelia. They, on their part, welcomed her back gladly, believing her to be a wronged and ill-used woman. They hated Stephen Fair with a new and personal rancour. The one thing they could hardly have forgiven Emily would have been the fact of her relenting towards him.
But she did not relent. In her soul she knew that, with all her just grievances, she had been in the wrong, and for that she could not forgive him!
Two years after she had left Stephen Mrs. Fair died, and his widowed sister-in-law went to keep house for him. If he thought of Emily he made no sign. Stephen Fair never broke a word once passed.
Since their separation no greeting or look had ever passed between husband and wife. When they met, as they occasionally did, neither impassive face changed. Emily Fair had buried her love deeply. In her pride and anger she would not let herself remember even where she had dug its grave.
And now Stephen was ill. The strange woman felt a certain pride in her own inflexibility because the fact did not affect her. She told herself that she could not have felt more unconcerned had he been the merest stranger. Nevertheless she waited and watched for John Phillips’ homecoming.
At ten o’clock she heard his voice in the kitchen. She leaned out of the bed and pulled open her door. She heard voices below, but could not distinguish the words, so she rose and went noiselessly out into the hall, knelt down by the stair railing and listened. The door of the kitchen was open below her and a narrow shaft of light struck on her white, intent face. She looked like a woman waiting for the decree of doom.
At first John and Amelia talked of trivial matters. Then the latter said abruptly:
“Did you hear how Stephen Fair was?”
“He’s dying,” was the brief response.
Emily heard Amelia’s startled exclamation. She gripped the square rails with her hands until the sharp edges dinted deep into her fingers. John’s voice came up to her again, harsh and expressionless:
“He took a bad turn the day before yesterday and has been getting worse ever since. The doctors don’t expect him to live till morning.”
Amelia began to talk rapidly in low tones. Emily heard nothing further. She got up and went blindly back into her room with such agony tearing at her heartstrings that she dully wondered why she could not shriek aloud.
Stephen–her husband–dying! In the burning anguish of that moment her own soul was as an open book before her. The love she had buried rose from the deeps of her being in an awful, accusing resurrection.
Out of her stupor and pain a purpose formed itself clearly. She must go to Stephen–she must beg and win his forgiveness before it was too late. She dared not go down to John and ask him to take her to her husband. He might refuse. The Phillipses had been known to do even harder things than that. At the best there would be a storm of protest and objection on her brother’s and sister’s part, and Emily felt that she could not encounter that in her present mood. It would drive her mad.
She lit a lamp and dressed herself noiselessly, but with feverish haste. Then she listened. The house was very still. Amelia and John had gone to bed. She wrapped herself in a heavy woollen shawl hanging in the hall and crept downstairs. With numbed fingers she fumbled at the key of the hall door, turned it and slipped out into the night.
The storm seemed to reach out and clutch her and swallow her up. She went through the garden, where the flowers already were crushed to earth; she crossed the long field beyond, where the rain cut her face like a whip and the wind almost twisted her in its grasp like a broken reed. Somehow or other, more by blind instinct than anything else, she found the path that led through commons and woods and waste valleys to her lost home.
In after years that frenzied walk through the storm and blackness seemed as an unbroken nightmare to Emily Fair’s recollection. Often she fell. Once as she did so a jagged, dead limb of fir struck her forehead and cut in it a gash that marked her for life. As she struggled to her feet and found her way again the blood trickled down over her face.
“Oh God, don’t let him die before I get to him–don’t–don’t–don’t!” she prayed desperately with more of defiance than entreaty in her voice. Then, realizing this, she cried out in horror. Surely some fearsome punishment would come upon her for her wickedness–she would find her husband lying dead.
When Emily opened the kitchen door of the Fair homestead Almira Sentner cried out in her alarm, who or what was this creature with the white face and wild eyes, with her torn and dripping garments and dishevelled, wind-writhen hair and the big drops of blood slowly trickling from her brow?
The next moment she recognized Emily and her face hardened. This woman, Stephen’s sister-in-law, had always hated Emily Fair.
“What do you want here?” she said harshly.
“Where is my husband?” asked Emily.
“You can’t see him,” said Mrs. Sentner defiantly. “The doctors won’t allow anyone in the room but those he’s used to. Strangers excite him.”
The insolence and cruelty of her speech fell on unheeding ears. Emily, understanding only that her husband yet lived, turned to the hall door.
“Stand back!” she said in a voice that was little more than a thrilling whisper, but which yet had in it something that cowed Almira Sentner’s malice. Sullenly she stood aside and Emily went unhindered up the stairs to the room where the sick man lay.
The two doctors in attendance were there, together with the trained nurse from the city. Emily pushed them aside and fell on her knees by the bed. One of the doctors made a hasty motion as if to draw her back, but the other checked him.
“It doesn’t matter now,” he said significantly.
Stephen Fair turned his languid, unshorn head on the pillow. His dull, fevered eyes met Emily’s. He had not recognized anyone all day, but he knew his wife.
“Emily!” he whispered.
Emily drew his head close to her face and kissed his lips passionately.
“Stephen, I’ve come back to you. Forgive me–forgive me–say that you forgive me.”
“It’s all right, my girl,” he said feebly.
She buried her face in the pillow beside his with a sob.
In the wan, grey light of the autumn dawn the old doctor came to the bedside and lifted Emily to her feet. She had not stirred the whole night. Now she raised her white face with dumb pleading in her eyes. The doctor glanced at the sleeping form on the bed.
“Your husband will live, Mrs. Fair,” he said gently. “I think your coming saved him. His joy turned the ebbing tide in favour of life.”
“Thank God!” said Emily.
And for the first time in her life her beautiful voice trembled.