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Charlotte Perkins Gilman



by Charlotte Perkins Gilman


In her soft-carpeted, thick-curtained, richly furnished chamber, Mrs Marroner lay sobbing on the wide, soft bed.

She sobbed bitterly, chokingly, despairingly; her shoulders heaved and shook convulsively; her hands were tight-clenched. She had forgotten her elaborate dress, the more elaborate bedcover; forgotten her dignity, her self-control, her pride. In her mind was an overwhelming, unbelievable horror, an immeasurable loss, a turbulent, struggling mass of emotion.

In her reserved, superior, Boston-bred life, she had never dreamed that it would be possible for her to feel so many things at once, and with such trampling intensity.

She tried to cool her feelings into thoughts; to stiffen them into words; to control herself — and could not. It brought vaguely to her mind an awful moment in the breakers at York Beach, one summer in girlhood when she had been swimming under water and could not find the top.

In her uncarpeted, thin-curtained, poorly furnished chamber on the top floor, Gerta Petersen lay sobbing on the narrow, hard bed.

She was of larger frame than her mistress, grandly built and strong; but all her proud young womanhood was prostrate now, convulsed with agony, dissolved in tears. She did not try to control herself. She wept for two.

If Mrs Marroner suffered more from the wreck and ruin of a longer love — perhaps a deeper one; if her tastes were finer, her ideals loftier; if she bore the pangs of bitter jealousy and outraged pride, Gerta had personal shame to meet, a hopeless future, and a looming present which filled her with unreasoning terror.

She had come like a meek young goddess into that perfectly ordered house, strong, beautiful, full of goodwill and eager obedience, but ignorant and childish — a girl of eighteen.

Mr Marroner had frankly admired her, and so had his wife. They discussed her visible perfections and as visible limitations with that perfect confidence which they had so long enjoyed. Mrs Marroner was not a jealous woman. She had never been jealous in her life — till now.

Gerta had stayed and learned their ways. They had both been fond of her. Even the cook was fond of her. She was what is called ‘willing’, was unusually teachable and plastic; and Mrs Marroner, with her early habits of giving instruction, tried to educate her somewhat.

“I never saw anyone so docile,” Mrs Marroner had often commented. “It is perfection in a servant, but almost a defect in character. She is so helpless and confiding.”

She was precisely that: a tall, rosy-cheeked baby; rich womanhood without, helpless infancy within. Her braided wealth of dead gold hair, her grave blue eyes, her mighty shoulders and long, firmly moulded limbs seemed those of a primal earth spirit; but she was only an ignorant child, with a child’s weakness.

When Mr Marroner had to go abroad for his firm, unwillingly, hating to leave his wife, he had told her he felt quite safe to leave her in Gerta’s hands — she would take care of her.

“Be good to your mistress, Gerta,” he told the girl that last morning at breakfast. “I leave her to you to take care of. I shall be back in a month at latest.”

Then he turned, smiling, to his wife. “And you must take care of Gerta, too,” he said. “I expect you’ll have her ready for college when I get back.”

This was seven months ago. Business had delayed him from week to week, from month to month. He wrote to his wife, long, loving, frequent letters, deeply regretting the delay, explaining how necessary, how profitable it was, congratulating her on the wide resources she had, her well-filled, well-balanced mind, her many interests.

“If I should be eliminated from your scheme of things, by any of those ‘acts of God’ mentioned on the tickets, I do not feel that you would be an utter wreck,” he said. “That is very comforting to me. Your life is so rich and wide that no one loss, even a great one, would wholly cripple you. But nothing of this sort is likely to happen and I shall be home again in three weeks — if this thing gets settled. And you will be looking so lovely, with that eager light in your eyes and the changing flush I know so well —and love so well. My dear wife! We shall have to have a new honeymoon — other moons come every month, why shouldn’t the mellifluous kind?”

He often asked after ‘little Gerta’, sometimes enclosed a picture postcard to her, joked with his wife about her laborious efforts to educate “the child”, was so loving and merry and wise. All this was racing through Mrs Marroner’s mind as she lay there with the broad, hemstitched border of fine linen sheeting crushed and twisted in one hand, and the other holding a sodden handkerchief.

She had tried to teach Gerta, and had grown to love the patient, sweet-natured child, in spite of her dullness. At work with her hands, she was clever, if not quick, and could keep small accounts from week to week. But to the woman who held a Ph.D., who had been on the faculty of a college, it was like baby-tending.

Perhaps having no babies of her own made her love the big child the more, though the years between them were but fifteen.

To the girl she seemed quite old, of course; and her young heart was full of grateful affection for the patient care which made her feel so much at home in this new land.

And then she had noticed a shadow on the girl’s bright face. She looked nervous, anxious, worried. When the bell rang, she seemed startled, and would rush hurriedly to the door. Her peals of frank laughter no longer rose from the area gate as she stood talking with the always admiring tradesmen.

Mrs Marroner had laboured long to teach her more reserve with men, and flattered herself that her words were at last effective. She suspected the girl of homesickness, which was denied. She suspected her of illness, which was denied also. At last she suspected her of something which could not be denied.

For a long time she refused to believe it, waiting. Then she had to believe it, but schooled herself to patience and understanding.

“The poor child,” she said, “She is here without a mother — she is so foolish and yielding — I must not be too stern with her.” And she tried to win the girl’s confidence with wise, kind words.

But Gerta had literally thrown herself at her feet and begged her with streaming tears not to turn her away. She would admit nothing, explain nothing, but frantically promised to work for Mrs Marroner as long as she lived — if only she would keep her.

Revolving the problem carefully in her mind, Mrs Marroner thought she would keep her, at least for the present. She tried to repress her sense of ingratitude in one she had so sincerely tried to help, and the cold, contemptuous anger she had always felt for such weakness.

“The thing to do now,” she said to herself, “is to see her through this safely. The child’s life should not be hurt any more than is unavoidable. I will ask Dr Bleet about it — what a comfort a woman doctor is! I’ll stand by the poor, foolish thing till it’s over, and then get her back to Sweden somehow with her baby. How they do come where they are not wanted — and don’t come where they are wanted!” And Mrs Marroner, sitting alone in the quiet, spacious beauty of the house, almost envied Gerta.

Then came the deluge.

She had sent the girl out for needed air towards dark. The late mail came; she took it in for herself. One letter for her — her husband’s letter. She knew the postmark, the stamp, the kind of typewriting. She impulsively kissed it in the dim hall. No one would suspect Mrs Marroner of kissing her husband’s letters — but she did, often.

She looked over the others. One was for Gerta, and not from Sweden. It looked precisely like her own. This struck her as a little odd, but Mr Marroner had several times sent messages and cards for the girl. She laid the letter on the hall table and took hers to her room.

“My poor child,” it began. What letter of hers had been sad enough to warrant that?

“I am deeply concerned at the news you send.” What news to concern him had she written? “You must bear it bravely, little girl. I shall be home soon, and will take care of you, of course. I hope there is not immediate anxiety — you do not say. Here is money in case you need it. I expect to get home in a month at latest. If you have to go, be sure to leave your address at my office. Cheer up — be brave — I will take care of you.”

The letter was typewritten, which was not unusual. It was unsigned, which was unusual. It enclosed an American bill — fifty dollars. It did not seem in the least like any letter she had ever had from her husband, or any letter she could imagine him writing. But a strange, cold feeling was creeping over her, like a flood rising around a house.

She utterly refused to admit the ideas which began to bob and push about inside her mind, and to force themselves in. Yet under the pressure of these repudiated thoughts she went downstairs and brought up the other letter — the letter to Gerta. She laid them side by side on a smooth dark space on the table; marched to the piano and played, with stern precision, refusing to think, till the girl came back. When she came in, Mrs Marroner rose quietly and came to the table.

“Here is a letter for you,” she said.

The girl stepped forward eagerly, saw the two lying together there, hesitated, and looked at her mistress.

“Take yours, Gerta. Open it, please.”

The girl turned frightened eyes upon her.

“I want you to read it, here,” said Mrs Marroner.

“Oh, ma’am — No! Please don’t make me!”

“Why not?”

There seemed to be no reason at hand, and Gerta flushed more deeply and opened her letter. It was long; it was evidently puzzling to her; it began “My dear wife”. She read it slowly.

“Are you sure it is your letter?” asked Mrs Marroner. “Is not this one yours? Is not that one — mine?”

She held out the other letter to her.

“It is a mistake,” Mrs Marroner went on, with a hard quietness. She had lost her social bearings somehow, lost her usual keen sense of the proper thing to do. This was not life; this was a nightmare.

“Do you not see? Your letter was put in my envelope and my letter was put in your envelope. Now we understand it.”

But poor Gerta had no antechamber to her mind, no trained forces to preserve order while agony entered. The thing swept over her, resistless, overwhelming. She cowered before the outraged wrath she expected; and from some hidden cavern that wrath arose and swept over her in pale flame.

“Go and pack your trunk,” said Mrs Marroner. “You will leave my house tonight. Here is your money.

She laid down the fifty-dollar bill. She put with it a month’s wages. She had no shadow of pity for those anguished eyes, those tears which she heard drop on the floor.

“Go to your room and pack,” said Mrs Marroner. And Gerta, always obedient, went.

Then Mrs Marroner went to hers, and spent a time she never counted, lying on her face on the bed.

But the training of the twenty-eight years which had elapsed before her marriage; the life at college, both as a student and teacher; the independent growth which she had made, formed a very different background for grief from that in Gerta’s mind.

After a while Mrs Marroner arose. She administered to herself a hot bath, a cold shower, a vigorous rubbing. “Now I can think,” she said.

First she regretted the sentence of instant banishment. She went upstairs to see if it had been carried out. Poor Gerta! The tempest of her agony had worked itself out at last as in a child, and left her sleeping, the pillow wet, the lips still grieving, a big sob shuddering itself off now and then.

Mrs Marroner stood and watched her, and as she watched she considered the helpless sweetness of the face; the defenceless unformed character; the docility and habit of obedience which made her so attractive — and so easily a victim. Also she thought of the mighty force which had swept over her; of the great process now working itself out through her; of how pitiful and futile seemed any resistance she might have made.

She softly returned to her own room, made up a little fire, and sat by it, ignoring her feelings now, as she had before ignored her thoughts.

Here were two women and a man. One woman was a wife: loving, trusting, affectionate. One was a servant: loving, trusting, affectionate — a young girl, an exile, a dependant; grateful for any kindness; untrained, uneducated, childish. She ought, of course, to have resisted temptation; but Mrs Marroner was wise enough to know how difficult temptation is to recognise when it comes in the guise of friendship and from a source one does not suspect.

Gerta might have done better in resisting the grocer’s clerk; she had, indeed, with Mrs Marroner’s advice, resisted several. But where respect was due, how could she criticise? Where obedience was due, how could she refuse — with ignorance to hold her blinded — until too late?

As the older, wiser woman forced herself to understand and extenuate the girl’s misdeed and foresee her ruined future, a new feeling arose in her heart, strong, clear, and overmastering: a sense of measureless condemnation for the man who had done this thing. He knew. He understood. He could fully foresee and measure the consequences of his act. He appreciated to the full the innocence, the ignorance, the grateful affection, the habitual docility, of which he deliberately took advantage.

Mrs Marroner rose to icy peaks of intellectual apprehension, from which her hours of frantic pain seemed far indeed removed. He had done this thing under the same roof with her — his wife. He had not frankly loved the younger woman, broken with his wife, made a new marriage. That would have been heart-break pure and simple. This was something else.

That letter, that wretched, cold, carefully guarded, unsigned letter, that bill — far safer than a cheque — these did not speak of affection. Some men can love two women at the same time. This was not love.

Mrs Marroner’s sense of pity and outrage for herself, the wife, now spread suddenly into a perception of pity and outrage for the girl. All that splendid, clean young beauty, the hope of a happy life, with marriage and motherhood, honourable independence, even — these were nothing to that man. For his own pleasure he had chosen to rob her of her life’s best joys.

He would “take care of her,” said the letter. How? In what capacity?

And then, sweeping over both her feelings for herself, the wife, and Gerta, his victim, came a new flood, which literally lifted her to her feet. She rose and walked, her head held high. “This is the sin of man against woman,” she said. “The offence is against womanhood. Against motherhood. Against — the child.”

She stopped.

The child. His child. That, too, he sacrificed and injured — doomed to degradation.

When Mr Marroner reached home a few weeks later, following his letters too soon to expect an answer to either, he saw no wife upon the pier, though he had cabled, and found the house closed darkly. He let himself in with his latch-key, and stole softly upstairs to surprise his wife.

No wife was there.

He rang the bell. No servant answered it.

He turned up light after light, searched the house from top to bottom; it was utterly empty. The kitchen wore a clean, bald, unsympathetic aspect. He left it and slowly mounted the stairs, completely dazed. The whole house was clean, in perfect order, wholly vacant.

One thing he felt perfectly sure of — she knew.

Yet was he sure? He must not assume too much. She might have been ill. She might have died. He started to his feet. No, they would have cabled him. He sat down again.

For any such change, if she had wanted him to know, she would have written. Perhaps she had, and he, returning so suddenly, had missed the letter. The thought was some comfort. It must be so. He turned to the telephone and again hesitated. If she had found out — if she had gone — utterly gone, without a word — should he announce it himself to friends and family?

He walked the floor; he searched everywhere for some letter, some word of explanation. Again and again he went to the telephone — and always stopped. He could not bear to ask. “Do you know where my wife is?”

The harmonious, beautiful rooms reminded him in a dumb, helpless way of her — like the remote smile on the face of the dead. He put out the lights, could not bear the darkness, turned them all on again.

It was a long night —In the morning he went early to the office. In the accumulated mail was no letter from her. No one seemed to know of anything unusual. A friend asked after his wife —“Pretty glad to see you, I guess?” He answered evasively.

About eleven a man came to see him: John Hill, her lawyer. Her cousin, too. Mr Marroner had never liked him. He liked him less now, for Mr Hill merely handed him a letter, remarked, “I was requested to deliver this to you personally,” and departed, looking like a person who is called on to kill something offensive.

“I have gone. I will care for Gerta. Goodbye. Marion.”

That was all. There was no date, no address, no postmark, nothing but that.

In his anxiety and distress, he had fairly forgotten Gerta and all that. Her name aroused in him a sense of rage. She had come between him and his wife. She had taken his wife from him. That was the way he felt.

At first he said nothing, did nothing, lived on alone in his house, taking meals where he chose. When people asked him about his wife, he said she was travelling — for her health. He would not have it in the newspapers. Then, as time passed, as no enlightenment came to him, he resolved not to bear it any longer, and employed detectives. They blamed him for not having put them on the track earlier, but set to work, urged to the utmost secrecy.

What to him had been so blank a wall of mystery seemed not to embarrass them in the least. They made careful enquiries as to her past, found where she had studied, taught, and on what lines; that she had some little money of her own, that her doctor was Josephine L. Bleet, M.D., and many other bits of information.

As a result of careful and prolonged work, they finally told him that she had resumed teaching under one of her old professors, lived quietly, and apparently kept boarders; giving him town, street and number, as if it were a matter of no difficulty whatsoever.

He had returned in early spring. It was autumn before he found her.

A quiet college town in the hills, a broad, shady street, a pleasant house standing in its own lawn, with trees and flowers about it. He had the address in his hand, and the number showed clear on the white gate. He walked up the straight gravel path and rang the bell. An elderly servant opened the door.

“Does Mrs Marroner live here?”

“No, sir.”

“This is number twenty-eight?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Who does live here?”

“Miss Wheeling, sir.”

Ah! Her maiden name. They had told him, but he had forgotten. He stepped inside. “I would like to see her,” he said.

He was ushered into a still parlour, cool and sweet with the scent of flowers, the flowers she had always loved best. It almost brought tears to his eyes. All their years of happiness rose in his mind again — the exquisite beginnings; the days of eager longing before she was really his; the deep, still beauty of her love.

Surely she would forgive him — she must forgive him. He would humble himself; he would tell her of his honest remorse — his absolute determination to be a different man.

Through the wide doorway there came in to him two women. One like a tall Madonna, bearing a baby in her arms.

Marion, calm, steady, definitely impersonal, nothing but a clear pallor to hint of inner stress.

Gerta, holding the child as a bulwark, with a new intelligence in her face, and her blue, adoring eyes fixed on her friend — not upon him.

He looked from one to the other dumbly.

And the woman who had been his wife asked quietly:

“What have you to say to us?”



Last updated:
February 17, 2004
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