Elizabeth Willard, the mother of George Willard, was
tall and gaunt and her face was marked with smallpox
scars. Although she was but forty-five, some obscure
disease had taken the fire out of her figure.
Listlessly she went about the disorderly old hotel
looking at the faded wall-paper and the ragged carpets
and, when she was able to be about, doing the work of a
chambermaid among beds soiled by the slumbers of fat
traveling men. Her husband, Tom Willard, a slender,
graceful man with square shoulders, a quick military
step, and a black mustache trained to turn sharply up
at the ends, tried to put the wife out of his mind. The
presence of the tall ghostly figure, moving slowly
through the halls, he took as a reproach to himself.
When he thought of her he grew angry and swore. The
hotel was unprofitable and forever on the edge of
failure and he wished himself out of it. He thought of
the old house and the woman who lived there with him as
things defeated and done for. The hotel in which he had
begun life so hopefully was now a mere ghost of what a
hotel should be. As he went spruce and business-like
through the streets of Winesburg, he sometimes stopped
and turned quickly about as though fearing that the
spirit of the hotel and of the woman would follow him
even into the streets. "Damn such a life, damn it!" he
Tom Willard had a passion for village politics and for
years had been the leading Democrat in a strongly
Republican community. Some day, he told himself, the
fide of things political will turn in my favor and the
years of ineffectual service count big in the bestowal
of rewards. He dreamed of going to Congress and even of
becoming governor. Once when a younger member of the
party arose at a political conference and began to
boast of his faithful service, Tom Willard grew white
with fury. "Shut up, you," he roared, glaring about.
"What do you know of service? What are you but a boy?
Look at what I've done here! I was a Democrat here in
Winesburg when it was a crime to be a Democrat. In the
old days they fairly hunted us with guns."
Between Elizabeth and her one son George there was a
deep unexpressed bond of sympathy, based on a girlhood
dream that had long ago died. In the son's presence she
was timid and reserved, but sometimes while he hurried
about town intent upon his duties as a reporter, she
went into his room and closing the door knelt by a
little desk, made of a kitchen table, that sat near a
window. In the room by the desk she went through a
ceremony that was half a prayer, half a demand,
addressed to the skies. In the boyish figure she
yearned to see something half forgotten that had once
been a part of herself recreated. The prayer concerned
that. "Even though I die, I will in some way keep
defeat from you," she cried, and so deep was her
determination that her whole body shook. Her eyes
glowed and she clenched her fists. "If I am dead and
see him becoming a meaningless drab figure like myself,
I will come back," she declared. "I ask God now to give
me that privilege. I demand it. I will pay for it. God
may beat me with his fists. I will take any blow that
may befall if but this my boy be allowed to express
something for us both." Pausing uncertainly, the woman
stared about the boy's room. "And do not let him become
smart and successful either," she added vaguely.
The communion between George Willard and his mother was
outwardly a formal thing without meaning. When she was
ill and sat by the window in her room he sometimes went
in the evening to make her a visit. They sat by a
window that looked over the roof of a small frame
building into Main Street. By turning their heads they
could see through another window, along an alleyway
that ran behind the Main Street stores and into the
back door of Abner Groff's bakery. Sometimes as they
sat thus a picture of village life presented itself to
them. At the back door of his shop appeared Abner Groff
with a stick or an empty milk bottle in his hand. For a
long time there was a feud between the baker and a grey
cat that belonged to Sylvester West, the druggist. The
boy and his mother saw the cat creep into the door of
the bakery and presently emerge followed by the baker,
who swore and waved his arms about. The baker's eyes
were small and red and his black hair and beard were
filled with flour dust. Sometimes he was so angry that,
although the cat had disappeared, he hurled sticks,
bits of broken glass, and even some of the tools of his
trade about. Once he broke a window at the back of
Sinning's Hardware Store. In the alley the grey cat
crouched behind barrels filled with torn paper and
broken bottles above which flew a black swarm of flies.
Once when she was alone, and after watching a prolonged
and ineffectual outburst on the part of the baker,
Elizabeth Willard put her head down on her long white
hands and wept. After that she did not look along the
alleyway any more, but tried to forget the contest
between the bearded man and the cat. It seemed like a
rehearsal of her own life, terrible in its vividness.
In the evening when the son sat in the room with his
mother, the silence made them both feel awkward.
Darkness came on and the evening train came in at the
station. In the street below feet tramped up and down
upon a board sidewalk. In the station yard, after the
evening train had gone, there was a heavy silence.
Perhaps Skinner Leason, the express agent, moved a
truck the length of the station platform. Over on Main
Street sounded a man's voice, laughing. The door of the
express office banged. George Willard arose and
crossing the room fumbled for the doorknob. Sometimes
he knocked against a chair, making it scrape along the
floor. By the window sat the sick woman, perfectly
still, listless. Her long hands, white and bloodless,
could be seen drooping over the ends of the arms of the
chair. "I think you had better be out among the boys.
You are too much indoors," she said, striving to
relieve the embarrassment of the departure. "I thought
I would take a walk," replied George Willard, who felt
awkward and confused.
One evening in July, when the transient guests who made
the New Willard House their temporary home had become
scarce, and the hallways, lighted only by kerosene
lamps turned low, were plunged in gloom, Elizabeth
Willard had an adventure. She had been ill in bed for
several days and her son had not come to visit her. She
was alarmed. The feeble blaze of life that remained in
her body was blown into a flame by her anxiety and she
crept out of bed, dressed and hurried along the hallway
toward her son's room, shaking with exaggerated fears.
As she went along she steadied herself with her hand,
slipped along the papered walls of the hall and
breathed with difficulty. The air whistled through her
teeth. As she hurried forward she thought how foolish
she was. "He is concerned with boyish affairs," she
told herself. "Perhaps he has now begun to walk about
in the evening with girls."
Elizabeth Willard had a dread of being seen by guests
in the hotel that had once belonged to her father and
the ownership of which still stood recorded in her name
in the county courthouse. The hotel was continually
losing patronage because of its shabbiness and she
thought of herself as also shabby. Her own room was in
an obscure corner and when she felt able to work she
voluntarily worked among the beds, preferring the labor
that could be done when the guests were abroad seeking
trade among the merchants of Winesburg.
By the door of her son's room the mother knelt upon the
floor and listened for some sound from within. When she
heard the boy moving about and talking in low tones a
smile came to her lips. George Willard had a habit of
talking aloud to himself and to hear him doing so had
always given his mother a peculiar pleasure. The habit
in him, she felt, strengthened the secret bond that
existed between them. A thousand times she had
whispered to herself of the matter. "He is groping
about, trying to find himself," she thought. "He is not
a dull clod, all words and smartness. Within him there
is a secret something that is striving to grow. It is
the thing I let be killed in myself."
In the darkness in the hallway by the door the sick
woman arose and started again toward her own room. She
was afraid that the door would open and the boy come
upon her. When she had reached a safe distance and was
about to turn a corner into a second hallway she
stopped and bracing herself with her hands waited,
thinking to shake off a trembling fit of weakness that
had come upon her. The presence of the boy in the room
had made her happy. In her bed, during the long hours
alone, the little fears that had visited her had become
giants. Now they were all gone. "When I get back to my
room I shall sleep," she murmured gratefully.
But Elizabeth Willard was not to return to her bed and
to sleep. As she stood trembling in the darkness the
door of her son's room opened and the boy's father, Tom
Willard, stepped out. In the light that steamed out at
the door he stood with the knob in his hand and talked.
What he said infuriated the woman.
Tom Willard was ambitious for his son. He had always
thought of himself as a successful man, although
nothing he had ever done had turned out successfully.
However, when he was out of sight of the New Willard
House and had no fear of coming upon his wife, he
swaggered and began to dramatize himself as one of the
chief men of the town. He wanted his son to succeed. He
it was who had secured for the boy the position on the
Winesburg Eagle. Now, with a ring of earnestness in his
voice, he was advising concerning some course of
conduct. "I tell you what, George, you've got to wake
up," he said sharply. "Will Henderson has spoken to me
three times concerning the matter. He says you go along
for hours not hearing when you are spoken to and acting
like a gawky girl. What ails you?" Tom Willard laughed
good-naturedly. "Well, I guess you'll get over it," he
said. "I told Will that. You're not a fool and you're
not a woman. You're Tom Willard's son and you'll wake
up. I'm not afraid. What you say clears things up. If
being a newspaper man had put the notion of becoming a
writer into your mind that's all right. Only I guess
you'll have to wake up to do that too, eh?"
Tom Willard went briskly along the hallway and down a
flight of stairs to the office. The woman in the
darkness could hear him laughing and talking with a
guest who was striving to wear away a dull evening by
dozing in a chair by the office door. She returned to
the door of her son's room. The weakness had passed
from her body as by a miracle and she stepped boldly
along. A thousand ideas raced through her head. When
she heard the scraping of a chair and the sound of a
pen scratching upon paper, she again turned and went
back along the hallway to her own room.
A definite determination had come into the mind of the
defeated wife of the Winesburg hotel keeper. The
determination was the result of long years of quiet and
rather ineffectual thinking. "Now," she told herself,
"I will act. There is something threatening my boy and
I will ward it off." The fact that the conversation
between Tom Willard and his son had been rather quiet
and natural, as though an understanding existed between
them, maddened her. Although for years she had hated
her husband, her hatred had always before been a quite
impersonal thing. He had been merely a part of
something else that she hated. Now, and by the few
words at the door, he had become the thing personified.
In the darkness of her own room she clenched her fists
and glared about. Going to a cloth bag that hung on a
nail by the wall she took out a long pair of sewing
scissors and held them in her hand like a dagger. "I
will stab him," she said aloud. "He has chosen to be
the voice of evil and I will kill him. When I have
killed him something will snap within myself and I will
die also. It will be a release for all of us."
In her girlhood and before her marriage with Tom
Willard, Elizabeth had borne a somewhat shaky
reputation in Winesburg. For years she had been what is
called "stage-struck" and had paraded through the
streets with traveling men guests at her father's
hotel, wearing loud clothes and urging them to tell her
of life in the cities out of which they had come. Once
she startled the town by putting on men's clothes and
riding a bicycle down Main Street.
In her own mind the tall dark girl had been in those
days much confused. A great restlessness was in her and
it expressed itself in two ways. First there was an
uneasy desire for change, for some big definite
movement to her life. It was this feeling that had
turned her mind to the stage. She dreamed of joining
some company and wandering over the world, seeing
always new faces and giving something out of herself to
all people. Sometimes at night she was quite beside
herself with the thought, but when she tried to talk of
the matter to the members of the theatrical companies
that came to Winesburg and stopped at her father's
hotel, she got nowhere. They did not seem to know what
she meant, or if she did get something of her passion
expressed, they only laughed. "It's not like that,"
they said. "It's as dull and uninteresting as this
here. Nothing comes of it."
With the traveling men when she walked about with them,
and later with Tom Willard, it was quite different.
Always they seemed to understand and sympathize with
her. On the side streets of the village, in the
darkness under the trees, they took hold of her hand
and she thought that something unexpressed in herself
came forth and became a part of an unexpressed
something in them.
And then there was the second expression of her
restlessness. When that came she felt for a time
released and happy. She did not blame the men who
walked with her and later she did not blame Tom
Willard. It was always the same, beginning with kisses
and ending, after strange wild emotions, with peace and
then sobbing repentance. When she sobbed she put her
hand upon the face of the man and had always the same
thought. Even though he were large and bearded she
thought he had become suddenly a little boy. She
wondered why he did not sob also.
In her room, tucked away in a corner of the old Willard
House, Elizabeth Willard lighted a lamp and put it on a
dressing table that stood by the door. A thought had
come into her mind and she went to a closet and brought
out a small square box and set it on the table. The box
contained material for make-up and had been left with
other things by a theatrical company that had once been
stranded in Winesburg. Elizabeth Willard had decided
that she would be beautiful. Her hair was still black
and there was a great mass of it braided and coiled
about her head. The scene that was to take place in the
office below began to grow in her mind. No ghostly
worn-out figure should confront Tom Willard, but
something quite unexpected and startling. Tall and with
dusky cheeks and hair that fell in a mass from her
shoulders, a figure should come striding down the
stairway before the startled loungers in the hotel
office. The figure would be silent--it would be swift
and terrible. As a tigress whose cub had been
threatened would she appear, coming out of the shadows,
stealing noiselessly along and holding the long wicked
scissors in her hand.
With a little broken sob in her throat, Elizabeth
Willard blew out the light that stood upon the table
and stood weak and trembling in the darkness. The
strength that had been as a miracle in her body left
and she half reeled across the floor, clutching at the
back of the chair in which she had spent so many long
days staring out over the tin roofs into the main
street of Winesburg. In the hallway there was the sound
of footsteps and George Willard came in at the door.
Sitting in a chair beside his mother he began to talk.
"I'm going to get out of here," he said. "I don't know
where I shall go or what I shall do but I am going
The woman in the chair waited and trembled. An impulse
came to her. "I suppose you had better wake up," she
said. "You think that? You will go to the city and make
money, eh? It will be better for you, you think, to be
a business man, to be brisk and smart and alive?" She
waited and trembled.
The son shook his head. "I suppose I can't make you
understand, but oh, I wish I could," he said earnestly.
"I can't even talk to father about it. I don't try.
There isn't any use. I don't know what I shall do. I
just want to go away and look at people and think."
Silence fell upon the room where the boy and woman sat
together. Again, as on the other evenings, they were
embarrassed. After a time the boy tried again to talk.
"I suppose it won't be for a year or two but I've been
thinking about it," he said, rising and going toward
the door. "Something father said makes it sure that I
shall have to go away." He fumbled with the doorknob.
In the room the silence became unbearable to the woman.
She wanted to cry out with joy because of the words
that had come from the lips of her son, but the
expression of joy had become impossible to her. "I
think you had better go out among the boys. You are too
much indoors," she said. "I thought I would go for a
little walk," replied the son stepping awkwardly out of
the room and closing the door.