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Chapter 4

The figure of a woman who held her hooded shawl under her chin, stole with steps often checked through the limp, dew-laden grass of the woods-pasture and slipped on the rotting logs. But she caught herself from tumbling, and safely gained the border of Gillespie's corn field. There she sat down trembling on the stone doorstep of the spring-house, and waited rather than rested in the shelter of the chestnut boughs that overhung the roof. She was aware of the spring gurgling under the stone on its way into the sunshine, from the crocks of cream-covered milk and of butter in the cool dark of the hut; she sensed the thick August heat of the sun already smiting its honeyed odors from the corn; she heard the scamper of the squirrels preying upon the ripening ears, and whisking in and out of the woods or dropping into the field from the tips of the boughs overhanging the nearer rows; but it all came blurred to her consciousness.

She was recognizably Gillespie's sister, but her eyes and hair were black. She was wondering how she could get to speak with him when Jane was not by. He would send the girl away at a sign from her, but she could not have that; the thing must be kept from the girl but not seem to be kept.

She let her arms rest on her knees; her helpless hands hung heavy from them; her head was bowed, and her whole body drooped under the burden of her heart, as if it physically dragged her down. Jane would be coming soon with the morning's milk to pour into the crocks; she heard a step; the girl was coming; but she must rest a moment.

"What are you doing here, Nancy?" her brother's voice asked.

"Oh, is it you, David? Oh, blessed be the name of the Lord! Maybe He's going to be good to me, after all. David, is he gone?"

"He's gone, Nancy."

"In anger?"

"He's gone; I don't care whether he's gone in anger or not."

"Did he tell you he saw me?"

"Yes."

"And did you promise him not to tell on him? To Jane? To any one?"

"No." Gillespie stood holding a bucket of milk in his hand; she sat gathering her shawl under her chin as if she were still coming through the suncleft shadows of the woods pasture.

"Oh, David!"

"What do you want me to do, Nancy?"

"I don't know, I don't know. I haven't slept all night."

"You mustn't give way like this. Don't you see any duty for you in this matter?"

"Duty? Oh, David!" Her heart forboded the impossible demand upon it.

Gillespie set his bucket of milk down beside the spring. "Nancy," he said, "a woman cannot have two husbands. It's a crime against the State. It's a sin against God."

"But I haven't got two husbands! What do you mean, David? Didn't I believe he was dead? Didn't you? Oh, David, what—Do you think I've done wrong? You let me do it!"

"I don't think you've done wrong; but look out you don't do it. You are doing it, now. I can't let you do it. I can't let you live in sin!"

"In sin? Me?"

"You. Every minute you live now with Laban you live in sin. Your first husband, that was dead, is alive. He can't claim you unless you allow it; but neither can your second husband, now. If you live on with Laban a day longer—an hour—a minute—you live in deadly sin. I thought of it all night but I had not thought it out till this minute when I first saw you sitting there and I knew how miserable you were, and my heart seemed to bleed at the sight of you."

"You may well say that, David," the woman answered with a certain pride in the vastness of her calamity. "If it was another woman I couldn't bear to think of it. Why does He do it? Why does He set such traps for us?"

"Nancy!" her brother called sternly.

"Oh, yes, it's easy enough for you! But if Rachel was here, she'd see it different."

"Woman!" her brother said, "don't try to hide behind the dead in your sin."

"It's no sin! I was as innocent as the babe unborn when I married Laban—as innocent as he was, poor boy, when he would have me; and we all thought he was dead. Oh, why couldn't he have been dead?"

"This is murder you have in your heart now, Nancy," the old man said, with who knows what awful pleasure in his casuistry, so pitilessly unerring. "If the life of that wicked man could buy you safety in your sin you could wish it taken."

"Oh, oh, oh! What shall I do, what shall I do." She wailed out the words with her head fallen forward on her knees, and her loose hair dripping over them.

"Do? Go home, and bring your little one, and come to me. I will deal with
Laban when he gets back tonight."

She started erect. "And let him think I've left him? And the neighbors, let them think we've quarreled, and I couldn't live with him?"

"It won't matter what the world thinks," Gillespie said, and he spoke of the small backwoods settlement as if it were some great center of opinion such as in great communities dispenses fame and infamy, and makes its judgments supremely dreaded. "Besides," he faltered, "no one is knowing but ourselves to his coming back. It can seem as if he left you."

"And I live such a lie as that? Is this you, David?"

It was she who rose highest now, as literally she did, in standing on the stone where she had crouched, above the level of his footing.

"I—I say it to spare you, Nancy. I don't wish it. But I wish to make it easy—or a little bit easier—something you can bear better."

"Oh, I know, David, I know! You would save me if you could. But maybe —maybe it ain't what we think it is. Maybe he was outlawed by staying away so long?"

Neither of them named Dylks, but each knew whom the other meant, throughout their talk.

"A lawyer might let you think so till he got all your money."

"Matthew Braile wouldn't."

"That infidel?"

She drooped again. "Oh, well, I must do it. I must do it. I'll go and get ready and I'll come to you. What will Jane think?"

"I'll take care of what Jane thinks. When do you expect Laban back?"

"Not before sundown. I'll not come till I see him."

"We'll be ready for you." He moved now to open the spring-house door; she turned and was lost to him in the lights and shadows of the woods-pasture. On its further border her cabin stood, and from it came the sound of a pitiful wail; at the back door a little child stood, staying itself by the slats let into grooves in the jambs. She had left it in its low cradle asleep, and it must have waked and clambered out and crept to the barrier and been crying for her there; its small face was soaked with tears.

She ran forward with long leaps out of the cornfield and caught it to her neck and mumbled its wet cheeks with hungry kisses. "Oh, my honey, my honey! Did it think its mother had left—"

She stopped at the word with a pang, and began to go about the rude place that was the simple home where after years of hell she had found an earthly heaven. Often she stopped, and wondered at herself. It seemed impossible she could be thinking it, be doing it, but she was thinking and doing it, and at sundown, when she knew by the eager shadow of a man in the doorway, pausing to listen if the baby were awake, all had been thought and done.

William Dean Howells

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