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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesHis Second Wife - Chapter 1
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His Second Wife - Chapter 1 Post by :sesam Category :Long Stories Author :Ernest Poole Date :May 2012 Read :674

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His Second Wife - Chapter 1


On a train speeding toward New York, in one of the parlour cars two young women sat facing each other, talking and smiling, deeply absorbed. They took little apparent notice of any one else in the car, but most of the people near them kept throwing curious glances their way.

These glances differed vastly, as did the thoughts behind them. A tall, genial Westerner, who looked as though he had come from a ranch, smiled frankly and hungrily on the pair and told himself with emphasis, "Those two girls are fifty-fifty. I'd like a dozen of each brand." And a slim college boy with fresh, eager eyes kept darting quick looks from time to time at the older of the two, the blonde. He asked himself confusedly, "How'd I start in with a woman like her?" And exciting pictures rose in his mind. In the meantime an elderly lady, with a sharp, inquisitive air, had put down the ages of the girls at twenty-two and thirty.

"They're sisters," she decided, but then she nearly changed her mind. They were such contrasted types. The blonde gave an appearance of sleek and moneyed elegance, with carefully undulated hair, a rounded bust, and pretty features smooth and plump, with a retrousse nose and rich, full lips, and a manner of easy assurance. The brunette was younger and less developed, slim and lithe, her curling black hair rebellious, her features more clean-cut and clear, with wide, eager lips and warm brown eyes set wide apart.

"Nevertheless, they are sisters," the little lady firmly concluded. "The family resemblance is quite unmistakable." And frowning in perplexity, "But if they are sisters," she went on, "why is only one in mourning?" She looked at the younger of the two, who was simply dressed in black; and then at the blonde, whose sable cloak put back from her shoulders revealed a stylish travelling suit. "And why is one rich and the other poor?"

Meanwhile a young woman nearby, with a fat, discontented face, regarded the blonde with envy and thought:

"She's an actress with her maid. Why can't Harry allow me a maid, a real clever one like that? Men see these actresses on the stage and get to expecting things from their wives--without being willing to pay for it! Think what that girl could make of me!"

A quiet, able-looking woman sitting just across the aisle, who travelled for a clothing store, was watching the "maid," the brunette, and was thinking, "She makes her clothes herself. She has been the beauty of her small town. She's smart, too, and original. That collar was a clever idea--and that fichu of lace. A pity she's in mourning."

But the large fat man behind the two girls had little thought for the brunette. His heavy eyes, quite motionless, were upon the older girl. He took in her sensuous shoulders, the rounded contour of her bust, her glossy coiffure, the small, fine hairs at the back of her neck. And he thought, "Yes, she has been loved pretty well." She was talking, and he could just hear her voice, soft and provocative, like the little gloved hand on her chair. By her eyes, which were of a violet hue, he saw she was aware of his gaze. Something gleamed in them that sent a thrill far down into his sluggish soul.

In the meantime a kindly old lady, whose eyes were fixed on the brunette, noticed how hard she was listening, noticed the fresh expectancy in her parted lips and clear brown eyes, and asked with a touch of sadness:

"I wonder what's waiting for you in New York? I'm afraid I don't like this companion of yours. And you're so very young, my dear, and eager and gay. And you are to be so beautiful."

And while all these conjectures were being made about them both, the brunette was wrapt in her own inner fancies, vivid and exciting. Listening to her sister, swift thoughts and expectations mingled with the memories of the life behind her. As she stared out of the window, fields and woods and houses kept whirling back out of her view--and so it was with her memories. It was hard to keep hold of any one.

She had lived with her father, a lonely old man in a small, quiet town in Ohio, down in the lower part of the State. He was dead, and she was going to live with her married sister in New York. He was dead and his daughter was not sad, though she'd been his only close companion and had loved him tenderly. And this brought a guilty feeling now, which she fought down by telling herself there had been little sadness in his death. She pictured her father making his speech at the unveiling of the Monument. How happy and proud he had appeared. For half his life old Colonel Knight had exhorted his fellow townsmen and painted dark the shame of their town: "The only county seat in Ohio with no soldiers' monument, sir!" He had held countless meetings, he had gone begging to his neighbours, and every dollar he himself could save had gone into that dream of his. At last he had triumphed; and after all the excitement of his final victory, the old soldier had made his speech, and died.

Around him and the monument and the old frame house on River Street, the lazy, shallow river, the high school near the court house, Demley's Tavern across the square, the line of shops on either side, the new "movie" theatre of pink tile, and the old yellow church on the corner--the pictures of her life trooped by, the pictures of her last few years--with the miracle, the discovery that she herself, Ethel Knight, who had always been considered "plain," was slowly now developing into a beautiful woman. That brought memories which thrilled--various faces of men, young and old, looks and glances, words overheard, and countless small attentions. But these came in mere fragments, rising only to be whirled back again into the past, as the train sped on toward the city.

She was going to live in New York with her married sister, Amy Lanier. And from looking out of the car window, Ethel would turn quickly, throw a swift glance at her sister and smile. Amy seemed quite wonderful--Amy with her elegance, her worldly assurance, her smiling good-humour and knowledge of "life," her apparent content, her sense of well being, of being a joy to look at and love; Amy who had an adoring husband, Amy who spent money like water, Amy with dash and beauty and style.

"New York just fairly shimmering in everything she wears!" thought Ethel.

Amy's sable cloak was long. She had worn it at the funeral, with a black skirt and a heavy veil. But the veil she had put into her bag as soon as they had left the town, and the cloak thrown back revealed rich colours, the glitter and glint of a diamond brooch; and she wore a small blue feathered hat which threw out changing colours in the play of light in the car. There was to be no more mourning. Amy didn't believe in that; she was good-humouredly arguing her young sister out of it. And Ethel, smiling back at her, saw how sensible it was. She felt death and sadness slipping away, and the life in the city opening.

Since Amy's marriage five years ago, Ethel had only seen her twice--once when Amy had come home, appearing resplendent with Joe her husband in a large new touring car, and had sent a wave of excitement through the quiet little town; and again when she had asked Ethel to visit her for a week in New York. That had been a glamourous week, but it had not been repeated. For nearly three years they had not met. In that time had come the change in Ethel's own appearance. And glancing now at Amy, she read in those clear, smiling eyes that Amy was relieved and pleased and surprised at the striking beauty which had come to her young sister. There was even a tone of expectancy in Amy's talk of their life in New York.

"She thinks I'll get on finely!" This exciting thought kept rising repeatedly in Ethel's mind. And with it came the sturdy resolve, "I mustn't be too humble now, or too dependent on her. I must show her I'm somebody all by myself--that I won't be a burden on her hands. I've got to make a life of my own--find work perhaps--or marry!"

Then all such resolutions would merge in the images vivid and new, which kept rising in her mind, of the life she would have in the city.

She had a good voice. Old Mr. Riggs, the organist in the yellow church at home, had planted that idea deep in her mind. If only her voice could be brought out! She hadn't much money for teachers, but how she would work if she got a chance! In her heart she knew she had no great voice, but gaily she let her fancy go and pictured herself on the stage. . . . This image passed and was replaced by a platform in an immense auditorium crowded with cheering women and girls. Suffrage banners were all about, and she was speaking to the crowd. Her voice rang clear and resolute. . . . There were other dreams and pictures--of dances in New York cafes, of theatre parties, trips to Paris, hosts of friends. And the vague thought flashed into her mind:

"What possibilities for life--in me--me--Ethel Knight!"

She went on listening, building. She took in fragments of what Amy said and mingled them with things she had read and pictures she'd seen in books, magazines and Sunday papers; or with things that she had heard in the long discussions in her club of high school girls, over suffrage, marriage, Bernard Shaw. She thought of the opera, concerts, plays. She saw Fifth Avenue at night agleam with countless motors, torrents of tempestuous life--and numberless shop windows, hats and dainty gowns and shoes. She pictured herself at dinners and balls, men noticing her everywhere. "As they are doing now," she thought, "this very minute in this car!" Out of all the pictures rose one of a church wedding. And then this picture faded, and changed to that of her father's funeral in the old frame yellow church. She frowned, her brown eyes saddened and suddenly grew wet with a deep homesick tenderness. But in a few moments she smiled again; once more her pulse-beat quickened. For Amy was talking good-humouredly. And Ethel's eyes, now curious, now plainly thrilled, now quizzical, amused and pleased, kept watching her, and she asked herself:

"Shall I ever be like that?"

The picture she had of her sister grew each moment more warm and desirable. Eagerly she explored it by the quick questions she threw out.

They were coming into the city now, in a dusk rich with twinkling lights. In the car the passengers were stirring. Amy stood up to be brushed--sleek and alluring, worldly wise--and the fat man in the chair behind her opened wide his heavy eyes. Then Ethel stood up--and in the poise of her figure, slim and lithe with its lovely lines, in her carriage, in her slender neck, in her dark face with its features clear, her lips a little parted, and in the look in her brown eyes--there was something which made glances turn from all down the softly lighted car. There was even a brief silence. And Ethel drew a sudden breath, as from close behind her the soft voice of the darky porter drawled:

"Yes'm--yes'm--dis is New York. We's comin' right into de station now."

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