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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 9
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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 9 Post by :ralph_alan Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :February 2011 Read :2633

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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 9

Part I Chapter IX

Long after the horse's hoofs had ceased to beat in the still evening, Mrs. Preston sat by the open window in the bare cottage room, her head resting on her arms, her eyes peering into the soft darkness in the path of the shadowy figure that had passed down Stoney Island Avenue into the night beyond her ken. She had not asked him to return. But he had promised to. Indeed, he did not seem to be far away: she could feel his gentle eyes, his imperious face, his sympathetic voice. It was not much that she could make of him; but her imagination built gratefully on his few words and simple acts, until he became--as when he had spoken to her at the hospital--a masterful spirit, dominating that vague, warm land of dreams in which she took refuge during waking hours.

She should see him again--she must see him again, that was all. And yet what was the good of it? Only a new pain in thus revealing her sores--a pain mixed with a subtle anaesthetic, sweeter than anything she had known in this life. In the end she would have to do without this anodyne; would have to meet her hard and brutal world. Just now, while the yoke was hot to the neck, she might take this mercy to temper the anguish. On the long hill road before her it would be a grateful memory. It seemed now that she had put herself to the yoke, had taken the hill road very lightly. She had not thought of accepting the dentist's advice. With the fierce energy of her crushed, spoiled youth, she had taken her measures: had found this little cottage, hid in the oak copse; had prepared it with her own hands; had gone to the hospital to fetch her husband. That never ending journey from the hospital to the cottage! His ceaseless babble, the foul overflow from his feeble mind, had sapped her courage.

Her head dropped weakly upon her arms; useless tears started. Before that day she had had some joy in this cottage. There were glorious sunrises from the lake and sunsets over the desolate marshes. The rank swamp grasses were growing long, covering decently the unkempt soil. At night, alone, she had comfort in the multitudinous cries from the railroads that ribbed the prairie in this outskirt of the city. The shrieks of the locomotives were like the calls of great savage birds, raising their voices melodiously as they fled to and fro into the roaring cavern of the city, outward to the silent country, to the happier, freer regions of man. As they rushed, they bore her with them to those shadowy lands far away in the sweet stillness of summer-scented noons, in the solemn quiet of autumn nights. Her days were beset with visions like these--visions of a cool, quiet, tranquil world; of conditions of peace; of yearnings satisfied; of toil that did not lacerate. Yes! that world was, somewhere. Her heart was convinced of it, as her father's had been convinced of the reality of paradise. That which she had never been, that which she could not be now--it must exist somewhere. Singularly childish it seemed even to herself, this perpetual obsession by the desire for happiness,--inarticulate, unformed desire. It haunted her, night and morning, haunted her as the desire for food haunts the famished, the desire for action the prisoned. It urged on her footsteps in the still afternoons as she wandered over this vast waste of houseless blocks. Up and down the endless checker-board of empty streets and avenues she had roamed, gleaning what joys were to be had in the metallic atmosphere, the stunted copses, the marshy pools spotted with the blue shields of fleur-de-lys. For even here, in the refuse corner of the great city, Nature doled out niggardly gifts of green growth--proofs of her unquenchable bounty.

This hunger for joy had included no desire for companionship. When her child died, the last person had slipped out of her world. To-night there was a strange, almost fearful sense that this vacant, tenantless life might change. Was there some one among these dull figures that would take life, speak, touch _her_?

There was a movement in the rooms above. She started. Had she locked the door securely? Preston had tried before to drag himself out of the cottage, across the intervening lot, to the saloon on Stoney Island Avenue, whose immense black and gold sign he could see from his chamber. That must not happen here, in the neighborhood of the Everglade School. She must keep him well concealed until he should be strong enough to go far away, on the old round of travel and debauch, from city to city, wearing out his brutishness and returning to her only when spent.

The movements above increased. He was pounding at the door.

"Are you going to let me starve? Where are you?" the sick man called out querulously.

She sprang up; she had forgotten to get supper. When she took the food upstairs, Preston was dragging himself about the room. He was excited, and anxious to talk.

"Did that doctor fix me up? I don't remember seeing him in the hospital."

"He operated when you were received. He left the next day," she answered.

"It must have been a neat job. I guess I was in a pretty tough state," he mused more quietly. "How did he happen to look me up?"

"I met him accidentally in the park," she explained briefly, anxious to have done with the subject. "He offered to come back with me to see you. Perhaps," she added more bitterly, "he wanted to see what he had done."

"I suppose he knows?"

She nodded.

"Well, I can't see why he bothers around. I don't want his attentions."

As she prepared to leave the room, after pulling down the shades and opening the bed, he said apologetically:

"It was pretty good of you to take me in after--I have treated you badly, Alves. But it's no use in going back over that. I guess I was made so. There are lots of men like that, or worse."

"I suppose so," she assented coldly.

"Why are you so stiff with me? You hardly look at me, and you touch me as if I were a piece of dirt. Supposing I take a brace and we start over, somewhere else? I am tired of knocking round. Come over and kiss me, won't you?"

Mrs. Preston paused in her work, the color mounting in her face. At first she made no reply, but as she crossed to the door, she said in a cool, distant tone:

"I don't think I shall ever kiss you again or let you touch me, if I can help it. Do you happen to remember where I saw you last--I mean before I found you in the street--six months ago?"

His face grew troubled, as if he were trying to recollect.

"Oh! that woman? Well, that's past."

"Yes, that woman. I took you here," she continued, her full voice gathering passion, "because you are helpless and an outcast. And because I had taken you before, ignorantly, I feel bound to defend you as you never defended _me_. But I am not bound to do more, and you have sense enough--"

"You were ready enough to bind yourself, if I remember."

She answered meekly:

"I can't think it was the same woman who did that--who was blind and cheap enough to do that. Something has shown me that I am other than the foolish creature you took so easily with a marriage ring, because you could not have her in an easier way! But the old, silly country girl has gone and left me this----Why did it have to be?" she exclaimed more incoherently. "Why did you not let me read what you are? I had only a few wretched weeks to learn you--and I was ignorant and foolish and young. You had me helpless at Barrington! Was it such a clever thing to cheat a girl from a Wisconsin village?"

Preston answered apologetically,--

"Well, I married you."

"Married me! You make a good deal of that! Perhaps it would have been better if you had not married me. My child and I could have died together then. But I was _married_, and so I struggled. The child died, died, do you hear, because you had left me without money to get it what it needed. I sat and saw it die. You were--"

She closed her lips as if to repress further words. As she reached the door, she said in her usual neutral tones:

"So long as you are decent, keep from drinking, and don't get me into trouble at the school, you may stay and take what I can give you."

"'May stay!'" Preston roared, getting to his feet and making a step to intercept her before she closed the door. His legs trembled, and he fell. She knelt over him to see if he had injured himself, and then satisfied that he was not hurt, she left the room, barring the door from the outside. She was none too soon in taking this precaution, for as she swung the heavy oak bar into its socket,--a convenient device of the old German, who had the reputation of being a miser,--she could hear Preston dragging himself toward the door, cursing as he stumbled over the furniture. She crept wearily downstairs into the bare room. Some one was moving in the tiny kitchen beyond.

"Is that you, Anna?" Mrs. Preston called.

"Ye-es," a slow voice responded. Presently a young woman came forward. She was large and very fair, with the pale complexion and intense blue eyes of the Swede.

"I came in and found no one here, so I was cleaning up for you. I have time. John has gone to a meeting--there are many meetings now and not much work. You will eat something?"

She went back to the kitchen and returned with warm food.

"Yes, I am faint." Mrs. Preston's arms trembled. She laughed nervously as she spilled her tea.

"You are not well? You cannot live so--it's no use," the strong Swede continued monotonously. "The men are bad enough when they are good; but when they are bad, a woman can do nothing."

"Tell me about the strike."

Anna Svenson laughed contemptuously, as if such affairs were a part of men's foolishness.

"They're talking of going out, all the railroad men, if the roads use the Pullmans. That's what John has gone to see about. Work is hard to find, so they're going to make less of it."

She stood easily, her arms by her side, watching Mrs. Preston eat, and talking in an even, unexcited tone.

"Father likes the job I told you about--over at the lumber yards. He came in last Sunday. He says the folks out his way are near starving. Svenson thinks of quitting his job."

She laughed gently.

"Life is like that," Mrs. Preston assented. "You can't manage it."

"No, why should one?" Anna Svenson replied coolly. "Children come, they die, they grow up, they fight, they starve, and they have children. It was so over there; it is so here--only more pay and more drink some days; less pay, less drink other days. I shall wash the dishes. Sit still."

She came and went quickly, noiselessly. When everything had been done, she opened a window and leaned out, looking into the darkness. The fact of her presence seemed to bring peace to the room.

"It is a good night," she said, drawing her head in. "There, Svenson has lit the lamp. I must go."

"Good night, Anna." Mrs. Preston took her hand. It was large and cool.

"You shake hands?" Mrs. Svenson asked, with a smile. "When I was working out, people like you never shook hands."

"People like me! What have I that makes me different from you?"

"Oh, nothing; not much," she replied tranquilly.

With a sigh Mrs. Preston took up a bundle of grammar exercises and sorted them. She was too weary for this task: she could not go on just yet. She drew her chair over to the window and sat there long quarter hours, watching the electric cars. They announced themselves from a great distance by a low singing on the overhead wire; then with a rush and a rumble the big, lighted things dashed across the void, and rumbled on with a clatter of smashing iron as they took the switches recklessly. The noise soothed her; in the quiet intervals she was listening for sounds from upstairs. The night was still and languorous, one of the peaceful nights of large spaces when the heavens brood over the earth like a mother over a fretful child. At last no more cars came booming out of the distance. She shut the windows and bolted the door; then she prepared slowly to undress.

For the first time in months she looked at herself curiously, taking an impersonal, calm survey of this body. She sought for signs of slovenly decay,--thinning rusty hair, untidy nails, grimy hands, dried skin,--those marks which she had seen in so many teachers who had abandoned themselves without hope to the unmarried state and had grown careless of their bodies. As she wound her hair into heavy ropes and braided them, it gave her a sharp sense of joy, this body of hers, so firm and warm with blood, so unmarked by her sordid struggle. It was well to be one's self, to own the tenement of the soul; for a time it had not been hers--she reddened with the shame of the thought! But she had gained possession once more, never, never to lose it.

She listened carefully for noises from above; then flung herself on the couch, utterly wearied. In a moment she was asleep, having shed the years of pain, and a frank smile crept over the calm face.

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The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 10 The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 10

The Web Of Life - Part 1 - Chapter 10
Part I Chapter X After giving the invalid his breakfast, and arranging him on his couch where he could see the cars pass, Mrs. Preston hurried over to the Everglade School, which was only two blocks west of Stoney Island Avenue. At noon she slipped out, while the other teachers gathered in one of the larger rooms to chat and unroll their luncheons. These were wrapped in little fancy napkins that were carefully shaken and folded to serve for the next day. As the Everglade teachers had dismissed Mrs. Preston from the first as queer, her absence from the noon gossip
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Part I Chapter VIII "Shall we go in?" the doctor asked at last. Mrs. Preston started, and her hand closed instinctively upon the gate, as if to bar further entrance to her privacy. Then without reply she opened the gate, led the way across the tiny lawn, and unlocked the cottage door. They entered a large room, from which some narrow stairs led to the chambers above. Floor and walls were bare, and the only furniture consisted of two wooden chairs, a small coal-stove, and a pine table of considerable size. This was covered with books, school exercises, and a few
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