To celebrate Edna Ferber’s 125th birthday yesterday, we republish “A Woman Who Tried to Be Good.” Twice a Pulitzer-Prize winner, her novels were very popular in the late twenties. The charming writing of this short story makes for a very enjoyable read.
Before she tried to be a good woman she had been a very bad woman—so bad that she could trail her wonderful apparel up and down Main Street, from the Elm Tree Bakery to the railroad tracks, without once having a man doff his hat to her or a woman bow. You passed her on the street with a surreptitious glance, though she was well worth looking at—in her furs and laces and plumes. She had the only full-length mink coat in our town, and Ganz’s shoe store sent to Chicago for her shoes. Hers were the miraculously small feet you frequently see in stout women.
Usually she walked alone; but on rare occasions, especially round Christmastime, she might have been seen accompanied by some silent, dull-eyed, stupid-looking girl, who would follow her dumbly in and out of stores, stopping now and then to admire a cheap comb or a chain set with flashy imitation stones—or, queerly enough, a doll with yellow hair and blue eyes and very pink cheeks. But, alone or in company, her appearance in the stores of our town was the signal for a sudden jump in the cost of living. The storekeepers mulcted her; and she knew it and paid in silence, for she was of the class that has no redress. She owned the House with the Closed Shutters, near the freight depot—did Blanche Devine.
In a larger town than ours she would have passed unnoticed. She did not look like a bad woman. Of course she used too much make-up, and as she passed you caught the oversweet breath of a certain heavy scent. Then, too, her diamond eardrops would have made any woman’s features look hard; but her plump face, in spite of its heaviness, wore an expression of good-humored intelligence, and her eyeglasses gave her somehow a look of respectability. We do not associate vice with eyeglasses. So in a large city she would have passed for a well-dressed, prosperous, comfortable wife and mother who was in danger of losing her figure from an overabundance of good living; but with us she was a town character, like Old Man Givins, the drunkard, or the weak-minded Binns girl. When she passed the drug-store corner there would be a sniggering among the vacant-eyed loafers idling there, and they would leer at each other and jest in undertones.
So, knowing Blanche Devine as we did, there was something resembling a riot in one of our most respectable neighborhoods when it was learned that she had given up her interest in the house near the freight depot and was going to settle down in the white cottage on the corner and be good. All the husbands in the block, urged on by righteously indignant wives, dropped in on Alderman Mooney after supper to see if the thing could not be stopped. The fourth of the protesting husbands to arrive was the Very Young Husband who lived next door to the corner cottage that Blanche Devine had bought. The Very Young Husband had a Very Young Wife, and they were the joint owners of Snooky. Snooky was three-going-on-four, and looked something like an angel—only healthier and with grimier hands. The whole neighborhood borrowed her and tried to spoil her; but Snooky would not spoil.
Alderman Mooney was down in the cellar, fooling with the furnace.
He was in his furnace overalls; a short black pipe in his mouth. Three protesting husbands had just left. As the Very Young Husband, following Mrs. Mooney’s directions, descended the cellar stairs, Alderman Mooney looked up from his tinkering. He peered through a haze of pipe smoke.
“Hello!” he called, and waved the haze away with his open palm.
“Come on down! Been tinkering with this blamed furnace since supper. She don’t draw like she ought. ‘Long toward spring a furnace always gets balky. How many tons you used this winter?”
“Oh-five,” said the Very Young Husband shortly. Alderman Mooney considered it thoughtfully. The Young Husband leaned up against the side of the water tank, his hands in his pockets. “Say, Mooney, is that right about Blanche Devine’s having bought the house on the corner?”
“You’re the fourth man that’s been in to ask me that this evening. I’m expecting the rest of the block before bedtime. She bought it all right.”
The Young Husband flushed and kicked at a piece of coal with the toe of his boot.
“Well, it’s a darned shame!” he began hotly. “Jen was ready to cry at supper. This’ll be a fine neighborhood for Snooky to grow up in! What’s a woman like that want to come into a respectable street for, anyway? I own my home and pay my taxes—”
Alderman Mooney looked up.
“So does she,” he interrupted. “She’s going to improve the place—paint it, and put in a cellar and a furnace, and build a porch, and lay a cement walk all round.”
The Young Husband took his hands out of his pockets in order to emphasize his remarks with gestures.
“What’s that got to do with it? I don’t care if she puts in diamonds for windows and sets out Italian gardens and a terrace with peacocks on it. You’re the alderman of this ward, aren’t you? Well, it was up to you to keep her out of this block! You could have fixed it with an injunction or something. I’m going to get up a petition—that’s what I’m going——”
Alderman Mooney closed the furnace door with a bang that drowned the rest of the threat. He turned the draft in a pipe overhead and brushed his sooty palms briskly together like one who would put an end to a profitless conversation.
“She’s bought the house,” he said mildly, “and paid for it. And it’s hers. She’s got a right to live in this neighborhood as long as she acts respectable.”
The Very Young Husband laughed.
“She won’t last! They never do.”
Alderman Mooney had taken his pipe out of his mouth and was rubbing his thumb over the smooth bowl, looking down at it with unseeing eyes. On his face was a queer look—the look of one who is embarrassed because he is about to say something honest.
“Look here! I want to tell you something: I happened to be up in the mayor’s office the day Blanche signed for the place. She had to go through a lot of red tape before she got it—had quite a time of it, she did! And say, kid, that woman ain’t so—bad.”
The Very Young Husband exclaimed impatiently:
“Oh, don’t give me any of that, Mooney! Blanche Devine’s a town character. Even the kids know what she is. If she’s got religion or something, and wants to quit and be decent, why doesn’t she go to another town—Chicago or someplace—where nobody knows her?”
That motion of Alderman Mooney’s thumb against the smooth pipe bowl stopped. He looked up slowly.
“That’s what I said—the mayor too. But Blanche Devine said she wanted to try it here. She said this was home to her. Funny—ain’t it? Said she wouldn’t be fooling anybody here. They know her. And if she moved away, she said, it’d leak out some way sooner or later. It does, she said. Always! Seems she wants to live like—well, like other women. She put it like this: she says she hasn’t got religion, or any of that. She says she’s no different than she was when she was twenty. She says that for the last ten years the ambition of her life has been to be able to go into a grocery store and ask the price of, say, celery; and, if the clerk charged her ten when it ought to be seven, to be able to sass him with a regular piece of her mind—and then sail out and trade somewhere else until he saw that she didn’t have to stand anything from storekeepers, any more than any other woman that did her own marketing. She’s a smart woman, Blanche is! God knows I ain’t taking her part—exactly; but she talked a little, and the mayor and me got a little of her history.”
A sneer appeared on the face of the Very Young Husband. He had been known before he met Jen as a rather industrious sower of wild oats. He knew a thing or two, did the Very Young Husband, in spite of his youth! He always fussed when Jen wore even a V-necked summer gown on the street.
“Oh, she wasn’t playing for sympathy,” went on Alderman Mooney in answer to the sneer. “She said she’d always paid her way and always expected to. Seems her husband left her without a cent when she was eighteen—with a baby. She worked for four dollars a week in a cheap eating house. The two of ‘em couldn’t live on that. Then the baby——”
“Good night!” said the Very Young Husband. “I suppose Mrs. Mooney’s going to call?”
“Minnie! It was her scolding all through supper that drove me down to monkey with the furnace. She’s wild—Minnie is.” He peeled off his overalls and hung them on a nail. The Young Husband started to ascend the cellar stairs. Alderman Mooney laid a detaining finger on his sleeve. “Don’t say anything in front of Minnie! She’s boiling! Minnie and the kids are going to visit her folks out West this summer; so I wouldn’t so much as dare to say ‘Good morning!’ to the Devine woman. Anyway, a person wouldn’t talk to her, I suppose. But I kind of thought I’d tell you about her.
“Thanks!” said the Very Young Husband dryly.
In the early spring, before Blanche Devine moved in, there came stone-masons, who began to build something. It was a great stone fireplace that rose in massive incongruity at the side of the little white cottage. Blanche Devine was trying to make a home for herself.
Blanche Devine used to come and watch them now and then as the work progressed. She had a way of walking round and round the house, looking up at it and poking at plaster and paint with her umbrella or finger tip. One day she brought with her a man with a spade. He spaded up a neat square of ground at the side of the cottage and a long ridge near the fence that separated her yard from that of the Very Young Couple next door. The ridge spelled sweet peas and nasturtiums to our small-town eyes.
On the day that Blanche Devine moved in there was wild agitation among the white-ruffed bedroom curtains of the neighborhood. Later on certain odors, as of burning dinners, pervaded the atmosphere. Blanche Devine, flushed and excited, her hair slightly askew, her diamond eardrops flashing, directed the moving, wrapped in her great fur coat; but on the third morning we gasped when she appeared out-of-doors, carrying a little household ladder, a pail of steaming water, and sundry voluminous white cloths. She reared the little ladder against the side of the house, mounted it cautiously, and began to wash windows with housewifely thoroughness. Her stout figure was swathed in a gray sweater and on her head was a battered felt hat—the sort of window—washing costume that has been worn by women from time immemorial. We noticed that she used plenty of hot water and clean rags, and that she rubbed the glass until it sparkled, leaning perilously sideways on the ladder to detect elusive streaks. Our keenest housekeeping eye could find no fault with the way Blanche Devine washed windows.
By May, Blanche Devine had left off her diamond eardrops—perhaps it was their absence that gave her face a new expression. When she went downtown we noticed that her hats were more like the hats the other women in our town wore; but she still affected extravagant footgear, as is right and proper for a stout woman who has cause to be vain of her feet. We noticed that her trips downtown were rare that spring and summer. She used to come home laden with little bundles; and before supper she would change her street clothes for a neat, washable housedress, as is our thrifty custom. Through her bright windows we could see her moving briskly about from kitchen to sitting room; and from the smells that floated out from her kitchen door, she seemed to be preparing for her solitary supper the same homely viands that were frying or stewing or baking in our kitchens. Sometimes you could detect the delectable scent of browning, hot tea biscuit. It takes a determined woman to make tea biscuit for no one but herself.
Blanche Devine joined the church. On the first Sunday morning she came to the service there was a little flurry among the ushers at the vestibule door. They seated her well in the rear. The second Sunday morning a dreadful thing happened. The woman next to whom they seated her turned, regarded her stonily for a moment, then rose agitatedly and moved to a pew across the aisle.
Blanche Devine’s face went a dull red beneath her white powder. She never came again—though we saw the minister visit her once or twice. She always accompanied him to the door pleasantly, holding it well open until he was down the little flight of steps and on the sidewalk. The minister’s wife did not call.
She rose early, like the rest of us; and as summer came on we used to see her moving about in her little garden patch in the dewy, golden morning. She wore absurd pale-blue negligees that made her stout figure loom immense against the greenery of garden and apple tree. The neighborhood women viewed these negligees with Puritan disapproval as they smoothed down their own prim, starched gingham skirts. They said it was disgusting—and perhaps it was; but the habit of years is not easily overcome. Blanche Devine—snipping her sweet peas, peering anxiously at the Virginia creeper that clung with such fragile fingers to the trellis, watering the flower baskets that hung from her porch—was blissfully unconscious of the disapproving eyes. I wish one of us had just stopped to call good morning to her over the fence, and to say in our neighborly, small-town way: “My, ain’t this a scorcher! So early too! It’ll be fierce by noon!”
But we did not.
I think perhaps the evenings must have been the loneliest for her. The summer evenings in our little town are filled with intimate, human, neighborly sounds. After the heat of the day it is pleasant to relax in the cool comfort of the front porch, with the life of the town eddying about us. We sew and read out there until it grows dusk. We call across lots to our next-door neighbor. The men water the lawns and the flower boxes and get together in little, quiet groups to discuss the new street paving. I have even known Mrs. Hines to bring her cherries out there when she had canning to do, and pit them there on the front porch partially shielded by her porch vine, but not so effectually that she was deprived of the sights and sounds about her. The kettle in her lap and the dishpan full of great ripe cherries on the porch floor by her chair, she would pit and chat and peer out through the vines, the red juice staining her plump bare arms.
I have wondered since what Blanche Devine thought of us those lonesome evenings—those evenings filled with friendly sights and sounds. It must have been difficult for her, who had dwelt behind closed shutters so long, to seat herself on the new front porch for all the world to stare at; but she did sit there—resolutely—watching us in silence.
She seized hungrily upon the stray crumbs of conversation that fell to her. The milkman and the iceman and the butcher boy used to hold daily conversation with her. They—sociable gentlemen—would stand on her door-step, one grimy hand resting against the white of her doorpost, exchanging the time of day with Blanche in the doorway—a tea towel in one hand, perhaps, and a plate in the other. Her little house was a miracle of cleanliness. It was no uncommon sight to see her down on her knees on the kitchen floor, wielding her brush and rag like the rest of us. In canning and preserving time there floated out from her kitchen the pungent scent of pickled crab apples; the mouth-watering smell that meant sweet pickles; or the cloying, divinely sticky odor that meant raspberry jam. Snooky, from her side of the fence, often used to peer through the pickets, gazing in the direction of the enticing smells next door.
Early one September morning there floated out from Blanche Devine’s kitchen that fragrant, sweet scent of fresh-baked cookies—cookies with butter in them, and spice, and with nuts on top. Just by the smell of them your mind’s eye pictured them coming from the oven-crisp brown circlets, crumbly, delectable. Snooky, in her scarlet sweater and cap, sniffed them from afar and straightway deserted her sand pile to take her stand at the fence. She peered through the restraining bars, standing on tiptoe. Blanche Devine, glancing up from her board and rolling pin, saw the eager golden head. And Snooky, with guile in her heart, raised one fat, dimpled hand above the fence and waved it friendlily. Blanche Devine waved back. Thus encouraged, Snooky’s two hands wigwagged frantically above the pickets. Blanche Devine hesitated a moment, her floury hand on her hip. Then she went to the pantry shelf and took out a clean white saucer. She selected from the brown jar on the table three of the brownest, crumbliest, most perfect cookies, with a walnut meat perched atop of each, placed them temptingly on the saucer and, descending the steps, came swiftly across the grass to the triumphant Snooky. Blanche Devine held out the saucer, her lips smiling, her eyes tender. Snooky reached up with one plump white arm.
“Snooky!” shrilled a high voice. “Snooky!” A voice of horror and of wrath. “Come here to me this minute! And don’t you dare to touch those!” Snooky hesitated rebelliously, one pink finger in her pouting mouth.
“Snooky! Do you hear me?”
And the Very Young Wife began to descend the steps of her back porch. Snooky, regretful eyes on the toothsome dainties, turned away aggrieved. The Very Young Wife, her lips set, her eyes flashing, advanced and seized the shrieking Snooky by one arm and dragged her away toward home and safety.
Blanche Devine stood there at the fence, holding the saucer in her hand. The saucer tipped slowly, and the three cookies slipped off and fell to the grass. Blanche Devine stood staring at them a moment. Then she turned quickly, went into the house, and shut the door.
It was about this time we noticed that Blanche Devine was away much of the time. The little white cottage would be empty for weeks. We knew she was out of town because the expressman would come for her trunk. We used to lift our eyebrows significantly. The newspapers and handbills would accumulate in a dusty little heap on the porch; but when she returned there was always a grand cleaning, with the windows open, and Blanche—her head bound turbanwise in a towel—appearing at a window every few minutes to shake out a dustcloth. She seemed to put an enormous amount of energy into those cleanings—as if they were a sort of safety valve.
As winter came on she used to sit up before her grate fire long, long after we were asleep in our beds. When she neglected to pull down the shades we could see the flames of her cosy fire dancing gnomelike on the wall. There came a night of sleet and snow, and wind and rattling hail—one of those blustering, wild nights that are followed by morning-paper reports of trains stalled in drifts, mail delayed, telephone and telegraph wires down. It must have been midnight or past when there came a hammering at Blanche Devine’s door—a persistent, clamorous rapping. Blanche Devine, sitting before her dying fire half asleep, started and cringed when she heard it, then jumped to her feet, her hand at her breast—her eyes darting this way and that, as though seeking escape.
She had heard a rapping like that before. It had meant bluecoats swarming up the stairway, and frightened cries and pleadings, and wild confusion. So she started forward now, quivering. And then she remembered, being wholly awake now—she remembered, and threw up her head and smiled a little bitterly and walked toward the door. The hammering continued, louder than ever. Blanche Devine flicked on the porch light and opened the door. The half-clad figure of the Very Young Wife next door staggered into the room. She seized Blanche Devine’s arm with both her frenzied hands and shook her, the wind and snow beating in upon both of them.
“The baby!” she screamed in a high, hysterical voice. “The baby! The baby——!”
Blanche Devine shut the door and shook the Young Wife smartly by the shoulders.
“Stop screaming,” she said quietly. “Is she sick?”
The Young Wife told her, her teeth chattering:
“Come quick! She’s dying! Will’s out of town. I tried to get the doctor. The telephone wouldn’t—— I saw your light! For God’s sake——”
Blanche Devine grasped the Young Wife’s arm, opened the door, and together they sped across the little space that separated the two houses. Blanche Devine was a big woman, but she took the stairs like a girl and found the right bedroom by some miraculous woman instinct. A dreadful choking, rattling sound was coming from Snooky’s bed.
“Croup,” said Blanche Devine, and began her fight.
It was a good fight. She marshaled her inadequate forces, made up of the half-fainting Young Wife and the terrified and awkward hired girl.
“Get the hot water on—lots of it!” Blanche Devine pinned up her sleeves. “Hot cloths! Tear up a sheet—or anything! Got an oilstove? I want a tea-kettle boiling in the room. She’s got to have the steam. If that don’t do it we’ll raise an umbrella over her and throw a sheet over, and hold the kettle under till the steam gets to her that way. Got any ipecac?”
The Young Wife obeyed orders, white-faced and shaking. Once Blanche Devine glanced up at her sharply.
“Don’t you dare faint!” she commanded.
And the fight went on. Gradually the breathing that had been so frightful became softer, easier. Blanche Devine did not relax. It was not until the little figure breathed gently in sleep that Blanche Devine sat back, satisfied. Then she tucked a cover at the side of the bed, took a last satisfied look at the face on the pillow, and turned to look at the wan, disheveled Young Wife.
“She’s all right now. We can get the doctor when morning comes—though I don’t know’s you’ll need him.”
The Young Wife came round to Blanche Devine’s side of the bed and stood looking up at her.
“My baby died,” said Blanche Devine simply. The Young Wife gave a little inarticulate cry, put her two hands on Blanche Devine’s broad shoulders, and laid her tired head on her breast.
“I guess I’d better be going,” said Blanche Devine.
The Young Wife raised her head. Her eyes were round with fright.
“Going! Oh, please stay! I’m so afraid. Suppose she should take sick again! That awful—breathing——”
“I’ll stay if you want me to.”
“Oh, please! I’ll make up your bed and you can rest——”
“I’m not sleepy. I’m not much of a hand to sleep anyway. I’ll sit up here in the hall, where there’s a light. You get to bed. I’ll watch and see that everything’s all right. Have you got something I can read out here—something kind of lively—with a love story in it?”
So the night went by. Snooky slept in her white bed. The Very Young Wife half dozed in her bed, so near the little one. In the hall, her stout figure looming grotesque in wall shadows, sat Blanche Devine, pretending to read. Now and then she rose and tiptoed into the bedroom with miraculous quiet, and stooped over the little bed and listened and looked—and tiptoed away again, satisfied.
The Young Husband came home from his business trip next day with tales of snowdrifts and stalled engines. Blanche Devine breathed a sigh of relief when she saw him from her kitchen window. She watched the house now with a sort of proprietary eye. She wondered about Snooky; but she knew better than to ask. So she waited. The Young Wife next door had told her husband all about that awful night—had told him with tears and sobs. The Very Young Husband had been very, very angry with her—angry, he said, and astonished! Snooky could not have been so sick! Look at her now! As well as ever. And to have called such a woman! Well, he did not want to be harsh; but she must understand that she must never speak to the woman again. Never!
So the next day the Very Young Wife happened to go by with the Young Husband. Blanche Devine spied them from her sitting-room window, and she made the excuse of looking in her mailbox in order to go to the door. She stood in the doorway and the Very Young Wife went by on the arm of her husband. She went by—rather white-faced—without a look or a word or a sign!
And then this happened! There came into Blanche Devine’s face a look that made slits of her eyes, and drew her mouth down into an ugly, narrow line, and that made the muscles of her jaw tense and hard. It was the ugliest look you can imagine. Then she smiled—if having one’s lips curl away from one’s teeth can be called smiling.
Two days later there was great news of the white cottage on the corner. The curtains were down; the furniture was packed; the rugs were rolled. The wagons came and backed up to the house and took those things that had made a home for Blanche Devine. And when we heard that she had bought back her interest in the House with the Closed Shutters, near the freight depot, we sniffed.
“I knew she wouldn’t last!” we said.
“They never do!” said we.