The Practica Wife
The very human story of two newly-weds and ‘a storm in a stove-pipe’
FOR a few months after marrying, Chris Calcut was very happy; perhaps as happy as he was destined to be. The thought of Estella waiting for him in the kitchen, as he walked through the supper odors, the yard silenced of fowl and stock for the night, was more than pleasant, more still, than daily food of contentment. It seemed to him that he should hasten his steps, run to the door to make sure of the incredible thing; that he should tarry and close the chicken-coop, savoring the complacent certainty.
Not that any of these delicious qualms appeared to the inadvertent eye. His father might smile beneath his moustache sometimes, or even ask him if he could leave his wife long enough to take the team as far as the blacksmith shop; his mother might complain that she saw almost nothing of him—that was, not more often than, perhaps, three times a week, when he might bring her a supply of feed for her hens, or bring her the horse and buggy to go to some women’s meeting of an afternoon, when Estella did not care to drive the car.
But Chris didn’t look over-impressionable—an active, lean, long-faced, vivacious fellow, always laughing, able to get on 'vith nearly everyone and to get ahead of most pe ;p!e in a deal. Not too selfish to do well, either. He was practical When Estella told him that the cook-stove le ked ga ■ -o badly that it gave her a headache, he did not tt 11 ¡it ..iac it had been good enough for his mother. He grinned and promised to fix it.
They lived, Estella and Chris, on the home-place. The plan had been that ‘the old people’, his parents, should settle to a more or less retired way in the new bungalow built on the adjoining hundred, unattended by barns or other buildings. The young pair after a trip up the St. Lawrence took over the homestead, and its life so familiar to both. But the old man—a burly, red-moustached figure not really old, used to come to the barns in the mornings early, continued to work in the fields, and
returned promptly after dinner and supper to do the chores, often before Chris had come out of the house.
Remonstrance did no good. “Why, you’d forget all about there being any such thing as chores!” Mr. Calcut would say half-jokingly. “Well, when they get a new wife— I know how it is—!” And Chris told him it was no use his retiring, if that was the way he went about it. Now they were talking about hauling timber from their bush, and gravel and sand from the lake, to build a new set of buildings about the bungalow. Then each would have a farm to himself, though father and son would continue to give a hand now and then when one or the other needed it specially.
/"’O-OPERATION was a favorite word with young ^ Christian Calcut; and from its functioning he expected much to come for the farmers generally. In his own life he counted on it from Estella. She was inexperienced, true, and for the rest of this first season his mother was boarding the hired man. But she knew what it meant to be a practical farmer’s wife, he was sure.
There were bound to be misunderstandings between them, Chris had told himself. He had taken that for granted almost unthinkingly. Automatically. The differences would be merely by way of enhancing their regard: on the surface only; and no such thing would come until their relation otherwise, would seem almost—if it were possible—dulled and torpid.
He did not announce this certitude to Estella, but Chris was not conscious of anxiety about the outcome. ' Getting things straightened out the first few weeks meant a deal of trouble, but how could he know anxiety at that time? He was twenty-nine when he married, and knew himself and her too well. Estella Symons had been the school teacher who boarded with the family for three terms. She was a sensible girl, forehanded; ‘with a mind of her own’, his father allowed, if a little young for Chris. And she came of good people, down East.
For one meal, or two, after his promise to fix the gas stove, there seemed a slight coldness between them—not even that: taciturnity. But it was afterward, only, that he remembered to notice it; which should have proven how small the matter was.
Then one day there was no pie for dinner, and the biscuits Estella had made were ruined.
“It’s that stove,” she told him, patiently wiping a strand of hair from her forehead, almost like any ordinary housewife.
Chris rather smiled at this, and promised once more: “You leave that stove to me. I’ll tend to it one of these days; then there’ll be no reason why we can’t have everything tip-top right up to snuff. Get your recipebook out ready. Eh?”
Estella was about to speak, but judiciously stopped, then smiled.
“I can’t see what could be wrong with the blamed thing, though,” he went on, frowning impartially.
“Neither can I,” Estella murmured.
Chris laughed suddenly and largely and seized her hand. “The bride explains her cooking!”
Estella started. “Not at all.” She withdrew her hand, indignant. “So that’s what you think! Well, I’d just like to see anyone try to cook on that old thing. The gas smells so I can’t stand it, and I can’t have the door open this windy weather; and if I do go out of the room ...”
“Things burn, of course,” he said, laughing again.
She bit her lip, then agreed: “Well, since you’re going to fix it . . .
But I almost wonder whether you realize what it’s like. Don’t you smell the gas, when you come in?”
“Yeh. Pretty rank when you first come in. Get used to it after a while.”
“Are you so sure? If you were in it
all the time, perhaps you wouldn’t.”
But Estella rose and put on water for the dishes, afraid that already she might have said too much.
“Well,” yawned Chris, “I feel different than a liitle bit ago. Not so hungry, somehow. I guess I’ll go and see what those horses think about getting a few loads of corn-fodder up.” He had certain ideas about the joviality proper to the man of the house.
TTE MEANT to be a practical farmer. For Chris there -*■ was only one degree to the adjective in that connection, the positive. He would have told you that a farmer was practical or he did not remain one at all. He might possess money, and continue to own land and have it tilled, but that wouldn’t make him a farmer. A farmer was a man who worked his own land, did his own planning and who knew how and could, and usually did, do everything about his place, from planting potatoes to shovelling sugar-beets. That is, a real farmer, not a back-to-the-lander, or an experimenting crank, with a lot of book-learning. Yet, not just unadorned ‘farmer’. You knew about new theories, variant points of view, yet chose deliberately and usually to stick to ‘sensible’ handed-down methods, making use of innovations when they were not so new but that they had proven themselves. Not to lose your head was the main thing, but be long-headed in a quiet way, and use plenty of elbowgrease. Thus: ‘practical farmer’.
When Allan and Dick chose to be, one a civil engineer, the other a doctor, and Chris, the eldest, stayed at home.
a neighbor might ask Mr.
Calcut what he was going to make of him. “Going to make a practical farmer of Chris,” his father had said, watching the tall, ruddyfaced young man read the minutes of the local Farmers’ Club.
Chris Calcut was not one to neglect his duty to the community, which, to be just, he regarded as part of his duty to himself. He belonged to all the farmers’ organizations in his district, and in some of them made his voice heard, held office.
‘A progressive young farmer’, the older men would say, publicly referring to his adoption of their own principles with the resilience natural to youth. The community needed such young men, men with opinions, who could do things.
TN THE job of hauling 1 corn-fodder into the capacious barn for the winter a few days slipped by. The autumn, as usual in southwestern Ontario, had been prolonged and allowed the men to get the corn husked and the fodder removed, so that winter wheat could be sown in the same fields.
Taking things on the swing in this way appealed to Chris, and he liked to schedule his work mentally as he went about it. The warmth in the middle of the day, which was changed to exhilarating coolness just when it would have become tiresome, the consciousness of much work done efficiently, meant a great deal to him. But the day’s summit was reached when he walked from the stable, leaving the horses eating contentedly, crossed the yard in the slanting sunlight to the weathered house, old but renewed in interest by the presiding grace of Estella.
How good to be content with everything at the end of the day, and to have her waiting for him now. In these months it seemed that they had become acquainted all over again. Women, to be sure, were queer creatures, but not so much so if you were sensible with them, practical. Right at first when she kept it up about the stove, on a rainy day he thoroughly cleaned out the stovepipe and the chimney. Another time he had tightened up the pipe above the floor, and the chamber where the gas and air were mixed. One had to be reasonable . .
ÇHRIS was interrupted in his thoughts as he entered the house. There had been no supper smell to greet his hungry expectation. In the kitchen, the old stove, even, was still and cold.
. Estella! ’ he called; he did not know what to make of it.
There was no answer. He started for the stair door, but came back, stirred the stove-lids, and put on the kettle for tea. Possibly she had been to some women’s meeting in the village, if one of the neighbors had called for her, and had juát returned. Or perhaps she had not returned yet at all. When the gas roared beneath the lids he went to the stair door and called up the stairs: Estella!”
At first she did not reply. Then: “Well! What is it?” + V,°^ce was impatient, as of one unwilling to be disturbed, and in it there was something else which he had not heard before, stealthy, as though she did not want to a^‘ Pa^ no heed and asked:
Who housed the jury this afternoon; and whose reputation did they settle?”
^ I wasn’t at any meeting, if that’s what you mean.” But what— What’s the matter?” He was striding argely up the stairs and to their room. Estella was lying there, her eyes directed to the window.
Are you sick, dear?” Her hair, though, was done, and as she sat up he noticed that she was dressed as if for going out; pretty, he told himself once more. She did not speak for a moment, but the unusual detachment,
almost languorous, with which she received him changed as she spoke, in a way which seemed to get beyond control spring to the borders of vehemence like a sudden fire in autumn grass.
“I’ve told you and told you, that stove is not fit to use?’ “Th—that—stove?” His mind groped. “Oh\ The stove!”
“Yes, that stove.” She smiled almost pityingly, as she never had smiled at him before. “The smell of the gas, I think I told you, would asphyxiate anybody. You know you promised to fix it.” Her tone regained coldness as she spoke until Chris wondered if he knew her at all. Nevertheless, with the foundations of everything shaking under him, he was determinedly off-hand.
“Why—sure. Next time we go to town, I’ll have to she about getting a man to come out and see about it.” This promise came almost automatically. “Seems as though I can’t get it done myself. Of course, though, I might—-”
“Please don’t use that phrase again,” she began with chilly precision. “I’m.sick of it. And surely even you should see that you’re not taking anybody in. ‘Fix it myself!’ I’ll fix it myself. Oh—” Her voice broke, almost hysterically. “Such absurd—”
Chris tried to comfort her, not knowing that it had got beyond that stage. “But, Honey, why didn’t you tell me the old stove was so bad as all this—as bad as it is.”
To his further bewilderment she twitched away and then began to weep.
“Why wouldn’t I? Why, Chris Calcut, you know very well you’ve talked about it and talked about it, and I’ve told you the smell of gas was unhealthy, and makes my head ache, and you always said we’d have to get it fixed . . . I’m not going to stand it any more. Now you can cook your own supper—cook your own meals till you do. I’m not going to stand— you’ll have to either see to it or get a new one.”
To Chris, there was something in his reaction as though a trusted head of stock had suddenly kicked at him. Astonishment was followed as a shadow by indignant and just rage. The proposal to spend money unnecessarily, as it seemed to him, lent a conviction.
“A new one,” he commented dryly, and stiffly turned to the door as though to close the discussion. “I guess if it was good enough for mother and she never said a word about it —” Without touching the door he went along the hall to the stairs. “Maybe we can get along.”
“Good enough for your mother!” she screamed. His words seemed to release a flood. He had never heard that tone, as though he were some culprit schoolboy walking away from punishment. “Oh, oh, oh! For his mother. It’s the last straw. That’s all he cares. Just because his mother was easy enough to let it go on, ruining her health—I’m not to say a word. And anybody knows the headaches I have ...”
Chris stood at the head of the stairs, scarcely knowing what he heard. Married life was full of surprises! He had thought that she ‘had a mind of her own’, but that she ever could go on in this fashion—it seemed incredible. Perhaps he said had something without knowing. He scarcely understood until a last sentence struck upon his consciousness paralyzing as a revolver shot:
. . . Now, as he stared about the kitchen in which he found himself, anything seemed possible. He couldn’t, he couldn’t let her go away. Unthinkable. Still, if she did insist—keep her by force? What had got into her? he strained his thoughts to a frenzy of desperation. What could he do? If he could think of some way of pacifying her, even of making her laugh— But everything was surely designed to aggravate her further.
nPHE gas roared and sang from the burners, and the tea-kettle, which must have been empty, crackled. He paid no attention, but there was a spreading smell of fumes, catching the throat ... It was unheard-of. She had never cried before in his memory, like that, nor spoken an impatient word. It became more exasperatingly mysterious every minute. He rose and turned the gas lower, and held a lighted match to the joints of the pipe which rose from the floor. No flame, not even in the chamber where the air and gas were mixed. He had fixed that, long ago. What more could she ask? Up to now Chris had thought that Estella was satisfied with his efforts. He sniffed, sniffed again. True, there it was! He’d have to put up the stove in the sitting-room rightaway—it was getting to be fall-like anyhow; and then she wouldn’t have to be so much in the kitchen. Of course though, there were the meals.
If she stayed. His heart stirred chilly again at her forgotten threat. What could he do, what in the world, to keep her—?
Automatically he walked to the pantry, and looked over the shelves. How often the boy had come in from school or the field when his mother wasn’t looking—not that she cared—and got a lunch. The shelves were no longer full as once they had been-. It was true that Estella Continued on page 94
Continued from, page 17
had blamed the stove, particularizing the smell when the oven burner was turned on. No, she had not baked so much lately. Why, looking the place over now, it seemed there was scarcely enough for their supper. He felt injured, as though Estella might have cooked up a good lot of food before she took it into her head to fly off in this style.
But he had been struck, vitally, like an animal which does not know it has been wounded. Chris Calcut turned to go outside, but there was no refuge there. He sat down in a chair unconsideringly, and tried to think. Something must be done!
How suddenly life had become a desert! Why it was absurd. Surprise was vaster than sorrow, tugging at him. He wasn’t angry, remembering now that she had kept it up, nagging some fellows would call it, these last few days. The old saying was wrong; it didn’t take two to make a quarrel. He rose abruptly, went to the stair door and listened.
Yes, there were movements. He could hear her pull some things over the floor of the closet in which were kept the trunks and suitcases. Before he knew, he had bounded up the stairs and into the room, his stiff shoes clattering.
She did not look up. With set face she was packing one of the suitcases on the bed; a club bag gaped open on the floor. Chris stood in the door stupefied.
“Estella. What are you doing, Estella?’
She searched one of the drawers of the bureau, jumbling the contents. Her dark hair seemed darker against her paled profile. How could she be angry when she was so pretty?
“I didn’t mean anything. How did I know it was so bad. You needn’t go away . . . Silly, that would be, and then think how ... I take it all back.”
He felt helpless as a kid. And she looked like some little girl who had been playing house and, disappointed, was going home to tell her mother about the big nasty boy. Her mouth pursed as though she were going to speak, and all at once tears came from her eyes. She tried to work an instant as though he were not there, and then turned away; but she could not hide the shaking of her shoulders.
Chris went up to her and put his arms around her, looking into her face. Without their having said anything he found that she had her head on his shoulder, sobbing without respite.
“You know—you—oh, you ...” •
SHE wanted to reproach him, and yet did not want to, and weeping made it physically impossible to say or think of anything except his nearness. All afternoon she had thought of the growing strangeness between them; and it seemed that the time lay in a distant and happy past when she had said jokingly that that old stove would be yet the cause of a lot of trouble. It was petty, and after tinkering with it once or twice Chris nearly always grinned when he soothed her. “The little things that matter!” she smiled bitterly. And each day was coming nearer to winter, when the doors would be closed, and the gas would be downright unhealthful; perhaps she would be asphyxiated, even, and Chris would come in and find her—Then he’d know—The problem altogether was too much for her. She did not know whether there was a plumber in town, and when it came actually to getting one, she thought that she was afraid of hurting Chris. She went to her room that afternoon resolving not to have anything more to say about it. She would try to act reasonably and avoid hard feelings: then she went over it all in her mind, and this was the result.
“Why didn’t you tell me . he
was saying. “Why didn’t you tell me if you were bothered that way?” Then he essayed a lightening of tone as he saw the two interpretations which might be given to his question. “Eh? Why didn’t you?”
She turned her head away from him, weeping unrestrainedly now.
“That’s right, laugh about it. I dare say it’s very funny. Just because your mother stood it all the time, I’ve got to: for five months now, without saying a thing. You don’t care, you just promise, and then go away and forget, all you care about is your old cattle, and farm. Your wife doesn’t matter.”
“It’s true I—well, I didn’t know it was so bad,” he muttered, not knowing what to say. “That’s all.”
“Oh!” breathed Estella. “That’s what it is. You thought I was fibbing all the time when I told you the stove . . . Well, I thank you for your kind opinion. Now, will you please leave this room? I have packing to do.”
Confounded by her readiness, he backed automatically. “Aw, Stella, have a heart. You don’t mean that.” He tried to grin in his old way; a burlesquing of his own uncouthness. But it was blank tragedy he saw in the cold hallway as her hand turned the door against him. He seized her hand, and her words were muffled against him.
“Buffoon! . . . and get the car ready ...”
An inspiration struck him. “Say, Stella, what do you think of this. Let’s take the old car and go to Dealborough, eat at a restauranti What do you think of that. And go to a show afterward if you like.” A real inspiration. He couldn’t recall when he had been inside one of the local restaurants. Farmers avoided them pretty well, unless detained, and a long way from home. But he felt like being reckless once.
“All right.” She dabbed at her cheeks. “G-get the car ...” She looked at him, remembering that he might now have had the car ready to take her to the train, and then smiled uncontrollably, reluctant tears still trickling down her cheeks.
Chris kissed them away. “Maybe you’ll want to drive this time.” This, too, was a treat, for Chris had barely allowed her to learn. It made him uneasy to ride in a car driven by anyone else.
'T'HE smooth autumn roads were suddenly strange, and insecurity lurked in the thinning forests. It was as though the shadow of change, of more than one departure lay muffling the spirits of the two, and not until they had reached Dealborough, parked the car in a church shed, and,sought King Street, that they were themselves.
“Which one’ll we start on?” asked Chris. “Both of ’em are run by the dirty Chinks. Unless— how about going to the Universal Plaza House? They could maybe give us all we’d want.
“The hotel!” Estella was taken aback. “No, that would be too—”
“All right.” After all, money was money, even on a celebration.'
In the restaurant they found one of the unoccupied wooden cubicles along the wall, and took off their hats and coats with a care for conventional gesture.
“Might pull the curtains,” suggested Chris, with delightful sobriety.
“Better wait until the waiter’s gone.” “First thing, better look these over, across and upendicular.” He handed her a menu card, while she perused another. “Takes a woman so long to make up her mind, anyhow ...”
“Mmm. There are so many "things
By this time a small Chinese boy had come to the entrance of the cubicle, bringing tumblers of water.
“Well,” declared Chris. “I know what I want—if you got it,” he added to the boy. “Got any fly-ee oystees?”
“Don’t Chris,” murmured Estella,
smiling in spite of herself, and relinquishing the attempt to choose something. Like her husband she had been reared on the farm, and such an episode as this was a delectable novelty. She stuck the menu-card between the salt-cellar and the sugar-bowl.
“ï’ll have the same, please,” she told the boy.
“Flesh, nace,” said the boy.
“A-all right. We’ll see about the fixings later.”
They spent a long time over the meal; Estella told him all that they ate at the wedding-breakfast of one of her schoolmates; of some trick of those days; of her father’s tastes in cookery. It was eight o’clock when they rose, beginning to become acquainted again.
It seemed almost a shame to leave the cozy little place, with its red-shaded electric lights just the right height on the wall. They had coal-oil lamps at home, but Chris mistook her expression.
“Don’t be anxious,” he said, lifting the shoulders of her coat from her chair. “We got lots of time. Just across the block. Not as if we were just getting up from the table at home.”
In the show he was jolly and satirical at first.
“That’s ‘Long Ago’,” Estella told him when the orchestra began the prelude to a picture whose theme mingled risk of limb with imminent moral disaster.
“Sounds more like ‘ Never Was’
They sat silent for a long time, moved, if not exalted, and were rather quiet on the road home. The story of the film concerned a married pair, not unlike themselves, they thought—except for the trappings of automat-civilization. Misunderstandings arose, and then only a mistaken telephone message was necessary to precipitate penultimate dole. Of course it turned out all right, but think of the unhappiness! And when it need never have begun. “ H
They drank in air which seemed the bouquet of amber moonlight. This time Chris drove, with one hand, and it seemed that these last five months had never been, that he was taking her home from church once more. Except that now there was not the same need for conversation. Oh, they were moved again by each other, and it was perceptibly a glide to another plane when Chris said conversationally:
“Wouldn’t have thought so many people got out to the show, week night like this—not as if it was Saturday or some holiday or other. But then, the harvest being over, and so on—”
She smiled at his reasoning tone.
“Well, we’ll have to go out ourselves more,” he declared. “That’s all there is to it.”
Estella did not reply, save to press a little nearer his shoulder.
“Yes, dear,” she said, and something in her hand struck Chris with a pang. It was as though she did not believe him, not quite literally. He gave the car more gasoline. Nonsense! He was just getting sensitive, goodness knew why. But he meant it. They were going to get out more, if the farm went ro rack and ruin; she’d see. But he did not repeat it aloud.
When they drove into the unpainted frame garage, before she got out he kissed her, as in the old time. But, walking to the house, it came to them that everything was changed; they had seen the country through which they moved with the cherishing eyes of people pulled from an abyss; and now the sight of the old place itself did not make return reassuring A tenseness came into their silence as they lit the lamps in the kitchen. It looked bleak. The stove was cold and grimy, with lids displaced. Estella choked a sob and turned away to her room silently. The lamp lighted the turn of her quivering cheek.
If Chris did not seem to notice, it was because he was too dumbfounded. Decidedly things were not simplified by Continued on page 97
Continued, from page 95 their evening away. What could he do? Of course, any place would seem squalid, after the movies. He heard the scrape of her suitcases over the floor. He stopped— and then sighed. She was moving them back into the clothes closet. It was lucky he had not followed to the room. Setting his jaw, he took off his coat, his collar and tie, and put on a smock and overalls.
Things would work around; a lucky escape after all, he felt, as he tried all the joints of the pipes again with a lighted match. Why, things like that were going on all over, wives picking up and leaving their husbands for any little thing! Of course when the men were unreasonable goofs— And still, he could not make out what ailed that stove. Yes, with the burners going it did smell, no question about it. Estella was right.
He went on to the garage and collected several wrenches, determined to find out what was wrong and fix it if it took all night. Womenfolk had a good deal to put up with!
AT HALF-PAST one he heard a stirring behind him, a murmur, and turned to see Estella on the back stairs with a lamp in her hand. He moved uneasily, with a sudden sense of not knowing what to expect. But she did not scold him; her voice was low and quiet.
“Why don’t you go to bed?” she asked. “I thought—you had gone to the barn, about chores or something.” Solicitously she watched him work, her chin on her hand, while she sat sleepily on the stairs. She had lain, intent on her own fears, not hearing . . .
“You go back to bed,” he commanded, in a preoccupied voice. “And don’t worry. I’ll get it fixed, temporarily, until we get a new one.”
She giggled, almost hysterically. “As if that were so terribly important! You seem to forget that you’re not getting any rest. How can you work to-morrow that way?”
But she went, moved, as he was, by the few abrupt words exchanged. It was as though the memory of how they had nearly allowed their happiness to be wrecked was a dream they shared.
Yet Chris was not sure that he would not have to give in to the stove. In his
desperation he went to the length of taking the oven door off its hinges, and at intervals, as Estella dozed, she could hear the lids rattling and a general clashing of old iron. But when in daylight she came downstairs, the fire was going and he was putting water in the tea-kettle.
“Noise wake you up?” he asked blithely beaming at her with streaked countenance. “Guess what it was.”
“I don’t want to know, as long as you’ve got it fixed. What was it you said you wanted for breakfast?” She bent over the table and blew out the unneeded lamp.
Chris gathered his tools, looked beneath the lids at the two top burners which hummed and crackled merrily with, a sniff of satisfaction, and hesitated as he was going outside.
“I’ve a notion not to tell you. You’d die laughing.”
“What was it?” She humored him, yet she was afraid that the trouble had been owing to some inexpertness of her own.
He put down his tools carefully and moved toward her. She held up the paper bag of oatmeal she was bringing from the pantry.
“Don’t!” said Estella. “You’re all black.”
“Well,” said Chris. “It’s blacking in a good cause! But this is what happened. Can’t you guess?” Well, do you see that little damper at the back of the stove? Right almost behind the stovepipe. You never did befor , and neither did I. But mother did. I turned that, and prestochange. All right. Don’t smell any gas now, do you?”
“N-no. Is that all that was the matter, though? But it was away out of sight.”
“I wondered why mother never mentioned anything particular being wrong; and you never told her.”
“Of course,” she murmured.
“Now what do you say? Eh?” He put on what she called his ‘growly’ voice.
She was half laughing, half sobbing into his shoulder. “I don’t say anything . . . Thank you. But, oh, weren’t we silly!”
Then they were both sober, reflecting that they would never be so foolish again. They would be at least on their guard. For a moment they really believed that.