Bright Flows the River, page 42
She came to him, as he stood in the center of the room, and she gave him her usual ardent kiss, then laid her head on his shoulder. He clasped his hands on her upper arms, then moved them to her slender back. She sighed. “You haven’t been here for a week.” She felt him withdraw a little—as usual. He let his arms fall. She knew that he resented—still—any suggestion that she might have a claim on him, and that he denied a total commitment. That was always why, on leaving, he gave her no positive information as to when he would arrive again, if ever. Yet she knew that he loved her and that it was this love that he feared, and so it inspired his covert hostility. But the hostility subtly increased the more he loved her and relied upon her for his frequent escapes from a life he was finding more and more intolerable. She knew he was being torn by two antagonistic drives, the first to materialistic power and excessive prudence and “responsibility,” and the second to an intense yearning for what Burke had called “the unbought graces of life.”
She suspected his mother’s influence of the first, his father’s of the second. He often quoted both with irascibility and open contempt, yet he could not escape them.
So she moved away from him briskly this evening, pretending she had not noticed his withdrawal, and she said, “I must clean up and change.”
“You smell of the barnyard,” he said, and threw his coat and hat on a chair.
“And you smell of dry dust,” she answered. She picked up the hat and coat and put them away.
He gave his reluctant laugh. “It could be. I spent the whole day in the banks.”
She brought him a drink, and he sat down near the fire. He looked very tired and aloof. She touched his cheek lightly, in sympathy. Spontaneous gestures were alien to him. He feared them also. So he moved his head when she touched him, and, as always, she was saddened. Whistling, she left the room to change into a cotton frock and when she returned she found him asleep. She sat down near him and studied him with the acute eyes of complete love. Lines of weariness were driven into his cheeks and on his forehead and about his mouth. His dark face appeared depressed and lonely. She touched his shoe, and sighed. She drank her own drink slowly, watching him. Was it her imagination that he had grown thinner recently? Later, after he had had another drink or two, and had enjoyed his dinner, she would wait for his confidences. She knew he trusted her. She never pressed him to confide in her, so he did not feel harried. Earlier, a year ago, he would speak, sometimes, of his family and always in a neutral tone, without open complaint or impatience or criticism. He no longer did this. He did not, any longer, speak of his wife or his children. She knew why. He was feeling an angry guilt because of his liaison with her. He would sleep with her but often would not even kiss her good night. She suspected that there were faceless women in Cranston and other cities to whom he would resort without guilt. He did not, lately, tell her that he loved her, which she found significant and sometimes gratifying.
Suddenly Beth felt rebellion.
She had known and loved this man for two years, and her love for him was now so complete and abandoned that it often caused her fear and dread. What was to become of her, Beth Turner? What did she, at heart, really want from him? She knew. She wanted him to love her fearlessly and openly, and rejoice in that love. Were he free to marry her, would she marry him? A year ago she would have said no. Now she was not so sure. She derided herself for feeling the “nesting instinct.” She knew that his visits gave her joy beyond expressing, and that his absences left her bereft, shaken, lonely and restless. She knew he came to her out of his deep need for love and companionship and tenderness, all of which he fought. But I am a woman, she said to herself, a woman who loves, and I have needs of my own.
He would encourage her to speak of herself and her past experiences, and he would listen with genuine interest and pleasure, and would often laugh. But never, she believed, would he understand her need for a deeper intimacy, that of the spirit and of the mind. Yet, he had this need in himself! The abandon of the heart was unknown to him, or if he felt it perilously close he would stay away from her for at least a week, suddenly reappearing as if he believed he had his own yearnings again under control, and it was safe to be with her.
It was true, she thought, that joy and love must be paid for with pain and anxiety. She wanted to tell him this but knew it would frighten him, for he knew it himself. I have no fear, she thought, and I am only a woman. He is a man: why does he fear? As she thought this she felt a wildly tender pang of compassion for him and her eyes grew full of water. She must resign herself to having what he wanted to give her and ask for no more.
Two years. My God, I only want to help him! I only want, in the full meaning of the word, to lay my heart on his. I want him to tell me of his own terrors, to confide utterly in me. She brushed away the tears on her cheek and looked up to see he was awake and that he was watching her.
“What’s the matter, Beth?” he asked, leaning towards her.
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s the spring, and springs bring memories.” She smiled.
She was silent a moment. “Memories of wanting what you can never have,” she said.
He frowned. “But you seem totally satisfied with your life.”
“Do I? In many ways, yes. In other ways, not so obvious, no.”
He seemed annoyed at this. She refilled his glass. When she returned from the kitchen he had clasped his hands between his knees and was staring at the fire. He took the glass from her. “What are the less obvious things you want, Beth?”
I don’t dare tell you, you darling fool, she thought. It would scare hell out of you. She said, “After all, I am a woman, and men and women can never really communicate with each other, can they?”
He was surprised. “I thought we had absolute communication.”
She touched his knee lightly. “Oh, we have, we have!” And smiled bitterly to herself. He looked relieved, but there was a wrinkle of suspicion between his eyes. He began to talk of some new land he had acquired, near the river, and what he intended to do with it. She listened, as always, but she saw that he still watched her suspiciously. After a while, he was more relaxed. He said, “The land I just bought was owned by a young man and his wife. Alex Brannigan. Alex wouldn’t sell, yet his land was vital to me. Right in the center of land I already own. I could have built all around that small farm—sixty acres—but it would have destroyed what I wanted to do, to make another new community. Alex and his wife were schoolteachers, and they hated it, as you hated it, Beth. Well, I won’t go into intricate details, but they are amateur farmers, city people. They were falling deeper and deeper into debt. Two large loans from the Cranston Savings. The bank was getting alarmed. I’ll spare you the details, but I bought up Brannigan’s paper. He had a choice, now, but only one. I could foreclose on him, and leave him with nothing, or I could give him what he had paid for the farm originally, his equity, that is.”
Beth knew him to be ruthless and exigent, and because she was neither she had often felt admiration for him when he competed inexorably with other builders. But now she felt a shrinking in herself. The Brannigans were no competitors. They were a helpless young couple who had put all they had into their piteous little holdings.
“So,” Guy continued, “they took my offer. It amounted to six thousand dollars. They had no other choice. They were failures at farming. They would get only deeper and deeper into debt and then the bank would foreclose and they would have nothing. At least, with me, they got back their equity. They moved out yesterday.”
It’s only business, thought Beth, and it goes on all the time. Then why did she feel sick and repelled? She said, “Their equity. And nothing else?”
“No.” His voice had become cold.
“How about their stock?”
He shrugged. “There wasn’t much. They sold it for what it was worth.”
“What will they do now?”
He shrugged again. “Beth, I’m not a social wor
Beth was silent, then she said, out of her own pain, “I can understand. Business is business. But I can’t help worrying about those young people.”
“Don’t be maudlin. That’s life. By the way, you don’t look very well today.”
Her heart jumped with a throb of delight. “I have felt very tired today. Maybe I need sulphur and molasses, the horrible mixture my mother used to force down me when I was a child, in the spring. It was an annual ritual, to help unthicken winter blood, I think it was alleged. I used to recover fast from whatever ailed me, out of sheer fear that I would be dosed again.”
He gave his grudging smile. “I went through the same ritual with my own mother, too. I can still taste and smell the damned stuff. But it did have a psychosomatic effect.” He studied her closer. “You’re very pale, too, and your eyes look heavy.”
“Well, I’m tired, Joel’s got his schoolwork and can’t give me more than two or three hours a day, until the summer. And there’s so much to do in the spring, you know. I’m glad I bought that new tractor; it does three times as much as my old one.” She yawned. Then suddenly she shivered and her spine was stroked by an icicle. She got up and closed the windows on the darkening earth, then went to find a knitted shawl. He watched her cover herself. Was there actually a gleam of alarm in his eyes? She added, “Joel’s older brother is going to lend me a hand, too, beginning tomorrow. Though we seem to have a minor depression, or what is called a recession, now, it is very hard to get competent help.” A wave of exhaustion flooded her body, to her dismay.
“I know. They all want jobs that are ‘creative, imaginative, innovative, self-fulfilling,’ as the jargon goes. They live in a dream world of absolute unreality. The humdrum jobs and the routine and monotonous ones don’t appeal to these fools. Every little ordinary man or woman now demands something glamorous, I think they call it. Their parents and their teachers taught them that. But they never taught them to work, only to dream. Stupid, weak, dependent. They want to laugh their way through life, wetting their teeth.”
“Dreams are good,” said Beth. “In their own way they do help relieve the long misery of living. But they shouldn’t be mistaken for raw reality.” She sighed.
“I never heard you mention ‘the long misery of living’ before, Beth.”
She said, with involuntary sharpness, “I don’t tell you everything about me, Guy!”
“I thought you did.”
“Then you were mistaken.” What was wrong with her? It was the week’s long silence; he had not even called her, as he sometimes did when he could not see her for some unspoken reason or another. And she really was very tired, and the icicle had become quite active up and down her spine. It was also the thoughts she had been thinking tonight. She stood up. “Dinner in half an hour or so. I’ll get you another drink.” Again, the wave of exhaustion rolled over her.
When she went into the kitchen she burst into silent tears. She told herself it was only her menopausal condition; it was making her hysterical. But the sense of bereavement quickened, and the sense of loneliness, the sense of loss. Why had she never previously felt this so keenly? She had come as close to quarreling with Guy as never before. I was actually shrill, she thought, with disgust, and men hate shrill women. But, God, am I supposed to be serene and lighthearted all the time, and complaisant and agreeable? I am only human, after all, but men don’t want to think of women as human. Less than human, perhaps, or superhuman. What imbeciles they are, to be sure! They want everything from a woman, and want to give nothing, especially if the woman isn’t married to them. I think we women should get together, and force the boys back to the professional whores, who will listen to them for fifty dollars an hour. And forget them at once.
She found herself both sniffling and laughing. The kitchen felt very cold. She put her hands inside the hot oven to warm them. When she carried the food to the table she was more cheerful, though she was developing a headache.
Guy ate almost in silence; he was in a heavily dour mood. What was wrong with Beth, tonight? She was usually highly joyful when he visited her. Tonight she had appeared cool, and her voice had been edged. When he had dropped his arms from her back she had not taken his hands as she always did. There was a sudden hollowness in him, and a deeper apprehension. This annoyed him. Was she thinking about the Brannigans? Now he was affronted. It was unlike the realistic Beth to be maudlin and sentimental. Perhaps he wouldn’t stay the night with her, if she persisted in this mood.
It caused Beth considerable effort to pretend to be light-hearted at the table. For all through the dinner she was feeling an ominous physical malaise. She was rarely if ever ill. But once or twice, at the table, she had an almost uncontrollable desire to vomit. Her flesh had begun to ripple with coldness and the pain in her head had become an unbearable throbbing. Extremely tidy, she decided not to wash the dishes tonight or clean up the kitchen. She longed, inexpressibly, for bed, a warm bed. Her whole body had begun to ache, as if every bone were broken. When she stood up to take the used dishes from the table, she swayed. But Guy, gloomier than ever, was looking through the newspaper. He did not even glance at her, and this made her want to cry.
In the kitchen, she was overpowered by weakness. The cold had gone. It had been replaced by fire. She sat down at the table and put her face in her hands. She simply did not have the strength to move. From far away she heard Guy’s voice, distantly imperative. She lifted her pounding head. He had on his overcoat, and his hat was in his hand.
“I said, Beth, that I must go home. And not bother you tonight.” The look in his eyes was condemning, and resentful. She tried to get up, in despair. He was leaving her. Leaving her, leaving her. He enlarged before her eyes, and it was like looking at a distorted image through water. He was turning away. Her voice came in a croak. “Don’t—don’t—”
“Don’t what, Beth?” He had turned to her again, frowning. She rested her hands on the table, stiffened her elbows, and forced herself to her feet. But her head was made of iron, and it fell on her chest. He came to her and took her by the shoulders. She looked up at him, but he was advancing and retreating, becoming tiny one second, a giant the next.
From some far space she heard him exclaiming, “My God, Beth, you’re sick!”
She whispered, out of a throat that was full of pain and soreness, “Does that matter to you, Guy? Did I ever matter to you?” There was a furnace in her chest now.
She felt herself being lifted, and there was a darkness all about her. She felt the bed under her body. She was shivering and burning all at the same time. She began to retch. Someone was undressing her hastily, pulling on her nightgown. She felt a faint curiosity. Who was with her? Then the blankets were drawn over her; the lighted lamp beat red as blood against her closed eyes.
Guy’s first impulse was to call his own doctor, but prudence prevailed. Even in his real terror for Beth he could be prudent. So after he had put her to bed he ran to the telephone and called the local Medical Registry for a physician nearer the farm than Cranston. Didn’t she have a doctor of her own? But Beth had never mentioned him. It was doubtful she had a doctor anyway. Panting and sweating, Guy went back to the bedroom. His heart was banging in his ears with fear. He looked down at the sick and now unconscious woman and he cried aloud, “Beth, Beth! I’m here, Beth.” She stirred faintly once, then subsided. Her cheeks were like flame; she was breathing noisily. How could a woman get this sick so soon? Guy took the burning hands; they moved restlessly in his. Beth began to moan hoarsely. Her loosened red hair streamed over the white pillows. Her face had changed, become ghastly and remote. He said, “Beth, Beth,” and he grew more frantic and he trembled. If Beth—died—he could not live. He put his head on the pillow next to hers and he began to utter, over and over, frenzied endearments he had never said before. He took her fluttering hands
His mind whirled tumultuously. He had never felt such terror before, not this sick and shouting terror, no, not even when he had rescued his father from the river. He had not felt this terror during the war, with the guns bellowing scarlet lightning so very close. He had only one anguished thought: If Beth died from what ailed her he would die also. He kissed the flaming cheeks, kissed the pallid mouth. God, she was on fire! Her breathing was strident and harsh. He felt sick to death himself. He went into the bathroom and dipped a towel in cold water, and laid it on Beth’s forehead. She was muttering something, but he could not understand her. The lamplight shone peacefully, and a night bird called outside. A cow lowed, a pig squealed. Guy cursed them, incoherently.
It was nearly eleven before the doctor came. Guy’s knees wobbled as he ran to the door to let the man in. “Dr. Farmer? Mrs. Turner, a friend, in the bedroom here. She’s very sick.”