The yellow wallpaper and.., p.8
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, p.8Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“Very well,” she said. “Room twenty-seven, Joe,” and turned away.
Mr. Burdock took a walk, his cigar still unlighted.
“By heck!” said he. “By—heck! And she as cool as a cucumber—That confounded old skeezicks! Hanged if I don’t happen to be passin’.”
A sturdy, long-legged little girl was Mary Cameron when he first did business with her father in a Kansas country store. Ranch born and bred, a vigorous, independent child, gravely selling knives and sewing silk, writing paper, and potatoes “to help Father.”
Father was a freethinker—a man of keen, strong mind, scant education, and opinions which ran away with him. He trained her to think for herself, and she did; to act up to her beliefs, and she did; to worship liberty and the sacred rights of the individual, and she did.
But the store failed, as the ranch had failed before it. Perhaps Old Man Cameron’s arguments were too hot for the store loafers; perhaps his freethinking scandalized them. When Burdock saw Mary again, she was working in a San Francisco restaurant. She did not remember him in the least; but he knew one of her friends there and learned of the move to California—the orange failure, the grape failure, the unexpected death of Mr. Cameron, and Mary’s self-respecting efficiency since.
“She’s doin’ well already—got some money ahead—and she’s just as straight!” said Miss Josie. “Want to meet her?”
“Oh no,” said Mr. Burdock, who was of a retiring disposition. “No, she wouldn’t remember me at all.”
When he happened into that restaurant again a year later, Mary had gone, and her friend hinted dark things.
“She got to goin’ with a married man!” she confided. “Man from Oklahoma—name o’ Main. One o’ these Healers—great man for talkin’. She’s left here, and I don’t know where she is.”
Mr. Burdock was sorry, very sorry—not only because he knew Mary, but because he knew Mr. Main. First—where had he met that man first? When he was a glib young phrenologist in Cincinnati. Then he’d run against him in St. Louis—a palmist this time; and then in Topeka—“Dr. Alexander,” some sort of an “opaththist.” Dr. Main’s system of therapy varied, it appeared, with circumstances; he treated brains or bones as it happened, and here in San Francisco had made quite a hit, had lectured, had written a book on sex.
That Mary Cameron, with her hard sense and high courage, should take up with a man like that!
But Mr. Burdock continued to travel, and some four years later, coming to a new hotel in San Diego, he had found Mary again, now Mrs. Mary Main, presiding over the affairs of the house, with a small daughter going to school sedately.
Nothing did he say, to or about her. She was closely attending to her business, and he attended to his; but the next time he was in Cincinnati he had no difficulty in hearing of Mrs. Alexander Main—and her three children—in very poor circumstances indeed.
Of Main he had heard nothing for many years—till now.
He returned to the hotel, and walked near the side window of the office. No one there yet. Selecting chewing gum for solace, as tobacco might betray him, he deliberately tucked a camp stool under the shadow of the overhanging rose bush and sat there, somewhat thornily, but well hidden.
“It’s none o’ my business, but I mean to get the right o’ this,” said Mr. Burdock.
She came in about a quarter of ten, as neat, as plain, as quiet as ever, and sat down under the light with her sewing. Many pretty things Mrs. Main made lovingly, but never wore.
She stopped after a little, folded her strong hands in her lap, and sat looking straight before her.
“If I could only see what she’s looking at, I’d get the hang of it,” thought Mr. Burdock, occasionally peering.
What she was looking at was a woman’s life—and she studied it calmly and with impartial justice.
A fearless, independent girl, fond of her father but recognizing his weaknesses, she had taken her life in her own hands at about the age of twenty, finding in her orphanhood mainly freedom. Her mother she hardly remembered. She was not attractive to such youths as she met in the course of business, coldly repellent to all casual advances, and determined inwardly not to marry, at least not till she had made something of herself. She had worked hard, kept her health, saved money, and read much of the “progressive literature” her father loved.
Then came this man who also read—studied—thought, who felt as she felt, who shared her aspirations, who “understood her.” (Quite possibly he did—he was a person of considerable experience.)
Slowly she grew to enjoy his society, to depend upon it. When he revealed himself as lonely, not over-strong, struggling with the world, she longed to help him; and when, at last, in a burst of bitter confidence, he had said he must leave her, that she had made life over for him but that he must tear himself away, that she was life and hope to him, but he was not free—she demanded the facts.
He told her a sad tale, seeming not to cast blame on any but himself; but the girl burned deep and hot with indignation at the sordid woman, older than he, who had married him in his inexperienced youth, drained him of all he could earn, blasted his ideals, made his life an unbearable desert waste. She had—but no, he would not blacken her who had been his wife.
“She gives me no provable cause for divorce,” he told her. “She will not loosen her grip. I have left her, but she will not let me go.”
“Were there any—children?” she asked after a while.
“There was one little girl—” he said with a pathetic pause. “She died—”
He did not feel it necessary to mention that there were three little boys—who had lived, after a fashion.
Then Mary Cameron made a decision which was more credit to her heart than to her head, though she would have warmly denied such a criticism.
“I see no reason why your life—your happiness—your service to the community—should all be ruined and lost because you were foolish as a boy.”
“I was,” he groaned. “I fell under temptation. Like any other sinner, I must bear my punishment. There is no escape.”
“Nonsense,” said Mary. “She will not let you go. You will not live with her. You cannot marry me. But I can be your wife—if you want me to.”
It was nobly meant. She cheerfully risked all, gave up all, to make up to him for his “ruined life,” to give some happiness to one so long unhappy; and when he vowed that he would not take advantage of such sublime unselfishness, she said that it was not in the least unselfish—for she loved him. This was true—she was quite honest about it.
And he? It is perfectly possible that he entered into their “sacred compact” with every intention of respecting it. She made him happier than anyone else ever had, so far.
There were two happy years when Mr. and Mrs. Main—they took themselves quite seriously—lived in their little flat together and worked and studied and thought great thoughts for the advancement of humanity. Also there was a girl child born, and their contentment was complete.
But in time the income earned by Mr. Main fell away more and more; till Mrs. Main went forth again and worked in a hotel, as efficient as ever, and even more attractive.
Then he had become restless and had gone to Seattle to look for employment—a long search, with only letters to fill the void.
And then—the quiet woman’s hands were clenched together till the nails were purple and white—then The Letter came.
She was sitting alone that evening, the child playing on the floor. The woman who looked after her in the daytime had gone home. The two “roomers” who nearly paid the rent were out. It was a still, soft evening.
She had not had a letter for a week—and was hungry for it. She kissed the envelope—where his hand had rested. She squeezed it tight in her hands—laid her cheek on it—pressed it to her heart.
The baby reached up and wanted to share in the game. She gave her the envelope.
He was not coming back—ever…. It was bette
She sat there, still, very still, staring straight before her, till the child reached up with a little cry.
Then she caught that baby in her arms, and fairly crushed her with passionate caresses till the child cried in good earnest and had to be comforted. Stony-eyed, the mother soothed and rocked her till she slept, and laid her carefully in her little crib. Then she stood up and faced it.
“I suppose I am a ruined woman,” she said.
She went to the glass and lit the gas on either side, facing herself with fixed gaze and adding calmly, “I don’t look it!”
She did not look it. Tall, strong, nobly built, softer and richer for her years of love, her happy motherhood, the woman she saw in the glass seemed as one at the beginning of a splendid life, not at the end of a bad one.
No one could ever know all that she thought and felt that night, bracing her broad shoulders to meet this unbelievable blow.
If he had died she could have borne it better; if he had disappeared she would at least have had her memories left. But now she had not only grief but shame. She had been a fool—a plain, ordinary, old-fashioned, girl fool, just like so many others she had despised. And now?
Under the shock and torture of her shattered life, the brave, practical soul of her struggled to keep its feet, to stand erect. She was not a demonstrative woman. Possibly he had never known how much she loved him, how utterly her life had grown to lean on his.
This thought struck her suddenly and she held her head higher. “Why should he ever know?” she said to herself, and then, “At least I have the child!” Before that night was over, her plans were made.
The money he had sent, which her first feeling was to tear and burn, she now put carefully aside. “He sent it for the child,” she said. “She will need it.” She sublet the little flat and sold the furniture to a young couple, friends of hers, who were looking for just such a quiet home. She bought a suit of mourning, not too cumbrous, and set forth with little Mollie for the South.
In that fair land to which so many invalids come too late, it is not hard to find incompetent women, widowed and penniless, struggling to make a business of the only art they know—emerging from the sheltered harbor of “keeping house” upon the troubled sea of “keeping boarders.”
Accepting moderate terms because of the child, doing good work because of long experience, offering a friendly sympathy out of her own deep sorrow, Mrs. Main made herself indispensable to such a one.
When her new employer asked her about her husband, she would press her handkerchief to her eyes and say, “He has left me. I cannot bear to speak of him.”
This was quite true.
In a year she had saved a little money, and had spent it for a ticket home for the bankrupt lady of the house, who gladly gave her “the goodwill of the business” for it.
Said goodwill was lodged in an angry landlord, a few discontented and largely delinquent boarders, and many unpaid tradesmen. Mrs. Main called a meeting of her creditors in the stiff boardinghouse parlor.
She said, “I have bought this business, such as it is, with practically my last cent. I have worked seven years in restaurants and hotels and know how to run this place better than it has been done so far. If you people will give me credit for six months, and then, if I make good, for six months more, I will assume these back debts—and pay them. Otherwise I shall have to leave here, and you will get nothing but what will come from a forced sale of this third-hand furniture. I shall work hard, for I have this fatherless child to work for.” She had the fatherless child at her side—a pretty thing about three years old.
They looked the house over, looked her over, talked a little with the boarder of longest standing, and took up her offer.
She made good in six months, at the end of the year had begun to pay debts, and now—
Mrs. Main drew a long breath and came back to the present.
Mollie, dear Mollie, was a big girl now, doing excellently well at a good school. The Main House was an established success—had been for years. She had some money laid up—for Mollie’s college expenses. Her health was good, she liked her work, she was respected and esteemed in the town, a useful member of a liberal church, of the Progressive Woman’s Club, of the City Improvement Association. She had won Comfort, Security, and Peace.
His step on the stairs—restrained—uncertain—eager.
Her door was open. He came in, and closed it softly behind him. She rose and opened it.
“That door stands open,” she said. “You need not worry. There’s no one about.”
“Not many, at any rate,” thought the unprincipled Burdock.
She sat down again quietly. He wanted to kiss her, to take her in his arms; but she moved back to her seat with a decided step, and motioned him to his.
“You wanted to speak to me, Mr. Main. What about?”
Then he poured forth his heart as he used to, in a flow of strong, convincing words.
He told of his wanderings, his struggles, his repeated failures; of the misery that had overwhelmed him in his last fatal mistake.
“I deserve it all,” he said with the quick smile and lift of the head that once was so compelling. “I deserve everything that has come to me…. Once to have had you…and to be so blind a fool as to let go your hand! I needed it, Mary, I needed it.”
He said little of his intermediate years as to facts, much as to the waste of woe they represented.
“Now I am doing better in my business,” he said. “I have an established practice in Guthrie, but my health is not good and I have been advised to come to a warmer climate at least for a while.”
She said nothing but regarded him with a clear and steady eye. He seemed an utter stranger, and an unattractive one. That fierce leap of the heart, which, in his presence, at his touch, she recalled so well—where was it now?
“Will you not speak to me, Mary?”
“I have nothing to say.”
“Can you not—forgive me?”
She leaned forward, dropping her forehead in her hands. He waited breathless; he thought she was struggling with her heart.
In reality she was recalling their life together, measuring its further prospects in the light of what he had told her, and comparing it with her own life since. She raised her head and looked him squarely in the eye.
“I have nothing to forgive,” she said.
“Ah, you are too generous, too noble!” he cried. “And I? The burden of my youth is lifted now. My first wife is dead—some years since—and I am free. You are my real wife, Mary, my true and loving wife. Now I can offer you the legal ceremony as well.”
“I do not wish it,” she answered.
“It shall be as you say,” he went on. “But for the child’s sake—I wish to be a father to her.”
“You are her father,” said she. “That cannot be helped.”
“But I wish to give her my name.”
“She has it. I gave it to her.”
“Brave, dear woman! But now I can give it to you.”
“I have it also. It has been my name ever since I—according to my conscience—married you.”
“But—but—you have no legal right to it, Mary.”
She smiled, even laughed.
“Better read a little law, Mr. Main. I have used that name for twelve years, am publicly and honorably known by it; it is mine, legally.”
“But Mary, I want to help you.”
“Thank you. I do not need it.”
“But I want to do for the child—my child—our little one!”
“You may,” said she. “I want to send her to college. You may help if you like. I should be very glad if Mollie could have some pleasant a
“With all my heart I wish it, Mary. You will?—”
He stood up—he held out his arms to her.
“No,” said she, “I will not. When I was twenty-four I loved you. I sympathized with you. I was willing to be your wife—truly and faithfully your wife, even though you could not legally marry me—because I loved you. Now I will not marry you because I do not love you. That is all.”
He glanced about the quiet, comfortable room; he had already estimated the quiet, comfortable business; and now, from some forgotten chamber of his honeycombed heart, welled up a fierce longing for this calm, strong, tender woman whose power of love he knew so well.
“Mary! You will not turn me away! I love you—I love you as I never loved you before!”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” she said. “It does not make me love you again.”
His face darkened.
“Do not drive me to desperation,” he cried. “Your whole life here rests on a lie, remember. I could shatter it with a word.”
She smiled patiently.
“You can’t shatter facts, Mr. Main. People here know that you left me years ago. They know how I have lived since. If you try to blacken my reputation here, I think you will find the climate of Mexico more congenial.”
On second thought, this seemed to be the opinion of Mr. Main, who presently left for that country.
It was also agreed with by Mr. Burdock, who emerged later, a little chilly and somewhat scratched, and sought his chamber.
“If that galoot says anything against her in this town, he’ll find a hotter climate than Mexico—by heck!” said Mr. Burdock to his boots as he set them down softly. And that was all he ever said about it.
Making a Change
Frank Gordins set down his coffee cup so hard that it spilled over into the saucer.
“Is there no way to stop that child crying?” he demanded.
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman / History & Fiction / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes