This story was one of the six given Honorable Mention in MacLean's 1928 Short Story Contest
ALBERTA C. TRIMBLE
JULY, the rose season almost over. As with bare hands she fervently stirred the earth about her Madam Edward Heriot, Freda prayed that another bud would open during the night for the old gentleman whose wife was in the hospital. Her favorite rosebush, a gift from her father—selling these particular blooms was like selling part of herself. It did not seem quite sporting, either; as if she were finally allowing her father to separate her from the husband of whom he had never approved. Though could she be more separate from Con than she was now? But what was the use of going over all that again?
Fifty cents each morning for a rose because it was off a Daily Mail bush from her father’s garden near Boscombe where the old couple had been born and wed. Six more roses—the old gentleman called them his wife’s morning paper—plus the money which Mrs. Carteret owed her for that last order of place cards, and she would have the three hundred dollars necessary to take her back to England. Where she could forget. Forget? The smell of earth came up in waves about her till she was dizzy. Could one forget? Could she forget the little-boy-sure-of-a-welcome boldness with which Con had come wooing, breaking off her engagement with Hilaire, his friend? In the garden where he had wooed her, could she forget? Could she forget the sweetness, wild-rose sweetness, of their brief honeymoon in the Zeppelin-raided town; their meeting later in a turbulent Russia still under arms though the rest of the world had laid down the sword, when only the fact that Con was a British Red Cross M.O. in a town scourged by an epidemic had saved her from worse than butchery; their pilgrimage under vigilant escort through Siberia; and then—dear God in Heaven, as if one could forget!—their second honeymooi in Japan where one did not see the dirt and squalor because oi the fairy gardens which had been designed in the beginning of time as a setting for their love? Oh, no! one did not forget.
One did not forget the lazy days as they sailed to Vancouver, Con too much in love with her to leave her side even for the poker game in the smoking salon— Con, the gambler, who could not see two flies buzzing toward a windowpane without laying a wager as to which could light first. One did not forget the joy with which they had taken possession of the rambling old Lavery house; or hanging out Con’s shingle, that golden, “Dr. Conrad Lavery, Physician and Surgeon;” or planning the garden.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? Silver bells and cockleshells, And pretty maids all in a row.
She had grown silver bells and cockleshells. She paused and leaned back on her heels to look about her garden, at the acacias near the fence, the catalpa in bloom beside the garage, the honeysuckles in the far corner, the rambler rose she had trained over the pagoda when her wistaria had died, the great clumps of Shasta daisies, and roses, roses, roses—but no pretty maids, in a row or otherwise.
There had nearly been one, six years as long as six eternities ago. But Con had lost heavily at cards one night, had come home oafishly drunk— another scene when her red-haired temper had got the best of her; then, for her, those weeks in the hospital. She had come out very bitter, wondering why the universe was ordered as it was; if, indeed, it were ordered. Hilaire Gurton had given up his periodic sprees before his first child was born, but Con had taken them on. Hilaire and Con. Only two men in her life—the penalty of not being good-looking—one a drinker, the other a gambler. Her parents had begged her not to marry either of them, but, if she was set on doing so, to choose Hilaire whom she had known all her life rather than this Canadian she had not known a month. At his worst Hilaire but played the buffoon, they said; no harm in a young chap sowing a few wild oats. But a man who gambled as Con did would gamble away his wife.
Well, he had. Freda got up and crossed the grass to the pagoda which he had built for her to celebrate the anniversary of the day they had met. He had sent to Japan for wistaria to plant about it. The day she had come home from the hospital it had been in bloom, shedding great streamers of pale lilac blossoms; the tears she could not shed, she had thought. The bedroom she and Con had shared for three years had a wistariapatterned paper, chosen as a background for her hair. As she had gone in there to gather up all her personal belongings and move them to the attic, she had hoped vehemently that she would never see wistaria again. Even hating Con as she did, it brought back so poignantly all those joyous honeymoon memories; his whisper in her ear, his breath on her cheek; memories so remote that they seemed an illusion. She recalled how wildly she had faced him when he came to the door, holding toward him in the palm of her hand the key of the box where she had put the layette so lovingly made, each stitch a bead in her rosary of hope.
“See!” she had exclaimed hoarsely, pointing to the box, “I have locked it. Everything is locked in there, everything that matters. My heart too.”
With that she had turned to the window and had flung the key far out across the garden. She remembered the flash of metal as it fell on the pagoda, but when a few weeks later she wished to look at the tiny embroidered things, the key was nowhere to be found. The wistaria had died, too. Distastefully she snipped off a faded spray of the red rambler substitute.
It was hot, the air heavy with city smoke which hid the mountains, and no sign of rain yet. The grass needed water. She set the sprinkler in the middle of the plot and turned the tap. Almost immediately the lemony scent of verbena smote her. A night of smells, she thought wryly. Or was she especially sentient to-night? There had been verbena in the air the evening she had promised to marry Hilaire. If only she had! What fate had led him to bring Con home for that week-end? And just how much had Hilaire loved her, she wondered for the hundredth time, when so soon after, he had married the little Canadian V.A.D., Sally Vickers? They’d had pretty maids all in a row, three of them, Tressa, Nanny and Joan; while she was only Aunt Freda, the years passing her by, all her love lavished on flowers.
Oh, she was going mad! This life she was living by herself, six years existing without a heart, living beneath the same roof as Con, yet as far apart as the poles, no one with whom she could talk except Hilaire when she went across to his place in North Vancouver, or when he came across to her.
“Madam, will you walk?
Madam, will you talk?
Madam, will you walk and talk with me?”
Con had been singing it that morning when she went past the bathroom door, had stopped abruptly as if its significance had struck him. Making a mocking curtsy before the rosebush which would deliver her from bondage, she sang it too.
“No, Madame Edward Heriot,” she said caustically, “not though I give you the keys of my heart. You, Madame, are one of the strong silent ones.”
Mad, quite mad, she smiled dryly. Hilaire, who chattered and was small of stature, aspired to be one of the strong silent ones. , But she wanted him then, chatter and all. She needed him dreadfully, someone who understood her even when she did not utter the words of the thing she was trying to convey. Had she and Con ever spoken the same language? Oh, God, how long, how long! She took the one promising bud between her hands as if she would woo it into opening. Delicate flush of pink—Nanny’s flower face, her velvety eyes, her rose-petal skin. With a sharp exclamation she ran up the kitchen steps, hung her apron behindthedoor, ran up to the bathroom and washed, climbed to the attic and powdered her nose before her dressing-table mirror, donned her hat and the lovely satin wrap her mother had sent her from L on don, snatched up her bag and ran downstairs again, pausing abruptly at the door of Con’s office.
T_T E was L -» slumped in his swivel chair, his head in his hands, just as he had sat that day she had told him she was engaged to Hilaire. Something in his posture, the dejection of his shoulders, clutched at her as it had then; and always would. Just so long as she was near him and could see him, she thought in a bit of a panic, just so long could she not get away from the spell of him. She struggled desperately to steady her voice.
“I’m going out.” It sounded colder than she had intended.
He stiffened, the face he turned to her rigid as if masked.
“I’ll be in, if you’re thinking of the “phone,” he answered with equal coldness, turning away.
Sober. Quite sober. He had not been drinking at all for several weeks. Another reformation, she thought caustically as she descended the steps. Thank heaven, however, he had never made overtures to her in these periods of recuperation; had shown rather an added defiance as if to say that he could stick things out as long as she could; that she had made the break, she could mend it.
As she reached the gate, Mrs. Dring, the widow next door, was coming out and hailed her; they occasionally went to the cinema together, their sole intercourse. Waiting, Freda glanced up and saw Con in the window, watching her. When their eyes met, he looked nonchalantly away, over her head, but she felt a thrill go through her, tingling in her fingers and toes. She still drew him! It rushed over her in a sort of ecstasy that she still drew him. Yet, once she and her companion were out of his line of vision, she was conscious of a terrible emptiness. She had to hold herself to keep from running back and throwing herself at his feet; to keep from telling him that half a loaf was better than no bread; that she would rather have him as he was, loving her when he would, than any other man on earth.
But she went on, rode downtown in the street car listening to Mrs. Dring’s monotone, all the while overwhelmed with pity for Con; not for herself and her wasted life, but for him. He was a clever surgeon; brilliant, his colleagues had said. But he had let go. There was too much competition in Vancouver for a man to do that. Of course, Hilaire, who was in life insurance, turned his way all the examinations he could, enough for them to live on. They had no rent to pay, or she did not know what they would have done. She would have left him long ago except that he could not support two separate domiciles. By staying, she saved him the expense of a housekeeper and an office girl. If she could have earned her own living, she would have; but there was nothing she had been trained to do. Occasionally she made a few dollars painting place cards with—she had a gift of rhyming as well— quite bright little verses on them. She often marveled that she could do such gay little jingles when her heart was so heavy.
It had been hard staying beneath the same roof, seeing him, brushing past him in the halls, cooking his meals— though not eating with him—making his bed, shaking out the pillow where his cheek had lain . . . She had taken the attic, in spite of his protests giving him the middle floor. When her balcony door was open she could hear only the street noises; none of the sounds of his moving about below, dropping his shoes to the floor, splashing about in the tub, all those intimate little dressing and undressing sounds so dear at one time. She liked her attic haven, even though it was liable to be hot in summer and cold in winter. From her balcony door she could see across the city to the harbor, see the lights of the boats shuttling in and out, see the tall city towers; and, above all, the lights of Grouse Mountain Chalet high in the sky as a larger star among stars. She had never been up to the Chalet but it pricked her imagination.
Mrs. Dring, murmuring about a dance at a hotel, got off. Freda, occupied with her own thoughts, did not miss her. Automatically she bought her ticket, went through the toll-gate and boarded the ferry.
The smell of salt water contracted her heart with homesickness and longing. A freighter went past flying the blue ensign. Likely going to England with wheat. In her mind’s eye she followed it through the Panama, up the Atlantic to Southampton. Her father would meet her there with the car . . . the drive to Boscombe . . . her mother’s greeting . . . tea in the garden . . . the Sheffield plate tea service, the Worcester cups and saucers, old Bella’s special tea cakes with creamy centres; always an extra supply of them when she had come home on holidays from Miss Cleaves.
She would have gone long ago but she had been too proud to let her parents know what a mess their only child had made of things. They were proud, too. At times it crossed her mind to wonder if her mother would welcome a “widow over the sod” and the subsequent gossip; though her father would relish an opportunity to say, “I told you so.” But they loved her. If they had ever suspected things were as they were, they would have cabled the money for her to come home, in spite of what the war had done to their finances.
The lights of the Gurton house gleamed mellowly out at her in the thin twilight. They had a comfortable home but no garden. Hilaire said that they were too busy gardening children. He answered her ring with Joan in his arms. Joan was the baby, not quite three.
“Hello, Fritz,” he said, his eyes brightening up his whole face at sight of her. “Pyjama parade now in progress. We’ve hiked to Capilano. Sandwiches in a shoebox, milk in a vacuum. Did the Suspension Bridge in true tourist style. Shrieks of excitement.”
Suspension Bridge, she winced, all wabbly inside; where she had gone just after she came out of the hospital, intending to throw herself into the canyon below. Life ahead had loomed so futile. Life was ended.
But she managed to speak brightly to Hilaire, played “Five little pigs” with Joan’s pink toes, called gaily up to Sally who had come to the head of the stairs that Con was not with her, he was out on a case, she hardly thought he would get over later.
“On a case. That’s too bad,” she said in her throaty drawl which was in such contrast to lier husband’s crisp utterance. “Though I suppose you’re glad he’s busy. It takes so much money to have a good time in this city, doesn’t it? Not that I’ve had much experience with money. Come on up, you two, and help me tuck the small fry in. They’re awfully late, and fearfully happy with the excitement of being up long enough to see the street lights go on.”
Excited! They chattered like magpies. Their mother tried to hush them so that she could talk, but they would not stay hushed. So many things to talk about, the way the bridge jiggled, the man who wanted to buy them all ice cream cones, the baby bear. Freda, nursing Nanny who had dashed across the room at her entrance, wondered who would not prefer to garden children.
“The bear ’tended it was dead,” said Tressa. “Joan, show Auntie Freda how the baby bear ’tended it was dead.”
“Oh! and Auntie Fritz! Auntie Fritz!” shrilled Nanny, opening her eyes to their widest, “one day it ’tended it was dead, and it stuck.”
“Not Auntie Fritz, darling; Auntie Freda.” Sally shrugged her shoulders apologetically. “She persists that you’re Fritz because you have jokes locked in your eyes. Whatever she means. Barely five, and talks like her father already.”
“She’s Auntie Fritz’s girl, at any rate,” Freda said, hugging her tightly. “One of these days I’m going to buy her from the Gurtons and take her to the Laverys. What price Nanny to-day, Hilaire?”
Nanny pouted delightfully, all her dimples showing. “Mother said when I danced on the bridge, she’d sell me for two cents. But,” pointing to Joan who was still ’tending dead, “you’d have to pay a hundred dollars for her. She’s Daddy’s pet.”
“The wee one is always Daddy’s pet,” said Hilaire, tumbling Joan into her crib. “The more helpless, the more I loves ’em.”
And she had refused to marry Hilaire!
“I was the baby once,” said Nanny complacently, “and Joan won’t be it long. We’re going to have dozens more, Daddy says.”
Freda thought Sally shrugged her shoulders, but so that she could not be sure she buried her head in Nanny who ran her fingers gleefully through Aunt Fritz’s curls, shrieking as if it were a new game.
“Nanny,” said Hilaire more crisply than usual, “you’re making a frightful noise, to say nothing of mussing Aunt Freda’s pretty hair.”
“Always Freda’s pretty hair,” teased Sally, laughing generously as she ran downstairs to answer the doorbell. “I envy you every hair on your head.”
Being so pretty herself, Freda thought, Sally could afford to be generous. Who could that be at the door at this hour? She looked across at her mop of fine red hair in the pier-glass, but her eyes dropped to the picture made by Nanny curved against her slim body, and she rose suddenly, abruptly putting the child in her small bed. Who had come?
“Let’s go down, Freda,” said Hilaire softly, tucking his hand into her elbow. “These scamps will not go to sleep while we’re here. Let’s go outside and get a breath of air. It’s close in the house to-night.”
AT the foot of the stairs was Con. Ak Even before she saw him, she heard him; and even before she heard him, she felt his presence there. She might have known that he would come. He had looked so lonely standing there in the window, and he had thought that she had gone to a “movie” with Mrs. Dring. Her knees trembled so that she had to cling to Hilaire, but she mustered a cheerful laugh and said blithely, “Case over already, Con?” She even looked up at him as she passed to the verandah, but he could not know what it cost her to keep smiling when the perfume of the sweet peas in his buttonhole floated out to her. When Con was desperately low, he wore a buttonhole or a gay tie.
From the security of the darkness outside she watched the two beneath the hall light. Standing there with Sally, Con was handsomer than ever. They made a handsome couple. He should have married Sally; and she should have married Hilaire. She wished that she had. They would have had dozens of children. She had loved Hilaire, too. Still did, but as a brother. Whatever power he had once possessed to stir her pulses was all gone. No one but Con could do that now, no matter how badly he had treated her. Her eyes puckered as she saw him put his arm about Sally’s shoulder and propel her toward the kitchen.
“Freda,”—Freda! from Hilaire that meant something!—“I’ve something to tell you, something you may mind. I have betrayed your confidence.”
Betrayed her confidence! What could he mean?
“I told Con that you have almost enough money saved up—earned—for a trip to England; that I thought it was only a one-way ticket.”
He had told Con! He had told Con that she was going home and not coming back . . . What had Con felt? It must have hurt him. His pride—what if he had dragged hers in the dust?—would be hurt. Not because she was leaving him outright, though it would sting a bit to have that made public; but because Hilaire had known first. She swung on him fiercely.
“Why did you tell him? How dared you? I didn’t say that I was not coming back.”
“You didn’t say so, in words. But I knew. And I dared because I couldn’t bear to see you two making utter hash of your lives. I know what it will mean to Con if you go. I know what it will mean to you. You can’t have taken everything into consideration.”
Had she not, indeed? What did he know of the nights and nights she had tossed thinking of life going on day after day without even a glimpse of Con; thinking of Con alone in the rambling old house, neglecting his practice more and more all the time, no one to stall off his patients while he was at a poker party or getting rid of a headache; going farther down all the time? What right had Hilaire . . .?
“I have never loved Sally quite as I loved you, Freda,” he went on evenly. “Perhaps I am unfaithful in saying even this. But after all these years—I’ve realized lately that if anything happened to her, I should be lost. She’s the children’s mother. No love is perfect. If it weren’t for the children . . . I’ve often wondered . . . There are times when we get on each other’s nerves. I’m not what the Canadians call ‘a good provider.* If it weren’t for the children, plenty of decent men wouldn’t be faithful.” -
“But we’ve no children,” she choked.
“Not likely to have,” he observed dryly.
The air was filled with the scent of honeysuckles. It came up from the lawn in great surges, its heady strength overwhelming her. She felt that she was a poor thing, indeed, to be so influenced by mere smells; common garden smells. Music was different .
“I told him three weeks ago, Freda, the morning after you told me. He has not taken a drink since. And a man can stop. I did.”
It would not last, she thought bitterly. He often went that long.
From the kitchen came the sound of the coffee-mill, Sally’s slow laugh, Con’s deep bass. It, too, overwhelmed her. Music. Con’s voice always reminded her of the sea. The first time she had heard it, the world had rung with clear blue tones, turquoise blue, the color of his eyes. When he was angry his eyes were slate gray, and his voice assumed a grayness too. Remarkable things, voices. In the darkness Hilaire’s flaunted brilliant colors; as Con deliberately donned a flower or gay tie.
When they had coffee, she sat across from Con and looked at his wilting nosegay.
“Flowers wither on a flirt,” she said, for conversation.
Sally laughed, her fingers playing prettily with the sugar tongs.
“Doubtless Con knows how to flirt,” she said. “Do you know, it’s so long since you two were in our house together, I’d begun to wonder if you were contemplating divorce?”
Hilaire colored, but Con himself bridged the gap.
“Divorces,” he said smoothly, “are expensive in this country. We are waiting till they’re advertised in the Friday bargains. You’ll have to watch the papers, too, Sally, to get yours at the same time. And how’ll we divide the children? Three is such an awkward number.”
“We’ll do no dividing,” said Sally emphatically, taking an olive. “Hilaire and Freda can have the whole awkward squad. I’d like a holiday from blowing noses. We’ll visit them on Christmas, as Con did last year. That’ll be enough for us, eh, Con?”
Con was the gayest of the four, but it was a heavy gaiety as if he had to reach down .through layers of anxiety to place his hands on it; and a cumbersome thing it proved to be when he had it. Forced persiflage, Freda decided, observing his eyes rather than his words as he made his adieus.
In silence they walked to the corner and waited on the platform. He followed her into the street car, paid her fare, and sat down beside her. It was as near as they had been for years. She could smell not only the wilted sweet peas in his lapel, but his shaving cream and the clinging fragrance of Hilaire’s cigar. Con did not smoke cigars. Years ago he had, but not since an outing when a statistical member of the party had produced figures to show what could be purchased with one cigar a day for a year. “One!” Con had exclaimed—she could hear him yet. “And I smoke— how many? Then,” tossing his away from him, “there goes my last one till I’m a millionaire.”
It had been. When he made up his mind, wild horses could not move him. Why did he not decide to stop drinking, skyhigh poker, the sporty, wealthy crowd that he went around with? That was different. Probably his resistance was too greatly weakened by now. Probably he had no desire to give it up.
On the ferry, in the cool evening darkness which came up out of the water to meet the wistful smell of far-off rain from the mountains, he found her a seat at the front of the upper deck, then went and leaned over the rail, his head bared to the moonlight.
Freda closed her eyes to the picture of him there. She would always hold that picture of him in her heart’s gallery. Another precious likeness to carry away with her to England. If she went to England.
The ferry was moving now. Suppose that this was a liner pulling out from Montreal; suppose that it was the train pulling out of Vancouver; suppose that it was the taxicab taking her to the station, leaving Con alone in the house they had shared. Could she go? Could she?
The lights twinkled from the opposite shore, red, blue, yellow. They were winking at her in friendly fashion, welcoming her home. Could she go? Oh, no! She clasped her hands painfully beneath her cloak and sent a call to Con from her heart which was beating so wildly that she could hear it in her ears. It muffled the chug of the engine, covered the sound of Con crossing the deck. She did not know he was beside her till she felt his breath on her cheek, his warm whisper in her ear.
“Freda,” his voice was husky with warm colors playing above the sea-blue of it “Freda, dear . . . I . . . can’t you . . .”
The lights along the nearing dock reflected themselves in the water streamers of pale gold, blue and red, but the mist in her eyes blurred them into pale mauve streaked with silver. Wistaria. Here it was blooming in the inlet for her, long shimmering strings of blossoms tumbling one from another, flower out of flower in ecstatic profusion, as if the stars above had spilled their dust in beauty at her feet.
Con was almost kneeling beside her. One hand slid beneath her cloak—she felt its warmth through her thin dress and her heart fluttered in her throat— but in the other hand which he laid palm uppermost in her lap, something gleamed. A key.
“Dearest,” he pleaded, “won’t you unlock your heart to me?”
Her hand groped for his, and her heart leaped as her eyes met his, his wet with a man’s tears. In their depths was a lovelier blossoming than even the wistaria in the bay. With a sob she drew his head to her breast.
Flowers! Why, they . . . they gardened love.