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Such A Pretty Little Picture

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

 

SUCH A PRETTY LITTLE PICTURE

Mr. Wheelock was clipping the hedge. He did not dislike doing it. If it had not been for the faintly sickish odor of the privet bloom, he would definitely have enjoyed it. The new shears were so sharp and bright, there was such a gratifying sense of something done as the young green stems snapped off and the expanse of tidy, square hedge-top lengthened. There was a lot of work to be done on it. It should have been attended to a week ago, but this was the first day that Mr. Wheelock had been able to get back from the city before dinnertime.

Clipping the hedge was one of the few domestic duties that Mr. Wheelock could be trusted with. He was notoriously poor at doing anything around the house. All the suburb knew about it. It was the source of all Mrs. Wheelock’s jokes. Her most popular anecdote was of how, the past winter, he had gone out and hired a man to take care of the furnace, after a seven-years’ losing struggle with it. She had an admirable memory, and often as she had related the story, she never dropped a word of it. Even now, in the late summer, she could hardly tell it for laughing.

When they were first married, Mr. Wheelock had lent him self to the fun. He had even posed as being more inefficient than he really was, to make the joke better. But he had tired of his helplessness, as a topic of conversation. All the men of Mrs. Wheelock’s acquaintance, her cousins, her brother-in-law, the boys she went to high school with, the neighbors’ husbands, were adepts at putting up a shelf, at repairing a lock, or making a shirtwaist box. Mr. Wheelock had begun to feel that there was something rather effeminate about his lack of interest in such things.

He had wanted to answer his wife, lately, when she enlivened some neighbor’s dinner table with tales of his inadequacy with hammer and wrench. He had wanted to cry, “All right, suppose I’m not any good at things like that. What of it?”

He had played with the idea, had tried to imagine how his voice would sound, uttering the words. But he could think of no further argument for his case than that “What of it?” And he was a little relieved, somehow, at being able to find nothing stronger. It made it reassuringly impossible to go through with the plan of answering his wife’s public railleries.

Mrs. Wheelock sat, now, on the spotless porch of the neat stucco house. Beside her was a pile of her husband’s shirts and drawers, the price-tags still on them. She was going over all the buttons before he wore the garments, sewing them on more firmly. Mrs. Wheelock never waited for a button to come off, before sewing it on. She worked with quick, decided movements, compressing her lips each time the thread made a slight resistance to her deft jerks.

She was not a tall woman, and since the birth of her child she had gone over from a delicate plumpness to a settled stockiness. Her brown hair, though abundant, grew in an uncertain line about her forehead. It was her habit to put it up in curlers at night, but the crimps never came out in the right place. It was arranged with perfect neatness, yet it suggested that it had been done up and got over with as quickly as possible. Passionately clean, she was always redolent of the germicidal soap she used so vigorously. She was wont to tell people, somewhat redundantly, that she never employed any sort of cosmetics. She had unlimited contempt for women who sought to reduce their weight by dieting, cutting from their menus such nourishing items as cream and puddings and cereals.

Adelaide Wheelock’s friends—and she had many of them— said of her that there was no nonsense about her. They and she regarded it as a compliment.

Sister, the Wheelocks’ five-year-old daughter, played quietly in the gravel path that divided the tiny lawn. She had been known as Sister since her birth, and her mother still laid plans for a brother for her. Sister’s baby carriage stood waiting in the cellar, her baby clothes were stacked expectantly away in bureau drawers. But raises were infrequent at the advertising agency where Mr. Wheelock was employed, and his present salary had barely caught up to the cost of their living. They could not conscientiously regard themselves as being able to afford a son. Both Mr. and Mrs. Wheelock keenly felt his guilt in keeping the bassinet empty.

Sister was not a pretty child, though her features were straight, and her eyes would one day be handsome. The left one turned slightly in toward the nose, now, when she looked in a certain direction; they would operate as soon as she was seven. Her hair was pale and limp, and her color bad. She was a delicate little girl. Not fragile in a picturesque way, but the kind of child that must be always undergoing treatment for its teeth and its throat and obscure things in its nose. She had lately had her adenoids removed, and she was still using squares of surgical gauze in stead of handkerchiefs. Both she and her mother somehow felt that these gave her a sort of prestige.

She was additionally handicapped by her frocks, which her mother bought a size or so too large, with a view to Sister’s growing into them—an expectation which seemed never to be realized, for her skirts were always too long, and the shoulders of her little dresses came halfway down to her thin elbows. Yet, even discounting the unfortunate way she was dressed, you could tell, in some way, that she was never going to wear any kind of clothes well.

Mr. Wheelock glanced at her now and then as he clipped. He had never felt any fierce thrills of father-love for the child. He had been disappointed in her when she was a pale, large-headed baby, smelling of stale milk and warm rubber. Sister made him feel ill at ease, vaguely irritated him. He had had no share in her training; Mrs. Wheelock was so competent a parent that she took the places of both of them. When Sister came to him to ask his permission to do something, he always told her to wait and ask her mother about it.

He regarded himself as having the usual paternal affection for his daughter. There were times, indeed, when she had tugged sharply at his heart—when he had waited in the corridor outside the operating room; when she was still under the anesthetic, and lay little and white and helpless on her high hospital bed; once when he had accidentally closed a door upon her thumb. But from the first he had nearly acknowledged to himself that he did not like Sister as a person.

Sister was not a whining child, despite her poor health. She had always been sensible and well-mannered, amenable about talking to visitors, rigorously unselfish. She never got into trouble, like other children. She did not care much for other children. She had heard herself described as being “old-fashioned,” and she knew she was delicate, and she felt that these attributes rather set her above them. Besides, they were rough and careless of their bodily well-being.

Sister was exquisitely cautious of her safety. Grass, she knew, was often apt to be damp in the late afternoon, so she was careful now to stay right in the middle of the gravel path, sitting on a folded newspaper and playing one of her mysterious games with three petunias that she had been allowed to pick. Mrs. Wheelock never had to speak to her twice about keeping off wet grass, or wearing her rubbers, or putting on her jacket if a breeze sprang up. Sister was an immediately obedient child, always.

 

 

II

 

Mrs. Wheelock looked up from her sewing and spoke to her husband. Her voice was high and clear, resolutely good-humored. From her habit of calling instructions from her upstairs window to Sister playing on the porch below, she spoke always a little louder than was necessary.

“Daddy,” she said.

She had called him Daddy since some eight months before Sister was born. She and the child had the same trick of calling his name and then waiting until he signified that he was attending before they went on with what they wanted to say.

Mr. Wheelock stopped clipping, straightened himself and turned toward her.

“Daddy,” she went on, thus reassured, “I saw Mr. Ince down at the post office today when Sister and I went down to get the ten o’clock mail—there wasn’t much, just a card for me from Grace Williams from that place they go to up on Cape Cod, and an advertisement from some department store or other about their summer fur sale (as if I cared!), and a circular for you from the bank. I opened it; I knew you wouldn’t mind.

“Anyway, I just thought I’d tackle Mr. Ince first as last about getting in our cordwood. He didn’t see me at first—though I’ll bet he really saw me and pretended not to—but I ran right after him. ‘Oh, Mr. Ince!’ I said. ‘Why, hello, Mrs. Wheelock,’ he said, and then he asked for you, and I told him you were finely, and everything. Then I said, ‘Now, Mr. Ince,’ I said, ‘how about getting in that cordwood of ours?’ And he said, ‘Well, Mrs. Wheelock,’ he said, ‘I’ll get it in soon’s I can, but I’m short of help right now,’ he said.

“Short of help! Of course I couldn’t say anything, but I guess he could tell from the way I looked at him how much I believed it. I just said, ‘All right, Mr. Ince, but don’t you forget us. There may be a cold snap coming on,’ I said, ‘and we’ll be wanting a fire in the living-room. Don’t you forget us,’ I said, and he said, no, he wouldn’t.

“If that wood isn’t here by Monday, I think you ought to do something about it, Daddy. There’s no sense in all this putting it off, and putting it off. First thing you know there’ll be a cold snap coming on, and we’ll be wanting a fire in the living-room, and there we’ll be! You’ll be sure and ‘tend to it, won’t you, Daddy? I’ll remind you again Monday, if I can think of it, but there are so many things!”

Mr. Wheelock nodded and turned back to his clipping—and his thoughts. They were thoughts that had occupied much of his leisure lately. After dinner, when Adelaide was sewing or arguing with the maid, he found himself letting his magazine fall face downward on his knee, while he rolled the same idea round and round in his mind. He had got so that he looked forward, through the day, to losing himself in it. He had rather welcomed the hedge-clipping; you can clip and think at the same time.

It had started with a story that he had picked up somewhere. He couldn’t recall whether he had heard it or had read it—that was probably it, he thought, he had run across it in the back pages of some comic paper that someone had left on the train.

It was about a man who lived in a suburb. Every morning he had gone to the city on the 8:12, sitting in the same seat in the same car, and every evening he had gone home to his wife on the 5:17, sitting in the same seat in the same car. He had done this for twenty years of his life. And then one night he didn’t come home. He never went back to his office any more. He just never turned up again.

The last man to see him was the conductor on the 5:17.

“He came down the platform at the Grand Central,” the man reported, “just like he done every night since I been working on this road. He put one foot on the step, and then he stopped sudden, and he said ‘Oh, hell,’ and he took his foot off of the step and walked away. And that’s the last anybody see of him.”

Curious how that story took hold of Mr. Wheelock’s fancy. He had started thinking of it as a mildly humorous anecdote; he had come to accept it as fact. He did not think the man’s sitting in the same seat in the same car need have been stressed so much. That seemed unimportant. He thought long about the man’s wife, wondered what suburb he had lived in. He loved to play with the thing, to try to feel what the man felt before he took his foot off the car’s step. He never concerned himself with speculations as to where the man had disappeared, how he had spent the rest of his life. Mr. Wheelock was absorbed in that moment when he had said “Oh, hell,” and walked off. “Oh, hell” seemed to Mr. Wheelock a fine thing for him to have said, a perfect summary of the situation.

He tried thinking of himself in the man’s place. But no, he would have done it from the other end. That was the real way to do it.

Some summer evening like this, say, when Adelaide was sewing on buttons, up on the porch, and Sister was playing somewhere about. A pleasant, quiet evening it must be, with the shadows lying long on the street that led from their house to the station. He would put down the garden shears, or the hose, or whatever he happened to be puttering with—not throw the thing down, you know, just put it quietly aside—and walk out of the gate and down the street, and that would be the last they’d see of him. He would time it so that he’d just make the 6:03 for the city comfortably.

He did not go ahead with it from there, much. He was not especially anxious to leave the advertising agency forever. He did not particularly dislike his work. He had been an advertising solicitor since he had gone to work at all, and he worked hard at his job and, aside from that, didn’t think about it much one way or the other.

It seemed to Mr. Wheelock that before he had got hold of the “Oh, hell” story he had never thought about anything much, one way or the other. But he would have to disappear from the office, too, that was certain. It would spoil everything to turn up there again. He thought dimly of taking a train going West, after the 6:03 got him to the Grand Central Terminal—he might go to Buffalo, say, or perhaps Chicago. Better just let that part take care of itself and go back to dwell on the moment when it would sweep over him that he was going to do it, when he would put down the shears and walk out the gate—

The “Oh, hell” rather troubled him. Mr. Wheelock felt that he would like to retain that; it completed the gesture so beautifully. But he didn’t quite know to whom he should say it.

He might stop in at the post office on his way to the station and say it to the postmaster; but the postmaster would probably think he was only annoyed at there being no mail for him. Nor would the conductor of the 6:03, a train Mr. Wheelock never used, take the right interest in it. Of course the real thing to do would be to say it to Adelaide just before he laid down the shears. But somehow Mr. Wheelock could not make that scene come very clear in his imagination.

 

III

 

“Daddy,” Mrs. Wheelock said briskly.

He stopped clipping, and faced her.

“Daddy,” she related, “I saw Doctor Mann’s automobile going by the house this morning—he was going to have a look at Mr. Warren, his rheumatism’s getting along nicely—and I called him in a minute, to look us over.”

She screwed up her face, winked, and nodded vehemently several times in the direction of the absorbed Sister, to indicate that she was the subject of the discourse.

“He said we were going ahead finely,” she resumed, when she was sure that he had caught the idea. “Said there was no need for those t-o-n-s-i-l-s to c-o-m-e o-u-t. But I thought, soon’s it gets a little cooler, some time next month, we’d just run in to the city and let Doctor Sturges have a look at us. I’d rather be on the safe side.”

“But Doctor Lytton said it wasn’t necessary, and those doctors at the hospital, and now Doctor Mann, that’s known her since she was a baby,” suggested Mr. Wheelock.

“I know, I know,” replied his wife. “But I’d rather be on the safe side.”

Mr. Wheelock went back to his hedge.

Oh, of course he couldn’t do it; he never seriously thought he could, for a minute. Of course he couldn’t. He wouldn’t have the shadow of an excuse for doing it. Adelaide was a sterling woman, an utterly faithful wife, an almost slavish mother. She ran his house economically and efficiently. She harried the suburban trades people into giving them dependable service, drilled the succession of poorly paid, poorly trained maids, cheerfully did the thousand fussy little things that go with the running of a house. She looked after his clothes, gave him medicine when she thought he needed it, oversaw the preparation of every meal that was set before him; they were not especially inspirational meals, but the food was always nourishing and, as a general thing, fairly well cooked. She never lost her temper, she was never depressed, never ill.

Not the shadow of an excuse. People would know that, and so they would invent an excuse for him. They would say there must be another woman.

Mr. Wheelock frowned, and snipped at an obstinate young twig. Good Lord, the last thing he wanted was another woman. What he wanted was that moment when he realized he could do it, when he would lay down the shears—

Oh, of course he couldn’t; he knew that as well as anybody. What would they do, Adelaide and Sister? The house wasn’t even paid for yet, and there would be that operation on Sister’s eye in a couple of years. But the house would be all paid up by next March. And there was always that well-to-do brother-in- law of Adelaide’s, the one who, for all his means, put up every shelf in that great big house with his own hands.

Decent people didn’t just go away and leave their wives and families that way. All right, suppose you weren’t decent; what of it? Here was Adelaide planning what she was going to do when it got a little cooler, next month. She was always planning ahead, always confident that things would go on just the same. Naturally, Mr. Wheelock realized that he couldn’t do it, as well as the next one. But there was no harm in fooling around with the idea. Would you say the “Oh, hell” now, before you laid down the shears, or right after? How would it be to turn at the gate and say it?

Mr. and Mrs. Fred Coles came down the street arm-in-arm, from their neat stucco house on the corner.

“See they’ve got you working hard, eh?” cried Mr. Coles genially, as they paused abreast of the hedge.

Mr. Wheelock laughed politely, marking time for an answer.

“That’s right,” he evolved.

Mrs. Wheelock looked up from her work, shading her eyes with her thimbled hand against the long rays of the low sun.

“Yes, we finally got Daddy to do a little work,” she called brightly. “But Sister and I are staying right here to watch over him, for fear he might cut his little self with the shears.”

There was general laughter, in which Sister joined. She had risen punctiliously at the approach of the older people, and she was looking politely at their eyes, as she had been taught.

“And how is my great big girl?” asked Mrs. Coles, gazing fondly at the child.

“Oh, much better,” Mrs. Wheelock answered for her. “Doctor Mann says we are going ahead finely. I saw his automobile passing the house this morning—he was going to see Mr. Warren, his rheumatism’s coming along nicely—and I called him in a minute to look us over.”

She did the wink and the nods, at Sister’s back. Mr. and Mrs. Coles nodded shrewdly back at her.

“He said there’s no need for those t-o-n-s-i-l-s to c-o-m-e o-u-t,” Mrs. Wheelock called. “But I thought, soon’s it gets a little cooler, some time next month, we’d just run in to the city and let Doctor Sturges have a look at us. I was telling Daddy, ‘I’d rather be on the safe side,’ I said.”

“Yes, it’s better to be on the safe side,” agreed Mrs. Coles, and her husband nodded again, sagely this time. She took his arm, and they moved slowly off.

“Been a lovely day, hasn’t it?” she said over her shoulder, fearful of having left too abruptly. “Fred and I are taking a little constitutional before supper.”

“Oh, taking a little constitutional?” cried Mrs. Wheelock, laughing.

Mrs. Coles laughed also, three or four bars.

“Yes, just taking a little constitutional before supper,” she called back.

Sister, weary of her game, mounted the porch, whimpering a little. Mrs. Wheelock put aside her sewing, and took the tired child in her lap. The sun’s last rays touched her brown hair, making it a shimmering gold. Her small, sharp face, the thick lines of her figure were in shadow as she bent over the little girl. Sister’s head was hidden on her mother’s shoulder, the folds of her rumpled white frock followed her limp, relaxed little body.

The lovely light was kind to the cheap, hurriedly built stucco house, to the clean gravel path, and the bits of closely cut lawn. It was gracious, too, to Mr. Wheelock’s tall, lean figure as he bent to work on the last few inches of unclipped hedge.

Twenty years, he thought. The man in the story went through with it for twenty years. He must have been a man along around forty-five, most likely. Mr. Wheelock was thirty- seven. Eight years. It’s a long time, eight years is. You could easily get so you could say that final “Oh, hell,” even to Adelaide, in eight years. It probably wouldn’t take more than four for you to know that you could do it. No, not more than two....

Mrs. Coles paused at the corner of the Street and looked back at the Wheelocks’ house. The last of the light lingered on the mother and child group on the porch, gently touched the tall, white-clad figure of the husband and father as he went up to them, his work done.

Mrs. Coles was a large, soft woman, barren, and addicted to sentiment.

“Look, Fred; just turn around and look at that,” she said to her husband. She looked again, sighing luxuriously. “Such a pretty little picture !”

 

 

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