Charlotte Armstrong



The day we are born somebody fastens a diaper on us with a safety pin. From that time forward we do not live without steel.

The gadgets we have in our houses, our cars, iceboxes, and the machines that build the roads for the cars to run on, and the machines the farmer uses to grow the food we keep in the iceboxes, and the machines that make the machines … besides the buildings, railroads, bridges, tunnels, the warships and the guns … take steel.

So the mills blaze and the metal boils and the steel comes rolling out.

But steel takes iron.

So, before that, down the lakes must come along the flat ore boats in slow parade, low-lying, and hard to see from shore except by the smear of their smoke against the sky, carrying with stately persistence the raw ore.

Yet, before that, those vessels must lie against a dock, to receive the noisy burden that roars down out of the bellies of the ore cars. And the ore trains must, before that, have banged and rattled through the countryside, around the hills, past the little lakes, through the woods, of the north country.

And those cars have passed, before that, below the trestles or beside the great loaders, to receive the ore from the stock pile which is an artificial ridge of the broken stuff, lying on the surface of the ground.

That is not the beginning either.

Now, on the Mesabi they strip the earth away and expose the ore body. But, on the Menominee range, this broken ore has to come up on a small carrier, a buckety elevator … a skip, they call it … load by puny load, a swift and narrow way out of a deep place. And the ore got into that skip by sliding there on cunningly tilted chutes, themselves only part of a honeycomb, a system, a thing called a mine, burrowed and built and working under the ground.

In the very beginning the ore body lay, one with the rock, hidden below the forest, meadow and lake, unknown. Men hunted it. They drilled until they found it. They dug down. They broke it with dynamite. They knocked it away from its solid home and lifted it out of the ground.

These are mining men, and what they do seems almost impossible, but they do it anyway.

Thor, Michigan, was a mining town. There was no other reason whatsoever for its existence. Yet if you had ridden through it, in the year 1920, you might not have guessed this to be so. It was a pretty little town in those days.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, near the Wisconsin border, is hilly and woodsy and smells of pine. Lakes, pond-size or larger, or lying in groups and chains linked together around enchanting little islands and promontories, would look from the air as if they had been punched boldly out of very thick stuff, for the trees there reach to the edge of the water and the water often lies, deep and smiling, reflecting the shore almost as much as the sky. There are, in this country, some rolling spaces where the forests have burned or been cut away, and only a low brush covers the land (although the seedlings hide in the grasses). There are marshes too, choked with the vertical reeds and cattails growing like a cluster of exclamation points. There are rivers: the Menominee, the Niagara, the Sturgeon, and they fall sometimes over the basic ledges. But the land dips and rolls and the road curls sweetly through it, for there are no great mountains and it is all softened and feathered by the forests. It is not farm country. It looks like a place for campers and fishermen, a place to play. It does not look like a violent land.

Had someone thrown a handful of buildings from the sky, they might have fallen, by chance and gravity, exactly in the pattern of the town of Thor. The biggest ones would have rolled to the bottom of the little valley. The rest would have caught, scattering on the gentler slopes, thinning as the hills rose to the north and west, dribbling off through the flat mouth of the valley eastward, except for one little knot of them accumulated there. And, of course, the curving rim of Thor Lake would bite off the same clear and decisive end to the southwest section of the settlement.

Yet there were man-cut corners, a few of them, and some squares.

Of course, if you had come down the road from the northwest, you would have passed, on your left, one scalped hillside where, ranged on the bare ground along a steep and crooked side road, there was a terraced series of stern and utilitarian looking buildings. This was West Thor Mine. The shafthouse, at the bottom, would have told you.

But then the road would drift on between woodsy banks for a mile or more before, coming softly down a long hill, you would begin to see the dwellings thickening along the way. At the bottom of the hill the road bent slightly to the left around the little white Methodist Church, then ran a short straight block to a true corner. Here, on a dusty plaza, stood the town hall of naked yellow brick, unshaded, unplanted. The main road did not run before it but turned right and passed two schoolhouses instead. One was a big, buxom, Victorian-looking wooden grade school. The other was a smaller, neater, newer high school which bore, absurdly and pretentiously, on each corner of its portico, three fat concrete Ionic pillars. The schools stood in a green yard with the bare playground hidden behind them, and it was pretty.

At the foot of this second short block, facing straight up the middle of the street, lay the low brooding mass of the Company offices and the general store. The road turned again before it—to left and the east. But, by this time, you have been through the main part of Thor. This was its heart. A town hall, two schools and the Company buildings, and this was all the business section there was, too, except for a lone butcher shop inconspicuously apart, not even on the main road at all.

When the road turned and went east past the depot it was finished with right angles for awhile. It drifted off on a southerly slant across a small bridge over a railroad cut, and finally through a separate cluster of houses called East Thor, which huddled around the ankles of a big Catholic Church. East Thor Mine was not easily seen from the road. You might spy the shafthouse lofting itself above the trees but probably you wouldn’t have noticed it.

So you would think of the quaintly turning main street, so refreshingly not straight, and not lined with false fronts, but running under tall trees in that quick Z, and you would remember the uncommercial look of the place, its coziness and its charm, its fresh green in summer, or the unsoiled white of its heavy and enduring winter coat of snow. Charming, you would think. Such a pretty village!

But if you stayed, you would soon know it was not like ordinary pretty villages. It had other sounds. There would be, of course, the long roar of the ore trains banging through on their track that cut the town’s south edge so briefly and abruptly and then ran away between the lake and the town. Or, in the night especially, you would hear the hiss and rattle and long, loud, snorting sighs of the steam shovels loading ore. And there were the whistles hooting the changing shifts—blowing time (all day, all night).

And if you were to walk past the Sunday school picnic grounds—up the slope, northward, on the slippery brown of the pine needles, looking for trilliums or the shy arbutus in the spring—you might hear through the soles of your feet the deep thud of dynamite.

You would begin to see things. You would see the great pipe lines, tarred and black, running through woods and fields. You would see the men going to work in the evening, carrying their full dinner pails for their midnight meal, when, in the ordinary village, the day’s work would have been over and the cows come home.

Even so, perhaps you would not know that this was a violent place; that under the pretty little town each day, each night, there was risk, and bold struggle, and sometimes death, and always danger.

The Northwestern train, carrying the mail from points south, was on time. Therefore, at a quarter after eleven in the morning, Cyril Varker rose from his desk and reached for his hat and his canvas bag. The bag belonged to the Company, of course. Yet it was his, for Cyril clung fiercely to this chore. Younger clerks, subordinate to him, would have been glad to frisk freely up the street to the post office during office hours but, although Cyril had risen to be assistant head bookkeeper, he had never relinquished this morning task.

It pleased him to go.

The Company offices had a special, a holy smell of polished wood and paper, a smell that existed only here in the whole town.

Passing through the two wooden gates in the two spindled barriers that split the offices into sections of varying importance, running from the lowly help near the street door back toward the inner keep where Mr. McKeever, the superintendent, sat in his private room, Cyril emerged into sunny July, knowing that the scent of this place traveled with him on this mission.

He was a thin and somewhat twisted man in his thirties who walked with a slight tossing of the foot on the ankle and bent very slightly backward from the hips, as a man might walk who must trundle a paunch ahead of him. Cyril, however, had no paunch; only his sharp hip bones thrust forward in this odd posture. He also carried one shoulder some inches higher than the other, and so there was a twisted look to him. Because he carried his head bent down, he always looked up to see; his brow was perpetually furrowed and his eyes stretched wide open. The thin face showed its bones and had no color, but his hair, although it already had to be arranged carefully to cover all of his head, was a rusty red.

He didn’t look well. He never had. He never would.

He turned to the left on the wide pavement in front of the store and then he turned right, crossed the dusty track that led down to the warehouse, and started up the street passing the doctor’s office which was set back from the sidewalk as if the shabby gray frame building hid in the schoolyard corner.

Walking in the intermittent shade past the schools and their deserted grounds, all empty and silent in July, Cyril received the brisk heat of the day. He didn’t love nature, not he. He loved nothing. But his mind worked. The thoughts ran in his head. They never stopped, never in his waking hours. And he kept watching with those wide eyes strained to see past the bony ridge of his own skull, and there was little he did not see or, having seen, think about.

At the end of the block he had to cross catty-corner to get to the post office which was in the town hall. It was the only part of the two story building in daily use. The remainder of the ground floor was taken up by a big lobby with double stairs on the west and, on the east, by a warren of queer little rooms with a stairway connection to the stage. The post office, facing south, was in the middle.

The hall, the one room upstairs, was a theater, a ballroom and a gymnasium. Everything happened there. Children in cheesecloth piped their operettas on the same stage from which some of them, in time, would be graduated from high school in solemn exercises. Meantime they screamed for the team at basketball games when the stage became the home bleachers and the hated partisans of the enemy howled in the balcony. Here were given the class plays after the long enchanting prelude of play practice … when much courting and intrigue was possible on the fire escape at the back of the building and down those back stairs.

Here also came, when it did come, the outside world—the Chautauqua, lecturers, stock companies and minstrel shows.

And here were held all the dances in Thor. Then glamor, manufactured out of music and crepe paper, perfume and desire, rendered perfectly invisible the black foul lines painted on the floor. The girls’ thin slippers, sliding, forgot how they stamped for a hero’s winning toss, and the boys remembered the sweat and the effort as if it had all been in another place. Then, on the theater seats now pushed—they were very pushable, those seats—into a three-sided square, the ladies and girls sat chattering to each other in the intervals, appearing perfectly indifferent to the fact that the male sex had vanished from the room. But when the orchestra on stage sailed into the next number every female heart jumped at least a little. For then, suddenly, the whole wall of the lobby burst open letting in clouds of tobacco smoke and hordes of men and boys who streaked in all directions, each to a lady before whom he stood and muttered, “Dance?” It was the moment of judgment; success or failure, triumph or despair. It was terrible. And it happened to every female sixteen times during the evening, or seventeen if there was an encore. But that was the way they did it in Thor. No programs. No promises. Only the sudden, swift, sentence: Now.

You danced or you sat.

Cyril Varker didn’t dance but he used to go. He used to stand in the smoky lobby and listen to everything with his head held crooked to look up sideways. And every time the music started and the men erupted, as was their habit, each after his first choice, veering cannily if he saw he had lost it, Cyril felt a boom of mirth in his stomach, although he kept from laughing. He believed that he alone in Thor, having no part in the drama and no personal anxiety to choose or be chosen, could see how funny the custom was.

He went to everything. It pleased him to watch.

Now he entered the post office, chewing thought sourly. He knew, he felt, that in Thor he was socially displaced. In a sense he had displaced himself. For the place open to him and his twisted body, in a two-sexed world, was too humble for his taste. He had taken himself apart from all competition of that kind. He had devised a more or less secret source of fun and power, which was enough.

Besides, there was this habit of watching and thinking which he enjoyed, and moments, in the course of his work, which he relished very much. Payday, for instance. And getting the Company’s mail. In these moments Cyril was placed. In them he represented the Company and the Company was, of course, power, and nakedly known.

The post office was a room about twenty-five feet long and half as wide, with the east end a barrier of mailboxes built around the window. Behind that barrier now, vinegary little Mrs. Fielding and her two sleek, fat daughters were sorting as fast and furiously as they could. The window remained closed, the public must wait. Cyril walked diagonally across the bare floor on which he knew were drawn invisible zones. He went to lean in his own spot, the junction between the mailboxes and the candy counter where he was privileged, by power, to hand his empty bag over the glass and receive his full one without being obliged to wait in line at the window.

He leaned there. What a one he was for seeing patterns. He knew the social pattern of Thor itself most sensitively, for one who was not included in the figure. The town was feudal. Perfectly feudal. Economically feudal, as a Company town is bound to be. But socially, in the sense of the Four Hundred, the crème de la crème, and who was invited to what—in that sense of society—it was rigidly feudal, too.

Socially then, Mr. McKeever, the superintendent, was the king, and his wife was the queen. And that was plain and final. Now around the throne, like a set of barons, were the aristocrats. Men took rank by their jobs. Although it was not altogether how much money a man made, it was his training and his authority. It was his prestige. It was rank. The mining engineer, the chief engineer, their closest assistants, the manager of the office and of the store, the doctor, of course, and the superintendent of schools; such as these, heads of things and high sub-heads, these were the nobility. Wives took rank according to the husband’s position, and that was very nearly plain and final too.

But, mused Cyril, certain matters of national origin and religion entered into the pattern and complicated it. There was a separate structure of society among the Cornish people. Captain Trezona, for instance, as head of underground activity in both mines, ranked high in the authority and importance of his work. Yet he kept, after hours, to his own circle—to the Methodist socials and the church doings, and a few family gatherings. Of course his piety forbade him the theater and the dance, and his wife did not play auction bridge at all, or any other game with the wicked court cards—the red hearts, the black spades—and so never with the ladies club every eighth Wednesday.

Then, too, there was the priest, Father Martin, who most certainly ranked as the head of something, for the Catholic Church was far larger, far stronger, far richer, than the tiny Episcopal Chapel, or even the staunch and close-knit Methodists themselves. Yet Father Martin belonged to a separate figure in the pattern. He did not hobnob out of hours with the high moguls.

Nor, for the most part, did his parishioners. The foreign-born, the Italians, the Poles, however graded and differentiated their skills and their jobs, were not socially eligible. If they did not seem to realize what splendors they were denied, but rather pitied the cold Protestants in their bleak pews and rather preferred the glory of God in the mass to Mrs. McKeever’s parlor, this was beside the point. Somebody had to be excluded. In a feudal system somebody has to be a serf.

Cyril enjoyed the lick of amusement in his mind.…

He glanced about him. Patterns, oh yes. He wondered if the young men and boys who gathered this morning, as they always did gather in the zone between the stationery end of the counter and the posters on the back wall, knew why. There were five or six of them waiting there now, and out of the group rose a male buzz of scuffling feet and suppressed guffaws. Why there? Cyril wondered. Because they were animal-shy and could easily escape by the door, there, if necessary?

And why was it the rule for females that they must wait for the mail in the zone along the two barred windows? Was it safer or more respectable there? Children, of course, pushed noses on the glass between them and the candy. This was direct and natural. Members of the haut monde, he reflected, waited before the mailboxes, for it was they who rented them.

Cyril sucked his cheek.

One of the young men in the far corner met his eye. He was not a very tall young man, and on the slender side. His mouth and teeth were almost girlishly pretty. When he grinned—and grin was the right word for the true merriment, the rollicking quality of his smile—grooves appeared like dimples in his lean cheeks. But his cheekbones were high and prominent; the total cast of his face was gaunt.

He seemed to be a shy boy. He did not put himself forward in the group to be their leader or anyone of special importance. But just the same, the rowdies, the rough young egos, the bursting pushing young men deferred to this one. In a half-furtive way they watched his reaction. They did not court his attention quite openly. They almost—but not quite—showed off before him; not because he was clever or strong or admirable in their eyes, but because in some mysterious way he simply charmed them.

His name was Wesley Trezona and now, silent in the shuffling group, he turned his head and looked at Cyril Varker.

And Cyril Varker, silent in his corner of the post office, sent an eye-beam back. It was private, secret, and threatening. It went over other heads to its mark, to warn and remind. In Cyril’s concave breast rose a sweet rage of power, his own, his personal power. He felt, crackling in his head like kindling catching fire, the impulse to smash. So his glance was cold, vicious, unmerciful. It took effect in a convulsion to the young man’s throat and a rapid shift of his eyes.

Cyril was pleased. It pleased him very much to have frightened Wesley Trezona.

Mrs. Dr. Hodge came in holding, as usual, her head so high that she could not possibly have seen past her jutting bosom to where her feet were falling. She gave Cyril a medium-grade nod and sailed up to Mrs. Gilchrist. The ladies fell to conversing in genteel voices punctuated with the high hooting that was not really laughter at all. It was the same sound that used to rise out of a ladies’ club afternoon and paralyze whatever male was the husband of that Wednesday’s hostess, who had to come home to supper to find his house swarming with furs and feathers and all the best china salad-smeared, who must suffer himself to be hooted at by each departing lady and then eat in lonesome heartiness beside an exhausted wife who picked at her food, pale with her memories.

No, the sound was not laughter. There was no mirth in it. Cyril, listening, decided that it must be a social signal of some kind, and what it signaled he struggled to define in his mind. He noted that the shufflers in the corner were pretending to just miss resisting the temptation to hoot, too. Pretending because they never would hoot where the ladies could hear them, even though, were they to do so, the ladies would never admit to having heard them at all.

Cyril’s mouth twisted. In what weird mixture of contempt and respect did human beings hold each other? No two classes, mused Cyril, could be much farther apart in their total conception of what life is than these young rowdies and those matrons.

The boys in the corner became as quiet as mice.

Cyril gnawed his lip. His sister, Madeline, had come into the post office.

Her hand sent him a little flip of recognition and he blinked his pale eyes. Cyril hid his sigh. He watched her walk to the zone proper for her. He noted the quality of the nod she drew from Mrs. Dr. Hodge … gracious, condescending … from Mrs. Gilchrist … aloof and slyly interested. He noted the quality of the greeting she drew from the other women and girls—quick smiles put on and snatched off the faces.

He watched his sister Madeline compose herself to wait meekly, dressed in a decent dark dress, not running over for the mail in a house-dress as some had, but hatless, and ungloved—as Mrs. Hodge and Mrs. Gilchrist were not.

He thought bitterly, she’ll never make it. Never.

It was not because her husband, Arthur Cole, worked underground. Arthur was an uncertain quantity. Anything could become of him. He was not Catholic, not foreign-born, and he had some education, and he was restless. He had a drive. Arthur might one day acquire rank or even become eligible without it. But Madeline never.

And yet she was educated and quite well, too. Cyril had seen to that himself. And she had been a schoolteacher, which in those days was a respected profession and conferred prestige. Nor was her beauty the flaw, for Marianne Gilchrist herself was a handsome woman, dark-haired, blue-eyed, with a narrow oval face, good nose, fine figure, and she ranked.

But Madeline’s figure, curved and compact, poised beautifully on her beautiful legs, was designed for one thing only. The whole post office knew it. Madeline’s pretty fragrant torso was made to fit in a man’s arms. And had. And would, if it could.

The males in their corner knew this. Mrs. Gilchrist knew this. Mrs. Dr. Hodge knew this.

I know it, thought Cyril. He used to tease his little sister, saying he got the best of the brains and she the best of the bodies out of the mating of their two parents. Yet Madeline wasn’t stupid. Her eyes were particularly fine, large and gray, set well in the creamy skin of her lovely face. Madeline was—Cyril ground his teeth—not stupid, but a little fool, just the same.

He didn’t love her, not he. But she was his charge, for their parents were long dead, and he was annoyed with her, as usual, and for her, too. It annoyed him now to see the ladies’ backs edge around.

He thought angrily, she has personal power and her kind they can’t abide. They are afraid of her so they won’t let her in. Let her stand as meek as she may, she’ll never make it. And all the while his knowledge persisted; she was not meek; she no more sought a meek place in the pattern than he did.

The males in the corner began to mill and move again, and their eyes moved, but not far away from Madeline Cole. It was twenty minutes of twelve. Some difference in the bustle behind the mailbox barrier made it plain to those waiting that the mail was nearly all sorted. Out of the quite considerable crowd that had accumulated, the women began to form a tentative line before the window.

Outside, Henry Duncane drove his Stearns-Knight into the plaza, set the brakes, killed the engine, opened the door, and was out and up the post office steps, as if this was all one rhythmic motion. He was new in Thor—having been the Company’s chief engineer for less than a year—and he was young. He came into the post office as he did everything else, decisively, with a verve. His solid footsteps rang on the floor. One gulp of the atmosphere told him that the mail was all sorted except the second class matter, and everyone in the post office knew at once that he did not intend to wait for that. He crossed the crowded room in a straight line, finding no one that he needed to dodge, for people melted out of his path. Mrs. Dr. Hodge smiled sunnily and Mrs. Gilchrist’s neck took a swanlike arching. Madeline, too, altered the angle of her head.

Henry Duncane said “Good morning,” once for them all, in his uniquely clear voice. He said, “Varker,” to Cyril, and Cyril responded, “Mr. Duncane.”

Henry’s hand flipped open mailbox two-six-six, which he never bothered to lock, clearheadedly knowing that the combinations were not really secret, and never would be. He took out his letters and began to examine them, slipping each behind the rest rapidly.

Mrs. Gilchrist stepped near him and put her gloves sweetly on his arm.

“And how’s dear Elizabeth today?” she said in a discreetly lowered voice.

Duncane did not look up, but he answered, “Elizabeth’s well, thank you.” Such was the carrying quality of his voice that everyone else in the post office seemed to have been speaking all this while with mush in his mouth.

Mrs. Gilchrist mumbled something, and Duncane in his turn said, “She would be glad to see you.”

Only now, having slipped the last letter to the bottom of his pile, he looked up and smiled at her.

But this was all the smiling and all the chitchat there was going to be. He put his mail in his pocket, touched his hat, and turned and walked out, finding his way cleared as before, having accomplished what he came for with such neatness and dispatch that all the others seemed to be drifting dolts, shabbily at the mercy of outside forces, as if only Henry Duncane had control of the world he lived in.

Now the window crashed open—for Mrs. Fielding put a certain amount of dramatic feeling into her work—and the line shuffled obediently into position. The ladies’ gloved hands began to fiddle with combinations on their private boxes. Something touched Cyril’s sleeve, and he turned to receive from pink Maude Fielding a beaming smile and his mail bag, kept by the timing of this event from observing what he wished to observe.

He took the full bag and surrendered the empty.

He walked out of the post office, dodging around the end of the line which did not shift quite quickly enough out of his path. Nevertheless he heard and resented, in his own footsteps, a mere echoing, a feebler and somewhat degrading imitation of Henry Duncane.


Elizabeth Meadows Duncane stood in the dining room, looking at her table as it was set for a noon dinner. It was all wrong. She thought: There’s no use, there is no use.

Her lower lip had developed, lately, a little nervous quiver not in her control. It quivered now. She put her hands on the back of a chair and rested her weight against them to relieve the aching of her back. She thought: What a dragging, and now this silly twitching at the mouth. I must remember I am only twenty-four, and I’m healthy. I am healthy. All that ails me is the baby. It’s natural. It is natural.

These incantations did not help much. She wished it were safely over.

Then she braced her back. “That will do, Libby,” she said to herself in her mother’s voice, and she looked again at the dining-room table through her mother’s eyes.

The white cloth was old and mended. It had been given to Libby as old linen to be put away and used for fine rags. How in the world had that girl dug it out? The silver was not Libby’s wedding-present best, but a mixture of three patterns, which was all right for everyday, but it needn’t have been thrown on sloppily with the forks pointing in and the knives out. The two napkins were not even alike and the flowers in the center bowl needed changing.

Libby could imagine her mother’s quick eyes noting all this, and her mother’s quick hands transforming the table and the whole big room into something neat and cozy, orderly and charming, with the swift magic of her experience. For it wasn’t a question of money—it wasn’t because she and Henry didn’t have things. It was a question of skill, of an art, really.

She began to straighten a fork and then she took her hand away. “Celestina,” she called.

Celestina answered from the kitchen. “Yeh?” She would not say “Yes, ma’am.” She would not even say “Yes.” The “s” was always lost and left off.

“Will you come here, please.” Libby’s voice promised sharpness.

Celestina came through the door with a big spoon in her hand. Her heavy black hair made an insubordinate mass of curls around her gypsy face. “I’m fixing gravy,” she said defensively, her amber eyes dull. Libby already knew that when Celestina’s eyes looked as if they were dusty and did not shine, Celestina was in no mood to listen to instruction.

“Well, you’d better keep an eye on it, then,” Libby was forced to say. “Don’t …” But she didn’t continue. No use. The gravy would be greasy and have white lumps in it.

The worst of it was that Libby herself did not know how to avoid this. Celestina was a terrible cook, but Libby was not much of a cook either. The difference between us, thought Libby, is just that I at least know what food ought to be. She tried to lift the weight of her discouragement by being fair. How could Celestina know, after all? Libby reminded herself. An ignorant little Italian girl only sixteen years old. You have to train them. Everybody says so. When mother comes, I’ll make her teach me. Then I can teach Celestina when this is over, safely over.

She held her lip steady with her teeth, put the table silver neatly parallel, and nipped out some of the shabbier blossoms from the centerpiece. She narrowed her eyes and, pumping hard with her imagination, she decided it would do. It would have to do.

She went into the sitting room, but she did not sit down. Henry would be home soon and it was difficult to struggle up again. So she leaned against the wall and pushed wearily at her fair hair. Very fair, very fine hair she had. Somebody had once called it white gold. A boy, a date, long ago, before Henry Duncane (who was not a boy, but an exciting man) had appeared and swept her off all breathless with her sudden bridehood, to this far place.

Ah, but it was far! She came from Connecticut, from a long line of quiet people who had never aspired to be anything but simple and decent but who had, in the course of three hundred years, become perhaps less simple than they imagined. Libby was late-flowering. In some ways, at twenty-four, she was younger than young Celestina. And, in some ways, Celestina would never be as mature as Libby was already.

For Libby had enough detachment to know that she was being harmfully sorry for herself and she had insight into some of the causes. In those days a pregnant woman did not run around town in a cute pair of specially designed slacks and a gaudy smock. Libby had been secluded in the big house for months. This was only decent. She didn’t question her imprisonment. But she did know it hadn’t done her morale much good.

Shouldn’t have happened so soon, she was thinking. I should have had time to learn to be married to Henry and keeping a house. I should have had a longer chance to fit into this place, to meet all the people and settle myself. This queer little town … I don’t pertain to it or anyone in it but Henry. Alone. Who is there, now, I could go to for any real thing? There isn’t a woman. There’s the doctor. This backwoods doctor. Maybe he’s ignorant, how can I know? Her mouth trembled.

Come, Libby, stop it. Stop scaring yourself. Other women …

The incantation did not help. Across her mind came that haunting phrase, the silly phrase that now obsessed her. She’d read it in some sentimental journal. “And so,” it declaimed, “the woman went now for her child, down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” Libby knew, with her perfectly good mind, that it was sententious and silly, a piece of purple writing, a fairly ridiculous way to say that women had been known to die in childbirth. All the same, her smoke-blue eyes grew round and bright. Her lip shook and she caught it in her fine teeth. She sent out of her brain a frantic call across a thousand miles. “Mother, please come. Oh, please come, mother.”

If you went west from the town hall of Thor past the Methodist Church, and did not bear to your right up the long hill out of town, you could continue westward on a gentler slope for one long block. At the top of it you would come to a pair of iron gates and see through them the long sweep of a driveway edged by fine lawns, and the portico of the superintendent’s house, the biggest and finest house in Thor. Below it, all along this block to your left, were the next biggest and finest houses set in the next biggest plots of land that ran deep behind them. These houses would have been on the lake shore had it not been for the railroad tracks. As it was, since the tracks ran below a considerable embankment, the trains were heard but not seen, and the upper windows of the houses had, at least, glimpses of the shy water.

The white clapboard of Duncane’s house, which was the second one up in this elegant row, did not suggest New England, for the style was midwestern instead, boxy, set a bit too high off the ground with a smattering of wooden scrollwork on the porches. It was a big house with big rooms. They were rather bare.

Libby Duncane, teetering back from the edge of panic, shook off her fit of nerves. She heard Henry’s car. She touched her hair.

She thought, to be fair, that Henry was after all as much a bridegroom as she was a bride, and probably he had not looked forward to this exactly. He would not have expected that after nearly a whole year he would still come home to so bleak a dwelling. She hadn’t got around to covering the dining-room chair seats in blue as she had planned. She hadn’t been able to make the sitting-room draperies or accomplish the colors in here, the browns and yellows she wanted. She had been warned not to try to paint the shelves. They would have been cream, had she been able. But it must all wait now. And she and Henry must keep on using the downstairs bedroom which Libby was bound she’d make into a library one day … for the big rooms upstairs were as good as untouched, and she couldn’t climb any more now, or sew on the machine, or scrape and paint furniture, or even get the easier flowers to grow in the shabby garden.

Poor Henry, thought Libby ruefully, must be a little less than delighted to come home and find not the dainty vivacious girl he’d married, but this clumsy hag. (Henry was just the same. His body was as supple and lean, his eyes as clear, his hair, except for the high, bare temples, as thick and shining as ever.)

She heard him coming in through the kitchen and heard him say, “Chicken, eh?” One could always hear what Henry said. There would be, she knew, a most humble murmur out of Celestina, who acted in what Libby supposed to be a hangover of a European idea, as if man were master and woman his slave forevermore. She wiggled a little irritable tension out of her shoulders.

Henry always did come in through the kitchen past the steaming pots, past the smells and the debris of preparation, and so he always knew what he was about to be fed.

Libby thought of her father—who never came home at noon but stayed decently downtown all day—coming in gently at the front door as the day faded, and being received as the master of his house, but graciously by the mistress of it, and sitting genteelly in the parlor with perhaps a sip of sherry beside him. He moved decorously, in due time, to a table which, within their means, would be exquisitely appointed, shaking his white napkin out, smiling about him in the faint, pleasurable suspense before he was served what would always be, for him, a delicious surprise.

But, of course, Henry drove a car, as her father did not, and the garage was beside the kitchen door. And that was that.

Henry wasn’t going to walk around the house to come in. Henry would always be home for dinner at noon. That she could not get used to.

There were no restaurants, no luncheon places in Thor.

Libby put mind over matter. She made herself radiant. Henry kissed her on the cheek and put his arm around her briefly. The slight pull off her own balance hurt the weak spot in her spine. “How’s Libby?”

Libby said she was fine.

“I’d better wash,” said Henry. “Here’s the mail.” He put the pack of letters in her hands and her mother’s was on top. She didn’t even look at the rest of them. She let them slip away to fall on the floor. Even to feel the paper, on which lay her mother’s firm crabbed handwriting, was comforting to her fingers. “From home!” she cried joyously.

Henry was all the way across the front hall into their bedroom, on his way to wash, and he didn’t answer. He never answered when there was no real answer required. He never murmured “So I saw,” or “Yes, isn’t it?” or “Umhum.”

Libby ripped the paper. “My dearest girl:”

Disappointment struck her numb.

I know you will be sorry, dear, at what I have to write today. Your father, it seems, must needs have an operation. It is not dangerous, and you must not be concerned about him, but it does mean that I cannot leave him to come to you. Dr. Amory decrees …

It went on. She read it all. Her eyes passed over the lines and the words.

Henry said, “Anything the matter?”

She looked up wondering what made him think anything was the matter. She hadn’t moved, she hadn’t cried. Now she said in a calm, steady voice, “My mother isn’t coming at all …”

“Why not, dear?”

“Dad has to have an operation.”

“Ah, too bad. Is it anything serious?”

“She says not.”

“May I read it?” Henry took the letter. “Oh,” he said. He read faster than anyone in the world. How could he have read it all so fast? “Well, I doubt if that’s anything much to worry about.”

“No,” she said in a wondering tone.

“You’re disappointed …”

“Of course I’m disappointed,” she said rather brightly.

“You’ll be all right, Libby. Your mother must stay with your father, naturally.”

“Naturally,” said Libby in the bright cheerful voice that surprised her so. “Poor Dad. I must write … and say not to worry about me.”

Henry’s face was grave and kind and watchful. “That’s the girl,” he said.

She thought: It isn’t though. That isn’t the girl. I don’t know who it is being so gay about it. Not me.

Henry turned her gently toward the dining room. “Go ahead to dinner. I’ll pick these up.” He bent to gather the other letters that lay on the floor.