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The Painted Door text

Page history last edited by Hatice 13 years, 10 months ago

The Painted Door / SINCLAIR ROSS (b. 1908)

STRAIGHT across the hills it was five miles from John's farm to his father's. But in winter, with the roads impassible, a

team had to make a wide detour and skirt the hills, so that from five the distance was more than trebled to seventeen.

'I think I'll walk,' John said at breakfast to his wife. 'The drifts in the hills wouldn't hold a horse, but they'll carry me all

right. If I leave early I can spend a few hours helping him with his chores, and still be back by suppertime.'

Moodily she went to the window, and thawing a clear place in the frost with her breath, stood looking across the

snowswept farmyard to the huddle of stables and sheds. 'There was a double wheel around the moon last night,' she

countered presently. 'You said yourself we could expect a storm. It isn't right to leave me here alone. Surely I'm as

important as your father.'

He glanced up uneasily, then drinking off his coffee tried to reassure her. 'But there's nothing to be afraid of—even if

it does start to storm. You won't need to go near the stable. Everything's fed and watered now to last till night. I'll be

back at the latest by seven or eight.'

She went on blowing against the frosted pane, carefully elongating the clear place until it was oval-shaped and

symmetrical. He watched her a moment or two longer, then more insistently repeated, 'I say you won't need to go near

the stable. Everything's fed and watered, and I'll see that there's plenty of wood in. That will be all right, won't it?'

'Yes—of course—I heard you—' It was a curiously cold voice now, as if the words were chilled by their contact with

the frosted pane. 'Plenty to eat—plenty of wood to keep me warm—what more could a woman ask for?'

'But he's an old man—living there all alone. What is it, Ann? You're not like yourself this morning.'

She shook her head without turning. 'Pay no attention to me. Seven years a farmer's wife—it's time I was used to

staying alone.'

Slowly the clear place on the glass enlarged: oval, then round, then oval again. The sun was risen above the frost

mists now, so keen and hard a glitter on the snow that instead of warmth its rays seemed shedding cold. One of the

two-year-old colts that had cantered away when John turned the horses out for water stood covered with rime at the

stable door again, head down and body hunched, each breath a little plume of steam against the frosty air. She

shivered, but did not turn. In the clear, bitter light the long white miles of prairie landscape seemed a region strangely

alien to life. Even the distant farmsteads she could see served only to intensify a sense of isolation. Scattered across

the face of so vast and bleak a wilderness it was difficult to conceive them as a testimony of human hardihood and

endurance. Rather they seemed futile, lost. Rather they seemed to cower before the implacability of snow-swept earth

and clear pale sun-chilled sky.

And when at last she turned from the window there was a brooding stillness in her face as if she had recognized this

mastery of snow and cold. It troubled John. 'If you're really afraid,' he yielded, '[ won't go today. Lately it's been so

cold, that's all. I just wanted to make sure he's all right in case we do have a storm.'

'I know—I'm not really afraid.' She was putting in a fire now, and he could no longer see her face. 'Pay no attention to

me. It's ten miles there and back, so you'd better get started.'

'You ought to know by now I wouldn't stay away,' he tried to brighten her. 'No matter how it stormed.

Twice a week before we were married I never missed and there were bad blizzards that winter too.'

He was a slow, unambitious man, content with his farm and cattle, naïvely proud of Ann. He had been bewildered by

it once, her caring for a dull-witted fellow like him; then assured at last of her affection he had relaxed against it

gratefully, unsuspecting it might ever be less constant than his own. Even now, listening to the restless brooding in her

voice, he felt only a quick, unformulated kind of pride that after seven years his absence for a day should still concern

her. While she, his trust and earnestness controlling her again:

‘I know. It's just that sometimes when you're away I get lonely. . . . There's a long cold tramp in front of you. You'll let

me fix a scarf around your face.'

He nodded. 'And on my way I'll drop in at Steven's place. Maybe he'll come over tonight for a game of cards. You

haven't seen anybody but me for the last two weeks.'

She glanced up sharply, then busied herself clearing the table. 'It will mean another two miles if you do. You're going

to be cold and tired enough as it is. When you're gone I think I'll paint the kitchen woodwork. White this time—-you

remember we got the paint last fall. It's going to make the room a I lighter. I'll be too busy to find the day long.'

'I will though,' he insisted, 'and if a storm gets up you'll feel safer, knowing that he's coming. That's what you need,

Ann—someone to talk to besides me.'

She stood at the stove motionless a moment, then turned to him uneasily. 'Will you shave then, John now—before you


He glanced at her questioningly, and avoiding his eyes she tried to explain, 'I mean—he may be here before you're

back—and you won't have a chance then.'

'But it's only Steven—he's seen me like this—'

'He'll be shaved, though—that's what I mean and I'd like you too to spend a little time on yourself.'

He stood up, stroking the heavy stubble on his chin. 'Maybe I should all right, but it makes the skin too tender.

Especially when I've got to face the wind.'

She nodded and began to help him dress, bringing heavy socks and a big woollen sweater from the bedroom,

wrapping a scarf around his face and forehead. 'I'll tell Steven to come early,' he said, as he went out. 'In time for

supper. Likely there'll be chores for me to do, so if I'm not back by six don't wait.'

From the bedroom window she watched him nearly a mile along the road. The fire had gone down when at last she

turned away, and already through the house there was an encroaching chill. A blaze sprang up again when the drafts

were opened, but as she went on clearing the table her movements were furtive and constrained. It was the silence

weighing upon her—the frozen silence of the bitter fields and sun-chilled sky—lurking outside if alive, relentlessly in

wait, mile-deep between her now and John. She listened to it, suddenly tense, motionless. The fire crackled and the

clock ticked. Always it was there. 'I'm a fool,' she whispered hoarsely, rattling the dishes in defiance, going back to the

stove to put in another fire. 'Warm and safe— I'm a fool. It's a good chance when he's away to paint. The day will go

quickly. I won't have time to brood.'

Since November now the paint had been waiting warmer weather. The frost in the walls on a day like this would

crack and peel it as it dried, but she needed something to keep her hands occupied, something to stave off the

gathering cold and loneliness. 'First of all,' she said aloud, opening the paint and mixing it with a little turpentine, 'I

must get the house warmer. Fill up the stove and open the oven door so that all the heat comes out. Wad something

along the window sills to keep out the drafts. Then I'll feel brighter. It's the cold that depresses.'

She moved briskly, performing each little task with careful and exaggerated absorption, binding her thoughts to it,

making it a screen between herself and the surrounding snow and silence. But when the stove was filled and the

windows sealed it was more difficult again. Above the quiet, steady swishing of her brush against the bedroom door

the clock began to tick. Suddenly her movements became precise, deliberate, her posture self-conscious, as if

someone had entered the room and were watching her. It was the silence again, aggressive, hovering. The fire spit

and crackled at it. Still it was there. 'I'm a fool,' she repeated. 'All farmers' wives have to stay alone. I mustn't give in

this way. I mustn't brood. A few hours now and they'll be here.'

The sound of her voice reassured her. She went on: 'I'll get them a good supper—and for coffee tonight after cards

bake some of the little cakes with raisins that he likes. . .. Just three of us, so I'll watch and let John play. It's better

with four, but at least we can talk. That's all I need—someone to talk to. John never talks, tie's stronger—he doesn't

understand. But he likes Steven—no matter what the neighbours say. Maybe he'll have him come again, and some

other young people too. It's what we need, both of us, to help keep young ourselves. . . . And then before we know it

we'll be into March. It's cold still in March sometimes, but you never mind the same. At least you're beginning to think

about spring.'

She began to think about it now. Thoughts that outstripped her words, that left her alone again with herself and the

ever-lurking silence. Eager and hopeful first; then clenched, rebellious, lonely. Windows open, sun and thawing earth

again, the urge of growing, living things. Then the days that began in the morning at half-past four and lasted till ten at

night; the meals at which John gulped his food and scarcely spoke a word; the brute-tired stupid eyes he turned on her

if ever she mentioned town or visiting.

For spring was drudgery again. John never hired a man to help him. He wanted a mortgage-free farm; then a new

house and pretty clothes for her. Sometimes, because with the best of crops it was going to take so long to pay off

anyway, she wondered whether they mightn't better let the mortgage wait a little. Before they were worn out, before

their best years were gone. It was something of life she wanted, not just a house and furniture; something of John, not

pretty clothes when she would be too old to wear them. But John of course couldn't understand. To him it seemed only

right that she should have the clothes—only right that he, fit for nothing else, should slave away fifteen hours a day to

give them to her. There was in his devotion a baffling, insurmountable humility that made him feel the need of

sacrifice. And when his muscles ached, when his feet dragged stolidly with weariness, then it seemed that in some

measure at least he was making amends for his big hulking body and simple mind. That by his sacrifice he

succeeded only in the extinction of his personality never occurred to him. Year after year their lives went on in the

same little groove. He drove his horses in the field; she milked the cows and hoed potatoes. By dint of his drudgery he

saved a few months' wages, added a few dollars more each fall to his payments on the mortgage; but the only real

difference that it all made was to deprive her of his companionship, to make him a little duller, older, uglier than he

might otherwise have been. He never saw their lives objectively. To him it was not what he actually accomplished by

means of the sacrifice that mattered, but the sacrifice itself, the gesture—something done for her sake.

And she, understanding, kept her silence. In such a gesture, however futile, there was a graciousness not to be

shattered lightly. 'John,' she would begin sometimes, 'you're doing too much. Get a man to help you—just for a

month—' but smiling down at her he would answer simply, 'I don't mind. Look at the hands on me. They're made for

work.' While in his voice there would be a stalwart ring to tell her that by her thoughtfulness she had made him only the

more resolved to serve her, to prove his devotion and fidelity.

They were useless, such thoughts. She knew. It was his very devotion that made them useless, that forbade her to

rebel. Yet over and over, sometimes hunched still before their bleakness, sometimes her brush making swift sharp

strokes to pace the chafe and rancour that they brought, she persisted in them.

This now, the winter, was their slack season. She could sleep sometimes till eight, and John till seven. They could

linger over their meals a little, read, play cards, go visiting the neighbours. It was the time to relax, to indulge and enjoy

themselves; but instead, fretful and impatient, they kept on waiting for the spring. They were compelled now, not by

labour, but by the spirit of labour. A spirit that pervaded their lives and brought with idleness a sense of guilt.

Sometimes they did sleep late, sometimes they did play cards, but always uneasily, always reproached by the thought

of more important things that might be done. When John got up at five to attend to the fire he wanted to stay up and go

out to the stable. When he sat down to a meal he hurried his food and pushed his chair away again, from habit, from

sheer work-instinct, even though it was only to put more wood in the stove, or go down cellar to cut up beets and

turnips for the cows.

And anyway, sometimes she asked herself, why sit trying to talk with a man who never talked? Why talk when there

was nothing to talk about but crops and cattle, the weather and the neighbours? The neighbours, too—why go visiting

them when still it was the same—crops and cattle, the weather and the other neighbours? Why go to the dances in the

schoolhouse to sit among the older women, one of them now, married seven years, or to waltz with the work-bent,

tired old farmers to a squeaky fiddle tune? Once she had danced with Steven six or seven times in the evening, and

they had talked about it for as many months. It was easier to stay at home. John never danced or enjoyed himself. He

was always uncomfortable in his good suit and shoes. He didn't like shaving in the cold weather oftener than once or

twice a week. It was easier to stay at home, to stand at the window staring out across the bitter fields, to count the

days and look forward to another spring.

But now, alone with herself in the winter silence, she saw the spring for what it really was. This spring —next spring—

all the springs and summers still to come. While they grew old, while their bodies warped, while their minds kept

shrivelling dry and empty like their lives. 'I mustn't,' she said aloud again. 'I married him—and he's a good man. I

mustn't keep on this way. It will be noon before long, and then time to think about supper. .. . Maybe he'll come early—

and as soon as John is finished at the stable we can all play cards.'

It was getting cold again, and she left her painting to put in more wood. But this time the warmth spread slowly. She

pushed a mat up to the outside door, and went back to the window to pat down the woollen shirt that was wadded

along the sill. Then she paced a few times round the room, then poked the fire and rattled the stove lids, then paced

again. The fire crackled, the clock ticked. The silence now seemed more intense than ever, seemed to have reached a

pitch where it faintly moaned. She began to pace on tiptoe, listening, her shoulders drawn together, not realizing for a

while that it was the wind she heard, thin-strained and whimpering through the eaves.

Then she wheeled to the window, and with quick short breaths thawed the frost to see again. The glitter was gone.

Across the drifts sped swift and snakelike little tongues of snow. She could not follow them, where they sprang from, or

where they disappeared. It was as if all across the yard the snow were shivering awake—roused by the warnings of

the wind to hold itself in readiness for the impending storm. The sky had become a sombre, whitish grey. It, too, as if in

readiness, had shifted and lay close to earth. Before her as she watched a mane of powdery snow reared up breasthigh

against the darker background of the stable, tossed for a moment angrily, and then subsided again as if whipped

down to obedience and restraint. But another followed, more reckless and impatient than the first. Another reeled and

dashed itself against the window where she watched. Then ominously for a while there were only the angry little

snakes of snow. The wind rose, creaking the troughs that were wired beneath the eaves. In the distance, sky and

prairie now were merged into one another linelessly. All round her it was gathering; already in its press and

whimpering there strummed a boding of eventual fury. Again she saw a mane of snow spring up, so dense and high

this time that all the sheds and stables were obscured. Then others followed, whirling fiercely out of hand; and, when

at last they cleared, the stables seemed in dimmer outline than before. It was the snow beginning, long lancet shafts of

it, straight from the north, borne almost level by the straining wind. 'He'll be there soon,' she whispered, 'and coming

home it will be in his back. He'll leave again right away. He saw the double wheel— he knows the kind of storm there'll


She went back to her painting. For a while it was easier, all her thoughts half-anxious ones of John in the blizzard,

struggling his way across the hills; but petulantly again she soon began, 'I knew we were going to have a storm—I told

him so—but it doesn't matter what I say. Big stubborn fool—he goes his own way anyway. It doesn't matter what

becomes of me. In a storm like this he'll never get home, He won't even try. And while he sits keeping his father

company I can look after his stable for him, go ploughing through snowdrifts up to my knees— nearly frozen—'

Not that she meant or believed her words. It was just an effort to convince herself that she did have a grievance, to

justify her rebellious thoughts, to prove John responsible for her unhappiness. She was young still, eager for

excitement and distractions; and John's steadfastness rebuked her vanity, made her complaints seem weak and

trivial. Fretfully she went on, 'If he'd listen to me sometimes and not be so stubborn we wouldn't be living still in a

house like this. Seven years in two rooms—seven years and never a new stick of furniture. . . . There—as if another

coat of paint could make it different anyway.'

She cleaned her brush, filled up the stove again, and went back to the window. There was a void white moment that

she thought must be frost formed on the window pane; then, like a fitful shadow through the whirling snow, she

recognized the stable roof. It was incredible. The sudden, maniac raging of the storm struck from her face all its

pettishness. Her eyes glazed with fear a little; her lips blanched. 'If he starts for home now,' she whispered silently—

'But he won't—he knows I'm safe—he knows Steven's coming. Across the hills he would never dare.'

She turned to the stove, holding out her hands to the warmth. Around her now there seemed a constant sway and

tremor, as if the air were vibrating with the violent shudderings of the walls. She stood quite still, listening. Sometimes

the wind struck with sharp, savage blows. Sometimes it bore down in a sustained, minute-long blast, silent with effort

and intensity; then with a foiled shriek of threat wheeled away to gather and assault again. Always the eave-troughs

creaked and sawed. She started towards the window again, then detecting the morbid trend of her thoughts, prepared

fresh coffee and forced herself to drink a few mouthfuls. 'He would never dare,' she whispered again. 'He wouldn't

leave the old man anyway in such a storm. Safe in here—there's nothing for me to keep worrying about. It's after one

already. I'll do my baking now, and then it will be time to get supper ready for Steven.'

Soon, however, she began to doubt whether Steven would come. In such a storm even a mile was enough to make a

man hesitate. Especially Steven, who, for all his atractive qualities, was hardly the one to face a blizzard for the sake

of someone else's chores. He had a stable of his own to look after anyway. It would be only natural for him to think

that when the storm rose John had turned again for home. Another man would have—would have put his wife first.

But she felt little dread or uneasiness at the prospect of spending the night alone. It was the first time she had been

left like this on her own resources, and her reaction, now that she could face and appraise her situation calmly, was

gradually to feel it a kind of adventure and responsibility. It stimulated her. Before nightfall she must go to the stable

and feed everything. Wrap up in some of John's clothes— take a ball of string in her hand, one end tied to the door, so

that no matter how blinding the storm she could at least find her way back to the house. She had heard of people

having to do that. It appealed to her now because suddenly it made life dramatic. She had not felt the storm yet, only

watched it for a minute through the window.

It took nearly an hour to find enough string, to choose the right socks and sweaters. Long before it was time to start

out she tried on John's clothes, changing and rechanging, striding around the room to make sure there would be play

enough for pitching hay and struggling over snowdrifts; then she took them off again, and for a while busied herself

baking the little cakes with raisins that he liked.

Night came early. Just for a moment on the doorstep she shrank back, uncertain. The slow dimming of the light

clutched her with an illogical sense of abandonment. It was like the covert withdrawal of an ally, leaving the alien miles

unleashed and unrestrained. Watching the hurricane of writhing snow rage past the little house she forced herself,

'They'll never stand the night unless I get them fed. It's nearly dark already, and I've work to last an


Timidly, unwinding a little of the string, she crept out from the shelter of the doorway. A gust of wind spun her forward

a few yards, then plunged her headlong against a drift that in the dense white whirl lay invisible across her path. For

nearly a minute she huddled still, breathless and dazed. The snow was in her mouth and nostrils, inside her scarf and

up her sleeves. As she tried to straighten a smothering scud flung itself against her face, cutting off her breath a

second time. The wind struck from all sides, blustering and furious. It was as if the storm had discovered her, as if all

its forces were concentrated upon her extinction. Seized with panic suddenly she threshed out a moment with her

arms then stumbled back and sprawled her length across the drift.

But this time she regained her feet quickly, roused by the whip and batter of the storm to retaliative anger. For a

moment her impulse was to face the wind and strike back blow for blow; then, as suddenly as it had come, her frantic

strength gave way to limpness and exhaustion. Suddenly, a comprehension so clear and terrifying that it struck all

thoughts of the stable from her mind, she realized in such a storm her puny insignificance. And the realization gave

her new strength, stilled this time to a desperate persistence. Just for a moment the wind held her, numb and swaying

in its vise; then slowly, buckled far forward, she groped her way again towards the house.

Inside, leaning against the door, she stood tense and still a while. It was almost dark now. The top of the stove

glowed a deep, dull red. Heedless of the storm, self-absorbed and self-satisfied, the clock ticked on like a glib little

idiot. 'He shouldn't have gone,' she whispered silently. 'He saw the double wheel—he knew. He shouldn't have left me

here alone.'

For so fierce now, so insane and dominant did the blizzard seem, that she could not credit the safety of the house.

The warmth and lull around her was not real yet, not to be relied upon. She was still at the mercy of the storm. Only

her body pressing hard like this against the door was staving it off. She didn't dare move. She didn't dare ease the

ache and strain. 'He shouldn't have gone,' she repeated, thinking of the stable again, reproached by her helplessness.

'They'll freeze in their stalls—and I can't reach them. He'll say it's all my fault. He won't believe

I tried.'

Then Steven came. Quickly, startled to quietness and control, she let him in and lit the lamp. He stared at her a

moment, then flinging off his cap crossed to where she stood by the table and seized, her arms. 'You're so white—

what's wrong? Look at me—' It was like him in such little situations to be masterful. 'You should have known better

than to go out on a day like this. For a while I thought I wasn't going to make it here myself—'

'I was afraid you wouldn't come—John left early, and there was the stable—'

But the storm had unnerved her, and suddenly at the assurance of his touch and voice the fear that had been

gripping her gave way to-an hysteria of relief. Scarcely aware of herself she seized his arm and sobbed against it. He

remained still moment, un-yielding, then slipped his other arm around her shoulder. It was comforting and she relaxed

against it, hushed by a sudden sense of lull and safety. Her shoulders trembled with the easing of the strain, then fell

limp and still. 'You're shivering,'—he drew her gently towards the stove. 'There's nothing to be afraid of now, though.

I'm going to do the chores for you.'

It was a quiet, sympathetic voice, yet with an undertone of insolence, a kind of mockery even, that made her draw

away quickly and busy herself putting in a fire. With his lips drawn in a little smile he watched her till she looked at him

again. The smile top was insolent, but at the same time companionable; Steven's smile, and therefore difficult to

reprove. It lit up his lean, still-boyish face with a peculiar kind of arrogance: features and smile that were different from

John's, from other men's—wilful and derisive, yet naively so—as if it were less the difference itself he was conscious

of, than the long-accustomed privilege that thereby fell his due. He was erect, tall, square-shouldered. His hair was

dark and trim, his young lips curved soft and full. While John, set, heavy-jowled, and stooped. He always stood be-fore

her helpless, a kind of humility and wonderment in his attitude. And Steven now smiled on her appraisingly with the

worldly wise assurance of one for whom a woman holds neither mystery nor illusion.

'It was good of you to come, Steven,' she responded, the words running into a sudden, empty laugh. 'Such a storm to

face—I suppose I should feel flattered.'

For his presumption, his misunderstanding of what had been only a momentary weakness, instead of angering

quickened her, roused from latency and long disuse all the instincts and resources of her femininity. She felt eager,

challenged. Something was at hand that hitherto had always eluded her, even in the early days with John, something

vital, beckoning, meaningful. She didn't understand, but she knew. The texture of the moment was satis-fyingly

dreamlike: an incredibility perceived as such, yet acquiesced in. She was John's wife—she knew—but also she knew

that Steven standing here was different from John. There was no thought or motive, no understanding of herself as the

knowledge persisted. Wary and poised round a sudden little core of blind excitement she evaded him, 'But it's nearly

dark—hadn't you better hurry if you're going to do the chores? Don't trouble—I can get them off myself—'

An hour later when he returned from the stable she was in another dress, hair rearranged, a little flush of colour in her

face. Pouring warm water for him from the kettle into the basin she said evenly, 'By the time you're washed supper will

be ready. John said we weren't to wait for him.'

He looked at her a moment, 'But in a storm like this you're not expecting John?'

'Of course.' As she spoke she could feel the colour deepening in her face. 'We're going to play cards. He was the one

that suggested it.'

He went on washing, and then as they took their places at the table, resumed, 'So John's coming. When are you

expecting him?'

'He said it might be seven o'clock—or a little later.' Conversation with Steven at other times ha always been brisk and

natural hut now suddenly she found it strained. 'He may have work to do for his father. That's what he said when he

left. Why do you ask, Steven?'

'I was just wondering—it's a rough night.'

'He always comes. There couldn't be a storm bad enough. It's easier to do the chores in daylight, and I knew he'd be

tired—that's why I started out for the stable.'

She glanced up again and he was smiling at her. The same insolence, the same little twist of mockery and appraisal.

It made her flinch suddenly, and ask herself why she was pretending to expect why there should be this instinct of

defence to force her. This time, instead of poise and excitement, it brought a reminder that she had changed her dress

and rearranged her hair. It crushed in a sudden silence, through which she heard the whistling wind again, and the

creaking saw of the eaves. Neither spoke now. There was something strange, almost terrifying, about this Steven and

his quiet, unrelenting smile; but strangest of all was the familiarity: the Steven she had never seen or encountered, and

yet had always known, always expected, always waited for. It was less Steven himself that she felt than his

inevitability. Just as she had felt the snow, the silence and the storm. She kept her eyes lowered, on the window past

his shoulder, on the stove, but his smile now seemed to exist apart from him, to merge and hover with the silence. She

clinked a cup— listened to the whistle of the storm—always it was there. He began to speak, but her mind missed the

meaning of his words. Swiftly she was making comparisons again; his face so different to John's, so handsome and

young and clean-shaven. Swiftly, helplessly, feeling the imperceptible and relentless ascendancy that thereby he was

gaining over her, sensing sudden menace in this new, more vital life, even as she felt drawn towards it.

The lamp between them flickered as an onslaught of the storm sent shudderings through the room. She rose to build

up the fire again and he followed her. For a long time they stood close to the stove, their arms almost touching. Once

as the blizzard creaked the house she spun around sharply, fancying it was John at the door; but quietly he

intercepted her. 'Not tonight—you might as well make up your mind to it. Across the hills in a storm like this—it would

be suicide to try.'

Her lips trembled suddenly in an effort to answer, to parry the certainty in his voice, then set thin and bloodless. She

was afraid now. Afraid of his face so different from John's—of his smile, of her own helplessness to rebuke it. Afraid of

the storm, isolating her here alone with him in its impenetrable fastness. They tried to play cards, but she kept starting

up at every creak and shiver of the walls. 'It's too rough a night,' he repeated. 'Even for John. Just relax a few

minutes—stop worrying and pay a little attention to me.'

But in his tone there was a contradiction to his words. For it implied that she was not worrying—that her only concern

was lest it really might be John at the door.

And the implication persisted. He filled up the stove for her, shuffled the cards—won—shuffled— still it was there.

She tried to respond to his conversation, to think of the game, but helplessly into her cards instead she began to ask,

Was he right? Was that why he smiled? Why he seemed to wait, expectant and assured?

The clock ticked, the fire crackled. Always it was there. Furtively for a moment she watched him as he deliberated

over his hand. John, even in the days before they were married, had never looked like that. Only this morning she had

asked him to shave. Because Steven was coming—because she had been afraid to see them side by side—because

deep within herself she had known even then. The same knowledge, furtive and forbidden, that was flaunted now in

Steven's smile. 'You look cold,' he said at last, dropping his cards and rising from the table. 'We're not playing,

anyway. Come over to the stove for few minutes and get warm.'

'But first I think we'll hang blankets over the door When there's a blizzard like this we always do.' It seemed that in

sane, commonplace activity there might be release, a moment or two in which to recover herself. 'John has nails in to

put them on. They keep out a little of the draft.'

He stood on a chair for her, and hung the blankets that she carried from the bedroom. Then for a moment they stood

silent, watching the blankets sway and tremble before the blade of wind that spurted around the jamb. 'I forgot,' she

said at last, 'that I painted the bedroom door. At the top there, see—I've smeared the blankets coming through.'

He glanced at her curiously, and went back to the stove. She followed him, trying to imagine the hills in such a storm,

wondering whether John would come. 'A man couldn't live in it,' suddenly he answered her thoughts, lowering the oven

door and drawing up their chairs one on each side of it. 'He knows you're safe. It isn't likely that he'd leave his father,


'The wind will be in his back,' she persisted. 'The winter before we were married—all the blizzards that we had that

year—and he never missed—'

'Blizzards like this one? Up in the hills he wouldn't be able to keep his direction for a hundred yards. Listen to it a

minute and ask yourself.'

His voice seemed softer, kindlier now. She met his smile a moment, its assured little twist of appraisal, then for a long

time sat silent, tense, careful again to avoid his eyes.

Everything now seemed to depend on this. It was the same as a few hours ago when she braced the door against the

storm. He was watching her, smiling. She dared not move, unclench her hands, or raise her eyes. The flames

crackled, the clock ticked. The storm wrenched the walls as if to make them buckle in. So rigid and desperate were all

her muscles set, withstanding, that the room around her seemed to swim and reel. So rigid and strained that for relief

at last, despite herself, she raised her head and met his eyes again.

Intending that it should be for only an instant, just to breathe again, to ease the tension that had grown unbearable—

but in his smile now, instead of the insolent appraisal that she feared, there seemed a kind of warmth and sympathy.

An understanding that quickened and encouraged her—that made her wonder why but a moment ago she had been

afraid. It was as if the storm had lulled, as if she had suddenly found calm and shelter.

Or perhaps, the thought seized her, perhaps instead of his smile it was she that had changed. She who, in the long,

wind-creaked silence, had emerged from the increment of codes and loyalties to her real, unfettered self. She who

now felt suddenly an air of appraisal as nothing more than an understanding of the unfulfilled woman that until this

moment had lain within her brooding and unadmitted, reproved out of consciousness by the insistence of an outgrown,

routine fidelity.

For there had always been Steven. She understood now. Seven years—almost as long as John—ever since the

night they first danced together.

The lamp was burning dry, and through the dimming light, isolated in the fastness of silence and storm, they watched

each other. Her face was white and struggling still. His was handsome, clean-shaven, young. Her eyes were fanatic,

believing desperately fixed, upon him as it exclude all else, as if to find justification. His were cool, bland, a little with

expectancy. The light kept dimming gathering the shadows round them, hushed, conspiratorial. He was smiling still.

Her hands again were clenched up white and hard.

'But he always came,' she persisted. 'The wildest, coldest nights—even such a night as this. There was never a


'Never a storm like this one.' There was a quietness in his smile now, a kind of simplicity almost, as if to reassure her.

'You were out in it yourself for a few minutes. He would have five miles, across the hills. ... I'd think twice myself, on

such a night,} before risking even one.' ,

Long after he was asleep she lay listening to the storm. As a check on the draft up the chimney they had left one of

the stovelids partly off, and through the open bedroom door she could see the flickerings of flame and shadow on the

kitchen wall. They leaped and sank fantastically. The longer she watched the more alive they seemed to be. There

was one great shadow that struggled towards her threateningly, massive and black and engulfing all the room. Again

and again it advanced, about to spring, but each time a little whip of light subdued it to its place among the others on

the wall. Yet though it never reached her still she cowered, feeling that gathered there was all the frozen wilderness,

its heart of terror and invincibility.

Then she dozed a while, and the shadow was John. Interminably he advanced. The whips of light still flicked and

coiled, but now suddenly they were the swift little snakes that this afternoon she had watched twist and shiver across

the snow. And they too were advancing. They writhed and vanished and came again. She lay still, paralysed. He was

over her now, so close that she could have touched him. Already it seemed that a deadly tightening hand was on her

throat. She tried to scream but her lips were locked. Steven beside her slept on heedlessly.

Until suddenly as she lay staring up at him a gleam of light revealed his face. And in it was not a trace of threat or

anger—only calm, and stonelike hopelessness.

That was like John. He began to withdraw, and frantically she tried to call him back. 'It isn't true— not really true—

listen, John—' but the words clung frozen to her lips. Already there was only the shriek of wind again, the sawing

eaves, the leap and twist of shadow on the wall.

She sat up, startled now and awake. And so real had he seemed there, standing close to her, so vivid the sudden

age and sorrow in his face, that at first she could not make herself understand she had been only dreaming. Against

the conviction of his presence in the room it was necessary to insist over and over that he must still be with his father

on the other side of the hills. Watching the shadows she had fallen asleep. It was only her mind, her imagination,

distorted to a nightmare by the illogical and unadmitted dread of his return. But he wouldn't come. Steven was right. In

such a storm he would never try. They were safe, alone. No one would ever know. It was only fear, morbid and

irrational; only the sense of guilt that even her new-found and challenged womanhood could not entirely quell.

She knew now. She had not let herself understand or acknowledge it as guilt before, but gradually through the windtorn

silence of the night his face compelled her. The face that had watched her from the darkness with its stonelike

sorrow—the face that was really John—John more than his features of mere flesh and bone could ever be.

She wept silently. The fitful gleam of light began to sink. On the ceiling and wall at last there was only a faint dull

flickering glow. The little house shuddered and quailed, and a chill crept in again. Without wakening Steven she

slipped out to build up the fire. It was burned to a few spent embers now, and the wood she put on seemed a long time

catching light. The wind swirled through the blankets they had hung around the door, and struck her flesh like laps of

molten ice. Then hollow and moaning it roared up the chimney again, as if against its will drawn back to serve still

longer with the onrush of the storm.

For a long time she crouched over the stove, listening. Earlier in the evening, with the lamp lit and the fire crackling,

the house had seemed a stand against the wilderness, against its frozen, blizzard-breathed implacability, a refuge of

feeble walls wherein persisted the elements of human meaning and survival. Now, in the cold, creaking darkness, it

was strangely extinct, looted by the storm and abandoned again. She lifted the stove lid and fanned the embers till at

last a swift little tongue of flame began to lick around the wood. Then she replaced the lid, extended her hands, and as

if frozen in that attitude stood waiting.

It was not long now. After a few minutes she closed the drafts, and as the flames whirled back upon each other,

beating against the top of the stove and sending out flickers of light again, a warmth surged up to relax her stiffened

limbs. But shivering and numb it had been easier. The bodily well-being that the warmth induced gave play again to an

ever more insistent mental suffering. She remembered the shadow that was John. She saw him bent towards her,

then retreating, his features pale and overcast with unaccusing grief. She re-lived their seven years together and, in

retrospect, found them to be years of worth and dignity. Until crushed by it all at last, seized by a sudden need to

suffer and atone, she crossed to where the draft was bitter, and for a long time stood unflinching on the icy floor.

The storm was close here. Even through the blankets she could feel a sift of snow against her face. The eaves

sawed, the walls creaked. Above it all, like a wolf in howling flight, the wind shrilled lone and desolate.

And yet, suddenly she asked herself, hadn't there been other storms, other blizzards? And through the worst of them

hadn't he always reached her?

Clutched by the thought she stood rooted a minute. It was hard now to understand how she could have so deceived

herself—how a moment of passion could have quieted within her not only conscience, but reason and discretion too.

John always came. There could never be a storm to stop him. He was strong, inured to the cold. He had crossed the

hills since his boyhood, knew every creek-bed and gully. It was madness to go on like this—to wait. While there was

still time she must waken Steven, and hurry him away.

But in the bedroom again, standing at Steven's side, she hesitated. In his detachment from it all, in his quiet, even

breathing, there was such sanity, such realism. For him nothing had happened; nothing would. If she wakened him he

would only laugh and tell her to listen to the storm. Already it was long past midnight; either John had lost his way or

not set out at all. And she knew that in his devotion there was nothing foolhardy. He would never risk a storm beyond

his endurance, never permit himself a sacrifice likely to endanger her lot or future. They were both safe. No one would

ever know. She must control herself—be sane like Steven.

For comfort she let her hand rest a while on Steven's shoulder. It would be easier were he awake now, with her,

sharing her guilt; but gradually as she watched his handsome face in the glimmering light she came to understand that

for him no guilt existed. Just as there had been no passion, no conflict. Nothing but the sane appraisal of their

situation, nothing but the expectant little smile, and the arrogance of features that were different from John's. She

winced deeply, remembering how she had fixed her eyes on those features, how she had tried to believe that so

handsome and young, so different from John's, they must in themselves be her justification.

In the flickering light they were still young, still handsome. No longer her justification—she knew now—John was the

man—but wistfully still, wondering sharply at their power and tyranny, she touched them a moment with her fingertips


She could not blame him. There had been no passion, no guilt; therefore there could be no responsibility. Suddenly

looking down at him as he slept, half-smiling still, his lips relaxed in the conscienceless complacency of his

achievement, she understood that thus he was revealed in his entirety—all there ever was or ever could be. John was

the man. With him lay all the future. For tonight, slowly and contritely through the day and years to come, she would try

to make amends.

Then she stole back to the kitchen, and without thought, impelled by overwhelming need again, returned to the door

where the draft was bitter still. Gradually towards morning the storm began to spend itself. Its terror blast became a

feeble, worn-out moan. The leap of light and shadow sank, and a chill crept in again. Always the eaves creaked,

tortured with wordless prophecy. Heedless of it all the clock ticked on in idiot content.

They found him the next day, less than a mile from home. Drifting with the storm he had run against his own pasture

fence and overcome had frozen there, erect still, both hands clasping fast the wire.

'He was south of here,' they said wonderingly when she told them how he had come across the hills. 'Straight

south—you'd wonder how he could have missed the buildings. It was the wind last night, coming every way at once.

He shouldn't have tried. There was a double wheel around the moon.'

She looked past them a moment, then as if to herself said simply, 'If you knew him, though— John would try.'

It was later, when they had left her a while to be alone with him, that she knelt and touched his hand. Her eyes

dimmed, still it was such a strong and patient hand; then, transfixed, they suddenly grew wide and clear. On the palm,

white even against its frozen whiteness, was a little smear of paint.

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