The yellow wallpaper and.., p.6
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, p.6Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“My poor child,” it began. What letter of hers had been sad enough to warrant that?
“I am deeply concerned at the news you send.” What news to so concern him had she written? “You must bear it bravely, little girl. I shall be home soon, and will take care of you, of course. I hope there is not immediate anxiety—you do not say. Here is money, in case you need it. I expect to get home in a month at latest. If you have to go, be sure to leave your address at my office. Cheer up—be brave—I will take care of you.”
The letter was typewritten, which was not unusual. It was unsigned, which was unusual. It enclosed an American bill—fifty dollars. It did not seem in the least like any letter she had ever had from her husband, or any letter she could imagine him writing. But a strange, cold feeling was creeping over her, like a flood rising around a house.
She utterly refused to admit the ideas which began to bob and push about outside her mind, and to force themselves in. Yet under the pressure of these repudiated thoughts she went downstairs and brought up the other letter—the letter to Gerta. She laid them side by side on a smooth dark space on the table; marched to the piano and played, with stern precision, refusing to think, till the girl came back. When she came in, Mrs. Marroner rose quietly and came to the table. “Here is a letter for you,” she said.
The girl stepped forward eagerly, saw the two lying together there, hesitated, and looked at her mistress.
“Take yours, Gerta. Open it, please.”
The girl turned frightened eyes upon her.
“I want you to read it, here,” said Mrs. Marroner.
“Oh, ma’am—No! Please don’t make me!”
There seemed to be no reason at hand, and Gerta flushed more deeply and opened her letter. It was long; it was evidently puzzling to her; it began “My dear wife.” She read it slowly.
“Are you sure it is your letter?” asked Mrs. Marroner. “Is not this one yours? Is not that one—mine?”
She held out the other letter to her.
“It is a mistake,” Mrs. Marroner went on, with a hard quietness. She had lost her social bearings somehow, lost her usual keen sense of the proper thing to do. This was not life; this was a nightmare.
“Do you not see? Your letter was put in my envelope and my letter was put in your envelope. Now we understand it.”
But poor Gerta had no antechamber to her mind, no trained forces to preserve order while agony entered. The thing swept over her, resistless, overwhelming. She cowered before the outraged wrath she expected; and from some hidden cavern that wrath arose and swept over her in pale flame.
“Go and pack your trunk,” said Mrs. Marroner. “You will leave my house tonight. Here is your money.”
She laid down the fifty-dollar bill. She put with it a month’s wages. She had no shadow of pity for those anguished eyes, those tears which she heard drop on the floor.
“Go to your room and pack,” said Mrs. Marroner. And Gerta, always obedient, went.
Then Mrs. Marroner went to hers, and spent a time she never counted, lying on her face on the bed.
But the training of the twenty-eight years which had elapsed before her marriage; the life at college, both as student and teacher; the independent growth which she had made, formed a very different background for grief from that in Gerta’s mind.
After a while Mrs. Marroner arose. She administered to herself a hot bath, a cold shower, a vigorous rubbing. “Now I can think,” she said.
First she regretted the sentence of instant banishment. She went upstairs to see if it had been carried out. Poor Gerta! The tempest of her agony had worked itself out at last as in a child, and left her sleeping, the pillow wet, the lips still grieving, a big sob shuddering itself off now and then.
Mrs. Marroner stood and watched her, and as she watched she considered the helpless sweetness of the face; the defenseless, unformed character; the docility and habit of obedience which made her so attractive—and so easily a victim. Also she thought of the mighty force which had swept over her; of the great process now working itself out through her; of how pitiful and futile seemed any resistance she might have made.
She softly returned to her own room, made up a little fire, and sat by it, ignoring her feelings now, as she had before ignored her thoughts.
Here were two women and a man. One woman was a wife: loving, trusting, affectionate. One was a servant: loving, trusting, affectionate—a young girl, an exile, a dependent; grateful for any kindness; untrained, uneducated, childish. She ought, of course, to have resisted temptation; but Mrs. Marroner was wise enough to know how difficult temptation is to recognize when it comes in the guise of friendship and from a source one does not suspect.
Gerta might have done better in resisting the grocer’s clerk; had, indeed, with Mrs. Marroner’s advice, resisted several. But where respect was due, how could she criticize? Where obedience was due, how could she refuse—with ignorance to hold her blinded—until too late?
As the older, wiser woman forced herself to understand and extenuate the girl’s misdeed and foresee her ruined future, a new feeling rose in her heart, strong, clear, and overmastering: a sense of measureless condemnation for the man who had done this thing. He knew. He understood. He could fully foresee and measure the consequences of his act. He appreciated to the full the innocence, the ignorance, the grateful affection, the habitual docility, of which he deliberately took advantage.
Mrs. Marroner rose to icy peaks of intellectual apprehension, from which her hours of frantic pain seemed far indeed removed. He had done this thing under the same roof with her—his wife. He had not frankly loved the younger woman, broken with his wife, made a new marriage. That would have been heart-break pure and simple. This was something else.
That letter, that wretched, cold, carefully guarded, unsigned letter, that bill—far safer than a check—these did not speak of affection. Some men can love two women at one time. This was not love.
Mrs. Marroner’s sense of pity and outrage for herself, the wife, now spread suddenly into a perception of pity and outrage for the girl. All that splendid, clean young beauty, the hope of a happy life, with marriage and motherhood, honorable independence, even—these were nothing to that man. For his own pleasure he had chosen to rob her of her life’s best joys.
He would “take care of her,” said the letter. How? In what capacity?
And then, sweeping over both her feelings for herself, the wife, and Gerta, his victim, came a new flood, which literally lifted her to her feet. She rose and walked, her head held high. “This is the sin of man against woman,” she said. “The offense is against womanhood. Against motherhood. Against—the child.”
The child. His child. That, too, he sacrificed and injured—doomed to degradation.
Mrs. Marroner came of stern New England stock. She was not a Calvinist, hardly even a Unitarian, but the iron of Calvinism was in her soul: of that grim faith which held that most people had to be damned “for the glory of God.”
Generations of ancestors who both preached and practiced stood behind her; people whose lives had been sternly moulded to their highest moments of religious conviction. In sweeping bursts of feeling, they achieved “conviction,” and afterward they lived and died according to that conviction.
When Mr. Marroner reached home a few weeks later, following his letters too soon to expect an answer to either, he saw no wife upon the pier, though he had cabled, and found the house closed darkly. He let himself in with his latch-key, and stole softly upstairs, to surprise his wife.
No wife was there.
He rang the bell. No servant answered it.
He turned up light after light, searched the house from top to bottom; it was utterly empty. The kitchen wore a clean, bald, unsympathetic aspect. He left it and slowly mounted the stairs, completely dazed. The whole house was clean, in perfect order, wholly vacant.
One thing he felt perfectly sure of—she kn
Yet was he sure? He must not assume too much. She might have been ill. She might have died. He started to his feet. No, they would have cabled him. He sat down again.
For any such change, if she had wanted him to know, she would have written. Perhaps she had, and he, returning so suddenly, had missed the letter. The thought was some comfort. It must be so. He turned to the telephone and again hesitated. If she had found out—if she had gone—utterly gone, without a word—should he announce it himself to friends and family?
He walked the floor; he searched everywhere for some letter, some word of explanation. Again and again he went to the telephone—and always stopped. He could not bear to ask: “Do you know where my wife is?”
The harmonious, beautiful rooms reminded him in a dumb, helpless way of her—like the remote smile on the face of the dead. He put out the lights, could not bear the darkness, turned them all on again.
It was a long night—
In the morning he went early to the office. In the accumulated mail was no letter from her. No one seemed to know of anything unusual. A friend asked after his wife—“Pretty glad to see you, I guess?” He answered evasively.
About eleven a man came to see him: John Hill, her lawyer. Her cousin, too. Mr. Marroner had never liked him. He liked him less now, for Mr. Hill merely handed him a letter, remarked, “I was requested to deliver this to you personally,” and departed, looking like a person who is called on to kill something offensive.
“I have gone. I will care for Gerta. Good-bye. Marion.”
That was all. There was no date, no address, no postmark, nothing but that.
In his anxiety and distress, he had fairly forgotten Gerta and all that. Her name aroused in him a sense of rage. She had come between him and his wife. She had taken his wife from him. That was the way he felt.
At first he said nothing, did nothing, lived on alone in his house, taking meals where he chose. When people asked him about his wife, he said she was traveling—for her health. He would not have it in the newspapers. Then, as time passed, as no enlightenment came to him, he resolved not to bear it any longer, and employed detectives. They blamed him for not having put them on the track earlier, but set to work, urged to the utmost secrecy.
What to him had been so blank a wall of mystery seemed not to embarrass them in the least. They made careful inquiries as to her “past,” found where she had studied, where taught, and on what lines; that she had some little money of her own, that her doctor was Josephine L. Bleet, M.D., and many other bits of information.
As a result of careful and prolonged work, they finally told him that she had resumed teaching under one of her old professors, lived quietly, and apparently kept boarders; giving him town, street, and number, as if it were a matter of no difficulty whatever.
He had returned in early spring. It was autumn before he found her.
A quiet college town in the hills, a broad, shady street, a pleasant house standing in its own lawn, with trees and flowers about it. He had the address in his hand, and the number showed clear on the white gate. He walked up the straight gravel path and rang the bell. An elderly servant opened the door.
“Does Mrs. Marroner live here?”
“This is number twenty-eight?”
“Who does live here?”
“Miss Wheeling, sir.”
Ah! Her maiden name. They had told him, but he had forgotten.
He stepped inside. “I would like to see her,” he said.
He was ushered into a still parlor, cool and sweet with the scent of flowers, the flowers she had always loved best. It almost brought tears to his eyes. All their years of happiness rose in his mind again—the exquisite beginnings; the days of eager longing before she was really his; the deep, still beauty of her love.
Surely she would forgive him—she must forgive him. He would humble himself; he would tell her of his honest remorse—his absolute determination to be a different man.
Through the wide doorway there came in to him two women. One like a tall Madonna, bearing a baby in her arms.
Marion, calm, steady, definitely impersonal, nothing but a clear pallor to hint of inner stress.
Gerta, holding the child as a bulwark, with a new intelligence in her face, and her blue, adoring eyes fixed on her friend—not upon him.
He looked from one to the other dumbly.
And the woman who had been his wife asked quietly:
“What have you to say to us?”
WHY NOT?” said Mr. Mathews. “It is far too small for a house, too pretty for a hut, too—unusual—for a cottage.”
“Cottagette, by all means,” said Lois, seating herself on a porch chair. “But it is larger than it looks, Mr. Mathews. How do you like it, Malda?”
I was delighted with it. More than delighted. Here this tiny shell of fresh unpainted wood peeped out from under the trees, the only house in sight except the distant white specks on far-off farms, and the little wandering village in the river-threaded valley. It sat right on the turf—no road, no path even, and the dark woods shadowed the back windows.
“How about meals?” asked Lois.
“Not two minutes’ walk,” he assured her, and showed us a little furtive path between the trees to the place where meals were furnished.
We discussed and examined and exclaimed, Lois holding her pongee skirts close about her—she needn’t have been so careful, there wasn’t a speck of dust—and presently decided to take it.
Never did I know the real joy and peace of living, before that blessed summer at High Court. It was a mountain place, easy enough to get to, but strangely big and still and far away when you were there.
The working basis of the establishment was an eccentric woman named Caswell, a sort of musical enthusiast, who had a summer school of music and the “higher thought.” Malicious persons, not able to obtain accommodations there, called the place High C.
I liked the music very well, and kept my thoughts to myself, both high and low, but the Cottagette I loved unreservedly. It was so little and new and clean, smelling only of its fresh-planed boards—they hadn’t even stained it.
There was one big room and two little ones in the tiny thing, though from the outside you wouldn’t have believed it, it looked so small; but small as it was, it harbored a miracle—a real bathroom with water piped from mountain springs. Our windows opened into the green shadiness, the soft brownness, the bird-inhabited, quiet, flower-starred woods. But in front we looked across whole counties—over a far-off river—into another state. Off and down and away—it was like sitting on the roof of something—something very big.
The grass swept up to the doorstep, to the walls—only it wasn’t just grass, of course, but such a procession of flowers as I had never imagined could grow in one place.
You had to go quite a way through the meadow, wearing your own narrow faintly marked streak in the grass, to reach the town-connecting road below. But in the woods was a little path, clear and wide, by which we went to meals.
For we ate with the highly thoughtful musicians, and highly musical thinkers, in their central boardinghouse nearby. They didn’t call it a boardinghouse, which is neither high nor musical; they called it the Calceolaria. There was plenty of that growing about, and I didn’t mind what they called it so long as the food was good—which it was, and the prices reasonable—which they were.
The people were extremely interesting—some of them at least; and all of them were better than the average of summer boarders.
But if there hadn’t been any interesting ones, it didn’t matter while Ford Mathews was there. He was a newspaper man, or rather an ex-newspaper man, then becoming a writer for magazines, with books ahead.
He had friends at High Court—he liked music, he liked the place, and he liked us. Lois liked him too, as was quite natural. I’m sure I did.
He came daytimes and went on long walks with us. He established his workshop in a most attractive little cave not far beyond us—the country there is full of rocky ledges and hollows—and sometimes asked us over to an afternoon tea, made on a gipsy fire.
Lois was a good deal older than I, but not really old at all, and she didn’t look her thirty-five by ten years. I never blamed her for not mentioning it, and I wouldn’t have done so myself on any account. But I felt that together we made a safe and reasonable household. She played beautifully, and there was a piano in our big room. There were pianos in several other little cottages about—but too far off for any jar of sound. When the wind was right, we caught little wafts of music now and then; but mostly it was still, blessedly still, about us. And yet that Calceolaria was only two minutes off—and with raincoats and rubbers we never minded going to it.
We saw a good deal of Ford, and I got interested in him; I couldn’t help it. He was big. Not extra big in pounds and inches, but a man with a big view and grip—with purpose and real power. He was going to do things. I thought he was doing them now, but he didn’t—this was all like cutting steps in the icewall, he said. It had to be done, but the road was long ahead. And he took an interest in my work too, which is unusual for a literary man.
Mine wasn’t much. I did embroidery and made designs.
It is such pretty work! I like to draw from flowers and leaves and things about me—conventionalize them sometimes, and sometimes paint them just as they are, in soft silk stitches.
All about up here were the lovely small things I needed; and not only these, but the lovely big things that make one feel so strong and able to do beautiful work.
Here was the friend I lived so happily with, and all this fairyland of sun and shadow, the free immensity of our view, and the dainty comfort of the Cottagette. We never had to think of ordinary things till the soft musical thrill of the Japanese gong stole through the trees, and we trotted off to the Calceolaria.
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