“You said yourself we could expect a storm. It isn’t right to leave me here alone. Surely I’m as important as your father.”
He glanced up uneasily, then drinking off his coffee tried to reassure her. “But there’s nothing to be afraid of—even supposing it does start to storm.”
In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region strangely alien to life. Even the distant farmsteads she could see served only to intensify a sense of isolation. Scattered across the face of so vast and bleak a wilderness it was difficult to conceive them as a testimony of human hardihood and endurance. Rather they seemed futile, lost, to cower before the implacability of snow-swept earth and clear pale sun-chilled sky.
She stood at the stove motionless a moment, then turned to him uneasily. “Will you shave then, John—now—before you go?”
He glanced at her questioningly, and avoiding his eyes she tried to explain, “I mean—he may be here before you’re back—and you won’t have a chance then.”
“But it’s only Steven—he’s seen me like this—”
“He’ll be shaved, though—that’s what I mean—and I’d like you to spend a little time on yourself.”
He stood up, stroking the heavy stubble on his chin. “Maybe I should—only it softens up the skin too much. Especially when I’ve got to face the wind.”
“Warm and safe—I’m a fool. It’s a good chance when he’s away to paint. The day will go quickly. I won’t have time to brood.”
Since November now the paint had been waiting warmer weather. The frost in the walls on a day like this would crack and peel it as it dried, but she needed something to keep her hands occupied, something to stave off the gathering cold and loneliness.
“It’s better with four, but at least we can talk. That’s all I need—someone to talk to. John never talks. He’s stronger—he doesn’t understand. But he likes Steven—no matter what the neighbors say. Maybe he’ll have him come again, and some other young people, too. It’s what we need, both of us, to help keep young ourselves...And then before we know it we’ll be into March. It’s cold still in March sometimes, but you never mind the same. At least you’re beginning to think about spring.”
For spring was drudgery again. John never hired a man to help him. He wanted a mortgage-free farm, then a new house and pretty clothes for her. Sometimes, because with the best of crops it was going to take so long to pay off anyway, she wondered whether they mightn’t better let the mortgage wait a little. Before they were worn out, before their best years were gone. It was something of life she wanted, not just a house and furniture; something of John, not pretty clothes when she would be too old to wear them. But John of course couldn’t understand. To him it seemed only right that she should have the pretty clothes—only right that he, fit for nothing else, should slave away fifteen hours a day to give them to her.
But now, alone with herself in the winter silence, she saw the spring for what it really was. This spring—next spring—all the springs and summers still to come. While they grew old, while their bodies warped, while their minds kept shriveling dry and empty like their lives. “I mustn’t,” she said aloud again. “I married him—and he’s a good man. I mustn’t keep on this way. It will be noon before long, and then time to think about supper...
She was young still, eager for excitement and distractions; and John’s steadfastness rebuked her vanity, made her complaints seem weak and trivial. She went on fretfully, “If he’d listen to me sometimes and not be so stubborn we wouldn’t be living still in a house like this. Seven years in two rooms—seven years and never a new stick of furniture... There—as if another coat of paint could make it different anyway.”
But she felt little dread or uneasiness at the prospect of spending the night alone. It was the first time she had been left like this on her own resources, and her reaction, now that she could face and appraise her situation calmly, was gradually to feel it a kind of adventure and responsibility. It stimulated her.
He was erect, tall, square-shouldered. His hair was dark and trim, his lips curved, soft, and full. While John—she made the comparison swiftly—was thick-set, heavy-jowled, and stooped. He always stood before her helpless, a kind of humility and wonderment in his attitude. And Steven now smiled on her appraisingly with the worldly-wise assurance of one for whom a woman holds neither mystery nor illusion.
Looking down at him as he slept, half smiling still, his lips relaxed in the conscienceless complacency of his achievement, she understood that thus he was revealed in his entirety—all there ever was or ever could be. John was the man. With him lay all the future. For tonight, slowly and contritely through the days and years to come, she would try to make amends.
“He was south of here,” they said wonderingly when she told them how he had come across the hills. “Straight south—you’d wonder how he could have missed the buildings. It was the wind last night, coming every way at once. He shouldn’t have tried. There was a double wheel around the moon.”
She looked past them a moment, then as if to herself said simply, “If you knew him, though—John would try.”