The Grandmothers/Chapter 14

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The Grandmothers by Glenway Wescott

AFTER his aunt Flora's funeral, Alwyn went back to school in Aaronsville. He lived with his mother's parents, who had rented their farm and bought a little property in the town: a house, a fine lawn bounded by hedges, a vegetable garden, and a stable.

His grandmother Duff never lit the lamps until the shades were drawn, remarking that it was "indecent to be seen by Tom, Dick and Harry, as if you were an actor in plays." Stiff and delicate, she would stand in the bay window every evening as long as the dusk lasted. The large flowers of the lace curtains (as if roses and lilies had been burned and kept their shape in the ashes) stood out clearly against the partial darkness—through which bicycles swung, leaving prostrate columns of dust, and girls with strong arms interlaced loitered along the walks, and workmen went home. It was the normal small-town twilight which lay there, but the old woman stood before it momentously still, as if she were watching an enemy from a stronghold; and often, as if to pass the time of her vigilance, she sang, in an old, sweet voice:

"Dark is the night And cold the wind is—blowing! Hide me, my Saviour, till the storm is o'er. . . .

If her husband entered the room, she would shrug her round shoulders and continue:

His Maternal Grandparents "For the waves around me roll. Hide me, hide me for my soul. . . ."

Or she would sing other hymns, substituting for the verses she had forgotten the mystifying notes of the Italian scale.

She had been lovely in her girlhood, and still moved with a peculiar grace; her skirts and petticoats touching the floor, her small shoes going and coming among them. If she had ever been happy she would have been vain, and said, "My sisters were always in the fashion, whatever it was."

She betrayed a lifelong envy by wanting everyone to admire these sisters. One had married, for love, a man who was too easy-going and often drifted into financial straits, though they wanted for nothing. The other lived in St. Paul in circumstances of wealth and prominence, and rarely visited her poor sister. Both were haughty and beautiful women.

It was they who had induced her to marry Ira Duff. He had then been untidily handsome and a heavy drinker, keeping company with lazy, profane men and the women of bars and shanties. The Raeburn girls had been away to finishing school and were noted for style and vivacity, and he had been impartially in love with them, in spite of his other connections. But Anne and Arabella had had ambitious dreams and discouraged the unpromising lover, saying that it was not right for either of them to marry before their elder sister, and had accordingly brought pressure to bear upon Ursula. "Pa can't support three well-brought-up daughters." Their father had been losing his money in various ways. "One of us must marry," they had insisted.

So Ursula had accepted Ira Duff and set about to reform him. Her loveliness, the novelty of marriage, her superior birth and education, had undermined his former habits. He had signed the pledge against liquor and tobacco; the low ties had been broken, one by one; he had been converted and had begun to be influential in the church. It had been as if she exerted, to the glory of God and the foundation of a respectable life, all the influence she was ever to have over him. The reform had been accomplished in four years.

As an old woman she took her grandson's hand and pressed it against her tight collar, through which he could feel a round lump in her throat. "After four years of married life," she said, "I was standing by the garden gate, and I found that growth had begun. I knew that the cause was crying too much every day. So I made up my mind then and there never to cry again, whatever your grandpa did or said. And I haven't."

On another occasion she said, "Blessedly, there weren't many deaths in our family. My twins, Ferris and Forrest, died."

With his mother, Alwyn had often put flowers on their graves, under a mountain ash at Hope's Corner. There were two headstones of soft Middle Western marble, joined by a thin slab like the arm of one little boy laid on the other's shoulder:



"As a young woman I had a magnificent head of hair. It was so heavy I could scarcely hold up my head, proud as I was; and I could sit down on it like a dress. Now when I gave birth to twins I looked at myself in the looking-glass, and looked at the babies, and I cut it off with a pair of shears. It was laughable to see your grandpa's face when he came in—he looked as if I had given away something that belonged to him.

"They died of a sickness that they caught because their father took them to a cattle market in a snow storm; they were as pretty as pictures, and he wanted to show them off among the men—he was always one to make a great display." She made this accusation, and others like it, in a tone of perfect composure. "Well, they did not grow up to take sides with their pa against me as the others did. But after that, not one of our family died, and I thank the Lord."

She took no account of the recent death of one of her two other sons. He had had lung trouble; his wife and daughters were Christian Scientists, for whom it would have been dangerous and impious to acknowledge his disease by taking him West; but for some reason their transcendent faith had not availed. At the church funeral his mother had sat in the family pew in her ruffled black silk and veils, holding her grandson Alwyn's hand, with a look of mystic satisfaction. When the widow had cried out and flung herself on the coffin among the cut flowers, the aged woman had looked on without dismay, as if it were a natural occurrence; and when the mixed quartet had sung, "Beyond the smiling and the weeping, I shall be soon," the glance of her bright eyes amid their wrinkles had seemed to leap gayly up to heaven. Perhaps she had not realized that the dead man was her son; for her mind had begun to fail.

At first her sense of time grew morbid; she would forget the events of the previous day or the previous hour, and remember instead things which had been forgotten for fifty or sixty years.

Then she began to hide things. Having little to do now but conserve the souvenirs of what they had done in the past, both she and her husband took pride in orderly drawers, boxes, cupboards, and cubbyholes. Ugly ornaments and mementoes, which no longer reminded them of anything, were spread out about the house like the weapons and garments of savage tribes in a museum. Nothing was owned in common: her pin cushion stood beside his box of letters from their sons, on her cabinet organ; and each waited for the other to neglect or mislay one of these things.

Now the old woman began to permit herself to be put in the wrong; her strategy of many years broke down. As wanton as a magpie in her black bodice. and white apron, she slipped his spectacle case into a closed umbrella, carried a paper-covered song book out to the privy, explaining that these were Unitarian hymns and she was a Presbyterian, and put an almanac on the organ in its place, opening it at a page on which the signs of the zodiac sat in a circle around a disemboweled man. She hid a valuable ring of freshwater pearls so well that it was never found; and her husband expressed his disgust in pompous phrases, which she remembered.

Her modesty became a sort of madness. The human body exposed below the chin offended her as cobwebs had done when she had been a housewife, and like them aroused her industry. She made lacy curls with a pencil all over a nude photograph of one of her grand-daughters, two years of age. The man of the almanac wore a bathing suit of ink. There was a history of the conquest of America with innumerable illustrations, in which the savages offered their daughters to the discoverers in dresses which she drew, and even the slain lay beneath shrouds as fanciful as valentines—the work of many weeks. If Alwyn left his collar unbuttoned, she would steal up behind him and wrap a handkerchief about his neck, murmuring, "I can't abide nakedness."

Alwyn learned from his mother that she had always kept everything of an improper nature out of sight. She had had no roosters in her flock of hens, and bought eggs for hatching from her neighbors. She had persuaded her husband to plant a great hedge of cedars far from the house, behind which the cows and bulls together had been led. She had never allowed her babies to be seen until they were a month old.

Perhaps she wore, thus ostentatiously, the scar of some amorous violence done by her husband in her youth. Perhaps she was trying to rid herself of memories of sweetness and abandon which made a discord in the pure concert of their hatred of each other.

The little house was full of symbols of malice, indeed seemed to have been equipped with the properties of some sort of malicious magic. Chenille balls dangling from table covers. Jagged leaves of variously colored kid forming a penwiper. A framed garland on an easel-fat callas and asters of dyed cotton under glass. Vases in the form of crucibles, one deeply crimped along the violet edge. A box of butterflies on pins. Each taboret wore a mock wedding veil. The cabinet organ stood by the window, a miniature temple, all niches and balustrades and pillars; and on the stops were printed in Gothic letters the row of enigmatic words: TREMOLO, DOLCE, VOX HUMANA. . . .

Many words were uttered in that house whose meaning was equally obscure. For Alwyn's grandfather, who was known as "the greatest talker in the country," used words which no one else understood, words which he did not understand, and words which do not exist, to swell a passionate theme, to confound his neighbors in an argument, and for their own sake. He would say, for example, "My farm was the very apocalypse of fertility, but the renter has rested on his oars till it is good for nothing," or "Manifest the bounty to pass the salt shaker in my direction." Something of the Bible, something of an Irish inheritance, something of a liar's anxiety, made of his most ordinary remark a strange and wearisome oratory.

For he was a liar. Diligently he turned the poor past into a golden age in which he had stridden, triumphed, above all persuaded; and still in his old age he labored to persuade man, woman, and child. On summer evenings Alwyn would see him in the pale-green garden like a stage setting, urging upon a neighbor his version of his life, and acting out its roles. Between the beds of beets and onions he would stagger a little with the bearlike motion of a large man when he is old, and speak louder and gesticulate weirdly as the gathering dusk hid him from his audience.

His wife, standing with her grandson by the window, would say very softly, very sharply, "Your grandpa tells that riffraff he's so fond of up there in the garden a lot of lies." And through the shadows closing down as if to shut him up and answer his arguments, he would catch a glimpse of the little woman who, in his youth, had made him a respectable man (a man whom she alone refused to respect); and a genuine sigh would make more impressive his complaints and his anecdotes.

Her honesty, even without a word, wounded and dishonored him. Therefore, perhaps, he hated the plain truth and looked down upon it, and strode away from it as quickly as possible into the remote past of his preposterous stories and ridiculous pretensions, where he could not be contradicted. But no—she had known him for sixty years and could always contradict him. When he was alone, melancholy actually distorted his old, loose face, as he brooded on what he had last said and wondered if in fact his arguments had been unanswerable.

There had been disgraces in his life which he was determined to change into heroisms. In particular, he had refused to fight in the Civil War, out of worldly interest, pride, and timidity, buying exemption from the draft three times and mortgaging his farm to do so. The family hoped the story would be forgotten. But he continued to lead casual guests into corners and, with his haggard body bent over like a question mark, amaze them with an account of what he called his "relations with government."

"Then by the great horned spoon who did I see?" one would hear. "None other but Ezra Winterbotham, the meanest man that ever walked up and down God's green earth, though well circumstanced, displayed in the height of fashion of an officer's uniform. Now he represented the authorities at Washington, the might of the law, the " With his long thumb the old man drew in the air a word more impressive than any he could think of.

"Well, this here Winterbotham thundered and cursed God and swore that I'd be arrested simultaneously if I didn't go south with Company B. I saw it was fate coming at me and so I bowed my head."

He shook a twisted forefinger, now on one side of his listener, now on the other, to block the way of escape. "But no! No, said I to myself. So I rose in my wrath and denounced him. Gosh all firelocks! man, said I, you were intended by God to go to war, having made you so as you wasn't good for anything else. The good Lord meant such men as me, your humble servant, to sing his praises in other ways by becoming prominent citizens in times of peace."

Sitting by the window, his wife grew more and more stiff and courtly, as if all the world were looking at her.

"I'll buy a man, by cracky! said I. I'm not so poor in this world's goods that I've got to be ordered about by every cracker-box public speaker that gets delegated by hook or crook to Washington. I'll buy a man to do my fighting for me. There's aplenty as are waiting for such chances and that hain't any other future and wouldn't be man enough for it if they had. Men o' your ilk, Winterbotham!"

The strident voice mounted until everyone in the room was obliged to listen. One after another, his wife fixed their relatives or guests with a glance which made them uneasy, even frightened some, the very timid or young.

"And will you believe it, sir, that fellow, that authority, went off with his tail between his legs, uniform and all, and let me alone!"

His wife said serenely to a woman beside her, "It is a blessing Ira didn't go to the war. He'd have taken to drinking again, or worse. He wasn't so pious when we married as he is nowadays."

Or a new minister would make a pastoral call, and the old man would begin his history at once. The preacher, knowing that this was one of his most important parishioners, noted for severe sanctity, would try anxiously to understand. The old lady would look out of the window, and caress her full skirts, and pick dead leaves from the potted plants. But at last she would say, "Yes, it would be a very good story, if—it were true," and rise and go out of the room, leaving her husband to face the astonished clergyman.

He took his revenge. When they left the farm, for example, he insisted upon doing the cooking, and would not permit her to go into the kitchen except to wash dishes. He represented this as a great burden, though he liked keeping small, crowded places in order, and was vain of the indigestible meals he prepared. Everyone smiled at his recipe for pancakes, because it was a recipe for his stories as well: "One half of wheat flour, one third of rye, one third of buckwheat, and copious milk. . . ." Everyone smiled, but everyone pitied him—an old farmer with an able-bodied, sharp-tongued wife, so patiently doing the housework. . . .

His malice was exercised only under cover of pity and affection. Long before her mind began to fail, he would draw a relative or a neighbor into a corner and confide in a stage whisper, "Don't you forget it—my poor wife is doting in the decline of her powers." He appealed even to strangers to sympathize with her failings, describing them incidentally in full detail; and referred with marked unction to the trials which it was his lot to bear in a Christian spirit.

When they were alone together, he would say with insulting simplicity, "I call it vicious, the way you behave," or, "You're a blamed fool, Ursula." Perhaps the fact that he did not trouble to scold her personally with his usual abundance of rhetoric hurt her more than his blame itself, to which, in sixty years, she may have grown accustomed.

Their grandson wondered if it had been his deliberate policy, from the beginning, to discredit her. Could he, in ignorance of his own heart, have done his work so well? Relatives and friends, one by one, coming to have a horror of her sharp tongue, her bitter disposition becoming a by-word. . . . The old man complacently watching loneliness widen around her, watching the manias of her old age increase, accumulating in his mind the pity of others for himself as a miser stores away secret treasure, sighing and pitying himself. . . . Alwyn decided at last that he sincerely thought himself a good man, a patient husband, a martyr. Especially after he began to suffer from a disease of the intestines, it was obvious that he lived in constant fear of incredulity, even as those do who are too naïvely honest to be understood. This manifest fear had an air of innocence; whoever might not have believed his stories, he himself in his old age seemed to believe every one.

But, though it was she who wore the look of victory, almost everyone did believe him. Despair is less expressive than mere melancholy; she would have been ashamed of seeming to deserve pity. His malice was like an instrument in his hands, silent or sounding loudly as it suited his purpose best. But when she said intolerable things, in her distant, melodious voice, it was not merely against her will; she had at those moments no will, and as if she had been hypnotized, felt neither fear nor sadness nor pleasure.

All the relatives and neighbors had watched the restlessness of her anger increase, quietly, rhythmically, like that of a whip; and heard what she had to say when she could endure it no longer. Everyone, on the other hand, had seen his tears. Only her daughter and her grandson loved her; only the Towers admired her. Even those who had experienced his perfidy held her responsible, and praised God that they did not have such a wife or mother.

Her sons had not even pretended to pity her. Now the one who had contracted malaria in the South when he had run away—as he thought, from her—was dead. The other, Andrew, a building contractor in Chicago, as melancholy and clever as his father, but with his mother's hardness, made life miserable for his wife and children, though he gave them everything that money could buy. He had no particular principles or faith, hating religion for its pretensions of peace on earth, its lack of power over hearts like his mother's—for that matter, like his own. She said frankly that his dissipated habits were a shame to her. Her husband blamed her less for driving their sons away from home than for acknowledging their weaknesses; and improved Andrew's character even as he had improved his own—by talking about it, hypocritically.

In the little house in Aaronsville a red-edged Bible lay on a special shelf over the kitchen table. Every morning of their old age (just as when their wayward children had been at home) after the breakfast of fried potatoes and sweet rolls, he drew himself up to his full height, took down the book, and read a chapter. Then they knelt on the floor, each in front of a chair, and he raised his harsh voice:

"Guard us, dear adorable father, and guide us into one of thy mansions. Though roamers and strangers to thy charity, set us not aside with those who defile the highways and the byways. For liars, money changers, ungrateful relatives, and strange women triumph. Wither up their fig trees and put the seal of thy abundance on our undertakings. Bless my health, and keep our scattered children out of the dens of mischief. And hold in the hollow of thy hand the dear wife of my bosom. Without ceasing for half a century, we have labored and sung thy praises and kept faithful to each other and to thy true religion—though our steps totter, we are still the same. Forgive us our transgressions of word and deed, and lead us not into trouble, but bring our aged limbs into thy kingdom. Amen."

There followed a moment of silent prayer. When Alwyn knelt between them, more embarrassed by this posture of the love of God than the two sad ancient enemies whose knees bent with difficulty, he wondered if in that moment each prayed that the other might be punished, made sleepless by repentance, and have his heart divinely softened—that is, at their age, broken. . . . But when they rose, his grandfather's cunning face was transfigured and haughty. Wandering away to one of the windows, his grandmother seemed to regret that prayer had come to an end, her eyes, in spite of their cold color and weary eyelids, like a child's eyes blossoming with light. And when she glanced back at her husband, Alwyn realized that he was not only her enemy, but her priest.

She rarely spoke of religion, and had no reminiscences of its coming and going in men's hearts. Evidently it had nothing to do with love, of which she spoke with pride and regret, as Alwyn's other grandmother spoke of the old days—their glory, their poverty, their bravado. "My son," she would say, "there were broken hearts and romances. But young women in my day covered their nakedness, every one was modest and genteel. But the menfolks were inclined to be rough—they mingled with animals all day, and had many hardships to undergo. Don't ever be wild as your grandpa was."

Alwyn remembered their wedding picture: the young man's lips large and red, his eyes expressionless as eyes of crystal, his large hand closed on her arm as if it had often had its way with women; and beside him the little bride dressed in dark sacramental finery.

"Always behave like a gentleman," she continued. "In all my life, I knew only one gentleman. That was Leander Tower. He was accounted a little crazy in those days by many who were his neighbors. My life would have been different if I had married him. But I was already married, so I didn't love him. It was my duty to love your grandpa and I did it, hard and dishonest man that he was. As for Leander Tower, he loved nobody on earth but his relations."

Alwyn's mother said that she had never before referred to that secret.

Another day she said, to his amazement: "I don't regret a day of my life. Your grandpa is a virtuous. man and God-fearing, though he was pretty unruly in his youth. Don't you forget that, just because he tells awful lies and is mean. He never drank. He never swore. He never ran after women. Not after we married. He never failed at churchgoing, or giving testimony, or praying before the public—and there wasn't a man in the township who could make such a fine prayer. There are few of whom I could say as much. Now I don't regret that he was hard on me, and maintains that my mind is failing. It has taught me to fear God and value the kingdom of heaven. Don't you ever think this world amounts to much."

But as they approached that kingdom of heaven. their conflict did not abate. Their old bodies grew weaker, their minds confused; but they seemed to breathe a bracing air of eternity. Warned by the gnawing pain in his bowels, his fear of not being believed rose to a pitiful fury; but the days in which he might still bring about her wifely submission were numbered; so at last his malice was not even restrained by consideration of what people would say. Her sorrow took on the special clarity and peace of madness when her second childhood began. During the last years it was as if they lay on one deathbed—the dying hands interlaced by habit, by hatred of each other and love of God, the dying mouths murmuring truths without pity and complaining still.

(It was during this period that Alwyn lived with them afraid of their old age, often shedding tears before he fell asleep, trying to ignore hate and understand love, and for the first time falling in love.)

The embrace of their two spirits was closer than love ever is. They had lived together half a century; now they could not be parted. Marianne Tower took her mother out to the farm, but could not induce her to stay more than one night. She could not sleep in the country; hate had become a physical habit, as passionate as the habits of the young. "I must go back this afternoon. I must look after my house. I must see what your father is up to."

When she returned to the little house, her husband's face lit up with pleasure, but before that expression. had had time to change he would say, in her presence, "I know, daughter, you're inclined to see things your poor ma's way, but she is a great problem to me. She steals my medicine and spirits it away, and even carries it so far as to hide her own things. And I swear before the Almighty, I believe she does it a-purpose."

One afternoon during a school holiday, Alwyn and his mother drove to Aaronsville, intending to take her back with them. "No," she said, "I reckon I'd better not go. I have to see to my affairs. And your father is not contented if I'm not here."

Then she went upstairs, and came down presently, carrying in her hand the antlers of two stags, interlocked and covered with dust. She put them on the table. "I found these old things in the attic," she said mysteriously. "I don't understand what they're for, and I don't know where we got them. But I found them, anyway."

The old man came out of the pantry. "Ursula," he began, looking at his daughter as if this were a proof of all his contentions, "I pray to God that the day will come when you'll let my things alone. Tarnation! I don't blame you, but it's a crucifixion to me, the way you go rummaging in my belongings."

Marianne gazed beseechingly at her father. Her mother, ignoring him, gazed at the curio: the sharp horns harmless at last, spike wedged against spike, and a bit of the skull of each animal.

"I never saw that before," Alwyn said. "What is it? Where did it come from?"

The old man said: "I discovered this phenomenon at the foot of an old stump I was rooting up in my thirty-fourth year. It bears witness to the death struggle of two ferocious animals. Beside themselves, they struck one blow too many and got their horns tangled and lay there by that stump, as you might say snared, until they died. And here you have their rage to get at each other immortalized, and I say it ought to be in a museum."

His wife had not taken her eyes from the table. "Ira, Ira," she murmured, "you've told that story too many times. It's not yours, anyway. It's mine. You gave it to me."

He sighed and returned to the kitchen. She hunted a little piece of black crêpe and painstakingly, lovingly, dusted the antlers. There was nothing to say. Alwyn's mother sat down and began to weep softly. The old woman took up the interlocked antlers and pressed them to her bosom, and started upstairs again. "No, Marianne, don't ever cry," she said, as if she were merely giving good advice.

Their son Andrew came from Chicago to see his father. Alwyn and his grandmother stood before the window, and in the garden the feeble old man gestured and talked to his son. "Who's that man up there in the garden talking to your father?" she asked. "You better go up and find out if he means to stay to dinner."

Her husband insisted that she recognized her son and pretended not to, out of spite. She often called Alwyn Andrew, even during her son's visit. At other times she treated him with exquisite formality, as if he were a man she loved, half a stranger. One day she gave him a begonia leaf, saying, "You're my sweetheart, you know."

The following winter Alwyn went to live with his uncle Jim; and while he was gone the old man passed away.