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- Main-Travelled Roads - 10/56 -
listened. He went to her and stood with his hand on the chairback.
His voice trembled and broke. "There's just one way to get out of this, Agnes. Come with me. He don't care for you; his whole idea of women is that they are created for his pleasure and to keep house. Your whole life is agony. Come! Don't cry. There's a chance for life yet."
She didn't speak, but her sobs were less violent; his voice growing stronger reassured her.
"I'm going East, maybe to Europe; and the woman who goes with me will have nothing to do but get strong and well again. I've made you suffer so, I ought to spend the rest of my life making you happy. Come! My wife will sit with me on the deck of the steamer and see the moon rise, and walk with me by the sea, till she gets strong and happy again-till the dimples get back into her cheeks. I never will rest till I see her eyes laugh again.
She rose flushed, wide-eyed, breathing hard with the emotion his vibrant voice called up, but she could not speak. He put his hand gently upon her shoulder, and she sank down again. And he went on with hi~s appeal. There was something hypnotic, dominating in his voice and eyes.
On his part there was no passion of an ignoble sort, only a passion of pity and remorse, and a sweet, tender, reminiscent love. He did not love the woman before him so much as the girl whose ghost she was-the woman whose promise she was. He held himself responsible for it all, and he throbbed with desire to repair the ravage he had indirectly caused. There was nothing equivocal in his position-nothing to disown. How others might look at it he did not consider and did not care. His impetuous soul was carried to a point where nothing came in to mar or divert.
"And then after you're well, after our trip, we'll come back to Houston, and I'll build my wife a house that'Il make her eyes shine. My cattle and my salary will give us a good living, and she can have a piano and books, and go to the theater and concerts. Come, what do you think of that?"
Then she heard his words beneath his voice Somehow, and they produced pictures that dazzled her. Luminous shadows moved before her eyes, drifting across the gray background of her poor, starved, work-weary life.
As his voice ceased the rosy clouds faded, and she realized again the faded, musty little room, the calico~ covered furniture, and looking down at her own cheap and ill-fitting dress, she saw her ugly hands lying there. Then she cried out with a gush of tears:
"Oh, Will, I'm so old and homely now, I ain't fit to go with you now! Oh, why couldn't we have married then?"
She was seeing herself as she was then, and so was he; but it deepened his resolution. How beautiful she used to be! He seemed to see her there as if she stood in perpetual sunlight, with a w~arm sheen in her hair and dimples in her cheeks.
She saw her thin red wrists, her gaunt and knotted hands. There was a pitiful droop in the thin pale lips, and the tears fell slowly from her drooping lashes. He went on:
"Well, it's no use to cry over what was. We must think of what we're going to do. Don't worry about your looks; you'll be the prettiest woman in the country when we get back. Don't wait, Aggie; make up your mind."
She hesitated, and was lost.
"What will people say?"
"I don't care what they say," he flamed out. "They'd say, stay here and be killed by inches. I say you've had your share of suffering. They'd say-the liberal ones-stay and get a divorce; but how do we know we can get one after you've been dragged through the mud of a trial? We can get one just as well in some other state. Why should you be worn out at thirty? What right or justice is there in making you bear all your life the consequences of our-my schoolboy folly?"
As he went on, his argument rose to the level of Browning's philosophy.
"We can make this experience count for us yet. But we mustn't let a mistake ruin us-it should teach us. What right has anyone to keep you in a hole? God don't expect a toad to stay in a stump and starve if it can get out. He don't ask the snakes to suffer as you do."
She had lost the threads of right and wrong out of her hands. She was lost in a maze. She was not moved by passion. Flesh had ceased to stir her; but there was vast power in the new and thrilling words her deliverer spoke. He seemed to open a door for her, and through it turrets shone and great ships crossed on dim blue seas.
"You can't live here, Aggie. You'll die in less than five years. It would kill me to see you die here. Come! It's suicide."
She did not move, save the convulsive motion of her breath and the nervous action of her fingers. She stared down at a spot in the carpet; she couldn't face him.
He grew insistent, a sterner note creeping into his voice.
"If I leave this time, of course you know I never come back."
Her hoarse breathing, growing quicker each moment, was her only reply.
"I'm done," he said with a note of angry disappointment. He did not give her up, however. "I've told you what I'd do for you. Now if you think-"
"Oh, give me time to think, Will!" she cried out, lifting her face.
He shook his head. "No. You might as well decide now. It won't be any easier tomorrow. Come, one minute more and I go out o' that door-unless-" He crossed the room slowly, doubtful himself of his desperate last measure. "My hand is on the knob. Shall I open it?"
She stopped breathing; her fingers closed convulsively on the chair. As he opened the door she sprang up.
"Don't go, Will! Don't go, please don't! I need you here-I-"
"That ain't the question. Are you going with me, Agnes?"
"Yes, yes! I tried to speak before. I trust you, Will; you'r-"
He flung the door open wide. "See the sunlight out there shining on that field o' wheat? That's where I'll take you-out into the sunshine. You shall see it shining on the Bay of Naples. Come, get on your hat; don't take anything more'n you actually need. Leave the past behind you."
The woman turned wildly and darted into the little bedroom. The man listened. He whistled in surprise almost comical. He had forgotten the baby. He could hear the mother talking, cooing.
"Mommie's 'ittle pet. She wasn't goin' to leave her 'ittle man-no, she wasn't! There, there, don't 'e cry. Mommie ain't goin' away and leave him-wicked Mommie ain't-'ittle treasure!"
She was confused again; and when she reappeared at the door, with the child in her arms, there was a wandering look on her face pititul to see. She tried to speak, tried to say, ''Please go, Will,"
He designedly failed to understand her whisper. He stepped forward. "The baby! Sure enough. Why, certainly! to the mother belongs the child. Blue eyes, thank heaven!"
He put his arm about them both. She obeyed silently. There was something irresistible in his frank, clear eyes, his sunny smile, his strong brown hand. He slammed the door behind them.
"That closes the door on your sufferings," he said' smiling down at her. "Goodbye to it all."
The baby laughed and stretched out its hands toward the light.
"Boo, boo!" he cried.
"What's he talking about?"
She smiled in perfect trust and fearlessness, seeing her child's face beside his own. "He says it's beautiful."
"Oh, he does? I can't follow his French accent."
She smiled again, in spite of herself. Will shuddered with a thrill of fear, she was so weak and worn. But the sun shone on the dazzling, rustling wheat, the fathomless sky blue, as a sea, bent above them-and the world lay before them.
UP THE COULEE
A STORY OF WISCONSIN
"Keep the main-travelled road up the coulee-it's the second house after crossin' the crick."
THE ride from Milwaukee to the Mississippi is a fine ride at any time, superb in summer. To lean back in a reclining chair and whirl away in a breezy July day, past lakes, groves of oak, past fields of barley being reaped, past hayfields, where the heavy grass is toppling before the swift sickle, is a panorama of delight, a road full of delicious surprises, where down a sudden vista lakes open, or a distant wooded hill looms darkly blue, or swift streams, foaming deep down the solid rock, send whiffs of cool breezes in at the window.
It has majesty, breadth. The farming has nothing apparently petty about it. All seems vigorous, youthful, and prosperous. Mr. Howard McLane in his chair let his newspaper fall on his lap and gazed out upon it with dreaming eyes. It had a certain mysterious glamour to him; the lakes were cooler and brighter to his eye, the greens fresher, and the grain more golden than to anyone else, for he was coming back to it all after an absence of ten years. It was, besides, his West. He still took pride in being a Western man.
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